Thursday, November 17, 2011


Here's the knife I made for my brother. It's for karate, so it's blunt (both blade and tip), but apart from that and the lack of heat-treating (not very necessary when no edge-holding is required) it's made exactly like a sharp knife would be. The blade is 1095 high-carbon steel, and the handle is African Blackwood. It took about eight hours to make and another six to eight hours to polish, but the polishing is easy and was primarily done while watching TV or reading.

There are a couple things I wish I could've done better with this. For one, there are still a few filing scratches visible on the blade. I should've spent more time with rough sandpaper when polishing it. In addition, I countersunk the holes for the bolster pins a bit too much, leaving small divots around the edge, and I used a pointed punch on the bolster pins when it turned out to not be necessary, so there are tiny holes in the middle. I wish there were a bit more blade definition, but that's more just aesthetic preference.

I've got another shipment of knife materials coming tomorrow (wood and synthetic scales for two handles and enough metal for seven blades), so hopefully I'll get a chance over the weekend to get started on another one.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Recent stuff

Sorry about the lack of a post in October, but I forgot. It happens.

Anyway, a bit of interesting stuff has happened lately.
1. Running a half-marathon: This past weekend I ran the McDonalds Half-Marathon in Richmond (putting me at exactly 365 miles on the year). I was aiming somewhat optimistically for a time of 2 hours, but due to the complete lack of hills (compared to my normal running routes, at least) I managed to finish it in 1:55:10, and like the Charlottesville Ten Miler I ran the second part faster than the first (8:54 a mile for the first 10k, 8:41 a mile for the rest). I need to do more practice at these distances so I have a better idea of what pace I can handle.

2. Looking for a job: Due to budget cuts at the place I was going to work, I no longer have a job lined up once I finish with the start-up in a few weeks. I'm working on fixing that. I've applied a couple places, so hopefully I'll get something.

3. Knife making: Back in September I decided to make a knife for my brother for his birthday, as he was in need of one for karate and hadn't had much luck finding a suitable one. I'd made one or two really crude ones in high school and college, but nothing fancy or nice-looking, and nothing with a design as specific and tight as this one needed. It ended up turning out much better than expected (I'll post pictures of it once I get a chance to take them later this week) and now a handful of other people want them, as well, so that'll be my project for December after I'm done with my current software job.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Stuff has actually happened this month!

So, unlike the rather boring couple months since my two-wheeled trek to the Pacific ended abruptly, stuff has actually happened this month.

-Job? Kinda? I have something resembling a job now. I'm currently working for a start-up while waiting to find out if I have a job with an established company. I'm working on an app for Android devices. Probably shouldn't say much more than that. I'm not getting paid yet (it's a pre-funding start-up), which is unfortunate, but it also has the benefit that there's no office, so I can work from my couch. It's pretty interesting stuff. It's giving me a chance to learn more about mobile development, which is something I've been meaning to learn, and it's interesting to see the inner workings of a fledgling company, instead of just being buried in code and nothing else.

-Moving to NoVa: I've recently moved up to Northern Virginia, due to that whole job thing. I'm living with a couple other guys from APO, which is working out pretty well. My room is a bit tiny (8'10" x 9'2"), but at least it's letting me practice my creative furniture building.

-Creative furniture building: Due to the miniscule size of my room, I'm having to conserve and double-use space. In order to fit both a bed (which is kinda a necessity) and a couch (which is definitely a necessity) into my room, I built a loft bed so they take up the same area of floor space. However, I was bored back in August/early September before starting work, so I decided to make it without the use of anything other than wood. This meant no nails, screws, glue, or even lashings, and instead a lot of chiseled notches for various pieces of wood to slot through, with a few pegs to hold the diagonal braces on. Somehow, it actually worked, and I think it's even sturdier and more stable than the loft bed in my room at home, despite initial skepticism on the part of all involved (that is, me and my dad). As an added bonus, the design actually incorporates my required couch as one of its braces. I'll post pictures once I take them tomorrow, but currently it's sitting nicely in my room ready to be slept in. And, with the exception of moving the couch into place, I was able to assemble it entirely by myself (Zak, thanks for the help with the couch).

-Other fun stuff: One nice advantage of working as opposed to school is that I don't have homework for the weekends (although I've been putting in a few hours of work out of my own curiosity about the project and not because I have to). This means that I have the time to do fun stuff, such as this weekend when I went climbing on Saturday (at a gym, as opposed to outside, but it was still quite fun) and scuba diving on Sunday (I'm now advanced open-water certified by NAUI). Next weekend will probably be climbing again on Saturday, and then I don't know about Sunday. Something fun, hopefully. In addition, I've been able to run most evenings after work, which is always good.

Now, though, sleep.

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Obligatory August post

Too many of these posts are obligatory end-of-the-month ones.  Hopefully that'll change once I'm actually doing interesting stuff.
On the topic of doing interesting stuff, that'll hopefully actually start happening soon.  More details once I have more details.
As for what I've been doing for the past month, the first little bit was finishing up at CTY, followed by coming home and attempting to get out of Charlottesville.  It looks like that'll be happening in the coming week.  I'm currently about to start one job in the dead space while waiting to find out if I have a different job.
As the Twitter sidebar thingy probably shows, I've been trying to do more running lately.  I set a resolution to run 365 miles this year, and just yesterday I got back up to having done an average of a mile a day.  Today I ran more and gave myself a week's buffer, but my ankle isn't happy with me so I'll probably take a few days off.

That's it for now, but expect more frequent posts once I actually have things about which to write.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Obligatory July Post

So it's the last day of July and I realized that because of CTY I hadn't yet posted anything on here. It's always busy and there's so much fun stuff going on that I don't have much time for outside communication.
A good portion of what I've had to do the past few weeks (aside from work for CTY) was figuring out what I'd be doing in the fall. I'd previously accepted an offer from Datran Media, an internet analytics firm in Reston, Virginia. I'd chosen them primarily because of the location: I wanted to get out of Charlottesville for a change of scenery, but I still wanted to be on the east coast.
However, in June I was told that they were moving from Reston to Austin, Texas. I've heard wonderful things about Austin, but I didn't particularly feel like moving there. I started looking around for a new job, and ended up getting offers for a few interviews. I was only able to do one of them due to being away at CTY, an interview with SAIC in Bethesda, Maryland, but it went well and I got the job. Assuming I can get the requisite security clearance, I'll be starting work there in September.
This upcoming week is the last one of CTY, and it's weird to think that it'll be my last summer here for a while. Having a real job means I probably won't be able to come back until I'm in grad school, which won't be for at least a few years. I've been at CTY in some way, either as a student or a TA, for 8 of the last 9 years and it feels strange to be leaving that.
The next month will be spent finding an apartment up in North Bethesda/southern Rockville, or somewhere in that vicinity, and preparing to permanently move for the first time in my life. I've moved to a dorm plenty of times, but I've never moved anywhere to stay for an indeterminate time frame.
Anyway, time to get back to work for class.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Well, I'm home

Sorry for the lack of updates during the last part of my trip, but after leaving Lone Pine everything started happening far too quickly, and so I didn't really get a good chance to sit down and write without the feeling that I'd be doing everything a disservice without knowing how the current episode was going to play out. Now, though, I know how it all ends (admittedly, right now I don't, as I'm writing this the night before arriving home, but, well, at this point, my vehicle had better not break down again or else, well, that'd be very, very bad).
So, where I left off: I'd just arrived in Lone Pine. My first two days in Lone Pine were spent sleeping in and gathering supplies. I needed food for my hike, albeit not much, and I decided I wanted that food to have the option of being hot, so I got a tiny camping stove (this has the added benefit of being able to quickly melt snow into drinking water). I also needed to pick up a bear canister, due to their habit of eating food brought by campers (and, on quite rare occasions, the campers themselves), and I needed to get my permit from the ranger station in town. All of this took only a very short while, and the rest of the time was largely spent reading and then fixing the muffler on the bike, as it'd gotten further damaged.
Quick note as to the construction of the muffler system on a Nighthawk: It's a two-cylinder engine, and it's got two mufflers. They emerge at the top front of the engine, one on either side, and then curl down the front and then beneath the bottom of the engine, just off to the sides, and continue on back to the rear of the bike. The mufflers themselves don't start until behind the engine; everything in front of that is just pipe directing gases. Beneath the engine a pipe goes across between the two mufflers, to redirect the flow in case either one gets blocked at the end (at least, that's what I think its purpose is). Overall, the system (or at least the part of it with which I was concerned) is a capital H shape.
The previous damage had been that one of the connection points between the pipe, muffler, and bypass pipe had completely failed – each part was broken off from each other, so there were three bare pipe endings just sort of sitting there in space with a small gap between them. Fixing such a junction is hard, because there's no easy way to wrap anything around it and get a perfectly opposing anchor point.
Sometime after the accident in Utah but before arriving in Lone Pine, the bypass pipe had fallen off, leaving both mufflers with holes. Based on the gas mileage (good on one tank and then bad the next), I think it happened somewhere either shortly before or in Death Valley. Despite the fact that, technically speaking, this problem was worse, two holes instead of one, it was significantly easier to fix – the holes were bigger, and there were two, but by hose-clamping pieces of sheet metal around the pipes, they were as good as new (minus the lack of the bypass, meaning I had to make sure no hooligans stuck potatoes or anything like that in the mufflers). It was eerie how quiet the bike was – coasting back from Whitney with the engine idling (due to there being a mile of elevation loss in 13 miles of road, I only needed to actually use the engine at the very end), I couldn't hear it over the wind.
Anyway, motorcycle fixing accomplished, and reading accomplished, as well (I finished The Lost City of Z, a good book about the Amazonian explorer Percy Fawcett), it was time for Mt. Whitney.
I decided before starting that 'd hike to Trail Camp and no further. Trail Camp is at 12,000 feet, six miles up the trail from the 8,000 foot or so trailhead. It's the last campsite before the summit, which is at a bit over ten miles along the trail, and at an elevation of 14,497.61 feet (although on a summit that's probably covered in dirt and gravel, I don't know how they measure the elevation to an accuracy of a hundredth of a foot or, roughly, the thickness of a nickel). It's also the last spot that was reachable (safely and sanely, even by my distorted standards of each) without an ice ax (pretty self explanatory) and crampons (spikes you strap onto your feet). I don't have either of those, and I decided to not rent them as a way of forcing myself to stop at that point.
I left town shortly before eight and arrived in Whitney Portal, the base of the trail, at shortly after eight. There isn't anything there except a store selling last-minute essentials, which in my case meant a map (I thought I had sent mine home, although I later found it at the very bottom of my motorcycle dashboard bag) and breakfast. I'd read on the online forums about the delicious pancakes made by the store, so I ordered one of those. I thought it odd that the menu listed pancake, singular, and not pancakes, but once it was prepared I understood: the singular pancake was probably sixteen or eighteen inches in diameter and in the middle approaching an inch thick, and when draped across two paper plates only slightly overlapped it still hung off both sides (long-ways, of course). I ate a small amount of it and saved the rest in a ziploc bag for later (although I never did end up finishing it).
Breakfast and map acquired, I set out up the trail. The first part wasn't that much different from trails in the Blue Ridge – the section I hiked had a gain of 4,000 feet over six miles, which isn't that much different of a grade from something like Humpback Rocks (although, for comparison, this hike started at roughly 2,500 feet above Virginia's highest point, Mt. Rogers, which is about 5,500 feet at the top).
The first part of the trail was, I'd say, even easier than Humpback – the slope was shallower due to the large number of switchbacks (only around two dozen, though – one late section of the trail, past Trail Camp so not a section I hiked, is called the 99 Switchbacks, but even that's an understatement, as it's actually somewhere in the 140s). That stretched about two and a half miles up to Lone Pine Lake, the point at which the permit became necessary (although the ranger who's supposed to check them wasn't there).
There had only been a few spots before the lake where the trail had snow, but past the lake it was almost non-stop. The first section was a winding trail through rocks and snow to get up to the first main campground, Outpost Camp, at three and a half miles along the trail. I'm not sure how good of a campground this actually is, as it seemed to be not much more than a shrub-filled swamp with a few dry spots at the west end, but there were tents there, so I suppose it counts.
I chatted briefly with the ranger, who was walking the trail instead of just waiting at Lone Pine. He didn't check my permit.
From this point on, it was entirely snowy, icy slopes. Immediately out of the campsite, the trail was a series of switchbacks, but because of the snow, the only viable route was straight up, cutting across all of them (it was tough to tell that it was even supposed to be switchbacks). This point led to a trail over some large rocks, at the end of which was a long, tall slope of snow, periodically interrupted by massive boulders. It was less intimidating than the slope up to the summit of Mt. Elbert, primarily because I'd already climbed Elbert and thus knew that it was doable, even by someone inexperienced like me, but the fact that I was carrying 57 pounds on my back (they have a scale at the trailhead) certainly added a bit of difficulty.
This section was about a mile long, gently tapering off at the top until where it reached Trail Camp, and it took me about an hour. A relatively sizable lake lies right to the side of the trail, and it was barely visible, just discolored ice.
Overall, it took me about six hours to make it the six miles to Trail Camp, which is, somehow, faster than the predicted pace. The rule I've heard is to assume an hour for each two miles and an hour for each thousand feet of elevation gain, but given that I knew I only had to do six miles and not the full ten and change to the top, I could move a bit faster.
Just as I was walking into Trail Camp, it began to snow. Not terribly heavily, but enough that by whenever in the night it stopped, it had left a noticeable amount, maybe a quarter inch or so, on previously bare surfaces.
At Trail Camp I found a spot surrounded by some improvised rock wall and began to set up my tent inside it, but there weren't spots to properly secure the stakes, so I had to move to slightly more exposed ground twenty or thirty feet away. I left my stuff here and climbed up onto a nearby slope (the southern face of Woten's Throne, a big rock formation towering a few hundred feet over the camp) to look for a better spot, either on the slope or visible below, but I couldn't find one. Upon returning to boulders next to the trail, it took me a good ten minutes to find where I'd left my things, despite my things including two bright red poles stuck vertically in the ground in, as I said, an exposed area.
Note to non-mountain-people: When I talk of a landscape with boulders, you might initially think of a field with a big rock sitting in it. This isn't quite what it's like. Imagine taking a handful of dirt and a handful of gravel, mixing them together quite well, shaking it all up, and then pouring this into a bowl (and then, of course, make everything a few hundred times bigger). That surface, with dirt and buried stones all intermixed so that there are flat spots of dirt, mounds of stones, and plenty of places where there's a mixture of the two intermingled, is what it's like.
Anyway, that's where I camped. I had everything set up by around five, and after cooking dinner and doing a bit of clean-up from that, it was six. I was tired from lugging myself and a third of my body weight all the way up to the camp, but I knew if I went to sleep right then I'd wake up around 3 am. Had I been continuing to the summit in the morning, that'd have been perfect, but as I was just hiking down, I didn't particularly want to wake up before sunrise. I read the introduction to Tom Sawyer, and then lay there for a while thinking my usual middle-of-nature philosophizing while listening to the snow land on the tent. It was somewhere in the twenties outside, or would get there overnight, but my sleeping bag (a zero-degree mummy bag) worked just fine at keeping my warm.
For someone who enjoys camping, I actually sleep really badly in tents. Not sure why. The fact that I never carry a pillow probably plays a role, but I also like to splay out a lot when I sleep, and sleeping bags and narrow sleeping mats atop cold, rocky ground really don't mesh with that desire. Anyway, despite a rather sleepless night, the morning came. I slept enough, somewhere between three and six hours, I'd guess, after lying there for between nine and twelve. I'm quite good at keeping myself entertained with just my thoughts (anyone who's gone on a long-distance motorcycle trip probably is, or else the hours with nothing to distract you, not even music to listen to, just the road occupying a bit of your brain and your body fully constrained by the task, would drive you mad) so it didn't bother me.
I awoke in the morning to find that the snow had stopped. My portable weather radio thingy with built-in thermometer told me that the current temperature was 27 degrees, and that was inside my tent, so outside was probably a degree or two colder. Keep in mind, if you've lost track of the date in this narrative, that this was the morning of June 8th.
I got up and explored a bit more up on Woten's Throne, but I didn't get very high up before I didn't feel safe climbing on the icy rock. When I go back to climb Whitney in a warmer month I'll take chalk and climbing shoes and go to the top. Technically speaking it isn't that tough, certainly not worse than a 5.7, and there's probably a route up that isn't even a 5. Still, more than I wanted to do that morning, improperly prepared, carrying a camera case.
I packed up camp and headed down. No bears had attempted to get into my bear canister, luckily. Even though they're kinda designed for that sort of thing, I think I might have a hard time getting my deposit back on the rental if it had massive claw and teeth marks in it.
There's a small lake at Trail Camp (it's more of a pond, but the map calls it a lake). Without a map, you would've had absolutely no way of knowing about it, due to the snow. I hope the ice is thick enough to support a person's weight, but I certainly didn't search it out to find out. On the way down, the new snow had also made the significantly larger lake below Trail Camp (I think it's called Consultation Lake, but I could be wrong, however shocking that might sound) completely invisible. It just looked like a flat, surprisingly level and rock-free meadow.
I took two wrong turns on the way down. Neither was really an issue. The first took me down a steep snow- and ice-covered slope instead of down the switchbacks above Outpost Camp, but it was interesting, it gave me a chance to do a bit of glissading, and I got to see the remains of my first natural avalanche (as opposed to the tiny one I prompted on Wheeler Peak). It was different than the Wheeler one, anyway: whereas that was nothing but loose snow, a liquid flow of it, this one seemed to have been more a rockslide of blocks of ice and packed snow, far less fluid and probably less graceful but more intimidating. Either way, it seems to have happened during the night, so probably no one saw it to tell one way or the other.
Below the avalanche (below as in farther down the slope, not below as in buried by) was Outpost Camp. On the way up I had climbed to one rock overlooking the Camp, to get a good view of it, and on the way back I did so again, but with a different rock. From this rock I slid down to another and then planned to make my way across the slope to the far end of the camp.
One important fact to realize is that, because of the snow the previous night, the ground was four layers: there was the ground itself, rock and dirt; there was the underlying dense snowmelt from the winter, there was the crust of ice atop this that I discussed in my explanation of postholing (which luckily only happened once or twice on this hike, with no ill consequences), and there was that night's snow. This made getting a good foothold difficult, if the slope was too steep: the snow atop ice was quite slippery, and due to the large discrepancy between daytime and nighttime temperatures the ice crust was thick. It's these conditions that make an ice ax useful, as you can easily drive its serrated pick through the ice to get a hold if you start to fall. Getting through any other way is difficult, and can't really be counted on in a time of need.
However, I was rather in that time of need. Because I'd reached my spot by sliding down a slope too steep to walk, just retracing my path wasn't possible. Likewise, going straight down wasn't possible, because I had no way to self-arrest (slow my speed of descent) without an ice ax and it was too far, and onto too uneven a pile of rocks, to slide. I had to continue on sideways, but I could barely stand on the slope, even after driving the edges of my boots into the snow/ice as far as possible (these are the conditions that make crampons useful).
If I had been forced to go down, I probably could've made it. I would've tied as long a cord to my pack as I could've managed and slid that down first, and then just aimed for the best spot and prepared for the impact at the bottom. However, I did have one tool, or pair of tools, that might be useful, and those were my hiking poles, which, however silly I thought them before this trip, have actually proven to be quite the lucky addition to my gear.
I was, mostly, able to drive them through the ice crust, due to their relatively sharp steel tips (not sharp, per se, but small, about the size of a ball-point pen tip, so capable of generating great pressure). About two-thirds of the time I could get them all the way through and also into the couple feet of snow below, but other times I could only get them partly through, embedded a few inches. When they went all the way through they provided a perfectly stable handgrip, but when they went only partway in, they held if I had my feet planted and were iffy otherwise.
By leapfrogging these over each other a foot or two at a time, I was able to slide over to the next rock pile, and from there to the final one at the end of the slope overlooking the camp. From there I could reach the proper trail again, and continue down.
(I should clarify here that although the slope was too steep to walk across or control my slide down, it was by no means a vertical wall or anything approaching it. Taking into account the fact that people are terrible at judging slopes, it was probably 45 degrees. I'd guess it to be steeper but people normally vastly overestimate. Regardless, try turning an ice rink to the slope of a staircase and see how you can manage, even if it seems not that bad when thinking about it in the abstract of just 45 degrees.)
From here I made a similar poor choice of path when descending to Lone Pine Lake, but the snow here was easier to get a grip in and the ice was easier to pierce with the hiking poles, and I had more practice at this point. After Lone Pine Lake, there were only a few spots of trail left. It was just hiking the last few miles down the gravel trail through the trees, down the switchbacks, back to the trailhead, and then biking back into town. I had skipped breakfast because I didn't feel like cooking, so I went across the street from my motel and had one of Lone Pine's delectable veggie burgers. Seriously, that town has awesome veggie burgers. Every place I went (a whopping total of three, including the Whitney Portal Store but not counting the Subway) had them on the menu, and the two I tried were both delicious.
I packed everything up and mailed a second box home, making it so that, surprisingly enough, I actually had some empty space in my bags for the first time during the trip.
I decided at this point to change my plan. Well, I decided during my malaise in Leadville to change the plan after Whitney, but it wasn't until this point that I made my new plan: head out to the Pacific, specifically, Monterey, then ride down the Pacific Coast Highway to a bit north of LA before cutting east to Austin, Texas, due to suggestions from multiple friends, and then from there, home, through the south on some route that would intersect my old roommate's Bike And Build trip. I booked my places to stay through Austin, at two KOA campgrounds and then a motel in Austin itself (I was also spending one night along the coast, but that would be at a national park campground that didn't accept reservations). From Austin, then, it'd be another three days of riding, and then I'd be home.
Heading out of Lone Pine, the ride started out going pretty well. The chain on the bike had developed a bit of a habit of coming off the rear axle, doing so twice on the way to Lone Pine and then once shortly after leaving. It was probably due in part to the accident on Pike's Peak, as it happened then, and the accident in Utah certainly didn't help, either, as it happened there, as well. After this it was loose, so a bad combination of braking and shifting gears while moving at the right speed would knock it loose. Easy enough to fix, but annoying.
Well, about two-thirds of the way to Monterey, it came off again, and this time got stuck somehow such that I needed to remove one of the side panels near the engine in order to jiggle it around to get it back in place. Unfortunately, I didn't have the tools to do that, as I needed an 8mm socket and I only had a very cheap 8mm flat wrench. Luckily, after being stopped at the side of the road for upwards of an hour, a guy passing by stopped, and happened to have the right tools. However, even though it was temporarily fixed, the chain really needed either seriously tightened or replaced.
I managed to make it to Monterey, although about three hours later than planned, and due to that and weather conditions I bailed on the campground idea and instead opted for a motel. In the morning I took the bike to a repair place (morning #2 starting in a bike shop), and they replaced the chain, and suggested that I get the rear sprocket replaced as soon as possible, too, although they didn't have the proper one in stock.
In Monterey, while waiting on the bike repairs, I walked over to the ocean and dipped my fingers in the Pacific, about two weeks after swimming in the Atlantic.
As I was leaving Monterey, I noticed that the rear tire was showing serious wear. Specifically, the rubber in one spot had worn away far enough to expose the underlying fabric (rubber on its own is pretty strong, but the added reinforcement of fabric or metal embedded in the rubber makes it even stronger). This is, to put it mildly, not good, as that means there isn't much tire left, and when it's the drive tire on a motorcycle that's doing five hundred miles a day at 60 miles an hour, that's not going to last very long. Blowouts on cars suck. It can damage the rim and, if the conditions are bad, can jeopardize your control of the vehicle. Blowouts on motorcycles, especially at highway speeds, are many times worse, due to both the fact that it's one of two tires instead of one of four and the fact that while cars are inherently stable, with their default position being upright, motorcycles are not. If you just stop doing anything to a car, it'll drift to a stop eventually with no real issues. If you just stop managing a bike, for example, if your attentions drifts for a few seconds because your tire just burst, the bike loses balance, and that isn't good. Quite bad, in fact.
I was already on the famed Pacific Coast Highway, CA-1 along Big Sur, at this point, and I figured (correctly, there isn't any surprise disaster coming, at least not yet) that I had enough tire left to make it to San Luis Obispo at the south end of the desolate (human-civilization-wise) stretch of parkland.
The ride was beautiful. The winds at points were annoying, but that's the case with most roads, and given that this was right along the coast, it easily could've been a lot worse. The only problem I ran into was that I wanted to stop every few miles to visit the beach. I'll need to visit some other time when I have a week to see just that hundred-odd-mile stretch of road. Maybe I'll try it on a regular bicycle instead of a motorcycle.
Anyway, I made it to San Luis Obispo to the south, with just enough time to go by one of the motorcycle shops. They had the right tire in stock, but they didn't have time to install it that night. I said I'd be back in the morning and went off to find a motel.
I have a problem where I lose track of time like it's my job. When I'm doing something largely untethered like this trip, it's even worse, as I drift in both time and date. When you combine that with the fact that I don't know the schedules for random west-coast universities, you get the result that I had no idea it was Friday, and Cal Poly's graduation was the following morning in SLO. Finding an open room, okay, that actually wasn't difficult. Finding an open room for a price I was willing to pay, though, wasn't possible, so I had to go a town or two north and stay in a park service campground (which still cost as much as a cheap motel). When I got back into town the next morning, the size of the section of fabric wear on the tire had increased substantially, from maybe an inch long to four inches long, going through two separate fabric layers. Given that my next stretch took me across a few thousand miles of desert, it was a good thing I caught the problem when I did.
I got the new tire and I set out, headed east for the first time that trip. I had a reservation at a KOA in Blythe.
Here's a hint: I don't know if it applies to everyone (well, I know for a fact that it doesn't, but anyway), but if you want to ensure that you'll run into mechanical difficulties that mess with your schedule, make a reservation at a KOA. They have a mystical power of just picking up a sledgehammer and going at whatever means of transportation I'm using (well, so far just the bike).
Anyway, I was rolling through the Desert Cities (the stretch of I-10 in California from Palm Springs to Coachella) when, all of a sudden, the bike engine starts rapidly losing power. I pull into a gas station (the last one for twenty miles, as the bike luckily started dying less than a mile before the last exit of the cities) and see large quantities of oil all over, well, pretty much everything around the engine. I refill the oil, turn the bike back on, and confirm, yep, it's leaking oil. A lot. And due to the engine temperature, I can't do much, so I head inside to let it cool down for a while. After it's all cooled down, I make sure the oil is at the proper level and turn it back on. No oil seems to be leaking, so I head back for the interstate, three quarts of oil and a gallon of water crammed various places in my bags, as I'm heading into twenty miles of desert, and still have 90 miles to get to Blythe.
I just switched to present tense instead of past. Oops. Well, I'll leave it like that. Just don't think I didn't notice.
Anyway, I'm heading out of the parking lot, but the power doesn't seem right. I glance down and, yep, still leaking oil. I head into the nearest town with a motel, Indio, a mile or two to the west, and wait.
The next day is Sunday and nothing's open, so I just wait and nap and read. I finish Tom Sawyer and start The Screwtape Letters (I want to like C.S. Lewis, but he's just terrible at that whole “subtlety” thing), but that's not terribly interesting.
Monday comes. I take the bike to the shop and walk over to the nearest bookstore, well, the nearest store with books, which is a Target, and pick up The Devil and the White City, about the Chicago Exposition of 1893. It's excellent.
I read and nap more that day, and in the afternoon get a call that, well, the bike could be fixed, but it'd take at least a week and cost at least $700 in labor, before parts are taken into account, and it'd need a good deal of those. Basically, the engine needs completely redone. I pick it up from the shop and get it to limp back to the motel, but it isn't making it home under its own power.
I'd talked over this possibility with my parents the previous day, and had settled on a somewhat strange plan for if it was unfixable, or if it'd take too long to fix (I have work in Pennsylvania starting on the 23rd, and it's a four-day bike ride from Indio to Charlottesville, so there was only a week to get it fixed, and even that'd really be pushing it). The plan, as you may have noticed in a Twitter update I posted, was to mail it.
Well, not technically mail. I used UPS, not the USPS.
The following day, Tuesday the 14th, was a fun day. First thing in the morning I walked to a rental car place and picked up an SUV, and from there I promptly went to UPS to get boxes, Home Depot to get tools, and Target to get ziploc bags for bolts. I then spent the next seven hours in the parking lot of a Motel 6 completely disassembling the motorcycle, part for part. One box held the wheels, one held the body panels and the assorted bolts and small stuff, and one held the frame and the electrical system, as well as the shock absorbers. The gas tank got its own box. Originally I'd been planning on having the engine be my airline carry-on, but it was too greasy, so I wrapped it in some trash bags and headed into the UPS store to ship some of the boxes and pick up boxes for the engine.
When I got boxes in the morning (and then again at lunchtime), I had made passing reference to the fact that I was shipping a motorcycle, but I don't think they quite understood what that entailed. That trip, I carried in two boxes, one about 70 pounds, one 82, and both large enough to fit several bodies (possibly with a bit of dismemberment involved). I just brought in the raw gas tank and got a box for it and packed it on the spot, as it was small and easy to pack. I was about to purchase another couple boxes and some bubble wrap when the guy at the counter pointed out that they'd box up whatever you brought in for a couple bucks. I let out a probably somewhat disturbing laugh and walked outside, and walked back in from the parking lot carrying a 90-pound engine, still with cables, hoses, and kickstand attached. I set it down on the counter and just said, “Have fun.”
He found it entertaining, luckily, or else I'd be preparing right now for one of my packages to be mysteriously lost in transit.
I had to take in the final box, the one with the wheels, the next morning, as it wouldn't all fit in the back of the Jeep at the same time. I then dropped off that rental car and immediately picked up another one, as I needed to get to LAX for my flights home this evening (the first one of which I'm writing this during). While waiting to pick up the second one I read an article saying that, although I had found it absurdly hot, Indio and the area was actually going through an abnormally cold year:there had only been one day out of the first two weeks of June that was over 100 degrees, and that was the previous day, when I'd spent seven hours in the sun on asphalt disassembling the bike, at 108.
I took my time getting to LA, as I had to check out of my motel at noon but didn't depart until half past midnight. I had an excellent lunch at a little taco restaurant in Indio (one good thing about being so close to Mexico is that the Mexican food is delicious) and took three stops while driving to read a bit. Upon arriving at LAX I checked in, and found that my bags were slightly overweight, by a total of about four pounds, meaning instead of costing $60 to check them, it'd cost $160 (I'd basically just shoved my camping backpack in one duffel bag and the saddlebags in another). I'd need to get them down to 50 pounds each to prevent that. After much shuffling, including switching my FiveFingers that I'd been wearing with the boots I'd packed and deciding to sacrifice my shampoo, bottle of water, and sunscreen, and packing one FiveFinger shoe in each bag, I got them each to come in at 49.5 pounds. I checked them through, carried my daypack and motorcycle helmet up through security, and flew home.

Now that the detailed travelogue is done, time for all the inevitable philosophizing that naturally springs forth from adventures like this.
One thought that's been on my mind a lot in the past week has been that I need to read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. I've read a passage or two in philosophy classes, but only a few pages. However, it struck me, both while just riding and actually doing maintenance, how necessary a sense of focus and calm is when traveling extended distances. For the riding itself, you need to be able to remain focused on the road, completely on the road, while at the same time have your mind free to wander. If it isn't free to wander you'll burn out far too quickly, or at least I would. Riding isn't a stimulating enough activity (except on Californian highways, due to lane splitting being legal) to occupy me for the ten hours a day it sometimes had to, and so my I know have four pages of story ideas as well as seven different iPhone apps to write, as well as a song to attempt to compose. For the maintenance, you need to be able to pull together what you have with you, your knowledge of what's wrong, and your ideas about how to make it right, in order to do a quick patch on a 350-pound hunk of steel and rubber that'll soon be carrying you and a hundred pound of projectiles immediately behind you down the road at 80 mph (not that I would ever break the speed limit, of course). It takes confidence in your abilities and a calmness to ride anyway, even if you know things aren't perfect. Now, it wasn't quite this intense for me, as none of my fixes were the sort that'd cause a crash if they failed, but I think I could have managed if they had been.
This adventure stood in stark contrast to my last big adventure, Vietnam, in that this one was almost entirely transient, moving quickly from place to place, whereas in Vietnam we spent over a month in just one city (and then traveled around, to be sure, but the big part of the Asia section was just in Hue). Afterward we went to Europe, which was moving around, but staying in each place for longer.
As long as I can remember I've broken adventuring and wisdom-gathering in general (of which I consider adventuring a subset) into two groups. (These are by no means groups that I came up with myself; I'm certain they are not, and that I heard them somewhere else, although I'm not positive where. It may have been a book by Jostein Gaardner about Christmas that my parents used to read me each year, but it may also not have been. Anyway, point being, not my original idea, I just like it.) The way I remember it being explained was as a comparison of two desert wise men. One sits on a camel, and travels all across the world, learning a little bit about everything there is to see. The other sits atop an astronomy tower and, night after night, studies a single constellation, perhaps a single star, until he knows it completely, in and out. The analogy to adventuring should be clear. Having now tried both, I think I prefer the latter, and hopefully I'll get a chance to do more of it. I want to return to Vietnam and spend a lot more time there. It's a beautiful country, and there's something about the culture that's also quite intriguing. It'd help to learn Vietnamese (or at the very least French), but I have a few years until I'd be able to return anyway, so if I can work up the motivation, I'll give that a shot.

Well, that was the trip. I'm sure I'll write more about it when I post photographs, but that probably won't be for another day or two as I still need to transfer them over to my Mac and then sort through them all. (Also, I apologize if there are any typos or misspellings in this post, but it was primarily written on the plane ride home, which means I'd been up for twenty-four rather busy hours, and as such was a little tired.)

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The past four or so days

Sorry about the long time with no post, but once I got back to Leadville from Colorado Springs I was pretty busy for a few days.

After leaving Leadville I went to Taos, New Mexico. It's a little tourist town in northern New Mexico primarily centered around outdoorsy stuff in the Sangre de Cristo range of the Rocky Mountains, and just general southwestern-style Indian-themed stuff for people from Colorado who don't want to have to go too far south. I rolled in about midday after a mostly uneventful ride. I had a bit of trouble balancing all my bags on the bike, as I had accumulated a bit of stuff in Leadville, but I managed without crashing.
Upon arriving in Taos I realized I had a voicemail message on my phone (it's hard to hear anything above the sound of the engine of the motorcycle, especially with a somewhat-busted muffler). I'll write a whole post about that message later, but in this case later probably won't be until the end of the summer.
Once in Taos, I dropped all my stuff in a motel and set out in search of maps of Wheeler Peak, the hike I wanted to do the next day. After the troubles on Mt. Elbert I wanted to make sure that I had a damn good map.
I was able to find a quite good one, in what seems to be Taos's only outdoors store (the only one of which I could find any mention, at the very least). The cashier warned me, though, that there'd be two feet of snow on the mountain above 10,000 feet (that is, the entire length of the trail). A bit more than I'd like, but I wasn't going to let the weather stand in the way of another hike. This one was only to a bit more than 13,000 feet anyway, so at the very least there was less height to climb.
Someone in the restaurant I'm in just ordered a Miller Lite. It should be pointed out that I'm here for breakfast on a Sunday.
Anyway, after getting the map and a guide to the hike I headed back to the motel and got to sleep early, as I wanted to wake up before 6 the following morning. That didn't quite happen.

I rolled out of bed around 6:30 and managed to make it to the trailhead by 8. The trailhead was in the Taos Ski Valley, a small town (I believe the population is ~47, no joke) in the mountains outside of Taos that is, as you could probably guess, primarily concerned with skiing. The hike broke down into two parts. The first two miles was a hike up to William's Lake, a small (one or two acre, I would guess) lake at a hair over 11,000 feet. It was an easy hike, the kind I'm used to from Virginia. Elevation-gain-wise, even Humpback Rocks is more difficult (and as for the altitude, I was pretty much completely acclimated to Leadville's 10,000 feet at this point). I stopped at the lake for a breakfast of trail mix and to watch the chipmunks scurry around. Taos Ski Valley has chipmunks like UVA has squirrels. It's awesome.
Once I was ready to go I checked my GPS to see how far it was from there to the summit. It said about 4,000 feet. Not that hard. The hard part (that you already realize if you've been keeping track of all the numbers I've tossed around) is that there was also 2,000 feet of elevation gain.
(Aside: For those of you who don't have experience hiking tall mountains, for each 1,000 feet, imagine taking the stairs to the upper observation deck of the Empire State Building. It's about comparable.)
There was a trail that led from the lake to the summit along a slightly longer and less steep route (it probably stretched the distance out to a mile and a half of lateral motion), so I took this. The main change was over the first 500 feet of elevation gain, which wasn't too terribly much steeper than the earlier part of the trail, but it, like the trail up to the lake, was covered in fairly deep snow. On the way up, it was still early (I got to the lake around 9 and headed up around 9:15), so postholing wasn't too much of an issue.
(Another aside: “Postholing” is one of those terms used on internet forums that's never defined. If you've ever been hiking in the winter in an area where there's season-long snow cover, it doesn't need defined, as once you hear it, you know exactly what it means. Over the course of the winter, when the temperature gets above freezing, the uppermost snow melts, seeps down, and re-freezes, leaving a fairly strong top surface but normal fluffy snow below. If you're lucky you don't break through the top surface and it's just like walking on rough ice or dirt. If the ice isn't strong enough, you sink straight down, into snow that can be up to a few feet deep, as if you've just stepped into a post-hole. It happens more in the afternoon after the snow has had a chance to melt, but hasn't refrozen over the night.)
After that, it hit the last mile or so, where there was still 1,500 feet to gain. The first quarter or so was spent getting to the treeline, hiking up the rocky side of a chute of snow. After that, it was more rocks, just a steep, steep rocky slope, occasionally having to cross a bit of snow. There was a fair amount of snow, maybe a quarter of the mountain, but it was easy enough to avoid. The wind was strong, probably upwards of 60mph at the top, but not unmanageable (it was nothing compared with Pike's Peak).
Once I got to the top, I realized that the southern side of the mountain had significantly more snow – although it gets more sun, I guess the strong wind out of the north melts more snow. The summit itself was snow-free, except for a bit underneath some rocks piled to mark the top.
Also, marmots! It's good to know that no matter how good humans get at climbing mountains, marmots will be better. There were, in addition to the countless (okay, not countless, I did count: eleven, I think) marmots I saw on the way up, three just chilling on the summit as I approached. They scampered away once I got too close, but they were just sitting there, enjoying the view from 13,000 feet.
I got to the top a few minutes before noon, so over two and a half hours after leaving the lake. I stayed for a few minutes to take pictures before starting down a bit after noon. The first part of the descent was on the slow side – the highest part of the slope was nothing but talus and scree, so it was important to keep a steady footing while descending (although there were certainly parts where I felt like the illustration from the Magic card Avalanche Riders).
After that first part that was only rock, it sped up. The snow was avoidable, if I had wanted to avoid it, but that really didn't seem fun. There's a technical mountaineering term called “glissading” (not to be confused with the ballet term of the same name) that's basically a fancy-sounding French word for “sledding down a mountain without a sled”. Theoretically you do it with an ice ax to keep your speed in check, but I didn't have an ice ax, so my feet and my hiking poles had to do. And they worked masterfully – although it had taken me nearly three hours to get from the lake to the summit, it took me less than an hour to get down, because of the 2,000 feet I needed to descend, I'd estimate that at least a thousand of those were just sliding down the snow.
Back at the lake I took some pictures of the chipmunks before heading down. New Mexico is a really good state for seeing rodents: in addition to the marmots and chipmunks on Wheeler, I saw my first prairie dog in the wild in New Mexico, and also saw, although by no means for the first time, plenty of rabbits.
I got lunch (gazpacho) at the Bavarian Restaurant, conveniently located at the base of the trail (which happens to also be the base of the ski lift), and headed back to Taos proper. I did a bit of souvenir shopping for people (a reminder to people who have reason to believe you'll be getting something: keep in mind that I have highly limited packing space). Then, random work that needed to be done and then packing, and bed.

Desert Solitude:
The following morning was shipping a box of stuff home to Virginia so that I had less stuff with which to bike, and setting off for Shiprock, New Mexico, and then Page, Arizona. Shiprock was cool to see – it's a massive rock formation – but it was just a quick stop to admire it and take a few pictures. After that, on to Page.
Page is best known as a town set up to house the workers building the Glen Canyon Dam. As some of you know, I rather like Edward Abbey, and Edward Abbey rather hated Glen Canyon Dam, as he loved Glen Canyon, which was effectively destroyed by it (the canyon is still there, but it's now completely filled with water and known as Lake Powell). I wish I could've seen Glen Canyon, as from everything I've read it seems like a beautiful place, but such is life.
I camped there, and in the morning set out for Lone Pine, California. It involved crossing more state lines than any other day, I think (although it was only tied for most different states visited, at four), as I went from Arizona, to Utah, to Arizona, to Utah, to Arizona, to Nevada, to California, back to Nevada to fill up (so I didn't run out of gas in the middle of Death Valley), and then back to California.

A Surprising Lack of Mormons:
As I was going through Utah for the first time, the road twisted its way between a bunch of different mesas and hills that I just couldn't resist the urge to see closer up. I turned off onto one of the dirt side roads the cut across the desert, a rocky, tire-rutted trail across the sand, and less than a mile in, I crashed.
Not too bad, mind you. My wheels got trapped in a deep tire track left at some point that the road had been muddy, and the track turned before I was able to stop the bike, and I crashed. I wasn't doing more than fifteen miles an hour at this point, probably not more than ten, but the bike tipped over onto its left side (same as on Pike's Peak) with me still on it. The gear-shift pedal lever thing got bent, but I was able to bend it back to almost its original shape, and the left mirror shattered. With a ballpoint pen, the casing for the mirror, some electrical tape, and a supplementary convex mirror from an auto parts store I was able to make a passable replacement. I also lost the left passenger footrest (it didn't come off in the accident, but must've gotten loosened and fallen off sometime later), and the muffler repairs all got knocked around so as to be pretty much useless. I picked up more muffler tape but haven't had a chance to re-patch it yet (probably later today).

Pulp Fiction:
After that, it was relatively smooth sailing. I got annoyed and frustrated in Nevada in the section leading up to Las Vegas (now my second-least-favorite metropolitan area, just ahead of St. Louis). Way too many tractor-trailers. If any of you ever happen to drive a truck, please keep the following in mind: if you're going roughly the same speed as a small motorcycle, let the motorcycle be in front. Although it makes no difference to you, driving behind a truck is exceedingly difficult, due to the turbulence created, and as a result we either have to continually play leapfrog with you to avoid it, or slow down and let you get significantly ahead. This holds true for large motorcycles, too, but they've got enough power to just straight-up pass you and keep going. Small bikes such as mine max out at roughly 55-85 mph (depending on steepness of road, amount of luggage, and wind), and so we're stuck if you're doing the same speed as us, because on the interstate we're going as fast as we can.
Rant over.
Anyway, after that, Nevada wasn't too bad. After Nevada, after getting to California, I realized that, unless there happened to be a gas station in the middle of Death Valley, it was highly unlikely that I'd make it through with the amount of gas I had left. I turned around and had to backtrack about forty miles to the nearest service station (however beautiful the midwest and the southwest are, the barrenness is annoying when you're traveling with a 4-gallon gas tank). Tank filled, I set off into Death Valley, only to find that, about twenty miles in, there was, in fact, a gas station. The gas was $5.459 a gallon, but I'd have payed it given that I only would've needed two gallons, and that would've saved me about an hour and a half of driving time. Such is life. Next time I'll know.
Driving through Death Valley was fun, although it was also a little scary. I don't know whether it would've been better or worse to do it during the daytime, instead of the pitch blackness that I had. If it'd been light I could've seen the road a bit farther ahead, but I could've also seen over the side of the road, which, especially after Pike's Peak, would've been a bit scary (despite what almost all of my behavior seems to indicate, I am actually somewhat afraid of heights). It's called a valley, and yes, in the sense of having mountains on either side, it is a valley, but when you think of a valley, you, like me, probably think of a low place between two strings of mountains. It's true that Death Valley has low points – at one spot, I was over 100 feet below sea level. However, it then rises up to almost 5,000 feet, before dropping back to nearly sea level and then rising back up over 4,000 feet again, all in the course of twenty miles of road. I'm sure the views were excellent, but as it was as close to pitch black as I've ever come in nature (excluding one cave in Ha Long Bay where I literally hit my nose on the wall in front of my face), I couldn't see them.

After that, Lone Pine, California, in Inyo County. Inyo is notable in that it contains both the highest (Mt. Whitney) and lowest (Badwater) points in the continental United States. I passed a few miles northeast of Badwater yesterday, and on Tuesday I'll be hiking to within a few miles of the Mt. Whitney summit. Due to the snow conditions, I won't be going for the top. It's advised that only those with significant winter mountaineering experience attempt the summit, and I have none, and am traveling alone (and, admittedly, don't much feel like looking for a group to join, as I like doing the hikes on this trip alone). So, I won't be going for the top, just one of the lower base camps. (To see the importance of experience and the potential risks of failure, go to the Wikipedia page for Mt. Whitney and look at the picture. There isn't currently that much snow, but still a significant amount.)
So, after arriving in Lone Pine, I checked into a motel and quickly passed out, because yesterday was a very long day. Today is planning and preparation and relaxation, as will be tomorrow.
I've taken photos of stuff the past few days, but because of the difficulties of working with them on this computer, I'm just going to hold off on posting them until the end of the trip. Speaking of which, where should I go next? I feel like changing the plan, so suggestions are welcome. I'm currently in eastern California, about the middle north-south wise, and after leaving here on the 9th I've got about 10 days to make it back to Charlottesville. I can ride upwards of 600 miles a day. Any suggestions?

Full post tomorrow, I swear...

I know I've been continually procrastinating on writing a blog post and said I'd write one tonight, but due to a string of things I didn't get into Lone Pine until just a short while ago, and as I woke up at around 6, I'm quite tired.  So, bedtime.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Breaking things

Sorry about the lack of a post last night.
As I mentioned in my last post, yesterday the plan was to bike Pike's Peak. It started out well enough. I slept in a bit too much (not a bad thing, though, as it means I'm dealing with the altitude better) and got headed out from Leadville around 8, arriving at the base of the mountain at roughly 10:30. I started up the highway, 19 curving miles leading from somewhere between 7,000 and 8,000 feet up to the summit at 14,115 feet. The first ten miles were fine. After that point it got a bit windy, but it was manageable. At 13 miles there's a second gate, where they can close the road if weather's bad, but they hadn't, and I kept going.
The wind above the 13 mile mark got a bit worse, until all of a sudden I hit a saddle between two higher points at a bit past the 17 mile point, with an elevation of between 12,000 and 13,000 feet, and the wind was just impossible. I had just managed to stop and had no time to turn the bike around and head back before a gust knocked it over, breaking the clutch lever and derailing the chain.
Gary and Janice, a nice retired (it seems) couple from southern California were, quite luckily passing by, and gave me a ride down the mountain (there was one car that passed before they did, but didn't bother to stop). Upon passing the 13 mile mark, we learned that they'd closed the upbound road as a result of winds of 102 mph that had been causing trouble for bikers (including people other than just me) and that had been blowing out the windows on some cars.
Once I was down at the base of the road, I called a tow truck and a few hours later the bike and I were sitting outside of a motorcycle shop in Colorado Springs. I left the bike there with a note about what was wrong with it and, with the help of my ground crew back in Charlottesville, found a nearby motel at which to spend the night. Luckily I've adopted the habit of always carrying at least one book with me, even if there isn't any time for me to read it in the plan.
This morning I went by the shop and explained what was broken, and they did one quick check of their storeroom and said, yep, we've got the part you need in stock. Forty-five minutes later I was back on the road, and after a quick stop by the motel to pick up the stuff I'd left there I was back on my way to Leadville.
About twenty miles outside of Leadville I passed an intriguing-looking side road that led up into the hills, so I followed that some ten or so miles until it became too snowy to continue. I took a few pictures of a cool overlook but I haven't pulled them off the camera yet.
From there, it was just back to my room in Leadville to begin packing and planning for the next leg of the trip, down to New Mexico and then over to California to hike Mt. Whitney.
I don't know if it's because of the trouble I had with Mt. Elbert, the bike accident on Pike's Peak, the highly mixed trip reports I've read about Whitney, or the fact that I've been away from home and on the move for a week, but this afternoon I was just hit with a massive wave of... I don't know exactly the right word for it. Malaise? Apprehension? Sadness? Not sure. Something like that, about the rest of the trip. Not really sure what to do. It's not like I can just say, oh well, trip over, and instantly be home. It's a three day trip from here, and once I get to California it's either four or five days. And even if I could just head back home, I'm not sure that's what I'd want. I absolutely hate going back on what I said I'd do, even if the only person I really said it to was myself.
Oh, well. I'll do some more reading and packing and see if my mood improves at all.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Fixing broken stuff (my bike and my skin)

I took today off from hiking because of the amount of snow still here. Given the amount of time it took for the hike yesterday, any of the other ones I had planned would've taken probably 14 hours or more. I'd have to either start or finish after dark, and given the difficulty in seeing the trails even in the daylight, that just didn't seem safe. I'll hike Massive and Harvard some other time I'm in Colorado, when it's later in the season, or when I'm not traveling alone. Instead, tomorrow I'm going to motorcycle over to the top of Pike's Peak, and Tuesday, well, I'll figure out something to do on Tuesday.
Today, as a result of both some tough offroad-ish riding yesterday and the long ride tomorrow, I needed to improve the fix on the motorcycle. Here's what it looked like initially, in its very ghetto form (about a thousand miles after it was initially applied):

Now, after being replaced with hopefully better materials, here is its current form:

Note that there aren't soda markings anymore, because this was actually done with real sheet metal and not the scraps from what I drank along the way. Apart from that it's pretty much the same, admittedly, but this metal is thicker, and hopefully the new design of how I put the pieces on will do a better job of keeping everything securely sealed and in place.  It's still aluminum, though, so it'll burn away eventually.  I have a steel can of refried beans that I can use to patch it (once I eat the contents, of course), but they're still sitting unopened on the desk.

After that, I read a fair amount more (I'm now done with Invisible Cities and three chapters into Under the Black Flag) and went for a run (3.8 miles at an embarrassingly slow pace). After that, it was nearing sundown, so I biked up into the hills northeast of Leadville to try to get some good pictures of the sunset. Had there been a good sunset I'd have gotten some good shots, as I found an excellent vantage point, but there were too many clouds to the west and the sky just gradually darkened without much excitement. Here's a picture of where it would've been, though:

Now, as some of you may know, I kinda majored in physics (it's really weird to put that in the past tense). One of the things that I studied in my last physics class was radiation, its reflectivity off different materials, its effects on bodily tissue, and how its intensity changes when it travels through different substances. Somehow, yesterday I completely forgot all of this when hiking. I neglected to think about the fact that UV radiation 1) is more intense at higher altitudes, because there's 14,000 fewer feet of air to block it, 2) reflects extremely well off snow, and 3) has nasty effects on skin. As a result of forgetting all this and just thinking, it's cold, you can't get sunburned when it's cold, I neglected to put on sunscreen (despite bringing it with me from home, the thought of using it yesterday never even crossed my mind). Now, I have a nice, rather impressive sunburn over almost all of my face, the exceptions being where my hat and sunglasses covered the skin (on a side note, I simply do not know how I used to survive in the midday light without sunglasses). It's the first time I've had a second-degree sunburn, which is cool, but it makes it a bit painful to have anything touch my face (such as the shirts I'm wearing or my motorcycle helmet) because the skin's started to blister away in two places (none of this wimpy drying and flaking off a week later nonsense).
However, it's not all bad. There aren't many times in your life that you get to say that you've got a sunburn on the bottom of your nose (thank you, reflective snow), and the hair that wasn't under my hat or my jacket is now bleached as close to pure white as my hair's ever been, so I get to make women even more jealous of how my hair acquires excellent highlights without any work on my part.
Even stupidity can have its benefits sometimes, it would seem.

On an unrelated note to all the rest (except partially the mention of physics), here's an illustration of the effect of different altitudes on air pressure. Once I reached the summit yesterday I refilled the water bladder in my backpack from one of my water bottles, and here's the bottle after returning to 10,150 feet from the 14,440 at which it was sealed:

Sunday, May 29, 2011

This just in: Memorial Day weekend has apparently been rescheduled for the middle of winter

Today was the first hike of the trip. I decided to start off both ambitious and lazy, with the easiest hike I had planned, which happened to be up Mt. Elbert, the highest mountain in the state (and the second highest in the contiguous 48). According to the guidebook, it's a 6-9 hour hike, depending on how good of a hiker you are.
I left Leadville at about 7 and got to the trailhead around 7:30. There are two different start points for the trail I used (the South Mt. Elbert Trail), and I used the higher one, or as close to it as I could manage. The higher one (which, as you may have guessed, results in a shorter hike) was at the end of two miles of fire roads that are designed for four-wheel-drive vehicles. Well, my vehicle has one-wheel-drive, but I gave it a shot anyway and managed to make it about three-quarters of the way up before a section of the road was flooded. (Side note: it's a lot of fun to ride on back roads like this, but I think in the process I knocked the muffler and now need to fix it again.)
From where I started, the trail was an 8.5-mile round trip, with a bit over 4,000 feet of elevation gain. The first mile wasn't bad – it was a bit steep in places, but this is a fourteener, so that's kinda the point. After that, though, I hit the snow.
Now, I realize that I'm currently at both a higher elevation and a higher latitude than in Virginia, and both of these tend to result in colder temperatures, but it's Memorial Day weekend, basically the start of summer. And I knew there was snow on the mountains when I got here – it's pretty hard to miss. However, the sheer amount of snow was the surprise.
At first, it didn't seem like much. My boots sunk an inch or two, but that was it. Then, all of a sudden, I was up to my knee. I'm rather grateful that I made it back without a broken knee or ankle given the number of times I sunk in without warning, while my body kept moving forward.
It was a pretty even mix of ice-topped snow that would at least mostly hold my weight, and fluffy snow that I sank right through. Some of it was only a few inches deep, but after another mile and a half or so the snow started getting deeper, to the point where there were multiple times I sunk in all the way to my waist.
This waist-deep snow happened to unfortunately coincide with a section of trail that I could only discern by the snowshoeprints left by someone else, and also unfortunately coincided in many places with a stream. Now, I have relatively waterproof boots, so the occasional quick dip into the shallow stream when my foot went through the snow wasn't a terribly big deal. However, my boots are only waterproof up to my ankles, not my waist, so the snow still got them soaked inside and out.
The trail turned pretty steeply uphill, and it felt as much like climbing as hiking. The waist-deep snow continued, and the trees got a bit denser. Not enough to make it impassable, but enough to be an annoyance.
Eventually, I reached the treeline. This brought with it a revelation that, based on the trail condition, I'd been somewhat expecting: I wasn't on the trail. The snow covered any markings on the ground, so all I had to go by were the snowshoeprints, and apparently whoever left them decided to be adventurous.
(Random side note: Mushroom/pineapple/jalapeno pizza is delicious. Especially after a day of hiking.)
Past the treeline, the trail itself isn't incredibly important for navigation purposes. I was going to the highest point for three hundred or more miles, so it was pretty easy to see which way I needed to go. However, trails are designed to follow relatively easy slopes, instead of going straight uphill. What followed was by far the most tiring two miles I've ever hiked. It was pretty much straight uphill, through the snow, although there weren't any spots in this section more than thigh deep.
By the time I was approaching the summit I was stopping every minute or two to catch my breath. Above 13,000 feet, 50 steps was the most I was able to manage without a break.
The terrain thankfully leveled out about five hundred feet from the summit, and the last section was a much gentler slope, culminating in a mound of rock and snow that made me the highest man in Colorado (with the possible exception of the folks who run the medical marijuana dispensary in Leadville).
For as far as I could see in any direction, there was no one. I passed two folks who were coming down while I was struggling up the last thousand feet, but that was it my entire time on the mountain, and they were long gone by the time I made the summit. It was 3:30 at that point, a full eight hours after leaving the trailhead.
I rested for a few minutes and took some pictures. It definitely ranks in my top 4 scenic landscapes. The first is a valley on the Vietnam/Laos border, the second is the area around the Temple of Delphi in Greece, and the third is the view around a lake in Norway (there should be pictures up of that one, back in late April or early May of 2009). The view from Elbert is definitely at least fourth, possibly higher. The exact rankings fluctuate based on my mood (right now, for example, the warmer the place, the more appealing it is, hence Vietnam and Greece taking the top two spots).
After enjoying the top for a few minutes I headed back down. However, it was a bit difficult to find the proper trail, because there are trails leaving in three or four directions, and only the footprints even indicated these. I initially took the wrong one, but it quickly became apparent when I compared the surrounding terrain to my map, and I was able to make my way around the slope leading to the summit to reach the trail I had intended to follow up to the top in the first place. Getting down from there was relatively simple, although still tiring and long. I got back to the bike at 7:15, nearly twelve hours after starting on a hike that wasn't supposed to take longer than nine even for a relatively inexperienced hiker such as myself. Right before reaching the bike it started raining, but just a few drops, not enough to really bother me.
After that, I hurried back to Leadville, and am currently sitting in the Tennessee Pass Cafe enjoying pizza and still suffering a bit from altitude sickness. On the one hand it's annoying – getting out of breath so easily sucks, and the trouble sleeping is also a bother, but the fact that after less than half of a 12” pizza I'm full, when all I've eaten today is trail mix and sunflower seeds, is a nice change from my usual overeating.
Anyway, all in all hiking Mt. Elbert was something that I'm very glad I did, but also something I'm very glad is over. I had planned on also hiking Mt. Massive and Mt. Harvard, but given the amount of remaining snow, as well as the fact that there's more in the forecast for tomorrow morning, I might just rest up and run a bit and try to get more used to the altitude before Mt. Whitney on the 7th. I don't particularly want to die in a snowdrift or have to be medevaced off a mountain, and given that I'm hiking solo, if something bad happens (as easily could've today, were it not for me being, as one friend put it when marveling at how life just seems to work out for me, seemingly protected by divine forces) those are the only two options. At the very least, I'll take tomorrow off. I might hike Massive on Monday or Tuesday if I'm feeling up to it.
And now, as a treat for those of you who've actually stuck it out through the past thousand-odd words, photos:

This is the trail intersection where I made a wrong turn. See that massive trail that goes straight, and the tiny little thing off to the right? I think you can guess which one is the correct one, based on what happened.

I like portrait photography, but as I'm traveling alone, I have to choose less-than-human subjects, like my hiking pole.

See that mound of snow in the center, the one covered in glare from the sun? Yeah, I hiked that. And this wasn't even taken from the bottom of the trail. There were still at least two miles left. (And the actual peak isn't even visible in this, it's a bit farther back and to the left, but because of the change in slope it's blocked from this angle.)

A layered shot of the lake and trees at the base of the mountain.

This is a flower that was growing in the snow on the eastern slope of Elbert. Reminds me of the flower from Batman Begins, but I didn't check to see whether it gets you high.

A photograph from the summit. If you look at it upside down it can almost (not quite, but almost) pass as the snow-covered shore of a lake, with the clouds reflected in the water.

(I apologize for none of the photos being post-processed, but I don't have any editing software on my netbook.)

Friday, May 27, 2011

The past few days

I'm going to start giving sections of the trip titles to sum up their general feelings.  Tuesday was "Biking".  Wednesday morning was "Macgyver".  Wednesday afternoon was "Tilting at tornadoes".  Thursday morning was "Flatland", and Thursday afternoon was "Proving 250-haters wrong: 1750 miles to Leadville".  Today is "Ultramarathoners are insane".  Now, to explain each of those.

On Tuesday evening in Santa Claus I wrote about the issues with the bike, about how it had been overheating.  As it turns out, it wasn't overheating.  Or, more accurately, that wasn't the primary problem.  The primary problem was that one of the mufflers had become almost completely detached.  In addition to making the bike annoyingly loud, this also messes with engine compression, hence some/all of the problems.  Luckily, with a mix of muffler tape, soda cans, and hose clamps, I was able to patch the very inconveniently placed holes.  It is probably the ghetto-est looking automotive fix I've ever done, even beating out the time I fixed an engine with just a ballpoint pen because this is nice and out in the open, but for the most part it's been working fine.  All I've had to do is occasionally tighten the clamps.
On a note unrelated to the fix, I also came closer than I'd ever come before to being in a motorcycle accident.  First, a couple informational points for non-motorcycle riders:
1. Head and tail winds can be annoying or helpful, respectively, but crosswinds are straight-up deadly.  If they gust they can force you off the road or into another lane of traffic, and if they're constant they force you to effectively bike at a slight angle to counteract the force (this is especially true for tiny bikes like the one I ride).
2. Tractor trailers (or any large object) block the wind for an area around them.  If there's no wind, the only dead spot is behind them, and a common hypermiling technique is to drive in this area of no wind in order to cut down air resistance.  If there's a cross-wind, there are also dead spots like this on the sides. 
These side dead spots are the important ones.  I was cruising along in the right lane as I usually do when a tractor trailer came to pass me, going significantly faster than I was.  Once it got past me, I hit the dead spot, and because I'd been correcting for the crosswind, I started moving towards the truck, which forced me to correct quickly in the other direction.  As soon as I could do this, the truck got ahead of me and the dead spot passed.  At this point the crosswind came back, knocking me strongly to the right, which was already the direction I was headed to avoid the truck.  As a result I had to screech to a halt on the shoulder to avoid going into the weeds at highway speed, which wouldn't have been very good.
Tilting at tornadoes
While stopped at a delightful combination gas station and liquor/fireworks store (we really need one or ten of those in Charlottesville), a passerby informed me that she hoped I wasn't heading west, because there was a tornado warning just past St. Louis.  Unfortunately, that's exactly where I was headed, and because I was already running late for the day and don't have as much flex time as I would like built into my schedule before hiking Mt. Whitney, I kept going, as fast as possible to make it through the storm quickly.  Not necessarily the smartest move (in fact, I think it's safe to say that it's definitely the  dumbest move I could've made in the situation), but it's what I did because, well, why not.  I ran into hideous traffic going through St. Louis (one of the reasons it's now my least-favorite US metropolitan area, and second worldwide), and as soon as I got through that I hit the storm.
Rain wise, I've seen worse.  Wind-wise, I've seen worse.  Combination of the two, well, I've still probably seen worse, but never on a motorcycle on the highway.  There were parts of it where the only way I could see where the road went was because of the taillights of the cars ahead of me, and the strong winds, plus slick road that prevented quick steering, meant I was drifting the entire width of the lane.  I never went into another lane (I had my default position be the far left side, and the wind was coming from the left), but it was close.  Luckily after Mt. Whitney I won't be on as tight a schedule and I'll be able to stop and sit out storms like that.
Because of going through the storm, though, I made it to Salina, Kansas.  Because of how wet and cold I was I just checked into a motel instead of the campground I'd been planning on using, and it was completely worth the extra cost.

Thursday morning was nothing but heading west through Kansas, and Kansas is flat.  If you've never been there, you really can't appreciate the accuracy of that statement.  There are points where the horizon is, as near as I can tell, a flat line all around.
I stopped for a picnic lunch at the highest point in Kansas, Mt. Sunflower, although calling it a mountain is misleading.  The prominence over the surrounding farmland is a whopping 19 feet, and it takes hundreds of feet in any direction to find a point that much lower.
Getting to Sunflower requires miles of driving on largely unmarked back-country Kansas gravel farm roads, and multiple times I thought I was lost, but I managed to make it there, and then back to the interstate, without any wrong turns.  I also got to experience the rare feeling of not actually knowing which state I was in, because the back roads criss-crossed from Kansas to Colorado without any sort of marking.

Proving 250-haters wrong: 1750 miles to Leadville
After leaving Kansas, the first part of Colorado wasn't much different.  The elevation was slightly higher but the overall feeling was the same.  Once I got past Denver, though, I finally realized that the unmoving clouds on the horizon were, in fact, the Rocky Mountains.
As I've mentioned before, I ride a 250-cc motorcycle.  That is, by most definitions, quite small, and as a comparison, it generates one-tenth the horsepower of a modern sport bike (20 vs. 200).  On the east coast, that's fine.  It can't quite make it to the speed limit on the uphill parts of I-64 where the limit got raised to 70, but overall it manages just fine.  Here, it struggled at times to maintain 45mph.  I had to drive in third gear (out of five) on the interstate.  However, despite these struggles, it made it, despite the common perception of 250s as being neither touring motorcycles nor good on hills.  And I'll confess, it certainly isn't ideal for either of these, but when you need it to, it can pull through just fine.
Anyway, after all the mountains, both the incredibly slow uphills and probably slightly too fast downhills, I made it to Leadville, Colorado, roughly 1,750 miles west of, and approximately two miles above, Charlottesville.

Ultramarathoners are insane
As some of you may know, it's harder to breath the higher above sea level you are.  I'm not sure about the number for Leadville, but on the summit of the highest peak I'll be hiking, Mt. Whitney, which is 4,300 feet above Leadville's elevation, you're only getting 58% of your normal oxygen.  Here it isn't quite that bad, but it's still enough to make breathing noticeably more difficult, even when you're just sitting there.  This hypoxia (lack of oxygen) causes what is known as altitude sickness, which I'm currently suffering.  The symptoms are headaches, trouble sleeping, and loss of appetite (there are more, but those are the ones I'm feeling).  They've been getting better the longer I spend here and they'll continue to improve as I stay at elevations like this, as my body acclimates to the air.
As some others of you may know, there's an annual race in Leadville, the Leadville Trail 100.  It's been held each August since 1983 and it is, as the name might suggest, a 100-mile trail race.  Such "ultramarathons" have grown in popularity the past few decades after the realizations that humans are actually not all that bad at running seemingly absurd distances.  Leadville was started because someone wanted to combine those absurd distances with altitude sickness, because 100 miles on its own just isn't tough enough.
I feel completely confident in saying that I'll never run 100 miles.  The farthest I've ever run is a little over a half-marathon, and I doubt that I'll break that anytime soon.  Earlier today, I went for a shorter run, just 2.6 miles, and I have to say, anyone who willingly runs in the Leadville 100 is insane.  2.6 was tough enough, although admittedly at the end it wasn't that bad.  You're already out of breath when you start, but it didn't really feel that different from running, say, the last 2.6 miles of a 5 or 8 mile run, from a breathing perspective.  However, running that 40 times is just crazy (not that that's necessarily a bad thing, I should point out.  I'm sure many people would consider a lot of the things I do to be crazy, but that doesn't make me think they're bad ideas).
The rest of the day has been spent getting ready for hiking tomorrow: getting maps, washing all the clothes that unfortunately got soaked and smelly as a result of one of my saddlebag rain-covers blowing away during the storm outside St. Louis, and reading.

I've taken a fair number of pictures, but I forgot that Windows doesn't have built-in support for Canon .cr2 raw files, so it'll take me some time to convert them over.  I probably won't end up posting them until much later, perhaps the end of the trip, but from now on I'll make sure to shoot in both .jpg and .cr2.
And now, time to read more.  Toodles.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Day one: Biking

Today's a new record for me, motorcycling-wise, as I biked roughly 590 miles, or 90 more than I ever have in a day.  If all goes according to plan tomorrow will be yet another record (but we'll see how well that works out).
I started the day off with a family farewell breakfast at the Tavern, and then hit the road a bit before 9:30.  Virginia went well, as I didn't hit any rain, but once I got to West Virginia I encountered a few squalls.  I took a brief nap right before reaching Kentucky, which proceeded to go by pretty quickly.  Then, Indiana.
Right about when I hit Indiana the bike started behaving a bit strangely.  It sputtered a bit and burned through gas much more quickly than it should've (getting just a bit over 40 mpg instead of the 50 from earlier today).  This combined with the fact that eastern Indiana is seemingly devoid of all civilization made for a bit of a nerve-wracking ride, but eventually I was able to make it to my campground in Santa Claus, Indiana.  No clear determination of what's wrong with the bike, but the most likely thing was overheating, as it'd done 500 miles in 70-80s degree heat before encountering difficulties.
I have to admit, I'm always a bit nervous at the start of trips like this (although the only really comparable thing I've done is backpacking around Europe with my brother two years ago, so it's a small sample size).  There are so many things that could potentially go wrong.  Normally in my life I just assume that everything'll work out fine and then just deal with it when it doesn't, but any one thing going wrong right now could cascade into a whole massive mess of delays.  The bike is the big thing I'm worried about right now, although I do expect it'll work better tomorrow once it's had a chance to cool.  Regardless of whether the problem persists, though, I'm going to get a bigger bike before going on another long bike trip like this again.  The Nighthawk can just barely make it up to the speed limit on the interstate when loaded with stuff, and it's clearly struggling to do that.
However, that's not going to be feasible until the fall, and right now, I need to get to bed so I can get an early start tomorrow.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Biking and Hiking

Tomorrow morning I'll be departing on my bike trip across the country. I delayed starting by a day after realizing that a) I had way too much to do here to get it all done on Sunday evening and b) that I had overestimated how long some of the biking and hiking would take. I'll be spending tomorrow night in Santa Claus, Indiana, and the following night in Salina, Kansas. After that, it's five days in Leadville, Colorado, the highest incorporated city in the US, during which I'll be hiking the three highest peaks in Colorado. On one of those days, I'll blog about the trip there.

On an unrelated note, I'm now a college graduate. Woo.

(The picture at the top is a photograph from my trip to the Kentucky Derby (well, technically the ride back), taken by my bike-mounted camera.)