Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Night of Five Sleeps

Too often people have been really confused about how we can possibly travel for months and months. "Did you win the lottery?" one friend asked. I told him no way. Valine and I saved up for over a year and besides, it's not like we're going to stay in resorts the whole time.

Sometimes we really find ourselves longing for such cushy travel. There was that night in southern Florida during which we learned that late December was peak travel season, and we learned the hard way. After striking out on reasonably priced hotels for several hours both online and going door to door, we ended up sleeping in our car outside of a Holiday Inn Express. Lucky us a bunch of kids were having a party inside and we were intermittently awakened from an already uncomfortable night of sleep by drunken 20 year olds. What could we do? Tell them to keep it down in the parking lot because we were sleeping in the car?

Travel on the cheap also equated to our spending the first two nights in Puerto Rico in a hostel, a topic for another blog another day. We figured that we could use that time to learn about how to travel within Puerto Rico on the cheap as well. The information we were seeing online made public transit seem pretty bleak, but we were determined to find some underground way that people were getting city to city without spending a bunch of money. Nope. We would learn that the public transportation system really does stink. Within San Juan, sure, you can wait for hours on end and get a cheap public bus to anywhere the city. If you're lucky, a "publico," which is essentially a taxi van with a regular route, will pop by the bus stop and offer you a ride to some predetermined location for a couple of bucks more than the cost of the bus. There are publicos that go city to city as well, but they're divided between intercity publicos and intracity publicos. The cheapest way to get to Vieques Island, a very common destination for tourists in Puerto Rico, would be to take two city buses that would eventually get you to the San Juan publico terminal, hope there's room on one of the publicos heading to Fajardo, exit the publico at the Fajardo publico station, then find another publico that goes down to the ferry terminal, and finally take a fast-filling ferry over to Vieques. If you dont make it to the ferry on time, no problem! There's a hostel right near the terminal with 12 person dorms for only $30/night.

Screw that business. We rented a car.

That seems to be the common solution in Puerto Rico. This isn't Panama. There are no Diablos Rojos that'll take you clear across the countryside for a few bucks. Taxis run at American prices. That's okay. I like the freedom to explore as we'd like. Without a car, we couldn't have explored the town of Loiza which was established by freed slaves back in the mid-to-late 1800s. We couldn't have spent a morning swimming in a waterfall in El Yeunque, the only rainforest in the US National Park system. Nor could we have found ourselves camping on a beautiful beach called Seven Seas on the northeast coast of Puerto Rico.

We were both a bit tentative about simply popping a tent any ol' where on the island, so when we discovered that many of the beaches were fenced and guarded we felt pretty good about our first night of camping in the tropics. The areas are called "balnearios" and usually come with bathrooms, camping areas, life guards, and the aforementioned security guards.

Seven Seas is adjacent to an active neighborhood, and by active I mean it seemed like everyone there was exercising through the balneario during the evening. No one else was camping. We decided we'd wait until nightfall so as to not draw any attention to our solo tent. Better yet, we decided to fall asleep on the rainfly right on the sand with the waves lapping at our feet. We set up the tent next to the lifeguard tower that was raised just high enough that we could squeeze our tent beneath it at the first sign of rain.

That's where we fell asleep first, beneath a blanket of stars and next to the ocean a few feet away. We were sound asleep when that blanket of stars was covered up by rain clouds. A few drops was all it took to stir us to attention, scramble up to our tent, and move it to shelter beneath the life guard stand. We fell right back asleep to the sound of raindrops and crashing waves.

The sounds of the teenage lovers who unwittingly planted themselves above some sleeping gringos later on were much less euphonious. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but I could tell it was unaccented English and that made me think they were some tourists. I could hear the smooches in between hushed chatter. Val and I sat there quietly hoping they'd go away. There are a 1/2 a dozen towers there, such luck these kids would pick our rain cover.

In the distance we heard an atv heading towards us, getting closer and closer. Eventually, it'd stop right behind the life guard tower and we heard a very official sounding voice speaking rapid fire Spanish. It was far too fast for me to understand, as was the perfect Spanish fired back by the kids above us. I did what I always do when conversations are going on like that. I tried to pick up on some of the words to guess what's being said. When I heard "arena," or sand, I knew we were shot. A few exchanges later, Valine jumped up and said, "permiso!"

She would explain to me later that the security guard was telling the kids that they couldn't camp in the sand. The kids were flummoxed because they had no clue what the hell he was talking about, what tent? When she sensed it getting a bit heated, she jumped up to talk to the security guard. I'm sure those kids were shocked to learn that a couple of gringos were beneath them the whole time.

The guard told us we had to camp in the grass. So we dragged our tent over to the grass and somehow fell right back asleep again. This being the tropics, another rainstorm struck later that night. This time, rather than being gently awakened by a few drops, we were hit by a torrential downpour and heavy gusts of wind. We'd spotted a gazebo earlier and decided that be our best bet. We had to place the tent all the way to one side to get out of the rain that was pouring at a solid 45 degrees at that point.

Somehow, we found ourselves going in an out of sleep, often waking up with no feelings in our limbs because of the hard surface.  Once the rain died down and we realized we'd not be getting any sort of extended sleep there on the cement, we decided to strike camp and spend the rest of the evening sleeping in the car.  

We'd gone from sand to grass to cement to cramped car seats. Yeah, a resort would've been pretty nice that night. Still, somehow, we both fell asleep one last time.    

Friday, November 14, 2014

How To Treat Your Employees 101

   That's a class that could be taught by Google and New Belgium Brewing.  Actually, it's one of the reasons I generally like microbreweries.  They tend to be run by people with an ethos like my own.  Environmentalism.  Valuing employee happiness.  Treating people well in general.
   Stone Brewery back in San Diego wasn't exactly my favorite place when we first moved into town.  I think it was a combination of hearing their CEO say beer wasn't for getting drunk (really?!  at a brewery that has a delicious 8.7% ABV black IPA?), seeing their high food menu prices, and maybe it was also something about them being the big boys in town.  Then a friend of ours started working there.  During her first month, Stone took all of their employees out on a brewery tour and fed them handsomely.  I learned that she could go home with a growler of any of their extensive line of base beers during her first year after each work shift, and otherwise would only have to pay something like $4.  That for a growler of 6 year old barrel-aged Russian imperial stout or the like.  Cases of beer were often offered to her for $20 (they'd be 2-3X that for the general public) and she kept her kegerator full of Stone beer at all times with her monthly free pony keg.
   We consumed about 10X the Stone beer those last 2 years in San Diego as we did the first 2, and not just because our friend could offer us her discounted rates.
   I really value supporting companies that value their employees.  One of my first blogs on this website is about why I don't like Walmart (aka Walfart).  Their ethos is just about as diametrically opposed to my own as you can possibly get.  Their owner was so rich that after splitting his wealth among his 4 children, those 4 children became the numbers 2, 3, 4, and 5 richest people in the world.  This for a company that notoriously works their employees just less than full time to dodge providing benefits, and that also pays its CEO 1,000X more than just the MEDIAN employee
in the company.  That's not the lowest paid employee.  That's the median pay at Walmart, a whopping $22,000/yr.   Over the years, I've learned that Costco, Trader Joe's, Whole Foods, and The Container Store are all companies that really invest in the happiness and well-being of their employees.  I used to really pick on Whole Foods about their prices, and to this day I don't really purchase their produce because I don't feel like it's for people in my tax bracket; but I shopped there about 4X a week back in San Diego because I learned from Valine about just how well they treat their employees.  Compared to Google and New Belgium, they might well be on the low end of the employee happiness scale.
   The tour of Google was a random treat by our friend John in Seattle.  He invited us to come on in anytime during the day, and we arrived around noon.  "Hey, have you guys had lunch yet?" he asked.  We hadn't.  John walked us down to the cafeteria, past artwork-covered walls and a bunch of people shuffling back and forth in jeans, flip-flops, and tee shirts.  One guy was shoe-less.  John explained to us that there were lots of food options and that we should look around for a bit before we settled on anything.  I paused.  "So, wait.  We don't have to pay for anything?" John responded, "nope!  I'll be over there."  There was a large salad bar, an Asian food bar where stir fry could be ordered at your request, a bunch of Italian options, sandwiches, juice, soda, tea, and coffee.  It was like Golden Corral if the Golden Corral buffet was filled with food from Whole Foods.  Our food was delicious, seriously one of the best meals we've had on this roadtrip.  John explained to us that they received breakfast, lunch, and dinner in that cafeteria and some other little ones throughout the facility, all free.  Apparently, the IRS is considering coming up with a tax scheme specifically for Google employee meals because that's such an ostensibly extravagant fringe benefit.  To me, it's a brilliant way to free employees of one extra thing to worry about, one extra thing to distract them from work.  John pointed out that the food is always nutritious and helps to keep everyone healthy and happy.
   That was the tip of the iceberg for fringe benefits.  There was a nap room, a mom room (where mothers could pump or feed), a well-appointed gym, a bunch of kayaks and paddle-boards that could be taken out to the neighboring stream, snacks galore, kegerators filled with homebrew all around, a gaming room, a music room (replete with guitars, drums, amps, etc.), and numerous bars throughout the building (alcohol was employee-supplied; but they're pretty well-compensated too, so they can handle bringing in the occasional bottle of wine or liquor).  The offices were generally of the open design without a cubicle in sight.  Sure, there were "quiet rooms" where people could take their laptops to work in peace, but mostly people worked in spaces that facilitated collaboration.  What interested me was the management style.  I abhor the traditional top-down management scheme.  It's antiquated and goes against everything we know from research about human nature.  John explained to me that there's an annual review, and during that review it's the employee's responsibility to present their case if they feel they should be promoted.  And promotions in Google are rather lucrative, I'd imagine.  He explained to me that he had a manager, but that his manager's job was really to problem-solve more than anything.  That's a company that values the "leading with carrots" concept.
   Valine and I left the facility after the tour quite envious of Google employees.  We knew they were treated very well, but something about witnessing it live made it more real to us.  We spent the rest of our day in Seattle trying to come up with ways to market ourselves to Google.
    That was pretty much how we spent the rest of the day after touring New Belgium as well.
    Valine's a teacher.  I don't think I have to enumerate the hardships experienced by teachers in most places.  We know that they're underpaid, under-appreciated, and generally undervalued in our society.  For me, I just spent the last 4.5 years as a biologist working for the federal government, a position I'd been seeking for nearly a decade.  I was not unhappy with my pay in San Diego; but to get my salary, my boss had to acquire funding from outside sources for every cent I made.  Take my hourly salary, multiply that times the number of hours I'm predicted to spend in the field collecting samples + the number of hours spend in the laboratory + the number of hours spent analyzing data + the number of hours spent composing reports and publications, then times 1.52 to account for overhead (overhead goes up the food chain to pay for facilities and personnel support), and finally times 1.12 to account for benefits (and the federal benefits were definitely very good).  That's before asking for funding for the supplies, vehicle use, data acquisition, etc.  And before requesting the funding, my boss had to put in her salary for oversight and all of my collaborators had to get theirs' in there as well.  For a very simple little pilot project that I helped put together just before leaving USGS, we had to request $80K.  Maybe it's because I'm still that guy from Chocowinity, North Carolina, whose parents never even dreamed of making more than $50,000/year; but boy did that figure seem completely crazy when I first saw it.
   It was discouraging.  Almost as discouraging as the time when a "big-whig," as people from back home would say, came into town and started his presentation by giving some pins to folks in our group that had extended employment with USGS.  He then immediately launched into talking about how bleak the permanent employment opportunities would be in biological resources in the coming future.  And he did so with zero sense of irony.  Oh, of course, even the permanent employees in our facility had to seek out a large percentage of their salaries from outside funding as well.  It left me wondering what was the point in being a permanent employee.  What does that even mean if your salary isn't secured annually?  
   A lot of people were genuinely surprised to learn that Valine and I were headed out onto this grand adventure, that we were leaving San Diego and that I was leaving USGS.  For her, she's a rock star teacher that can work anywhere in this country with her skill sets, ESL and Spanish.  For me, why would I stay when my job was never going to be guaranteed?  Plus, we were both burned out on being in one place for over 4 years.  When roots start developing and too many belongings accumulate, we just become uncomfortable.
   For those reasons, Valine and I find ourselves on this roadtrip that took us to New Belgium in Fort Collins and led by Marie the tour guide who clearly had zero aspiration to ever work for anyone else.  She explained to us that she'd been in marketing prior to working at New Belgium and that she had to really b.s. her way through the interview process to get a packaging job at the brewery.  She went from a desk job to operating a fork lift overnight, and she couldn't be more happy for it.
   The tour started outside.  Marie explained to us that she'd be the one providing the complementary beer, so we probably should stay close to her.  She took us up to a room above their giant mash tun and boiler, both of which were encircled by murals representing the environmental and employee-friendly ethos of New Belgium.  On the way, she pointed out a picture of a bunch of employees in Belgium and explained that at 5 years, each one, no matter their position, gets a trip to Belgium.  On the way to the "Foudre Forest," the room where all of their souring containers are located (foudres are wooden casks built for wine-making), Marie stopped among several long, packed bike racks and explained that employees receive a custom New Belgium Brewery bike at one year with the company.  Outside of the "Thunder Dome," where the bottling happens, she told us that she was rounding 9 years with the company, and that at 10 she'd be getting a month sabbatical to do with whatever she'd like.
   Anybody who's ever had Fat Tire probably noticed that it says "Employee Owned" on the bottle or can, as does the rest of New Belgium's extensive line.  At the last stop on the tour, "Beyond Thunderdome" where the canning takes place, Marie was almost emotional.  She told us that she went to New Belgium because employees had partial ownership of the company, 40%.  The rest was owned by Kim Jordan, who started the company.  That meant she took particular interest in how the company was performing as a whole, that she benefited from its success.  She explained that the employees were really interested in expanding and that they had a pow-wow to discuss their options.  Selling the company to a competitor was an option.  Going public was another.  Both of those options would dramatically change how the employees were invested in the company, and Marie was worried about that.  Still, expansion was clearly necessary.  During an employee meeting a few months later, Kim Jordan was delivering a keynote speech.  She told everyone that they'd be getting a beer and an envelope, and that they should open the beer but not the envelope just yet.  She showered them with praise and told them she recognized their interest in expansion.  Finally, she told them that their future owner would be revealed in the envelope.
   In the envelope was a freaking mirror.
   She and her family sold the company to the employees.  New Belgium is 100% employee-owned now, with Kim Jordan as CEO.  I also should mention that Kim was just behind the bar the day we were there hanging out and helping the servers.  Maybe I'm particularly biased because they decided to expand to North Carolina, but what an amazing company!  Our tour guide Marie was clearly as happy as she could be as an employee.  Everywhere she went through the facility, she and other New Belgium employees greeted one another with big smiles and first names.  At one point during the tour, she told us to "look past our sand volleyball courts" to see the facility where New Belgium is harvesting methane at their own waste-treatment facility.  She didn't have to point out the ping-pong table next to the canning line or the pool table by the big stack of bottles, we all noticed.  She did tell us about the climbing wall off to the side of the Foudre Forest.  That was a gift to New Belgium's first employee at 20 years.  They asked him what he wanted carte blanche.  He said he would love to be able to do his favorite activity at his favorite place to work.
   If only all corporations behaved like this.  Imagine if Walmart employees were invested in the company.  Imagine if teachers were given good, healthy food along with their students.  Imagine if our country valued biological conservation enough that federal employees would be given the funding to do research on their own accord.  Imagine.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Hot springs and bluegrass and lightning, oh my!

   There's a theme developing here.  This has quickly become the brewery and hot springs tour of North America.  The day we were "scheduled" to drive the Beartooth Pass, a storm was heading that way too.  Being at 10,000 feet during a snow storm didn't sound all to appealing, so we decided to head to the Norris Hot Springs instead.  It seems to be a bit of a Bozeman institution.  On weekend nights, there's live music next to the springs.  Throughout the day, they serve a varied menu of fare that's often grown on site and is otherwise organic and locally sourced.  And of course they have a bunch of local beers on tap.  The hot springs itself isn't all natural like the ones we'd soaked in up in Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park and the Boiling River.  But nor was it a gross cemented pool like many are around the country.  Rather Norris is lined with smooth wood boards, forming a 4' deep pool that's just large enough to comfortably accommodate the 25-30 men, women, and kids that were going for a dip when we were there.
    We spent pretty much the entire day there, soaking and enjoying a beer for 45 minutes, drying off and reading for an hour, eating some sweet potato burritos and potato-kale soup, soaking for another 45 minutes, drying off and reading, and just waiting for the music to start at 7PM.  We spent about 6 hours at that place with the plan to sleep in the car down the road afterwards.
    At one point while I was composing the previous blog, actually, some rain started trickling down.  We were undeterred.  Being in the hot springs during rain would actually be really nice.  Finally, 7PM rolled around, and the bluegrass started.  We hopped back in to relax to the music.  The rain started coming down a bit harder.  In the distance, there was a flash of light.  Valine was really worried, but I kept pointing out that we're only seeing flashes and not hearing thunder.  That meant the lightning was striking really far away.  Of course, I was saying that while there was live music being played and rain was falling around us.  I'm not entirely certain that the thunder wasn't muted by all of the noise around us.
    Valine wasn't comforted by that in the least.  More flashes.  Valine was ready to get out.  A woman next to us said they were really strict at Norris Hot Springs, that they'd definitely kick us out well before it became dangerous.  Another flash, and maybe some faint thunder.  I'd noticed some signs up around during the day--we were there for 6 hours after all!--one of which said that if thunder is heard less than 30 seconds after lightening, that the pool would be closed.  I figured that meant the woman was right, that they'd be closely monitoring that storm.  Another flash in the opposite direction.  That finally made me nervous because that meant the storm was all around us.
    We finally started making our way to the side of the pool at about the same time that an employee came over to announce that the pool was closing.  Everyone else started making their way to the stairs at a leisurely pace.  Valine was at the front of the group because we'd already made the decision to get out, and I had gone over to the side to get our water bottles (one of which was filled with cheap wine).  Suddenly the place was lit up with bright blue light and deafening thunder.  A bolt had struck somewhere very near.  That was my first experience in my life with mass panic.  Some people screamed.  I was sure that some little kids would get stepped on by the mob rushing out of the pool.
    Valine was the first out and she ran over to our stuff.  This was really her first experience with lightning, being a native Californian.  Imagine a southerner experiencing an earthquake for the first time.  That was in Panama for me.  I was awaken in the middle of the night by what I thought was the 4 story termite-infested apartment building crashing down.  All I did was grab my bed to hang on for dear life.  My second time was on Easter Sunday down in San Diego back in 2010.  I was working that day for the lack of anything else to do.  I happened to be talking to Valine on the phone when the building started shaking violently.  "Uh, there's an earthquake!  I got to go!" I said before hanging up.  One of my coworkers was there that day too.  He started running down the corridor and cheerfully yelling, "earthquake!  Earthquake!"  I didn't realize he was heading for an exit.  "What do I do?" I shouted back to him.  "Get out!"  When I made it outside with him, he told me that he teaches a class over at UCSD on the natural hazards of San Diego County.  Apparently, ironically, the building the USGS is housed in is built on dredge spoils.  That's pretty much one of the worst places you can be for a major earthquake, that one being a 7.2 with an epicenter 100 miles away in Mexico.  Actually, the worst place you can be is up in the observation tower at Sea World, which is also built on really soft substrate.  I wasn't planning on going to Sea World anyway, but upon learning that I knew I'd never be going up into that tower.
   When I got over to Valine, she had the same reaction as me that Easter Sunday.  "What do I do?"  I suggested that we go inside the building.  She scooped up her stuff and rushed over to the packed lounge.  We could barely fit into the door.  Valine pointed at a water bottle and asked, "is this ours?"  We realized she'd not only grabbed someone else's bottle, but she'd grabbed someone else's clothes too.  I asked her if she remembered shoving a kid out of her way on her way out of the pool.  I was just kidding, trying to make her laugh.  I grabbed the water bottle and clothes and just put them back out in the area where they were.  I was going to apologize to whomever the owner was, but the lightning was coming down pretty regularly and that point and not too far away.
    We waited in the lounge until the lightening died down.  The policy was that everyone had to stay out of the pool until at least 30 minutes after the last lightning.  We decided that our hot springs fun would be over for the night.  Valine wasn't about to go back into that pool.
    Yeah, I'm not sure I wanted to experience another earthquake in my office again either.

Hot springs and nighttime hikes and bears, oh my!

   Somewhere buried in my many blogs from Australia is the comment that national parks there place peoples' lives into their own hands much more than in the US.  My comment was something like “this would never happen in the US.”  It was inspired by a hike Ingrid and I did in New England National Park, I think.  At the apex of the hike, we had to scale sheer rock to finish it up assisted with only a rudely secured rope.  It took a moment for me to work up the courage to make that last push, to decide I wasn't going to fall to my doom among the rocks 100 feet below.  I said out loud to Ingrid that I didn't think there would ever be anything like that in the US.
   Well I retract that statement.  The National Park Service officially makes your life your responsibility just as much. My eyes were first opened to this 5 years ago over Thanksgiving.  My friends Dan and Kristen and my (new at the time) girlfriend Valine went up to spent the holiday in Klamath Falls, Oregon, at Dan's family's vacation home.  We spent one day at Crater Lake in all of it's 10 feet of snow wintry glory throwing some snowballs and not hiking anywhere for the lack of snowshoes.  The next day we traveled down to Lava Beds National Monument in northern California seeking some adventure and hiking.  All I knew about the place was what my friends said, that there were some caves to see.  At the visitor's center, we were given the standard park map with the black trimming and white letter graphics common to all of the National Park Service.  We were told that we should wear good shoes, consider wearing kneepads, and directed to where we could purchase a book of maps of all of the caves.  And that's it.  It was our responsibility to have lights.  It was our responsibility to navigate our way safely around those caves.  And it was our responsibility to survive.  I highly doubt some dutiful park ranger searches the caves each evening for lost people or, you know, anybody who's headlamp may've died. That was a surprising revelation in this country that values personal responsibility so little.
   Other examples have cropped up during our travels of late.  The lack of protective roadside barriers in Lassen National Park to prevent cars from tumbling over the side like Toonces the Cat was at the wheel.  Same along the 6,500 ft Going to the Sun Road in Glacier.  The hike down to Crater Lake where you're discouraged from loitering for the common rockfalls.  So basically moving reduces the probability you'll be in the crosshairs of a giant boulder; but there're still giant boulders falling commonly enough along that path to warrant that warning!  And then this: when asked about a nighttime hike to the Boiling River hot springs in Yellowstone a few days ago, the park ranger responded with a cheerful, “just make a lot of noise! There's been some bear activity in that area!”
    I'm not sure what I've been expecting.  Maybe a bear spray requirement.  Maybe trail closures where grizzlies have been spotted.  Maybe anything other than encouragement to make noise. Glacier, the Grand Tetons, and Yellowstone have been uniformly blasé about the subject of bears, at least to this inexperienced bear country traveler.  Just make some noise. I noticed that the park rangers in Glacier sure as heck carried bear spray with them.  But for us nighttime hikers, we're suppose to make some noise.
   With that advice, we ventured out onto the moonlit trail with really no clue as to where these hot springs were, just that somewhere along the path we'd see some steam rising next to bank.  That's where the blistery Boiling River would be pouring into the icy waters of the Gardiner River.  Along the way, just make some noise and we wouldn't get mauled by a bear.  I should mention this was only my second adventure in grizzly bear country, the first being our visit to Glacier only a few weeks ago.  It was sure as shit my first time doing it at night.  The allure of that hot spring was just too much to resist, I guess.
   Singing, talking loudly, and giving the occasional wildfire-fighter “whoop!” that I learned from Denise along the way, we worked our way upstream to the springs. Valine's headlamp darted forward and aft checking to make sure both that we'd not stumble into a bear and that one wasn't stalking some late night treats. Mine probably would have too but chivalry forced me to give her the only headlamp that shined farther than a few feet before your face. We made it down to the hot springs un-bear-scathed in only about 10 minutes, and it was amazing. It was the night of the blood moon, so the landscape was glowing around us. We were often enveloped in steam as we soaked in water that ranged from ice cold to scalding hot to occasionally and mercifully warm. Where the moon wasn't blindingly bright, a blanket of stars stared down at us from all directions. It was definitely worth it, definitely an experience that we'll always remember.
   Then we had to walk back.
   The park service told us we could be ticketed if we weren't out of there by 9PM. So we set our phone alarms for 8:40, hoping that'd be plenty of time to dry off, get dressed, and get back to the car. After all, I've already had one ticket in Yellowstone.  Hot-footing it back to the car, Valine and I created a song to keep bears away based upon TLC's “No Scrubs.”  “No-oo-oo....bea-aa-aars....a bear is a mammal that can't get no honey from me!”  And so on.  And no, we weren't drunk.  We strictly followed the signs that said bears can be attracted to food, scraps, and even water bottles, and we figured a bottle of wine might smell just sweet enough to lure one in.  We sort of regretted that choice when another obviously Boiling River-experienced arrived with a Nalgene full of something dark that they continually swigged in the hot springs.
   But a completely sober mind was probably a good thing when Valine cast her light towards our left, away from the river, and said, “oh my god, I see eyes.”  Valine and I are opposites when it comes to jumpiness.  I probably don't react as quickly and dramatically as I should, and she, well I've been saying for years that she's got jumps like a kangaroo.  I learned early on that my angry reactions while watching Carolina sports needed to be more measured so as to not give her a heart attack—that was a lesson I learned during a football game when I slapped the couch in anger and caused Valine, who was innocently reading in the corner, to toss her book up into the air like a spontaneous juggling session.  I felt terrible about it and have tried, TRIED, to stop reacting in those ways.  When dook beat us on a last second 3 point shot a few years ago, instead of pounding the couch with my fist as I would normally, I simply walked out the door.  And down the street.  I'm fairly certain I was down the stairs before the ball hit the court again.
   All that said, I was sure she was full of it.  Then she cast her light in the direction again and said, “do you see that?”  I did.  There were 2 large eyes looking back at us.  We both starting talking aloud about how you're supposed to just slowly walk away from bears, that bears aren't known to stalk humans, that people only really get attacked by grizzlies if they startle them or if they go and live among them like that idiot Grizzly Man dude.  I was worried about Valine's level of fear, so I suggested to her that it was probably just a raccoon.  I didn't believe it.  Those looked like bear eyes to me.  But what could we do?  There we were with the river rushing to one side of us, a huge cliff on the other, and only about 20-30 yards of bear real estate in between.  So we continued down the path slightly more quickly and continuing with our “No Bears” song and Valine's headlamp darting behind us ever so often  to make sure we weren't the unlucky couple who happened to get stalked and preyed on by a grizzly.  We weren't.  We made it out just fine.  So did the boozing couple behind us.
   In hindsight, I feel a bit Bill Bryson-esque for my squeamishness.  I'm pretty sure that was a grizzly, but I'm also pretty sure he or she didn't care one bit about us.  We'll chalk that up as yet another story that's fun to tell because we survived it.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Northern Nevada is for Napping

When I'm traveling, I've got primary destinations just as anyone else; but my favorite memories are always those unexpected places I discover.  Badlands National Park isn't exactly random, but 13 years ago when my buddy Phil and I were on our cross-country roadtrip, we stopped in with zero expectations.  I had some vague memory of the Badlands registering into the "that'd be cool to see" list in my brain when I was a kid, a kid that read through an entire series of books about national parks.  Phil and I arrived there in the middle of South Dakota in the middle of the night.  We were young and dumb and did a lot of driving through the night during that trip.  We only stopped at the Badlands because we were tired and looking for a place to sleep (in the truck because we were young and dumb and slept in the truck a lot).  Driving through the park in the pitch dark, we had zero perception of what was around us.  For the lack of obvious places to park and not get scurried away by a ranger, we decided to head back out of the park.  While turning around, our headlights shined over what was next to use during our drive through the park:  a seeming bottomless abyss for how dark that pit next to us was that night.  We popped out of the truck and exploring the miniature Grand Canyon we suddenly realized was around us.  Rather than aiming for a hotel parking lot to sleep that night, we decided we needed to be right there for sunrise.  That turned out to be my favorite memory of that trip, a trip that included the actual Grand Canyon, the Beartooth Mountain Pass, Yosemite, the Pacific Coast Highway, Zion, and some good times around Bozeman, MT.

I don't think Balanced Rock State Park, ID, will be the highlight of my and Valine's present roadtrip, but it was certainly an unplanned stop in what's become a series of fortunate random stops.  Southern Idaho is farm country, essentially indistinguishable from Kansas or Indiana if but for the looming mountain ranges in the distance.  While making the slog across northern Nevada and Valine was taking her second nap of the day, I was thinking through our schedule over the next few days.  That night, we needed to make it far enough to have a full next day in Yellowstone.  Then we'd be hauling across Montana with the same goal for Glacier.  That schedule was nagging me.  Just 1 day in each of those parks?  Then it dawned on me that later down the line we were aiming to make this exact same slog across northern Nevada and that was enough for me.  When Valine woke up, I asked how she'd feel about changing our goal for the evening and aiming to get to Glacier a day earlier.


She's so inflexible.

The sun quickly setting, finding a place for the evening became primary concern number one.  I'd written down directions for another campground a ways down the road toward Yellowstone--yes "written" in this day and age of the cell phone!--directions that were now useless.  For some reason, both of our phones were ekingly slow out there away from Civilization, CA, and our searches for campsites were difficult at best.  We found something called "Twin Falls County Park-Balanced Rock Campground," but had the darnedest time finding directions.  We blazed by the location provided by my "Campfinder" app without seeing anything resembling a campground.  Then we saw a brown sign that simply said "Balanced Rock" with an arrow.  With zero confidence that we'd actually end up at the correct place, I made the turn.  Around us was midwest-esque flatness and fields for miles.  "Balanced Rock?"  Where on earth were we headed?

Valine plugged away on the phones trying to track down some better information, any information really on the whereabouts of this damn campground.  We kept going at the 40 MPH speed limit with the sun setting in the distance and nothing but tractors, farms, and barns in sight.  Then the road made a bend and we dipped 60 feet down into this idyllic red-rocked canyon with a beautiful creek and a sign that read "Twin Falls County Campground."  Well that worked out.

That was our first campground on this adventure, a free one at that.  Free campgrounds seem to be fairly abundant so long as you're willing to do without a shower, which we are in this cool Fall weather.  We awoke the next morning to the cooing of pigeons, little alien starling calls, and nothing that seemed to be produced by a native species.  The bats, muskrat, and screech owl we spotted or heard the evening before were lovely anyway.

From there, we crossed a bridge over the Snake River just north of Idaho Falls.  After we crossed the river, I asked Valine to pull over to the vista point--one of my mantras in life is to always stop for vistas points--and we took in an uber version of what we'd experienced the previous night.  I guess if water runs through the southern Idaho countryside for a while, it forms quite the beautiful canyon.  Other than the stupid golf course alongside the river downstream and the strip mall on the rim across from us, the Snake River Gorge is gorgeous.  This area was one of the primary corridors of the Oregon Trail (yeah, that actually existed outside of the pixelated floppy disk video game).  One could only image what settlers thought having crossed plains for days and suddenly being presented with this monstrous canyon in their path.  Actually, they probably thought, "God I hope there aren't any Indians or grizzlies nearby!"

Our next random find is probably not so random for a lot of people.  Our first day in Glacier, we really only had time to drive the Going to the Sun Road, which was an incredible experience.  Having slept in shower-less campgrounds the previous 2 nights and a suspected consumption of some allergen, Valine really needed a place to bathe.  We both got it in mind that we needed a hotel and I was convinced that in the off-season and during the week, we could find something cheap.  These were poor assumptions, but we ended up staying at Holiday Inn in Browning, MT.  With some time spent in the hot tub and swimming pool as well as some microwaved rice and beans in our bellies, Valine headed off to bed and I sat down to plan the next part of our journey.

One of the destinations I'd put into our cross-country plans was the Icefields Parkway, a scenic drive between Banff and Jasper National Parks.  I'd told a bunch of people that's where we'd be heading after Glacier, that I'd been interested in exploring the Canadian Rockies ever since I saw Legends of the Fall.  I'm a biologist, and there was the possibility of getting to see the Burgess Shale, a site of immense importance for evolution.  I'd written a friend from Alberta to request advice, and had an amazing list of very specific, awesome-sounding places to visit.  Sitting down with Google Maps that night, I realized we were a good long ways from that part of Alberta.  Then I read an email from my friend Michelle McClellan, with whom we were aiming to stay with later, that said she was 10 hours from the Icefields Parkway ("but beautiful," she encouraged me).

When we left Reno, we were supposed to drive 11 hours to get to a destination just west of Yellowstone to have the full next day there.  We drove 7 to Twin Falls, ID.  With our plans changed to aim for Glacier, we were supposed to drive 10 hours to get up to just west of that National Park.  We drove 7 hours to Hamilton, MT.  I think I see a pattern forming.  Thinking about just how much time we'd be spending on the road to get to more time on the road, albeit more scenic road time, I realized that we would have a much better time shortening our driving times and increasing our stops.  I emailed Michelle to ask if we could stay an additional, earlier night.  The Icefields Parkway, Banff, the Burgess Shale, and all of the gracious advice advice I received from Peter would have to wait for some future trip.  We were aiming for good luck with the weather up there anyway since it is so late in the season for those northern latitudes.

Just before we hit the road the next day--and we were hitting the road with 3 potential plans I'd drawn up the previous night--I received an email from Michelle saying we could stay and that "Whiteswan hot springs are totally worth it."  I quickly jotted down directions to that.

Two weeks ago, our journey was supposed to really start in California at Benton Hot Springs in the eastern Sierras, a cool looking little campground where each campsite has it's own hot tub fed with natural hot spring water.  Valine talked about how much she was looking forward to those hot springs for pretty much our last 2 months in San Diego.  On our way out of town, though, we arrived at the conclusion that our car, which chock full of extra stuff heading for storage, was in no condition for camping that'd be particularly enjoyable.  We were so packed in that adding food into the equation may've been the straw that broke the Prius' chassis.  Whenever we opened a door, we had to keep our reflexes sharp to catch the cascade of items pouring out of the vehicle.  Benton too had to be back-burnered.  So when I mentioned the possibility of hot springs to Valine that morning in Browning, she responded with an emphatic "YES!"

Okay, 3 plans designed the night before balled up.  New last minute plan now in place.

After spending the day in Glacier doing some short hikes, eating and tasting beer in Whitefish, and camping at Lake Dickey north of there, we set off for Canada with Whiteswan Lake Provincial Park in our sights.  I'd crossed into Canada several times in the past.  Whenever dealing with authoritative figures, I've always settled on honesty as my policy.  I've done this sort of thing in the past, no job, no home, just the road.  I've never had any problems before, not with Canadian border guards at least.  Mexican Federales, on the other hand....that's a story for another day.  This time, we were absolutely grilled at the border.

"Where are you going?"
"Where do you work?"
"Where is home?"
"Are your jobs going to take you back?"
"How did the 2 of you find your way into the same car if you're from California and he's from North Carolina?"
"How do you have friends in Nelson?"
"How much do you have in the bank for your trip?"
"Are you 2 trying to illicitly move to Canada and take advantage of our amazing health care system and other such progressive policies?"

Hmm, maybe that last question is the one I thought he should've asked.

Looking at our passports, after all of those questions, we were told to pull into the next spot and turn off the car.  After about 10 minutes, another agent came to us and stood next to the car with his arms crossed and a grim face.  After pretty much repeating all of the same questions, he asked us to step out of the car and to wait at the side.  He then proceeded to search the car in a mysterious way, only really looking around the driver and passenger seat areas.  I told Valine that I was so happy that our car was so loaded, particularly with the tent that we'd left drying in the open in the back.  We didn't have anything to hid.  I just enjoy being a thorn in the side of authority figures.  After about 15 minutes of searching for god knows what, he simply told us we were free to go.  Canadians being Canadians, he left us with a friendly "enjoy your trip!"

Whiteswan Lake, it turns out, is accessed via a 22km drive down what starts as an unpaved log-truck road (replete with lots of scary signs about the dire consequences of not paying attention) and ends with a terrifying, unexpected mountain pass without any sort of fences or signs or anything else that would assuage your visions of the vehicle tumbling down the steep slope like Wile-E-Coyote getting suckered off a cliff by the Roadrunner.  During that drive, it dawned on me why Michelle had described them as being "totally worth it."  Lussier Hot Springs is a series of pools created by rocks arranged to form a variety of combinations of hot spring and river water right at the edge of the Lussier River.  So gorgeous.  Val and I spent hours there.  I'd never experienced anything like it.  I'd only seen hot springs that had been turned into tiled or concreted pools that resembled nothing natural.  Even the ones at Benton were coming to be a bit artificial.  This was a different experience entirely.  Valine would've spent the weekend there.  Probably in the hot springs.

We headed over to Nelson, BC, after that to meet up with Michelle and her family.  She'd warned me in her emails that her house was still being built and that there were no doors yet.  She wasn't kidding.  Any number ones or twos had to be conducted there in the bathroom next to the living room with her and her kids with nothing blocking the thresholds in between!  Well, when in Nelson.  She'd also said in her email that if music and campfires were our thing, then we could attend a neighborhood party while we were there.  It's as though she knew us.  In our short time there, we did what seemed to be a very popular hike in town, drank beer at the brand new, good brewery, Beacon (with the only tasting room in town), strolled the main street, swam in the river, and attended the birthday party of an amazing musician, Cam Penner.  All the while we got to know Michelle, her husband Jonas, and their kids Tia and Elise a lot more too.

Finally we headed back across the border to Kettle Falls, WA, to stay with and see our friends Amber and Jason Jimenez.  We really had no idea what we'd be doing there, just that we'd see these friends and that we'd probably not stay in Kettle Falls ever for any other reason.  That's enough for us!  We drove up to this amazing country house with a wrap-around porch, and I was shocked.  Valine is Facebook friends with Amber and had some expectations, but I had no idea.  Back when they lived in San Diego, they'd lived in a one bedroom apartment stuffed with plants and jars of pickles, jam, salsa, etc.  The 2 of them really like making their own goods.  Well, they've found a home in which they have the room and ability to make their own food in spades.  As I type, a bunch of egg chickens are sleeping in their coop, 2 different gardens are turning soil, water, and minerals into tasty vegetables, and a freezer full of locally-raised meat is chilling.  About an hour after arriving, Amber told us that a potluck would be happening soon with the local Slow Foods organization, and that we could attend or just stick around the house.

We weren't going to miss that.  She brought a chicken she'd raised and slaughtered herself, cooked with vegetables she grew herself, and seasoned with salt Jason had collected from seawater.  Okay, that might seem over the top to some, but I love the idea of eating local and as close to the earth as possible.  It's really one of the reasons I'm vegetarian.  Turns out, in this sparsely-populated community, there are a bunch of people who raise goats for milk and cheese, vegetables galore, tons of fruit, and who are all very generous with sharing their products.  At this potluck, a local scientist talked about his bee awareness project, a local Americorps volunteer talked about a project that focused on getting good produce to need-based organizations, and a bunch of chefs tried to out-local one another with the descriptions of their dishes.  Pretty sure the consensus was that Amber won with her dish.

We asked Amber and Jason if there was anything we could do to help around their considerable property.  They quickly replied, "well, there's a veggie bed that we need to dig" and "the hops need to be harvested."  That's what we did today.  No driving.  No hiking.  No sight-seeing.  We played farmer Kelly and Valine and enjoyed every second of it.  I'd done this sort of thing in my life, but it's been a while.  For 3 years in high school, I was employed by a local tobacco farmer, and hence had the experience of working with plants and the inherent bugs and dirt that comes along with them.  I love beer, so I jumped on the hops first thing.  I really wanted the experience.  I wish I knew how many pounds I harvested, but it was a bunch.  I plucked their plants clean.  Then I went to relieve Valine, who jumped on the digging because she was actually excited about doing that.  Apparently, I arrived right in time, because she was exhausted.  As I continued digging the 2'' X 2'' X 9'' hole, she sat off to the side drinking a beer and telling me about all of the philosophical things she'd realized while digging.

Hopefully, we did enough work to warrant the food of Amber and Jason's we'd eaten and the booze we'd drank, because we've been treated like royalty here.  We'd come back to this little rural community any time.  Perhaps for another potluck......

On to the next random adventure.

Friday, July 04, 2014

Traveling--It's a Hell of a Drug (Valine's suggested edit: It's a Hell of a Bug)

   The first time I flew was at 23.  Where I'm from, people can go an entire lifetime without setting foot onto an airplane, and that was certainly the course I'd set for myself.  At 19 and 20, I twice convinced my fellow spring breakers to drive to Fort Lauderdale to board an awful cruiseship to the Bahamas (a 12 hour roadtrip followed by a 4 hour boat-trip) rather than taking what was probably a cheaper and most definitely a shorter flight (3 hours)--Wes Whateveryourlastnamewas, you still owe me $45 for your stupid phonecalls from the hotel that trip.  I would genuinely terrify myself just envisioning being in those metal tubes hurling along at 250MPH 25,000 feet above the ground.  It just seemed so unnatural.  And I'm a guy who to this day gets nervous in "tall" (read:  >10 stories) buildings.
    So when the opportunity to go to Panama was presented to me and I immediately recognized that under no circumstances could I possibly say no, I briefly considered driving.  To Panama.  Through Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and 1/2 of Panama.  Did I mention that I knew zero Spanish at the time?  I accepted the offer and immediately began to dread the flight.  That dread stayed with me, weighing heavier and heavier on me as the flight approached.  My friend that took me to the airport that day thought I was ridiculous.  She had flown extensively.  I brought a little bit of bad rum with me to the airport in a Diet Coke bottle, inspired by my mother's story of getting nice and toasty before her first flight.  My friend disproved.....until she finally felt my tangible terror and pushed me to imbibe the liquid courage.  She left me in the security line with warnings of the noises I'd hear--a godsend because I would've shit myself if I'd gone into that experience unprepared.
     To this day, my palms get sweaty before and during takeoff (and while watching movies like Flight).  That day I probably could've filled a glass.  It was every bit as terrifying as I had always envisioned.  I just kept looking at fellow passengers to make sure nobody else was panicking, just waiting for that moment when it'd be okay to unleash that inner horror that the most recent mechanical sound resonating throughout the plane meant we were all done for.  Then the saving grace flashed through my brain, the thought that I have every single time I fly:  the pilots and flight assistants are human beings that want to continue living too.  With that thought and the plane reaching cruising altitude, I calmed and curiosity, as it's apt to do with me, overcame the fear.  I slipped off my seatbelt and slid over to the window (you'd better believe I was in an aisle seat initially!) to see the world in a way I'd never seen it.
      That first flight was RDU to Newark, NJ, and it was pretty much me, the pilots, and the flight attendants.  I guess nobody from dook was heading home for the weekend.  The second flight I ever took in my life was a 6 or 7 hour beast of a flight to El Cuidad de Panama, where I knew neither a single person or the local tongue.
      Little did I realize the disease I contracted.  That day, I caught the travel bug.
      Travel is all I can think about right now.  You know how whenever you get online, you have that automatic series you go through before you end up where you intended when you first logged on?  Gmail-->Facebook-->Twitter-->oh, yeah, I wanted to see what the weather is going to be like today.  I do it too, probably (definitely) with some Carolina sports message boards mixed in as well.  Hey, what's wrong with a 34 year old man obsessing over the decisions of adolescents?
     But there's another commonality to being plugged in, and that's having go-to pages.  For some, it's Pinterest, others Facebook.  For me, increasingly it's Help-X and MindMyHome.  Those are cheap travel sites, the former being for people who are willing to put in a little labor in exchange for a roof and some food and the latter for people who simply want to spend extended periods of times in random places.
     I'd say that pretty much describes me.
     Valine has the travel bug herself.  And I dont just mean the hookworm AND tapeworm she got in Ecuador.  She's just like me, a citizen of planet Earth and perpetually yearning to explore some new corner of it.  She's logged extended stays in several other countries and has the same insatiable yen to get to a different country.  When we've been in the US for what we perceive as too long, we both start feeling something that's perfectly akin to hunger, an appetite that can only be quelled by novel adventure.  This fall, we're giving in to our common affliction in a major way.  Personal belongings are going into storage or otherwise out the door, jobs are being left, a car is (likely) being sold, and we are hitting the road.  Then the sky.  Then perhaps some boats and trains in between.
    The plan is to travel for as long as the savings accounts will allow.  That's pretty much as much planning as we've done.  Everything else is mere discussion.  We know that we'll be starting in September with a cross country roadtrip, something that Valine's never done.  Europe is number 2 on the list, but with the roadtrip ending around December, heading to high latitudes in the Northern Hemisphere seems foolhardy.  Personally, I'm hoping we find some amazing Help-x or MindMyHouse option somewhere in the Caribbean for the winter.
     In the meantime, friends and family, invite us over for a visit!  The schedule looks like west coast in September, Rockies (MT, CO, UT) in October, Chicago-Boston-NYC-NC in November, other south (ATL, FL) in December.  Hey Canadian friends, what's Ottawa like in November?
     Hmm, maybe then we should drive to Panama.....

Thursday, January 23, 2014

New Year's in the 3rd World

It seems strange to refer to Mexico as the third world considering how easy it is to enter the country.  You may as well be heading to Walmart for the lack of impediments.  You blaze down the interstate at 75 MPH, past the ridiculous sign warning you to watch for illegals with an image of a family running across the road, past the sign that says "Last USA Exit", finally past a few federales who could not care less about you, and, voila, you're in Mexico.
       And that's where things start to get a little different.  The transition between California and Tijuana forms the largest contrast in standard of living in the world.  Tijuana, or TJ, is a huge city with nearly 2M people, but without any tall buildings.  Sprawled over a series of sharp-sided hills, much of the city is composed of ramshackle housing and rough unpaved streets overlooking the highly manicured city of San Diego and its sparkling downtown skyline in the distance.  The moment you cross the threshold into TJ, you're forced to start driving more aggressively lest you suffer the ire of the locals who'll gladly leave you in their dust.  Jockeying for position in the traffic while watching for signs to the cuota, the turnpike that connects Playas de Tijuana to Ensenada, you can't help but to notice the seemingly hundreds of people who are living in utter desolation in the concrete Tijuana River.  Many of the homeless are apparently deportees out of the US, but are outcasts in the city because they're a long ways from their original homes in southern Mexico or Guatemala.
      Of course, the city isn't all dirt and homelessness.  It's a vibrant place with plenty of color and culture.  There are nice homes and renown restaurants, and plenty of people who proudly call it home.
      For Val and I, though, we were blazing through TJ and heading straight to Ensenada for New Year's Eve.  In theory, that should be an hour's trip down the 4-laned and fast cuota along the scenic Baja coast.  Leaving at 2:30PM from San Diego and getting into Ensenada before the immigration office closed at 5PM should be easy.  Unfortunately, little news from just south of the border works it's way into the San Diego mainstream.  Sure, we hear about the occasional crime down in Tijuana, but shockingly little gets reported from the other side of the border considering that we can see the city looming along a distant hillside from much of San Diego.  Had a Californian road fallen into the sea, it would've been headline news here.  Heck, if a North Dakotan road had fallen into a lake, it would've been headline news here.
      The cuota 50 miles south of the border falling into the sea in the middle of the night, triggered by an earthquake, some wet weather, known poor geologic conditions for a road that handles heavy traffic, and finally a huge cement truck, that news did not make it across the border before we began our journey.  It's a tailor-made sensationalist story too, with government agencies pointing fingers at one another for blame, a geology professor saying pretty much "I told you so," and a cement truck driver who experienced and survived a sudden 100 foot drop in the road beneath him at a point seriously called Salsispuedes, or "get out if you can!"  That news was only news to us later in the evening.  I'm not sure we would've taken a different route anyway, but we would've been more prepared for the sudden diversion off the cuota and onto the "libre" on our way down.  Certainly, we would've been more comfortable understanding exactly why we were faced with road cones blocking the road and a big, orange "Desviacion" sign forcing us onto the side road and into the countryside.
       The "libre" is a little different.  Wending its way through villages and inland to mountain passes, the two-laned "libre" is naturally a much slower road.  Mexican villages nearly universally have bumps across the road to slow cars down, many of which are frighteningly tall and scrape the undercarriage of small cars--I've passed over a few of these that I feared would high-point the car even and turn us into a really expensive see-saw.  There are also a plethora of incredibly old cars on the roads too, a product of being in a poor country, some serious ingenuity by Mexican mechanics, and the lack of organized regulations for safety and emissions inspections.  Those old cars just can't accelerate like they used to.  Then of course you have a ton of 18-wheelers on the roads taking advantage of NAFTA.  With the cuota out of commission, these too were forced onto the "libre" along with the rest of us.
      So I was not all that surprised to run into traffic in the middle of the countryside on New Year's Eve at about 4PM.  As we eked through the village, locals were standing along the road marveling at the sheer number of vehicles suddenly forced through their tiny town.  After about 1/2 an hour of bumper to bumper traffic in BFE, Mexico, we finally reached a point where people were pulling off the road, turning around, and most importantly communicating with an official who was very ably handling traffic.  Cars were sloppily parked on either side of the road and a lot of people were walking around and chatting.  I tried to listen in on the conversation this official was having with the car in front of us, a conversation in Spanish which I'm still not very good at.  I hoped by eavesdropping I could process some of the vocabulary before he was to speak to me.  Not catching any of it, I particularly anxious as we pulled up to him.  We hadn't been down that road before and really had no idea what to expect, a troubling prospect considering it'd soon be nighttime.  We were pressed for time and had a schedule to keep--one of the lessons of this particular trip to Baja was that schedules really should not be made.  And there we were on a tiny road that was suddenly a busy parking lot.  It was a taxing moment.
       And then that official said to me in a perfect American accent, "there was a big accident that's blocking the road.  It could be hours before it's cleared.  You can go get in line and wait or you can turn around, but you have to decide right now."  I blinked a moment to take in what he just said and considered the prospect of celebrating New Year's in traffic in BFE, Mexico.  "We really want to get to Ensenada.  Is there any other way?"  "Tecate," he responded simply.  That'd be an hour back to TJ for us, an hour over to Tecate, and an hour and 1/2 down to Ensenada from there.  Hours anyway.  Indecisive, we compromised and pulled off the road.
      I'm pretty hard-headed when it comes barriers such as the one in which we were faced.  Surely there had to be another road.  We eyed the dirt road trailing off into the unknown just across from us and wondered about it.  A Mexican guy who was wondering by the car mentioned to us that he and some others were talking about heading down that road to see if they could make it.  That seemed like a big risk to me, and instead I decided Tecate might be the best option.  I turned on the car and tried to get back onto the road.  "Sir!  Turn off your car and put it into park," the official suddenly told me, "we need to keep the road clear for the emergency help."  Alright, so no Tecate for a bit.
       Emergency help soon came along in the form of a large front-loader tractor with a few trucks behind it.  The driver of the tractor was flanked by two men standing on the sides, and nobody had any sort of official-looking garb.  I suspect they were recruited from a construction site, perhaps where the cuota was damaged.  This stirred up activity among all of the waiting cars in the area.  Some people jumped onto the road, assuming the tractor would soon clear things up.  Others responded to apparently local knowledge that the dirt road would indeed get us to our destination.
       We opted to follow this latter group down the dirt road.
       "I'm not sure your car can make it up there, sir" the official said when he saw us jump into that line.  Valine's really confident in her little Toyota Prius, especially in light of some off-loading that we've experienced in it with success.  Plus, she'd chatted with a guy driving another little sedan who'd chatted with someone else who'd chatted with a farmer who'd said the road would be fine for little cars.  Yeah, it was like that.
       We found ourselves in traffic yet again, this time on a tiny dirt road in BFE, Mexico.  Through fields, past the local trash dump and goats, chickens, and tiny concrete shacks, we shared the road with 18-wheelers, tour buses, and mostly SUVs.  The guy who was Valine's source drove just ahead of us, stopping next to numerous passers-by to have brief conversations.  I guess they never got the answer to their inquiry, which I was assume related to the conditions of the road ahead, because they kept this up with every vehicle they passed.  Either that or we got behind the most garrulous people in all of Mexico.  Cars and federales passed by in the opposite direction that we assumed had come from farther down the main road.  But then we saw a tour bus backing down a pretty steep hill and a lot of vehicles turning around.  I popped my head out again at one point to hear a conversation between a driver that had turned around and the car behind me, but it was futile for the language barrier.  A kid in one of the passing vehicles must've sensed my anguish and hollered out in English, "they opened it!"  Thinking about the official's warning about whether the Prius would negotiate the road ahead, about the prospect of reading an impassable point and navigating our way out of it with a ton of traffic in both directions, and about the quickly setting sun, I made the decision to wheel around and head back off the dirt road.
      As we returned to the main road, we thought we'd been misinformed.  Traffic wasn't budging.  Both of us really needed a bathroom break at this point--I always need a bathroom break, a habit that makes traveling Mexico slightly less enjoyable--so I headed off into the opposite direction.  The road was lined with little restaurants and tiendas, but neither of these are guaranteed to have restrooms in Mexico.  Instead, we popped into the local police station.  We asked the policeman about the status of the cuota.  "It's open," he said in Spanish, "but you have to pay."  Valine explained the diversion to him and asked if there was something going on down the road.  "Probably a rockslide," he responded.  Apparently, the news about the cuota falling into the sea in the middle of the night, triggered by an earthquake, some wet weather, known poor geologic conditions for a road that handles heavy traffic, and finally a huge cement truck hadn't made it to BFE, Mexico, either.  He did let us use his bano though, which turned out to be pretty much the nastiest facility we'd ever seen, and had the added bonus of being adjacent to some bleak-looking but mercifully empty jail cells.
      By the time we got back onto the road, traffic was moving along.  Only a few hours from the beginning of the incident, we were speeding our way to Ensenada again.  We never saw any wrecked cars or ambulances or anything of the sort.  No news about the accident seems to be available on the internet.  Hopefully, whoever was in it had been taken down the road to help.  I fear that the front-loader was simply used to push the wrecked vehicles off the edge of the road and over a cliff, but we'll never know.
      Having arrived safely in Ensenada, we checked into our downtown hotel, grabbed some dinner and drinks, and celebrated New Year's from a thoroughly well-appointed hotel room.  We'd inquired about fireworks and and mass celebrations while out on the town, but nobody seemed to know for sure where such a thing might be happening.  I think we figured out why at midnight when fireworks started going off.  Rather than a centralized event organized by the city, pretty much every home in the city launched their own fireworks show.  It made for an incredible scene, looking out over the sprawling city and seeing fireworks going off by the dozen all over.  A brass band blared Auld Lang Syne with a distinct Mexican flare at a restaurant just outside of our window.
    In the end, I think I really liked New Year's in the 3rd world.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Why vegetarian?

When I was a kid, my Mom (aka Mamma) swore that she thought I wouldnt even care if she didnt make any meat. Little did she know that I'd swear off of it just 6 months after she died. She would have croaked, to reference my Mom's lexicon, if I had gone fully vegetarian when she was alive. I didnt tell her, but I gave up red meat in general, shrimp, and fish well before she passed away. My only violations of this choice was at her dinner table. And when she did pass away, I had no more excuses. So, I had my last chicken tenders dinner from Bojangles, and swore off of it.

Seven years later, I'm still resolutely vegetarian, probably the first ever from Chocowinity, NC.

For me, the seed for vegetarianism was planted years before I took the leap. I read an essay by Moby in the album cover for Play (you know, back when we all used to actually purchase and hold CDs) about why he went vegan, and every single argument, shy of animal welfare, appealed to me. Here are the usual reasons why people go vegetarian, and I'll arrange them in order of importance to me:

1. Environment: The single best thing you can do as an individual for the planet is to have less kids. The second is to eat less meat. Forget biking the 5 miles to work instead of driving. Forget eating organic. Eat less meat, and you're saving habitat for and animals and you're supporting the release of far less CO2. I have never pushed anybody to go full-out vegetarian; but I have certainly tried to convince people that beef aint what's for breakfast. Some brilliant rancher discovered years ago that when it's light outside, a cow will eat. I learned this a few years ago after my friend Phil had his sleep disrupted all night long at a state park in west Texas by the stadium lights alighting a field full of cattle feeding at troughs. The average lifespan of a beef cow has decreased from 3 years to 2 years in the past century, and this is one of the methods that has been developed to maximize efficiency. How much CO2 release is this practice responsible for?

2. Human Welfare: Another important part of my development into a vegetarian was reading Fast Food Nation. A major point of the book is just how inhumane beef "factories" are for the employees. In general, the people working there are illegal immigrants, and have no rights or health care. So here you have a 100 human automatons making the same cuts over and over again all day long for breadcrumbs essentially--because we want McDonald's to offer 79 cent hamburgers--and doing so with blades sharpened to an extent that one foul move sends somebody to the hospital. And when you're whacking away all day long with the same motion, slip-ups happen. Good luck finding health care in the United States, Mr. Mexican/Guatemalan/El Salvadorean immigrant, we'd rather you pick up that left arm and mosey back home.

Yeah, I didnt really want to support that industry any more.

3. Personal Health: I've got a father who had a couple of open-heart surgeries in his 30s and early 40s. Then there's the uncle who died of a stroke, a grandmother of a blood clot, and plenty of other indications that my genetics will not be providing a clean bill of cardiovascular health for life. I've never been interested in smoking anything, really, so that part of staying healthy is covered. The other source of cardiovascular disease is high-cholesterol and high-NACl meat. It just makes sense to cut it out with my family history.

4. Assimilation Energy: When I was a freshman in high school, even at Chocowinity High School we learned that only 10% of the plant matter that a cow eats is available as energy to the next trophic level (you). So, that means that for every pound of cow that a person consumes, 10 pounds of food had to be served up to that cow. This could have easily been a subheader beneath "Environment," but it stands alone for several reason. Number 1, we are looking at a planet today with 7 billion people, only 1 billion or so of which is supported by a regular, farmed meat diet. If we really want to feed the planet and not have starving people all over it, we should probably dedicate our croplands to feeding them and not a bunch of freaking cows. Number 2--and this is where the redundancy with point 1 comes into play--that means 10 Xs more natural habitat gets reduced into monoculture if you're feeding the crops to cows rather than directly to humans. So, yeah, it's good that your beef is from a grass-fed cow. It's good that it's organic and local and "green." But you're still not eating in the most efficient manner for the planet.

5. Animal Welfare: For the reasons discussed below, this is at the bottom of the list. The point is not trivial, however. I've never been interested in veal, for instance, because of the terrible treatment that a calf must experience in their short, horrific lives for me to enjoy the delicacy. Chickens stuffed into a tiny barn, barely able to move around, and often bred to have breast muscles so large so as to prevent movement anyway is also an unsettling thought. Humans are omnivores though, and there're theories that adding high-calorie meat to our diets helped Homo sapiens develop especially large brains (our brains after all being very energy-hungry). I just think the way we go about using animals for your dietary "needs" now-a-days is way out of hand.

I realized a long time ago that when I pay for something, I'm casting a vote for that something to exist. Go to McDonald's, and you're absolutely supporting the destruction of habitat, humans, and animals. There're no two ways about it.

But I do eat meat. I still call myself vegetarian for brevity's sake; but if my friends go out and shoot a white tailed deer (an animal who's populations have exploded in the absence of predators and hence threatens the habitat of other species), I'll thoroughly enjoy some venison. If a fish is sustainable and caught in the right way, I'll certainly have some tacos with it. And I'm just waiting for the day that somebody goes out and takes a wild pig for bbq'ing up NC style. I do still love meat. I just dont want to support the industrialization of it.

Friday, July 09, 2010

Hola, Paraiso!

I probably should've written this about 4 months ago, but I dont like to be negative, and it honestly took me this long to obtain that appreciation for my surroundings that I invariably do. Over the past few months, I've fallen in love with yet another place on this planet. For those keeping tally, San Diego can now be counted alongside of Monterey, CA, Australia, Panama, Lafayette, LA, Texas, and, the creme de la creme, North Carolina.

It was only a matter of time.

Time it was, nevertheless. I knew I'd love Monterey the second I set foot on the campus at Hopkins Marine Lab. Knowing that I could work at a place at which I could walk out and see marine mammals and sea birds galore just outside of my laboratory door, much less the fantastic splendor of the rocky intertidal, was all the inspiration I needed to go to work there. San Diego, on the other hand, was a little murkier.

What do you think of when you hear "San Diego?" I would guess the sports teams would be first for most of the country, the movie "Anchorman" likely second. Then what? Beaches? Sunshine? Tijuana? Most scientists would know that one of the premier research institutes on the planet is also here, Scripps.

Well, there are a few myths about southern California that should be busted. Number 1, while the beaches are beautiful and variable, the ocean is C-O-L-D! It's simple: the water here circulates down from the Artic! As in polar bears, Sarah Palin, and ice bergs! All Californians that own surfboards have invested in good wetsuits as well. Number 2, it aint sunny all of the time. Not a single movie has ever shown southern California as anything but sunny. Not a single one. I'm fairly convinced that the California department of tourism has banned it from happening. Meanwhile, there are the phenomena of "May Gray" and "June Gloom" here. The coastline can be canvassed in cloudcover during these months, ALL MONTH. I've not seen the sun in several days here!

Sunny San Diego, my ass!

The primary reason behind my initial reticence about the city, though, is the fact that it is truly that: a city. Sure, I'm a well-traveled individual. But I grew up in a town of 1,000, went to school in one of the premier college towns in the country, graduate school in a town of 100K, and, largest of all, resided in a city of a million for a year, el Cuidad de Panama. But Panama was the 3rd world, and I didnt have a car there. San Diego stands alone as the largest city I've ever called home, and it's also home to the very definition of urban sprawl and traffic jams.

San Diego sprawls out over a series of peninsulas, plateaus, and valleys, interconnected to one another by bridges and the occasional freeway, usually running up and down harrowing slopes. In effect, the city is like a the fingers on a hand, with smaller capillaries connecting back to larger veins and arteries that in turn singularly connect back together in the hand. Rare is the road here that you can travel straight through a neighborhood without reaching an endpoint at a canyon or a body of water. When you have several million people living over a swiss cheese landscape, traffic is going to suck.

Lately, however, I've taken a liking to this town. My home is a beautiful place to live, being, as I've touted to many in the past, a 10 minute walk from the zoo and the rest of the grandeur of Balboa Park (Central Park:New York City::Balboa Park:San Diego), and an even shorter walk to thriving, but small downtown area. Since I've been here, I've seen a Johnny Cash cover band, a group of acrobats from Tanzania, a travelling Broadway show, an incredible July 4 fireworks show (actually, about 10 of them from our vantage point), a bunch of sunsets, a Padres game, tried beer from 1/2 a dozen local breweries (San Diego is apparently the top local brew town in the country!), and danced the night away in the Gaslamp District (Gaslamp District:San Diego::Franklin Street:Chapel Hill::Bourbon Street:New Orleans::Beale Street:Memphis::Duval Street:Key West). In other words, the cultural opportunities here are abundant. Of course, being in a wonderful relationship, one that was long-distance for my first few months here, helps tremendously.

In the past few months, life has been good. A bit cloudy, but good nevertheless. I miss Monterey, dearly. I miss my community there foremost. I also miss living in a place that is essentially a national park. My time there, unfortunately, was always fleeting. Such is my career.

Thankfully, mercifully, I've now come to fully appreciate where I live.

PS: "Paraiso" = "Paradise"

Friday, March 12, 2010

Au Revoir, Monterey

Three years ago, I was chatting with some friends while on a lunch break from a volunteer fieldwork position. We were near Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, surrounded by Eucalyptus trees, parrots, and kangaroos. I had just related to my friends the stories of how both of my parents, and grandparents, for that matter, had passed away.

"Must be hard," was one response.

I was incredulous. Must be hard? Here we were surrounded by an alien world that's practically a Mecca for biologists (which we all were) and, you know, just about everyone else who was born in Europe or the US. I just failed to understand how in the world that girl thought anything about life was anything but wonderful. And it is. I live a charmed life.

Right now, I'm composing this blog from my balcony, occasionally looking up from my computer screen to take in the grandeur of Monterey Bay and the rising sun on the horizon. Waves are crashing, birds are singing, and a gentle rain just set in a moment ago. I am nothing but a charmed man, personal tragedies bedamned.

Tomorrow, I take off for San Diego to start a new job, and, needless to say, I'm very excited. I'm going to be doing a population genetics study on the endangered California red-legged frog, a project designed to facilitate a future capture-and-release program to boost dwindling populations in hopes of preventing their extinction.

I seriously get to do this stuff for a living.

But I'm going to miss this place immensely, Monterey. People keep asking me if I'm excited about moving, excited about living in the country's 9th-largest city. Well, not really. If I could design my ideal living situation, being able to bike or walk along a rocky coastline a mile everyday, leaving from my apartment with a balcony overlooking Monterey Bay to get to work at Hopkins Marine Station, would be in the equation. Having a farmer's market, a movie theater, and amazing restaurants within a short walk would be in the equation. Being 4 hours from Yosemite National Park, 2 hours from San Francisco, and 20 minutes from the beginning of the Big Sur portion of the Pacific Coast Highway would be in the equation. Most importantly, being surrounded by an amazing, generous, and brilliant community would definitely be in the equation.

In other words, I would probably design my life as it is right now.

We had a despidida (Panamanian for "going away party") for me last night, and, I'm not sure if anyone counted, but I suspect there were 40 people there, at least. It truly knocked me down, the turn-out. And it is them, that amazing, generous, and brilliant community, that I'm going to miss the most about this place.

I'll repeat it again: I live a charmed life.

Why am I leaving this behind? Well, career calls, I guess. While it has been an honor working with Steve Palumbi, someone who's career I've admired from afar throughout my own career, my job has always been a transitional position. No one works as a tech in this lab forever. Beyond that, my personal ambitions (writing, analyzing, publishing, a career) were never part of the job description. These are things that were offered to me by the USGS. These are the things that I told myself would be the only way I would extract myself from this unique community. So, it's time to go.

So, I say au revoir, Monterey. I will miss you.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The Plight of My Generation

In a conversation with one of my best friends last night, I made the comment that "we're facing a completely different set of challenges than any of the generations before us. Different than 20 years ago, 40 years ago, 60 years....."

"I'd love to hear how life's so different than it was just in 1989," my friend countered.

"The advent of mass communication," I responded.

This is not exactly a recent discovery for me. It's an argument about which I've discussed with a number of my friends. People today face an extraordinary set of circumstances. Sure, mass communication and transit has made the world a smaller place; at the same time, however, I think it's made it a more complicated one.

I always go back to my parents. They wed at 16. At 18, they had their first kid. Throughout their lives, they regularly saw their brothers and sisters, partied with their cousins, and never lived farther than a few miles from their own parents. In so many ways, I envy their short lives. They regularly hung out with their family; and not just because they were related, their best friends were their brothers and sisters. There's just something so beautiful about that.

Here I am, a man of the world. I've got friends--not just friends, good friends--in countries the world over. I've been in 3 different countries long enough to say that I've lived in them. I'm a Southerner who's become vegetarian, a social liberal who was raised on Ronald Reagan and Philip Morris, and an entirely unprejudiced individual who witnessed quite a bit of racism in his formative years. I've shot off on a tangent from the normal arc of life for people born and raised in Chocowinity, NC; yet, I find myself regularly longing for the good old days.

The good old days. The easiest contrast to make is between today and 100 years ago. 100 years ago, I would be married to some girl from Chocowinity, North Carolina, and we would have about 5 kids right now. There's simply no disputing that. 100 years ago, there was no leaving your hometown, much less your home country. 100 years ago, people would get together, THEN find love, and develop a family. And it was that simple--you marry the girl in town who's your age. All of these attributes that cause us such debate today were of no consequence back then. Attracted? You'll develop that later. Sex? Ha! You didnt know any better anyway. Common interests? Your common interests were that you both wanted to get married and have kids, and that you lived in Chocowinity, North Carolina.

And that's why I think the plight of my generation is a unique one. We benefit enormously from what I've long designated the "instant information age"--we are never more than a few clicks out of communication from our loved ones; we are never lost; and we can stay "in touch" with minimum effort. However, at the same time, we are made to suffer from the exact thing that ostensibly makes us more advanced and happier than previous generations: choice.

I can choose to live in pretty well any country I please now. I can choose pretty much any career in which I might be interested. In essence, however, this ability to choose prevents me and many of my friends from leading what previous generations would call "normal" lives. Rare is the individual that graduates college today with a career plan in mind (Tom, I envy your focus and resolve). Relationships, 100 years ago a matter of convenience, suffer enormously from the array of choices we are presented with today. In the past 6 years, I've lived in 3 countries. How in the world am I supposed to maintain a relationship?

This ability to choose has confounded relationships throughout my life. Essentially, I've created an untenable set of attributes for a significant other. I'm incapable of thinking in simple terms. When it comes to long-term relationships, the women in my life have to be absolutely perfect. Otherwise, "choice" has created for me this veil of safety to which I can easily fall back, and I can always decide that "there's someone else better for me out there."

And this is a common affliction amongst my generation. Most of us lack direction because of an overabundance of choice.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


Every US National Park has it's own personality, it seems. The Great Smokies NP is marked by dark and damp forest passages leading to misty vistas, and by crimson and saffron landscapes during the fall. "Otherworldly" is the first adjective that comes to mind when I think about the Grand Canyon. Even standing at the edge of the mile deep canyon and peering into it's grandeur hardly quells the impossibleness of its existence. Big Bend is a microcosm of all of the parks, with sheer canyons, desert landscapes, and high mountain hikes. It also affords a rare isolation from the crowds that plague most of the other parks in the lower US. At Yellowstone, everything seems to be alive. The rivers roils with rapids, the land boils mud and spews water, the sky explodes with lightning on the horizon, and the terrain is littered with charismatic megafauna.

So, when I went to Yosemite this past weekend, I really didnt expect to be so awestruck yet again. Majestic is the only word that does it justice. Though this place had inspired Ansel Adams and John Muir, I was really expecting just another park. I was expecting mountains and trees and waterfalls. I was expecting buses and crowds. But I definitely wasnt expecting Yosemite.

A mere drive down into and around Yosemite Valley along is worth the price of admission. Maybe it's my isolation from Yosemite as a born and bred Southerner, but I had only seen pictures of Bridelveil Falls. I had only heard of El Capitan and Half Dome. I knew that there would be giant sequoias because of its proximity to King's Canyon, where the largest (non-clonal) trees in the world call home.

Yosemite, though, is truly a special place.

Sheer, granitic walls are the distinguishing characteristic of the park. Glaciers carved their way through the park a million years ago, leaving behind a natural beauty that doesnt exist anywhere else in this country. Half Dome, a high outcrop that can be ascended by the hardy, hydrated, and non-acrophobic, is mirrored on the opposite side of the Valley by another outcrop, and it takes little imagination to envision that they were once part of one, contiguous structure. The lush, verdant valley below is dominated by a central river, fed by waterfalls that line the high, granite walls.

Unfortunately, as my grad advisor used to like to say, we're loving Yosemite to death. Most of the drive into and through the valley had bumper-to-bumper traffic. We hiked one of the more popular trails this past weekend, the trail to Half Dome. At no point were we truly alone (a quality I measure quantitatively by my comfort with using the bathroom close to the trail; if it's crowded, I've got to go real fast). And, while we weren't really considering hiking all the way to the top (a 16 mile, rigorous RT hike), we ran into plenty of fellow hikers who had done so. Apparently, the final push up to the top of Half Dome had a several hour wait yesterday. That's right, you could hike for 7 miles, ascending sharply the entire route, and a 1-2 hour long line is your reward.

That being said, even though we were rubbing elbows with fellow tourists during most of our hike, I've got nothing but rave reviews of the place. We all wish we could have the parks to ourselves. Guess I'd have to go back to Australia to have that.

But Australia's got nothing on Yosemite.