Our greyhound who defied the odds.  She made it around 14 laps of life and never gave up… even when we made the call, she was still struggling to continue the race.

MorganWe adopted Morgan, then on her fourth lap of life, in 2004 as a remedy for Merlin.  Unlike Merlin, Morgan was fearless and full of energy.  Originally known as “Ashley Sue” from her track days in Arizona, she won 7 of 50 races, and took second place in an additional 10 of those races.  She was fast and quirky.  Chase flying kites?  Check.  Bump up against our bed to wake us up in the morning?  Check.  Get in howling competitions with us (at below)?  Check.  Eat the cat shit out of the litter box?  Unfortunately, check (but at least it kept the litter changings to a minimum…).

They say that cats have 9 lives… Morgan must’ve been part cat (maybe it’s the proverbial “you are what you eat”?).  Let’s see: she’s charged head-first into a barbed-wire fence upon hearing a gunshot (with significant blood loss), her face has ballooned after snapping at a bee, and my parents almost had to scrape her off the Texas desert after 3 days of aimless wandering once she realized their drought-ridden ranch wasn’t entirely fenced in.

The motherly instinct

It was around lap 8 that Morgan really shined through though: enter our first child.  Despite having a blood-lust for rabbits and other small animals, she never once snapped at our kids or cat.  The kids could crawl all over her and after she’d had enough, she would just get up and move.  She had a very motherly instinct to all that was “family.”

Morgan in Brugge, BelgiumI’ll admit that after laps 10 and 11, she slowed down a little… but she continued strong in the backstretch.  She’s travelled from Arizona to New Mexico, to Savannah, to Prosecco Country (Italy), through der Fahzaland (Germany), Belgium, and finally to Her Majesty’s United Kingdom.  In fact, how often do you see a 13-year-old greyhound get the best of a rabbit?  Morgan did.  Multiple times… with cataracts and a loss of hearing.

I know she’ll be missed by all who knew her.  Especially by those that participated in her howling competitions.  A 14-lap race can take it out of you… I’m already sorely missing my nightly boisterous greeting of paws on my chest followed by a three-circle spin.

So, I’ve been away with work for two months.  Pam called.  Morgan had a 3-minute seizure and has had a poor time of controlling her bowels for about a week.  Three seizures later (after watching on Skype) and I couldn’t take it: it’s time.  The vets came… she was panting and unable to stand up (despite her best effort to do so)… but still pursuing her 14th lap…

… for a little while.  And I guess it wasn’t so much “the world” per se, as more of the contiguous United States (that’s everything excluding Hawaii and Alaska).

Mt Whitney as seen from the town of Lone Pine

I had 3 dehydrated meals left over from the Yosemite excursion, so why not attempt Mt. Whitney?  Besides, over the past few years I’ve been inspired by friends of mine: Rob and Gaza.

Procrastination pays off again…

… but only during off-peak season.  Unfortunately, to get the privilege to reward yourself with hypoxia requires at least 6 months of planning. The National Park Service only allows 100 day hikers (per day) and 60 overnight hikers (um, per day).  Unlike Yosemite, there are no walk-ins.  As you could imagine, weekends get the most visitors.  However, have a look over here and you’ll notice that not all who reserve actually show up.  Any no-shows on the day-of, and you can yoink their reservations… but unlike Yosemite, it get’s even better: they’re free!  The dudes that decided to not show up already paid for them, so you don’t have too!

The Whitney Zone: here's where you officially need "wilderness reservations"I saw the gamble and took it.  We arrived at the Permit Station just prior to 11am (when they figure out how many no-shows there are).  There were 4 for this Saturday.  Luckily, I think we were the only group looking to tackle the mountain through Saturday night.  So for the 3 of us, we scored free round-trip hypoxia tickets to Mt. Whitney.  A hearty “thanks” to whoever bought these for us by deciding not to show!  (Granted, it’s only a measly $15 per person).

Where We’re Going, We Don’t Need Trees…

The start of the "No Tree Zone"... it's "Moon Surface" from here on outThe hike starts from 8,500ft (above sea level).  The air is already thinning at this point; you may not notice it standing around, but start exerting some energy (like hiking a pack up a slope) and you’ll quickly find yourself short of breath with your heart racing.  The only way to beat this and maintain consistency is a slower and very deliberate pace.  I let my heart-thump and breathing set the pace, rather than push myself to some speed-walking record of taking 10 minute breaks for every hundred feet of climb.  The philosophy worked.  As we broke through the 11,000ft barrier (where the trees call “uncle” and cease to exist), not one soul had passed us, whereas we had passed multiple people and groups.

We were making pretty good time.  Our overnight destination was the Moon landscape of Trail Camp.  We’d looked at the weather prior to kickoff: clear, slightly below freezing, and 5mph winds at most.  For that reason, we left our tents behind.  It was gonna be under the stars for tonight!  We arrived at our overnight stop just before sunset:

Setting up Base Camp at Sunset

The site was just above 12,000ft.  I guess this way we figure out who gets altitude sickness and who doesn’t.  Luckily, we were all fine (minus Figo’s hands turning into a yellow rubbery mess for about 30 minutes).  As we laid everything out, we were surprised on just how much this place was an actual base camp… just look at all the tents!

Sleeping under the stars: setting up our base camp

It was an early rise for us to tackle Whitney, so we were in bed by about 7pm.  I wish I brought my camera for this adventure (I was using Figo’s Rebel and my iPhone for this post).  Throughout the night as I stared at the Milky Way, there would be stars snaking down from the top of the mountain.  It was really cool to see… what was really happening was that we were seeing the headlamps from hikers (that had probably taken sunset photos from Whitney) snaking their way down the mountain in the dark.  It was cold, too… maybe around 25°F.  I was decently comfy in my sleeping bag, but the thin air just seemed to bite at anything exposed (like my nose).

The Summit

Benjo then announced “it’s 4:30am, time to get up” (in my best Kiwi accent) and we started fortifying ourselves from the cold as we attempted to pack up camp and get a hot breakfast.  By 5:15am, we were on the trail being guided by our own headlamps snaking up the mountain.  Nighttime mountaineering can be great because ignorance is bliss: if you can’t see the sheer drop within 2 feet of you, then it was never there!  But after about 80-some switchbacks, the sun finally started to yawn above the horizon:

People from our Base Camp rising to the sun to scale Whitney... we already had a 1hr head start

Figo standing on an almost sheer dropoffThis was about the time the “way” became interesting.  Sheer drops, windows to 4,000ft below you and gorgeous views set the precedent for the last 2 miles to the summit of Whitney.  I definitely had my vertigo kick in (ie, the sense that the wind will blow you off of a cliff) with my forced response to suppress it.

A minor headache (probably from the altitude and exertion) later, and we were up the last 100ft of Mt. Whitney.  Now, I know Mt Whitney is pennies compared to “real” mountains, but you gotta start somewhere.  What blows me away is that Everest is twice the altitude of Whitney.  Twice!  But for the time being, I’ll relish in my small victory: reaching the highest place I’ve ever set foot on.

Standing at 14,505ft (or whatever they say Whitney is)

Ah, the finish line at last:

Mt Whitney from the top (L to R): Benjo, Figo, Snakeye

Figo (middle) says he’s achieved the highest Brit in America (for the 30 or so minutes we were there), along with his colonial slaves: New Zealand (Benjo) and USA (me).  Whitney may have claimed our lungs, but she’ll never take our… ughh.  OK.  So, here I am to prove this isn’t made up:

Mt Whitney conquered

It’s just too bad I couldn’t get to Death Valley within the remaining 6 hours to score the highest and lowest points in the continental United States within the same day.  But stats aside?  I feel extremely gratified with this weekend.  Thanks all for the inspiration.

Mountaineering Take 3.  Last Spring I attempted to reach two destinations: Honeymoon Lake and Telescope Peak.  I reached neither of them due to some unsafe snow conditions.  Mountains 2, Snakeye 0.  Eight months later, I chose Yosemite to snap my losing streak.

Researching where to go in Yosemite proved to be a challenge, due to a lot of it already being closed in mid-October and a forest fire on the western edge of the park.  Furthermore, Half Dome (what Yosemite is famous for) is great and all, but I like to steer clear of crowds and enjoy a oneness with nature when I backpack.  In researching, I came across this not-as-well-known mountain peak that overlooks Half Dome: Cloud’s Rest.

Cloud's Rest from afar

That’s where I wanted to go!

The Logistics of getting Overnight Reservations

The problem: in order to backpack overnight, you need reservations (which are limited in number)… and you have to provide the trailhead you want to start on and where your first overnight stay will be.  To submit reservations ahead of time (people apparently do this months in advance, unlike my measly 3-day notice), you either phone them in, fax them in, or snail-mail them in.  Everytime I called (which is what I wanted to do so I could ask questions) no one would pick up the phone… so now to the fax, only the fax machine number was always busy.  Oh, and in addition to the reservation issue, a raging fire has knocked out some of the western areas of the National Park.  Without being able to phone for information, I wasn’t sure how this would affect my plan.

My gamble: Yosemite also takes a limited number of “walk in” reservations on a first-come, first-serve basis.  During the Spring and Summer, these are pretty hard to secure since it’s the peak of tourism at Yosemite.  But it’s mid-October on the last weekend that hiking trails are officially open, so there may not be much of a crowd there.  Then again, it’s also a 3-day weekend (Columbus Day), so maybe it’ll be jam-packed with people leaving me with no hope of a reservation.

After waffling on the fence for a bit, I just decided the only way I was going to find out was to get in a car and head up to Yosemite as early as possible on Friday.  By this time, interest had generated amongst some of the guys I worked with: Benjo of course was in, but three others wanted in as well.  I had suggested they could car camp while Benjo and I did a little backpacking (since they were ill-prepared in the gear department).  In the end, we found a place that rents gear and got everyone outfitted.  On Friday morning, the five of us piled into the van and headed 4 hours north to Yosemite (hoping and praying that I would be able to get these reservations last-minute).

The gamble worked.  We showed up around 1pm (they say to get there at 11am to be first in line to secure these first-come, first-serve wilderness passes), and though we didn’t get the trail that I had originally hoped for, we still scored passes for a group of 5 on the next trail over (adding maybe 7 additional miles of hiking).  Score one five for Snakeye!

This seems to be a reoccuring theme in my travels (such as Santorini): go during off-peak periods and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

The Onslaught

Yosemite BackpackingWe arrived at the trailhead around 3pm with the goal to make it the 10 miles into camp by sunset.  It was gonna be tight.  With high spirits we started, and were almost immediately greeted with a 1600-foot climb to 10,000ft as a welcome-to-Yosemite reality check.  My lungs weren’t quite used to the high altitude yet, so the trek was hindered by a few catch-your-breath and water stops.  I tried to make my stops where I could kill two birds with one stone: catch my breath and take some pictures of the awesome landscape.

Overlooking Cathedral Lake (from L to R): Figo, Kupsie, Snakeye, Jim

Regardless, things seemed great until around the 6-mile point.  It was at this point that I could feel my pack start to dig into my shoulders and my legs getting tired.  As per usual, Benjo scouted ahead and came back with the great news that we only had about ¾ mile left.  Ok!  That lifted the spirits and gave my legs a bit more energy.  Benjo led the way and about the point where you see “Sunrise” at the junction (at right on the map), Benjo went off path and proclaimed “we’re here!”.

Snakeye on the John Muir Trail in YosemiteUhhh… we were surrounded by abandoned campsite buildings… this wasn’t it, we were supposed to be staying by some lakes.  We were all pretty trail-weary at this point, and after consulting the maps, I had to break it to the guys that we still had 1½ miles to go with an uphill ascent (of course, I only said “1 mile to go” to prevent a mutiny).  So press on we did.

This was the point where I swear the weight of my pack doubled!  I found myself taking even more rest breaks with morale being inversely proportional to every uphill step I took.  The only thing that kept me going was knowing that it was only a mile.  The sun was setting fast and as we neared the peak of the trek to the lakes, we became shrouded in twilight darkness with the temperatures plummeting.  Had I not known the lakes were less than ½ mile away, I would’ve stopped right then and there to set up camp for Operation Stay Warm.  But there were the lakes below!

We set up camp at 9,400ft in a field near the eastern-most of the lakes in the twilight of dusk (which by the way, is the least populated lake of the Sunrise Lakes… there were only two other people there the first night, and we were alone the second night!).

Our campsite on the eastern-most Sunrise Lake in Yosemite on night 1

Our legs hurt, we were tired, and a few of the guys were getting the chills.  We hung out long enough to get some hot rehydrated meals and a glass of hiked-in wine before heading to the tents for bed.

The sleeping bag liner I purchased prior to this trip was a touchdown.  I was able to sleep in my underwear (which is what’s comfortable for me when I sleep) without getting too chilled… but after I got up around 2am to drain the lizard while barefoot outside, my feet were never able to get warmed up again.  And then I found out from Benjo in the morning: it dropped to about 15°F overnight.  That would explain the ice-shield on the screens of my tent (by my feet, in particular).

One way to keep your feet warm with rehydrated camp foodAt this point, I think the guys were still a little miserable from the cold and lack of sleep (though someone was snoring away, and it certainly wasn’t me… though Figo would argue this from the second night).  Like at dinner, we rehydrated some breakfast meals… I don’t know what the dudes were more stoked for: the hot meal or “heat pads” to warm up their extremities (at right).

Cloud’s Rest

We hid our tents behind a bunch of rocks to lighten our loads to Cloud’s Rest.  As the sun came up, we hit the trail to find out that the two other lakes (that comprised the Sunrise Lakes) were packed full of hikers (the western-most one, closest to the Tenaya Lake Trail [again, see map] had probably up to 30 people camping out along its rim!).  With a lightened pack consisting of food, water and a camera, this 5.1-mile one-way hike wasn’t nearly as difficult as the hike inbound the night prior.  In fact, before we knew it we were at the trailhead for Cloud’s Rest (whose trail isn’t even ¼ mile long!):

Cloud's Rest Trailhead

The Trail to Cloud's RestThe challenge with Cloud’s Rest isn’t the climb, it’s the heights.  To be honest, I think it’s a semi-easy trail.  But there’s a point where you have about 3 feet on either side of you and then a sheer drop off, which I forcefully had to suppress my vertical “fight or flight” instinct.  If you stand up straight, I swear it makes you dizzy.  With a good gust of wind, you’ll find yourself holding onto the trail like you were riding a mechanical bull and inching your way up from there!

But once you get to the top, you almost get a God’s eye view of everything that makes Yosemite “Yosemite”.  It’s beautiful… in fact, the four Brits I dragged along with me agreed that this was probably the coolest sight they’ve seen in their lives.

A view of Half Dome from Cloud's Rest

Finally: Mountains 2, Snakeye 1… the streak is snapped!  The conquerors? From left to right: Jim, Snakeye, Kupsie, Figo and Benjo.

The Final Night and RTB

Yes, since we stashed away our tents for a lighter load, we camped in the same place as the previous night. Only this time I found a slab of rock on a cliff overlooking the lake to set up my tent (way more style points…):

Tent from the ledgeTent from the Lake

Also, because of the 2014 Freeze Out from the previous night, we decided to spark up a fire. Now, I know there are fire restrictions from 9,600ft and up, and because of the drought, 6,000ft and below… leaving 6,001ft to 9,599ft for a sensible fire.  We took advantage of that little window by finding a previously used “pit” on the rocks nearby at 9,400ft.  I must say, compared to the first night sans fire, this night was was much more jovial (and it only got to 32ºF).

Campfire in Yosemite

And with Fire-TV and Jim spinning some tunes on his iPod setup, the gathering went well into the night…

Fire TV: the only way to pass time in Yosemite

The way back the next morning?  Well, we knew the trail by this point, so it was rather uneventful.  Three to four hours later found us at the van ready to go back with sore legs and blistered feet.  Was it trying?  Perhaps in a few circumstances.  Was it epic?  Absolutely!

You can’t live in England without a trip to Stonehenge… at least as a visitor; half the indigenous that I work with have never seen Stonehenge!  It’s a place kinda like Pisa, Italy: you go to see the big attraction (the leaning tower) and that’s about it.  So to Stonehenge we went.

The site has been around for about 10,000 years.  10,000 years!  The site mind you, not the stones… the stones are only a paltry 5,000 years old.  I honestly think this is the oldest manmade thing I’ve ever laid my eyes on.  5,000 years ago as the stones were pulled along from a quarry 25 miles away, the human population was 15 million (to put this in perspective, this is the double the amount of people that live in New York City today… spread throughout the world, not NYC).  So in this area of ‘Stonehenge’, the population probably numbered a few thousand at best spread out amongst a bunch of little villages.  That’s the number of people that live in the current town of Olney, Texas.  Unless you live there, you’ve never heard of it… and there’s a reason why: it’s only 3,000 people strong!  This is a town where everyone knows everybody.  It just blows me away that the New York Cities of 2500 BC were only a few thousand strong… no wonder why families and genealogy was such a big deal back then!  Here’s a representation of their 2500 BC NYC flats:

The cave kids living 5000BC-style

So this small village of people got together and decided to build a cathedral of stones on the Salisbury plains.  They pulled the large stones from Marlborough, about 25 miles away, and the smaller stones from Wales, about 100+ miles away. Then they set up some sort of system to upright them and lift the top stones in place.  What’s cool, from a woodworker’s perspective, is that these cavemen used the mortise and tenon to attach the ‘roof’ to the ‘door frames’.  It got the name Stonehenge because in Medieval-speak, I guess “hang” (like by a rope) was spoken as “henge,” because of how the structure looked like a hanging gallows (or scaffold).  By the way, the monument really is larger than life.

The Snakeye's at Stonehenge

At this point in World time, Egypt had just decided to start building the pyramids.  The Parthenon of Athens was still another 2000 years out.

Throughout the ages, the ‘Henge has been well known.  During Medieval times, the peasants and nobility alike truly believed in some guy’s story of Merlin (that wizard guy that looked after King Arthur) putting Stonehenge there.  Around the 1700’s I think people started to wise up a little and call “bullshit,” but it wasn’t until pretty recently (like mid-1900’s) that people realized it was built by cavemen that actually lived on the island (rather than the Romans or some other continent-dwelling group).  Stonehenge in 1877What amazes me is apparently the structure was in pretty bad ruin by the time the 1900’s rolled around.  Stones had fallen over, others were teetering precariously and about to fall over.  So what you see today is not how the site was, say, 100 years ago.  Since then, archaeologists and philanthropists have been restoring the site back to how they believe it looked originally: righting the fallen stones, straightening the crooked ones, and concreting the ground underneath them to permanently set them in place!

Even with modern research and theories, no one really knows what the hell Stonehenge was used for, though the popular theory favors religious/astrologious (yeah, I know I made that one up) celebration.  And thanks to Kelly and Jim, as I walked around taking in the antiquity of the site, I couldn’t get this damn song out of my head:

Bearometer 6 yearsOf course, one of the reasons we went to Stonehenge was for our yearly Bearometer pilgrimage. We went “all in” with the idea that if we got there early enough, we could potentially avoid the crowds… it paid off.  We took some pretty good pictures and got to walk around in relative peace.  Brenden even got some ponder-time to figure out the meaning of Stonehenge:

When you’ve seen enough, there’s always Salisbury 8 miles down the road.  Pam and I were interested in checking out this town because of a mini-series we really enjoyed watching on Starz: Pillars of the Earth.  It’s a fictional, but semi-historically accurate (at least much more so than Braveheart) story about a stonemason that builds a cathedral in the made-up town of Kingsbridge during the 1100’s.  Of course, the mini-series is based off a book called Pillars of the Earth, which is a good read if you like the medieval time period.  Anyway, the cathedral the guy builds is based off the Salisbury cathedral (below).

The view of Salisbury, England from the fortress ruins of Old Sarum

I took that picture from a hill that’s about 2 miles away and overlooks the entire town.

Marissa shooting an arrow from Old SarumAn aside: this hill that I stood on for the picture, Old Sarum, was an Iron Age stronghold that the Roman’s took over and later, when William the Conqueror conquered, became a major strategic location for him and his armies. He built a stone castle with a moat as well as a cathedral.  The only problem?  Water was almost inaccessible from the hilltop.  So 200 years later, the dukes and lords that be decided to move the population somewhere water was more prevalent (like by a river or something).  The myth has it that they ordered their best longbowman to loose an arrow toward the river and wherever it landed would be the new location for the new cathedral and town.  So there you go… though Marissa and I, after many attempts to validate the myth, found it highly unlikely a longbow can shoot an arrow 2 miles away.

Other than it’s reference in Pillars of the Earth, the “new” cathedral (by the river this time) has a lot of other feats of accomplishment:

Salisbury Cathedral

  • It has the highest spire in all of England (which is sort of what Pillars was all about); this is pretty significant seeing that it was completed in 1258 and only took 38 years to build!
  • It has the oldest working clock built in 1358.  It doesn’t have a face and uses bells to tell the time, but to watch the naked metal gearing in action is cool… for at least a minute or two until you lose interest and move on.
  • It has on display the best-preserved copy of the original Magna Carta, only four of which are left in existence.  To us ignorant Americans, the Magna Carta was a “Constitution” that the lords and barons forced King John (you know, the evil guy in Robin Hood that teams up with that nasty Sheriff of Nottingham) to sign.  It’s “Amendments” include the right for due process for nobility (King John just can’t throw these rich guys in jail without a hearing), the guarantee of freedom for the English church, and my favorite: established the pint and quart as a standard of measure for one unit of beer or wine, respectively, to prevent merchants from ripping off people with their interpretations of what a pint was (see clause 35).  Just ingenious!

So to anyone out there looking to explore Stonehenge: there’s more to do and see in the area (that can even fill up an entire weekend) rather than wasting a round-trip taxi ride for an hour or two at the monument and heading back to London.

…but Pam deserves Sainthood (especially if I make it through this tale unscathed and unwrathed):

With company in for the weekend, we decided to travel down to Cambridge to go punting.  Cambridge is about a 2-hour drive south for us and since it was a nice sunny day, I wanted to ride the mighty cruiser down and back.  When we originally crafted this punting idea a week ago, Pam was all excited to have our company drive the kids in our car so she could hop on back with me.  Alas, the time came and she was a little daunted… in her defense, it has been a while.  So I rode down solo with two cars in tow, with the promise that she would make the return trip on back with me.

PuntingA Punt is a flat-bottomed boat the English like to travel around their rivers in, kinda like the Italian gondolas that populate Venice, except the English use poles that touch the bottom of the river to push the boat around.  Apparently it’s all the rage in Cambridge; we got there around 1pm and couldn’t get a punt until around 4:30.  To kill the time, we walked to the town center of Cambridge where Pam found a resupply depot for the voyage.  With two newly acquired bottles of Port, we were ready for whatever the river had to throw at us (which was apparently a tame meandering tour of the shorelines of 31 colleges that make up Cambridge University).  Ok, the architecture was cool along with the histories of the various colleges established by the royalty throughout the ages (like Henry the VIII and Queen Victoria).  This is great and all, but let me get back to the story at hand.

After a few glasses of Port (for Pam, not me – I stuck to water for this one), we walked back to the cars, Pam grabbed her biker-chick get-up, and we saddled up for the 2-hour trip home.  It, in itself, was quite enjoyable and as you can see, Pam was making the most of it:

Pam on the Bike
FacebookI think Pam was surprisingly comfortable from the get-go, as evidenced at right.  She went immediately from a hug on me, to resting her fingers on my hips, to updating her Facebook profile as we made our way back home.  After a 6-year break, I think she was back into the groove of seeing the world from the backseat of a motorcycle.  It really was quite uneventful… at least until we got to the last town prior to getting home…

So I pull up to a roundabout (aka traffic circle) and slow down to assess the traffic.  Nothing coming my way, so I accelerate.  Now I’m not talking pedal-to-the-medal, wheelie-type acceleration.  I’m just talking your average acceleration from a stop.  As I accelerated, I feel Pam’s fingers just kinda slide off.  Unusual to say the least.  But I also had this strange accompanying sensation of a slight weight being unloaded from the bike… so I stop in the roundabout to take accountability of what exactly it was that I had felt.

Lo and behold, about 5 feet behind the motorcycle, was Pam on the road, like a turtle turned over on its shell, with a complete look of shock on her face!  This was very fleeting though, because before I could shut the bike off, do anything, or even worry, Pam was up on her feet scurrying back onto the seat of the bike.  Since there were at least 3 cars behind us that witnessed the whole thing^Pam go down, I figured I’d evacuate her from the crime scene as quickly as possible to save what was left of her self-pride… after all, if she moved that quickly to get back on the bike, I’m pretty sure it was a positive indication that the only bruises received were those to her ego.  I pulled over in a parking lot a few minutes later to check her over; she validated my hypothesis… she was pretty embarrassed.

So now that we’ve joined the club, I’m in search of the obligatory t-shirt:

Fell off the bike shirt
(Sorry Pam, this was too good to pass up! You’re still a Saint.)

About a month ago, I received a tip-off from my buddy Magnum: if you want to get your airline pilots license, now’s the time to do it.

As of today, the rules have all changed.  There’s no military compensation… there’s no fast-tracking.  It’s now a mandatory 30 hours of ground school ($) and 10 hours in the simulator ($$), 6 of those being a 360º, full-motion simulator ($$$!).  Only after all of that can you take a written test and flying checkride.  I predict the damage to come out around $15,000 to get all that done.  Which puzzles me: the airlines are facing a shortage of pilots once all the baby-boomers retire (or so I’ve been reading in flying magazines)… so why make it more expensive for prospects to plug the holes?

Prior to 1 August all you had to do was study your ass off for a written test, then get a flying checkride within 2 years of the written test.  Even though the new rules have gone into effect, as long as you took your written test prior to 1 August, you’re grandfathered for your 2-year time limit for the checkride.

I bought some study material for the test in the beginning of July, hoping to get the test done by mid-July (room in case I tanked it, then I could sign up again prior to the 1 August deadline).  But me, being the procrastinator that I am, didn’t pick up the study materials until last Sunday.  I scheduled my test for July 30th… and then I crammed for about 3 hours every day (even on the day of the test!).  I haven’t felt like this since Grad School back in 2009.

Nervous?  Yes.  A tanked test today would mean $15,000 out of my pocket tomorrow.  I mean, I don’t know if I want to do the airlines or not.  To be honest, it’s probably one of the smarter things I can do: the government’s put a lot of training in me (money and time) to make me an ‘expert’ at flying, so why waste it by changing tracks to become a Walmart greeter? So really, it’d be stupid of me to not get the qualifications to keep future career doors open.

Anyway, I passed with an 84%.  So now, I have until July 2016 to get a checkride knocked out and then I’ll be airline-eligible!


So until I can join Iceman over at United Airlines, I’ll be shaving with my Mach 3 and practicing my best airline pilot’s voice: “Folks, please ensure your seat backs and tray tables are in their upright and locked position…”

Of all the possible places to visit, I think I’ve been the least enthusiastic about le France.  On Pam’s insistence however, I found myself behind the wheel of a fully loaded car barreling down le highways of France at 80 mph with scenes of NL’s European Vacation looping in my head:


On the 5-hour car ride to Tours, we desperately tried to teach the kids (and ourselves) basic French to not come across as typical American pigs. Words like “hello” (bonjour), “goodbye” (au revoir), “please” (si’l vous plaît), “thank you” (merci), and “I would like…” (je souhaite).  Pam and I went on, above and beyond, to learn essentials like “red wine” and “beer.”

To ensure it all stuck, we quizzed each other…

Me: Marissa, how do you say thank you?
Marissa: um, I dunno.
Me: Yes you do… Brenden, can you help her out?
Brenden: Marissa, remember it starts with an M and ends in an eeeee?
Marissa: hmmmmm…
Brenden: and it sounds like the play room when we play in it and Dad yells at us? It is…?!?!
Marissa: ummm… ummmm…
Me, baffled and unable to logically follow: Brenden, I don’t even know where you’re going with this… go ahead and tell Marissa the answer.
Brenden: It’s?!?!… MESSY!!!!
Marissa: oh yeah, ‘merci’!

Truth be told, I don’t have expectations that people from other tongues should auto-know English… it’s their country; I understand that.  But damn it!  I’m decently armed in Latin (to the point that I can get around… 4 years of schooling in Spanish, 3 years immersed in Italian), and French is impossible!  In Spanish or Italian, I could at least read the word, then say it phonetically in a Latin-sounding manner, and people would understand what I’m getting at.  Not so with the language of lovers.

In French, sounding out the word will shoot you in the foot and forever brand you a foreigner!  What the hell is the use of writing a word if that same spoken word has nothing in common with its written form?! Some examples:

Hors d’oeuvres
sounded out, as spelled: whores-doovres
spoken: or-derves
Quatre (the number 4)
sounded out, as spelled: kwa-treh 
spoken: cot (like what you sleep on… what the hell happened to the ‘tre’!)
Si’l vous plaît
sounded out, as spelled: sill-voos-plate
spoken: see-voo-play
Escargot
sounded out, as spelled: es-car-got
spoken: es-car-go (where’d the ‘t’ go?)

After three days, I think I’m catching on: take the last consonant (especially if it’s an ‘s’) of every word and just drop it.  Anyway, enough on the language. Bottom line: I didn’t experience the nightmare in National Lampoon’s European Vacation (at least, like them, I didn’t think I experienced it…).  The indigenous were rather polite and made an effort to communicate with me even if they didn’t know that much English.  Like the Griswold’s, Google Translate and a 3G connection on my phone were my hero.

As for the rest, the country is just stunning.  The roads and highway system rival the best I’ve ever driven on.  There’s no pot-holes, there’s ample shoulders… and unlike New Mexico and Italy, there’s absolutely no litter or graffiti lining the fences, overpasses, and fields.  Obviously, the $80 in tolls that we paid on the 300 miles went toward a little upkeep and national pride.  I don’t mind that at all.

French FoodThe food (the food that we found at random by walking around, ie: not looking it up on tripadvisor for scores) was excellent.  It was simple, flavorful, and filling (provided you spent the European 2-hours enjoying it).  I have to say, the stereotype that the French know how to cook and produce some of the best chefs is, in my opinion, true.  Our “average” French meal rivaled some of the best British meals we’ve had living a year or so in Britain, and some of the meals even brought me back to the simplicity of Italy.

To the right is an example of the standard French faire that I’m talking about.  Had this been British, the calamari would’ve been breaded and fried (or microwaved) and the sauce would’ve covered the entire meal in abundance, overpowering everything (à la Olive Garden).

I never saw frog legs on the menus, but we did order a dozen or so of the escargot.  Of this, admittedly, I felt rather guilty.  You see, the kids (Marissa, in particular) love snails.  They find them out in the yard and build houses for them out of rocks.  Marissa keeps them as pets and lets them slime all over her hands.  And then I ordered them as an appetizer and told the kids we were eating snails.  The initial reaction was that of forcing them to commit cannibalism.  After a pep talk about the poor snails, how they’re already dead (so we might as well eat them), and how the garlic makes them delectable, the kids expanded their horizons and were actually anxious to try them.

Brenden trying snailsMarissa trying snails

Both Tours and Ambois had a medieval portion of the ‘old’ city that was pedestrian-only.  We stuck to the restaurants with a view…

Old Town France

And speaking of the view, take a look at the architecture that we dined in front of in Tours (above)!  Just look at these old, overhanging timber buildings.  This was built in the 1400’s and 15oo’s, and they’re still standing and in use today!  Note the square, stacked tower and how it leans one way on one floor, and then leans the other way on the next.  I was truly impressed; this is the coolest old architecture I’ve seen in all my European travels.

Upon closer inspection, you’ll notice too that a lot of the timber framing has been intricately carved.

French Architecture

I’m used to this when I go into some old cathedral and there’s stone goblins and other artforms carved into the stone columns.  But stone is forever… wood, unfortunately, rots.  So I was amazed that 1) the French artisans actually took the time to carve the structural wooden beams that are exposed to weather, and 2) that they’ve lasted as many centuries as they’ve had!  Being a woodworker and having carved, I’m duly impressed!

The castles are always my favorite part.  I love medieval castles.  There’s just something cool and manly about the simplicity and utility of the medieval castle.  They’re basic, they did their job of protection, they were functional, they were utilitarian.  And then the Renaissance came about and screwed it all up.  Instead of being a symbol of might, the castle became a piece of distractingly busy artwork that just happened to house rich people.  All the castles we visited in France (all two of them!) were built in the Rennaisance.  Were they impressive?  Yes.  But after a room or two of cluttered paintwork and penisses, I quickly lost interest.  I don’t care about the ultra-details, tchotchkes, and clutter of Renaissance art in castle design.  I like the military history and sieges they’ve withstood.  In that respect, I admire the English castles that I’ve been visited more.

Chateau Chenonceau

Above is the second-most visited castle (the Palace of Versailles is #1) in France: Chenonceau. Again, impressive, but too busy and artsy-fartsy for me.  The most action this particular castle has seen is a Mexican stand-off between acknowledged  mistresses and knowing wives living in bedrooms attached to the master-suite, and a conversion into a hospital ward during the stalemated trench warfare of WWI.  Of general interest, this river was actually the line of demarcation between occupied France and French France during WWII.  So impressive? Yes.  Medieval? No.

Eiffel Tower PicnicKids in ParisAnd of course, what trip to France is complete without a visit to Gay Parí.  Truthfully, we almost skipped this (I could care less about big cities – countryside is where the true culture awaits to be explored). But because we talked it up so much, Brenden was hell-bent on seeing the Eiffel Tower.  So Pam made it fun by packing a picnic to eat in front of the Tower.  We were toying about going to the top of the Tower until we saw the amusement-park lines of tourists with that exact same thought on their minds.  A few pictures and five hours of loiter in Paris, and it was time to go.  Pam had a tinge of regret on not stopping by the Notre Dame Cathedral, but hey, after seeing one giant stone cathedral (like York Minster), they all start looking the same to me.  Also, I didn’t feel like putting the kids on a 4-mile trek (one way) to see it.

With that, we spent the night in Amiens, a city demolished during both World Wars and rebuilt twice from the aftermath, and made our way to the tunnel and back into England.

Overall, France ranks up there in my top 5 vacation spots.  That’s saying a lot, considering my low expectations going into this and how little I cared about going in the first place.  I’m amending my attitude: Paris? Meh, it’s another big city with unique attractions (ok, so I have the same attitude on Paris).  But the rest of France? A definite Snakeye fist-pump to visit.

HikeRunTelescopeOn my last day in California, I decided to take advantage of another nearby mountain: Telescope Peak. It’s the highest point, at roughly 11,000 feet up, that overlooks Death Valley.  To ensure I didn’t suffer the same fate as mountain camping (where we turned back because of excess snow), I did some preliminary scouting by flying over the peak.  The snow cover was minimal and just mostly on the cap.  So Benjo and I were off on another adventure to check it out.

Truthfully, I just wanted more high-altitude exposure to work the body and lungs with some rewarding views.  This time, I was delighted to find that the way up wasn’t as taxing as the previous weekend.  Then again, I didn’t have a rucksack while fighting through snow, but I think perhaps I’m starting to get used to the altitude?  I wish I could say the same for the mountain slope.  I never really thought myself afraid of heights (I used to skydive for crying out loud!), but there’s just something that brings on a panic-driven sobriety when you stand on the middle of a steep mountain looking down… a very, very long way down.  I don’t even think pictures do it justice to reproduce the feelings.  I guess it’s just a matter of repetitive exposure to gain confidence on mountainsides.

Death-Valley

Telescope PeakThat being said, I did notice that my panic factor was a little less than last time… until I neared the top.  Apparently snow from an aerial view doesn’t look nearly as bad as it is when you’re boots-on-ground in-person.  So the blue path (above) is where we hiked at a fast walking pace.  We never quite made it to the very top.  The last thousand feet or so were on a knife-edge with a ton of snow and ice.  And like I said, I’m still trying to get comfortable looking down at a 50° angle and seeing air instead of ground.  Benjo continued on a little bit, but even he said he was a little nervous and getting out of his element… and he’s experienced at this sort of shit!

In order to continue to get a workout on this whole hike, Benjo challenged me to run the way back.  So run I did.  The red path (above) is the run back.

Now, I know a few people that champion trail running.  I can see why to a certain extent.  You get a view with a workout.  But I found that about the only thing “running” and “trail running” have in common is that you need feet to do it.  Otherwise, it’s an entirely different experience.  It’s like comparing driving a Porsche to driving a semi with a load.  In running, you just go… you can have potentially sloppy technique/form with only a minor hit on speed (like driving the Porsche).  In trail running, you almost have to run on the balls of your feet to prevent any ankle rolls, you constantly have to apply the brakes downhill, and use 100% of your concentration on foot placement.  All of this combined probably cuts any running speed I may have to half (which is like driving a semi downhill or in wind – you can’t rock around at 100 mph and it takes concentration!).

Running Trail to Telescope PeakSo here’s a sample of the path I ran (outlined in red at right).  My concentration was maxed out ensuring I didn’t trip on a rock, lose my balance, or roll an ankle!  One point, I did almost misstep… I hit a rock wrong and lost balance.  My heart instantly jumped up into my throat as my inbound foot struck ground right on the rim of the trail, barely catching my momentum going overboard.  In the end, I was pretty proud of myself: I ran about 10k in an hour and twenty.  Not the fastest, but I would’ve literally been at the bottom of the mountain (without using the trail) if I had pushed it up any more.

Which leads me to my biggest problem with trail running: I came to get a workout with a view.  My view throughout the entire run consisted of the ground 3 feet in front of my planted foot looking for a secure FLZ (foot landing zone) for the inbound foot.  Hell, I could’ve run right by a black bear and not have known the difference!  But a workout I did get.  My feet were tired and my legs were pretty sore afterward.  Oh well, back to trails on the rolling hills of Britain.  Perhaps without the threat of an 8,000 foot drop, I can actually timeshare in the landscape with my feet a little more!

I’ve decided to trade-in a weekend of booze and grabass for pure, unadulterated nature while on this TDY (read: business trip)… and I intend on continuing this on any future TDYs as well.  Not only is it food for the body and soul, but I’m sure it offers Pam some peace of mind while she’s stuck at home with the kids.

Honeymoon Lake planAfter a bit of research, I figured the first destination would be the backyard of Mt. Whitney (the highest mountain in the lower 48 States) in the Inyo National Forest.  Backpacker magazine had a little showcase on Honeymoon Lake: a trailed 3,000 ft ascent that ends 6 miles later at a lake.  That sounds like a perfect way to cut your teeth and ease youself into mountaineering!  Realizing it’s still early April, I started researching the temperatures for where I wanted to go: highs in the 50’s and lows in the 20’s.  My thoughts?  Well, 50°F over the span of a week should practically negate any chance of running into massive snowed-in trails.  By this time, another one of the dudes (my Kiwi buddy Benjo; he’s an outdoors nut, as well) was interested in going too.  We were a “Go!”

You see this picture?

Mount Caradhras

It’s from the Lord of the Rings, where they were crossing the tops of those snow-covered mountains on their way to Rohan… I now have a very deep respect for Gandalf and the boys based off of what they went through (of course, I know it’s only a movie).

Benjo hiking up the MountainYou see, it all started out easy enough.  Grab the gear, hop on the trail and go.  I won’t lie though: I was winded after the first ½ mile going uphill.  I’m just not used to 7,000 foot air (or lack of).  By 1 mile in, I honestly think it took me more effort (in both leg muscles and heart-rate/breathing-rate) to get to where I was than it does to run 6 miles on the flat sea-levelled land!  I was sweating my ass off in a short-sleaved shirt… and it was only in the high 40’s!

And then that’s about the time we started seeing snow covering the trail.  At first, it was only 6 or so inches deep.  Just when I got into my rhythm hauling it uphill, I’d now take a step, sink in 5 inches, slide around a bit, stabilize, take a step with the other foot, slide, break through the crust and sink 5 inches, stabilize, another step… you get the idea.  This was pretty tiresome… and wearing breathable running shoes probably wasn’t the big one at this point:

Running Shoes + Snow = Horrible Idea

Aside from my feet starting to get cold, the snow seemed manageable.  Soon thereafter though, my feet would sink about a foot instead of 5 inches or so. It was getting deeper.

I think it was about this time that we came to a span of about 6 feet long where the trail was washed out by snow… I’m talking about a trail that ceases to exist (probably because it’s halfway down the mountain) and a section of snowy mountain that was on a 50°+ slope downward.  Benjo knew what he was doing and started to cross.  I played it cool on the outside, but on the inside I was kinda freaking out after I saw little mini-avalanches escape their way down the mountain just from the disturbance my “step, slip, sink, stabilize, step…” sneakers caused in the snow.  In my mind, those little balls of snow loosing themselves had the potential to be me!  With great care and a mind-over-matter suppression of “fight or flight,” I made it to the other side and continued following Benjo.  The snow was still getting deeper, but that I could deal with after the “trail-out landslide crossing” adjusted my continuously-computed tolerance… damned if I was gonna do that again (except for on the way back home, obviously)!

By now, there were patches of snow bank where I would sink through to my knees.  At the 2-mile mark, we rounded the corner and the trail was gone (buried in feet upon feet of snow obviously).  There was nothing but snow-covered 50°+ pure mountain slope.  My heart sank as Benjo trudged on.  With my brain using 90% of its power to suppress panic, the remaining 10% was used to place my feet The slope... in running shoesin the foot-holes that Benjo had already made, I dropped my gaze and purely concentrated on my next step… one foot in front of the other. At one point, I couldn’t believe it and, with my inside hand in the snow to ensure stability (oh yeah, with the running shoes also came the absence of gloves), I used my outside hand to pull my iPhone from my pocket and try to capture the slope.  Bad idea: panic almost froze me in place.  I sat down in the snow… well, it wasn’t much of a sit, more of a stand and lean my butt into a foot or three of powder… while I mentally regrouped.

I continued on in the same fashion: following Benjo’s tracks, very near-sighted, with one foot in front of the other.  In some parts, the slope wasn’t as bad… but it was ever-present past the 2-mile point where we rounded the mountain earlier.

We continued making our way up-slope with no “trail” in sight.  As we kept pushing onward and upward, I kept sinking more deepward and downward into the snow… to the point where I was waist-deep in some places. With the snow getting deeper and the sun getting lower, Benjo blazed ahead some 500 ft in elevation to see if the terrain got any better; it didn’t.

We turned around and followed our footsteps back across the slopes of the mountain.  To be honest, I was content on hiking back down to the bottom and setting up camp there (where there wasn’t any snow), but Benjo suggested a cliff-spot on the mountainside (8,800 ft up) we passed on the way down.  I had a sleeping bag rated to 15°F (the Big Agnes Lost Ranger, with accompanying – but sold separately – blow up insulated mattress), and weather said 20°F would be the absolute minimum, so why not?  As the sun was setting over the mountain, we pitched camp on the flattest spot we could find along the face.

With all the snow, we had an inexhaustible supply of water.  Using Benjo’s alpine stove, we replenished our stock of drinking water and heated some water to rehydrate our dried out meals.

After that, my snow-saturated running shoes were off and my feet (and the rest of me) were in the sleeping bag trying to get warm.  By 9pm, I was making a solid attempt to sleep… but keeping my eyes off the stars took my last bit of energy:

Campsite

It definitely dropped to 20°F that night.  I know because I put on my Patagonia Nano-Puff sweater and wrapped my feet in fleece to stay warm in my sleeping bag.  Even with that, I probably got about 5 total hours of sleep for the 10-hour period I was in my sleeping bag. Some of it was because I was slightly cold, but some of it was also because I was on a 15% gradient and falling into the bottom of my tent every time I moved.  I think next time I’ll invest in a sleeping bag liner to up the statistics on cold-temperature comfort.

I woke up as the sun rose (like I always do)… my running shoes were two blocks of ice.  I was dreading putting my feet back in them… but I did, and my dread wasn’t for naught. It shocked me awake.

Morning at Pine Creek

On the plus side, I saw why Benjo wanted to stay up on the mountain (as opposed to me wanting to go in the valley): look at the view! We definitely wouldn’t have got that down in the valley.

Pine-Creek-Pano
On the way back, I figured out why a good portion of the trail was snowed in: because the sun shines in this area (due to the mountain tops) about 4 hours a day. It never really gets a chance to melt until the summer.  As I looked around (now with a more discerning eye), I noticed that snow was absent from most of the mountain that was exposed to sun throughout most of the day.  Boy, did we pick the wrong path!

This is the second time I’ve planned a big trip and haven’t reached the destination due to circumstances (the first one here).  Despite that, I deem this one a success:

  1. I learned and gained confidence hopping around like a billy goat up snowy mountainsides.  I know there’s much more impressive/intimidating stuff out there, but I’ve never done this before and you need to start somewhere right?
  2. Unlike Gandalf and the boys, my feet don’t have the barefoot cold-resistance like that of a Hobbit.  Need… more… gear…
  3. This is a first that I’ve done sub-freezing camping.  It’s really not that bad as long as your sleeping bag can cope with it. Though getting up at night to pee instilled the fact that I need to invest in a drinking bladder that I can use as a piss-bag.