Thursday, July 2, 2015

A day in Oslo

While I was writing my dissertation, I promised myself that after I earned my PhD, I would go travel and have adventures somewhere far away, somewhere I'd never been.  Given that I actually started writing my dissertation sometime in my second year of graduate school (or at least that's when my first Word document titled "Chapter One" appeared somewhere on my hard drive), I couldn't possibly have foreseen the other two big things that will be happening this summer: 1) moving to a new city, and 2) marrying my best friend.  It's been a whirlwind few weeks, and it's hard to believe I finished my dissertation only about a month ago; harder still to believe that in less than two months I'll be married and living in Los Angeles.  But in the meantime, I've still got some wild oats I'm fully planning to sow!

Over the next month, I'll be travelling through Oslo, Norway; Liverpool, England; Dublin, Ireland; Pisa, Cinque Terre, Florence, Rome, and Livorno, Italy; Bastia and Belgodère, Corsica; and Nice, France.  I'll be returning through New York City and then taking the train back to Pennsylvania, where I will get married (!) and immediately take off to honeymoon for a week on the Pacific coast of Panama.  I'll use this space to write about my travels, post some pictures of the beautiful and curious things that I see, and muse about whatever strikes my mind.  If you're interested, you can follow this blog by email (send me a message at mbyron10 [at] gmail [dot] com), or if you prefer RSS you can scroll alllllll the way down to the bottom and click on the button there.  I'll try to post a couple of times a week as I blaze my way through almost a dozen European cities in the next month or so.

The Grand Tour began at LAX with an nonstop flight to Oslo, Norway.  Though I've stepped aside a little bit from my former life as an aerospace engineer, the dormant plane nerd inside of me woke up a little bit for my first-ever flight on one of the new-ish Boeing 787 Dreamliner planes. My aircraft dynamics professor in college was a little bit obsessed with this plane, and we had several problem sets focused on the 787.  Flying in the 787 definitely lived up to the hype: not only was it more fuel-efficient than comparably-sized airplanes (lowering my carbon footprint-- yeah!), but the ride was comfortable and pleasant despite my super-economy budget, featuring a stellar entertainment system, plenty of headroom, and even a custom cabin lighting system designed to help people with jetlag.  I was flying with Norwegian Air, which has a reputation as a low-budget, nickel-and-dime kind of airline (you pay extra to check a bag, get food onboard, have a blanket in the ice-cold cabin, etc).  However, I got the better of them in the end: I bought all my flights on the Norwegian-language version of their website, and since the Norwegian kroner is really weak right now, I saved about $100 each way on my flights.  Score!

Because the Norwegian flights were so cheap, I had booked my trans-Atlantic flight to Oslo and am using the intra-Europe budget airline Ryanair to get around between countries.  This meant I had a sort of glorified layover in Oslo, with only 26 jet-lagged hours to spend in the city.  However, this turned out to be just long enough to see many of the city's major sights.

The main airport  (Oslo Gardemoen, OSL) is easy to navigate, with signs in both Norwegian and English.  There is a relatively cheap, 19-minute express train to the city center (the Flytoget) that runs several times per hour from the airport to the Oslo S (Central) train station.  Knowing that I'd be jetlagged and sweaty and hungry and all manner of cranky after my 10.5 hour overnight flight, I had opted for the comparative luxury of an Airbnb room instead of a dorm bed in a hostel.  This turned out to be a great decision-- Gung and Martin's apartment was a stress-free and comfortable 10-15 minute walk from Oslo S, in the Grønland neighborhood of Oslo.  My hosts were polite and hospitable, but not overly friendly or sociable, so after a quick check-in I was left to my own devices to drop off my things, freshen up, and strike out to see a few things before the exhaustion hit in earnest.

The central part of Oslo isn't very big, and I was able to see some of the cool architecture for which the city is known just by walking around a little. A friend had strongly recommended that I visit Oslo's opera house, which sits on the edge of the Oslofjord (which is, predictably, the fjord that borders Oslo), so my first stop was at this very hip, very modern paean to music and dance.  All the costume and prop studios are on the ground floor and have big windows, so if you walk around the back of the building, you can see people working on things for the upcoming operas or ballets.  The main performance hall is kind of like a building within a building, a bamboo structure that rises several stories inside a glass-and-stone atrium. However, the highlight was the building's exterior, which is made of a rough white stone (both granite and Italian marble).  The roof of the opera house slopes down to ground level, so that on either side of the atrium you can walk up a fairly steep slope to see a killer view of Oslo.  There are no handrails or rules or security guards, and the whiteness of the stone makes your eyes ache a little as you climb.  The building is so large that it takes several minutes to reach the top, but the view out over the fjord is really nice-- and you can just turn around to see the curious mishmash of modern architecture and old stone buildings in the city center.

Actually, I lied.  The roof wasn't the highlight.  The highlight was seeing a girl in a blue dress, who was clearly having a blast at her own bachelorette party, belting out "Let It Go" from the Disney movie "Frozen" to a crowd of confused but delighted tourists.  That was pretty excellent.

From the opera house, I meandered my way west towards more of the attractions listed in my Oslo e-book guide, hastily downloaded before I got on the plane.  I ended up on Karl Johan Gate, the main pedestrian avenue for shopping and strolling in Oslo.  The word "gate" actually means "street" in Norwegian, which was pretty confusing to an English speaker as there is no physical gate to be found on Karl Johan Gate.  But I did find some Citybikes, the solid little beater bikes that are locked to racks all over the city and can be released with a touch of your membership card.  My Airbnb hosts had given me a Citybike card with my keys, and I used it to unlock a bike and set off for the Vigelund sculpture garden in Frogner park, two miles away on the other side of the city.  Though Oslo is hilly, it was fairly easy to get to the park on my three-speed-cruiser (though the rusty brakes squealed obnoxiously every time I went downhill; it's a great credit to the citizens of Oslo that I received not a single dirty look).  The sculptures in the park were just okay, but apparently I'd gone uphill more than I thought; the view from the park's apex were incredible.  I spent a moment or two enjoying the sunshine before asking a passing tourist for the time, just to make sure my phone had synced correctly.  As it turns out, it hadn't. Instead of 4:45pm, it was actually 5:45pm, and I had very little time before I was supposed to meet my friend Greeley for dinner.  So back onto the bike I went, quickly speeding across the city and finding a place to return the bike, then rushing towards our meeting spot (and only ten minutes late-- Berkeley time, anyone?).

Meeting up with Greeley was a serendipitous treat; when I booked my flights, I hadn't realized he was working on his PhD in Wood Science at the Norwegian Forest and Landscape Institute (south of Oslo).  A mutual friend told me vaguely that he was "studying trees"-- this turned out not precisely to be the case, as he's actually working on finding better preserving treatments for wooden structural components (e.g. how to keep wooden beams from rotting due to fungi or disease or whatever).  Though he does like trees, and Norway sure has a lot of them.  We had a delightful pre-dinner beer at a rooftop bar whose name I can't remember, but were put off by a 45 minute wait for a table, so we ended up having Indian food instead.

Wait, I hear you say.  Indian food? In Oslo? you say, disbelievingly.  I know, I know.  This was one of the things that really surprised me about my brief time in Oslo.  From what I could observe, the city defies the blond and blue-eyed Scandinavian stereotype and is actually quite diverse, with a ton of different races and nationalities represented.  It could be that Grønland is a more immigrant-heavy neighborhood-- the wealthy western side of the city wasn't nearly as diverse as the area near the train and bus stations-- but it was definitely an international city, where you could certainly get decent, if not mind-blowing, Indian food.  Plus, after reading a sign earlier that advertised traditional Norwegian whale and reindeer meat, I have to say I wasn't enthused about sampling the local cuisine.

After a nice long dinner and a walk and some gelato, I packed Greeley off on his train to Ås, the neighboring city where he lives (pronounced like the first syllable of the word "awesome," said with a heavy SoCal Bro accent).  Even at 10:30pm, it was still fully daylight outside... in summer, the sun sets at 10:30 - 11pm and rises at 3:30 - 4am here.  But jetlag and travel-weariness made it easy to sleep despite the light cues that confused my body.

The next morning, I had a picnic breakfast of salami and cheese (packed as part of my GIANT backpack of snacks so that I wouldn't have to buy food on the plane-- I've beaten you again, Norwegian Air!) in the delightful botanical gardens only a few blocks from my Airbnb.  These didn't show up on any tourist guide but were recommended by my hosts, and they were actually much nicer than the Vigelund garden.  It was very zen to sit and read in the cold morning sunshine, and walk amongst all the beautiful plants and trees.  I especially enjoyed the Viking exhibit, which consisted of planter boxes arranged in the shape of a longboat and displaying the various plants that were used for food, medicine, tools, and trading by the Vikings.

To catch my afternoon Ryanair flight to Liverpool, I had to take an 1 hour 45 minute bus ride to Oslo Torp, the small domestic airport (be careful when booking flights to/from Oslo, as there are three different airports: Torp, Rygge, and Gardemoen).  I had booked my bus ticket online, and while watching the countryside roll by (it looks very like Quebec, actually), I realized that I had never withdrawn any cash in Norway-- it was never necessary!  Hooray for my foreign-transaction-free United Mileage Plus card, which is getting a real workout on this trip.

Though it was added to my itinerary more from convenience than any desire to visit, I really enjoyed my day in Oslo and would recommend it!  Next time I visit Norway, though, I'd love to do some hiking in the beautiful mountains, forests, and fjords.  Who's with me?

Harbor outside the opera house, with a cool ship sculpture

The sloping roof of the opera house
It's actually much steeper than it looks here; imagine climbing in winter when it's covered with ice!

Looking down from the opera house's pitched roof

Interior performance hall

Astrid-Elsa the bachelorette

Yeah no thanks, you can keep that

Karl Johan Gate

My trusty Citybike

View from the Vigelund sculpture garden

The American embassy, decorated with rainbow flags for Oslo Pride week (total coincidence as this was the day before the SCOTUS Obergefell ruling came down)

Hug the trees-- Enjoy!

People practicing staff fighting in the Royal Palace Garden.  I like to think of this as a wizard and his apprentice. Probably.

A little slice of home!

 Botanical gardens!

 VIKING botanical gardens!

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Crown of the Continent-- Glacier National Park (part 2)

Dear Internet:

It is apparent that I have been somewhat delinquent in keeping this blog up-to-date.  I'd apologize, but A) I'm not sure who I'm really apologizing to, and B) I'm not sorry.  I've been busy, getting a PhD and all. 

It's not that I haven't been travelling-- far from it.  Since the last voyage mentioned here (to Glacier National Park in 2012), I've been in and around Santiago, Chile; tootling through the French Alps (including Aix-Les-Bains, Annecy, and Chamonix); catching fish (and experimenting on them) in the astoundingly beautiful San Juan Islands of Washington State; and skiing and sciencing in Aspen, Colorado this past January.  Add in a trip to Vancouver, a trip or three to Montreal, and uncountable quick jaunts down to Los Angeles, and I feel like I've spent more time on buses, trains, and planes over the past two years than in the rest of my life combined.  However, there's no burnout in sight, at least not yet.

I'm writing now from a beautiful old library in Liverpool, England, one week into several months of traveling I'll be doing this summer-- covering Oslo, Liverpool, Dublin, Pisa, Cinque Terre, Florence, Rome, Livorno, Corsica, Nice, Panama City, and the Panamanian Pacific coast.  Now seemed as good a time as any to revive Globetrotting to share my impressions and imaginings with whomever might want to tune in.  That said, there's no way I'll be able to write about all the adventures I've had from 2012 up to now!  The next entry will be from Oslo.  However, I did find a draft, unfinished post of the second portion of our journey to GNP, in which you'll hear about Quaker weddings, local trout, and mountain goats.  Read on if you're interested-- otherwise, tune in in a day or two to hear about Oslo!


Despite a rocky start, our trip to Glacier National Park turned out to be one of the most beautiful and memorable experiences that I've been fortunate enough to have. We attended K and M's wedding in high style with our TJ Maxx ensembles-- in fact, the dress I wore that day is still one of my favorites, a year and a half later.  The Quaker ceremony was beautiful, brief, and simple.  The bride was luminously beautiful, and the joy on the groom's face when he saw her was unforgettable. There was no officiant; instead, guests were invited to share their experiences of the bride and groom and wish them well.  Each guest signed the beautifully hand-calligraphed wedding certificate as a witness to the marriage.  There was a strange and unified emotion among the disparate guests as we watched them watch each other... it's impossible to describe in words, and harder still if you don't know the couple.  If you combine the "oh, of course" you get when someone states the obvious, and combine that with the comfortable feeling of coming home after a long journey, you may be getting close to the mark.

The reception, replete with local beer, local trout, local beef, and local mountain air, was the perfect complement to the heart-stirring ceremony.  From the historic inn's wrap-around porch, we danced and watched the stars come out in the summer sky over the peaks of the park.  The combination of warm air and full bellies soon sent us to bed, excited by the prospect of exploring the park the next day.

And explore we did!  We had gone into the park on the morning of the wedding to Lake McDonald, with its multicolored stone beaches and crystalline water.  However, today's mission was to conquer the famous Going-To-The-Sun Road, which climbs roughly east-west through the park from its south entrance (near our hotel) to its east entrance, near the town of St. Mary.  On the way, there are near-constant views of sculpted stone and open blue sky.  We stopped constantly to take pictures, highlights being Logan's Pass (where we looked down into a beautiful valley, the trail down to which was barred due to recent grizzly sightings) and the completely unperturbed wildlife-- deer, birds, ground squirrels, and mountain goats.

Going-to-the-Sun Road: typical view

GNP also forms half of the Waterton International Peace Park, which goes across the border into Canada!

Stunning mountains

California Ground Squirrel

Beautiful but beware of bears

Mountain goats.  Yes, they were that close to us.  They just didn't care.

Narrow path which we hiked-- to the left is a sheer dropoff

The fast-disappearing glaciers of Glacier National Park

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Crown of the Continent-- Glacier National Park (part 1)

Slowly making my way out from under the pile of unwritten blog posts!  My goal is not to be more than a year behind.  Last summer, after visiting a lovely lakeside cottage in Québec (and visiting my own family in Pennsylvania), I was able to visit one of the most breathtaking and majestic areas in the continental U.S.: Glacier National Park. The park actually crosses the Canadian border and is known as the Waterton-Glacier International Peace Park (also a World Heritage site).  This is only the third national park I have visited (after Yellowstone and Yosemite), and it is well worth your vacation time.  Visit soon, though-- the park's actual glaciers are quickly disappearing due to the advent of global climate change, and are predicted to disappear completely by 2030.

Our visit to Glacier was precipitated by some truly lovely friends of ours, K and M.  Two years before, at a potluck on the balcony outside of my apartment, K and M had met and quickly grown to love each other-- after five months, they were engaged.  Of their many shared interests, their joy in exploring nature led them to plan a wedding at Glacier, inviting their friends and family to experience the park with them.  The day before the wedding, JM and I flew from Pennsylvania to Spokane, Washington.  Though Spokane is 5 hours' drive from GNP, it is one of the closest major airports; to fly into Kalispell, Montana, would have cost an extra $200-300 each!  So we Pricelined a car from the Spokane airport, thinking to drive and enjoy the scenery on our way.  However, when we arrived in Spokane, we found that our luggage had not deigned to follow us.  This presented a slight problem-- all our clothes for the wedding the following day were in our checked bags.  Our flight was late getting into the airport, as well, making it impossible to get to our hotel before the front desk closed.

After some anger and frustration with airline personnel, who insisted that they could not get our bags to Spokane before the next day, let alone to GNP in time for the wedding, we managed to get our car from the rental company.  We had ordered a "special" car, which meant that we paid for a compact car but would receive whatever they had available, potentially getting a great deal.  Indeed, we received a big SUV for the price of a compact!  Thinking ourselves clever, we loaded our things with plenty of room to spare-- only then did we realize that the lower gas mileage of the SUV would actually end up costing us much more in the long run than if we had actually received a compact or economy car.  Sigh.

After a speed stop at TJ Maxx for some clothes and toiletries (including wedding clothes), and a slightly longer stop for dinner, we finally got on the road to GNP at about 6pm (four hours later than we had intended).  The mountain- and forest- speckled drive was quite pleasant, especially around Coeur d'Alene in Idaho.  However, as we crossed state lines, we realized that we had forgotten about the one-hour time difference between Spokane and Glacier, putting our arrival time at midnight instead of 11pm.  Well, we thought-- how much worse could it be?

A lot worse, as it turns out.  Though we made good time and did indeed arrive at our hotel at about midnight, we had a spot of trouble searching for our room.  We looked for ten minutes before JM discovered that the innkeeper had left us instructions on the back of the envelope with our keys; we were in an entirely different building.  Finally, we arrived at the door to our room, only to find that the key didn't turn in the lock.  JM wiggled it carefully; still no luck.  Applying a little more force, he attempted to unlock the door... and the key broke off in the lock.

I won't lie; JM is lucky to be alive.  I almost killed him right there.  We stood for a moment in shock.  Then, before I could explode, he went for the last-ditch effort of knocking on the door to the main office and calling the telephone there, knowing full well that no one would be awake or within earshot.  However, by a stroke of incredible luck, the innkeeper's apartment was next to the main office.  An older woman in a flowery nightdress shambled over to meet us, took one look at the broken key in JM's hand, and said vaguely "ah, yes, it does that sometimes."  She then pulled a pair of pliers and another key from a drawer and handed them to us sleepily.  Still stunned at our good fortune, we tried the second key, which turned smoothly in the lock.  We thanked the innkeeper profusely and stumbled, at long last, into our room with its waiting bed (after what had almost certainly qualified as a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad day).


More to come (not terrible or horrible, but beautiful, joyful, and full of grandeur and storybook scenery)-- stay tuned!

 Lake MacDonald, Glacier National Park

 JM, searching for the perfect stone to skip

 Footprints on the beautifully multicolored, pebbly beach

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

La Belle Province

Please have patience as I update this blog with the many adventures I have had over the past year, which span three continents and five countries.  I hope to write about them soon!  Also, I will use only first initials here on out to protect the privacy/online identity/googleability of the persons mentioned.


Last summer I had a chance to visit the beautiful province of Québec, Canada.  My French (and my cooking) improved by leaps and bounds--thanks in no small part to my boyfriend's mom, C.  We spent an idyllic week on Lac Ouareau (wah-ROH), near the village of St-Donat in the Laurentian mountains, about two hours north of Montréal.

As we drove away from the city-slick area around the airport, the surroundings were surprising in their foreignness.  Signs whizzed by on the side of the highway, and I tried to read and comprehend them before they vanished behind us.  Restaurant chains both familiar (Poulet Frite de Kentucky, or PFK) and strange (St. Hubert) were visible in the golden afternoon light.  All the while, a subtle increase in the colors among the wildflowers in the median signalled the approach of a new flavor of serenity.  We arrived in St. Donat via winding country roads that were not dissimilar to the ones that I grew up with in rural Pennsylvania, but with a few unexpected variants... when I asked about the odd metal tent frame that appeared outside almost every house, JM explained to me that it gets so cold here in the winter, people need roofed structures to keep the snow and ice off of their cars so that they can start them in the mornings.  We arrived at their family cabin after less than two hours, but it already seemed to be a lifetime away from the hustle and bustle of city life.

The "cabin" was anything but-- replete with twelve bedrooms scattered over two mirror-image wings, one could almost get lost trying to find the kitchen.  A sunroom and living room overlook a sloping backyard and a thin slice of Lac Ouareau, most of which is blocked from view by a thick line of trees.  The living room in the other wing serves as a game room, and the opposite kitchen has become JM's father's workshop.  The building used to house botany students during summer classes or fieldwork; there are numbers on the doors, and each small bedroom has its own sink.  A pathway through the trees at the edge of the yard leads to a long dock and a gravel beach, on which is perched an orange catamaran sailboat.  Everything is surrounded closely by dense forest, as if the house and yard were simply dropped into a small clearing.  Though other houses surround the lake, isolation is the word of the day.  It is a truly beautiful spot.

My family's idea of "vacation" usually involves a beach and a book (or in my case, a stack of them).  Days are passed quietly, sunbathing and swimming, perhaps walking along the shore.  Not so with JM's family.  Over the course of a week, there was hiking, biking, swimming, boating, tennis, and more; no one could sit still while there was daylight to be had.  My mind-- and my legs-- worked hard trying to keep up.  As the sun set, however, the family finished each whirlwind day in the sunroom with a good meal, a bottle of wine, and conversation that often lasted late into the night by flickering candlelight.  Dinner was followed not infrequently by a game of darts, glass of whiskey in hand.  With good spirits, we bid one another good night and retired to bed, where the pitch darkness and utter silence lulled me to sleep.  Each day held new adventures, but not before the morning ritual of jumping into the chilly lake before breakfast!

My time in St Donat was idyllic, peaceful, and restorative-- all the things you could want a vacation to be! I hope to return this summer for an encore.

(I also got to spend a little time in the suburb of Montréal where JM grew up, though I didn't see the city-- hopefully someday I will see the city itself!)

The cabin in St Donat

"Une suisse" (the colloquial French word for chipmunk-- I wonder how the actual Swiss feel about that?)

On a hike overlooking a network of lakes in the area

Father and son

My birthday began with mimosas on the dock and ended with lobster and chocolate cake :)

La famille

JM's parents, C and C

On a bike ride in a national park near the cabin

My first taste of poutine!

Beautiful Québec

Monday, January 21, 2013

(mis)adventures in backpacking, part two.

The next day dawned full of promise, the rising sun casting its golden rays across the serene alpine meadow.  The cool, fresh air seemed to sing with seductive invitation, beckoning us towards the distant mountains.  A speckled fawn drank cautiously from the river, unaware of our presence.

I'm just kidding.  The next day didn't bring anything but heat and even more mosquitoes than there'd been the previous day.  They were swarming around the tent-- perhaps sensing our body heat, or maybe our fear.  We looked around in horror, and decided that we would try to pack up as quickly as possible and get out of this demonic meadow.  As soon as we left the tent, they were in our eyes, our mouths, our hair, and all over our things.  We grabbed our stuff (including our pitifully hung bear-bag) and hightailed it out of there, slowing for neither breakfast nor a proper packing job.  With paraphernalia stuffed into all corners of our packs, we scrambled out of the meadow and up a steep hill, where we reasoned the mosquitoes would relent at higher altitude.  And relent they did-- but not because of altitude, temperature, or any other factors we'd hoped would keep them at bay.  Though the bugs weren't too bad while we were moving, stopping to rest for more than two minutes brought the swarms back onto our heads (and everything else).  After an hour of hard climbing and vain attempts to escape the tiny terrorists, we ran into another couple of hikers coming from the opposite direction.

"You don't want to go that way," I cautioned them.  "The mosquitoes are just terrible."

"They're terrible everywhere," one said grimly.  "We just came from Gem Lake and we hid in our tent all night."  The other nodded in assent.

...well, shoot.

Gem Lake had been our next destination, where we were hoping to be able to relax and recover (and eat!).  The news carried by our fellow mosquito-sufferers was the last straw.  After a brief discussion (brevity necessitated by the angry swarms that quickly found us), we turned back and moved out the way we came.  It took us about five very unpleasant hours to leave the bugs behind.  The scenery was truly majestic, and I tried to appreciate it-- but all I was thinking about was getting OUT. OF. THERE.  Soon we arrived at Camp Lake again, where the mosquitoes were just barely tolerable.  We cooled our feet and lamented our failed expedition before hiking the last hour back to the car.

As soon as we got to the car, we remembered that we were nearly out of gas.  Wondering whether the universe would see fit to heap more misery upon us, we started the car, praying that we'd be able to make it to the main road.  And make it we did, coasting with the car in neutral for most of the drive.  We filled up and stopped, utterly exhausted, for a late lunch-- our first food of the day.  For a while we toyed with the idea of finding another campsite for the night, since we still had the car for another day.  However, the memory of the incredibly hostile Emigrant Wilderness was still too strong.  Beaten and battered, we finally admitted defeat.

In the end, we salvaged the trip-- we decided to drive west until we hit the coast, and find a place to stay there.  We ended up at a tiny bed and breakfast in Stinson Beach, only about 45 minutes away from Berkeley.  I don't think a hot shower ever felt so good.  We found a local bar and ate fish tacos while the locals and their dogs gossiped on the front porch; eventually we hauled our weary bones into bed.

The following day was the last of our three-day weekend, and instead of spending it hunkered down in a tent or fighting off thousands of bloodthirsty airborne savages, we took a leisurely stroll through Stinson Beach's small downtown and drove up the coast until we found a beach that was warm enough to sit for a while (no easy task-- contrary to popular belief, California's beaches aren't all like Malibu.  In northern CA, beaches are cold, foggy, and windy most of the time).  The sunshine slowly eroded the memory of our backpacking debacle, and we returned to Berkeley in triumph.

It's interesting how we purport to have such respect for nature; we prepare to the point of absurdity for its vagaries in temperature, weather, and geography.  We even take precautions against megafauna like bears and wildcats, as much for their sake as for ours, and we try to avoid damage even to plant life.  However, we often forget to be respectful of Mother Nature's smallest denizens, even though they have the power to make our lives utterly miserable.  I haven't lost my desire to do "real camping;" in fact, oddly enough, I think I'm more excited than before.  However, next time you can be sure I'll bring some mosquito netting.



stay tuned for a story of our next backpacking excursion, which was every bit as wonderful as this trip was horrendous!  I'll try to post about it here (though I have a couple of other stories to tell first).

Stinson Beach aerial view (from the internet)

Dillon Beach (from the internet)

Friday, September 7, 2012

(mis)adventures in backpacking, part one.

I don't usually blog about non-international travel (hence the woefully long hiatus between posts). I feel that it's a slippery slope from these sorts of posts to interminable exhibitionism and self-aggrandizing shouts into the unsympathetic ether-- that is, the modern online world.  However, sometimes my travels within California seem as foreign as those to other continents.  Sometimes they seem even more so.  This story in particular simply begged to be shared... so I will write of it cautiously, and ask all of you to hold me accountable in the event that I slide into twittering, instagramming, or anything else of the sort.

It all started weeks ago when JM was nagging at me to find a time in my schedule when we could go camping, just the two of us.  We'd done it a lot last summer, after we'd first started dating, and I admitted that I missed the time alone together and away from civilization.  I'd also been looking for an opportunity to try out "legitimate" camping-- away from campsites, water taps, and even the most primitive of toilets.  Many of my friends regularly go backpacking in various gorgeous areas of California; it's so common that I felt ashamed to confess that I'd actually never gotten past car camping, which is typically disparaged as "not real camping."  Determined to rectify this, I headed to REI and got myself a REAL backpack that could hold 60 liters of gear, together with a few other things we deemed necessary.  We pored over the internet to find the perfect spot, watching videos on how to bag your food so the bears can't get it, reading articles about the Leave No Trace principles.  JM, though he'd done one or two backcountry trips, was not very experienced in it either.  That was probably mistake number one.

Mistake number two was my insistence that I could not miss crew practice on Saturday morning.  We had an important race coming up, and I was adamant that we could not leave on Friday (or indeed until 9am on Saturday).  So at 9am on Saturday, JM picked me up from the boathouse, our small rented car stuffed with food and gear.  What I hadn't anticipated was that I'd be bone tired and soaking wet from a tough workout.  I spent the three-hour drive east stripped down trying to dry out-- forget about napping.

At around noon, we reached the Summit Ranger Station at the border of Emigrant Wilderness.  We'd chosen this spot, a 170-mile-patch just north of Yosemite, for its majestic scenery, tolerance of campfires, and for its lack of a quota for campers (we couldn't be bothered to reserve beforehand). Plus, it was free!  The ranger asked us for our tentative plans; we stabbed at a few random areas of the map, which he duly wrote down.  He commented that we were coming at a good time; the mosquitos weren't too bad, it shouldn't be too hot, there shouldn't be too many people.  Excited, we drove the next eight miles or so into the wilderness.

Mistake number three: we passed a gas station just before the ranger station, at which JM had decided NOT to stop.  As we neared the edge of the wilderness, I glanced over at the gas meter-- it was below empty.  Apparently, he'd misjudged the amount of gas the little car would need to climb all those hills.  At this point, we were almost at Crabtree trailhead; I was furious, but there was nothing for it but to go ahead with our plans.  We slathered on sunscreen and bug spray, hitched up our packs, and strolled off into the horizon.

The first few hours were actually quite pleasant, though the hills were steeper and the terrain more broken than I'd expected.  The heat, though intense, was tolerable, and the scenery powerful and majestic.  We made our way past Camp Lake, Lily Pad Lake, and started the descent into Piute Meadow, with only a modicum of wrong turns and short tempers.  As we approached a small stream, we noticed a sharp increase in the number of mosquitoes.  We attributed this to the approaching dusk; however, after my morning row, the six miles we'd already hiked was as much as I could handle.  We figured the bugs would pass, and we started scouting for a campsite somewhere in the meadow.  The mosquitoes got worse and worse as time passed by, seeming to take no notice whatsoever of our 40% DEET (mistake number four was not springing for 100% DEET-- fear? squeamishness?  I don't know).  Eventually, the mosquitoes got so bad that there was nothing for it than to pitch our tent and hide until they went away.

...but they didn't go away.  The incessant high-pitched drone of the bloodthirsty little savages was a constant reminder of what would happen the moment we unzipped our tent.  We napped miserably until full darkness fell-- probably 10pm-- and only then could we venture out.  Even then, a bunch of them were still hanging around; we had to light a campfire to smoke them out.  We cooked some rice pasta and added pesto and sardines, not thinking about the fact that it would make both our mess kits smell and taste like sardines for the rest of the trip.  After cleaning up, we realized Mistake Number Five: only about half of our food fit in the bear canister we'd borrowed from a friend.  I'd wanted to pack it before we headed into the wilderness, but JM convinced me that the canister was so big that there was no way we wouldn't be able to fit everything.  Bears aren't supposed to be a huge problem in Emigrant, but I didn't want to take any chances and insisted that we hang the bag in a tree.  However, the only trees nearby were pines.  With their high density of branches, most of which were close to the trunk (i.e. NOT effective for bear bagging), it took us close to 45 minutes to sling our rope over a high enough branch, haul it up, and tie it properly (we used the PCT method).  Cranky, tired, and dirty, we went to bed, planning to get out of this seemingly cursed meadow as fast as possible and find a better campsite the next day.


(All photos are from the interwebs... I was too busy swatting mosquitoes to take any myself)

A sample of the majestic scenery of Emigrant Wilderness

Camp Lake (the first lake we encountered)

Piute Meadow.  Only death awaits you here.

Lily Pad lake-- actually quite lovely.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

A Lot of Bridges (Italy part the third)

I have only a few sketchy details in my journal from my final days in Italy, over a year ago now.  In the interest of completeness, I'll post these before going on to some (relatively) more recent adventures!


On my last day in Udine, I had breakfast with a British professor named Bernard, who had a dry wit and a skeptical attitude that came out in some almost hostile questions after the not-so-solid talks.  Bernard played the bassoon in an amateur orchestra in Germany (?), which I believe was where he worked.  Before heading over to the conference, I walked a few blocks north to withdraw more cash from the ATM, but on my way there I was stopped by two tiny Italian women, who immediately started chattering at me.  I understood enough to know that they were asking if I believed in Jesus (it helped that they were offering me what looked an awful lot like Italian tracts).  Relieved that this was all it was, I assured them in broken Italian that yes, I did.  Either this didn't satisfy them or my Italian was just too bad, because they looked concerned and just kept talking.  "Christian?" I offered.  No response.  "Presbyterian?"  Still no reaction.  One last try.  "Presbyteriano...?"  All smiles.  "Ah, Presbyteriano!" they said.  They smiled and waved me on my way.

The last few talks were concluded by noon; pasta salad and promises to keep in touch were shared by all.  I packed my things and walked down to the train station, where I was supposed to meet the two Swedes with whom I'd be travelling... the previous day, I'd found a great deal on an apartment in the heart of Venice, which-- shared among three people-- came out to about 30 euro per night per person.

Despite getting lost in Udine on the way to the train station, I managed to find Karl, Mathias, and Marian, another young-ish conference attendee who was heading to Venice for a few days.  On the train ride, we passed breathtaking mountain scenery, and not one but several castles.  Marian stayed in a hostel somewhere in Venice; we proceeded to Santa Croce, in the heart of the city, away from the biggest tourist traps.  After several twists and turns, we emerged in a sunny side street, where cheerful flowerboxes poked out of every window.  We retrieved our keys from the landlord, and settled in to our fully equipped, nicely furnished apartment (see pictures below)!  We couldn't believe our luck.

From here my journal goes into even less detail; I can only assume that I was having far too much fun to scribble everything down.  I ate gelato sitting on the railing of the Rialto Bridge, with a big goofy grin on my face.  I ate pasta full of clams and mussels in a back-alley place called Al Nono Risorto, where some semi-celebrity teen sports team was celebrating a win (they looked like American fratboys, with popped collars and fauxhawks).  I ate a tiny baby octopus covered in breading and oil.  I ate chocolate croissants every day for breakfast. I ate handmade tagliatelle pasta with spider crab in a delicate white cream sauce, seated under a canalside grape arbor in the moonlight... light-as-air panna cotta with frutti di bosca and a demitasse of dark espresso for dessert.

Things not involving food: seeing a huge collection of artwork at a museum I can't remember, gaping at the interior of the Basilico San Marco, poking at relics in the Ducal Palace, and taking the ferry over to Murano, where we window-shopped for odd glass trinkets and took a walk through the island's glass museum (where the placards were in Italian, but the English translation cards were all missing).  I remember that on our last day in Venice, we kept encountering people running at top speed through the narrow streets; they looked like they were in some kind of race.  As the day went on, the runners grew thicker and thicker until it seemed like there were hundreds.  Finally, we followed the runners to an open plaza where there was a brass band and a big crowd waiting to welcome them to the finish line.  I can't be sure, but I think that the race was a fundraising effort for some kind of disease (much like the charity 5K runs that are common in the U.S.) and the objective was to cross (in a set order) all of the bridges in Venice.  And just so you know... Venice has a LOT of bridges.

And that's where my journal stops.  More must have happened-- I did get home, after all-- but I can't remember it, so I guess what happens in Italy stays in Italy.  I am very grateful for the opportunity to attend an international scientific conference, and for the chance to start a professional network with whom I can adventure around the world!

Our apartment: score!

Peeking out into the alleyway in Santa Croce

Canalside at sunset

Sitting on the Rialto Bridge

Breathtaking art, as is the norm in Venice

Some ancient version of the double bass

View from the top of St. Mark's basilica

Columns and Swedes

The rooftops of Venice

The Bridge of Sighs, turned into a giant billboard :(

i Gondolieri

on Murano, home of the glassblowers

Tiny glass orchestra; each figure was the size of a pinkie

Aperitivo, with spritz!

At least they admit it.

Just what I wanted!

At the Da Vinci museum

Leonardo dreams of his flying machine

Dessert on our last night-- delicious!