Friday, April 18, 2008

iFive:K and Alaska Planning

April 18, 2008

I ran another race last night: the iFive:K in downtown Charleston. The race started at the maritime center and continued down in front of the battery. There were only about 300 people running, so it was a much different experience than running with 30,000 in the Cooper River Bridge Run. I finished in 28:52.99, which I realize is still a long way from fast. I had a good time though. I also noticed a few other Boot Campers running. I guess I'll be seeing them bright and early again in about ten days. Not sure I'm ready for that again, at least maybe not until classes are over.

In other news, I'm planning a trip to Alaska. We'll be flying out at the end of July for a week-long stay. Right now our itinerary includes a glacier-viewing, whale watching cruise at Kenai Fjords National Park on our first day, with another day there for hiking or kayaking. After that, we'll be heading back to Anchorage for a night before taking the Alaska Railroad up to Denali National Park for three days of trying to pack in as much as that park has to offer. It's shaping up to be pretty expensive, but I'm confident it will be well worth it.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

Cooper River Bridge Run

April 5, 2008

I ran the Cooper River Bridge Run yesterday here in Charleston. This is a 10K (6.2 mile) run that crosses the Ravenel Bridge connecting Charleston and Mt. Pleasant. This is the first time I've participated in any kind of distance run and, in fact, this is the longest distance I've ever run. I've never had any interest in running, except in training for basketball and hiking. I've been participating in Boot Camp this Spring, however, so I thought I'd give it a shot.

I ran with two other people from my med school class and we had a really good time. We sort of took it easy and finished in 1:13:33, which I thought was pretty respectable considering we had exams last week, so none of us had done anything physical in the previous seven days. Anyway, the race was a fun experience and the Cooper River Bridge is an amazing piece of architecture. Running across it definitely gave me a different perspective on just how massive it is, and what complex engineering must go into designing something like this. As for running, I've already signed up for a 5k in Charleston later this month. This time, hopefully, I'll have some time to practice beforehand.

About Boot Camp: I signed up for this workout this semester, kind of on a whim. I wasn't in shape at all and I thought that maybe Marine Corps drill instructors would be able to motivate me to push myself a little more than I generally do in the gym. I think attention span is my biggest problem; I get so bored at the gym doing anything other than playing basketball. Boot Camp was a great experience and I've already signed up for the next session this summer. The workout is intense, but doable and the instructors, it goes without saying, are great motivators. I think that I was probably in the best cardiovascular shape of my life at the end of the 12 weeks, so I'm hoping I won't let myself slide too much before the next session starts!

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Return to Yosemite

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Last week, I returned from a trip out West to Yosemite and San Francisco. I met up with a friend from college, Nick, and two guys from Indiana, Ryan and Nathaniel. We spent one night at Nick's place in SF before heading out to Yosemite.

Yosemite was my favorite place of all the parks I visited this summer during my long road trip; so, I was excited about the prospect of returning, especially knowing that there would still be snow on the ground. With much of the higher elevation areas under significant snow cover, we weren't able to do any hikes that went much over 5000'. Still, we managed a nice scramble up to the edge of Lower Yosemite Falls and, the next day, a fairly strenuous day hike past Columbia Rock to a nice view of Upper Yosemite Falls. I think the highlight of our hiking experiences, however, was a short, easy trip around Mirror Lake with some spectacular views of Half Dome and North Dome. The stillness of the lake provided the perfect reflecting pool for the huge rock walls.

We spent both nights camping in Upper Pines campground. There was plenty of snow on the ground and the sleeping situation was pretty frigid with temperatures dipping into the low 30s. My three partners didn't bring sleeping pads (inexperience, I guess), so they were pretty miserable the first night. The next day, all three of them bought sleeping pads at the Curry Village store.

I was sleeping in my +20F rated REI Kilo Plus, on a Therm-A-Rest 4 self-inflating pad. Even so, I was pretty frigid; but certainly not miserable. I could've worn more layers inside the bag; but I was using most of my insulation for a pillow. Since we were car camping, we didn't have to worry so much about weight. Nick bought a cheap 6-person tent from Wal-Mart (can't remember the brand, Ozark Trail or something) and it actually seemed pretty solid. It had a tremendous amount of space. I'm 6'1" and I was nearly able to stand straight up inside; and, with four big dudes, we were able to keep some nice buffer room in between us. However, considering how cold it was, we might've been better off huddled together in a smaller tent.

Having lived essentially all of my life in the Southeast and Southern California, I don't have a lot of experience with snow and this was my first multi-day experience with significant snow exposure. Truthfully, a lot of the valley was clear of snow, but Upper Pines is so thoroughly shaded by the, well, pines that temperatures there seemed to stay a lot lower than in much of the rest of the valley. Anyway, I learned the importance of having plenty of warm, dry socks to rotate as they become wet, which they inevitably do (especially if you're just wearing trail runners). Still, I don't regret my shoe choice. My feet were only cold at night, and I think I could've avoided even that if I had just brought one extra pair of socks (I brought 3). I should've been fine with 3 (one to wear, one to dry and one to sleep in) if only I had been a little more conscientious about drying the wet socks.

On Sunday, we headed back to San Francisco and started recharging the batteries. The next day, we headed over to Berkeley to check out their campus. It's definitely very active in terms of protests, which shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. There's basically a Swiss Family Robinson living in the trees at the proposed sight of a new athletic building.

After leaving Berkeley, we headed back to San Francisco to visit Telegraph Hill and hopefully catch a glimpse of its famous wild parrots. We didn't have any luck, though. I was lucky, however, in that I unwittingly bagged another peak by walking to the top of Telegraph Hill. I wouldn't have guessed that the only high point I'd reach on this trip would be in the city of San Francisco and not in the wilderness of Yosemite.

I still think San Francisco is a great city. Not sure if I'd want to live there; but it is a place I'll probably consider when it's time to look for a residency in about 3 years. Being back out West, I realized how much I miss it, even though I'm pretty happy with my life in Charleston.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Zoo Atlanta/Brasstown Bald

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Today, we visited Zoo Atlanta, one of the nicer zoos I've been to, probably second only to the San Diego Zoo. We were there when it opened and headed straight for the Panda Bear exhibit. Zoo Atlanta has three pandas: 11 month-old Mei Lan and her parents Yang Yang and Lun Lun. When we arrived, the bears were sort of lounging around, chomping away at some bamboo. It wasn't long however, before Lun Lun roused her daughter and started playing with her. It looked like they were biting and scratching each other, but I guess that's how bears play. We watched the pandas for almost an hour and they were very active and entertaining.

Next, we checked out the gorillas and orangutans. The gorillas are separated into four different habitats. One is a bachelor group of all male gorillas and another features a large silverback with his harem of females and four small, "toddler" gorillas. We stopped by for the afternoon feedings and saw one juvenile gorilla who was doing flips, sliding across the ground and slapping the others on the back.

The exhibits at Zoo Atlanta are very well designed and most of them offer close up views of the animals. Despite the fact that the temperature was about 100 degrees, the ample shade of the zoo kept us from being miserable.

After leaving the zoo, we headed out of Atlanta and toward Brasstown Bald, the highest point in Georgia. I didn't have very high expectations for this stop on the trip, but I was looking at it as an opportunity to bag a state high point and maybe some great mountain scenery. Well, it was a pleasant surprise. We arrived at the summit at about 7:30 p.m. after a short 0.6 mile walk to the top. With the sun descending, the Appalachian mountains were beautifully lit. On top of the mountain is a large visitors center and lookout tower. Normally, I find it annoying when summits are covered with a bunch of man-made junk; but, in this case, the tower was necessary to have any kind of view and the whole structure was so well designed it didn't seem too offensive.

After leaving the bald, we drove on to Dillard, GA to spend the night. Tomorrow, we'll be heading to Sassafras Mountain, the highest point in South Carolina.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

Georgia Aquarium/World of Coca-Cola

Tuesday, August 7

This morning, we headed straight to the Georgia Aquarium, the only aquarium in America to house whale sharks. As you might guess, we headed straight for these giant fish, the biggest fish on Earth. The whale sharks are housed in a giant tank with wrasse, grouper, sting rays, a hammerhead shark, and a variety of other fish. The whale sharks on display were probably about twenty feet long, dwarfing the 800 lb. groupers swimming nearby. It's entertaining to watch any animal that big, but I wish we could've seen them feeding, or had a view of them from above, as they spent most of their time swimming near the surface. One day, I'd love to dive with these gentle animals. They are sometimes sighted off the Georgia coast.

The Georgia Aquarium is the best aquarium I've visited. The layout makes sense and is attractive and easy to navigate. All of the exhibits are interesting and many offer large viewing windows, allowing continuous perspectives on the animals as they swim about. Some other highlights were the Beluga whales and the otters.

After leaving the aquarium, we headed next door to the World of Coca-Cola. If you like Coke, this is a place with a lot of information about Coke. And a lot of Coke advertisements. And a lot of Coke products. It's extremely, extremely clean and gives the same sort of feeling as Disney World: "Today, you have no problems." Some of the stuff is interesting, but I thought it could've done a better job of showing how Coke is made. I guess the secret formula really is secret. The highlight of the experience was the tasting, where we were able to sample 72 different Coke products from all around the world. My sister and I sampled every one, and by the time I was finished, I felt like throwing a trash can through one of the plate glass windows, I was so jacked up. One thing I noticed, the rest of the world seems to prefer fruity-flavored soft drinks. Also, I noticed that the drink called "Beverly" is probably the worst drink I have ever had. Steer clear of that the next time you are in Italy.

Monday, August 6, 2007

Stone Mountain, Georgia

August 6, 2007

I haven't been on a family vacation since probably the summer of 2000, but now that I'm back in South Carolina with nothing to do for a few more weeks -- and with my sister in the same situation -- we decided it would be a good time to load up the Gylls family and head to Atlanta.

Today, we visited Stone Mountain, which is about 20 miles outside of Atlanta. It's a giant granite dome rising seemingly out of nowhere above the green Georgia landscape. It's somewhat reminiscent of some of the domes in Yosemite, though not as spectacular. What is does have, however, that nothing in Yosemite has is three Confederate heroes carved into it. From left to right there is Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. The carving is, in fact, larger than Mount Rushmore (which my loyal readers will already know is not as big as is widely believed). The figures themselves, by my estimates, are roughly the same size as the Rushmore carvings. The carving, which is the largest high relief sculpture in the world, was begun by Gutzon Borglum who is better known for carving (you guessed it) Mt. Rushmore. Borglum's work, however, no longer exists on Stone Mountain, as it was detonated when a second sculpture, Augustus Lukeman, took over with a somewhat different vision.

We took a cable ride to the summit, where we milled around for a while and took in the views, which were largely obscured by the hazy sky. When it was time to head back down, my mom and sister headed back for the cable car, but Dad and I decided to walk down the 1.4 mile trail to Confederate Memorial Hall. Well, the heat was absolutely brutal and the walk was a lot tougher than I expected. Still, we made it without much problem.

We're staying in Atlanta tonight and over the next couple days will be checking out the zoo and aquarium.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Epilogue

As I was driving alone over the last few days of the trip, I began listening to an audiobook by John Hodgman entitled The Areas of My Expertise. In it, he describes what it takes to become a professional writer, saying that one must first learn to believe that other people care about what you have to say. “This is very difficult for some people,” he explains. “But for some, it comes very easily… These people are assholes.” I’ll leave it to all of you to decide which part of that applies to me and you should feel free to keep all conclusions to yourself.

Moving across the country, leaving behind my friends and starting a new career, this trip largely was meant to serve as a way to close one chapter of my life and begin a new one. But, as many people have noted, the trip took on greater meaning as it evolved. Seeing the inspiration people seemed to draw from the very notion of such an adventure, it quickly became clear that this trip was less about the changes in my own life and more about finding Man’s place in the world and discovering the true meaning of America.

With that in mind, the first topic I shall discuss is what I have named “surprise places.” Obviously, when I planned the trip, I had some idea about what destinations interested me; but, in covering so much distance, there’s a lot of in-between space that couldn’t really be planned for. This, of course, is one of the great appeals of a road trip. I’ll give a couple examples:

1. Leaving Portland and driving along the Columbia River Gorge, where the wind blows off the river and bounces off the steep rock walls so that the river moves like an ocean and the car was at times nearly buffeted off the road.
2. If you’ve ever been to Seattle, you know that Northwestern Washington is full of giant, rocky mountains. Southern Washington, however, is full of rolling, treeless hills where you can see so far that it feels like you’re looking down from an airplane.

Also, we were surprised by a number of towns. We ended up staying in Jackson, WY just because it was too expensive to stay in Grand Teton National Park and Jackson was the closest thing. This turned out to be a happy accident as Jackson is a great little resort town that I hope I can visit again someday. In South Dakota, we spent some time in Rapid City, which is known as the City of Presidents. For one reason or another, they have a statue of a different U.S. president at nearly every street corner in their downtown. Sometimes I surprised myself at the places that made me say, “I could live here.” Rapid City, SD might sound like the kind of place you’d get sick of quickly; but I grew up in a small town, so it doesn’t seem that bad to me. In fact, this trip sort of re-framed the way I look at Santee, the town where I grew up. It’s the kind of place that, if you were on a road trip and you needed to stop somewhere for the night, it’d be perfect. It is a great 12-hour town.

Now, let me talk about some of the parks. I only hope that my experiences, dear readers, might serve you if you are fortunate enough to be in the position to visit any of these amazing places. So, let me share some of my vast expertise.

Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park – Never heard of it, you say? Well, it’s an amazing park that you can see in a day and could easily spend a weekend in if you want to do some hiking. If you want to see big trees, this is the place to do it. The sequoias are so huge and, in these lush forests surrounded by mountain vistas, this first day excursion was one of the best spots of the entire trip.

Yosemite – This was my favorite park and it really has it all. If you want to see the park from the car, driving through Yosemite Valley and up to Glacier Point will be enough to make the trip absolutely worthwhile. I nearly skipped the drive up to Glacier Point, but I’m so glad I didn’t. The views from this spot are perhaps the most amazing I’ve seen, possibly second only to the Grand Canyon. Also, there are tons of great hikes here. If I ever get back, I’ve got a few ideas of other hikes I want to take. Again, I can’t overstate how great this place is. All of you in L.A. , it’s only six hours away. If you need an idea for a short vacation, seeing Yosemite and Sequoia would be a great trip and would only take you a few days. These are definitely two places you will always remember.

Redwoods – This is another great place to see big trees, but in a slightly different setting. Instead of the mountainous terrain of Sequoia N.P., Redwoods N.P. is situated on the coast. I found these trees to be slightly less striking than the Sequoias. This forest was once much larger and, in fact, is older than the Rocky Mountains. If that doesn’t amaze you, read it again.

A drawback of this park is that it is a mishmash of National Park land, State Park land, and privately owned land. Halfway through the park is a little town that is completely Disneyified. While it’s still fun there, I felt it kind of cheapened the experience in a way.

Crater Lake – As a single scenic moment, Crater Lake is one of the best you could hope for. The dark blue water surrounded by gray, snow-capped peaks and lush evergreen forests gives the sensation of an extra-terrestrial landscape. Unfortunately, I’m not sure when the park is totally open. We were there in mid-June and it was still 70% closed due to snow. I guess July is the right time to visit; but, really, any time you can see the lake is a good time.

Glacier – This is probably the most rugged park. First of all, it’s in Montana, which is pretty much the most rugged place in America. It’s so rugged, they don’t even pay sales tax. Going-to-the-Sun Road is definitely a great thing to see and lets you see much of what’s great about the park on a scenic drive. However, of all the parks we visited, I think this is the one that most appeals to the adventurous. There are tons of places to hike in a drastic setting, with jagged peaks rising above peaceful lakes or grass meadows. Plus, this is Grizzly country, so that kind of ups the excitement.

Yellowstone – With its volcanic legacy, the landscape of Yellowstone is certainly impressive: especially its vents and geysers. But, my favorite part of this park was the wildlife. If you bring binoculars or a camera with a powerful zoom, you are going to get to experience bears, bison and loads of other animals in a way you probably won’t anywhere else. And all you have to do is drive along a loop road. I’m sure there are plenty of opportunities for backpacking and other active pursuits here, but it seems to be less of the focus than in places like Yosemite and Glacier. This is a very accessible park, so if you’re getting up in years or have young children, this is the perfect spot for a vacation. I’ve heard that it’s also great in winter, but I’m not really a winter animal.

Grand Teton – If you’re going to Yellowstone, G.T. is so close that it would be a foolish, foolish mistake not to visit it. While it’s mostly a scenic drive looking out at a prominent mountain ridge, there are also plenty of spots to view wildlife and some interesting exhibits on early life on the frontier. In fact, some show I watched on the Travel Channel named it as the best park to watch wildlife. I’d have to disagree and say Yellowstone takes that prize; but I could be convinced that maybe we just caught Grand Teton on the wrong day. It’s in the National Elk Refuge, and in winter there are loads of elk roaming about. Also, it’s supposed to be a great place to spot a moose.

Mt. Rushmore – Finally see in person what you’ve seen so many times in pictures. I don’t know; I thought it’d be bigger.

Devils Tower – This is such a strange formation that seeing it in person gives the sense of stumbling onto some alien monolith. However, I wish that they had kept the original Native American name, “Bear Lodge.”

Badlands – A great park to drive through. Actually, I think this would also be a nice place to get into the backcountry because there are no bears, you can camp basically anywhere, and the scenery is great everywhere you look. Also, if you have a motorcycle, this is probably the park for you.

Mammoth Cave – If you’ve ever been to Carlsbad, you can skip this one. Also, Luray Caverns in Virginia is much more impressive. This was probably my least favorite stop on the trip. I’d love to try spelunking though, and this park offers at least two guided introductions to that practice.

Great Smoky Mountains –By the time I made it to this park, I just wasn’t quite in the mood to expend the energy to get out away from the crowds, and I really think that’s the only way to enjoy this park. Still, the Smoky Mountains are absolutely beautiful and it gives you the feel of almost being in a rain forest. I really hope I get to do a substantial hike up there in the near future.

The opportunity to see wildlife up close in their natural habitat is one of the big draws of these parks and it’s easy to understand why. Being close to another animal in the wild is one of those experiences that makes you feel truly alive. There’s a sense of shared space that makes you realize that we, as humans, don’t really own the world. I know that sounds over-the-top, but I really do believe that standing on face-to-face with a wild animal forces you, at least momentarily, to alter your perception of your place in the world.

On this trip, I didn’t have any encounters that were quite as intense as seeing a black bear while I was alone on San Gorgonio, but we did have an interesting encounter with a deer who was grazing along the trail in Glacier. He just stayed there eating and wouldn’t move despite the fact that we were probably only about 10 yards away. Eventually, we had to take a longer way around him, at which point he finally decided to walk away.

Obviously, seeing a bear and a deer are too very different experiences; but they both give you a feeling of being on a sort of equal footing with the animals. Most of the time, our encounters with animals are through a fence or across a crevasse at the zoo. Standing face to face with one in the wilderness is entirely different.

While I am on the subject of wildness, I should also talk about my beard. The last time I was clean-shaven was January 22. Since then, I have let my beard grow with very infrequent trimming. In fact, I had not groomed my facial hair in any sense for probably 8 full weeks before leaving for the trip. At this point, it is impossible to eat or drink without finding a thick deposit of whatever it is one is consuming lodged in one’s beard. Also, beards are magic. I’m convinced that when I got free passage into the historic entrance of Mammoth Cave it was entirely because the ranger was intimidated/seduced by the power of my beard. Also, at the blackjack tables in Deadwood, mere strokes of my beard often caused the dealer to bust. Recognizing that this magic is too dangerous to be used back in the domestic world, I have finally shaved my beard. Once again, like all of you, I will have to rely solely on my wits and charm, without further recourse to magical twirls of unkempt facial hair.

So, that just about does it for the Epilogue. I hope it was all you hoped it would be. I’m sure many of you are very disappointed, because you know I am capable of such great things. All I can say to you is that I offer my humblest apologies and my deepest thanks for reading what I have to say.