It seems that about every two years, I find cause to pack up my car and road trip half way across the country. It first began with my life changing 2 month tour of the West in 1999, then the big move to Boulder in 2001, followed by a quick jaunt to Yosemite in 2003, then a visit to my parents’ house in New York in 2006, and finally my trek to the Ottawa River and Cape May in 2009. So when I learned that NASA would not pay for me to see the Glory launch in person, I figured it was time for another road trip.
With a scheduled launch date of Tuesday, February 23, 2011, it only made sense to leave Boulder on Friday, 2/18 and return to Boulder on Sunday, 2/27. And since I was going to be near the Pacific, I figured that my kayak should come along. And as long as I was packing gear, my mountain bike would surely find good use at some point. Oh yeah, what about that dog of mine? “River Dog, hop in! Cause we’re off on a road trip!”
I set off right after work on Friday and cruised out I-70 amid reasonable ski traffic and some snow showers on Vail Pass. Five hours later, I had made it to Rabbit Valley and bounced along a 4×4 road to a desert campsite where I had tethered internet service on my laptop and a cozy bed in the back of my 4Runner- not exactly roughing it. Saturday’s drive began at 6am and took me across the snow covered passes of Utah and through the beautiful Virgin River Gorge on I-15 in Arizona and on to Las Vegas. All of that driving really took a toll on me and there was no real hurry to make it to California, so I decided to camp just west of the city at Red Rocks recreation area where I had been years before with friends for a Thanksgiving climbing trip. As luck would have it, Boulder friends of mine, Peter and Cathy, had just finished up a photography conference in Las Vegas and we decided to try to meet up.
Upon arriving at the Red Rocks campground, I found it just as windy as it was 7 years earlier. And despite the warmish 50 degree temps that were displayed on my dashboard, a quick hop outside my car revealed a biting cold that wasn’t conducive to relaxing in camp all afternoon. Fortunately, I had other ideas for the wind, and 10 minutes later I had my kite flying high above the campground snapping photos using the kite aerial photography rig that I had built a year prior, but never had the opportunity to use. The photos weren’t anything particularly special, but it was very cool to prove that the contraption worked as well as I had hoped.
I awoke Sunday morning to Peter rapping on my car window. Somehow, we had used Facebook to coordinate an impromptu meet-up 800 miles from home which truly amazed all of us. We spent the morning casually over coffee and Einstein bagel sandwiches and hatched schemes to use my tethered balloon aerial photography system on a zip-line to capture truly unique kayaking photos from mid-rapid locations. Then it was off to Red Rocks for a hike. Our nearly identical red 4Runners wound their way past the loop road and eventually onto confusing snow covered dirt roads that led to the trailhead for Black Velvet canyon. The trail led up into the canyon that is well known for its multi-pitch rock climbs, but after a mile, the trail petered out and the cold, wet streambed halted our progress. Soon after, we said our goodbyes and I set out on a pleasant trail run along the network of mountain bike trails in the area. An hour or so later and I was back in the car, headed for Robert and Colette’s house in Santa Monica.
Compared to the Colorado winter I had left, the Santa Monica weather was certainly warm at 60 degrees. So Monday morning, I dragged Robert and little Lenny off to the beach with me so that I could get into my kayak for a quick surf session. The waves were small, but I managed to stay out of the way of the surfers and was even joined by pods of dolphins during my time in the water at Topanga Beach. Lucky for me, Robert brought his video camera and SLR, so I was able to get some fun footage of me playing in the water. After we wrapped that up, we stopped back at their place for a quick lunch and to grab our mountain bikes. Off we went into the Santa Monica mountains for the next several hours on a fantastic ride with view of the city, the ocean, and the Getty Center. Not too shabby!
Tuesday picked up right where Monday left off. After waking up, I did a great hill-run workout in Santa Monica, then we packed the cars and drove north through Santa Barbara before arriving in Buellton, which isn’t much of a town to visit in and of itself. However, there are dozens of vineyards in the surrounding hillsides which were lush with green color from the winter rains. We proceeded to visit 4 of these wineries that were down the road, including my favorite of the day, Dierberg-Starlane, then Foley, Babcock, and Melville. After all that wine, a good dinner was in order, so we wandered down the road to the Hitching Post 2 where I treated myself to the biggest and one of the most delicious steaks I have ever eaten. Then it was time to wait. It seems like I have been waiting for Glory to launch for a long time, and after dinner I had to wait a few hours before heading next door to the Marriot where all the Glory faithful gathered. Well, as it turned out, I was going to have to wait longer, because at 2am the launch was officially scrubbed. And that’s a story for another time…
Anyhoo, Robert and I were in wine country and had our bikes with us, so on Wednesday we hopped on them, cruised over to the uber touristy Danish town of Solvang, and proceeded to work our way along Alamo Pintado Road towards the sleepy little hamlet of Los Olivos. Along the way, we visited the idyllic grounds of Rideau vineyards, then Lincourt, and finally Blackjack where part of the movie Sideways was filmed. After a quick bite to eat in Los Olivos, we cruised down the spectacularly beautiful Ballard Canyon Road back to Buellton. Robert then headed back to L.A. and family responsibilities, while I moved on to more pressing issues like napping, retrieving already purchased bottles of wine, sipping cappuccino in Solvang, enjoying split pea soup for dinner at Pea Soup Andersen’s, and finally catching a movie at the local theatre next door.
Several days away from the ocean had me thinking of waves on Thursday, so after breakfast at Paula’s Pancakes in Solvang, I headed to Surf Beach on Vandenberg AFB which was the only location along the coast reporting any reasonable wave heights. Due to it being one of the only publicly accessible spots on the air force base, the beach has an isolated, wilderness feel to it with miles of untouched coastline that is occasionally marked by a radio tower or a rocket ready for launch. The waves were breaking not too far from the shoreline and were of a decent height, so I suited up in my kayak gear and headed out into the water. Unfortunately though, the waves behaved completely sporadically- crashing into foam piles, then disappearing, then reappearing. After 20 minutes in the water, I discovered that this section of ocean was just too haphazard for surfing and headed back to dry land. After hanging up my wet gear to dry, I met a veteran local who described to me that ocean currents converge from the north and south at this location which causes the unpredictable, strange behavior of the waves. Upon further reflection, I concluded that the beach actually had been named aptly- there was certainly a lot of surf in the water. It was I who had mistakenly equated that to “Surfer’s Beach”. Not a problem though, the sun was out and I had a beach chair and a book, so I settled in close to the sand to avoid the on-shore wind and dozed on and off as the pages slowly turned and River dog chewed sticks and played in the sand.
I like to paint a picture of complete relaxation, but honestly, I was feeling extremely disappointed by the launch delay, the lack of waves, and no purpose to my day. So I loaded my gear back in the car and headed south in hopes of waves and beach camping, but the waves weren’t there and the state park camping cost as much as the Buellton Motel 6. Rather than stay in a motel again, I gave Robert a ring and told him that I’d be crashing at their place again. Along the route to L.A., I decided to take a quick pit-stop in Santa Barbara which turned into an hour long run along the beach with River Dog (aka, the happiest dog in the world as he sprinted off leash through the salt water and soft sand) and then a visit to the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company at the end of the pier.
There have been a few meals that I have had in my life that will stay with me as memorable favorites, and I’m certain that was one of them. The “restaurant”, if you will call it that, lacks any pretentiousness as it does one thing and one thing well, which is serve up freshly caught shellfish. After all my years visiting Maine and the lobster pounds that make that coastline famous, I have developed a soft spot in my heart and stomach for this kind of dining. Where Maine has lobsters that I adore, the West Coast has raw oysters that are my hands-down favorite. My meal consisted of a half-dozen oysters on the half-shell, a cup of clam chowder, and a Double Barrel Firestone beer, and I could not imagine a better dining experience as I savored every bite and sip while watching the sun set over the Pacific.
It turned out that Robert was heading to the airport at 5am on Friday morning, so as a way of showing my appreciation for his and Colette’s hospitality, I offered to drop him at LAX and get a jump start on my day. Part of my grand plan for the trip was to kayak in the Sierras, so after leaving the airport, I high-tailed it north out of the city before its infamous gridlock set in. My kayaking destination was Kernville and I found my route taking me through Palmdale where I had visited in November for work. My day had little purpose other than driving for a few hours, but then I realized that if I could swing by NASA-Dryden, I could take care of some work in person that would be terribly challenging to do from half way across the country. So the rest of my morning was spent in an airplane hanger designing the mechanical interface for a new stabilizing platform that will catch a ride on the highest flying airplane in the world, NASA’s ER2 (equivalent to the U2 spyplane). The morning’s work recharged my batteries and I headed north to Kernville where I road-scouted the Upper Kern in the rainy weather and grabbed a bite to eat at the Kern River Brewhouse.
Afterwards, I motored down the road to Geno’s house in Lake Isabella. Geno is a friend-of-a-friend-of-a-friend and apart from the kayaking community, I don’t think I would find myself randomly stopping at someone’s house in the middle of nowhere to hang out. But true to the kayaking community, Geno turned out to be a great guy, and I hung out Friday night with him and his family as he told me countless stories about the impressive creaks of the southern Sierras. I awoke Saturday to snow on the hillsides and temperatures in the 30’s, but after a quick breakfast we were ready to hit the water on the Class IV section of the Lower Kern. Fortunately, the sun was out and the reservoir-fed water wasn’t too cold. We eased our way down the mostly flat stretches of the river that were occasionally interrupted by large pool-drops. It seems that I’ve spent most of my kayaking career discovering my own paths down rivers, so when all I had to do was follow another boater, I was amazed at how easy it can be. After a few hours on the water, I got my groove back and no sooner we were at the takeout. It was a short day, but it has inspired me to make it back to California on another road trip, and that’s always a good thing!
The next day and half were pretty uneventful- about 800-900 miles of driving through desert and snowy hills with an overnight stop in Cedar City, UT. I’ve said it before and I will say it again, you know that you can truly call a place home when you return from a trip like this and you are just overwhelmed with joy and contentment. It seems that is one of the big draws of travel- it makes you appreciate home.