Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Little sis' comes to California!

Well my little sister is not so little anymore. In fact, she's almost fully grown up, able to vote, fight, drink, smoke, and most importantly, speak at the dinner table.

The cat is out of the bag now, so I can talk about it. A rather furtively came to visit me in California, on her way to spend a week with unsuspecting boyfriend H in New York. I have it on good authority that she managed to locate him in that seething metropolis, so I suppose it's not a surprise anymore.

Of course, I first got wind of this devious plan a few weeks ago and immediately began to hatch my own devious plans! Of course it is worth bearing in mind that I am formally obliged to supply A with an all expenses paid holiday since she did so damn well in school, but we as yet have been unable to agree on a season or destination. All my suggestions of tropical, malaria-infested paradises went mostly unacknowledged, much less accepted.

And just like that, fate played into my hands an opportunity to discharge at least part of my filial obligations, and also to inspire/inflict some of the wonders for which California is justifiably famous the world over. Regular readers of this blog, if there are any, would know that by now I have visited many of the attractions in Southern California, with a special emphasis on rocks, deserts, desert rocks, and rocky deserts. Which is lucky, because I like both rocks and deserts.

Last Thursday, I used my only functioning appendage (my left pinky) to gradually lever myself out of bed at the ungodly hour of 8:30am. Stumbling down the hill to my car parked in distant LA (just around the corner, where you can park overnight), I planted my trusty $2 polaroids firmly in place and set off for the usual morning horrors of the 110 expressway.

Before long (only 6 traffic jams) I was bounding towards the Tom Bradley terminal, determined to video A walking up the perilous ramp. While waiting, I decided to walk around a bit, and a few minutes later, bumped into A, who had clearly jumped the queue at immigration. It sometimes takes me 2 hours to get through!

We loaded up my trusty black Hertz Corolla (a perfect colour for the desert) and began to brave the wilds of LA. Our first order of business was finding provisions, and for this we found a Whole Foods nearby, where I began the righteous slaughter of my credit card. A mysteriously appeared in different clothing, while I rejoiced in her gluten-free state to buy even more corn chips than usual.

The next part of the trip concerns 5 hours of driving north on the 405, 5, and 99 to Oakhurst, nestled in the foot of the Sierras. I described the geological history of the Hess and Shatsky conjugates, the delaminated paleo-subduction hinge, and the various central-Californian canals, accompanied by the steady continuo hum of A's jetlagged snoring. We also took the opportunity to drool all over a shiny Tesla at the supercharger at Tejon Ranch.

With minimal drama we located our hotel for the evening - the Sierra Sky Ranch Resort, and collected our key in case of late return from evening adventures. Via a little-known route we climbed up into the mountains and thence located the mysterious Nelder Grove, a grove of Giant Sequoias high up in the hills. We climbed through the forest listening for bears and squirrels with glossalia, eventually locating Millikan, the biggest damn tree in the forest. I found their size perfect for describing the dimensions of the SpaceX family of rockets. Funnily enough they have a similar density, though the rockets are more adapted to supersonic speeds and the vacuum of space.

The fading light gloriously illuminated clouds of dust thrown up by my so-called driving as we headed back to the hotel. There, we found a restaurant filled with European tourists, a surf-and-turf special, and a surprisingly in-tune piano on which to compare the extent to which we'd both neglected our practise of late. Fortunately we had an indulgent audience, and before long it was time to head to bed for an early start the following day.

Friday arrived with an inaudible boom as the sun crested the horizon. My alarm, perfectly synchronised with the dawn, split the air and my eardrums with yet another encore of M's Little Shop opening number. We unpacked our bags in reverse, loaded the car, remembered to check out in the nick of time and, with one last baleful look from the resident squirrel hunting poly-dactyl cat, we were off!

The road zoomed between great grey granite boulders, past steaming pools and over gushing torrents of icy water as we headed down towards the one, the only, the unique Yosemite valley. The valley entrance begins with a long tunnel. We popped out into the blinding morning sun and I pulled off the road so we could take it in. A's eyes streamed with emotion and, and soon realised, solar radiation, so I lent her my sunglasses and pointed out the silhouettes in the distance. 

We drove down along the valley floor to Curry Village, where we parked and set out. The previous two times I'd been to Yosemite, my ambitious hiking partners and I had set about hiking to the rim and back, a whole-day affair. A and I had but three hours, so we contented ourselves with a walk to the (mostly dry) Mirror Lake, where we shivered in the shadow of Half Dome and ate our respective loaves of bread for breakfast. At some point the sun peeked over the sub-dome and our view of the face (oddly bereft of climbers) went dark. We completed the loop, amid our hemi-annual catch-up chat, and returned to the car. Sadly the waterfalls were dry, so with one last stop to look at El Cap through my trusty binoculars, we left the valley of wonders and headed for Lee Vining. A took the opportunity to have a quick nap, which I disrupted as, reaching the peak of the range, we passed the transition from white granite hills and glacial lakes to red volcanic peaks including Mt Dana.

Next we were walking between the otherworldy columns of tufa on the shores of Mono Lake, which appears to have shrunk still more since I last saw it. We found gulls swimming but barely able to paddle highly amusing. Mostly tourists with tightly clutched Lonely Planet guides squinting through the bright, high altitude sunlight. We drove south.

The next stop on our highly contrived itinerary was a trip up Mammoth Mountain in the gondola, where we had a fine view of dozens of mountain bike riders axing themselves with the aid of gravity. I pointed out the fumarole and readied my finger pulse oximeter. At 11,000 feet, Mammoth often leaves me breathless while skiing. Getting out of the gondola, I was surprised to see about 20 stairs leading to the ground. In winter the snow is seriously deep! We walked around, looking through the gap, to Mono Lake, down to the Long Valley Caldera, and so on. The view was incredible, the oxygen thin, and the day getting on.

Next up we visited Hot Creek, a canyon cut through the Long Valley Caldera's resurgent dome by the Mammoth River. Intersecting with several faults, there is at this time a number of boiling hot pools. Indeed, the water flowing down the river was too hot to touch, and several geysers have been known to erupt beneath the stream without warning. Rocks around the canyon walls were white with minerals deposited by previous hot pools that come and go as the ground shifts and groans beneath us.

The main road continues down from the mountains into the Owen's valley, which is one of the most incredible valleys I have ever seen. One whole side is a perfect row of jagged peaks. We cruised into Bishop, located the Ramada Hotel, found a local restaurant, and quickly settled down for the night.

Come Saturday, we once again rose with the sun, ate our breakfast of cornflakes and water, and headed out of town. This time our destination was the White Mountains, and the road wound up and down through peaks, eroded wash valleys, and among the remains of an ancient sea. Corner after corner on the road passed, with occasional humps to test our cornflakes' cohesiveness. Before long we popped out of the shadows and the road wound higher and higher. Yet again we passed the altitude of Australia's highest peak, my ears squeaking in protest, and dodging a set of kamikaze birds, our view down over the valley, Bishop, and the Sierras eventually went away as we entered a wooded hill. Parking by an impressive though abandoned ranger station, we located the path to the Methuselah grove, a stand of trees that are more than 4000 years old. 

The sign at the trail warned "Four miles, three hours, bring food and water". Well, we had just eaten breakfast and it was too late to stop now. Despite the altitude (well over 10,000 feet) and fresh morning air, we walked the trail, stopping to read knowledge from the supplied guides, and admiring the forms and shapes of the trees. Bristlecone Pines are the oldest living organisms (by most counts), and despite their age retain some youthful vigour. We met one springy sapling, only waist high, and probably 100 years old. After nearly two hours of searching, we finally managed to locate a particularly gnarled specimen with a striking resemblance to dad. 

Back at the car, we watered and fed our hungry bodies, and set out once again for the valley floor. Kamikaze birds continued to try and race my windshield, but at last we arrived unscathed in Lone Pine, site of earthquakes and environmental devastation. We found the Whitney Cafe, and I pointed out the summit in the distance. But first we had to conquer lunch. I had the Whitney burger, and accompanied by tales from a group of recently returned climbers on the next table, proceeded to demolish a salad, fries, two burger patties, another salad, bacon, mushrooms, and some buns. Thus fortified, we staggered back to the car and drove through the Alabama hills (set of every Western ever made) and up the precipitous valley wall to Whitney portal. 

I opted to carry my water supply internally, and after chocking the wheels at our unlikely parking spot, we headed for the trail. A survived my ceaseless bombardment of war tales, mostly beginning with 'When this is covered in snow', and 'Up on the top, the view is incredible', only to slacken the pace as we climbed towards Lone Pine lake. After resting for a while, she suggested that most likely the path ahead looked much like the path already traveled, and could we descend back into the atmosphere. I pointed out that that was lucky, because we could then plan an extra thorough visit to the blackbird aircraft museum in Palmdale. It goes without saying that A's enthusiasm for engines in general, and aircraft engines in particular, was at a record low ebb, (despite her not having to, you know, swim to Santa Monica pier to visit me), but without further ado we returned to the car park, checked out a much more accessible waterfall, and then drove back to Lone Pine.

From here it was only 200 miles back to LA. In order to prevent me falling asleep and dying in a fiery car crash, I had planned a few more stops. The next one was fossil falls, about which I have previously written voluminously. A and I climbed down to the various sinkholes and had a grand time admiring the unearthly shapes and textures. Next we stopped briefly to admire the rocks at Red Rock Canyon and discuss the detailed history of the Garlock fault. But the best was yet to come. 

Heading south on the aptly-named Neuralia street, we soon came to the perplexing micropolis of California City. We took a turn through one of the abandoned neighbourhoods, verifying utility connections and thorough testing the roads. Google maps is the best way to check, but maybe 9/10 of the surveyed city was never sold or developed. 

We headed back for the expressway and, admiring the wind turbines and parked planes of Mojave, screamed south. Much to A's dismay, the setting sun precluded a detour to our last planned stop, and we had to ditch the aircraft museum. I detoured onto the 2 and we curved through the San Gabriel Mountains, down, down, down, until, with perfect timing, we saw the lights of the LA basin below as the sun set on smog and clouds above. One heart-stopping drive on the 210 and we were home.

I immediately got the ball rolling on procuring some fresh linen, and we watched some Jim Jeffries, explored my house, and unpacked a few things. In mid sentence, A abruptly passed out and fell into a deep sleep splayed across the couch. I played some gothic organ music, clicked my fingers, but nothing, she was out! Soon after the sheets were out of the laundry, I made the bed, brushed my teeth, set my sleeping bag out in the lounge room, and then tried to figure out how I would carry her through the house. It was a lot easier when she was five! Fortunately she woke before I seriously injured myself (not that she's, you know, chunky or anything), and before long we were both ready to sleep and rest!

Sunday was our last day. We woke, packed a bit, then set out for Caltech. I returned most of my gizmos to their rightful place in my office (whereby they are convenient for the 90% of my conscious life I spend there), and we walked around the campus. Turtle counting, squirrel tickling, and laborious anecdote recounting gave way to hunger and a desire for lunch. 

Sadly Yoshida was closed, so we headed for the Huntington, currently undergoing reasonably drastic renovations. In the meantime, I continued to build excitement and mystery surrounding my extra silly and devious plans for the afternoon. Little at this point was known, except that they involved meeting my girlfriend P at a pre-arranged place and time. P too, was in the dark. Sometimes I even wondered if I knew what was going to happen.

But to the present! We entered the Huntington, and despite my stomach's growls of protestation, we headed for the main house and gallery. Some rearrangement of paintings initially confused me, but our incredibly thorough algorithm ensured that no painting went unregarded, no caption unmemorized. At some point I began to consider hurrying A up. I have been there many times, but how often does my sister get to see this wonderful art? So I backed off, and furtively gnawed on my fist to dull the pangs of hunger. Some time later, A asked if there was much more to the gallery. I replied only a room or two, and A was visibly excited! At last, she said, I'll be able to eat something. She was worried I might think her boorish for favouring food over nourishment of the soul and spirit in the house of the muses. Me!? There was pasta nearby!

We hurricaned through the cafeteria and then commenced a post-postprandial stroll through the Japanese garden, which contained many awesome bonsai trees. Before long, my phone was vibrating with plans afoot and we headed for the exits. 

I deliberately drove by a long and obfuscating path (no I was not lost) on our way to the mysterious destination. A look of horror crossed A's face as we turned into the regional airport. It certainly looked very museumy. A insisted it was a joke and a not very funny one at that, but then I failed to chuckle and drive away. We got out of the car, and with leaden steps A approached the front door. Mutters and snatches of what I could only assume were various legal incantations were heard on the wind.

These unseemly execrations were cut short by the arrival of P, almost unrecognisable in her new Aeon Flux haircut! We chatted for a few minutes before I got a call. We approached the gate to the tarmac. I pointed out the wide variety of different civilian single-engined aircraft in great excitement. A's enthusiasm was like geological processes on Mars. Only when a friend of mine started waving from across the concrete did the design of my devious plans finally become obvious. We're going flying!

We had a good chat with the pilot, R, and admired his fine Moony aircraft. I found it difficult to believe that it was going to fit four whole people, but by hook and by crook we managed to squeeze inside. With our headsets in place, we taxied towards the runway and, with one check of the blind spot, shot down the runway in a huge burst of noise!

I've flown in the odd Cessna 172 before, but this plane was about twice as fast. Low winged, aggressively angled wings, it shot up and over the rapidly shrinking LA landscape. We headed toward downtown, and after a quick bank to avoid restricted airspace over Dodger stadium, we flew past the Hollywood sign, and down over Santa Monica. We headed further west towards Malibu, passing various Getty installations and Pepperdine university. I pointed some of the visible layers of the Santa Monica mountains anticline, and we flew around Point Dume, where Iron Man's house should be. With clouds over the channel islands, we turned back and, flying away from the sun, got an even better look as kite surfers zoomed back and forth in the breeze. R demonstrated what flying under radar over the ocean feels like. I could have high-fived a shark at 300km/h. After a few moments of that, we pulled a few gs and went up a thousand feet. 

I asked when was A going to fly us. A was somewhat apprehensive, but never under-estimate the power of peer pressure. Within about five seconds, A had got the hang of it, and we flew back over the Hollywood sign, and then past JPL and Echo Mountain. A quick bank to the right to avoid a mountain, and then it was time to land. R put the plane onto the glide slope, and talked about whether or not the glide-slope indicators were useful or accurate. In principle, "red beside white, you're right - red beside red, you're dead".

We landed with a bump and taxied to the parking space. We trooped back to my place, and after a quick break headed out to dinner at a place in Pasadena. A rather nice vegan place, I indulged in the rare treats of lasagna and chocolate cake. Then P suggested that we go and see a movie, so after dinner we trooped to the Arclight and watched Elysium, which was an interesting film, if not quite the equal to District 9.

The next morning we crawled out of bed at 5:30, collected some laundry, and made for the airport. A got a nice taste of what LA is all about - traffic jams. We had time for one more quick chat, and then A was through security and off to the next big adventure, and I was back to work.

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