Text Trail.    2005 - 2006.    ~mike gradziel.
to the index page

Also read from 2001-2002, 2002-2003, 2003-2004, 2004-2005, 2006-2007, 2007-2008, 2008-2010, 2011-2012, and 2013-2015.

Imagine a place superficially like home but with things shifted seemingly at random - strange prehistoric trees with penguins waddling past, a different starry sky with the moon upside-down, your familiar language with different intonations, your automobile controls mirrored for driving on the opposite side of roads painted with a different color system and marked with subtle differences like the spoken language - this was New Zealand for Joy and me. Sixteen days on the South Island were enough to circle much of the perimeter from Christchurch through Kaikoura to Nelson, Greymouth, Haast, Dunedin, and Oamaru. Along the way we ate wonderful seafood, sampled wine from the vineyards of Marlborough, hiked along golden sandy beaches, drove desolate roads along wind-whipped coastline backed by soaring snowy mountains, crossed sheep-filled pastures, and explored quiet little towns.

Four came from the south and three from the north and we met in the middle of the night in a dark parking lot. There were stars overhead, little icy chips of light in the cold night sky, and I saw five of six meteors before I fell asleep. In the morning we hiked about five miles into the heart of Sequoia National Park, through Panther Gap to a forested meadow on the slopes of Alta Peak. Most of my hiking trips are to places where there's too little dead-and-down firewood for campfires to be allowed, but this time we traded sunset vistas for a campfire to ward off the four hours of darkness between sunset and the earliest hour at which any of us could imagine going to sleep. On Sunday we walked back to the trailhead past golden autumn leaves and patches of new snow, loaded up the cars, and parted ways - Steve and Ellen and I going down the long winding road to the south and Joy, Howard, and Hsun-Tzu going north.

I accidentally bought a ticket from United Airlines flying to the wrong airport. My truck was going to be parked at Burbank, and just minutes before hurrying off to catch my flight to San Francisco I noticed that I would be flying to Los Angeles International on the return two days later. The ticket agent at Burbank was not qualified to make changes to tickets, and the guy who could do this had just gone on a 30-minute-long break when I arrived. An hour later in San Francisco, the ticket agent humbly advised me that the $450 cost to make the change was probably too high. On Sunday, after Joy and I had spent the weekend exploring cafes and watching Hsun-Tzu's Dragon Boat race on Treasure Island and devouring Zachary's Pizza in Berekeley and buying all sorts of interesting fruits at the Berekely Bowl and driving up into the hills overlooking the Bay and stopping at the Japan Woodworker store where I hungrily eyed the rows of handmade woodworking tools, I searched for a way back to Burbank. I could buy a ticket one-way to Burbank on United for $650 or on Southwest (out of San Jose) for $117. However, I could not change my flight or fly standby to Burbank, according to the airline website with its myriad options. A polite United customer service representative in India advised me that no flights to Burbank were available for booking, after I waded through automated menu options for five minutes. In the end I simply went to the airport, checked in for my Los Angeles flight, walked to the Burbank gate, put my name on the Standby list, and was happily ensconced in an aisle seat of row sixteen to Burbank just one hour later. These games some airlines play with fares can only trip up folks unfamiliar with their sly rules - so be advised!

Anna invited Joy and me to come along for a ride on the USS Nimitz aircraft carrier. With sixteen megawatts of nuclear-fueled power we sped silently out of San Diego harbor early Saturday morning, hardly making any wake. Instead of aircraft, the carrier was full of visitors - thousands of them. Normally there are five or six thousand crew, a staggering number of people to be fed, showered, and efficiently employed each day. We rode giant aircraft elevators up from the cavernous hangar bay and wandered unrestricted around the deck, hesitantly at first because there were no rails around the edges, just nets below. Inside the ship, we scrambled through hatches and peered into the control room, machine shops, generator rooms, cafeterias, living quarters, and countless corridors strung with cables and color-coded pipes. The aircraft arrived after we had been corralled on the starboard side behind tractors and other deck equipment strung together to make a barrier. Sixty feet from our seats, F-18 jets slid to a stop after tail-hooking a cable strung across the deck. They folded up their wingtips, pirouetted in a circle, rolled over to the catapult lanes, and were promptly hurled off the bow of the ship with engines roaring and a cloud of white steam left wafting from the track. Helicopters circled and a wide-winged propellor plane folded its wings up like a duck after touching down. The ship never stopped moving, and on the way back it gave us a show of just how fast it could go - fast enough to get a speeding citation in downtown Pasadena!

Last week I wished for weather, so it arrived on cue the day I was flying to New York. As my plane staggered groundward in gusty winds over Long Island, I looked out the window at gray rain and white ocean chop and knew right away that there would be trouble getting back off the ground. Fortunately my flight to Albany wasn't canceled. It departed late after delays and waiting in a line of forty planes at the runway but brought me safely to a rendezvous with Joy. I introduced her to my parents, and my town, and 'real' sweet corn. Tuesday's travels were a balance of Saturday's: I volunteered my seat on my flight out of Albany in return for a bypass of delay-prone JFK, a shorter layover, an earlier arrival in Los Angeles, drink coupons, a food voucher for the terminal, and First Class travel between Pittsburgh and LAX. In my giant seat, I ate a freshly grilled Philly Cheesesteak sandwich with a beer and tried to act as though I wasn't flustered by the cabin service. In the seats around me businessmen and women wearing smart suits knew just what drinks they wanted and where their jackets could be hung and, most of all, they were not at all surprised that someone was checking on them so often. "Huh? oh, you're talking to me again. Beer? I had one already. what? do I want another one? you mean, will I please have another one, we have so many cold beers in the refrigerator just waiting should you want one?? no.. umm.. thanks, no snacks either, I just ate a sandwich. ...Oh, sure, thanks - I'm done with the wrapper. ...no, no water right now." Unfortunately I couldn't take many cues from the woman seated next to me: she was only there because she wouldn't fit in any other seat. Diet coke and crackers for her, beer and steak sandwich dripping mayo for me. I kept quiet about my happy stroke of luck and kept my nose in a physics book about brushless motor design or my notebook which was packed full of advanced-looking differential equations. I think my row-mate spent the whole flight trying to figure out what my story was. Scruffy unshaven polyester fleece wearing, olive drab rucksack toting rich student? Frequent flyer with an upgrade? No, I wasn't a student, I said. I worked in Pasadena. Did that make me look like a casual but brilliant young scientist traveling on the company tab, I wondered? I looked out the window at orange lightning flickering beyond the lights of Las Vegas while listening to fuzzy classical music on my complimentary headphones, turned back to my reading, and found yet another comfortable position in my big leather chair.

Summer Sierra Nevada backpacking trips come in standard-issue packages: the sky is blue and cloudless, there are mosquitoes and marmots and squirrels, dozens of hikers wedge tents in among boulders and clamber atop the highest peaks they can find and trade war stories about their grandest achievements on the trail, and large clumsy gray jays swoop in from treetops to fearlessly attack plastic bags of dry pasta. With inclement weather a rarity, interesting people and amusing animals are all that remain to distinguish one hike from the next. A small gray mouse was busily chewing away in the bear-proof steel food storage boxes near our campsite Friday night. At the trailhead a chipmunk was fervently removing the fiberglass insulation from behind the engine of the car next to ours. Higher up, in a grassy clearing, an immensely rotund rabbit nibbled grasses and eyed us with nonchalance while in contrast a scrawny coyote sidled past us fearfully and raced over the next hilltop. Shy pikas kept themselves hidden in the rocks but their leaves and flowers were neatly laid out to dry in the morning sunshine even at thirteen thousand feet, far from water and trees (pikas make hay and store it for winter food). The sun up there was harsh and most of the snow was gone, leaving a drab landscape of rock and dust, rugged but parched and starved so much that the jagged teeth of distant ridges seemed no more menacing than the low humped hills to the east. Oh, for some weather!

I seem to be spending lots of time in airports. I went to San Francisco again, but via the much larger and more intimidating LAX and SFO rather than Burbank and San Jose, and then I went to Buffalo NY for a long weekend. In a few more weeks I go back to Albany. And, with Joy coming down here every 4-6 weeks I end up going to the airport every other weekend, one way or another. It was nice to go someplace green last weekend. I am a tiny bit suspicious of my camera's accuracy now that I've returned to the southwestern desert, but I think it is true - places far, far east of here get reliable rain and stay amazingly lush and rich all summer along. It's been two years since I was home in summertime.

Re-routed by a grass fire in the only mountain pass that brings freeway traffic from California's central valley directly to the Los Angeles area, Joanna and I drove two hours out of our way to the east on Hwy 58 through Tehachapi to get home. That made a long day of driving from San Francisco, part of an even longer weekend of driving my truck from place to place moving things for Joy, but I got a short break from the monotonous landscape as the sun settled below the horizon. The hills east of Bakersfield became stunningly beautiful: rippling ridges of golden grass with scattered clusters of boulders and oak trees turned warm colors in the low sunlight and behind us, great green expanses of crops shone under misty haze turned yellow by the sun's rays. Ahead to the east, a huge white full moon rose in lavender sky and appeared to bounce and roll along ridgetops like a giant playful beach ball as I drove up and down hills following the winding road.

It was graduation weekend at Stanford so at sunset on Friday evening I boarded a Southwest Airlines jet going north to San Jose. The weather was unusually clear and hot so as we ascended into the cloudless sky I felt as if I was looking down on a place I'd never seen before. The topography jumped out at me; hidden lakes revealed themselves in rugged valleys and I noticed houses and roads where I'd thought there were only empty valleys. Usually I fly out and back after dark. This time the sun settled behind the hills just before take-off and as the plane climbed, the sun rose above the horizon in a show of red and orange color. I scrambled for my camera to capture the moment but then realized it was packed away in my bag beneath a giant white ribbon bow. However the sun hung there on the horizon for almost the entire flight, finally sinking into the sea over Monterey Bay after becoming fragmented into shimmering columns as the last light was refracted off distant waves. I felt like I had traveled through time; we landed minutes later just after sunset. Back home I consulted an almanac: in Monterey, the sun set about twenty minutes later than in Burbank and that combined with the changing altitude was just enough to put the rest of the world on 'pause' fur the duration of my flight.

There were between four and eight feet of snow, depending on the exposure, at our campsite 9400 feet high in Sequoia National Park. Steve and I hadn't really planned on finding any snow, and our ignorance was aided by clouds that concealed the snowy peaks until we pulled into the Lodgepole station and got our hiking permit. We set out on the trail to Pear Lake but stopped on a ridge overlooking Heather Lake instead, since going further meant more work, a lesser view, and less morning sun. Tree wells showed the dozen of so layers of snow from different storms, each separated from the others by a layer of twigs and pine needles. After setting up the tent, I walked to turquoise pools of water melted into lakes that were frozen to their bottoms. We ate dinner early which was fortunate because as we were packing the remaining food away it began to snow heavily; two inches of powder covered our tent and packs by sunset. Then during the night the sky cleared and revealed a spectacular display of stars. Even though there was no moon, the starlight reflecting off fresh white snow made it light enough to see easily. It also let the temperature plummet and we spent the night trying to find warm places inside our sleeping bags, neither of which was for sub-freezing temperatures. In the morning water in bottles inside the tent was starting to ice over; it must have been twenty degrees outside. The bear canister had a twist-on lid with a tab that had to be depressed to open it and was also man-proof when cold since the plastic tab became too hard to bend. That was frustrating! I opened the tent door to peer outside just two seconds before the sun leapt above the ridge to the east and sent a beam of warmth into our sleeping bags. I hadn't brought my ice axe, so chopping out the deadman anchors I used to secure the tent took quite a while with my four inch long dive knife. We hiked out early, back down to my truck which had only a light dusting of snow on it, and then drove down into an entirely different season where wildflowers were in full bloom in green grassy meadows, trees were in new spring leaves, the Kaweah River was rushing high with snowmelt, and the air was warm - hot, even. Eight thousand feet lower down families were gathered at a reservoir, sitting in lawn chairs or fishing or speeding around in fast boats, unaware in the summer heat that just days earlier the water under their boats had been a world away, locked in icy crystals high in the mountains.

Up north again, this time Joy took me to the MOMA (art museum) in San Francisco. We browsed through a fascinating exhibit of mobiles by Calder and then past room after room of surrealist artwork. The works had a similar theme, but one stood out to me as the perfect example of art gone astray: In 1951, Rauschenberg created a set of three unframed canvases painted plain white and titled them "White Painting [Three Panel]". Visitors gaze in wonder at the supposed display of artistic talent that's been described as a revealing work that shows 'changing play of light and shadow and the presence of dust.' Undoubtedly various collectors have paid highly for those paintings. The plaque beside them even said that the artist desired that they be repainted if they aged to regain the white effect and prove that a work of art need not show any trace of the work of the artist. The economic promise of selling blank white paintings to Rauschenberg enthusiasts appears inviting at first, but I didn't see any blank canvases for sale in the gift shop so it may be that people are getting their works of fine art at their local craft stores instead.
Next we bought cream puffs at a new Japanese bakery that turned them out assembly-line fashion fresh from the oven to a long line of waiting customers. Later at Allegro Romano we enjoyed excellent food and the complimentary bruschetta and after-dinner port wine brought out by the sociable owner himself, who spent the evening chatting with guests while darkness fell outside on the quiet hilltop residential streets. Sunday morning Joy and I made our way across the peninsula with about 65,000 other people running, walking, and pushing all sorts of contraptions from the start to the finish of the Bay to breakers 12k race route. Along the way were porch parties, bands playing, and crowds of people watching. We didn't wear costumes; maybe next year. Afterward we ended up walking two more miles to Park Chow for lunch (great food, like always) before taking the muni back aross the city.

June gloom has arrived - cloudy skies and fog from the marine layer - and I think the spring sunshine and green grass is now on its way to summer brown and gray. I got my bicycle fixed finally, with a new rear wheel rim and spokes and new tires so I can ride to work. That's good for several reasons - it's light late in the evening now but biking will still help get me out of the office earlier, it gives a nice warm-up and cool-down period before and after work, and it keeps my truck in out of the sun and with gas in its tank. With a little planning of errands I should be able to save $6 per week, unnoticeable day-to-day but if I ride through October when we change the clocks again I'll have saved $150 and 1200 miles on my truck - it all adds up!

Been working lots, with occasional breaks: I went up to the antelope Valley to look for wildflowers two weeks ago, and I've been hiking in the San Gabriels above the snow line twice now. There weren't nearly as many flowers blooming as last year and with brown dry grass everywhere the landscape just wasn't the same even with poppies and goldfields and lupines. There's snow in the mountains - a couple feet in places - but it's mostly corn snow and refrozen crystals. There's no powder like we had in Tahoe!

Joy came down for the weekend and we set out on a frenzied exploration of Los Angeles. It only seemed frenzied because with Friday traffic - I took the day off work - driving from one place to the next and arriving on time seemed futile. We went to Santa Monica to prowl the Third Street Promenade and see a traveling exhibit of surreal sepia-toned photography called Ashes and Snow. There aren't actually any photos with ashes or snow in them, as far as I could tell, but the works were remarkable and the building housing them was even more so. Built from shipping containers, tent fabric, and giant cardboard tubes and paved with hardwood planks and river rocks, the dimly lit space was fitting for the art. Next we went to San Pedro for a hurried dinner at the 22nd Street Landing before crossing to the Queen Mary where Cirque du Soleil was performing one of their acrobatics shows. Ring dancers soared through the air, fabric climbers twirled and spun, acrobats leapt atop shoulders four high, and other performers danced and circled and loosely followed a fantasy plot.

There was a deep layer of new light powder snow in the mountains west of Lake Tahoe Saturday. Doug, Joy, Hsun-tzu, and I drove from Palo Alto up to Colfax, a little town along I-80, on Saturday afternoon and stayed the night at a motel (just $65! - much lower than Lake Tahoe hotels on a holiday weekend). There were just a few restaurants nearby aside from the fast-food options and it seemed like everyone was at Giovanni's Italian Restaurant. It was a $20-30 entree sort of place with well presented food and a dinner date clientele and a 45 minute wait so we moved on to the Red Frog where we ate two large pizzas while watching the Italy Olympics. Back at the room we stayed up too late watching more skiing and skating. In the morning the sky was partly clear and the roads were wet but open without chain control which was good because we had no tire chains and any sold up there would surely be expensive. My directions from a website were not very thorough and six years out of date: the right way to hike Donner Peak is to exit I-80 at Soda Springs Road/Norden, bear right and continue on the main road following signs to Sugarbowl (ski area), pass Sugarbowl and Donner Ski Ranch and at the top of the hill park in the Sugarbowl Academy lot if they'll let you (otherwise, at the ski resort lot - or along the road if it's not snowing). The trail was broken and several skiers had made the descent but for the most part, at 11am the powder was still trackless. A few other groups were headed uphill on telemark skis with skins. Some people had brought their dogs. The snow was deep, more than a foot higher on the slopes, but under the new powder the base was hard and several feet deep in places so the dogs didn't sink too deeply. Snow alternated with sun and clouds as we climbed, making the hills shine with spectacular lighting. Sometimes it was very warm with the sun shining and other times a breeze chilled us when we stopped. Emerging onto the summit we took in a beautiful view of lakes and mountains and the ski resorts and train tracks which ran under our mountain ridge through a long tunnel. The walk down was of course shorter than the walk up and I realized how close we actually were to the starting point - Donner Peak is probably only a worthwhile hike in winter on fresh snow. Even by late afternoon the day after the storm, recent tracks had settled and stiffened and were harder to step through and crowds of sledders and skiers had left a tangled mess of tracks. The soft fresh snow only lasts a matter of hours. Fortunately, it gets buried with a new layer before too long. On the way back we stopped in Auburn to see the Forest Hill bridge, ninth highest in the world with a center span height of 730 feet. It's a little unsettling standing on a bridge that high. There was a beautiful orange sunset in the background.

Less than two weeks had passed since Joy went home after our trip but I decided to go up North to visit since there was a holiday weekend. We went to Monterey and visited the aquarium, where there is a circular window in the Outer Bay tank that inspired my own round fishtank here at home. It was a beautiful time to visit Monterey, cool and clear with high surf kicked up by a storm. Later in the afternoon we drove south on Highway 1 past the beautiful beaches and arching concrete bridges and precipitous cliffs to Big Sur and Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park. The main attraction at the latter place is a stream cascading twenty feet over a ciff onto a small sandy beach pounded by pale blue surf. We watched the sunset there, our legs dangling over the edge of the boardwalk high above the waves, and then returned to Pacific Grove where a lovely Bed & breakfast awaited. And, with Sunday Night Rates, it wasn't expensive at all! Monday we drove around Pebble Beach and watched otters play in the surf before I took a plane home and turned around early in the morning and went back to th airport, headed for Grand Junction, Colorado. Twin Otter International is based there; the aircraft company turns DeHavilland planes into the well-known Twin Otter tourist and research aircraft. I lurked about the hangar for the next three days, answering questions and keeping an eye on technicians installing a mammoth radar antenna on the aft port side of the plane. Looking like a giant surfboard and built much the same way, the miniature wing was of some concern because it could destabilize the plane. However a series of flight tests showed that the well-designed aerodynamic fairing made the whole thing more or less invisible to the pilot - by feel, at least - and now the embryonic technology is ready to deploy to the field for demonstrations.

Once our bags were emptied onto the living room floor and the most exciting artifacts extracted from the socks and shirts were grouped on the kitchen table looking unfamiliar so far from their market shelves, I ceremonially pressed three more pins into my cardboard globe. They spanned an area the size of California and Oregon combined, brave explorers positioned along the Chinese border with Pakistan, Tajikistan, Kyrgystan, Kazakhstan, and Mongolia. That part of the world isn't properly Chinese - the people aren't much enamored with China or anyone who looks Chinese since the giant country has taken eastern Turkestan for its own - nor does it look Chinese. Writing is in arabic characters, mosques appear throughout the cities, mutton is the meat of choice, every man of means owns a dark fur hat which he keeps with great care, and some women tread the streets faceless behind brown cloths. The music is Middle Eastern in flavor, the food is excellent, the transportation ranges from donkey cart to modern train, and in the middle of winter not a foreigner is to be seen for thousands of kilometers along the frozen roads. Seven thousand meter tall peaks of the Karakoram range rear up out of the haze along the southern edge of the Taklimakan Desert, a huge empty basin of sand and gravel the size of Montana. The high Pamir mountains loom to the west and snowstorms from the north sweep over the Tian Shan mountains and slow trucks and buses to a crawl. China is building, growing so fast that the capital city I saw 8 years earlier with bicycles and sputtering old Chinese vehicles now has hundreds of high-rise cranes lifting buildings and shiny new cars from Toyota and Chrysler fighting each other on the asphalt. Above the chemical haze, the Great Wall still slinks over mountains unchanged except for the occasional Starbucks coffee shop carved out of ancient stones.


to the index page

Also read from 2001-2002, 2002-2003, 2003-2004, 2004-2005, 2006-2007, 2007-2008, 2008-2010, 2011-2012, and 2013-2015.