Saturday, July 30, 2016

The California Zephyr (A train ride through the Rockies)

[Kyle]To return from Denver to Oakland, we decided to take a classic and scenic train journey aboard the California Zephyr. I had taken this same journey a few times in my youth both in full and in part; sharing it with Maryanne had always been on my list of things to do before leaving the USA. Along with the views as it crosses the Rocky Mountains - the added luxury of our own cabin and first class service made the journey something we were both looking forward to.

Waiting for the train to arrive and allow boarding

We boarded early in the morning (after an arrival delay) and departed with our friends waiving us off with coffee in hand. The train initially made very slow progress through a long and rather unattractive rail yard before another train cleared the track and allowed us to pick up speed as we headed up into the mountains. Just outside Denver, at the foothills, the train did several switchbacks to gain altitude before entering Eldorado Canyon (where we had so recently hiked). Here the route becomes incredibly scenic, high on the mountain the train passes through pine forests and dozens of tunnels as it continues its climb to the continental divide (which is crosses in the 6 mile long Moffatt tunnel).

On the western side of the divide the track follows the Colorado River (the same river that is in the Grand Canyon), which expands from a small creek to a roaring torrent as it progresses westwards. Most of our time on the train was spent, not in our private cabin, but in the lounge car, where we would play cards, chat with other guests and enjoy the view from both sides. Meal times also came with a view. Unfortunately our sleeping car appeared to be having a holding tank issue, making visits back and forth rather pungently unpleasant (luckily the aromas did not extend to our compartment!). The characters on the train were as interesting as the scenery. Each had rather different levels of sociability, and while most were taking the train as a touristic opportunity, a few were business travelers or fearful flyers; many were riding one way and flying back. Some had even joined the train from Chicago (where it starts). Some foreign tourists were making a vacation of multiple long distance train rides – making a circuit of the country and stopping in key cities.

One ‘special’ memory was of a woman who joined us in the lounge car at our table and would NOT stop talking. Her conversation rarely stretched to the scenery or any of the general courteous topics, but were a string of random conversations about her neighbors or someone she didn’t even know but had heard about. There were no gaps in her conversation to interject or change subject, and slowly our politeness declined to the occasional nod. Eventually we established that she was not on her own (as we had initially assumed) but traveling with children and grand children – all of which avoided ever being in the same carriage with her. She regularly barged between families sat at tables to take a picture of a view she wanted, and even knocked over other people’s drinks without acknowledgement or apology – quite a unique example of a woman in her own world. When she did ask a question, it was pointed and probing (way too personal) and any answer you might give simply met with some criticism and another story. Over the two days we managed to find tactics to avoid her (sigh).

We did befriend one group, a grandmother treating her two young grandsons to a wonderful journey, and we found ourselves spending much of our time playing cards, swapping games, and even sharing meals together, with the youngest boy taking a particular shine to Maryanne.

Views from the journey

As the train’s path regularly brushed against the Colorado River, we would be able to watch fisherman, rafters, and kayakers drifting down the river. We soon learned it was ‘expected’ that any of the smaller groups of water users liked to mark the passing of the train, not with a wave, but by baring their bottoms (mooning). Some were quite creative and did it while standing on their heads. The ‘meeting’ was fleeting as the train passed by in a matter of seconds, but there seemed to be good humor inside the train after each such incident.

Nightfall luckily coincided with a significant stretch of rather less dramatic scenery – so we were able to sleep well. Daylight awoke us in western Nevada which gave us just enough time to eat breakfast before settling into the lounge car for the views as we crossed the Sierras into California.

The California Zephyr terminates in Emeryville (just short of Jack London Square) so a connection was required to get us all the way home. Rather than spend the wait time between trains in Emeryville, we exited early, stopping over in Davis. Davis is a small town, famed for its university and has a charming center just steps away from the station. The temperature was 108 F (42C) and even a short walk about town quickly wilted our enthusiasm for the charm. We attempted to enjoy the labeled plants on a scenic walk, but soon gave up as the heat sapped all interest. We located an ice cream store and after a brief chat with the station master realized we could take an earlier train out – ahhh air-conditioning! This train followed the path of the Sacramento River and snaked its way along the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay before depositing us just a block away from Begonia; arriving home for the first time in weeks.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Yellowstone National Park via Denver

[Kyle]2016 is the Centenary of the USA National Parks – it was also to be our last year in the USA for some time. So we found ourselves wanting to get out and see the parks just at the same time as they parks were all spruced up and ready for visitors. First on our list was Yellowstone.

We started the trip with a visit to my high-school friend Geoffrey and his wife Sarah in Denver, and they were planning on joining us in Yellowstone. They were also in the middle of remodelling their house and with other pressures Geoffrey alone joined us leaving Sarah to man the fort. While in Colorado, and in anticipation of some future high altitude hiking, Maryanne and I planned a day hike atop Mount Evans (about 50 miles west of Denver). Mount Evans has the distinction of having the highest auto road in North America – the road goes (almost) all the way to the top at 14,226ft; we hiked up from 12,800 ft and made a loop of it – passing several peaks and passes, along with big horn sheep and mountain goats. This was Maryanne’s first real experience at such an altitude and she was not a fan of the uphill ‘walk’. Other days we simply took the dogs for a walk, helped out in the house, or just relaxed and socialized.

Eating, relaxing and hiking in Denver

A five hour drive from Denver took us to Cody (a wild west kind-a town), and the following day we entered Yellowstone with Maryanne keeping a watch for bears. Yellowstone is famed for its geothermal activity – geysers, vents, steam, and extremophile bacteria in rainbow colors, which all provide impressive displays. I’d been years ago, but this was Maryanne and Geoffrey’s first time; we were all impressed. Yellowstone also has plenty of bison (note: they are not buffalo, but you wouldn’t know it from the cowboy songs!). We saw individuals and large herds, and even some just trotting along the road messing with traffic. We did eventually see a grizzly bear, but from Maryanne’s perspective (she only saw a bit of rump fur between the trees) it didn’t count in any way.

We spent 3 days in Yellowstone and drove, hiked and enjoyed. Many of the hikes were steep and tough, but wow, the waterfalls and the views were well worth it. The first day we hiked up the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone (a deep v-shaped canyon cut by the Yellowstone river revealing dramatic multi-color rock). Every corner we came around and every vista had us exclaiming ‘Wow!’. along the way we made a small detour to descend Uncle Tom’s Trail which is primarily a very long and steep staircase in the cliff to view the base of one of the large falls. We looped back to the car with a walk away from the canyon through some thermal meadows covered in ash and sparse with trees. Our main accommodation was outside the west of the park in Idaho, so we spent the rest of the day driving in that general direction and stopping at any points of interest (stopping for pizza in the first town out).

Our first day in Yellowstone did not disappoint - Bison and waterfalls

Day 2 of the trip the main goal was to climb Mount Washburn, atop of which is a fire spotting station. Mt. Washburn is the highest point in Yellowstone park, so there are spectacular 360° views even as far as the Grand Tetons to the south. On the way down we passed bighorn sheep and on the way up were treated to chipmunks and birds and flowers to detract from the hard work of climbing. At the start of the trail a park ranger was conducting a ‘bear aware’ survey, we were fully prepared with bells and spray (as is advised).

Mount Washburn and views

After a healthy hike we headed for Mammoth Hot Springs and it was here we started to encounter the stereotypical throngs that July in the park is known for! Parking lots were all full and roadside parking seemed to stretch for a couple of miles. Mammoth Hot Springs was the first of the major thermal features we were to see. Hot water has be bubbling out of the earth for so long that huge structures of limestone have formed over a giant area, some ready to encroach on nearby buildings, long ago built at was perceived as a safe distance!

Mammoth Hot Springs

The Third day was a chance to catch up with the remaining major thermal features on the west side of the park; the most famous of which is Old Faithful. We started with a loop walk that took us past several different thermal features and swung by some lesser known geysers (impressive to us) including some that erupt pretty much continuously, bubbling mud pools, and hot springs. The highlight of the day was probably the Grand Prismatic Spring and its surrounding features. Here the scale and color are amazing, even the hot steam floating on top of the pools refract the beautiful colors of the prevailing bacteria, giving the appearance of colored steam. While the deep center is blue, as the water shallows different colors of bacteria grow, each with a distinctive color, leaving a pool ringed with a rainbow. Of course we also HAD to visit Old Faithful; while other ‘features’ were viewed either from the car, or with a short walk around a boardwalk loop – here there is practically stadium seating for visitors to view the explosions of water reliably showing every 90 minutes. There is also (a much less visited) 3 mile loop to view some equally impressive geothermal features my favorite was the Morning Glory pool. Timing looked perfect to also see the more remote Lone Star Geyser and we took the 5 mile walk (round trip) to arrive in good time for the expected performance, only to discover it had erupted an hour early ☹ and we missed it by 9 minutes!

So much beauty to enjoy

The following day we returned to Denver, this time driving through the Teton National Park. America really is a beautiful place and we were both really happy that we were finally seeing so much of it (but we should have started much sooner!).

The Grand Tetons

Once back in Denver we dragged Sarah out for one last hike in-between jobs – this time to Eldorado Canyon.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Catching up with Friends and Family (and boat maintenance)

[Kyle]After Maryanne’s contract ended, and before Kyle was due to retire, we decided to make the most of our travel benefits and visit as many friends and family as possible. All the visits were shorter that we’d originally hoped, but it was a fun time.

We spent time together in Virginia, Rhode Island, Arizona and even The Dominican Republic, and Maryanne set off to New York and the UK while Kyle was working to get some quality time with family and friends there.

A small selection of the funtimes we had catching up with friends and family - every photo here deserves a blog post of its own (as do many that are not posted here) - it was a fun time

Before all this fun, we also needed to check one more time on our new rudders after discovering issues on the prior haul out. Any haul out is so inconvenient and expensive, we make the most of it and plan 101 little jobs at the same time. The rudders, it seems (yes, the new ones we installed in Hawaii), are not in a good state. The manufacturer offered us about a 3% refund which so far we’ve been too disgusted to respond. Did I mention haul outs are expensive? During this haul out we decided to do some of the work ourselves that we’d contracted to the yard (to avoid extra days stuck in the yard over a weekend). When the bill came there was one odd charge for parts that we didn’t recognize and Maryanne sent an email to clarify that – they responded (amazingly) by correcting that error, and also refunding us the extra hours that their workers didn’t need to do on the boat (we were not expecting that! Yay!!!).

Haul out and new solar panels

On another positive note, around this time (back at the marina) we also managed to install additional (flexible) solar panels which along with all our low consumption systems, should mean we never have to worry about power aboard. Kyle was amazed at how wonderfully Maryanne was able to sew large masses of heavy fabric from within the cockpit on an ancient sewing machine. {Maryanne}And I was impressed how readily Kyle installed the mass of extra electronics and wiring required to actually get them working.

On the journey to and from the yard, we spent a couple of days to anchor out and sail about – we were really lucky to hang out for a few of hours with a family of humpback whales around the golden gate bridge – quite special. We will always have fond memories of Bay Area sailing.

Fun again - Sailing in the Bay with Whales aplenty