Archive for the ‘Journal’ Category

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Friday, April 1st, 2016


Christmas in the deserts

Tuesday, December 29th, 2015

On our vacation adventure in the California deserts, we keep finding parallels to our bicycle travels through the Middle East. In part it is being travelers over the holidays – this is the first year since our bike trip we’re away from family over Christmas. We are also still in the Northern Hemisphere, so traveling over the shortest day of the year poses its own challenges.

Immediately, we were struck by how the deserts (the driest ones) have similar tumble weed to that in Jordan – the biggest different being that in Jordan the desert is littered with the ubiquitous black plastic bags that are used to contain produce and any manner of things found at the markets. In most places we have been, the desert is not obviously dirty – some of that may be the difference in population density.

As we hiked through the Mosaic Canyon in Death Valley, the marble walls reminded us of our exploration in Little Petra (Siq al-Barid) in Jordan. There were no beautiful carved facades, but the narrow gorge felt similar, and Scott couldn’t pass up the chance to climb up the gorge walls.

Our time up at Jumbo Rocks in Joshua Tree was reminiscent of our time in Capadoccia. The spectacular rock formations reminded us of the pillars and minarets of Goreme. They look similar, but the rock in Goreme is volcanic, so it’s very soft. The granites of Joshua Tree are much harder, and eroded over much longer timescales. No manner of searching through Jumbo Rocks is going to find ancient human dwellings and churches – that is something that makes Capadoccia extra special. Being there over Christmas also brought back memories of the kindness of our Turkish friends, who invited us to stay with their parents and celebrate Bayram with them. Bayram (the Muslim Sacrifice Festival), is celebrated in Turkey with family visits and feasting – other than the exchange of gifts this felt very much like Christmas to us. This year, we had our Christmas feast in Joshua Tree overlooking the weather sculpted rocks.

We can’t forget the cold, a not-so-pleasant reminder of cycling in the Middle East. We froze our first night in Antakya Turkey (quite literally – there was a thick layer of frost on the windows when we got up). Then we moved to a slightly more expensive hotel that had heat after dark. The cold also hit us on our bike ride from Antakya to Aleppo Syria. We were clearly ill-prepared to be biking in winter in a desert. Not sure why we thought it would be warm? We clearly didn’t learn our lesson as it has been abnormally cold our entire trip through Southern California deserts. This time we are glad to be traveling in a van that has a heater, although we haven’t been using it enough.

It was the constant cold that had us running south to Aqaba as quickly as we could, in search of warmth. This time, we went south to Borrego Springs. A night in the RV park there prove to be much warmer than our -10ish night up in Joshua Tree national park (the campgrounds are up at 4,400 feet, which makes it even colder than reported at Joshua Tree town). Our hikes up to the palm oases in Anza Borrego State Park reminded us of Palmyra in Syria, without the ancient Roman ruins from the days of the Silk Road. Sadly, many of the ruins have since been destroyed by Daesh.

Unfortunately that warmth didn’t last. Becky now has the beginnings of a cold, so we are going to try to spend a couple of nights in RV parks were we can plug in. We’ll also turn on the propane furnace in the van. On the lowest setting it keeps the van at a minimum temperature which is still comfortable for sleeping but also doesn’t allow the temperature to drop too much. Amusingly, the park we are currently in has mineral springs. This reminds us of the mineral springs we visited in Turkey, when Becky was attempting to recover from a cold back then. Hopefully these springs will be more effective!

We’re thinking that the next time we decide to go camping over the winter holidays that it should be done someplace a little warmer, like Hawaii!

Thanks for joining us on our trip down memory lane. Here are some of our pictures of our California vacation. More will be added to the gallery when we have faster Internet!

Vacation Day 8 – The End

Friday, June 26th, 2015

I’m happy to report that my ‘rain-sense’ seems to be working in the Sierra’s. I had thought that I had totally lost it. You see, I had this uncanny sense of when it was going to rain. We would sleep in the tent with the fly off, and I’d wake up about 2 minutes before the rain started. This had not been the case when we moved to California. I was no longer able to ‘sense’ when the rain would start. So, I was relieved when I awoke at 4 am for my usual trip to the loo. Immediately upon returning to the van, the rain started. First it was a light sprinkle, but then turned into a serious coastal mountain rain.

When I awoke and was ready to get up at 8am, it was still raining. There was no sign of it letting up. We decided to pack up and head to the cafe at Toms Place for a dry/warm breakfast and hopefully some Internet, where we could check the weather forecast and figure out where to go next. We had originally planned on another day hiking at Rock Creek and then a day at Mammoth Lakes, but neither was any fun if the rains were constant and heavy.

It turned out that the only place in Northern California it wasn’t raining that day was Napa. So, we decided to head back over the Sierra’s to one of the state parks up in Napa. It would allow us to dry things out and perhaps go out for a nice meal. We had previously been to Sonoma, but had not been to Napa, so it would also be exploring a new area. The fastest way over the Sierra was through Yosemite. We had originally planned to drive over via Kennedy Meadows (which features in Cheryl Strayed’s book Wild), but with the rain there weren’t many great scenic views to be had – so the fastest route made more sense. Either way, we were in for a long day of driving.

On the way through Yosemite we drove around the Tuolumne Meadows campground. It wasn’t particularly busy, but was certainly soaking wet. The roads through the campground were in remarkably bad shape for a National Park. The area was pretty nice and many people were still out and about, going on short day hikes in the area. We concluded that we much preferred the quieter campgrounds in Rock Creek valley. We would like to come back to Tuolumne Meadows to do a hike or two, but would probably try to stay in a National Forest campsite outside of the very busy national park. We snapped a quick picture and got back in the car to continue the uneventful drive to Napa.
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In Napa we stayed at the Sugarloaf Ridge State Park. Our expectations were low, so we were pleasantly surprised by the park. It was pretty much two open fields with campsites on the outside edges. What was nice was that the edges were trees, so you could choose a site that had either morning or afternoon sun (we opted for morning sun, thinking we might spend two nights there).

Since the campground was still pretty empty, the morning was rather peaceful (my favourite part of camping). I snapped a photo from my phone of the wild turkeys that were grazing in the field.
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After breakfast we decided that we were ready to just be home (OK, I decided I wanted to sleep in my own bed!). We had really enjoyed our time in the Eastern Sierra and will definitely make plans to go back and explore more. The old trees and the hiking were fantastic.

Through this series of posts, I’ve shared some of our pictures. You can see the full set in this gallery:

Vacation Day 7 – Rock Creek and the Upper Hilton Lakes

Thursday, June 25th, 2015

We awoke to another beautifully sunny day. We are glad we didn’t let the weather forecast stop us from exploring this area.
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Our original plan for the day was to go on a hike from our campsite. I was going to do part of the hike and then turn back when I felt I had done enough, and Scott would continue to hike a little longer.

Then I got in the hammock, and decided that I needed a rest day.

Although the sun was out, it wasn’t that warm outside, so the hammock with a couple of blankets was quite nice. The morning warmed up quickly, and I found myself shedding layers as I wrote and sipped my morning coffee. I am reminded of NaNoWriMo and thinking that my November project will be to write one of the GoingEast Books.

I thoroughly enjoyed my day lazing about at the campsite. It is so beautiful. I was even able to take a nap in the hammock.

While I was resting up, Scott went for a long hike, getting back just after 5pm.

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Yup, that’s snow.

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At one point, the trail Scott was following ended in a cliff. Rather than climbing it, he decided that backtracking was the safer of the options. I am very thankful that he made that choice! You can see the cliff in this picture.
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Some weather in the distance – foreshadowing what is to come …
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Not sure where my thoughts were at this point … but I was definitely thinking deeply!

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Vacation Day 6 – The Methuselah Walk

Monday, June 8th, 2015

We awoke to a beautiful morning. The weather up here is much warmer than it was at our last couple of campsites. If we didn’t desperately need showers and were not low on water, I’d suggest that we stay a second night!

After breakfast, we packed up and headed back up to the Schulman Grove Visitor Center with plans to walk the 4-mile Methuselah Walk. The walk “leads you through the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest, past the oldest known living tree in the world” – according to the self-tour walking guide that we purchased. We have found these self guided walking tour guides to be very informative and rather well written.

In 2001, there was a PBS documentation made about the Methuselah Tree.

Apparently the Methuselah Tree is no longer the ‘oldest’ known living tree, as there was another that has now be dated to be over 5000 years old (it is in the same area).

We hiked 6.32 km in just over 3 hours.

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The trail had rather steep edges. It was amazing to see trees clinging to the sides:

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Looking off into the distance, you can see the hills made of dolomite with dessert sage bush and Bristlecone Pine dotting their slopes.

Few species can tolerate the nutrient-poor and highly alkaline dolomite soil. This gives the slow growing Bristlecone a chance to grow nearly competition-free.

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The North and South slopes have quite different looks to them:
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Again we see trees that may have been dead for centuries and their trunks are still standing.
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For a new bristlecone pine see to form, pollen from cones,…,must pollinate a small purple bristly seed cone. Once pollinated, the small cone closes and begins to grow before winter. Next spring, the captured pollen will fertilize the ovule and seeds will develop. The seed code then grows rapidly and matures in the fall, opening to release a tiny white winged seed into the wind.

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The Methuselah Tree itself itself is not identified, to help protect it from vandalism. Instead, there is a labelled post and some nice rocks that act as a bench which overlooks a grove of several ancient trees, any of them could be the official Methuselah Tree. I’m now wondering if one of them is the even older, as yet unnamed, tree?

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I wonder, which one of these trees is the Methuselah Tree?

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Many of these ancient trees have exposed portions of their trunks. They only need one small strip of bark to carry nutrients between the pine needles and the roots.

Bristlecones were made famous for their age, but are most important to science because of their ability to record climate trends. Because the year’s growth depends entirely on the conditions of that year, the trees are sensitive to environmental changes, unlike a tree that may grow next to a stream and have the same amount of available moisture each year. Bristlecone’s sensitive nature gives scientists records of the past. Climates, droughts, severe frost, fires, and volcanic eruptions can all be recorded in these ancient pieces of wood.

I’m amazed at how this tree is still alive. You can see how the tree sprouts long roots with “some roots reach an astounding 50 feet out away from the main trunk.”
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At one point, we stopped at a bench to enjoy the view. Scott took a little nap:
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A snag may stand for thousands of years before it will eventually fall. This dead and down wood is of particular interest to scientists. Because the wood is so slow to decay, scientists can find pieces that are over 11,000 years old! Tree ring patterns in the dead and down wood are matched to other pieces and eventually to a living tree, allowing an exact date to be determined. This is called cross-dating and it has helped to recalibrate the radiocarbon dating process, linking these trees to history all over the world.

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After the hike we headed back to Bishop to do some laundry. We found a laundromat that also had showers – the cost was a bit steep, at $5 each, but given that we had not showered since Friday, we were in need! It was convenient to be able to do laundry, shower, check the Internet, and charge devices all at the same time.

We tried to grab a light dinner at one of the Bakeries in Bishop, but the sandwich counter was closed for the day.

We decided that our next destination would be Rock Creek. Our map of the Inyo Nation Forest showed that there were several different campgrounds along Rock Creek Road. In addition, we learned that all them had drinking water!

Before setting up for the night, we followed the road to its end, and along the way passed Rock Creek Lake.

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After exploring each of the open campgrounds, we chose a spot in the Upper Pines Campground. Our plan is to spend two nights here, and do a couple of different hikes in the area. The campground is at elevation 2875m or 9432 feet.

And of course the obligatory sunset photo:

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Vacation Day 5 – Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest – Part 1

Sunday, June 7th, 2015

Before leaving the area south of Mono Lake, we decided to drive in a little further and take a hike. We found a dead end road that was not appropriate for Vance and hiked up it to see some great vistas (3.62 km, max elevation 2842m or 8324 feet).
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Dirt road that we hiked along:Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

We walked by this campsite. It would definitely have been a beautiful and peaceful place to camp:
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High altitude dessert in the foreground with the Eastern Sierra-Nevada in the background:
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Some of the hills had almost no vegetation, where others had some dessert sage brush:Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

A great photo that Scott took of me for my BCBecky Facebook page, so I don’t have to keep seeing my bald head:Photo & Video Sharing by SmugMug

On our walk down, we saw this very bright coloured bird. Any idea what type it is?
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On our way back from the hike we saw some ATVs or Motorcycles. That was the first sign of human life we saw since we entered the forest.  We did, however, see some hares and some deer. It was nice to have a quiet campsite, however, the morning was rather chilly. What we learned from this wild camping experience is that we would like an van/RV with at least a single burner stove. That would allow us to cook even when there are fire restrictions, but also would make it a lot easier to make up a pot of tea.

Having completed a morning hike, we headed out of the high country along highway 120 east to highway 6 then down to Bishop, which has a real grocery store and is known as the place to stock up before heading out into the Eastern Sierra. The drive down was interesting – there is mostly dessert and alpine shrub in the valley between the tall (snow on top Coastal Mountains that remind me of the Mountains in Kitimat) mountains of the Eastern Sierra and the White Mountains – which are not as tall.

It was while we were in Bishop that we decided our next destination would be the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest. We stopped at the Ranger Station in Bishop and got some information on camping from the Ranger. There is a nice campsite not far from the Visitor Center called the Grandview Campground. The fee is $5 per night paid on an honour system. The campground itself has nice clean pit toilets, but no water. Fortunately, the ranger warned us about the lack of water at the campground, so we refilled our drinking water and our water bottles before driving up.

When I first heard about the Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest I thought, why would I want to see a Pine Forest? I grew up in Northern British Columbia, in the middle of a bunch of Pine Forests! I truly had no idea how truly amazing, and different, the Bristlecone Pines are. These trees are 3000 – 4600 years old. They are 2000 years older than the giant sequoias in the Calaveras Big Trees State Park. In the end, our walks through these ancient forests were definitely the highlight of my trip.

Before setting up for camp, we continued further up the road to the visitor center at Schulman Grove. There we learned of a short hike (1-mile loop) called the Discovery Trail. We decided this would be a nice way to see some of the Ancient trees before we setup camp for the night. We hiked 1.83 km (highest elevation 3145m or 10318 feet).

The ancient wood is so dense that it is very difficult to see the growth rings in this cross section of an old tree stump:
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Unlike the Redwood forest, there are very few types of vegetation that are able to live in the harsh environment.
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When I first saw these areas, I thought it had previously been logged and this was secondary or tertiary growth. Fortunately, the old really dense trees did not make for good wood for building houses or ships masts. It was a chance discovery by Dr. Edmund Schulman, in 1957 he took samples from a tree to study climate records only to discover the worlds oldest tree (at 4600 years old!).

The trees are rather spectacular. They are able to survive with only the smallest bit of bark along the trunks. You can tell this tree is still alive by the green foliage.

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Even dead shells of trees will remain standing for centuries.

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On the steep hills, the ground underneath the trunks erodes as centuries pass. The lower side of the trees are no longer alive, but the upper sides still have their roots firmly planted.
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Scott standing next to one of the larger trees along the Discovery Trail:

Looking back at Scott while he is still standing in the same grove of trees:
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They often grow in really cool spiral patterns:
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On our way back down to the campground, we stopped to take a photo at a scenic lookout:

There were a few other people camping, but for the most part our campsite was very quiet:
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And we even had a pretty sunset. A nice way to end the day.
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Vacation Day 4 – Mono Lake Basin

Saturday, June 6th, 2015

After a cold wet night, we awoke to a nice sunny day. Since we both slept in Vance last night neither of us slept particularly well. We each kept waking each other up. Although it was sunny and I had a chance to start enjoying my morning cup of coffee, that was soon disrupted by screaming (literally) children. Oh the joys of state park campgrounds.

With the weather looking up, we decided to head south to Mono Lake. This is a spectacularly neat area with a saline lake that exists at over 6000 ft. Mono Lake is saltier than the nearby ocean. The lake is home to billions of tiny brine shrimp in the summer months. These shrimp are harvested for tropical fish food.

There is no output for the lake. Many of the fresh water streams that were feeding the lake were dammed to create reservoirs for places like the City of Los Angles. The lake was drained (through natural evaporation and the damming of the streams) more than 40 feet. When this happened, Tufa’s were exposed – rock formations that happen when calcium rich fresh water meets the saline water of the lake. They are pretty cool to see and remind us of the Grotto in Iowa and a bit like Cappadocia in Turkey but on a much smaller scale. There is an active preservation campaign to try to get the water levels back up to a level that will allow for healthy management of the lake.

Although we had hoped to avoid rain while going south, we ran into storms over Mono Lake, in Inyo National Forest:
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We did not, however, allow the rain to stop us from exploring the tufa at Mono Lake (1.36km walk):
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Mono Lake is an important stop for many migratory birds, who feed off the summer brine shrimp:

There is even a brass giraffe tufa!

We decided to try out “dispersed camping” – that is not camping at a formal campground. This is also known as Boondocking … back in Canada we call is free camping. The kind forestry ranger and the visitor center gave us some maps for good placed to go, as well as a great map and visitor guide for the area.

As we drove down highway 120, we were struck by just how odd this forest looks:
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Unfortunately, just as we pulled off the main highway to head towards a campsite, we discovered that we needed a California Campfire Permit in order to operate our camp stove. If the stove had been built into the van (like in RVs), then a permit is not needed; however, a permit is required for camp stoves. So, we returned to the ranger station to get a permit (free, good for one year, available online). We took that opportunity to renew our Interagency Annual Pass (for all national parks and forests – we find the name of these passes confusing but have found the passes themselves to be very handy).

For our first night of high altitude camping, we ended up at about 8,800 feet (2700m). It was very quiet. From the time we pulled off the main road, we didn’t see any other people. According to the ranger, there are vault toilets up here, but we have yet to find anything that looks like such. Fortunately, we came prepared. For an
yone wishing to camp off grid, I highly recommend the book “How to shit in the woods”. It is both humorous and informative.

Dinner at the campsite:
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After supper we went for a short trek to the top of the hill across from our campsite (1.22km). It involved first crossing a bog with a little stream, which with the help of hiking polls I was able to step across and only get my feet minimally wet. When climbing the hill, we noticed that the ground was more like volcanic ash or sand rather than dirt. When climbing the hill we certainly noticed the thin air!

Looking back at the campsite:
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On top of the hill was a forest with no undergrowth. Ancient trees (but not big ones, we are 8000 ft after all), were dispersed with deadfall. It was almost like someone had paved between the trees, except that it was a sandy-ash rather than concrete.

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South San Francisco Bay Rides – Coast and Hills

Saturday, January 25th, 2014

When we first moved to the San Francisco Bay area, I found myself looking for nice places to ride. I’ve found a few routes that I enjoy – most of which are no more than a 90-minute drive from where we live (in Santa Clara). This morning we road what I call the Coast and Hills route.

The route begins at the parking lot at San Gregorio State beach (intersection of highways 1 and 84). Since we have a park pass, we can park at the state beach for free. There are other options along the coast for parking if you do not have a pass. The ride involves climbing up and down some hills along California’s most scenic highway – highway 1. Then turning towards Pescadero, riding through downtown Pescadero, and then along Stage Road. As the name implies, Stage Road probably used to be used by Stage Coaches, and as a result, none of the climbs are too steep. The road winds and turns along climbing two nice size hills before returning to highway 84 and highway 1.

You can start and park anywhere along the route, however, I like to start at San Gregorio because it puts us in Pescadero about mid-way through the ride. We see a lot of cyclists stop at the local store – which has a sandwich board outside announcing that they are “The butcher, the baker, and the sandwich maker”. We haven’t yet found that we needed to stop for sustenance, but it is nice to know that it is available along the route.

Here is a fun collage I put together of the route. Click to see a larger version.



Elevation Profile
Download GPS Track in GPX format

Camping in Northern California (South of San Jose) – Part 1 Pinnacles National Park

Monday, August 19th, 2013

We recently went on a short camping vacation (5 days, 4 nights). Since we didn’t make reservations in advance, and it was perhaps the busiest camping time of the year (the first week in August), our options were somewhat limited. However, this was our first experience with camping in Northern California, so it was to be a learning experience.

In the end, we camped at three places: Pinnacles National Park ($23/night plus $5/week National Park fee), Cerro Alto Campground in the Los Padres National Forest ($18/night), and Big Basin Redwoods State Park ($35/night plus $8 reservation fee). In this post, I’ll talk about our experience at Pinnacles National Park. We arrived at about 2pm on Saturday August 3rd and stayed for one night.

We ended up at Pinnacles after we realized that we had booked an invalid site at Fremont Peak State Park. For Saturday night there were three sites open at Fremont Peak State Park. I chose one that looked good and booked it. I didn’t think much about the accessible sign on the site map. In Ontario, the provincial parks will often label several sites as “accessible”, however, there is no limit on who can reserve them. So, I had not realized that in California, we would be allowed to reserve an accessible site, but upon arriving, if you don’t have a disabled permit, you are not allowed to use the site. All the available sites were accessible, so I had to look further for another place to camp. Fortunately, Pinnacles National Park had a few vacant spots.

When we decided to go to Pinnacles, one of Scott’s coworkers forwarded us a link to this great documentary on the park (Motion Episodes: Pinnacles). Prior to becoming a National Park just this year (2013), it was established in 1908 as Pinnacles National Monument. As the documentary indicates, Pinnacles has some great hiking trails. Fortunately, the documentary also highlighted that camping is located at the EAST entrance, and highway 146 which is the park access highway from both the EAST and WEST is not connected! The East and West entrances are about a 90 minute drive apart.

Pinnacles campground was nothing special, but I would still recommend it for families. The swimming pool was a huge hit for the many kids at the campground. Fortunately, our site had partial shade, as it can get rather hot (35+C, 100F) during the day at this time of year. This National Park has a lot of great and very interesting hiking trails, including some that take you through caves and along the mountain ridge lines. Apparently, it is at its best during the spring with all the wild flowers, or the fall with the changing colours of the leaves. Being from Canada (and Ottawa in particular), the fall colours in California are likely to disappoint, so we shall plan to return sometime in the spring.

Even though it gets rather hot during the day, it still gets cold at night. The hot days meant that it was too dry for camp fires, which usually would not bother us. However, the cool evening temperatures and no camp fire meant that we found ourselves bundled up in our tent by 8:30 p.m.

Some pictures:
Notice how dry the land is. The trees provide a nice contrasting green to the brown of the grasses.
Pinnacles National Park

Scott and Becky out for an evening hike, after it started to cool down a bit.
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The trail involved several switchbacks as you climbed up toward the ridge. We were struct by just how dry everything was.
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The next morning we choose a different trail – this one through a cave and up to a reservoir. The blue sky made for much better pictures.
Morning hike at Pinnacles National Park

Peeking out from inside the cave.
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The reservoir from above.
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Looking out into the valley.
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Leaving Pinnacles National Park, we drove past many brown hills dotted with green trees and the occasional cow. This type of landscape is common to the valley South and East of San Jose.
Driving south after a visit to Pinnacles National Park

Gives new meaning to ‘bent

Sunday, July 28th, 2013

For the last couple of years, as I went through the drudgery that is applying for scholarships, I promised myself, if I get a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship (the social sciences and humanities research council doctoral scholarship), that I would buy a folding bike. So, in April when I received notification of a SSHRC award, I literally danced down the street. It is a huge accomplishment, but also, it meant that I finally got to purchase a folding bike!


After much research and debate, I choose a Bike Friday. It has the benefits of a quick fold for easy transit and throwing in the trunk of your car, and a more elaborate disassembly to pack securely in a suitcase for airplane travel (something that I am doing a lot now that Scott lives in California!). But what really sold me on the bike was the promise of a folding bike that doesn’t ride like a folding bike. When I test rode the Brompton, it really felt like a bike that was a compromise. I would be compromising the comfort and feel of a bike to get the convenience of the fold. I didn’t know for certain that I had made the right decision until I got a chance to actually ride the bike.

Although we ordered the bike back in June, it arrived a few days after I returned to Ottawa. It wasn’t until yesterday that I got a chance to try out my new bike. I can confirm that I can comfortably ride at a reasonable speed. On our quick tour of the neighbourhood (Scott on his Bertrand road bike), I was easily able to ride at 25 km/hr. The only thing preventing me from riding faster was my legs!

It certainly looks funny, but it rides like a normal bike. So much so, that I forgot I wasn’t riding a regular bike, and when I stopped I went to lean the crossbar against my thigh to grab something (hands free), and dropped the bike! I need to find a new way to lean the bike against myself so that I can free my hands when I stop!