Friday, July 24, 2015

Mum and Dad visit the USA


On May 14, 2015 I successfully defended my PhD at Caltech. This was, in hindsight, a good thing as my parents B and A were due to arrive the following month in June for my graduation ceremony and some reckless hedonism. If, for example, it was deduced that my research had violated the laws of physics, it may have put something of a dampener on things.

I have lived in the states for nearly five years. During that time I've had many friends visit from remote parts of the world, allowing me to hone my hosting skills and find out the coolest things to do. Typical visits lasting a very intense long weekend, I had become accustomed to offloading guests to their departing flight on a stretcher, with months of counseling to follow. During all this time, my parents had managed to visit but once, and half-heartedly at that. Indeed, they had never stepped onto the Caltech campus. I looked forward to the opportunity to envelop them in my various shoes for five weeks, one for each year I had spent here! Saving the best to last, I developed a program of events and travel that, I am pleased to report, has succeeded in completely removing my parents' purpose in life since their return to the antipodean continent.

At 2:00pm PDT I drove the rental zipcar down the 105, deftly weaving between traffic for, indeed, five years is nearly long enough to learn how to drive on the wrong side of the road. To my right (at 2 o'clock, fittingly) a white and red behemoth festooned with the iconographic kangaroo flared over runway 24R and, fortunately, taxied clear with no spontaneous and day-ruining explosion.

Not long after I located B and A, recently disgorged from said behemoth, conveyed them and their tightly packed rolling bags to the parking structure, and began the drive back to Pasadena. With only one short 25 minute interlude to talk to Telstra about how roaming might, hypothetically, work in a world with useful customer training, I endeavoured to relate how LA, that giant, frenetic metropolis of freeways and overstressed geologic faults, manages to fit together. Once in Pasadena, we stopped off at the keystone of everything California and a relatively good jetlag antidote all-in-one, the local Whole Foods store. Said B "I can't believe how cheap their groceries are!" and proceeded to sluice pallets of cherries and raspberries and bananas and other peculiar "foods" that aren't corn chips into the shopping cart (that's American for trolley) while I attempted to navigate clear of the homeopathy section, get some of my own food, and then escape unscathed.

Back at the manor, I dispensed towels, sheets, door keys and individually annotated neighbourhood maps. That evening, we just happened to have the annual a capella concert in which our group sang a variety of songs. My parents, still reeling from the flight, Whole Foods, and life in general, pronounced the concert "unbelievably excellent," a standard hitherto broached only in my 4th grade performance as a tree. We drove to Yoshida sushi and began the (ultimately futile) project to fatten me up.

I had allocated several days to recover from jetlag and visit all the amazing shops in Pasadena, but B and A couldn't wait to start. Single-handedly (okay, six hands were involved) we revived the southern Californian economy, then retired for an excellent roast lamb dinner with M. Having exhausted shopping options, we spent the following day in down town LA, taking a walking tour and then experiencing Uber for the very first time. Minds were blown, but not for the last time. 

By Monday it was time for a Caltech tour - so much the better because there were a few other humans wandering about. For any casual time traveler who has stumbled upon this blog, Caltech campus in summer 2015 is not known for its crowded, teeming buzz of activity. Most people are indeed on campus, sequestered in various vaults of science and emerging only furtively to quiver their whiskers with the resident mutant squirrels. We departed Caltech at 4:45 and spent much of the following two hours reveling in that greatest of attractions LA is famous the world over, the traffic. Arriving with enough time to grab a burger ('Murica!), we followed up with a tour of the SpaceX factory in Hawthorne, delivered by rapidly rising systems engineer R, and with all the detail you can imagine. Minds 0, blown 5 (?).

Tuesday seemed like a nice day, so I took my parents to El Monte airport, strapped them into an equally unenthused C-172 and obliterated the last dregs of my life savings flying the four of us (3 humans, one bucket of bolts) over Los Angeles, Long Beach, out across the Pacific Ocean and back to Australia. Or rather, Catalina Island, which is somewhat closer. Wind was across the runway so we didn't land for a burger, but rather flew around admiring the incredible land forms before returning, flying around Pasadena and the mountains, and landing with nary a wheel squeak. That evening we enjoyed dinner al fresco at the Rath before, inexplicably, water began to fall from the air. 

Wednesday was an unbelievably dull day. At 1pm, there was the Dynamic Explosion concert as Fluid Dynamics farewelled departing members (i.e. me), singing my arrangement of Pentatonix's "Love Again," and earning me a teeshirt inscribed with the eminently wearable (and apparently earned) letters "(B)ASS." It's American for humour, don't worry. After the concert we immediately shot up the hill to JPL. JPL, or the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is the Caltech administered NASA center responsible for much of modern robotic space exploration, including the Mars rovers. My friend H agreed to meet us and show us all the cool stuff, including the Mission Operations Control Room, the high bay spacecraft assembly facility, the Mars Yard, and some of the resident deer. It was well received! But because the day had been so overwhelmingly, stiflingly dull, that evening we drove two hours up the hill to Mt Wilson, a historic telescope facility above Pasadena responsible for discovering, inter alia, that the universe had more than one galaxy, that the galaxies were moving away from each other, the big bang, the sun's magnetism, and so on. Today, you can rent a telescope for an evening for a reasonable price between 25 awesomely nerdy people. There's nothing more fun than sitting in a cold circular room with cool people eating snacks and looking at light from quasars more than 3 billion light years away, and thus more than 3 billion years old. We also got a good look at Venus, Jupiter, Saturn, the Sombrero galaxy, and numerous other things of which eyes don't make much but nevertheless it's super cool to use our evolved sensory organs to perceive glowy things so amazingly far away.

Thursday heralded the beginning of the graduation procedure, with a graduate luncheon. I'm pleased to report that B and A conducted themselves acceptably and were introduced to various deans and other people who hopefully won't be that sad to pass me off to be someone else's problem. Friday I woke up from my sleeping position on the floor behind the couch (not a joke) to see none other than my sister A's face staring down at me with an expression of confusion and harsh judgement, or perhaps that's just how things look before my non-existent coffee. Turns out she'd decided to show up secretly to my graduation to surprise me. I have no idea from where she gets such crazy, outlandish ideas! Friday was also B's birthday, so I gave him a small radio controlled quadcopter. Hard to believe such things can exist and fly but they do! So we had a lot of fun flying them around and trying not to crash. Later that day I disappeared to Caltech, wrapped myself in mostly black polyester until my visage became like that of a penguin, disguised myself among hundreds of other similarly attired individuals, sat in the sun, and eventually walked towards a distinguished fellow saying my name, shook hands, and then sat down again. At last, the wavefunction had collapsed and I was a DOCTOR. Life goal achieved. Life now meaningless. 

Well, one week down, four weeks to go. I'd nearly exhausted my collection of cool things to do, but not quite. We managed to schedule a Tesla test drive (I was able to sneak my photo from the "known abusers of test-drive protocol" board in the nick of time), wherein B drove the (then) top of the line Tesla for about 20 minutes as A and I squirmed in the back seat like a bug in a sample drawer. The Tesla Model S is an engineering masterpiece that accelerates faster than falling. Some time that weekend we also collected a rental car (a brand new black Kia Sorento with 30 miles on the clock), visited the La Brea tar pits, got stuck in traffic, packed our bags for an epic road trip, partook in the strange, arcane ritual of the Ocsi Bacsi ceremony.

We put A (sister) on a plane, and started the drive. This is going to be a list of places we visited, because I don't have the RAM necessary to describe every stop. First up was Vasquez rocks, purplish in the morning light, then the wasteland of California City. Quail Creek deposits at Red Rock canyon, Fossil Falls, Lone Pine, Alabama Hills, Whitney Portal, Manzanar, the Bristlecone Pines (up to 4800 years old), ALMA, deep springs valley, Waucoba lake bed, and finally to Bishop, where we stayed in the Hostel California. Not quite what Trip Adviser had led my father to expect, we walked into the living room to see a series of people lying on the floor watching TV, not moving, their tie-die shirts blending with the carpet. Bishop is a popular break-point on the John Muir trail - I had done part of the Camino de Santiago and understood precisely why they were reposed Australian-style, their heads beneath their feet. 

We slept on tie-die sheets and crept out early the next morning to explore the Long Valley caldera, its cracked and pitted floor still steaming from a gigantic eruption 80,000 years ago. We began with a soak in the natural hot spring as the sun rose over the mountains, traipsed around Little Hot Creek and Hot Creek, climbed to Convict Lake as the sun lit deliciously the famous roof pendant. Further up the road we took the cable car/gondola to the top of Mammoth Mountain, checked out Obsidian Dome, Panum Crater, Mono Lake tufas, and then drove across the spine of the Sierras on one of the most amazing roads ever, through the Tioga pass past Tenaya lake and down into Yosemite valley. A short walk in the valley, dinner, and then out into Oakhurst, where we watched Valley Uprising in the hotel. The following day we backtracked to explore Yosemite more fully, after which we dropped in at the recently revamped Sierra Sky Ranch, found some giant sequoia trees, and then drove across the central valley to San Jose. Dinner with family friends - I took the opportunity to point out the ISS racing over Mountain View. 

The following morning we met Australian friends D and L for a fabulous brunch, no less than 3000 calories each. Barely adequate, in other words. Then up to SF, where I set B and A loose on the waterfront district for adventures, while I took off to Treasure Island to help build a pirate ship for Ephemerisle, the subject of my next blog post. That evening we caught up with C and M and had dinner at a nice Greek restaurant near the Palace of Fine Arts before retiring for the night in perhaps the least inspiring hotel I've ever seen. 

We continued north to Marin, taking a turn about the bay in another friends palatial motor yacht, before heading to San Rafael, site of the northern-most Spanish Mission in California, where we stayed with some friends. B and A took off on a tour of various wineries while I stayed put and worked on my application for the NASA Postdoctoral Fellowship, which was desperately in need of attention. 

The next day it was time to depart so we headed east once more through Davis, Sacramento, and Placerville/Hangtown, the diggings, and up over the mountains to Lake Tahoe. That afternoon we hiked up to Eagle Lake before an evening walk to Nevada, an incredible Mexican dinner, and a very comfortable sleep in a hotel made entirely of recycled materials. 

We crossed the divide and drove down through Bridgeport to Mammoth, where we endured hopeless internet and somehow managed to avoid being savaged by the rampant bears that infest the entire area. The following morning we explored Mammoth Lakes, visited the Scheelite Tungsten Mine, resupplied in Bishop, drove south through Lone Pine and up over the Darwin Plateau, across the Panamint Valley, and into the maw of the Dragon at Stovepipe Wells in Death Valley. The temperature was only 113F/44C, so when I took a photo of B and A with my thermal camera, they were the coldest things in frame. I was (somewhat unusually) unable to locate any fluorescent scorpions with my UV light, and the stars were obscured by bushfire smoke, but we did manage to find one lonely pup fish in Salt Creek, one of the most desperate places on Earth - the tiny number of surviving species underscoring the place's general inhospitability.

The following day we explored Death Valley by mule/modern SUV, taking in Ubehebe Crater (in which I was taken by the urge to run to the bottom), Scotty's Castle, Devil's Golf Course, Badwater, Zabriskie Point, Dante's View, and Amargosa/Death Valley Junction, including the famous opera house. On to Vegas!

At B and A's insistence we went to Las Vegas to stay in the Parisian casino, and percolate in the frothing, writhing humanity that is the strip. After a mad dash of several hours we found our concert on the first night was abruptly cancelled - could it have anything to do with the Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage across the US? The following day I hid from the world and worked on NASA application, while B and A attempted to have themselves the wonderful time they were convinced would occur if only... 

That evening we took a limo across to the Rio where we saw Penn and Teller, which was really amazing. My mind was blown. The following morning my spirits lifted considerably as we left Vegas in our dusty wake at 85mph. We took in the Valley of Fire at dawn, with its incredible Navajo Aztec sandstone rocks in ocher red between blue plants and numerous small critters clinging on. Further north, the 15 passed through the Virgin River canyon as it wound its way up onto the Colorado Plateau. We had an amazing lunch at St George before driving on through Hurricane, the Coral Pink sand dunes (which has a cool visitor's center) and up to Bryce canyon. That evening we stayed in a small motel, dreams of impossible shapes and rocks - a good warm up for the road down into Zion canyon. Tunnels, checkerboard butte, and the shuttle into the canyon. We had a good lunch, saw the Narrows, hanging gardens, and Angel's landing, from below. I pulled out my geology text book and we started to mark off the formations present in the grand staircase national monument as we headed south back towards Vegas. A billion years of stacked rock tells the story of 1/4 of the Earth's history all in one place.

Time was running short and we lacked time to properly drive to the Grand Canyon, but we could hardly miss that, the grand finale of all rock-holes large and small. I booked a helicopter ride, subsequently postponed by storm activity. We stayed the night in Boulder City, I continued to feverishly read The Martian to my parents, and we had a good dinner. Burgers, naturally.

Up early the following morning, we flew a tiny helicopter to the entrance of the Grand Canyon, just barely scratching the surface. To be sure, we missed a few other things to save for the next trip, but flying the length of the Grand Canyon would take hours whereas Zion, Bryce, and Yosemite would take minutes. The time had come, we drove south from Vegas to LA, down the terrifying Cajun pass, across the San Andreas fault and back to Pasadena. 16 days and 3200 miles of adventure. 

Were we done yet? NO! We had yet one more week to spend! 

I felt we needed to do some more adventuring, so we dropped A at the Huntington and B and I went to the airport to go flying down to Anza Borrego Desert and the Salton Sea. Many of my pilot friends don't understand why I keep flying there. It's a nice playground for a plane and the landscape is otherworldly. Mesas, buttes, canyons, mud volcanoes, giant salt lakes, patchworks of golf courses interspersed with windmills and sand dunes, all crammed between gigantic sheer mountains. After crossing the Banning Pass on our return I suggested a touch and go at Ontario airport. By the time we were cleared we were 8000 feet above the glide slope, which wasn't really a problem - I got to practice an emergency descent. We also kissed the pavement at Brackett airport before returning in one piece to El Monte. We collected A and took a nap.

The following days wrapped up loose ends and ran errands. In the meantime, my very patient housemate A and I were selling furniture and packing to move out the following week, so at some point couches, tables, and desks abruptly disappeared, to be replaced by my supply of trusty lawn furniture! Saturday was July 4. We ploughed on through The Martian before heading back to the airport. I flew my parents as the sun set over to the Rose Bowl where we circled the fireworks show for an hour. The lights came out and we cruised back toward El Monte over a spectacular view. On the tarmac fireworks exploded on all sides, causing B to remark "It's like Apocalypse Now." Negative, father, Apocalypse Now is like this. 

On Monday we returned to the airport. I took D and L flying around Pasadena, passed my annual check ride, and B took a flying lesson, including landing the plane, stalls, and so on. We dropped in to the health center at Caltech to meet the nurses and partook of a free magic show at Caltech. The magician did a trick much like one of Penn and Teller's, but only inches from my face. It was remarkable. 

At long last, Tuesday July 7 had rolled around. We packed and headed off to LAX. I got only slightly lost on the way, caught in reverie over the failed SpaceX launch. At the airport, B and A discovered the flight had been cancelled and they'd been bumped. Would they like to stay in LA forever, they were asked? Negative, and an alternative flight via Brisbane was arranged. I cruised back to Pasadena, alone once more. During the following days I packed what was left of grad life into a handful of recycled boxes and moved on to the next adventure.

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