31 January, 2009

Impaired judgment and unmanned vehicles

or, life imitates "DeRiRoCut". I don't think this post violates the "no-minutiae" rule. Sometimes you do things that are at once too brilliant and too incredibly dumb not to share.

A friend who teaches 8th-grade English once remarked she made decisions based on "whatever would make a better story later". Well, there are bad decisions that you pay dearly for, and others which by some grace you escape with just a tale. And i wouldn't say that making bad decisions is something i rarely do; it's just that making bad decisions which also make decent stories is more of a rarity. Traveling while ill and not getting sufficient rest, for example, can leave you with a lovely ear and sinus infection. That in itself is not a tale.

Our driveway here at 88 is three cars wide, and one car long. It's a nightmare to shovel, thanks to the massive triple-width wall of snow the plows leave, and a brilliantly placed crabapple tree in the path of snow removal. Tired from the lingering cold, i had thrown in the towel early on our last round of shoveling. So yesterday, when i walked back from campus, looked at my watch halfway through a piece of toast, and had twenty minutes to make it to the doctor's office - the car got stuck. Rocking forward and reverse a bit took care of that. Sans lenses, i swept right past the doctor's office, and nearly missed the appointment.

Later, prescription in hand, i pulled back into the driveway, maneuvering to avoid the problem patch of snow. Too far toward the garage, and the front wheels slipped over the railroad-tie edging into a soft white neverland. Stuck again. I made dinner, took medicine, ready to settle in - but it wasn't even 7 o'clock, and there were friends i'd been hankering to see for two weeks. Sure enough, Nick called. I was determined to get over there. For the sake of recuperation, i nixed walking. Nor did i want to be the needy one and ask for a ride. Commit a rather odd faux-pas - calling a friend to say, 'hey, will you help me get my car unstuck so i can go hang with...other people?'. No. The situation left me with one and only one course of acceptable action: to get the car unstuck alone.

Mixed feelings surround what follows. I am rather proud of the resourcefulness and determination it demonstrates, and hope to pass off the poor judgment on being ill. Mostly thankful that the nearest telephone pole was not twenty feet farther north.

Try as i might, i couldn't push the car up and over the railroad ties alone. I braced my feet against the garage to no avail. Rocked between forward and reverse. The only thing that accomplished was heating up the engine. What if, i mused, what if there were a way to give the car some gas in reverse, and push at the same time. Yes, that's when questionable logic began to dominate. I remembered there were 25-lb. dumbbells in the dining room, and it seemed like a brilliant idea.

I slid a dumbbell against the gas pedal until there was just enough force to perhaps gain traction. With the door open, i resumed the awkward pose with one foot on the garage and both hands grasping beneath the front bumper. A mighty lift and, like magic, the Prizm reared backwards. Straight back, out of the driveway, and across the street. It really wasn't until that moment that i realized just how many ways this could end badly.

The car punched through one snowbank, across the sidewalk, and landed bumper-deep in another, larger bank. The impact was soft, but enough to knock the dumbbell away from the gas pedal. I climbed in and nosed out into the street, still a little too drunk by success to think about what might have gone wrong. Hey, the car was loose, nobody got hurt, and i was on my way. Sometimes you pay dearly, and other times life has a sense of humor.


With friends, i kicked back and watched Dead River Rough Cut, a documentary about two men in the wilds of northwestern Maine. It's equal parts woods philosophy, crusty commentary, and complaints about women from the two subjects who spend their days trapping beaver and skidding logs with a team of oxen. A cult favorite among our circle of young Mainers, it's an interesting bit of nostalgia about rural life, and there are plenty of examples of bad, but rather practical, decisions - like a firebox on the back of a snowmobile, for warming hands on the trapline. Couldn't help but think how sometimes life imitates art, and what an obstinate old Mainer i might already be. Didn't drink much of anything, as usual - besides being sick, i'd say my judgment was impaired enough for one night. (Image from the film.)

29 January, 2009

Moving on...

Back in Maine (just in time for several inches of new snow), i'm trying to get back into the academic flow, and kick this rather unforgiving head cold. This morning, the campus newspaper published an article on my STA World Travel Intern bid, and i finally clicked "submit" on the application.

So where now (besides class)? I have no intention of letting this blog fall into disuse; there are plenty of things i want to share as they grow and ripen. But i don't want to fill up space with the rather boring minutiae of my academic life, so the posts might be much less frequent. I'll keep you, er, posted!

27 January, 2009

Homeward Bound: lost in San Francisco

Sometimes all you need is sleep. Sleep moves up in your priority list, past seeing the redwoods or doing all the other things you'd hoped to. You wake up sweaty from strange dreams, and fall back into them.

This time, my borrowed bed was a futon in the converted barn/education building at Live Earth Farm. I finally awoke to the music of roosters greeting - oh my goodness - the sun! It broke over the hills southwest of Watsonville, filtering in brilliant shafts through the clouds. Taylor offered some eggs - pale pastel green ones from the Aracauna hens - and produce. We had quite the feast; the barn was equipped with a commercial kitchen and all the cookware one could want. What a great place to spend the night.


It was after eleven when i finally bade Ethan good luck in his travels, said goodbye to the rest, and hit the road. My plan was to drive up to Oakland and visit City Slicker Farms, an urban farm and garden project. Only catch - i'd barely made contact with them at Eco-Farm, and didn't know exactly which of about five sites they would be at - between ten and one. By the time i stopped for gas off Highway 1, chances of reaching Oakland in time were less than slim.

Reluctant to risk further disappointment, i took a minute, and reached a sort of decision: take time, head straight for San Francisco, and see as much as i could along the way. Redwoods after all? I turned off highway 17 following the brown state park signs. Maybe i'd make it up to Boulder Creek and Big Basin? Only problem was the lack of eyeglasses. Basically all i could see was this: brown sign, arrow.

I found myself in Felton, CA, a town which had the feel of being tucked high into the Colorado rockies, just a certain ethos about it. Brown signs led me to Henry Cowell Redwoods SP; i asked the gate attendant how much farther it was to Big Basin, how the two parks compared, and how long the trails here were. Twenty-six miles out of my way, Big Basin's grove was larger, he said, but also right next to a highway, and though the grove trail here was eight tenths of a mile, it was eight tenths he'd "never finished hiking".

After paying the park fee and meandering through that grove, i agree with him. I don't think i'll ever finish another hiking trail. We create such odd expectations of spectacle, and yet it really didn't matter how large the trees were compared to others of their kind. They were majestic in their own way.


Coast redwoods (
Sequoia sempervirens) once covered much of Santa Cruz county, according to Edgar, a park docent. Early in the twentieth century, they had been clearcut everywhere except this park - thanks to a landowner who loved his trees - and Big Basin, which lacked access to the railroad and thus to markets. These coast redwoods, which never grow more than forty miles inland, are not as large as the giant redwoods found farther north. Instead of girth, coast redwoods boast an adaptation found in no other conifer: the ability to grow from root sprouts creates almost pure stands. And they're not too shabby - the largest tree in Henry Cowell is 17 feet in diameter, and over 250 feet tall. Edgar said they often grow taller during wet periods, and die back in droughts. This particular tree had lost about fifty feet of top.

On the way out of Felton, i stopped in the small strip of local businesses to look for wifi. I found it at the White Raven, where the motto is "more than just a coffeeshop". The place lived up to it, and the almond mocha chai i sipped turned out to be a highlight of the trip. While i sat writing yesterday's post, i heard a worker sing a ditty she'd composed about chai; a patron with a bright red ukulele strummed at the counter. Hippie folk with patchwork pants and dreadlocks wandered through, and a man ordered his young son mint tea. The boy's name was Sequoia.

It was 4 in the afternoon when i pointed the Impala north on highway 17 through the Santa Cruz mountains. Without sliding into hyperbole, it's some of the most beautiful terrain i've ever seen. The topography is steep and folded; the highway winds, narrow, edged by giant conifers, and here and there hillside homes are surrounded by broadleaf evergreens and agaves, a landscape at once both lush and severe. I merged onto Highway 85, and then I-280; the hills grew gentler and grass-covered. Dusk was settling as i reached San Francisco.

I-280 somehow fades into Highway 1; it goes from elevated freeway to six crowded lanes laced with trolley tracks, winds its way through Golden Gate Park, and whoops! - thankfully, there was one final exit before the bridge! After a quick look, i headed east, and after a bewildered moment or two, found North Beach and Chinatown. Here's a view down Columbus Ave. at the Transamerica building - sometimes, getting the right shot demands lingering mid-crossing.


Just nextdoor to City Lights Books (founded by the poet Ferlinghetti; City Lights published Ginsberg's "Howl") I asked a man in a crosswalk where i could get good Chinese food. In a thick, broken English, he pointed me two blocks north to Yuet Lee Restaurant. The food - beef with Chinese broccoli, and sauteed vegetables - was good, but i could barely eat half. Boxed leftovers in hand, i found four men in a doorway just down the street. One of them had a radio, and he was singing loudly along with it: come together, right now, over me. I stopped and sang along. Then offered my leftovers - gotta catch a plane, and i can't take it with me. One man gladly accepted.

If there was a lesson for the day - beside how pleasant a journey can be once one gives up false expectations, or how it's the little places off the beaten path that are most rewarding - it was this: do not try to intuit your way from Chinatown back to I-280 without a map. It does not work. I watched the clock tick forward, stop sign after stop sign. I'd find a major thoroughfare, only to have it dead end against the back of Golden Gate Park. Left turn. Up a hill, and another, each one steeper than the next. I honestly don't know where i ended up, because i couldn't read the street names. It was definitely one of the highest points in the city; a glorious view i would have missed if i'd stayed on course.

Finally i stopped at a grocery for directions. Right at the next light, the proprietress said, and this goes straight to the freeway. Yes. I squinted at signs, merged, accelerated, panicked when i couldn't find the rental car drop. By the time i had dropped the car off, i had forty minutes to make it to the terminal. Thankfully, even SFO is slow on a Sunday night. With Huapango de Moncayo in the iPod, i sprinted through the airport. I didn't even tie my shoes after security. At least the backpack now officially passed muster as a carry-on. And when at last we were airborne, i watched the brightly lit city fall away - the mountains of South San Francisco. The freeway. Golden Gate Park. The bridges. What a day!


A dapper young man of Indian descent sat one seat away on the aisle. We passed most of the flight in silence - asleep. But on our descent to Newark at 3 AM, or rather, now 6 Eastern, we made conversation. His name was Raj, a PhD student from Clemson. His work was fascinating, combining marine biology and materials science. Marine invertebrates affix themselves to ship hulls, a process known as "fouling", and ships have been treated in various ways to prevent fouling. The chemicals formerly used to prevent fouling were highly toxic and accumulated in marine sediments, making their way up the food chain to bioaccumulate in marine mammals. Even the currently favored material,
copper oxide is not environmentally friendly, he explained, and it leaches from hull surfaces at a rate of 48 micrograms/cm2/day. Coatings similar to teflon have been used - the invertebrates don't stick as well as they would, and slough off when ships accelerate, but these coatings only work at speeds above thirty knots, and like teflon, once scratched, their efficacy is lost. Now Raj and others are working to solve the problem with biology. With funding from the Navy, they're developing coatings impregnated with signal molecules to confuse the invertebrates and prevent hull colonization.

Another great conversation with a stranger; another happy landing.

26 January, 2009

Woebegone day

For every day spun from the silk of perfection, there is a disporportionately large and opposite disaster. Friday night my sleep was punctuated by waking moments; congestion didn't help, and at 5 AM i slipped quietly from my host's house and began walking. Walking in the predawn was pleasant - surf crashed on lovers' point in Pacific Grove, but as dawn came in Monterey the pack grew heavy. I kept trying to thumb a ride unsuccessfully, and the buses weren't running this early. I did run into Ethan, headed back to Asilomar on his bike for the closing session of Eco-Farm.


Seven heavy miles later i reached Monterey airport. That's when things began to turn: a dour woman behind the Budget Rent-a-Car desk informed me that without a credit card, she couldn't honor my reservation. At Enterprise, next desk over, a young man hooked me up with an Impala - but at over twice the price i'd planned on. Dropping off at a different location carried a hefty $100 fee.

Stinging from the $250 car rental (instead of $108), i drove south on California Highway 1. The Carmel Highlands rose abrupt behind low, clay-tiled roofs, and low clouds cast each fold and peak into relief. I drove until i reached Garrapata State Park. Sage grew between the highway and the rocks, and paintbrush and white alyssum were in bloom. An older fellow on a bicycle - pack, sleeping bag, and all, headed from Tucson to Canada - said he hadn't seen any trailheads. But i found one, and set off up the brushy hills. The air smelled of sage; lupine grew here and there. A few Eschscholzia - California poppies - held their blooms closed, bright egg-yolk-yellow against silver-blue foliage.



Somewhere along the trail i lost my eyeglasses. I didn't know whether i set them down and forgot them, or if they fell out of my pocket. All i knew was they were gone, and i walked up and down a steep stretch of trail three times searching for them without luck. That was just disheartening.

I drove back to Asilomar and picked up Ethan; together we made our way north to Watsonville. The highway past Sand City was lined with fields - thousands of acres of artichokes, strawberries, and bare, dark, earth waiting to be planted. Ethan read aloud the stark poetry of Jimmy Santiago Baca, and we passed the huge smokestacks of the Moss Landing power plant. Finally we found our way to Live Earth Farm.

Our hostess, Taylor, was an apprentice at the farm. With 46 acres, plus additional leased fields around Watsonville, the farm supports a 300 member winter CSA which grows to 700 members during the summer months. Since it was Taylor's birthday, we joined her for a trip to Santa Cruz. Packing a blanket and some beers, we sat on the beach and listened to the waves. Around 9:30 Arminda, a former apprentice from Live Earth, met us for sushi. By then i was poor company; the head cold was at its finest, and all i wanted to do was sleep. My sense of adventure was gone, robbed by weariness, the tension of driving a rental car without glasses and having such difficulty reading directional signs. Arminda, Taylor, and Ethan headed to a lounge for hip-hop, but i bailed and headed back to the farm, blasting the "Slumdog Millionaire" soundtrack to stay alert. Road signs were barely intelligible. I missed the Watsonville exit, and didn't realize it until the towers of Moss Landing rose, studded with lights among the dark fields. I wanted to stop and take a photograph, but exhaustion overcame any sense of journalism. When at last i unrolled the borrowed sleeping bag, i was shivering.