Category Archives: Travels

Chasing Endeavour’s Last Flight Down the California Coast

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Chasing Endeavour’s Last Flight Down the California Coast

It has been in the news all week that the space shuttle Endeavour would be doing a fly by of the Bay Area this morning.  (Originally it was supposed to be yesterday, but weather reports of fog in San Francisco [duh] caused them to delay it by a day.)  Given that I had an 11 AM flight out of OAK, I knew this meant I would miss seeing the shuttle buzz the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges.  When NASA was being cryptic about the specific time Endeavour, riding atop a 747, would fly over the area, I thought it might mean that I would miss it all together.  Even worse, the shuttle was flying to LAX, where I was also flying, and it seemed there was a chance I would just miss it there too.

But man, oh man, did I hit the jackpot instead.

First, while waiting for my flight to board in Oakland, the shuttle did a low flyby of the Oakland Airport runway at about 10:15 AM.  It was an awesome site to behold.  Then, about 10 minutes later, it came by again, though further away.  Another 5 or so minutes later, we got a third glimpse of it as a silhouette flying above the hills in the distance.  As Endeavour faded off into the distance, it was time to board my first flight of the day and chase the shuttle down to LA, where I had only a 45 minute layover.

The flight was relatively uneventful, until we were about to land.  The captain announced the descent and told us it was time to fasten our seatbelts and turn off electronic devices.  I continued reading my dead-tree book and waited for landing when the captain came over the intercom again.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it seems that we have an usual situation here.  Due to the flight of the space shuttle Endeavour, we’re in a holding pattern.  We weren’t expecting this.  It’s not something the military tells civilians about in advance.  I believe the report is that Endeavour is landing at LAX right now.  But if we’re lucky, we’ll have a view of it while we’re taxiing on the runway.”

Hmm, I thought to myself, I guess this means I should have my camera handy when we land.  And shortly thereafter the captain came on again.

“Ladies and gentlemen, it seems I was mistaken about Endeavour having already landed.  If you look out the left side of the plane, you should be able to see it.”

At this point, I believe I violated FAA regulations by unbuckling my seatbelt, getting up, and turning on an electronic device — my camera.  I had an aisle seat, but I was determined to get a view out of the left side of the plane.  Luckily for me, the gentleman in the window seat was more than willing to let me (and my camera!) use his seat for a few minutes.  By sheer luck, I managed to get a shot of the Endeavour passing in front of the Hollywood sign.  [Incidentally, that photo is the only tweet I’ve ever had get tweeted by multiple random strangers.]

Soon thereafter, we were cleared for landing… and noted that everyone at LAX was watching us land.  Because the Endeavour was about to land her final flight right behind us.  Or so we, and our pilot, guessed.

Except apparently not exactly like that.  After deplaning, I immediately joined the crowd at the gate window, just in time for Endeavour to do a low flyby of LAX.  (She was still going to do one more loop around LA before landing, apparently.)  That was the closest, most detailed shot I got of the shuttle as it flew directly over our window.  It was unreal.

Unfortunately, and this was my only bad luck of the day (did I mention I also got upgraded to first class?), I was boarding my flight when Endeavour actually landed.  There was even a special announcement by the gate agent: “Ladies and gentlemen, I know the shuttle is flying over, but we need to board the flight so it’s not delayed further.”  I pushed it as much as I could, but alas, I missed the landing.  I did however, see her two more times: once from the ground while taxiing to take-off and once more from above as we took off and flew directly over her.

Farewell, Endeavour and the US Space Shuttle program.  I hope we send more of you up there soon.

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High on a hill was a lonely goatherd…

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Quinn and I had an epic adventure today hiking along the largest glacier in Europe — the Aletschgletscher.  We took the train to Fiesch in the morning and hopped on a cable car up to Fiescheralp (elevation 2212 m). From there, we walked around the Eggishorn mountain — and partially through it. A 1 km tunnel cut through the mountain, for those not so eager to go up and over. At the other side of the tunnel was a little restaurant where, after watching a goat herd go by (with bells on their necks!), we ate some delicious pastries.

After our pit stop, we detoured from our planned hike and climbed down a shallow cliff to go to the edge of the glacier. From above, the glacier was primarily white and brown (from all the dirt and rock that it was bringing with it). From the side, we were able to climb into these caverns of brilliant blue that was unlike anything I had ever seen. We took pictures, but those will have to wait until I have a faster Internet connection… and besides, I don’t think they will do it justice.

Also, I slipped and fell and hurt my shoulder in that area. But enough about that — I only have minor problems lifting things today.

After climbing back up to the main trail, we hiked over to Roti Chumme and for about three kilometers, we were walking along a cliffside over looking the glacier. The glacier was about a kilometer wide, and across it we could see the Aletschhorn, the tallest mountain in the area. Clouds started to form near it’s peak, and eventually we started hearing low rolls of thunder from the other side of the glacier. The storm was still a few kilometers away from us, but watching it roll in was awe inspiring. Twice a brilliant flash of light reached us (and once I was even able to see the bolt of lightning). Shortly after each of these flashes, thunder rolled through the entire glacier valley and reverberated through the mountains. It was like no sound I’ve ever heard before. Quinn took a video of the second one, but again, I don’t think it will do justice to the rumble of the earth.

Eventually we noticed that the storm was heading over the glacier right towards us, so we picked up the pace to try and catch the last ski gondola from Moosfluh down to Riederalp. Somewhere in this part of the hike, we were coming over a hill and suddenly I heard Quinn say “Uh oh, we have company.” I looked, and there was a herd of cows blocking our path. We navigated through them, us looking at them, them looking at us with bells around their necks while they chewed on the grass. One of the bulls definitely looked annoyed at us.

We made it to Moosfluh just in time to get out of the rain and caught the last gondola down. But we weren’t quite done as we had to walk from there to the Mitte lift and take that down to Mörel where we took the train back to Brig.

Oh, and I fainted, collapsed, and briefly lost consciousness on that last lift down to Mörel, but I’m totally fine now.

A Tale of Switzerland and Language Barriers

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On the first full day of our Swiss adventure, Quinn and I took the Glacier Express train from Geneva yesterday all the way to Chur, which is very close to Liechtenstein and just happens to be hosting a summer festival this weekend.  The major difference between Geneva and Chur is the language: in Geneva, it’s French or English.  In Chur, everyone speaks German — and Swiss German at that — and most of the locals at the festival who I talked to said that French or Italian is their second language, not English.  (Rumor has it that a non-negligible portion of the population of Chur also speaks Romansch, Switzerland’s fourth language, but I didn’t hear any.)

I studied German in high school, and last week I had dinner with a German speaking friend in which we avoided English for two hours and I re-opened the German speaking part of my brain.  Of course, I was warned that in Switzerland, everyone speaks Swiss German, which is entirely different from Hochdeutsch (high German — the dialect I learned).  However, the Swiss mostly all know Hochdeutsch because that’s what they are taught in schools, even though they all speak Swiss German outside of school.  So, thus far, someone says something to me in Swiss German, I struggle to grasp for meaning and say something back in Hochdeutsch, they transition to Hochdeutsch, and then we’re talking.

By contrast, Quinn doesn’t know any German.  (The roles will be reversed when we get back to Geneva and into France, as Quinn took French in high school and I did not.)  This sets up the following exchange that happened at the festival in Chur, shortly after we’ve just walked around the mountains on the edge of town…

A man walks up to me and says something in Swiss German, which sounds similar enough to “Möchten Sie mit mir tanzen?” that I assume he is asking me to dance with him to the polka band that is playing behind us.  Quinn and I are really trying to find some food*, so I say “Nein, danke,” and hope that’s the end of it.

Instead, the guy blocks my path and asks “Warum nicht?” (why not?).  I think quickly of an excuse that will both work and I know how to say in German, and point at Quinn and say “Ich bin mit meinem Freund hier,” (I am with my friend).

The guy then approaches Quinn and asks him, in Swiss German, if he can have permission to dance with “ihrer Fraulein.”  Quinn, not having any idea what is going on, shakes his head no with a look of confusion, which is mistaken for a look of “Don’t touch my woman.”

The guy turns back to me and tells me that I shouldn’t let Quinn tell me what to do, and the next thing I know, I’m (poorly) dancing a polka with this guy in the middle of a street festival in Chur, Switzerland and he’s telling me all about how I need better taste in men.  Quinn chooses not to rescue me, but to take pictures instead.  (Picture withheld.)

* Another language note: I was warned that one of the ways in which Swiss German most differs from high German is in the words for different food types.  When we did finally get to a kebab stand and I specified “Keine Tomaten”, the woman running the stand pointed to the tomatoes and said “Keine ????”  I couldn’t make out the second word, but apparently Swiss German has an entirely different word for tomatoes that sounds nothing like the English word. Fun with avoiding food allergies in a foreign country!

Twins 1, Tigers 5

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Blah, blah, blah, went to a Twins game on my 22 hour stopover in Minnesota.  Blah, blah, blah Twins lost.  Blah, blah, blah Tigers won, but Verlander wasn’t pitching, so there’s no silver lining there.  Blah, blah, blah I won a free shirt at the game from the Twins twitter account.  Blah, blah, blah…

I’m in Switzerland!  I spent yesterday in Paris!  (I know at least one person reads my baseball posts and inserts the “blah, blah, blahs” in his head.  Figured I’d add them for everyone this time because I AM IN SWITZERLAND and I’m only blogging this game as a formality.)  I just woke up at 6 am and watched the end of the Twins loss to the Mariners in Seattle.  Timezones are weird.

 

Cubs 4, Astros 0

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Cubs 4, Astros 0

With all the stadiums I’ve been to, the most surprising omission has always been Wrigley Field.  After all, it’s the second oldest stadium in existence and I used to semi-regularly drive through Chicago on trips from Ann Arbor to Minneapolis.  You’d think that at some point I would have stopped to see the Cubs play.  But no, my first trip to Wrigley Field wasn’t until this Friday when I flew to Chicago to visit Anand and drag him to a game.

My initial impressions of Wrigley are that it is very sparse — no jumbotron to show highlights and replays, no sideshow attractions, and no real decoration other than the ivy in the outfield.  You’re there to watch a baseball game and nothing else… which is how it should be.  It feels a lot like Fenway in places, mostly because of the age and similar construction style.  There’s even a giant mechanical scoreboard in the outfield that’s reminiscent of the Green Monster.

The day started with a Chicago dog from Murphy’s Red Hots down the street and a rain delay.  The storm cloud coming in from out of nowhere was an awesome sight to behold.  While Anand and I waited for the rain delay to pass, we sat in the Wrigley basement doing a cryptic crossword out of the Enigma… because that’s the kind of people we are.

Once the clouds cleared (and the heat came back), we sat in the bleachers, on a recommendation from Harvey that the Cubs bleacher bums are not to be missed.  And while we both got a little tired of “HEY DAVID!  HOW MANY OUTS?” being shouted at David DeJesus, the Cubs centerfielder, the Bleacher Bums certainly have character.

Being in the bleachers meant we were also in prime location for homerun catching — and the Cubs hit three on Friday.  One went clear out of the park onto Waveland Avenue behind us, one went to right field, and one landed right behind us.

Right behind us — in fact, we were on WGN’s broadcast of the homerun where I can be seen chastising Anand for not getting out of his seat to try and catch it.  I think we could have had it, despite whatever comment he inevitably leaves says to the contrary.  He did get in to the bleacher atmosphere later, yelling at Astros second baseman Matt Downs when he made an error in the field.  “I’ll give you a hint: you’re looking for a round white thing!”  I think I may have created a monster.

The mini-homerun derby paid off for the Cubs, even though one would have been enough.  Pitcher Paul Maholm was on fire, going 8.1 scoreless innings before getting in a mini-jam in the 9th.  But Marmol came in to shut the Astros down with the bases loaded and they raised the W flag over that big mechanical scoreboard while playing “Go Cubs Go!”  (And that song is *still* in my head.)

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Alaska Trip 2012: Day 5

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Alaska Trip 2012: Day 5

Our last day in Alaska was filled with driving.  We had a lot of ground to cover to get Laura to her conference in Anchorage, and we made it harder on ourselves by taking a 175 mile detour to the Worthington Glacier as recommended by the East German woman who ran the roadhouse we had stayed at the night before.  We also paused and took a brief hike to view the Matsunaka Glacier.

By the end of the trip, I was amused by the marked change in Laura’s outlook.  When she picked me up in Anchorage, she kept commenting on how small it seemed.  I kept telling her that we were in the big city, and she seemed skeptical.  Driving back to Anchorage, we stopped in Palmer, which is almost an Anchorage suburb.  “This town is so big!  There are so many cars!”  Ah, how quickly we adapt.  When we checked in to her conference hotel — a Hilton — we were both shell shocked by the luxury.  Fresh towels! A shower that is taller than me with real temperature control! An elevator!

Alas, I did not stay at the Hilton.  I took a 1 AM flight back to SF.  I thought I might see darkness from the plane for the first time since leaving the lower 48.  But even though I didn’t really fall asleep, just as it looked like dusk might descend into night, the sun started to rise again.  A starry night sky would have to wait until I returned to California.

Here’s Laura and I in our final Alaska minute…

… and lest you not believe us about the eagle, here is the amazing picture Laura’s DSLR got of him flying around above us shortly after we stopped filming the above video.  That’s National Geographic stuff right there.

An eagle soaring above us

(Coming eventually: I will sort through the 1000s of photos we took and pick the best ones to put on Picasa.  But nothing beats that eagle.)

Alaska Trip 2012: Day 4

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Alaska Trip 2012: Day 4

Alaska Day 4 (Saturday)… our original plan had been to drive the Denali Highway, an unmaintained 135 mile dirt road that goes east from Denali National Park to a tiny little town (which we learned barely qualifies as a town) called Paxson.  However, a morning rain storm and a bit of concern from the owner of the cabins we woke up at convinced that driving an unmaintained wet gravel road through the mountains in a Ford Fiesta was not the best idea.  So instead, we headed north to Fairbanks and planned to take the Richardson Highway back south to Paxson — a fairly substantial detour.

Our first stop was in the tiny railroad town of Nenana, home of the Nenana Ice Classic, where you can buy a ticket guessing the day, hour, and minute that the ice will break on the river and earn a six-figure prize if you’re correct.  Nenana is also home to Joanne Hawkins, who might be my favorite person that we came across on the trip.  Joanne was the clerk at a little gift shop in town and she had plenty of stories to tell us — including the fact that her book was just published and she had autographed copies for sale.  Only later did Laura and I figure out that this independent self-made woman owns half of Nenana.  I really regret not buying her book, although it appears to be available from an independent seller on Amazon.

After Nenana, we drove to Fairbanks and stopped to visit the hometown of our old college friend Jay Schamel (who is now in Georgia, alas).  Then we stopped at the North Pole.  Okay, not the North Pole, but North Pole, Alaska, where we did find Santa and his reindeer.  Deciding we’d had enough of the road, we took a break to go canoeing in the Chena Lakes before heading out to the Knotty Shop for some ice cream and souvenirs.

Shortly after we left the Knotty Shop (amazingly delicious butter pecan ice cream, by the way), we started seeing moose all over the place — we counted a total of seven.

After stops in Delta Junction to check out Rika’s Roadhouse (now a historical park) and get some dinner, we realized that it was 9 PM, but we were still too far from Anchorage to stop with any hope of getting Laura to her conference on Sunday.  We also noted that we were 151 miles from the nearest town that had lodging according to the Lonely Planet travel guide.  And so we did the only sensible thing — we made a pact to keep driving and hope that there would be something and agreed to sleep in the car if there was nothing.  After all, we didn’t have to worry about it getting dark!  We saw the midnight sun from the car, and after a few false hopes, we found the Meiers Lake Roadhouse, which doesn’t appear in any guides or maps that we can find.  But it was a bed and a shower — both very welcome things at 1 am.

Alaska Trip 2012: Day 3

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Alaska Trip 2012: Day 3

A much delayed report of day three of the trip because we spent the last few days at places with no wifi.  But at least there were showers.  Friday we woke up in the hostel and headed a few miles north to Denali National Park.   We took the green shuttle bus out to the Eielson Visitor Center and then went on a hike further into the park.  We saw quite the array of wildlife including:

  • Caribou, probably about a dozen total over three groups.  (Laura and I also saw one on the highway driving up from Talkeetna.)
  • Dall sheep… soooo many Dall sheep.  But the ones that were ten feet from the bus were the most impressive
  • A brown bear — This was the only animal that excited the bus driver.  “Bear on the road!  Bear on the road, 12 o’ clock!  Everyone roll down your windows and be quiet!”
  • Golden Eagle
  • Lynx

Sadly, the clouds blocked our view of Denali the mountain…  (Note that in the following video, I am standing about five feet in front of Laura, and as a result, I look like a giant compared to her — or she looks extra small.)

On the bus ride back we met Cass.  Cass is a clerk for the interpretive center at the park, but on Friday he was just taking the shuttle bus ride like any other visitor.  He pointed out something that changed the way I viewed the park: “The star of the show is not the landscape, it’s the light.  The mountains are a beautiful canvas, but the way they are painted by the midnight sun with its odd angles is what makes them more dramatic than any other mountain range.”  I’m paraphrasing him, but it’s a remarkable (and true) sentiment.

After we were finished, we drove to Healy and stayed at a cute little cabin a mile up a dirt road.  We were a little loopy at this point due to the lack of sleep caused by the strange psychological effects of the midnight sun… also, we hadn’t showered in a few days, so we don’t look our best.

Alaska Trip 2012: Day 2

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Alaska Trip 2012: Day 2

Laura and I are outside of Denali National Park staying in a hostel in Carlo Creek.  This is making Laura nervous because we are in a shared co-ed cabin with no locks. Luckily, no one else has checked in to our cabin, male or female, and no one stole our stuff while we went to dinner across the street.  I suggested we get the tents, which came with cots and sleeping bags, but the look on Laura’s face said that was a no-go even though it was cheaper.

But hey, there’s wifi… slow wifi, but it works.  Unfortunately, because it’s slow, there will be no posting of the Alaska Minute we filmed in Talkeetna this afternoon.  Nor any of the pictures we got of the waterfall we hiked to or our Sarah Palin impressions in Wasilla (for you, Scott) or the Caribou we saw on the side of the road or the corn hole game we played at the bar across the street from our hostel along a mountain stream.  (We lost, but there was beer and pizza so it was all good.)  We also went running around a dilapidated old building, which we think was a hotel, called “IGLOO.”  I don’t really know what it was or how to describe it.

Also, it’s still light out.  It’s five minutes to midnight.  We asked when we booked the hostel room when it gets dark.  The guy kind of laughed and said “Never.”

And an Australian just offered us a vegemite sandwich.  Hostels are great!

Edit: The hostel people restarted the router… it seems possible to upload a YouTube video now.  If it works, the embedded video below will be functional in the morning.

Alaska Trip 2012: Day 1

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Alaska Trip 2012: Day 1

Remember a year and a half ago when I went to Alaska and took an approximately one minute long video each day and video blogged the trip?  No?  Go to the right of the blog and look up the October 2010 archives… I’ll wait.

Caught up?  Okay, good.  Because I’m in Alaska again and video blogging again — this time with the lovely Laura Lopez.  Here’s one of the highlights of day 1, when we saw moose at the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center.  Below that is a brief clip of one of the bears we saw there — not as cool as the time I saw the bear in the wild (you did just look through all the 2010 videos, right?) but still pretty neat to be that close to one… even if he was behind an electrified fence.

Also, it’s almost midnight here and it’s still light out.  My internal clock is so very confused right now.