Archive for August, 2011

Yellowstone and the search for solitude

August 31st, 2011 Comments off

I knew that Yellowstone would have hot springs and wildlife, but would I be able to find solitude there as well? The numbers didn’t look promising: america’s first national park sees over 2.5 million visitors every summer.  Still, it’s a big place, larger in area than Rhode Island, and I thought my goal was achievable.  It would simply be a matter of figuring out where to go.

Old Faithful was not the place to get away from the unwashed masses. I had pictured the geyser being in some remote location, perhaps a half-mile hike from some dirt-lot trailhead in the wilderness.  Nope.  The reality was an enormous paved parking lot packed full of cars, trucks, and RVs.  There was enough parking there for a shopping mall, and a large one at that.

The geyser itself was in the middle of a large wood boardwalk, which was an arc set back from the aperture about 100 ft and circumscribing about 240 degrees.  Between eruptions, the boardwalk was fairly empty, but near show time, it was packed with people.  In most cases, the throngs were many rows deep.

I stuck around for two eruptions, and each time, I was amused by how many people chose to experience the event via the screens of their digital cameras instead of living it in the present.  I admit to some guilt in this regard, but I did pry myself from my technology long enough to enjoy the moment as well.

The masses of people watching Old Faithful erupt at Yellowstone

So, Old Faithful was fun to watch but in no way provided solitude.  I pressed on deeper into the park.

To the west of Old Faithful, the park road curved north.  Along the way, it passed a small parking lot at a location known as Biscuit Basin.  I decided to stop.

The namesake biscuit-shaped formations were destroyed in a fit of geothermal activity a long time ago.  Remaining were numerous pools of hot water, each one uniquely colored from minerals and microbes.

Hot pools, including Sapphire Pool, at Biscuit Basin in Yellowstone NP

An extensive network of boardwalks snaked through the area, both to protect the visitors from the hot geothermal features and  to protect the features from the visitors.  The numerous, numerous visitors.  No solitude there.  A different approach was needed.

I knew that I would be able to find solitude in the backcountry, but I wasn’t feeling much like backpacking.  Maybe it was my recent Denali experience; how could other places compare?  Part of it was also a general feeling of exhaustion, which was compounded by the fact that I had already been (car) camping for a few days.

In the end, I decided that I would regret not backpacking at least one night in Yellowstone.  I might never have another chance.  I plotted out a short out-and-back, about 11 miles round trip with just 1600 ft of total gain, got my permit, and set off.

It didn’t take long to reach my campsite for the evening in Seven Mile Hole — just a couple of hours — but in that short stretch I saw incredible beauty.  I had my DSLR along, so I was able to capture a bit of it, but I don’t think I did the sights justice.

The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone as seen from the trail to Seven Mile Hole. The river, center, was about 1000 feet below the point where this was taken.

I passed five other hikers on my way in. That was the extent of my contact with humanity: I saw nobody on my hike up and out of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone the next morning.

It took a while, but I found solitude in Yellowstone.

Idaho proof-of-hockey

August 26th, 2011 2 comments

In an effort to better document my playing of hockey, I decided to start recording video of my sessions.  The question was: how should I accomplish that?

I could have put my Canon EOS 7D DSLR, which has excellent video capabilities, on a tripod next to the glass, but I wasn’t comfortable with leaving several thousand dollars of camera equipment sitting around basically unattended.  I also considered getting a GoPro Hero and strapping it to my mask, as other goalies have done, but I really wanted to see myself as an external observer so as to critique my technique.  What I really needed was a cheap, relatively robust video camera with decent dim-light performance.

Back at the Goalcrease in Minnesota, my goalie coaches occasionally used such a camera to document my sessions.  Their choice for video recording was a Flip mounted on a tabletop tripod.  Simple and effective — not to mention cheap to replace should an errant puck fly its way.

I saw that Best Buy was having a sale on the base model Flip UltraHD, so I picked one up, mated it to my Gorillapod, and went to the rink in Boise with it.

It was easy to mount the camera on a railing in the stands next to the glass, and the field of view was sufficient to pick up not only me but almost the entire defensive zone.  The only drawback to that setup was that the camera didn’t follow me when I switched nets — a minor inconvenience, since it still gave me about 45 minutes of footage of myself.

I seem to be a bit off on my angle here, but I make a save anyway during a drop-in game.

Video can be a great tool.  I saw many aspects of my play that I want to improve.  Video can also serve as a stark reminder that I am not playing in the NHL.

When I’m in the moment, on the ice, the action around me feels fast and my reactions quick.  When I watch the same play on video, it feels like everything is happening in slow motion.  Am I really skating that slow?  Am I really taking that long to start moving into the shot?  Why isn’t the puck going faster?  It’s almost embarrassing to watch how slow and sloppy everything is.

I have a new appreciation for the patience of those people who have come to watch my games in the past.

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Salty view

August 26th, 2011 3 comments

I had seen in my mind’s eye the photograph that I wanted: Sam on the white Bonneville Salt Flats with the Silver Island Mountains in the background.  I had not imagined the lady screaming at me in Spanish.

If you take the most direct freeway routes, you can get from Salt Lake City, UT to Boise, ID in a bit over five hours. The drawback to that route is that you miss one of Utah’s most impressive natural features: the enormous salt flats to the west of Great Salt Lake.  I decided to take the slightly more scenic route, which would bring me through the salt flats in general and the Bonneville Salt Flats in particular.  The only drawback would be an extra 100 miles added to my journey for the day, pushing the time behind the wheel to around seven hours. I knew it would be worth it to get that photo.

There were a variety of ways to get from the pavement of Interstate 80 onto the salt itself.  The simplest approach would have been to simply drive off the freeway and onto the salt; there were no fences, the salt was about 10 feet from the road, and the only thing between the tarmac and the salt was the gravel of the shoulder.  However, there was a lot of debris along the road, and it wasn’t clear how solid the shoulder gravel really was.  That, and it wasn’t clear if pulling off the freeway like that would have been legal.

Another alternative was to go to the Bonneville Salt Flats State Park, but that was a bit off the freeway, and I didn’t want to pay any admission fees (I later found out there weren’t any).

Thus, the third alternative: the rest area.  There was a little rest area alongside the freeway just east of the Nevada-Utah border.  It had hundreds of feet of frontage on the beautifully white salt of the Bonneville Salt Flats.  Better still, it had low (~2″) curbs along the border of the parking lot.  The kicker was that there were no signs saying not to drive over the curb and onto the salt, so… well, you can guess what I did.

Sam on the Bonneville Salt Flats, with the Silver Island Mountains in the background

The photo session went well, and I was just about to drive back over the curb the other way when a middle-aged woman came running at me, screaming in Spanish.  My escape was foiled.

Luckily, I’ve become so relaxed on this trip that encounters with such people do nothing to break my cool demeanor.  I let her ramble on in excited Spanish for a while before telling her that I had no idea what the hell she was saying.  Pro tip: don’t use profanity to tell an angry person that she is incomprehensible.  More agitated Spanish spewed forth, this time with arm waving.

Eventually, I ascertained that the lady was in charge of keeping the rest area clean, and she was pissed that Sam’s salty feet were going to spoil her supposedly salt-free curb… or something. There was salt everywhere already, not to mention dozens of tire tracks attesting to the fact that I was not a pioneer in driving over the curb.  In fact, I chose that spot to drive from the parking lot to the salt in part because there were so many salty tire tracks already there.

I like how the clouds and mountains lead to a gap to frame Sam

I figured it wasn’t going to do much good to point out the lack of signs at the rest area, the existing tracks to and from the salt, or the fact that she didn’t have the authority to stop me.  Instead, I lo siento‘ed and shoulder shrugged my way into a compromise: I would drive Sam over a section of curb about three feet to the side of my original route, and in return, she would not get run over.

I felt a bit bad for her as I sped away.  The view was great at that rest stop, but it would be a miserable spot to have to work all day, every day.  However, if she didn’t want people doing what I and many, many others before me had done, a sign would have been sufficient.

Sam kills a bird

August 23rd, 2011 2 comments

On countless occasions, I’ve seen birds flying on collision courses with cars.  Yet somehow, they always seem to swoop out of the way at the last second.  I wondered if it was even possible for a small bird to strike a car mid-flight or if perhaps the air flowing around the car would prevent that from happening.

Today I learned that birds can indeed hit cars.

I was driving Sam along I-80 in Wyoming, idly listening to Chiddy Bang’s The Preview, when I noticed a small bird flying somewhat out of control towards the freeway.  I was doing about 85 mph (er, I mean 75, natch), so the bird was closing in fast.  It seemed like it was going to move out of the way at the last second, just like all of those previous times, but then…


It seems that Sam jumped up and head-butted the poor little bird.

Bird feathers and bird grease on Sam's forehead after a high-speed encounter

Look closely at that photo: those aren’t bird droppings, they’re bird feathers.  There’s some white stuff, too, which I can only describe as “bird grease.”  Keep in mind that this photo was taken a few miles down the road, so what’s present endured at least a few minutes of high-velocity wind. Clearly, there was solid contact.

I admit that I didn’t confirm the kill, but I doubt a little bird could survive a collision like that.

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Pacific Coast Highway: My 2000-mile ocean view

August 23rd, 2011 Comments off

When I lived in California, I would take occasional drives up and down the Pacific coast in my old green Subaru.  Those trips were sublime.  When I went zipping along the tarmac in those grad-school days, I felt free and untouchable.  All was right with the world.  The road seemed to stretch on forever into the distance; I could drive as far as I pleased, and the scenery never became unpleasant or boring.

A red convertible drives along the Pacific coast near Big Sur, California

I experienced only a portion of the coastal highway back then, from roughly Stinson Beach in the north to Big Sur in the south.  Those 200 miles were beautiful enough to inspire me to drive the entire coast on this trip: 2000 miles from Seattle to San Diego.

Sure, you could get between those two cities considerably faster by using I-5.  Going that way would shave almost 800 miles off the trip.  You might even be able to make it in a single (very long) day.  However, if you did that, you wouldn’t see the ocean much, and you’d blow past all manner of interesting towns and parks.

I stretched my coastal journey out to 11 days, excluding the segue to South Dakota.  There were a couple of rest days in there for Portland and San Francisco, but for the most part I was driving each day.  Some days I averaged over 50 mph, but on others I struggled to average 35 mph.  Such were the roads.

What did I see?  Beauty, quite simply.

Heceta Head Lighthouse

How can I do justice to the experience?  Sure, I could write about dodging logging trucks on the Olympic Peninsula, camping by the beach in southern Washington, and walking through the tall redwoods in California.  I could mention my amazement at finding huge sand dunes in Oregon, or my shock upon entering the Tillamook Cheese factory and seeing more tourist ice cream consumption than at a fair.  Would that then mean leaving out my enjoyment of the ferry ride with Sam across Puget Sound?  Or perhaps my giddy excitement at staying at my favorite lighthouse, Pigeon Point?

The reality is that I can’t put it to words.  Not here, not now, not yet.  Perhaps with time I’ll be able to distill the experience into something manageable, but were I to try now I would simply ramble on.  The whole stretch of road is still too new in my memory, and the pieces are all so precious that I do not yet have the will to discard any of them.

Coronado Beach

I drive the road over and over again in my mind. There, I do what I one day hope to accomplish on paper.  I filter out the noise, and I see the common thread that ties together everything else.  It’s the constant presence of the Pacific.  I hear the beating of its surf, smell the odor of its fish, taste the hint of its salt.  I feel it.  I begin to understand why the ocean has held such an allure for so many throughout history.

Will I go back to the coast? Perhaps, though doing so holds as much risk of corrupting my memories as it does potential for improving them. I got away with expanding my small preview into the entire coast, and for that I feel fortunate.  I have such a fond recollection of the complete drive that I fear the certain flaws that revisiting it will reveal.  I don’t want that loss, at least not yet.