Living it Up

It’s been a month since we started this journey, and that sounds like a completely arbitrary amount of time deserving of a few notes about our trip so far.

The first week involved a lot of driving and a lot of stops along the way. Our favorite place was completely unexpected and we only stopped in Moab because Summit County was in this weird state where the snow is mostly gone but still prominent, and there isn’t really much to do. Moab was in the desert and we ended up spending two nights there, riding mountain bikes and then spending an entire day in Arches National Park, which was remarkable. We camped in the Grand Canyon near the rim with our own semi-private view of the big ditch and did some hiking, then spent a night in Vegas, which we agreed was overrated. On the way, we did the audiobook of AJ Jacobs’ My Life as an Experiment, which was a great way to pass those long hours of barren deserts.

The Jeep is still holding up, after some weird rattling, a Check Engine light which turned out to be caused by someone not completely tightening the gas tank cap, the need for a new battery, and an oil change. That’s a relief. A few years ago we had a bunch of problems with it over the course of a few months and I was afraid we were tempting fate by driving her out west. It’s been a good vehicle so far, and she’s now seen both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which I’m sure she appreciates.

The apartment is pretty Spartan, as we expected. We could only bring what we could fit in the Jeep. It’s like living in one of my old bachelor pads again, which is a bit of a shock when you’re used to having a big kitchen and ample room in which to do, well, anything. It just takes a little getting used to again. I’ve grown a fondness for cooking complicated recipes I find on the internet back home, but here, we’re kinda limited to what we can do with a pot, a pan, a few mixing bowls, and a couple spoons. We eat out a lot.

And by a lot, I mean, we’re living it up. There are tons of unique restaurants and bars all over the place here. We’re making a concerted effort to experience everything we can. We’ve got a ton of places within walking distance. A mile down the road is Santana Row, a myriad of awesome restaurants and swanky hipper-than-us clothing stores. In one night, we started with sushi and sake, moved onto an outdoor Mexican bistro with tacos, margaritas, and shots of hardcore AƱejo tequila, then onto the Cheesecake Factory, which as it turns out, serves tons of purportedly great food, though we only fit in enormous pieces of cheesecake.

One night when Jen was working, I spent the evening at a dive Blues bar a short walk down the road with an amazing blues band and a drunk guy explaining to me the perils of his life and how he was afraid to meet, for the first time, his son who he assisted in assembling at age sixteen but had never seen. I offered some worthwhile advice, which as the night wore on, ended up involving me chastising him and telling him to man up, that it wouldn’t be that bad.

Last night, we went to downtown San Jose to the Gordon Biersch brewery for some lunch and liquid courage. They make that hefeweizen that Jen liked. The beer was great and the food even better. We also stopped at the Los Gatos Brewery a few blocks away which seemed more like a swanky night club than a brewery. I had one of their only four lackluster beers, and it was a sad thing, more like a Budweiser mixed with a little caramel and left out in the sun for a week. There are more breweries in the area, so I’ll see how long I can get Jen to put up with my cravings.

Today, we met Jen’s cousin for lunch, who was visiting Napa with her boyfriend. We wanted to meet somewhere near the airport, and there was a Chinese place really close by. It was awesome. I didn’t have a clue as to what was going on. We expected the Americanized version of Chinese food, but this place was legit. We were the only honkies in the joint and most of the staff didn’t speak English. At first we felt a little overwhelmed because there were all sorts of staff pushing carts around and pressuring you to take bowls full of who-knows-what. When Stephanie and Thomas showed up, we just started agreeing to everything they’d offer us for a while and we ended up a with some great food and a few interesting and presumably edible dishes. I loved every minute of the chaos, and I think everyone had a pretty good time.

As for our jobs, I’ll have to let Jen speak for herself but I think she has fit in really well with the team. She was understandably nervous at first but the training seemed to be a breeze and she looks like she’s taken really well to the job. There are all sorts of great people she meets at work, from all over the globe. She’s getting a great range of people to talk to and everyone is very friendly.

As for me, I’ve become more of a recluse, tied to the apartment during working hours as it is the only wireless connection I’ve got which allows me to use VPN. I’ve tried working from Starbucks, but without the VPN, I’m severely limited in what I can do, which will be ok at times, but there are often times I need to have direct access to the office and all the godlike powers I have with that privilege. It was a bit overwhelming at first, but I’m fine with it now. During the first few days of work, I got pretty stir-crazy, playing the role of Mr. Mom at home and with no interaction with the outside world. That feeling has passed as I’ve become accustomed to the weirdness of working remotely and the fact that, while in Pacific Time, I’m pretty much keeping an Eastern Time working day. This means I get up pretty damn early and get done sometime midday or very early afternoon. This turns out to be working quite nicely, since with Jen working nights, she usually is asleep during those hours. This past week, I shifted a few working days because of Jen’s schedule so we could go to Yosemite during the week, and I worked over the weekend. Without too many distractions, I was able to really hone in and get a lot done on the projects I’m working on. Jen’s schedule is a bit chaotic, so I’ll probably end up doing that a few more times during our stay, which isn’t that bad on my part because I seem to be able to get more done when I’m not distracted by emails pouring in all the time.

We do miss home and our dog, Piper, especially. We have a cat too but, meh, he’s not really all that interesting. Melissa and the family are gratefully taking care of our house and animals and often send us pictures of Piper. It’s a mixed blessing. If we had her out here, there are a lot of things we’d be limited on or just couldn’t do, so it opens us up for more options. On the other hand, it sure would be nice to have her here with us because we’ve become so accustomed to her and we hope she doesn’t forget us. She doesn’t really understand the concept of Skyping, though I’ve gotten her to sit by commanding her over the internet. Usually when she hears our tinny voices through the speakers, she gets confused and goes to the window or door. That’s a bit heartbreaking, but at the same time, I’m taking it as a sign that she misses us and is awaiting our return. Jen and I have been talking about the next assignment, should we choose to continue on a new adventure, and how we’re definitely going to have to find a way to get her out here, or wherever we may end up.

And if you’re reading this and have made it this far, we miss you too. It’s our first time being away from family and friends for an extended amount of time. We’re only a third of the way into this assignment and I think we’re finally settled into this way of living, albeit temporarily. In a few weeks, we’re going to be visited by several bouts of family and friends, which ought to be a fun time. Now that we’re locals, we’ll know all the fun things to do.

In other news, I’m training to run half of the San Francisco marathon at the end of July. I’ll be running the first half, which goes over the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve never done a marathon and frankly, have always thought people that did were a little whacky in the brain to enjoy that amount of pain. Turns out I’m only half that whacky. I got some good training tips from a local guy and have been running over at Mission Peak a few times a week. Today I did a ten mile route which went up the entire first half, then turned around and went back down. While the first, upward portion, is hell, the second half was such a relief, it didn’t really feel like work because you mostly just float down the mountain.

The weather has been great, if not slightly on the chilly side at times. We’ve had the door and windows open at all times. There is no humidity and there hasn’t been a need to run the air conditioner. In the sun, it can become hot but once you’re in the shade, the temperature is great. I’m still hoping to surf, but the water is still too damn cold. I’ll probably have to end up renting a wetsuit in addition to a board in the next month or so, just so I can at least say that I did it. But damn, that ocean is still frigid.

All in all, this whole thing is turning out to be fantastic. I can’t imagine that we’d ever set up a permanent residence here but it’s so great to be able to try it out for a few months and absorb everything we can.

Yosemite

We took a few days off midweek to swing on over to Yosemite. I came here a dozen years ago on a cross country driving trip and remembered it as being one of my favorite parts of that whole journey. It was spectacular then as it is now, and this time we spent a couple days in the valley.

Ansel Adams, eat your heart out

Somehow, a few days before we went, I was able to reserve one of the last couple remaining campsites in the main valley floor. Our campsite was beautiful, walled with towering granite monoliths on all sides. The sun rose each morning just behind Half Dome as the valley started stirring while directly across the way, you could see Upper Yosemite Falls crashing down the cliff face. Some fifty yards away was one of the rushing streams or rivers flowing by the campground which emanated from one of the numerous waterfalls. I find something strangely brave and compelling in that river, which managed to tumble thousands of feet from above only to remain intact as it continued its journey unscathed, cutting through the valley floor just outside our tent.

If all the signs and warning were to be believed, this place was also riddled with bears with a fondness for waterfalls and people food. You’re under strict orders to keep anything resembling food or anything sweet smelling in a “bear locker,” a sheet metal box with a handle that was too hard for bears, and sometimes me, to figure out. We neither saw nor were molested by any bears, which was a bit of a disappointment for me but a big relief to my wife who adhered to the rules so much so that she wouldn’t even wear cherry-scented Carmex at night.

It was a relaxing couple of days, spent exploring the valley floor and walking different trails up to the granite walls, rivers, lakes, and waterfalls. This place is so big that pictures just don’t do it justice, a fact which sums up just about any place we took pictures on this trip so far. We didn’t do any huge hikes this time because frankly, we were a little worn out from this breakneck pace we’ve been setting, trying to squeeze in as much of the high profile touristy places as possible. But that was ok. The valley floor has miles of bike and walking trails so it’s easy to go at a slow, leisurely pace without missing anything. Next time, though, I want to do the day long Half Dome hike. It’s closed right now because there’s still too much snowpack in places.

The only disappointment for me was that the road to Glacier Point was still closed due to snow. We made that drive on my previous trip all those years ago and it’s one you definitely don’t want to miss. The main part of Yosemite consists of a valley or canyon floor surrounded by walls of granite, some three thousand feet up from the base. Glacier Point is a popular spot to which you can hike or drive, which provides an outcropping of rock straight up from the valley floor. It’s dizzying and nauseatingly beautiful, but we couldn’t do it this time around because, while we’re almost to June, there is still enough snow packed on the ground that the drive is impossible.

We toured the Mariposa Grove Giant Sequoia forest on the southern edge of Yosemite, where you have a grove of absolutely huge sequoia trees. There is fire damage all over this place, which I later learned was part of a prescribed fire regimen meant to keep the forest a little more regular. I remember hearing about how these types of trees require fire to open up their cones to proliferate, but never thought much about it. It’s not entirely true, as there are also some insects and squirrels or something which help open the cones so the seeds can germinate, but it seems the fire also helps the younger lads by opening up some of the canopy to allow more sunlight to filter through. I’d like to find out more about these trees. Those are interesting adaptations.

I’d sure like to come out here again and to do a few real hikes up into the mountains, and to be able to go up to Glacier Point to act like I’m falling off for some more fun pictures. The great part about it is that we’re only four hours away from this paradise.

Big Sur

We took this weekend as an excuse to head down to camp in Big Sur. With Jen’s schedule, we had to squeeze it into Friday afternoon through late Saturday night, but that’s ok because it’s just a short jaunt down south. I love it out here.

If you’ve never driven on Highway One, go. Go now. It’s one of the most breathtaking drives you’ll ever take. I read somewhere that the majority of visitors to the area never stick around, but only drive through, stopping alongside the road at the many turnouts to enjoy the scenery. We did that a few years ago, so it was nice to take a couple days and soak more of it in.

The landscape of this place is always changing. No, really. There were two landslides in the last couple months that took out this measly little two lane road. We passed through one area twelve miles south of Carmel which was hastily squeezed into one lane because two months ago, a landslide ripped down the hill and eradicated half the freaking road. Click that link and look at the pictures. No new asphalt was added, and you can see where the seaward lane was severed, leaving only a few dangling pieces of the inland side. I’m not sure how long it took to become operational again, but it looks like the highway corps just flipped Mother Nature the bird, kicked the broken pieces of the southbound side down the mountain, and opened it back up with a timed light so only one way could proceed at the time. Hell yea. The other landslide occurred farther south than we drove and is still closed, which is good because it apparently still looks like this. Mother Nature can be a petty bitch sometimes. But don’t worry, it’s safe.

We set up camp that night and headed down to Pfeiffer beach, which was a secluded beach with some beautiful rock formations. You’d think it would be warm in California this time of year, but it was still a little chilly, and on this beach it was compounded by the fact that the wind was strong enough to knock you over. I still made Jen stay so we could explore and take pictures.

I discovered a beer that night that Jen actually enjoyed, a Hefeweizen, and I plan on exploiting that fact in the future. There are a lot of microbreweries out here I need to explore, and I’m positive they all make a Hefeweizen. We camped near the Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park at a nice little place by the river amidst the redwood trees.

We spent most of the day at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park and walked a few of the shorter trails. We then took it upon ourselves to walk up Mt. Manuel, an eight mile round trip with three thousand feet gain in elevation. We didn’t make it all the way, but I’d like to think we did at least seventy-five percent. The views were spectacular and you slowly rose above the coastal mountains overlooking the sea, and could finally look down on those smug rich folk sitting atop the far-off mountains in their multimillion dollar homes.

Don't let the brush fool you. That's a near vertical drop-off

The trail wasn’t too bad. It was well laid out and not altogether too steep, but man, in some places it was a sheer drop off of a few hundred feet, cleverly masked by a bunch of underbrush. We passed countless places on the trail where still-visible landslides had taken out most of the hill above and below the trail, leaving only a path the width of a couple feet through which to pass.

I went for a dip in the frigid Big Sur river to cool off. We tried to get back to the more scenic part of the gorge by bounding over slippery rocks, but after getting stuck and talking to a couple of gypsies, we figured it was more time than it was worth, and there was more of Big Sur to see before the sun set.

Our end of the trail was at that waterfall which lies at the heart of Big Sur. We still had a little while left until sunset but we wanted to stick around for the grand finale. Being that drunken revelry is generally frowned upon in these types of places, we discreetly filled our Nalgene water bottle with a Pinot Noir from the Mondavi family winery from the week before, and did a little more exploring. What we found was a secluded enclave surrounded by boulders and funny-looking pine trees, right upon a cliff above the water. It was spectacular. We had that little place to ourselves and were able to watch the sun set in peace, without all those dirty tourists around.

Gods, I love this woman

And if that weren’t enough, as we started driving back north in the twilight, I screeched the breaks in front of cozy little place called the Big Sur Inn. At least, that’s what I think it was called. Every other building on this road, of which there aren’t many, seems like it’s called Big Sur Inn. It was a romantic little hideaway with a few dozen rooms and a quaint little restaurant. We parked there for a few hours and had a dinner, me with my roast duck and Jen with her lamb ribs. The food was delicious and the setting was just perfect. After dinner we made the drive back to our apartment, stopping along the way to gaze slack jawed at the expansive star-filled sky.

My First Hash

Hash House Harriers. This is the group of “drinkers with a running problem” which I’ve only now found out about. Apparently it’s a worldwide fraternity of folks who love to drink and just need an excuse to organize. Their excuse is to chase a couple wankers, hares, all around town, trying to track them down and occasionally stopping for beer. I’ve only now found out about this group.

It’s a bit overwhelming at first. They have their own language and everyone has their own, often phallic or vulvic, name. I think I observed mild disappointment in their eyes when I told them my name was Chad, which they quickly changed to eagerness as they realized I was still a virgin.

Everyone in the group was given a piece of chalk with which to write secret markings on the pavement, except for me whom they didn’t yet trust. I only got a courtesy elementary description of what the chalk lines mean, and to be honest, I still don’t have a fucking clue. This group has a language unto itself, and half the time I can’t understand if they’re talking about a person, a body part, or one of those damnable sidewalk drawings.

Instead, I stuck with a few folks on the trail, running ahead or behind so I could somehow glean just what the hell was going on. Apparently, the two hares get a fifteen minute head start and only they know the trail. They mark their trail with occasional handfuls of flour and often try to lead you off-path. After the designated time, the rest of the hashers start chasing after the hares. The faster ones attempt to find out where the real trail leads, and will leave chalk markings on the ground either to help, or to fuck with you. I love this concept.

The best part about this whole game is the plethora of beer scattered throughout the course. Before you start running, you drink. You run for a while, you stop and drink. Sometimes, you stop to drink again. This course was three and a half miles and we took a second stop at a bar for more beer before finishing the course.

I made sure to stick with the pack, because I didn’t have any idea where we were or where we were going. I met some pretty cool people along the way, all of whom seemed wholly devoted to this way of life, which I find utterly fantastic. One girl even had their wedding themed around the H3 and all its members, and I heard a good share of stories from that event. I won’t regale them here, but, wow.

At the end, the group typically drinks more beer. Go figure. And then, they gather around in a semicircle to poke fun at everyone else. Included in this event was me, having been my first time at a Hash. They took me up front and asked me a few questions, of which I had been warned. The women of the group gathered up front, and the final question revolved around me either telling a joke, singing a song, or showing a private body part. All that came to mind, amidst cat calls and girls yelling to see my junk, was the song, “I’ve Got Friends in Low Places,” by Garth Brooks. I don’t do country anymore, but it seemed appropriate. Having kept my pants on and belting only a few lines, I retired to my corner of the semicircle where I could observe the ongoings in my anonymity with my dignity intact.

I don’t think I’ll ever drink the Kool-Aid and become fully integrated into this group of wankers, but this thing was pretty damn fun. While I’m out here, I’ll have to hit up a few more of these things. What better way to meet people than to get liquored up and go chasing through the streets of northern California with a bunch of whacked out hashers.

Wine Weekend

We’ve made it past a week in our new, temporary home. Twelve more to go. At least. We’ve been keeping pretty busy in our off hours, without much time to jot down what’s going on.

On Friday, our apartment complex threw a shindig with a bunch of wine and appetizers. It was fun meeting and talking to a few other residents. One girl we met had a dog larger than Piper and was shocked that we couldn’t bring her. Something is amiss. We’re gonna check with the staff tomorrow and show them a cute picture of Piper to see if it’ll melt their hearts. There was another guy we got talking to a lot who was really into running. It seems like everyone is really into running here. I may have been coerced into running the San Francisco half marathon at the end of July. Apparently you can sign up for running only half, and one of the halves goes across the Golden Gate bridge. That sounds like all sorts of awesome.

We woke up early on Saturday to drive up to Napa Valley where we had scheduled a wine tour on a bus with a handful of other couples. Our tour guide was great and it was really nice having it guided. When we did Napa a few years ago, we were a bit overwhelmed because there are so many wineries out here. With a guide, he picked four lesser known places where we got private tastings. The first was outside and it was a bit chilly, but the wine and company was good.

The second place we went was the son of the Robert Mondavi we all know and love, and there were so many people in the tasting room that one of the proprietors brought us in an elevator downstairs to where the high class folks get to drink. The wine here was really good and mostly cheap, so we bought a bunch.

How cute.

The third place we went brought us on a tour around the winery with a super hyper dog in tow. He brought a tennis ball and I got to play catch in the underground cellars with a dog. Piper would be jealous. Oh, and at one point on the tour, the guide was having us go through the whole rigamarole where you smell the wine, swirl it, smell it, and swig it. He singled me out as a shining example of how to sniff the wine because I had my crooked schnoz all the way in the glass. He actually called me a professional wine drinker. Damn straight.

There was one more winery with a lot of great wines, and later that night we went to a steakhouse in Napa where they have those dry-aged steaks like Louis Benton’s back home. It was good, but not quite as good as Louis Benton’s was.

We stayed the night in a hotel and woke up to rain and sleet, which looked really cool against the mountains. We were wined out by this time so we skipped Sonoma valley for the time being and instead headed to the Golden Gate bridge. We got a little lost trying to find the bridge overlook on the northern side and ended up finding a bunch of trails out by the ocean where we hiked for a few hours. The rain was gone and the weather was great.

Trying to relive her diving days

There were a bunch of old World War II bunkers and random concrete enclosures scattered all over the place. It had this surreal post-apocalyptic feeling.

Further up the road, we hiked a little trail that went out to a lighthouse, when we were stopped by an iron door in the side of a cliff. We turned around to go back up and a tour group was coming down, and they shouted that they had a key. No stranger to free-loading, we tailed this tour group and listened to the history of the lighthouses and the Bay area. We talked for a while with one of the guides whose ancestors all had some connection to lighthouses. This dude was really into lighthouses, but really interesting to talk with.

We then went down to Fisherman’s Wharf for a quick walk and some fried fish sandwiches. There were a few people in costumes who just got done with the Bay to Breakers race which happened today. We were hoping to see some of the race but I think it was already done. If you haven’t heard of the race, which we hadn’t, apparently it’s just a big party with lots of people in costume and lots of people running naked. I was hoping to see some of the naked people running. It would have made a great introduction into San Francisco, but we got there too late. You can always do a Google Image Search for Bay Area Breakers, just not at work.

Jen’s got just a couple hours more training on Monday before starting nights on Tuesday. I’ve been keeping a good early morning schedule for work, starting around 5 am and one morning, at 3:30 am. It’s not that bad. It leaves the afternoon open and this past week, I’ve spent the afternoon working on my tan down by the pool. It’s not the prettiest sight. I’m just trying to fit in. Maybe I’ll bleach my hair next.

Settled In

We’re starting to be settled into our new place in Santa Clara. It’s Wednesday night, Jen has been in training at the hospital for three days and I’ve been cooped up, working from home for three days. This whole working remotely thing is a bit of a shock at first. I used to take a day or two here and there to work from home so I could avoid distractions and get more things done. Now that I’m doing it full time, it feels a bit isolating at times. I get a little stir crazy if I’m not deeply focused on development work. There’s a Starbuck’s down the road and a library a couple miles away that I’m going to try and camp at the next time I can’t bear to be inside all day. There’s wireless down by the pool area in our apartment, so I’ll have to camp out there from time to time.

Office with a View

Jen sounds like she’s fitting into the job very nicely. She’s had a few days training and one on the floor tailing another nurse, and she seems really happy and at ease with her coworkers and her duties. It sounds like a great environment in which to work. One of the other travelers had a friend who recently accepted a full time position here after traveling because the unit was so nice and the pay was great.

The last few days, we’ve been exploring our surroundings. I almost got lost on a run through the busy streets but ended up just tacking on another mile, which wasn’t a bad thing. There’s a big Central Park a few miles north of us by the library which has all sorts of goodies: a few lap pools, all heights of diving boards up to ten meters (Jen was really into that), grills, baseball diamonds, tennis courts up the wazoo, workout stations along the path, little kids chasing geese, and all sorts of people just enjoying being outdoors. It’s refreshing.

We just got back from a windy drive out to Santa Cruz where we ate a fish dinner with a cheap bottle of Pinot Grigio out on the wharf. The sun was getting close to setting so we hurriedly drove up Highway 1 until we saw some parked cars, jumped the fence, and ran through a few fields in the farmland by the ocean to try and watch the sunset. We didn’t make it all the way out to the edge of the cliffs because of all the tangled underbrush, but we still got a great view of the sunset by the cliffs on the ocean.

Camera Phones don't Quite do it Justice

Tomorrow I’m going to be trying this thing out with a group called the Hash House Harriers, which apparently has chapters all over the world. They’re self described as a “drinking club with a running problem.” The point seems to be to get in a group and go running, following random markings on the street, drink beer, run a little more, then drink more beer and then meet up at the bar. Sounds like my kind of people.

I Saw a Rattlesnake

We brought our mountain bikes up to Arastradero Preserve and biked around a bit before realizing the majority of the trail was too crowded for bikes. There weren’t a ton of people, but there were enough people with dogs, strollers, or little old ladies that I didn’t feel comfortable zipping by on my bike. I didn’t want to end up with an infant in my spokes, so we took to walking instead.

It’s a nice, wide open space and only a few minutes from Jen’s work. I’ll have to come by more often. There was a board posting looking for volunteers, so we might poke our noses in there to get to meet some locals. The park was littered with a bunch of intersecting trails and hills. At one point, as we were walking around the bend on top of a hill, some mountain bikers were stopped and staring at a rattlesnake in the track.

Yep, that's a rattler

And me in my sandals and shorts. I was a little more cautious through the remainder of the trail. The next time I visit, I plan on bringing a mongoose on a leash.