Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Vacation Day 8: Leaving Las Vegas ... leaving for good

The original plan was to stay two nights Vegas mainly to avoid the frenetic traffic of losers heading back to LA on I-15.  Hotels.com screwed up the second night reservation so were were faced with some alternatives ... one, book another night in Vegas ourselves; two, head to Laughlin for a night; or three, head straight to LA.

We opted for option two, Laughlin, on the lower Colorado River, another gambling town.  We had big breakfast at the Golden Nugget and hit the road.  We take US 95 south.  The road climbs and passes through Searchlight, an old mining town, hometown to Senator Harry Reid (D-NV).  A left turn took us down to Laughlin where it was 107 degrees.  My younger son commented "It's an imitation of Las Vegas and Las Vegas is an imitation."  That sealed it for us.  We decided to push on toward LA, with maybe an overnight stop in Barstow.

We paralleled the Colorado River along it's western side and picked up I-40 at Needles.  From there, we gathered speed toward LA.  We blazed through the inhospitable looking town of Barstow.  It's amazing how LA sprawl has spread to the High Desert.  People with barely the means to qualify for a home mortgage bought there first homes in places like Hesperia only to tragically losing them when the bubble burst.

Before we knew it we were crossing Cajon Pass in the greater LA.  We made a quick stop in Rancho Cucamonga to look at the first house I bought and later joined by my wife.  Times were different then, much better.

We took the 210 across the alluvial fans that emanate from the San Gabriel Mountains ... Rancho Cucamonga, Upland, Claremont, Azusa, Monrovia, Arcadia, Pasadena.  Our last hurdle was Rocky Peak before reaching our destination in Simi valley to spend a few days with my wife's sister's family.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Vacation Day 7: Fear and Loathing

We left Kingman in the morning after breakfast at the hotel that included the universal waffles from the ubiquitous hotel waffle maker.  The Comfort Inn where we stayed was adequate and I'm being nice.  It was kind of a smaller hotel and I suspect of cheap construction as some of the doors were rather ill-fitting.  This building was not built to last.

We made a bee line course northward on US 93 that follows a straight shot down the center of a valley known as Detrital Valley because it's filled with, and I'm not making this up, detritus.  Our initial destination was Hoover Dam followed by Las Vegas.

When we reached Hoover Dam it was 11 am and already 105 degrees.  We parked on the Arizona side and walked across the top along with a few hundred other tourists.  The dam is, without a doubt, a marvel of engineering.  The Art Deco details are pretty cool, classic 1930s.  The modern bridge that spans the canyon is nearly completed.  It was $8 to access the visitor center.  We decided we'd seen enough already.

It was on to Las Vegas.  We made a stop in Henderson for lunch at the Sunset Pizzeria.  The pizza was excellent.  Henderson is the nice suburb of Las Vegas.

We had reservations at the Golden Nugget downtown.  We arrived, parked, and checked in.  It's a nice hotel but everything above and beyond your room you pay extra.  I decided not to opt for the $12.99 internet access.  The pool was closed because of some biohazard, probably a drunk guy that barfed in the water I was guessing.  The boys opted out of the pool because they didn't want to swim around with drunk old people.

We strolled around downtown along an arcade street, checking out the shops, kiosks, and the strange people tha Vegas attracts.  In a way, it's a rather sad place.

After our late afternoon stroll we drove down to the Strip and parked at Bellagio.  The interior of Bellagio is incredible, awesomely beautiful, but like everything in Vegas, it is excessive and unreal.  We walked down the Strip and dropped into the Harley-Davidson Las Vegas Cafe.  The food was excellent.

After dinner we walked further, spending far too long in the M&Ms place, where you can buy anything and everything related to M&Ms colorful candy, plain or peanut.

We walked down to Luxor, a must see according to my brother-in-law.  It is impressive and excessive, like everything in Vegas.

The strip was buzzing with all manner of people.  Pretty girls in tight dresses, guys looking for girls, cougars, and even familys with small children in strollers (I don't get that ... please parents, grow up and act like parents).  On every corner, presumably illegal immigrants hired for this express purpose, are flipping cards to you of naked women you can have in your room in like 20 minutes, if you can hold out that long.  It's amazing that you can walk around with drinks, some with huge drinks.

I don't get Vegas.  For sure, I don't like it.

The following photographs represent interesting people observed in Las Vegas.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Vacation Day 6: Grand Canyon then Kingman

We breakfasted at the hotel restaurant, the Little America. The hotel interior and exterior is straight out of the 1970s but it has been well maintained. The breakfast was excellent. We gassed up and hit the road to the Grand Canyon.

The scenery outside of Flagstaff on the way to the Grand Canyon is gorgeous, passing through ponderosa forest, aspen groves, and open parks, reaching a little over 8,000 feet before gradually descending. Occasional views of the San Francisco Peaks presented themselves where the forest opened up.

We paid our $25 entry fee for the privilege of seeing one of America’s great national parks. We found a place to park in the first lot we came to. We assembled our daypacks and prepared to spend a few hours touring around the park on their shuttle bus system. Before jumping on the bus, we did a quick walk out to the rim. The place was crowded with all manner of tourists, from obese Americans to Asian women wearing high heels.

We hopped on a bus to get to Yavapai Point, which has a good view and a geology exhibit. The bus wasn’t too crowded but Yavapai Point was crawling with tourists. This was getting depressing. I had been to the Grand Canyon twice during my college years as a geology major, both times in February when the South Rim was lightly visited and dusted in snow. During those prior trips I had hiked down to the bottom of the canyon with my fellow students to spend a couple nights at the Phantom Ranch. The best way to see the canyon is to hike it, leaving the tourons behind as they gaze wishfully from the rim on things they will never touch.

We left Yavapai Point to return to our car on a bus that was standing room only. We couldn’t leave the South Rim fast enough.

Our next destination was Kingman. We picked up I-40 in Williams with a brief stop there for lattes. I had a nice chat with a guy whose son was in Iraq. I hear too many stories like this one, our young soldiers enduring unbelievable hardships and suffering that will affect them the rest of their lives.

We got off the Interstate at Seligman to follow the original route of Route 66, a highway I had traveled many times during my youth from Los Angeles to Detroit and back again visiting my Dad’s family. There is quite a cottage industry that has developed around the Mother Road. Every town along the way has kitschy stores selling Route 66 memorabilia and knick knacks. However, once you leave Seligman heading west, there is virtually nothing along the way except a few fading settlements.

The old highway was lightly traveled and my older son with his learner’s permit got a chance to drive fast on an open road. Within two minutes a bird splattered on the windshield. He also got a chance to pass a slow moving truck. After traveling next to the truck for a few seconds too long in the oncoming lane at the same speed as the truck, I gave the command "Floor it!"

We made it into Kingman by early evening and checked into the Comfort Inn. It was a passable hotel for one night. We made a little excursion out to the Kingman airport where my older son and I did little evening photography. The airport is primarily used as a place to mothball airliners. It was once used as a training field during World War II.

Tomorrow Hoover Dam and Las Vegas. For the record, I don't like Las Vegas.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Vacation Day 5: Moab to Flagstaff

Sadly we left Moab this morning with little fanfare and some unfinished business, mainly a visit of Arches National Park, which we did not do.  We amped up on morning coffee by going through Wicked Brew, a drive-thru espresso place in Moab.  With plenty of gas we were on our way to Flagstaff.

From Moab, US 191 climbs gradually to Monticello.  The terrain becomes greener and the Abajo Mountains to the west become larger.  From there, the road descends back into the desert to Blanding and then Bluff.  Always in view are various sedimentary rock units in the cliffs and canyons.

We left US 191 and then turned onto US 160 shortly after crossing into Arizona.  We made a lunch stop at a Burger King in Kayenta.  An emergency vehicle with siren and lights passed us before we turned into Burger King.  I commented that I expected they were responding to an accident that could delay us.  After lunch two aid cars were going passed us in the opposite direction.  Soon we were passing the accident scene, a car apparently missing a curve and crashing through a guard rail.  Sobering.

We made a planned stop at Wupatki National Monument to view some of the pueblo ruins built by the ancient Pueblo people some 800 years ago.  Ever since visiting Chaco Canyon in 2006, I've been fascinated by the ancient Pueblo, also known as the Anasazi, but this term has fallen out of favor as it is now a well known fact the the existing Puebloan peoples are descended from these ancient peoples.

Next we made the short loop drive to Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.  We were short on time but managed to make a few quick stops.  This cinder cone erupted about 900 years ago and the resulting lava flow looks as fresh as if it was erupted last year.  This part of Arizona has a lot of volcanic features, including the San Francisco Peaks, which resembles Mount Saint Helens in shape, and likely had the same explosive eruption that blew out the side of this stratovolcano.

There is a fire going up in the San Francisco Peaks and we could readily see the smoke and smell it.  Some of the fire burned into a portion of Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument.  We could see some of the blackened ground but it did not appear to burn up into the forest crown at this location.

We finally made it into Flagstaff and checked into the Little America Hotel, a vintage 1970s hostelry that still retains that look.  The room was large and clean with horrid decor that would look good at the Madonna Inn.  Still, it was roomy and comfortable.

We ate dinner at Salsa Brava, a well known Mexican restaurant in Flag.  My wife and I both ordered margaritas.  The food was excellent.  I had a gordito burrito.  My wife and older son had carne adovado tacos, very spicy.  Younger son had a plate of nachos.  We went back to our room and instantly fell asleep.

Tomorrow the Grand Canyon.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Vacation Day 4: Evening Hummer Tour

After snoozing away most of the afternoon in the air conditioned comfort of our hotel room, we met up again at 6 pm for the evening Hummer tour.  This was easy, just sit back and let the guide crawl the Hummer over rock and sand.  This tour is kind of the stock tour for the couch potato class.  We embarked with four full Hummers, each holding eight people.  We shared our Hummer with a family from upstate New York, a notoriously conservative part of the country, somewhat the antithesis of western Washington.  They weren't very chatty and we weren't either after spending the first part of the day canyoneering.

Our guide Steve, was a former science teacher and, as I found out later from him, he is the high school principal.  One of the other guides was a police officer in town.  I got the impression that if you had connections in Moab, you could moonlight as a guide and collect juicy tips from tourists.

Our first stop was to look at dinosaur tracks, which were difficult to see after being run over thousands of times by Jeeps, Hummers, Unimogs, and a few mountain bikes.  Steve talked about the dinosaurs and Navajo sandstone.

The Hummers are amazing vehicles.  However, unless you are a serious off-road enthusiast who likes fixing broken things, you probably wouldn't want to take your shiny new FJ Cruiser on these tracks.

This sunset tour was a great way to end our stay in Moab.  Tomorrow Flagstaff, another six hour drive.

Vacation Day 4: Canyoneering

Today was another early start.  We showed up at the Moab Adventure Center at 7 am for our next adventure ... canyoneering.  We piled into a big Suburban along with a couple ladies from New Jersey and another young couple from another part of New Jersey.  Our guides on the trip were JC and Chris of Moab Cliffs & Canyons.

We drove just a few miles out of town and parked at the top of a rise.  We were given daypacks that included water bottle, climbing helmet, harness, and the rappelling hardware, a locking carabinier and brake device.  We started hiking out across the slickrock then began our descent into the politically correct named Negro Bill Canyon.  We learned about cyptobiotic soil and the Navajo sandstone, the main cliff-forming rock unit here and a rock formed from blowing sand dunes.  There is a narrow band of limestone within the Navajo sandstone that represents an incursion of a shallow sea.  The limestone unit forms an aquitard where springs issue from the overlying sandstone.

We only had about a mile to hike before our first rappel.  On the way we had to make a short hop across a shallow cleft in the sandstone.  Normally this would have been routine hop for me.  I launched from my right leg and landed on my left but it didn't turn out too graceful.  As my left leg planted I lurched forward and felt instant pain in my upper left calf muscle.  Yep, I pulled a muscle and probably tore more than a few muscle fibers in the process.  I knew I could make the rest of the trip as long as I was careful.  There was a certain movement that would induce instant pain and I took great care not to make that movement.  The guides were naturally concerned and asked me all sorts of questions about where it hurt and the nature of the pain.  Again, I knew I could make it the rest of the way.  I also knew it would hurt a lot more tomorrow (I was right).

We reached our first rappel station and Chris had moved ahead of the group and had it already set up.  I went first in our family so I could get pictures from the bottom.  The first rappel was 90 feet.  Although I had rock climbed and rappelled before it was still a little scary.  It had been more than 20 years since I had done this.  Once I was underway, I got more comfortable.  Next came older son, then younger son, and finally my wife.  It took some coaxing to get the boys to commit and get underway but once they did it and completed it they were ecstatic.

The next rappel was just a little further down.  This second rappel was 120 feet of which more than half was over an overhang leaving you freely hanging in space with no rock to touch.  This rappel was also right next to Morning Glory Natural Bridge, the seventh largest natural bridge in the world.  At the bottom there was a spring and the beginning of a creek that flows along the bottom of Negro Bill Canyon.

Our hike out was two and half miles following the creek and crossing it several times.  I brought up the rear for a good ways along with the two Jersey women who, being about the same age as me, were not very sure-footed.  However, they didn't pull any muscles like me.  I was careful and made good time, the leg not bothering me too much as long as I didn't do that one movement

Hiking along the canyon bottom was spectacular.  High sandstone walls, a clear running creek, and cool shady places among the canyon bottom trees.  A small gopher snake made an appearance.  We eventually made it to the parking lot where Negro Bill Canyon joins the Colorado River and then drove back to Moab Adventure Center.

We hit Subway for sandwiches and went back to the hotel room.  We napped for a few hours before our next adventure that day, the sunset Hummer tour.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Vacation Day 3: Westwater Canyon

We had to be at Moab Adventure Center at 7:30 am and by golly we made it.  We went through the usual formalities, signing releases etc.  I struck up a conversation with Clint, the lead guide and another guide Jen who grew up in Lynnwood and graduated from Meadowdale High - Class of 1999.

We rode a bus to the put-in, an hour and a half trip that might have been more pleasant had it not been for the blasting air conditioning.  The put-in was at the Westwater Ranger Station, off of Interstate 70 a few bumpy road miles.  The Bureau of Land Management manages Westwater Canyon.

The guides got all the rafts ready, fitted us into life vests, and soon we were launched into the current, three paddle rafts and an oar raft.  We had nine people in our raft, us, another family of three, and two women from Minnesota.  Our guide was Mack, a soft spoken guy, probably late thirties.

The first part of the trip is about seven miles of relatively flat water.  We spotted a couple bald eagles that had a nest in a big cottonwood tree.  The canyon gradually narrowed and the walls grew higher.  We paddled and paddled for what seemed like an interminable time.

The cliff forming unit of the canyon is the Wingate Sandstone, late Triassic to early Jurrassic, roughly 200 million years old.  The Wingate is formed from ancient sand dunes and one can readily see some nice cross bedding in the cliffs.  The Wingate sits atop the Chinle Formation, also late Triassic, composed of softer shales and sandstones formed in lakes and meandering rivers.

What is really unique about Westwater Canyon is that it cuts into Precambrian metamorphic rocks, the black-colored Vishnu schist, which itself is cut by granitic bodies known as the Zoraster granite.  The only other exposure of this rock is in the Granite Gorge of the Grand Canyon.

As we floated down the river, looking at rocks and pontificating about their origins, it became evident that there was another geologist in the group, Andy.  Andy was in our raft with his wife and son, the family being from Massachusetts.

We pulled off for lunch on a sandy bank.  The guides prepared a sandwich bar, which in our experience is the standard raft trip lunch.  After lunch, we received a thorough safety briefing before we launched into the next leg, where we'd hit a series of rapids, including Funnel Falls, Skull, and Last Chance.  The river was flowing about 11,000 cfs and the rapids were rated about Class III.  Still, we hit some good sized waves and got thoroughly splashed.  It reminded me a little of the Wenatchee River, only much warmer.  Mack deftly maneuvered us through the rapids and we didn't lose anyone.  One of our rafts had a couple swimmers go in at Skull.  They were quickly back in their raft.

The last stage of the trip was over flat water, more miles of mindless paddling.  At least the scenery was awe-inspiring.  We finally made it to our take-out at Cisco.  We loaded back into the bus and drove for another hour and a half back to Moab.

We had dinner at the Moab Brewery which was excellent.  I had the Scorpian Pale Ale, a hoppy brew to finish a great day.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Vacation Day 2: Twin Falls to Moab

Another long day of driving, but not as long or far as yesterday.  The weather was much nicer today.  We breakfasted at the hotel in Twin Falls.  When all was said and done, we hit the highway around 9 am.  We made a rest stop near the Idaho-Utah border where we started seeing some nice mountain scenery.  We made the outskirts of Salt Lake City around 1 pm.  We stopped at a Costco in Bountiful for gas and lunch.

I've been to Salt Lake City several times over the years for project work and a couple times during college for skiing.  The drivers in Salt Lake, for the most part, have that furtive lane changing, catch up to the next guy style, constantly speeding.  No one seems to want to get into a groove and chill at a comfortable speed.  I was glad to leave SLC behind.  People, a monster truck is not a sports car.

The drive over the Wasatch backbone on US 6 was very scenic.  From there it just got better and better.  As we got closer to Moab it started to look like LA smog.  We speculated that it was from the fires in northern Arizona.

We finally made it into Moab about 6 pm.  We had a passable dinner at a place called Zax.  We have three nights here at the Hampton Inn.  Tomorrow rafting down Westwater Canyon.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Vacation Day 1: Edmonds to Twin Falls

We planned to leave the house about 4 am but it turned out to be 5 am.  The drive up and over Snoqualmie Pass never gets old.  I've done the drive in all kinds of conditions.  We made it to Cle Elum about 7 am and stopped at the Pioneer Coffee Roasting Co. for good coffee and clean restrooms. 

The drive on through the Yakima Valley has become almost routine.  We peeled off just before Tri Cities and crossed the Columbia River at Umatilla.  From here on out, it was uncharted territory.  We stopped at a Starbucks and gassed up in Hermiston.  Oregon ... where they pump your gas and sometimes clean your windshield.  It's a stim-pack.

Leaving Pendleton we wound our way through the Blue Mountains of northeastern Oregon.  Beautiful but it rained the whole way.  Leslie was driving and immediately set cruise control to 70 mph, launched into a 50 mph curve. It was the first time I'd ever heard the skid control chimes chime.  She claimed she never saw the 50 mph sign.  It freaked me out more than a little.  From then on I read aloud every curve sign for her.

We passed La Grande and Baker City following the route of the old Oregon Trail.  The landscape was becoming more arid with each mile, turning from ponderosa forest to sagebrush and grass.  Interesting area after Baker City where there's an abundance of limestone.  Ash Grove has a cement plant there.  There's also a spooky looking abandoned cement plant at a place called Lime.

Near Baker City

Ash Grove Cement

Driving a lemon

We stopped at a Wendy's in Ontario, Oregon, the last town in Oregon before Idaho.  I'm going to hate fast food even more before this trip is over.  Ontario may have seen better days but it was wishful thinking.

Up with people

Approaching Boise, it looked like we were heading directly toward a large thunderstorm.  Then it looked like we'd skirt it on the left side and eventually we did skirt it on the right side.  We still got some raindrops from it.

There's a few windfarms going up on the Snake River Plain.  You don't get an idea of the scale of the windmill blades until you see them being hauled individually by tractor-trailer rigs.

We decided to stop in Twin Falls for the night.  After Twin, there's a long 2 to 3 hour stretch of lonesome and we were getting a little tired.  We're safely sequestered in the Best Western Twin Falls.  We had a late dinner at Chili's, a nationwide chain.  All the cool local places were closed on this Sunday night.

Tomorrow Moab.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Spring in the Garden

There are a number of gardening and landscape styles in western Washington.  They range from unkempt benign neglect, where thorny blackberry vines rule, to the perfectly coiffed garden with shapes not normally found in nature underlain by "beauty bark" resistant to infiltration of rain water.  Our garden falls somewhere in the middle having somewhat of a cottage garden look where a number of perennials have spread their seed about, or generally spread out, weaving a carpet of flower-dappled green in the springtime that generally crowds out any weed growth.  Columbines that years ago started out with a couple blue 'alpina', a yellow 'chrysantha', and a 'McKenna Giant' have interbred and spread just about everywhere having morphed into sometimes interesting color combinations, mostly blue.  The key to curtailing this flower fecundity is to cut back the spent flower stems.

The garden foundation includes a number of shrubs and small trees - rhododendrons, azaleas, a grand old camellia, and a truly magnificent Japanese maple 'Bloodgood'.  In the back reaches, I'm ashamed to say, the garden becomes a bit wilder and weedy, as the adjoining forest threatens to reclaim its domain.

Spring at the front of the house doesn't get much better than now.

Oriental poppies, beautiful but you can't get rid of them.

Columbines, taking over the world.

Jacob's ladder, a prolific seeder.

Geranium, one of many varieties, freely seeds itself.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Farewell to the Brants - Beach Walk to Edmonds on 5-16-10

At least once every spring, when the low daytime tides along Puget Sound are favorable, I walk the beach from my house to downtown Edmonds, about a mile and a half.  Our house, though not right on the water, is about 700 feet from the shore as the crow flies, or perhaps a five minute walk up our street, then a right turn down another street.  Our neighborhood has a private access to the shore via an easement between two houses. The easement primarily serves as an access for the city to a sewer lift station.  The last hurdle is to cross over the railroad tracks and scramble down the rip-rap to the beach.  These tracks, owned and operated by BNSF, run along the shore here from Seattle to Everett.  These are busy tracks, lots of freight, Amtrak Cascades and Empire Builder, and the Sounder commuter train.  The neighborhood fronts along Browns Bay, a broad swath of a bay on Puget Sound that is rather open to to the Sound without much protection when the wind churns up the waves, such as they are on the Sound.

During the springs months, Black Brant (Branta bernicla nigricans), gather along the shore, fattening up on eel grass (Zostera sp.) before migrating north to their nesting grounds high up above the Arctic Circle.  Brant are a smallish goose, about the size of large Mallard.  Eel grass comprises about 95% of their diet so preserving eel grass habitat is important for these little geese.  I saw quite a few Brant during the walk.  Soon they'll be gone until next spring.

There's a local group here dedicated to protecting and preserving the Brant:

Washington Brant Foundation

At the southern end of Browns Bay is a large rock that is even large enough to appear on the Edmonds East USGS 7.5-minute topographic map.  It must have a name.  I'm sure the native Americans had a name for it.  The base of the rock is exposed only on the lowest tides and with it sea-life seldom seen in the open air.  A former work colleague who was an avid scuba diver told me that there are many more large boulders like this just offshore here.  Likely they are huge drop stones released from the melting glacier some 13,500 years ago at the end of the Vashon stade.

At one time, I believe a telephone line ran along the tracks.  Occasionally, I find the old glass insulators on the beach, some relatively intact, some well worn beach glass.

And always an abundance shells.  The carapace of the Red Rock Crab (Cancer productus) seems to intensify its red color in the drying sun.

A lone kayaker.

The USCGC Healy, US Coast Guard''s newest and largest polar icebreaker, commissioned in 1999 and berthed in Seattle.  Heading out for Arctic West Summer Cruise 2010.

Someone had arranged clam shells along this driftwood log.

The Washington State Ferry, M/V Puyallup, leaving Edmonds for Kingston on the Kitsap Peninsula, about a half hour cruise.

The Edmonds ferry dock, my final destination.