Sunday, October 30, 2011

Cycling Highway 1 - last day of the Steinbeck pilgrimage

I'd been told many times that Big Sur was unmissable and I definitely wanted to visit it as I was already so close. As I wasn't driving in the US I was left with two options. The first was to catch a bus, or more accurately busses down the coast but this was going to take several hours and a number of changes and so, in the end it didn't seem worthwhile. The second option was to cycle along the historic Highway 1. I'd spoken with the guy at the front desk in the hostel who told me that it was a pretty easy ride, perhaps 20km or so in total. I haven't cycled much over the last few years but this sounded like a nice day out, so I headed out in the morning and took the bus to Carmel to start the ride. It took me an hour of walking around to find the bike rental store, as US towns are not built for pedestrians, but eventually I left, with my newly rented bike and my bag full of camera gear. I asked the guy in the shop for confirmation of the length of the ride and was a little surprised when he told me that it was more like an 80 km round trip, but up for a challenge it seemed like it was going to be a fun day.

I headed out into the cold ocean fog and felt fantastic cruising the roads down onto the coast, blood pumping and me quickly warming up even without much sunshine on me (though given the state of my sunburn this was a good thing).

Highway 1 wends up and down the hills of the coastline, rising up into the fog and down to sea level every few kilometers. Sadly the fog was too strong most of the time to make photography very worthwhile but I got one shot of the famous Buxby Bridge, which, with its lack of high sides and strong winds made cycling across it a rather sketchy experience

Bixby bridge

The rucksack with my Canon 7D and four lenses was pretty heavy and as I got closer and closer to Big Sur it quickly got painful and I had to stop every ten kilometers or so to stretch the muscles in my back which were beginning to spasm with the constant exersion. Along the way there are a few reasonably big hills and one enormous beast which just keeps going on and on. The main problem though is that there's almost nowhere along the route which is flat:

EDIT: Somehow I just lost the rest of this blogpost. I'll start again...

Anyway, the hill in the middle of the ride was hard on the way to Big Sur, and truly horrendous on the way back. It took me two and a half hours or so to get to Big Sur and by this time I was already exhausted and my back was in almost constant spasm. With the wind blowing North to South I was rather worried about the route back, and indeed after a quick lunch and a stretch I was back on the bike, and even on the relatively flat start I struggled with the incoming wind. I was worried that the big hill in the middle was going to finish me off and I pondered about how easy it would be to flag down a ride if I was really struggling.

Thankfully I managed to push through and didn't stop on the ride up the middle hill, but instead took my mind off the pain by counting down from 100 over and over again through each peddle stroke. The ride the other side was fantastic, though my back was giving me such big pains by this point that nothing was terribly enjoyable.

I should note that despite all the complaining above the ride was spectacular, and it has often been said to be one of the most picturesque routes in the US. I have to say though that I've done similarly spectacular rides in England, Scotland and Wales and would recommend anyone taking a ride along the Cornish coastline, or the Northernmost reachest of Scotland to see similarly breathtaking views.

Six hours after starting out I found myself back in the bike shop and still had another hour's walk plus the bus ride to get back to the hostel. I spent as much time stretching my upper back as possible, but the spasms by this point had turned to a monotonous tension that wouldn't go away. Before crashing into bed I guzzled up two burgers, a huge milkshake and a big bowl of clam chowder. By 8 in the evening I was in bed, and soon after had passed out completely.

The next morning I woke up expecting to be in agony, but in fact was feeling fine, though with a general feeling of muscle fatigue. My back on the other hand had turned from pain to complete numbness and I had no feeling at all in the upper left part of my back. I worried that I'd done myself some spinal damage, the rucksack somehow pressing into a vertebrae and it wasn't until I could see a doctor in Munich a few days later that I was told that it was probably just local nerve damage from the pain in the muscles and that it should be fine in a matter of a couple of months. One month later the feeling is slowly coming back and all should be fine again in a few weeks. Yet another tick for Jon's stupidity when it comes to pushing myself!

The morning after the ride I was due to head back to San Francisco and had put up a note in the hostel asking for a rideshare. A guy was heading to SF airport and offered to give me a lift there. He had been living on the East coast of the US for 30+ years but had origininally been born and raised in Steinbeck's hometown of Salinas. He asked me, very apologetically if I wouldn't mind if we took a quick nostaligic tour through his old haunts. On the contrary I assured him, it was about as much as I could have hoped for to have a personal tour of the town I'd read so much about. It was frankly the best hour of the whole time in the Monterey area and I couldn't have asked for a more perfect Steinbeckian tale to end the journey.

We went back to the old streets of his childhood, 40 or so years previously, and he recounted tales of his schooldays, and of getting in trouble in the surrounding hills and valleys, of local misfits and life in the factory for his father - in fact the same factory that Steinbeck worked for some time - the local Spreckels Sugar Beet processing plant. He told me about historic brawls and of the two Mexican kids in his class, of what has come of his old school friends and of how things had changed in the intervening years.

The dry hillsides surrounding Salinas and the gently rolling hills fulfilled every image I'd had of this part of the world, and frankly no biography or local history book could have given me more of a taste of where his stories had come from. We finally stopped off for half an hour at the National Steinbeck Centre which is well worth a visit if you're in the area and are a fan of his writing.

Anyway, I made it back to San Francisco and the next few days were a relaxed last Californian breather before heading back to Europe. I went to see friends in Palo Alto and spent time hanging out with my good friend Alex and his daughter Sahtah before diving headlong into work.

Since I arrived back in Munich a month ago I've been for one week in central Germany with a collaboration, a few days in Poland in both Warsaw and Krakow at a Marie Curie conference and giving a talk, and then, after five days back in Munich, I was in Beijing for two weeks giving a half a dozen talks and starting a new collaboration with a soon-to-be office mate in Munich. I'll try and update these stories in the coming week, though right now it looks like just about every minute is taken up with projects of various kinds.

To be continued...

Monterey - a Steinbeck pilgrimage - day 2

So, we're still in Monterey and taking in the sights and sounds of a town I've imagined going to for 15 years. Having walked the boardwalks and taken in the lingering smells from Cannery Row's history I was ready to do some more exploring.

I spent the morning back in the aquarium which has enough to keep anyone occupied for a good few hours. The current highlight is the 4ft great white shark in the main tank and there's a constant crowd watching to catch a glimpse as it slowing glides around the enormous tank. The tank includes sun fish, hammer head sharks, tuna and a miscellany of other smaller fish.

As an aside, somebody sent me the following video when we talked about the speed of fish. Watch until the end, I can just about guarantee astonishment:

Anyway, given the low light levels in the aquarium I was having trouble getting sharp shots of the fish through the glass and so went for a long exposure, atmosphere picture, rather than something super sharp. The neon light shining through the water gave a lovely tinge to the fish trails and so I took a few shots of the crowds watching over a 20 second exposure:

The fog was still hanging over the bay at this time which made for some fantastically surreal scenes, looking out from the jetties at Cannery Row:
ocean fog
That afternoon I had no plans and so headed out on one of the whale watching boats to try my luck. Although the time of year is good for whale watching, there hadn't been much success that morning and so we were warned that we may not see anything. Our guide, a hugely enthusiastic woman transmitted her love for all things maritime with shouts and whoops of laughter along with a good dose of fascinating information about whale migratory patterns, the topography of Monterey bay, and the scientific research she does into a variety of cetaceans.

Our first find was a sun fish which came to eye us warily. These fish (also called Mola Mola) can grow to up to 2 tonnes and be 4 meters across . The one we came across was only a baby, at perhaps a meter or so across and quickly tired of our photo taking and took off. Shortly after we found a seal, hiding in some kelp, disguising itself from hungry killerwhales:
hiding seal

We carried on for another hour or so without any luck. We were about ready to head back when a scream from our guide told us that something had been spotted and we raced off out into the ocean to see what it was. Before any of us could see anything at all she was screaming excitedly that it was a humpbacked whale and indeed our first sight of it was the burst of vapour from its blowhole. For 20 minutes or so we watched as it came up for air and then dived down for a couple of minutes before we had to search around to work out where it would next surface.
humpback whale

The whale only breached once while we were watching it, and sadly with the zoom lens I didn't manage to find it, focus and take the picture before it was gone, but it was a truly beautiful thing to see the tail come out of the water and slip silently down. The highlight for our guide was that the wind direction was right to send the plume of vapour our way on one breath and so we were, for a few seconds, surrounded by the stench of whale breath. This is certainly not one of the experiences I'd expected from the California trip.

Another highlight and perhaps for me a bigger surprise was the sighting of a black-footed albatross. These mythical birds have always held a fascination for me since I read at a young age that they could grow up to 10ft across. The occupants of the other boat which came out to see the whale when we radioed the surrounding tour groups, seemed to miss the albatross, but I got a nice shot as it sailed by their boat.


After all the excitement we headed back inland and I made my way to the hostel that I was going to stay in for the next couple of days. Getting into the hostel was a great disappointment frankly. Though it was a beautiful hostel, things have changed hugely from a decade ago when I was  frequently staying in hostels. It used to be that you'd arrive in a hostel and there would be people from all around the world, sharing stories and making new friendships. Arriving into the hostel in Monterey (and I understand that this phenomenon is now largely universal) I found a half a dozen people sat silently, each one of them plugged into a computer somehow, talking on facebook, typing on skype, reading the news, but not a single person interacting with anyone else.

This seems like a really sad state of affairs but rather inevitable as we become more and more used to having our lives split between the real and the virtual world. This is precisely the reason that I don't have the internet at home (or at least not easily accessible). When I have couchsurfers, or friends around, it's all too easy to get sidetracked from real interactions by the internet and I much prefer to make it as hard as possible to get online when I'm at home. I have neither TV nor wifi at home and so spend a lot more time talking, cooking, reading and generally feeling like I'm interacting physically rather than virtually with the world around me. This isn't to say that I shun such things - it's pretty clear that I don't, but I make a big effort to leave parts of my life where these forms are less pervasive.

I stayed in the hostel for three nights in the end and met three interesting people in that time. Back in the day it would have been a constant stream of interesting meetings, but now I felt like i was being intrusive if I tried to start a conversation with someone who was plugged in, so I sat and read my book in the evenings while everyone else typed away.

Anyway, next comes a mammoth adventure on highway 1 but I'll leave that for the next post.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

Monterey - a Steinbeck pilgrimage - day 1

Without a doubt Steinbeck is the author that has appeared on this blog more times than any other. I'm not quite there but I'm close to reading everything he wrote and I still get moved on rereading his simple but powerful writing. The first paragraph of Cannery Row is a perfect example of this. No fancy-schmancy vocabulary, just the building of layer upon layer of imagery, until you can smell, and hear the minutiae of his vision:

"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky-tonks, restaurants and whore-houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flop-houses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, 'whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches,' by which he meant Everybody. Had the man looked through another peep-hole he might have said: 'Saints and angels and martyrs and holy men,' and he would have meant the same thing."

The first book I read of his, East of Eden, was his most epic and since reading these words I have wanted to go to Monterey bay, to sit in Cannery Row breathing in the air that caused those first incredible lines to emerge.

"THE SALINAS VALLEY is in Northern California. It is a long narrow swale between two ranges of mountains, and the Salinas River winds and twists up the center until it falls at last into Monterey Bay.

I remember my childhood names for grasses and secret flowers. I remember where a toad may live and what time the birds awaken in the summer—and what trees and seasons smelled like—how people looked and walked and smelled even. The memory of odors is very rich.

I remember that the Gabilan Mountains to the east of the valley were light gay mountains full of sun and loveliness and a kind of invitation, so that you wanted to climb into their warm foothills almost as you want to climb into the lap of a beloved mother. They were beckoning mountains with a brown grass love. The Santa Lucias stood up against the sky to the west and kept the valley from the open sea, and they were dark and brooding—unfriendly and dangerous. I always found in myself a dread of west and a love of east."

I started early in the morning from San Francisco to take the caltrain to catch the bus to Monterey The fog was still hanging over the valleys as we approached, and the homesteads and farm houses in the hillsides were exactly the images I'd had reading The Long Valley and the Pastures of Heaven. The arid fields fit my ideas perfectly and while I'd sat in anticipation, ready for a slightly disappointing trip having looked forward to it for so long, it couldn't have fit my imaginings better.

We arrived into the town centre, the low-rise buildings with old adobe structures dotted along the main street and I headed straight for Cannery Row. I knew it would be touristy, and indeed it is, but thankfully there is still a strong sense of the original here and while Steinbeck's picture of the poem, the stink, the grating noise is long gone, the light, the nostalgia and the dream are somehow still there and I sat in a cafe in the middle of it all, looking out over the sea, feeling very much like I was back in a familiar place.

I headed to the aquarium, one of the best in the world, and spent the last hour of opening time watching the displays and walking the boardwalks outside seeing the fog cut a curtain across the bay. I'll leave you for today with juts a few photos from Monterey day 1 and will attempt to finish this off tomorrow if possible:

Cannery Row


Monterey aquarium

fog from the aquarium

seagull and moon

fog rolling in over Monterey

dusk in Monterey

Oakland Athletics versus Seattle Mariners

Back in San Francisco I had just a couple of days rest before taking off again on my next adventure, but first I went with a few friends to see a baseball game out in Oakland. Going with a Seattle local it was the perfect match between the Seattle Mariners and Oakland Athletics. In fact it was an incredibly slow (or fast, depending on how you count it) game with just three runs in the extremely short hour and a half or so of play. Still, despite much excitement it was fun to watch and going there with a Japanese friend it was fun to watch a couple of Japanese heroes of the American baseball league, Ichiro Suzuki and Hideki Matsui. Anyway, I'll leave this one without too much commentary and just post up a few photos from the game. It was a great opportunity to play around with very fast shutter speeds and the light was perfect for capturing hundred mile and hour balls in flight.









I was lucky with the timing of this shot. The ball is just touching the guys hands if you look closely.

For anybody interested, the score in the end 3:0 to Seattle.

Yosemite trip day 3

Waking the next morning I realised the full extent of the state of my back and realised that there was no way that I was going to be able to go into direct sunlight without being in agony, so I spent a good part of the day finding shady patches to hide in.

We drove back into the park and this time went to the valley floor. The first stop was the river which runs through the valley, and while the others splashed and dove, I sat on a rock in the shade, relaxing taking photographs and reading for an idyllic hour.

shade in the trees


Shelley in flight

Matthias in flight

Next stop was perhaps the most photographed of views in all of Yosemite, the views that Ansel Adams is most famous for, and the views that live up to all expectations. I have to say I feel somewhat depressed looking at Ansel's photos, knowing that mine are absolutely nothing compared to these incredible images. Still, mine are my own view and I will keep improving my photography where possible.

El Cap and Half dome

half dome through the treesb

El Cap and Half dome 2

Yosemite waterfall

half dome frame

We spent the rest of the day taking it easy in the valley floor and I took the chance to go to the Ansel Adams gallery, which is truly breathtaking. Every time I go to a new place like this I spend a day or two taking photos, come back and realise some basic errors in composition or lighting that I've been making. I'd love to spend a few weeks somewhere like this, gradually honing my skills for a single image or scene. I've now made it to Jiuzhaigou twice and I plan on going back at least another three or four times to get better and better photos. Similarly I'd love to make it back to Yosemite to improve my images of this incredible scenery.

We drove back to San Francisco in the late afternoon and the setting sun through the California countryside was the best we could have hoped for to end the incredible three days. Incidentally, the group that I'd gone with was the Incredible Adventures company and I can highly recommend going with them, and specifically finding out when Jordan will be taking the group. He's an excellent guide and a top class cook.

Yosemite trip day 2

The first morning in the camp I woke at around 5 with the first light.  I've never been able to sleep with light around and this turns out to be a blessing when camping. I got up when the camp was still completely silent,  walked out into the still crisp morning as the sun still hadn't quite risen enough to warm the air, and went for an early run around the camp area, the light gradually showing itself through the canopy. The thought of bears in the area only added to the joy of the run and I came back exhilarated and with blood pumping. It was still going to be a while until the others were up so I went through a yoga routine I'd been taught by a couchsurfer a couple of weeks before, feeling about as much of a hippy as it's possible for me to feel, standing in the early morning light in a beautiful forest with only the rustling of the trees for company.

I got coffee started and gradually the others started to rise, looking rather tired and shivering in the cold. Everyone soon warmed up though and within an hour of breakfast burritos and camp coffee we were packed up and ready to hit the road.

We drove back into the park and took the road up to the high country, around 10,000 feet. On the way we stopped off at a lookout point, facing towards half-dome and the valley floor and were met with an arrangement of rocks and trees that any minimalist photographer would kill for.
Yosemite lone tree

Yosemite rocks and trees

Yosemite rocks and trees 2

Yosemite rocks

Yosemite boulder and tree

Yosemite half dome

Continuing up we actually went back out of the park to start the hike. Stopping up somewhere around 10,000 feet we hydrated with watermelon, slapped on sun screen and got ready for a good day's walking:

The Hoover Wilderness area is pocketed with beautiful lakes and rolls with meadows that could have come straight out of a Swiss fairytale. As we got higher up through the day we got up to glacier level and when we weren't fending off mosquitos we were pelting each other with snowballs.
Yosemite trail

Yosemite treetrunk

Yosemite tree

Yosemite reflection

Yosemite wide view 2

Jordan, our guide:

I was expecting to be generally impressed by Yosemite, but the scenery was completely beyond my expectations. I've been lucky enough to see some incredible places over the last few years, and Yosemite is right up there with Jiuzhaigou, which I count as about the most platonically ideal views that can exist anywhere.

After a quick lunch we continued on our way and eventually found a lake with cliffs that were safe to jump off. I'm not entirely sure which aspect of this was more stupid, the idea of jumping from 20+ feet of rock, or the idea of landing in glacier water but somehow half of us were persuaded that this was a good plan. Jordan in mid flight:

I have to admit that I didn't jump from the highest point as the idea of jarring my spine is not one that I much fancy. I did jump from 15 feet or so  and although I was ready for the shock of the cold water, I was not ready for quite how freezing it was (this, on my part was pretty stupid, given that the ice from the glacier actually sits in the lake). The shock was electric and I upon surfacing was instantly faced with competing emotions. One of complete surprise that my body could drop in temperature so fast, and a logical thought process that asked how the hell I was going to get out of there. I swam quickly to the base of the rocks and thought for a frightening second that given my freezing hands I might not be able to climb up the face (this is the second time in two years that I've found myself in water wondering for a split second if I might not have just made a fatal decision). Thankfully given a burst of adrenalin and with no possibility for my hands to get sweaty I pulled myself back up the cliff, panting with the combined effort and cold-induced palpitations.

I stood around for a few minutes to dry off before putting my clothes back on, and for a fateful half hour or so was in the belief that my sun-cream, which I'd been applying liberally all day, was waterproof. We continued the walk and after some time people started commenting that I was looking a little red. I quickly reapplied, but somehow it was too late. I'd been putting on factor 50 all day, but finally by the time we got back to camp I was lobster red and feeling truly shattered. This was me as the burn took hold, but in fact it was almost a week of applying burn cream until I could sleep comfortably.

The drive back was stunning with the crescent moon coming up between the trees, and the ten of us feeling elated by the day but completely shattered by the exertions at altitude.

Dinner was another feast, this time Italian and, with Jordan in charge again, we were given the order to slice a few hundred garlic cloves, ready to go into the most potent garlic bread ever. Sadly I have no photos of this mammoth effort, but by the time we were finished we had to worry about neither vampires nor bears. It was this second night that I took some of the lightpainting photos of the milky way up through the canopy, already posted here but I'll put up one again on this post for good measure:
light painting the milky way 2

I collapsed long before the others, my pulse building to a painful throb through my quickly tenderising back.