Thursday, July 28, 2016

Big Basin Redwoods State Park

With only a few days before I fly out to Boston, I realized with sudden bittersweetness that I will be leaving the American West, and California the gem of it, with no idea if/when I will live here again. Lush greenery of the East Coast v. yellow grass and chaparral scrubland of the San Francisco Bay Area notwithstanding, road trips to state and national parks in California and other western states were an integral part of my childhood. In recent years, I have not gone into the great outdoors as often as I wanted, and now, I am uprooting myself from California.

I told my father I wanted to see redwoods before I left for Massachusetts. There are no redwoods in Massachusetts. In fact, there coastal redwoods grow only on the Pacific coast in northern California and southern Oregon.

I kind of took redwoods for granted. My apartment in Berkeley was in an oak and redwood grove, with more redwoods than oaks. Campus was covered with redwoods, and there used to be another grove of them by the computer science building before the design building was built. Not to mention, there were groves and groves of them in the hills, and an easy drive away in Muir Woods National Monument, Big Sur, etc.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park was the closest. We went there last weekend.

The coast/coastal/California redwood, Sequoia sempervirens (semper = always, virens = flourishing/green), is a member of the Sequoioideae subfamily which includes Sequoiadendron (giant sequoias) and Metasequoia (dawn redwoods). These are all exceptionally tall and long-lived species; giant sequoias are found in the Sierra Nevada and number among them some of the tallest and the oldest trees in the world. While much of the old growth forest is gone, some is preserved in Big Basin, among tanoaks, Douglas firs, madrones, pines, and coastal chaparral communities.

I say all this stuff, but the truth is, we only had time for a short hike and didn’t get to see many of the parks landmarks. No waterfalls, no Pacific Ocean, and not even the famous trees on the short and sweet Redwood Loop Trail from the parking lot. We took the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail north and looped back on the Meteor trail, for a total of ~6 miles and 2.5 hours. Elevation gain was a modest ~300 ft, and we did get a nice view from the Ocean's View summit. I tried to keep the pictures in chronological order, but some did get shuffled for aesthetic purposes.

At the beginning of the hike, the redwoods are younger and smaller, and tanoaks make up a larger portion of the forest. A personal anecdote: in fifth grade, our class took a three-day trip to an outdoor education program in the Santa Cruz mountains by Big Basin. In that time, we were assigned nature names. Mine was "Sword Fern" and there are plenty of those in the understory.

I took many tall-tree pictures as panoramas, which is both annoying and vertigo-inducing. It's not so clear in the leftmost photo, but redwoods often grown in rings. Coast redwoods are capable of both sexual and asexual reproduction: in the latter, new growths can sprout from tree stumps or branches or fallen trees themselves. These "fairy rings" are pretty common features of a redwood grove.

California is extremely prone to fire, and the native ecosystem is highly adapted to frequent burning. While the tree on the far right is basically kindling at this point, the tree in the middle photo is very much alive. The thick bark is rich in tannins and water, and is excellent at withstanding fire. Also note that S. sempervirens has minimal lateral branching, with leaves starting very high up the tree. In a fire, foliage close to the ground will burn, the redwood may char, but it lives on -- an apt name indeed.

I don't have good photos of this, but the leaves closer to the ground and on young trees are very different from those in the canopy. Consider the requirements of sun exposure and water retention. Leaves closer to the ground and on young, short trees/saplings are long, flat needles with enough surface area to capture the meager sunlight that makes it that far down. Leaves higher up are shorter and clustered together, sort of resembling a dragon's tail. These leaves are well-illuminated and capture fog moisture. Abundant fog is essential for the survival of these very tall trees.

Note that hikers should never go off trail, and that interacting with great, old trees is not a good idea. In the pictures I have of myself standing in the hollows of trees, they are with trees that are either clearly "part" of the trail or "designated" photo-op spots.

Trees in rings again. It's incredible to imagine the size of the tree that these ones sprouted from.

Our trail spit us out of the redwoods and into some good old coastal chaparral. Here, short shrubs and pines dominate, evergreen and adapted for water retention and durability. I glimpsed the Pacific Ocean, but it's not that great of a view.

The hiking group: parents and their friends.

These trees with red wood in the foreground are not redwoods, but rather California madrone. Their red, wallpaper-like bark and long oval leaves are very distinctive.

It was a short trip, but I had a good time. I'm hoping to visit the Muir Woods National Monument this week for more redwood groves later this week. Though I used Wikipedia for a bit of help with specific names and terms, I am proud of my knowledge of northern Californian ecology and natural history, and hope to spend more time in the great outdoors. I do feel sad to leave this beautiful place and go somewhere with unfamiliar plants, animals, and terrain, but that's part of the adventure. What California lacks in common greenery we (almost) make up for it with awe-inspiring natural cathedrals and some of the greatest trees on Earth.

As a final note...

Dendrochronology, or tree-ring dating, is very impressive when it comes to Sequoia sempervirens. One such stump on UC Berkeley campus only about 1.5 ft in diameter had a few dates marked on it, but even this specimen can be young. It had not reached its maximum lifespan when it was felled in 1936, but is nonetheless impressive. Another matter of California pride (and of course, my own sadness in leaving) is that most of the oldest or tallest trees are bristlecone pines, sequoias, or coastal redwoods in California. Anyhow, here are the dates marked on the stump:

1936 Tree cut down - 1902 Big Basin established as a park - 1848 Gold discovered at Coloma - 1791 Santa Cruz Mission founded - 1776 Declaration of Independence signed - 1653 Taj Mahal completed - 1579 Drake lands in California - 1508 Michelangelo begins painting Sistine Chapel - 1492 Columbus reaches America -  1288 Eyeglasses invented - 1215 Magna Carta signed - 1066 Anasazi build cliff dwellings - 960 Gunpowder discovered in Ancient China - 800 Coronation of Charlemagne - 600 - Height of Mayan Civilization - 570 Birth of Mohammed - 544 Tree sprouted in N. California, chess first played in India

Our trail in yellow. It's probably less than 6 miles now that I think about it.

Monday, July 25, 2016

Abstract: the itinerary | Germany Part 0

What a cluttered title! This post will give a location-by-location overview of my itinerary in Germany (and one stop in Austria) as told by representative Instagram posts. I'm referring to this post as an abstract because it will serve as the introduction/preamble to all subsequent Germany (und Österreich) posts, and I do have some other formatting disclaimers to make later here. Though I suppose my outfits entry was the first of all my vacation content, I'll consider this the true "first" post. Also, indexing by 0 is fun.

Without further ado:

Berlin, Wannsee, & Potsdam

The Reichstag building in Berlin

Day 0:

Day 1:

Day 2:


A model of the Hamburg's Speicherstadt (warehouse district) in Miniatur Wunderland

Day 3:
  • Berlin to Hamburg
  • Stadtpark (urban garden) and surroundings
  • Walking distance - 11.21 miles; Elevation gain - 80 ft

Day 4:

Day 5:
  • Note: this day's torrential downpour put a damper on sightseeing
  • University of Hamburg Zoological Collection
  • Museum of Ethnology
  • Roaming around the Elbe River after the rain stopped
  • Walking distance - 10.2 miles; Elevation gain - 170 ft
Day 6:
  • Tour of the Rathaus, walking around the Altstadt and Elbe River
  • Hamburg to Cologne


The Cologne cathedral

Day 6 contd:

Day 7:

Black Forest & Bavaria (Munich, Dachau, Neuschwanstein, Hohenschwangau)

Yours truly in front of the Munich Rathaus

Day 8:

Day 9:
  • Munich Residenz, the former palace of the Bavarian monarchs
  • Dachau concentration camp memorial site
  • Englischer Garten (urban park with river surfers)
  • more Marienplatz
  • Walking distance- 16.67 miles; Elevation gain - 180 ft
Day 10:


View of Hohensalzburg fortress, cathedral, and Altstadt

Day 10, contd:
  • Arrive in Salzburg
  • Salzburg Altstadt
  • Walking distance - 11.19 miles; Elevation gain - 660 ft
Day 11:

Day 12:


View of the Heidelberg Altstadt and castle

Day 12, contd:
  • Salzburg to Heidelberg
  • Walking distance - 5.48 miles; Elevation gain - 270 ft
Day 13:
  • Heidelberg Altstadt and University
  • Heidelberg castle
  • Königstuhl ("King's seat" hill in the Odenwald Mountains) via the Himmelsleiter ("Heaven's ladder" 1200? 1600? steps? Elevation gain = ??? Distance = ???)
  • Philosophers' walk
  • walking along the Neckar and the new campus area
  • Walking distance - 15.94 miles; Elevation gain - 1630 ft
Day 14:
  • Heidelberg to Frankfurt
  • Frankfurt to San Francisco via Reykjavik
That does it for my itinerary. My blog entries about my trip will probably be broken up by location, mostly in chronological order, with a conclusion/reflections post at the end. This blog is mostly for myself, a journal of sorts of the places I've been to, the things I saw, and my thoughts about them. I hope that this record is interesting to read and look at, and maybe even organized and somewhat informative.

Some preliminary reflections about this trip: it was my first ever to Europe, and it was amazing. I was visiting my sibling at first in Berlin (study abroad), then to Hamburg where their summer internship is. We visited Cologne together with our mother; I went with my mother to Bavaria and Salzburg, then reunited with the sib in Heidelberg. Father unfortunately couldn't make it due to work, but he would have liked Germany quite a lot.

"Ich spreche kein Deutsch" - though I don't speak German beyond some courtesy phrases, my sibling's German seems pretty good and we relied on them quite a bit. English is widely spoken, but I still felt pretty clumsy not knowing the language. Navigation is easy and public transportation is great.

As newcomers to Germany, our itinerary seems to be very touristy and basic, ripped right off the TripAdvisor top 10 lists. This is partly due to my poor planning, and also because I didn't have any knowledge of German cities, geography, or history. Again, I should have paid better attention in history class and probably read a book or two before arriving, but I did learn quite a bit on this trip. Context is important. Lots of time spent in museums and old towns, not a lot of modern sites or cultural immersion, lots of train travel, and lots of walking. I'm okay with that, and hope to see more of Germany (and Austria, of course) in the future.

I have a lot of thoughts about Germany, about international relations and the current geopolitical climate that I haven't really sorted out yet. But, there was my abstract. Fourteen days were not enough.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Birds and Buildings | Washington, DC Part 3

Here are some photos from the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Like all other Smithsonian institutions, it is free and requires security checks. Because I don't want to drag out the DC posts any longer, I've also included photos of various federal buildings.

Commercial aircraft

Looking out over the Udvar-Hazy Center. WWII aircraft in the foreground, commercial civilian aircraft in the background. Note: Japanese planes (rising sun on the wings and tail), the Enola Gay (huge R), Air France Concorde jet

The Air and Space Museum is split into the museum on the National Mall in DC and the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in a giant hangar in Washington Dulles International Airport in Chantilly, Virginia. The combined museum houses the world's largest collection of air and spacecraft, and is the second-most visited museum in the world (first is the Louvre and third is the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History). The main museum is horribly crowded in the summer, but Udvar-Hazy is comfortably populated. I spent perhaps four hours between the two, but could have spent at least that much in each facility.

Learning about the Space Race. Note an unlaunched Skylab, Hubble Space Telescope, Apollo 11 command module Columbia, and a V2 rocket

Vought F4U-1D Corsair, Pacific theater of WWII

Contrary to what these photos may suggest, there are non-American aircraft and non-military aircraft. German and Japanese planes were in abundance, including a Messerschmitt Bf 109, a very powerful and feared Luftwaffe fighter.

Curtiss P-40 Warhawk with shark nose art "Lope's Hope", WWII American fighter

A German Pfalz D.XII supposedly used during WWI...that eventually appeared in Hollywood movies about WWI. Part of the Red Baron exhibit

Here's a personal aside about this museum. When I was a young child, this museum floored me. I went through a phase of aircraft mania that prompted me to apply as an mechanical or aerospace engineering major to half the colleges I applied to. I watched a lot of History Channel programs about aircraft, was briefly obsessed with a mythic future career of designing top secret military stealth birds X years ahead of the most advanced civilian aircraft.

Boeing X-45A, an unmanned combat air vehicle, stealthy

All this was ignited by this museum. I doubt we went to the Udvar-Hazy Center, but perhaps the very spark was a little model of the SR-71A Blackbird on display at that very hangar that my parents bought for me. It was lost somewhere in between moves, but for several years, it sat on my desk and kept me company (it was also a pencil sharpener). I miss it so, and tried to find that same souvenir when I visited this time (among the cornucopia of Blackbird-themed mass-produced merchandise, no luck...the one truly functional souvenir). My sibling got a non-pencil sharpener model of the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird in all her glory

Space Shuttle Discovery surrounded by other spacecraft

And, I would be irresponsible in forgetting to warn about the throngs and throngs and throngs of middle school and younger kids packed into the museum on the National Mall. It's almost impossible to stand still and read a plaque intently, the aircraft and additional artifacts speak for themselves.

Amelia Earhart's Lockheed Vega 5B

I also needed to remind myself that certainly, one grand purpose of this museum is to inspire the children of America to want to learn more about aircraft, to be curious about engineering and history, and to help them see their own futures in those very exhibits. Another thing: the free guided tours are wonderful. My tour guide was a retired engineer and history buff and a great educator; tour guide at Udvar-Hazy was similarly engaging and informative. As annoyed as I wanted to be at the crowds of children, I had to remind myself that this museum really was made for them.

Wright 1903 Flyer, the first heavier-than-air powered aircraft

I'll continue this sermon and stick the logistics in at the end. This museum is my favorite museum in the world (and to spoil, I prefer the Udvar-Hazy Center over the main museum). It was incredibly easy to get carried away with AMERICA FUCK YEAH-type patriotism looking at all the military aircraft, reading about and watching footage of American pwnage in basically all the wars in the past century. Especially at the Udvar-Hazy Center, which is mostly military aircraft, it was very easy to fill up with nationalistic excitement.

Space Shuttle Discovery

In the museum and the hangar in Virginia, the planes are just planes in a museum. Even with little info plaques, they're decontextualized engineering marvels, and maybe just an abstract representation of American domination and heroism. But, I do think that this is a personal distinction to make, and that the mostly neutral presentation of the exhibits of the Smithsonian museums in general are appropriate. I just need constant reminder of geopolitical context to prevent crazy mythologizing of the USA.

I show Enola Gay here, but there were flocks and flocks of Cold War planes from Korea to Vietnam, and an even larger flock of helicopters used in the Gulf War, Afghanistan, etc, etc that I didn't take pictures of. There's a kind of unsubstantiated (but possibly very true) Reddit claim that the first, second, and third largest air forces of the world are the USAF, the US Navy, and the US Army. It's a huge source of patriotism and national pride, but, again, decontextualizing and mythologizing.

Boeing B-29 Superfortress bomber "Enola Gay", dropped atomic bomb "Little Boy" onto Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945 and participated as weather recon in the bombing of Nagasaki three days later

I've neglected to mention the space stuff, but a lot of that went right by me. I don't have much to say other than to appreciate the vast collection of space artifacts and space craft, particularly the Space Shuttle Discovery, which is simply breathtaking. Another note is that many of the objects I took pictures of are models or versions of a craft that never entered orbit. Much of what is sent into space is not returned, and the objects that do come back are in fairly bad condition.

Soviet capsule, Soviet capsule, American capsule

Cosmonaut and astronaut

At long last, here are my opinions on going to the Udvar-Hazy Center 26 miles away from the National Mall. If you have any interest in aircraft, spacecraft, or twentieth century war, the Udvar-Hazy site is a mandatory destination. It took me about 1.5 hours to reach the Washington-Dulles International Airport from the Smithsonian on the National Mall at around 12:30 PM, though the return trip was twice that amount due to rush hour traffic. By car, it should not take more than an hour, but I've realized that 35 miles on the highway means something different in northern California than northern Virginia. The Metro is easy to navigate, and the Fairfax Connector bus service to the hangar and the international airport are regular and reliable, but horribly vulnerable to bad traffic. Because I wanted to return to Washington by 7 PM, I only stayed about 1.5 hours at Udvar-Hazy, when I could have easily spent 3 or 4 there. If you have time in your itinerary, this can absolutely be a day trip. If you are taking public transportation, I recommend leaving DC in the morning and returning in the early afternoon to avoid gridlock.


And finally, here are the photos of various federal buildings. No comment other than about the intense security everywhere...and the tour groups everywhere. All the glorious interiors are from the Library of Congress.

United States Capitol

Left: Library of Congress
Right: Supreme Court

Left: Athena
Right: an eagle

The White House