Friday, August 26, 2016

Kyle Finally Retires!

[Kyle]At long last, it was finally here - my last trip at work. It seemed like such a long time since Maryanne and I first figured out a plan that would allow us to retire early and go sailing wherever we wanted. Back then it was in the very distant future - too far away to think of in tangible terms. As the time passed I would count down to retirement days in years, and days, and even number of commutes as the date drew nearer. Slowly I'd watch the four digit number of days decline to three digits and then two. Even so, in a way it seems to have sprung up on me. I was headed to work like I always did, from some airport near the boat, and was flying around all week once I got there (like I always had).

This trip was different, it WAS to be the last time. In reality it was a really good week. Probably the best I've had at work in years (if only it could have been like this all along).

Despite having more important things to do, my chief pilot had gone to all sorts of trouble to ensure I had my first officer of choice (Ben), Ben in turn, sacrificed his vacation time to be there with me. During the whole week, I found myself fussed over as people discovered it was my retirement trip - it felt good. Everybody was so nice (knowing they would not have to put up with me for much longer?).

In the middle of the week's pairing, a weather system moved through Chicago (where I'd been primarily flying in and out of) wreaking havoc on the flights and schedules and my crew and I were worried this would disrupt our schedule, or prevent Maryanne from joining me on that last flight. I really wanted Maryanne to be there on my last flight, and she endured all kinds of hassle to get there for me (including taking a red-eye from San Francisco and sleeping in Chicago airport overnight once she arrived there).

My last lay-over was in Flint, Michigan - yeah, I know, I thought the same thing too - but my boss explained that would give me the best chance of a spare seat being available for Maryanne - so Flint it was. There is not much to do nearby the hotel there apart from paying a visit to a nearby microbrewery, so I took the crew out to Lunch and we had a nice afternoon swapping stories and getting excited about the following day.

We had to get up while it was still dark on my last day - of course! - but I only had one flight to do, so It wasn't so bad (I was noticeably more chipper than the rest of my crew that were not so lucky).

Once everyone was boarded (including Maryanne), instead of making the usual PA from the cockpit, I stepped into the aisle at the front of the plane and gave an extended farewell PA - I explained it was a special occasion for me (my retirement flight), I assured the passengers (that generally fret about the size of the plane as they board) they were in good hands (Ben and I were old, and with perfect safety records), they were on statistically the safest airliner in the world, and they should expect an unusual landing treat. I also thanked Ben for keeping me safe all the many times we've flown together in the past. With that, everyone cheered (that doesn't normally happen) and it was on with the work of flying to Newark.

The weather we'd been dealing with for most of the trip had moved off, and it was mercifully a nice, clear, calm day. It was strange, when flying the arrival along the Hudson into Newark (an approach I'd done 1,000s of times) that this would be my last approach and landing in this plane (after over 10,000 hours of flying as Captain in this type). The landing was smooth (thankfully, I didn't need to be embarrassed about any bumps) and through the cockpit door I could hear the cabin cheering.

We landed so early that I was worried I'd beat the fire department - but I hadn't, that was the next big thing I'd been looking forward to. As an honor to retiring pilots, the airport fire department customarily conducts a 'salute' where they fire their water cannons in an arch over the plane as we taxi in. They were waiting for us, and I must say I teared-up a little as we taxied through - and the cabin cheered again.

I parked the plane and set the brake. Outside, on the ramp, people were taking pictures to commemorate my last day. All the Newark management were walking towards the plane. I instinctively thought I must be in some kind of trouble, but then I remembered - what could they do? Fire me? No - they were there to congratulate me. Once everyone was off the plane, I went into the cockpit to have one more look before shutting the power down.

As I entered the crew room, I was met with more applause and cheers; they had decorated and put out a cake and some food and even had a poster of me in my uniform (which I suspect was a result of a conspiracy involving Maryanne and my Mother). It was really nice and really appreciated on my part. Everyone was congratulating me and shaking my hand. The chief pilot (Ann) even made a special play list for the event to be piped through the crew room. We stayed talking and laughing for a couple of hours before it was time for Maryanne and I to leave and head for our flight back to San Francisco. We even got lucky and had seats together (that rarely happens! It has been a good week).

A memorable and special day - thanks for those who shared photos

I extend a big THANK YOU to all the team at ExpressJet that made not only that day so special, but went out of their way over the years to help me attain my dreams both at work and (with extended time off) in so many other adventures.

And retirement begins....

Once Maryanne and I made it back to San Francisco, we were met by Geoffrey, my high school friend, who was in town for business and had extended is stay to celebrate with us. We dined out that evening, and the following lunch time ate at my favorite restaurant Juan's (in Berkeley), followed by a visit to one or two of the pubs around Jack London Square and beyond. While Geoffrey returned home early the next day, we took an overnight/2 day sail before staring the preparation for our next adventure - a trip to the Sierras

Friday, August 19, 2016

Yosemite National Park

[Kyle]We arrived at our motel in (near) Yosemite about an hour before we would have needed to get up for our first day's planned hike. We decided to modify our plan and start with an easy afternoon hike from Wawona near the east entrance. There was just enough time after a brief stop at the Visitor's Center for a brief walk to a nearby suspension footbridge.

A pleasant hike to The Wawona Swinging Bridge

It turned out to be a rather unappealing concrete and rusted cable structure (but it did swing!). The river beneath it had families swimming and wading in all of its many pools. The idea sounded appealing, but there seemed like there would be no way to enter the water without traversing someone's claimed patch. Plus, we hadn't expected to find a swimming hole, so we were unprepared for that possibility anyway. We enjoyed the walk anyway, and the pine-scented air was refreshment enough.

Cloud's Rest

For our first real day in Yosemite, we got up early in order to allow us plenty of time to do a very long hike. We had been trying for weeks to obtain a backcountry permit, which would allow us to backpack in and camp in the wilderness. Demand is very high for these permits, which generally gives applicants about a single-digit percent chance of getting one. We tried every iteration we could think of, but still ended up empty-handed. Backcountry permits are not required for day hikes, so we eventually accepted that if we wanted to see the stuff we wanted to see, we would have to take two or three days backpacking and cram them into a series of single day hikes. At least we would be spared the heavy packs full of camping gear.

The first of these hikes was a 17.3 mile one way hike from Tayana Lake to Yosemite Valley over Cloud's Rest, the highest point in the valley.

Since it was one way, it was necessary for us to get up very early in order to catch the once a day Hiker's bus from the valley to the trailhead. We thought we had padded our driving time with enough extra for slow RV traffic and having enough time to find the office where the bus tickets were sold. It turned out we needed more.

Traffic wasn't too bad, but once the valley came into view, we couldn't avoid pulling over at at least a couple of turnouts to admire it's majesty as the sun rose behind.

Still on schedule, we parked at the main lot for the Visitor's Center. We collected our gear and found the first sign - "Visitor's Center -> 0.9 miles". Yikes!! That we hadn't expected. We picked up the pace and made it to the Visitor's Center, where a sign on the door said they opened at 9:00. The bus leaves at 8:00. My watch read 7:53.

Maryanne left her day pack with me and ran ahead to the General Store, hoping they could help. They told her she needed to go to the Lodge, just about a third of a mile further. On the way there, she came upon a bus parked at a stop. She asked if it was the Hiker's bus and was told, "No, but I can take you to it."


Maryanne stalled the driver for some time and texted me telling me to RUN for the bus. I tumbled in and we took off. Then the driver turned LEFT, away from the Lodge. No, no, no!! She was going to the Lodge alright, but it was at the other end of her loop route.

We were were discussing our backup plan when, at the third stop, we pulled in behind another bus. The driver said she thought that might be the one we were looking for. Maryanne ran ahead and was soon back on the curb waving for me to join her. I grabbed up all of our stuff and clumsily made a hasty exit of our bus and entrance of the next. The Hiker's bus was running fifteen minutes late. The Driver said she'd be happy to pause at the Lodge long enough for us to run in and buy our tickets. Whew!

An early start to catch the bus

It took us a while to come down from that stress, but the ride was more than two hours long, so we had plenty of time to get back into sightseeing mode before being deposited at the trailhead.

The hike started smooth and flat and we made pretty good time. After a while, the trail curved upward and began switching back and forth to gain altitude. We were much higher up than we were accustomed for exercising and our pace slowed significantly.

Scenery on the climb to Cloud's Rest

It wasn't until we had made it almost to Cloud's Rest that the trees finally fell behind and we were treated to our first views of Yosemite Valley far below, with Half Dome in the foreground. Wow! The valley seems completely out of proportion to what I had expected. The granite walls are so steep and so high that it seems impossible that gravity hasn't yet managed to crush them into softer shapes.

Cloud's Rest was not at all what I had expected either. From the map, I had expected it to be a little knoll in a clearing. In reality, it's a pretty narrow spine jutting upwards from the mountain below. Five steps on either side of the path would result in a very long fall.

Views atop Cloud's Rest

We wanted to linger and enjoy the views, but it was already three and a half hours before sunset and we still had almost ten miles to walk to get down to our rental car in the valley. At least it was downhill.

We followed the spine of Cloud's Rest only to find it seeming to end as precipitously as the sides. We walked to what appeared to be the end. There, we found another shelf below that we could access by carefully lowering ourselves from boulder to boulder. Once on that shelf, we found another and lowered ourselves onto that in the same manner, still not sure we were on the trail and very aware the further we descended, the more climbing would be required if we had to retreat. We continued in this way until we were able to see a dirt trail descending into the forest from the rock face.

Our slow descent to the forest had eaten up more precious time and we were aware that we had to keep our speed up as we were racing the sun.

The descent from Cloud's Rest

We did pretty well and managed to arrive at the top Vernal Falls just before sunset. From there, we had two choices: a shallow descent along the John Muir trail, or a steep one via the Mist trail. We discussed it and decided we would take the much shorter Mist trail in the hope that we could cover most of its distance before twilight ended.

We were only about ten minutes in before we realized this was not going to go as we had hoped. The Mist trail is extremely steep - basically just switchbacks blasted out of a cliff face. Descending required BIG steps that had to be selected carefully and then double checked before taking the weight off of the uphill foot. Retracing our steps upward to the trail junction would have taken three times as long, which would have used up the rest of the light. We broke out our headlamps, donned them, and decided to press on downhill.

As the trail passed Nevada falls, it got even steeper and even cut under the rock face for a time. This reduced the sky overhead to a sliver and we lost the last of the day's light.

It was VERY unnerving to be picking our way down using the small spot of our lights to try to correctly select the next step. We were getting pretty tired by then and were well aware that our balance and coordination were starting to suffer as we lowered ourselves on what Maryanne calls "Jelly Legs". I turned uphill to get a look at what anybody going the other way had to face. There was no discernible trail, just a wall of rock. Closer study revealed the worn footholds that formed the steps upward.

It was 9:30pm when we finally limped onto the flattish Tarmac of the last half-mile of trail. We walked from the trailhead through a large campground before we were finally able to collapse at the Little Yosemite Valley bus stop. It was well past when the last of the buses were supposed to have stopped for the day, so I left my pack with Maryanne and started the two mile walk to the car. Once I retrieved it, I would return and pick her up. There is no road lighting in the park, which makes it very dark, but there was also no traffic, so I was able to play it safe and walk down the middle of the deserted road.

As I was searching for the car in the huge lot (I really should have paid better attention to its position when we rushed off in the morning), Maryanne texted me to tell me she was on the last bus and would be there in minutes. Whew, one less thing.

I searched and searched and could find little that I could recognize. Everything looks so different in the dark. I eventually found a park map, where I realized I was in the wrong huge lot. Our huge lot was another half mile further. I had to run or poor Maryanne would be waiting on me.

It turns out that I was actually too sore to run, so I decided to just walk fast. I couldn't do that either, so I settled for limping fast. We both spotted the car simultaneously after our respective meandering searches from different directions. We were relieved to not have to walk any more, but we still had a one and a half hour drive to our motel. Once again, it was after midnight when we arrived. All of the restaurants in the area had long since closed. We were too tired to eat anyway, so we each took a shower, grabbed a granola bar, called it dinner and collapsed into bed. Perhaps we needed to rethink our plans for the next day.

Glacier Point

My plan had originally been to do a loop hike from Yosemite Valley up to Glacier Point via the Four-Mile trail (which they rounded DOWN to for the name), and then descend back via the Panorama and John Muir trails. As soon as we tried to climb out of bed, we realized we would NOT be doing that. Glacier Point has a road going up to it, so we decided to drive there.

Glacier Point is on the opposite side of Half Dome from Cloud's Rest. It was a little less hazy than the day before and we also had the sun behind us, so the light was better for the gazillions of photos we couldn't help but take. Unlike the day before, we were able to do so while enjoying ice cream bars from the gift shop.

Views atop Glacier Point

We were starting to feel a little guilty about being ice cream toting car tourists, so we headed out for our hike to Taft Point. Wow again! Taft Point is at the top of a very, very high vertical cliff that juts just far enough into the valley to offer more amazing views. We had the luxury of enough time to be able to linger over a long sit while enjoying the views. We then scrambled all over the immediate area to our heart's content, before making our way back to the car for the drive to our motel, but not before having a proper sit-down meal to fill up.

A short hike meant fewer people and more stunning scenery at Taft Point

Yosemite Falls

For our third day, we once again boarded the Hiker's bus for the ride to the trailhead at Yosemite Creek. This time, we knew where to park and how long it would take to get there, so we were the first at the stop.

We were actually wishing the bus was earlier because the long drive really eats up the available daylight for hiking. Based on our Cloud's Rest speed, we knew we would still have to keep moving to get to the Valley comfortably before dark.

The trail starts as a gentle descent, which goes past many areas of bare granite punctuated with Sequoias and Lodgepole pines. Maryanne has been wondering for a while how to harvest pine nuts from pine cones. Finding and dissecting a half eaten one left by a squirrel finally cracked the mystery. She found a fresh one, cracked into it, and we were soon foraging on our own pine nuts. Getting them out of the cones takes a lot of work for the amount of food, though. Now we know why they cost so much in the store. We tried the cones of several different species. They all have a slightly different flavor. Some are sweet, some are buttery, some have a slightly smoky flavor.

Finally enjoying some fresh pine nuts (a lot of work for a very small nut, but fun!

Further on, we were overtaken by a couple of college-age kids who admitted they were glad to see us because they weren't sure they were on the right trail. It was our first time too, of course, but we had had the forethought to download maps into our phones before we left, so we were able to verify that we were at least in the right vicinity.

The four of us overtook what appeared to be a mother and daughter who seemed to shadow us while remaining pretty sheepish about socializing. They later admitted that they were also unsure whether they had been on the right trail until meeting the other four of us.

Along the trail...

We all walked for a lot longer than we thought before the trail finally started an earnest descent to the top of Yosemite Falls at the cliff top. Yosemite Creek is seasonal and the drought had reduced it to a trickle connecting larger pools of water. The falls were therefore more of a wet streak in the rock of the cliff face than an actual waterfall. That was a little disappointing, but the views from up there were amazing.

Finally - the top! Yosemite Falls

I added to the fun by doing another 1.8 mile side trip to Yosemite Point, which opened up more of the valley to view and gave me a good overhead perspective on the falls area.

I reunited with Maryanne back at the falls and we started our descent down switchbacks in the cliff face to the valley below. We encountered several groups of people still on their way up who seemed woefully unprepared for the hike. Few had water or lights for a descent in the dark. Maryanne even gave the shy mother and daughter duo some of our water when they admitted to her that they had long since run out.

The long walk down to the valley floor - gave us yet more spectacular views

We made it to the valley floor just as the light of the sunset began to make everything beautiful in the orange and pink light. We were limping again from another long day and steep descent. It seems that all of the trails in Yosemite are steep.

Tuolumne Meadows

We decided that our next day should be another mild one, where most of the travel was by car.

Early morning views in Yosemite Valley

We drove through the valley and then up to Tuolumne Meadows in the eastern side of the park. Just past Tayana Lakes, we took a trail up to the top of a prominence called Lembert Dome. It was the usual steep, switchbacky stuff until we made it above the tree line onto the bare rock of the summit. There, it was just a matter of using shoe traction along the shallower spots to pick our way to the top. We were rewarded with amazing views in all directions.

Lembert Dome

We stopped here and there as different amazing views presented themselves. When we started running low on time for the long drive home, we turned around and retraced our route westwards.

Remember how I said I thought it was amazing that gravity hadn't smoothed out the park yet? Well, it's trying. Yosemite has the highest falling rock rate of anywhere in the continental U.S. We encountered a bowling ball sized one, which I hit dead on with the right front wheel at 50mph. The car fortunately tracked nice and straight as I pulled it as far to the side as I could amongst the smaller stones.

I had expected to see a lot of damage to the wheel and the underside of the car, but the tire seemed to absorb the whole impact. It was sliced almost from one side to the other.

There was no real shoulder to work on, so we were essentially blocking half of the road. Maryanne diverted traffic while I dug out the spare mini tire and swapped it for the bad one. We were both surprised the tire change only took me about ten minutes.

When we got everything loaded back in and seated, I couldn't get the car to start. It seemed the flashers had depleted the battery. Great! We got back out to try to figure out what to do just as a Park Ranger came by in his truck. He turned on his flashing lights, gave us a jump and we were on our way in two minutes.

Oops! And Thanks Mr. Park Ranger!

We tried calling the rental car company, but it was after hours, so we got sent into an endless phone menu labyrinth. We decided to just drive it all of the way home and deal with it in the morning. I wasn't really looking forward to driving that far on the tiny spare, but the car stayed perfectly aligned, so it ended up not being an issue.

Since we hadn't paid for the extra insurance, Maryanne was up early the next morning trolling tire shops for a replacement before returning the car. She managed to find one for less than the car company had wanted for their insurance. She told them about the tire as well as the battery and the shift lever and the windshield leak and the trunk latch we got the car with. They seemed not to care and let her return it without any extra charge.