Jen and I and the dog took a week off to head down south. There wasn’t much of a plan beyond finding a cabin in the woods for a few days and then poking around the Blue Ridge Parkway and the Appalachian Trail for a bit. We didn’t do much serious hiking; just the few-miles-out-and-back walks in the woods to see some waterfalls and overlooks.
We managed to find a great cabin south of Asheville that was nice and cozy, and could actually have fit another half dozen people. It was part of a little private drive that was filled with empty lots, so we had the area all to ourselves. It had a wrap-around porch circling the entire cabin, with the most scenic section being screened in so you could sit outside but avoid the rain and bugs. We weren’t quite roughing it, but it was nice and relaxing.
We got a little freaked out when we read the lone one-star review that said all seven vacationers got full-body staff infections from the hot tub. Yikes. We played it safe and steered clear of that cauldron of disease, just in case. The managers assured us everything was ok, but something about rotting flesh simmering in a fetid bubble bath didn’t appeal to me. Besides, just sitting on the porch overlooking the mountains and thunderstorms was plenty to keep us occupied.
We, of course, went up to the Biltmore Estate because we’re both big Hannibal Lecter fans. We did the tour and went to the wine tasting room. Most of the wines were, how do you say, rather shitty, but I purchased a bottle for the in-laws, then promptly dropped it after the cashier completed the sale. I tried to catch it on the way down in a flail of arms and it bounced once unscathed, but shattered on the second impact. They gave me another bottle out of pity, so I commend them for that, but my original point still stands. Their wine tastes like fermented Welches; like Jesus. You know, vile communion wine, this is my blood and all that rubbish. It’s that bad. My only regret is that I broke just one bottle.
That was by far our cleanest day. The remaining days were spent walking miles and miles on mountain trails, applying layers of bug spray and suntan lotion on top of sweat, dirt, and deodorant. We dragged Piper with us everywhere, and she was quite a trooper. She never complained, but I found out that she does have this bad habit of trying to kill you if you happen to trip or stumble while having her on a leash: She bolts, so as soon as you commend yourself on the fine job you’ve done of staying upright, the frantic dog has just reached the end of her thirty foot leash and jerks you forward with the clear intention of avenging gravity’s recent loss. Other than that, she handled the mountain trails like a champ.
We hiked up several thousand stairs to Chimney Rock (near Bat Cave, NC. AWESOME), saw plenty of waterfalls and back-country along the Blue Ridge Parkway, and hiked up to McAffee’s Knob near Roanoke. We camped for a few nights at random rustic campsites along the Blue Ridge Parkway and I was glad my wife didn’t wake up to the sound of coyotes howling, because they sounded too close for comfort.
All in all it was a pretty relaxing time. A friend asked me, a bit confused, “So, what is it you plan on doing? Just walk around in the woods?” Yes. Absolutely. I would love to someday do the entire Appalachian Trail; to get away from it all for a few months of mind-numbing serenity. If that ever happens, I’ll be sure to write about it here.
We flew into Steamboat last night all geeked to hit the slopes today. We noticed it was really windy during the night and we kept waking up to the sound of the condo rattling and the sight of ratty white dudes with mangy afros flying through the air past our window. When I stepped out onto the deck I was immediately assailed by tiny glasslike shards of ice eagerly impaling themselves into the whites of my eyes.
Our condo is on a steep slope facing the ski hills so the wind here is enough to knock over a grown man, with the added insult of flash freezing him on the way down. The result, I expect, is that the poor soul would be smashed to frozen bits on the pavement without ever making it to the gondola. I wished to avoid this fate, so we donned our complete skiing attire before making the steep decline down a road with no shoulder in search of breakfast. The wind was terribly offensive.
We ate breakfast and a few concerned employees, seeing that we were dressed in full skiing regalia, apologetically explained that all lifts would remain closed the entire day, and that all employees of the mountain had been informed to stay inside. Our waiter explained that 120 mph gusts of wind were recorded further up the mountain. I couldn’t be sure whether this was an exaggeration or the truth.
A few years ago, I met an aged ski bum with a fondness for Billy Idol while skiing at Heavenly, overlooking Lake Tahoe. He explained that in his youth he had worked the chair lifts at Heavenly and was on staff the night when a few lifts remained operational despite high winds. The ghastly result was a lift whose seats were buffeted to the point where the cable bounced off the pullies, sending the passengers plummeting to the snow below. But that’s not all. You know how, when you hold a garden hose taut, you can yank it in such a way that sends a wave down the length of the hose? The same thing happened with the cable on the ski lift. The tension was so great that, after dumping its load of passengers from the lift, the cable rebounded and snapped back, sending a wave of energy down the length of the cable. As he explained it to me, a number of people were killed instantly. One teenage girl had both legs immediately severed above the knees, and lived. This guy explained how he had been involved in shoveling as much snow as possible to try and cover up all the blood staining the snow.
Suffice it to say, when Steamboat kept its lifts shut down today because of high winds, I was mildly annoyed until I remembered this story and made the conscious decision to appreciate my own two complete legs rather than one missed day of skiing.
Instead, we took the bus around and into town, where the wind was noticeably more mild and our ski clothes were much less necessary. Jen got embarrassed enough from locals apologizing for the unfit conditions that she removed her snow pants in the hope that they wouldn’t assume we were there for the skiing. We’ve got a condo in a great location, with a perfect view of those slopes that are just out of reach. I guess this afternoon will be one of hot chocolate, nachos, a good book, and some wine and steak. It’s not so bad.
I think I must have had some kind of cooking withdrawal when we were out in California. All we had were a few pans and bowls with which to work, and our culinary creations were usually pretty slim. We never suffered for wont of food. We ate out at all sorts of restaurants all the time, and at each one, I was always curious as to how it was done, eager to get back to our full kitchen back home where I could try out a bunch of random experiments.
Now that we’re home, I’ve been cooking a lot, making up for all the lost time. Jen and I team up a lot of the time and make things that leave the house smelling like an Indian or Asian restaurant for weeks. Butter Chicken and Pad Thai are great for that just-walked-out-of-Bombay scent.
Last week, we made an amazing tomato sauce from scratch, disassembling twenty-some tomatoes and simmering them with spices for five hours. The results were amazing. We used it on some Chicken Parmesan, and it’s hard to go back to the store-bought sauce once you’ve made your own. Well, that’s not entirely true. It’s too time-consuming to do more than once a year, and you need a ton of tomatoes to get any kind of yield. It simmers down to less than half of its original volume. It makes me curious about the process they use in the giant sauce mills. I’m sure there are teams of red Oompa Loompas running around, simmering countless dutch ovens of tomato meat.
And then I bought a charcoal grill. I’ve been wanting one for a while, having always lived off of a gas grill. Now I can get that smokey charcoal flavor in my meats, but even more exciting, I can use it as a smoker. I made some killer baby back ribs last week, smoking them with some hickory chunks for five hours. It’s worth the effort. The meat just falls off the bones. We’ve got a few friends coming over this Sunday, and I’m gonna try it again. I love the smell that it gives off; it permeates the house and you can smell it from all over the neighborhood. The neighbors are either envious or annoyed. I’ll choose to believe that their mouths are watering just as much as mine.
I’ve never gotten into the whole Food Network thing. The internet is a better tool for me for learning how to cook at your own pace. I’ve stolen recipes from all over the place, and there are youtube videos for every culinary niche, so there’s always something new to learn. Some of the things I find are great and some of them are crap. The trouble is, I sometimes forget where I found a certain recipe and then I have to start over, but then, the fun is in the experimentation.
Life has slowed to a crawl. It’s been a few days since I’ve popped open my laptop. In those days, we drove from Santa Clara, California to Hudsonville, Michigan for a brief respite, then packed up our clothes and our puppy for another road trip up to Agate Harbor, Michigan. Our family has a cottage on a small peninsula directly on Lake Superior in the extreme Upper Peninsula, where only bears and snowmobilers dwell.
As I write this, the sun has set over the water and an innumerable amount of dragonflies are flitting about, gobbling up mosquitoes or blackflies, or whatever it is that keeps their tummies full. Last night’s sunset was amazing, perhaps because we haven’t seen a good one since our move to California. It was always blocked by mountains or clouds. Here on Lake Superior, the entire sky is illuminated by the setting sun on a clear night from horizon to horizon. As it lowers, you can see the entire spectrum of light played out from west to east. It’s like a rainbow fat enough to cover the dome of the sky.
It takes a day’s worth of driving to get to the cottage, but once we’re here, it’s always worth it. Today was spent sleeping and reading on the deck overlooking the waves on the lake, exploring the ancient volcanic rocks spilling into the cold waters, and taking our dog for her first swim in Lake Superior.
Actually, it was her first real swim anywhere. Jen has always had it in her mind that Piper wouldn’t be a good swimmer because she’s not a Lab, which is a breed apparently made for swimming. Piper proved her wrong, and we couldn’t stop laughing the entire time. There’s a calm bay on the other side of the peninsula where we went to go swimming. Coincidentally, the water here in Lake Superior was vastly warmer and more tolerable than the ocean near Santa Cruz we tried swimming in over the summer. Go figure. Anyways, Piper got in the water and bounced around for a little as we started wading out, adjusting ourselves to the temperature. It surprised her when she realized she was no longer walking, but instead floating, and her limbs flailed out spastically for a short bit before she abruptly realized how awesome it was to float in the water. She then proceeded to swim in gradually widening circles as she realized the extent of her discovery. Before we knew it, she was chugging away, some twenty yards out, with only her head visible along with her cropped tail she was using as a wild little rudder.
It took some time before mastering her vessel. We swam with her and she chased us in the water with a fierce look of determination in her little puppy eyes, every once in a while biting a mouthful of water. She ended up being pretty fast in the water and, once she started after you, she’d be resolved to catch up, at which point she’d usually keep paddling with her paws and inadvertently scratching your arms and chest as she kept afloat. She had no problem steering and taking turns chasing either Jen or me, and we got tired before she did. It’s great to have her back again.
We’re up here in the wilderness for a week of unwinding. California was amazing and exhausting. When we started out, we didn’t really know what to expect. We had a list of places we wanted to visit up front, and those we tackled with great vigor. We anticipated that we would have more free time than we actually did. It turned out that we were both working full time jobs the entire three months we were out west. She, being a travel nurse, was not allotted any vacation time during those three months. Jen’s schedule was to work three twelve hour nights, on various days, per week. While we were used to this schedule back home in her old job, it made things a little more difficult to fit in everything we wanted, but we made due.
All our exploring was tucked into evenings and weekends. Some weekends, she had to work, and on a few of those, I was able to shift a few days in order to get my two weekend days in the middle of the week, so that we’d both work over the weekend but have a couple days off in the middle. But it never worked out to more than two days off, which meant that all our exploring had to be squeezed into that timeframe. For the first month and a half we were out here, we crammed in as much as we could, taking weekend trips to Napa Valley, Yosemite, Big Sur, San Francisco, and so on. We fit an amazing amount into those tiny weekends, but it soon wore us out, especially when we had to drive several hours to and from a destination. I’d always be up early in the morning the next day, overloading on caffeine to try and bring my neurons up to normal speed so I could at least try to be productive at work, and she’d be jolted back into the NICU, saving lives and being a much more noble human than I could ever hope to be.
We had three sets of visitors to our tiny apartment in California during the last half of our adventure. It was a good way for us to highlight and show off some of our favorite places in the area. It was sometimes a bit tricky for me to work in our two room apartment when friends and family were sleeping in my office, but after a cheap chair was purchased from IKEA, I managed to carve out a working area in the bedroom which suited well enough for the time it was needed. Only when I needed to Skype or call back home to the office was this ever a challenge, in that I needed to deftly and quietly sneak out of the bedroom and hurdle over our slumbering friends and their luggage so I could take the call out in the crisp morning air in the hallway outside our apartment. It wasn’t so bad.
There were times during the trip where we felt we had had enough, and talked more about our home and the dog we left than about all the fun things to do in the Bay Area. This, we usually battled with bottles of wine and amazing food from one of the nearby Indian, Greek, Thai, German, Sushi, Chinese, or Mexican restaurants which were all within walking distance. I guess it’s only normal to get a little homesick after being away for a few months, even though we were in such an amazing location.
We’ve talked a lot about whether we’d want to go out on another travel nursing assignment, and where our next ideal location would be. This one turned out to be pure gold. There was so much to do and to be explored in the San Francisco Bay Area, that we were never bored. We can’t seem to think of another area that would offer so much, and we haven’t seen any really compelling travel jobs posted. The most interesting ones to date, besides all the California ones, are either in Alaska, Missoula, Montana, or Honolulu.
Alaska just seems too far, and would probably only be good in or around summertime. Montana and Honolulu sound good any time of year, but not so compelling that we’d want to spend three months working full time there. After this California assignment, we’ve got a better idea of what life is like during a travel assignment. So far, I just can’t see us doing another assignment any time soon. A short vacation to Alaska, Montana, or Hawaii sounds great, but to be stuffed into a tiny apartment for that duration, with no real vacation time besides the normal weekends, doesn’t sound so appealing.
We’re happy to have made it home from California. Our house now seems like a mansion compared to our tiny apartment out west, and everything seems so green. It’s funny how, even though the area we were in was supposed to have some great farmland, it seemed like everything was dead. The mountains to the west had lots of green trees, but in the valley and to the east, all the grass on all the hills was dead and brown, nearly yellow, having been cooked beyond well done. They say the grass gets fried in the springtime, and stays cooked all summer long. On the drive home, we went through a few deserts and wastelands, and miles upon miles of treeless farmland as we ventured through Nebraska and into Iowa. It wasn’t until we got back into Michigan that I realized how lush and green everything was as we were driving through the tunnels of trees surrounding the freeways. It’s good to be home.
So now, we’re enjoying some much needed relaxation in the wilderness of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. We’re back with our dog, who hasn’t forgotten us and whose excitement upon seeing and smelling us again for the first time can only be rivaled by her excitement at a thrown stick.
Today, as we sat on the deck, we saw three deer walking near the water as they stopped and stared at us. We made eye contact and our dog barked. Later, my wife jolted me awake to point out a bald eagle flying lazily overhead. Tomorrow will be another lazy day out on the deck by the lake with some wine and a good book, and perhaps another swim with the dog in the bay. This time we’ll bring a camera.
This past Sunday I ran my first half-marathon in San Francisco. The last time I ran a race was probably when I was a wee lad, running in the neighborhood park to appease my parents. This time, I did it to appease my wife. Well, at first, I did it for her, but the more I looked into it, the cooler it became.
I ran the first half of the marathon, which starts on the eastern side of the peninsula, north of the Bay Bridge, on Embarcadero. It winds northwest around the peninsula towards the Golden Gate Bridge, which is always in view from early on in the race. The path crosses the bridge and loops around a scenic outpost, overlooking the city, before heading back south on the bridge and crossing through some city streets into Golden Gate Park, where the first half ends.
We’re leaving in a couple days, and this was a perfect recap to our time in the city. The first half of the marathon takes you by many of the more well known tourist attractions, some of which I visited the prior day while playing tour guide to my brother and his wife.
As far as the race portion of it went, I didn’t have high expectations for my own performance and mostly looked forward to running around the bridge and the city, void of traffic. When people asked about it, I told them that, if nothing else, it would make for a nice walk. I trained for it over the last few months we’ve been here, usually on nights Jen was off. One of the peers who pressured me into the race gave me a few suggestions on where to run in the area, all of which were twenty minutes to a half hour drive from my place. Booo.
At first, I expected the course to be extremely hilly and I planned accordingly by running up some of the local hills/mountains, namely Mission Peak in Fremont and St. Joseph’s Hill near the reservoir in Los Gatos. At some point, I looked up the elevation map of the race, and was delighted to see that the first half never rose above 300 feet in elevation. I then turned my training to running the Los Gatos Creek trail and instead, trained more for distance. Prior to this trip, the farthest I’ve run has been around six miles, more like a 10k. I now averaged eight to ten miles per run, and the week before the race, I ran the full 13.1 miles in about two and a half hours, with plenty of walking in between.
I figured I’d be tired enough to walk a few times on race day, but surprised myself by running the whole thing without stopping. It still took around two and a half hours but at least I was consistent. There were a few uphill portions with lots of people walking on them, but I just took baby steps, barely going faster than the walkers. Most of these people passed me on the way down, but I was too busy enjoying the scenery.
There were a ton of people running the race. I passed a girl with one leg, and felt slightly guilty about it, but I never caught up to a guy who ran the whole thing on crutches. There were people scattered throughout the race shouting encouragement, but my favorite was a little kid hold a sign that said something like, “Take it easy, you’re not going to win.” Words to live by.
I’ve had people tell me that after their first race, they were hooked. Me, not so much. It was fun and I can say I’ve done one, but I did this more for the course. Running across the Golden Gate Bridge was pretty damn cool. It’d have to be an impressive course to hook me into another one of these things. For now, I look forward to taking it a few miles at a time back home, running around the neighborhood and through the woods with my trusty dog at my side.
My brother, Scott, and his wife, Betsy, came out to visit us for a few days. Jen got screwed over by her shift and had to work the weekend, so I spent a few days playing tour guide, dragging the two all over the area until they were exhausted. They didn’t even tip me.
Friday, we went down Highway 1 to Big Sur. The clouds hung low to the sky but visibility was still pretty good. We made it down to the waterfall at Julia Pfeiffer State Park, snapping photos along the way, then we turned around and had dinner at one of the little diners by the road, next to the stream and a bunch of redwoods.
Saturday, I hauled them up to San Francisco for a whirlwind tour. Everybody seems to want to see the Painted Ladies, sorry, I mean the Full House Houses, so that was one of the first places we stopped.
We walked on the Golden Gate Bridge for a while, then went up and down the steep and twisty Lombard Street and into Chinatown for some food. The whole time we were out, Scott was worried we’d be late for our night tour on Alcatraz. We hung around Fisherman’s wharf for a while as his agitation grew. Eventually, we hopped on the boat to Alcatraz.
The night tour of Alcatraz was awesome. A few weeks ago, we did Alcatraz in the day. In the evening, it’s less crowded, a few areas are closed off, but there are a few additional areas open and they give a few talks and demonstrations at night.
Near the end of the audio tour, which rocked by the way, I noticed a sign that said the hospital wing was open. The hospital wing was on a floor above the cafeteria, and full of creepy rooms which contained really old and rusty operating equipment. Each room had a single lantern, strategically placed to cast the most eery glow possible. We toured this wing just as the sun was setting. I felt like I was touring the psychiatric wards HP Lovecraft was so fond of writing about.
At the end of the tour, we caught the tail end of a story about a prisoner who spent all night screaming in solitary confinement in order to cover up the tearing sound of his clothes. He was making a noose which he would use to hang himself the next morning. The only way to get enough weight to suffocate himself was to lean on an angle, away from the bars, to which the other end of the noose was tied. Somehow, he managed to tie his feet up in such a way that he was able to kill himself completely. Nice! When you put your mind to it, nothing is impossible.
The last thing they did on the night tour was to have everyone gather around one of the cell blocks where they tell you a creepy story, then start pulling levers that open and shut the whole row of cell doors. The sound is intense. Apparently it’s been recorded and used in movies, one of which she mentioned was Jurassic Park. Another reason to love that movie.
After sailing back to the city, Scott and Betsy dropped me off at a hostel near Union Square, where I stayed the night by myself so I could run the first half of the San Francisco marathon. After the race, I met them and celebrated with a bunch of ice cream and chocolate at Ghirardelli Square, then we went up to Muir Woods to see some huge trees. After that, we swung on over to Napa, where we spent the night at a bed and breakfast and spent the next day tasting wine and touring the valley.
After a short visit with our uncle’s family up in Pleasanton, we came back to Santa Clara, and then they flew out of our lives the next morning, as quickly as they came. This last whirlwind tour was a nice way to wrap up our time out here, and we got to revisit a lot of our favorite places. Now, we just have to finish out the workweek, then pack everything Tetris-like into the Jeep, and we’ll be on our way back home.
Before we came out here, I really wanted to go surfing. I’ve only done a surfing class once in Maui and figured California would be the perfect place to hone my nonexistent skills. When we got here in May, the water was ice cold. It hasn’t gotten any warmer. This past weekend we went over to Half Moon Bay for either some surfing or horse back riding.
The microclimates around here can vary drastically but, from what I hear, are relatively consistent. Take where we live for example. In the morning, it’s usually overcast until maybe nine or ten o’clock. Then, the clouds disappear for the rest of the day. You’ve got blue sky all day long and temperatures between seventy five and ninety with little humidity. We’re spoiled.
Then, you drive up north a little ways on I280, and you always notice cloud embankments peaking over the mountains to the west. It never fails. There are always clouds rolling over the hills, and I think it’s such a cool sight when you’re driving by.
The problem is, during this time of year, those clouds extend out into the ocean. Half Moon Bay seems to be covered by clouds in the summer. They said the best times to get cloudless views of anywhere along the coast are during spring and fall. When we went to Big Sur, there were no clouds. We must have been on the tail end of the spring season. When Jen’s parents came, they had a pretty cloudy experience.
But back to Half Moon Bay and surfing. It didn’t happen. It was cloudy and the water seemed to have gotten colder since we got here. I guess that’s pretty normal too. You can’t surf without a wetsuit and an iron resolve. I gave up on the idea of surfing a few weeks back. No problem, I’m sure I’ll pick it up the next time we go to Hawaii.
Instead, Jen heard about some cool horse-riding you can do over in Half Moon Bay where you actually get to ride on the beach. This sounded pretty cool, and although my step-mom was nearly killed a few years back in an accident involving a spooked horse, a tree, and lots of broken bones, we were up for the challenge.
It was actually a lot of fun. There was no organization to the place and hardly anyone spoke English besides the phrase, “Stop, please.” Our guide was a kind-hearted Mexican cowboy who smiled a lot, said little, and just sort of wandered around or near us while the horses just walked along the route to which they were accustomed.
They didn’t allow any cameras or cellphones or really anything on the journey, but I can see why. They probably had a lot of knuckleheads trying to take pictures while riding a horse and either dropping the camera or spooking the horse with that stupid noise that digital cameras make in an effort to try and sound like their mechanical ancestors. Being the knucklehead I am, I tried taking a picture and this is the best I got.
We were riding along with a family from the area who had come out for the mom’s birthday. Their daughter was a bit freaked out and was kinda cute as she got frightened early on, but quickly became the most annoying girl ever as she ran her mouth through the entire ride complaining about everything. Our cowboy smiled and hooked a lead rope up to her horse in an effort to shut her up, but she kept complaining the entire time. The parents were nice and we talked for a bit. The horses followed no line and just went where they wished, so Jen and I would only be able to exchange a few words before getting some other horses caught between us.
Jen had a faster horse and mine was kind of lazy. She was usually near the front of the group and I was usually near the back, somehow sandwiched between the father and son. Whenever I’d try to make my horse trot a little in an effort to get by my wife, the kid’s horse ahead of me wasn’t having any of it. I’d speed up and so would he. A couple times, his horse purposefully cut me off and nearly ran me off the road, which, my horse thought was a great idea because it gave her some plants to eat.
We eventually got control over our beasts and were able to stay closer together. The trail went down on the beach for a while, which was really cool. The hill we went down on was really steep and you had to lean far back in the saddle and trust that your horse knew what they were doing. Jen’s took the hard way down but thankfully she made it unscathed. Riding on the beach was pretty cool, even though the clouds weren’t cooperating.
After we got back to the stables, Jen and I drove down to one of the beaches we trotted along earlier. It was cloudy and a bit nippy, even though we’re in the middle of July. Funny how that works. I think it was the combination of the cold air, clouds, and big waves, but it kept reminding me of sitting on the edge of Lake Superior, except saltier.