Thursday, December 31, 2009

White Christmas (Part 2)

Day Two

"NewCo 5790, New York Center, say mach number."

Rob glances at me with a "uh oh, here it comes" look and keys the mic. "Mach seven-eight, NewCo 5790."

"NewCo 5790, maintain maximum forward airspeed, you're number one in line for Newark."

I grin as I flip the speed select knob to manual and rotate our selected speed to .81 Mach. Any day you're not holding for 30 minutes to get into Newark is a good day; being asked to go fast is icing on the cake. I open the PERF INIT page on the FMS and type "315/.81" into the cruise and descent speed lines. That's five knots and .01 mach below redline, a bit closer than I'd normally take it, but the air is perfectly smooth today. Actually, everything is going suspiciously smooth. After the last night's exhausting ordeal, I was mentally steeled for more of the same today. Perhaps this is some sort of cosmic apology? Or is the other shoe just waiting to drop?

The day certainly didn't start out perfect. Our crew met in the hotel lobby at 7am, bleary-eyed from the short night. Upon arriving at the airport twenty minutes later, we found our airplane entirely encrusted in thick clear ice, long icicles dangling from the wings and tail. The ground personnel were short-handed because the freezing rain overnight prevented several of their colleagues from making it to work on time. We pushed late and then sat on the ramp for nearly an hour as the deice truck doused the plane in hundreds of gallons of hot glycol, trying in vain to melt through the buildup. The first truck actually ran out of Type I fluid; our intrepid rampers simply switched trucks and kept going. Finally, they pronounced us clean and safe to fly; we started our engines, ran without bleeds or packs for a few minutes to clear out residual glycol, completed our post-deice procedures, and taxied out to Runway 18.

The flight to MSP itself was quick and easy. Our initially assigned altitude of 22,000 feet had some solidly moderate chop, so we went down to 16,000 early, but there was no icing until a thin layer of moderate mixed stuff we briefly sampled on our way through 4000 feet. I started out on an ILS for 12R but spied the airport through light flurries while still over Lake Harriet. We were 40 minutes late but Minneapolis turned the plane quickly and there was no line for the 12L deice pad - which now had six lanes open! The snow was light and warm enough to allow for Type I deicing only; we took off for Newark only eight minutes after pulling onto the pad. Heavy snow was forecast for the rest of the day, but our quick turn was sandwiched into a calm in the storm.

Now, as we check on with New York Approach, we are instructed to turn a heading of 100 after SWEET, a very good omen indeed. Newark is landing north; with heavy traffic you'd get a heading of 040 or 050 to join the wide left downwind somewhere north of Teterboro, and you wouldn't get turned onto base until a good 30 miles south of the airport, all typically flown at 170 knots! On DTW-EWR flights, it's not uncommon to spend more time getting vectored low over New Jersey than the rest of the flight! This time there's not a word about speed; I maintain 315 knots until just above 10,000 feet, then slow to 250 and continue the descent to cross PENNS at 7000 feet. The last several times I'd been into Newark there were winds from the west gusting to 40 knots, making for a positively wild ride down low; today there is nary a ripple. We maintain the 100 heading well after SWEET, getting turned to a short downwind just west of the airport. We pick up our traffic - an ExpressJet ERJ-145 - on a fifteen mile base, call him in sight, and are cleared for the visual. I'm still doing 250 knots, but our traffic is about six miles ahead so I stay fast and tuck up in behind him before slowing to match his speed at two-and-a-half miles in trail. That's just how Newark likes it, but this is the first time they've left speed entirely at my discretion all the way down.

The ERJ pulls off while we're on a one-mile final; my own touchdown is right on the 1000' markers, and we easily make our intended high-speed exit. We never even speak to ground control: tower simply tells us "Sierra, Bravo, Romeo-Charlie to the gate with me." If only Newark were always this easy. This is generally a slow time of the day, but the schedules are also likely pared down for Christmas Eve. The rampers are waiting to park us, the passengers file off the airplane quickly, and in short order my crew is dashing for the exits. We have motivation: nobody wants to spend their long Christmas Eve layover in the dreary Newark crew hotel, so we're heading for the bright lights, big city of Manhattan. To our astonishment, the hotel van pulls up to the curb right as we exit the terminal, and the van driver readily agrees to give us a ride to Newark's Penn Station, which saves us a slow, meandering bus ride. I can't remember the last time things fell into place like this. After last night, it sure feels good!

After the world's quickest uniform-for-civies swap, we pile back into the van, arriving at Penn just in time to catch the next PATH train. A quick transfer at Journal Square, a few minutes more under the Hudson, and barely an hour after landing at Newark, we're walking down Ninth Street en route to some of my favorite East Village haunts: happy hour at Continental, $1 pizza at Two Bros, soaking up the cozy time-stained patina of McSorleys by the ancient pot-bellied stove. Here we share a table with an older English gent whose fantastic tales seem a bit much until my FO surreptitiously googles the name on his iPhone and discovers the fellow is actually being modest.

Having our fill of beer and conversation, we take our leave into the night and hop the Lexington Ave Express to walk through a bone cold and ghostly-empty Central Park, then warm-up in Steve Jobs' Ice Cube, gnaw on lamb kebobs at a street stand on bustling Fifth Avenue, and visit St. Patrick's Cathedral to find it barricaded off, with stern policemen guarding against would-be mass-crashers. "Homebound" at last, we ride the E-Train to its last stop, walk past the still-scandalously-vacant WTC site, and hop on the Jersey-bound PATH. I settle into the molded plastic bench and close my eyes, enjoying the warmth of the heater under my seat and the swaying motion of the train. I'm feeling sleepy and pensive and...grateful, mostly. I'm grateful to have a job when only a year ago I thought I might be unemployed by now. I'm grateful to be doing something I enjoy, and able to afford doing the things I love. I'm grateful for an easy day of flying and a great layover with a friendly crew.

And yet...it occurs to me that the best crew cannot replace the ones you love. It doesn't feel like Christmas Eve with Dawn a thousand miles away. When I get to the hotel, I'll call her and we'll make small chat for a few minutes, each relaying the events of our day without expecting each other to take much interest, until we trail off into awkward silence, missing each other but unable to do anything about it beyond wholly inadequate words. We'll say our goodbyes and hang up lonelier than ever. We're normally pretty good at handling life apart but the holidays are tough. On Christmas Eve, normalcy doesn't seem all that bad to either of us.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

White Christmas

Day One

The airport at night is a dark void from the air, but down here it's lit like the proverbial Christmas tree. There are blue taxi lights, white runway lights, green centerlines, red and green navigation lights, blinking red beacons, rotating yellow beacons on ground equipment, and the ghostly glow of klieg lights on the deice ramp, all haloed with snowflakes flying past. This snowstorm is only a few hours old and already causing lots of kinks, but I can't help enjoying the bewitching atmospherics of a snowy night. It feels like Christmas. My reverie is pierced by the blinding glare of a taxi light. A company JungleBus has turned onto a taxiway perpendicular to ours and the Captain is displaying a regrettable lack of courtesy. I mumble a few words under my breath and right on cue, the light goes out, leaving me seeing stars.

When I can see again, I glance at my watch. We haven't moved an inch in ten minutes. For reasons not readily apparent to me, the powers that be have chosen to only open three lanes of the 12L deice pad for the opening salvo of the biggest Christmas storm in years. The few crews present seem to be working extraordinarily slowly: it's taken two trucks over 40 minutes to deice a 757-300. It's not snowing that hard yet. Rob speculates that the crews are intentionally working slowly to signal their displeasure with intentional short-staffing on management's part. It's plausible; the tactic isn't exactly unknown among pilots.

I started the day in darkness, too, rising some fifteen hours ago to prepare for an 8:15am show time. Dawn gave me a ride to the airport before heading to school for her last day of work before Christmas vacation. Despite my best efforts in bidding and trip trading, I'd been unable to get Christmas off, so Dawn would be heading to her parents house in South Dakota after school tonight. I look out at a rapidly drifting snowbank by the taxiway and hope she stays safe on the lonely country roads west of Alexandria.

Our earlier roundtrip to Jacksonville passed smoothly and quickly. The winds aloft were unusually southerly, ensuring a fast return leg and signaling the size and strength of the approaching low. The subsequent three hours of unpaid "airport appreciation time" seemed longer than the six hours to and from JAX, particularly since our crew room has no sleeping facilities or even couches to rest on (our former chief pilot, when asked about this, reportedly replied that he didn't want crews fornicating in the crew room!). I'm definitely getting tired. I yawn, stretch, and look outside again to spy the A320 ahead of us creeping forward. I drop the parking brake and roll a few feel closer to the deice pad.

An hour later, we roar down a quite snow-covered 12L, reach V1 mercifully quickly - I'd rather not abort in these conditions - and bound into a night sky full of snowflakes whipping past our landing lights. It took an hour and a half to taxi out and deice for a thirty minute flight! Now there is plenty for me to do. As we pass through 18,000 feet, I complete the climb checklist, stow my Minneapolis charts and retrieve those for Madison, complete the flight release, and begin preparing for the approach into Madison. Over 100 miles out, I pick up the latest weather: a relatively high ceiling and three miles visibility, but a nasty gusting crosswind, an ugly mix of snow pellets and freezing drizzle, and worse yet, runway friction readings around .28 Mu. This is on the low side of "poor" braking action and approaching "nil," which we cannot land in. I check the weather at Green Bay, our alternate; it's still holding up, so I have an easy out if Madison gets any worse. As we begin our descent into Madison, I use Comm 2 to call the tower directly to inquire about the latest field conditions. They inform me that the runway is being plowed and sanded as we speak, and new and improved braking numbers are forthcoming. Sure enough, within a few minutes Madison Approach passes along friction readings around .40, still slick but a lot better than .28.

Descending through 5000 feet, we pass through a layer of warm air, and rain pelts our windshield. The massive low is sucking in warm, moist air from the gulf, which is resulting in sleet and freezing rain over a wide area around Chicago tonight. Another two thousand feet lower, we encounter colder air and the rain pings sharper against the fuselage and runs sluggishly up the windscreen before freezing on every unprotected spot. Freezing rain is the bane of every pilot; no aircraft, however well equipped, can withstand it for long. We request short vectors, the controller obliges, and soon we are bumping down the glideslope to Runway 36. It's a wild ride but Rob handles it well, making an textbook crosswind landing.

Upon touchdown, Rob uses full reverse thrust, as is normal procedure on a contaminated runway, but it seems to me like he's being awfully light on the brakes. Once I take control, I discover why; there is very little braking action to be had. However recently it was plowed, this runway is slick. I slow to a nearly complete halt before gingerly edging the tiller over for a careful turn off the runway. As we pull up to the gate, we are two hours late. The passengers are nonetheless unfailingly polite and grateful as they deplane.

I call the crew hotel for a pickup after putting the airplane to bed, only to learn that the company has not booked us rooms there. In fact, the receptionist informs me that the same thing happened last night and the crew stayed on the Captain's credit card - but that's not possible tonight, for they are fully booked. I call crew scheduling; the supervisor tells me he will contact our hotel booker right away and get right back to me. Fifteen minutes pass; I call crew scheduling back and get a voicemail message. Suddenly, the hotel van is there; we file out into the snow and the driver announces that he is picking up the NewCo crew. We get in, and we no sooner drive off than the driver gets a call from the front desk: it's a mistake, we're not coming to that hotel, we're supposed to be at their sister hotel across town. The driver gamely agrees to take us there, but we've barely left the airport property before crew scheduling finally calls back to say that the hotel booker swears up and down that we should have reservations at the first hotel but he is finding us a new place as we speak. Back to the airport we go.

The van has just disappeared when crew scheduling calls to reveal our new hotel: the one the driver had just been bringing us to! I wearily call the hotel directly to request pickup. Sorry, says the receptionist - we have no driver, we require a 24 hour notice for airport pickup. I sprint outside to see the very last of the taxi cabs departing with the last of our passengers. Another call to crew sked, another apology, another promise to get things fixed right away - and ten minutes later, rooms have magically opened up at the first hotel! What a goat rope.

It takes a while for the van to come back for us, and then it's a twenty minute drive to the hotel through deserted, slickened streets flanked by tall snowbanks. By the time I get in my room and wearily strip off my uniform, it's 11:30pm, and we've been on the ground an hour and a half. Having been on duty some fifteen hours, we are now on a reduced-rest overnight, a good portion of which was spent waiting for the hotel van. I wonder what tomorrow's passengers would think about their pilot landing in a snowstorm after five and a half hours sleep to recuperate from nineteen hours of wakefulness. It's perfectly legal - you can thank the spineless FAA and morally bankrupt airline management for that. At the end of the day, though, I'm the Captain, and if I feel too fatigued to fly safely, I won't. For exercising this discretion, I would face the very real possibility of being called into the chief pilot's office to explain what personal problems are preventing me from being properly rested for work. I collapse wearily into bed and try to calm myself enough to sleep. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve.

To Be Continued....

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

The Wild Coast, Part 2

Day Three.

Having "slept in" until 7:15 am, it was already light out when we woke up and began packing. I was happy to see that my fears about somebody stealing or harming the BMW during the night were apparently unfounded. After topping off the 4.4 gallon gas tank (a frequent chore, since that equals 175 miles range when fully loaded, 2-up) and taking a few wrong turns in finding an onramp to US-101, we were headed southward by 8:15. My original plan was to take US-101 to Salinas and then jump over to Monterey for the day's main course, Route 1 through the Big Sur area. Unlike the roads I'd been on further north, I knew this stretch of coastline fairly well, and was looking forward to riding it on motorbike for the first time. I wanted to have enough time to enjoy it without worrying about arriving at my destination after dark for the third straight night.

Alas, my curiosity and dislike of freeways teamed up to prompt me to abandon the plan in a snap decision. I saw the sign for Route 92 to Half Moon Bay and decided to take it, having flown into Half Moon Bay but never driven Route 1 between there and Monterey. It turned out to be a nice ride, not jaw-droppingly scenic like later portions of Route 1 but laid back and certainly a big improvement on stark freeway views. Riding without the benefit of chaps or riding boots, Dawn was grateful for a respite from the icy blast of morning air at 70 mph.

We stopped for donuts in Santa Cruz and gas in Carmel, and were off on the fabled road to Big Sur by 11am. Having been on this section of Route 1 a number of times, I recognized the landmarks, yet the road itself felt unfamiliar. I recalled it being slower, twistier, and in poorer condition. Another trick of memory, recent improvements, or the entirely different experience of riding it on two wheels? Before the road was the means of getting from one scenic splendor to the next, now a primary attraction in its own right. I found myself getting into the rhythm of the road again, and I could feel Dawn right there with me, leaning when I leaned, anticipating each move and bracing accordingly. The K100 has been noted for being a superior 2-up bike; I'd even say it handles better with the extra weight.

Around a left-hand bend, another panoramic vista unfolds; I roll on the throttle to accelerate into the straightaway, upshift, reaching 60 mph, ease off the throttle, pick my line into the upcoming series of curves - a sharp u-turn followed by a fast s-turn -- brake lightly, downshift, shift my weight to the right of the saddle and the right footpeg, right knee outward, left knee flush with the tank - lean hard now, feeling the G-forces press me down in the saddle, straining to keep my head up and eyes out around the curve, slowly bringing the throttle up. Hit it hard now out of the curve, snap from right edge to left and then back to the right, accelerating all the time, feeling the engine's stabilizing power and listening to the exhaust's animal-like howl echoing off the cliffsides. It's just as well that nobody can see the stupid grin that's permanently stuck on my face right now. There's a turnout just ahead where I remember taking photos on our first excursion up this road seven years ago; I pull over, stop the engine, and take off my helmet. I look back at Dawn, and my concern over her comfort level with this type of riding evaporates as she pulls off her helmet. She's wearing the same silly kid-in-a-candy-store grin I am.

And so it went. We picked up a pair of fellow tourers on KTM's with panniers, who we led through a long series of chicanes like the Pied Piper of Hamlin, each copying our every move. We pulled over to let a guy in a Porsche pass, and another on a sport bike. They both rocketed past and were soon out of sight. In reality we weren't going that fast, just fast enough to be a fun challenge on a 24-year old touring bike with full saddlebags and two adults. I tried to always give myself enough margin for safe braking if an unexpected obstacle should appear, as happened several times. Rough roads on the southern end of the scenic stretch slowed us considerably. Still, the eighty miles were over altogether too quickly. Dawn and I agreed that it was the highlight of the trip.

The sky had been almost clear in San Francisco but grew progressively cloudy south of Monterey. By San Simeon it was completely overcast, and a little blustery and cold as well. We rejoined US-101 in San Luis Obispo, and stayed on it until Oxnard. From previous experience I knew that the section of Route 1 from Pismo Beach to Las Cruces is neither coastal nor that scenic. I saw an In-N-Out at Santa Maria and had to stop; it's been a good two years since my last fix. The Double-Doubles and fries warmed us and cheered us up and we were underway soon thereafter.

After a few fast downhill sweepers through Gaviota Pass, we broke out into glorious sunshine as Highway 101 turned eastward along the coast. It felt a good ten degrees warmer on this side of the mountains. I got my first taste of SoCal freeway driving in five years on the long stretch through Santa Barbara, its suburbs, and into Ventura, and was more than happy to exit the freeway in Oxnard. By now the sun was setting in the western sky, covering the Santa Monica Mountains with the same beautiful golden hue that bathes all my favorite SoCal memories. From Oxnard it was a quick ten miles to our destination for the night on Route 1, here more popularly known as the Pacific Coast Highway. It was still twilight when we pulled into Point Mugu State Park, where we pitched our tent on the beach.

By the time we made camp, it was dark, windy, and cold. My flashlight had got turned on in the saddlebag at some point during the day and the batteries were dead; we not brought matches to light a campfire thanks to TSA carry-on restrictions; and while we were still full from In-N-Out, I felt such an excellent day deserved to be capped off with an adult beverage on the beach. So we hopped back on the bike, sans bags, and backtracked to Oxnard to gas up and buy the requisite supplies. A number of wrong turns and minor traffic incidents later, we returned to camp with batteries that turned out to be the wrong size, a BIC lighter that proved insufficient for the task of lighting a fire in windy conditions, and a bottle of wine that I thought was screw-topped but was actually corked. The last foible merited a chuckle because it's the exact mistake I made on the night I proposed to Dawn on a beach much like this one twenty miles down the road, and my solution in the absence of a corkscrew now was the same as it was then: push the cork into the bottle with a long screwdriver and pinch myself at my luck in finding a girl willing to swill corky wine from the bottle on a beach with me like a homeless wino. We finished the bottle together while shivering in our tent and drifted off to the crash of waves on the beach, feeling oddly at home.


Day Four.

The temperature got down to 45 degrees during the night. I regarded that as positively toasty and slept well; Dawn froze and slept very fitfully. We rose shortly after the sun and took our time breaking camp. I strolled down to the water to snap some photos of a gorgeous sunburst to the east. By pure chance, my little brother Steve's band was touring Southern California at the same time we were there, so we set up plans to meet in Huntington Beach for breakfast. Once we repacked the bags and loaded the bike, we headed toward Malibu on a familiar stretch of the PCH. Dawn and I used to drive it often when we lived in LA. I proposed to her one dark, rainy night seven years ago on a deserted strand of Topanga Beach east of Malibu.

All of our short visit to LA was like this: everything we saw seemed very familiar and imbued with memories, but in an oddly distant way, as when recalling brief fragments of half-submerged dreams. The effect was unsettling. Was it really so long ago we called this place home? No, only five years. We weren't here that long, though, and we knew it was likely temporary. I enjoyed living in LA well enough (Dawn wasn't so charitable in her assessment) but formed no lasting attachment to it as I did to Portland. Much has happened in our lives since then, and much has changed. LA has changed too - new buildings downtown, more construction on Palos Verdes despite fresh evidence that the whole works is slowly sliding into the ocean - and it is mostly empty of the friends we knew when we lived here. Their lives too, have moved beyond the sun-scorched mountains that hem this fantastic apparition of the plain, this ephemeral city of transients and transplants.

I had forgotten the vast scale of LA. We picked our way through the little beach communities we used to frequent - Manhattan, Hermosa, Redondo - and were in Torrance when my brother called from Huntington Beach. I said we'd be there in twenty minutes. Forty-five minutes later (including a long stretch blasting along the twelve-lane 405 freeway at 85 mph) we finally got to the end of Beach Boulevard, which was at least twice as long as I remember it. Brunch at Ruby's on the pier with Steve and the band - oh, those malts! - then off on some of our favorite drives, around Palos Verdes and up to the Griffith Park Observatory. We blew off our planned 3pm and 6pm flights for the long ride out to Ontario to watch Steve's band (Hyland) play and then the longer, faster, and colder ride back to LAX to catch the midnight redeye flight to Minneapolis. Incredibly, we put 300 miles on the bike in one day in LA.

I left my faithful mount under cover on the top floor of a parking garage at LAX, noting at the last minute a significant drip of brake fluid from the rear master cylinder. That will have to be attended to before my next leg to Dallas, tentatively planned for mid-January. The trip to diagnose and repair the brake problem will have to be squeezed into one of my two-day-off blocks before then, and if I'm lucky the fix will be quick-and-easy enough to allow for a run up Mount Wilson or Azusa Canyon Road.

Mileage Totals:
Day 1 - 260
Day 2 - 560
Day 3 - 430
Day 4 - 300
Total Leg - 1550
Total Trip - 4150
Remaining - 5950





Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Wild Coast

Day One.

The sea of waving green-and-yellow cartop flags gave way immediately as soon as I turned off traffic-choked I-5, replaced by a few orange and black flags until I got to Corvalis - then, no flags, and indeed few cars at all. The road narrowed as it plunged all at once into the thick tangle of green that marked the beginning of the coast range. At only 2 pm, it was already growing dark under the evergreen overcast. No matter: it was a relief to be out of heavy traffic after 90 straight miles of it. I had unwittingly begun the third leg of my round-the-country adventure on the same day as the Civil War, the annual matchup between the Oregon Ducks and the Oregon State Beavers that is the sporting event of the year in NFL-less Oregon. In response, I decided to cut over to the coast 40 miles short of Eugene, my original turnoff point.

Route 34 was in truth no faster than the interstate - appreciably slower, in fact - but I'll take a tangle of tightly wound hairpin turns as a time-consuming obstacle over a horde of SUVs piloted in mass formation by distracted sports fans any day. The pavement was smooth, dry, and without leaves or gravel; I quickly settled into the rhythm of the twisting road, right and left, up and down.... my freeway-induced stiffness melted away as my right hand teased the bike faster and I began shifting my weight across the saddle as I took more aggressive lines and carved the turns steeper. At some point, I no longer thought about which lines to take or turn entry and exit speeds, no longer concentrated on the intricate dance of my hands and feet on the controls...I simply saw and did, acting instinctively, the bike a mere extension of my body. This is not so different from the best sort of flying. To coordinate effortlessly, simply willing the machine wherever you wish, intoxicated by the rush of speed, feeling exhilaration in the artistic perfection of a perfectly banked turn...these are familiar pleasures indeed. The road, of course, is the fundamental and defining difference, its constant reassuring presence as sacrosanct to motorcyclists as freedom from its boundaries is revered by aviators. As one artist revels in embracing unconventional and limitless means of expression, another finds pleasure in working creatively within the boundaries of chosen limitations.

Soon enough I was at Oregon's coastline, a wild and broken stretch that would be lonely and isolated by the Coast Range if not for Highway 101, on which I now turned south. I was hoping to make Bandon, some 100 miles to the south, but the sun was now low in the sky. I couldn't resist the beautiful late-afternoon light and stopped to take pictures a number of times. At Heceta Head, I pulled over at a turnout to photograph the iconic lighthouse, and heard the distinct barking of sea lions as soon as I turned off the motor. Sure enough, a large colony was gathered in the cove below, audible over the surf from a good half-mile away.

It was nighttime by the time I stopped for gas and dinner in Coos Bay, making for a pitch-black ride for the last twenty miles through the forest to Bandon. I'm not experienced at night riding, and it puts me at ill ease. I imagine animals and other obstacles that aren't there and tend to initially lean into turns far too aggressively, fearing they are tighter than they actually are. I was relieved to soon reach Bullard's Beach State Park, where I made camp for the night. It was still fairly early, but in the absence of anything better to do I quickly settled in for a long, cold, mostly sleepless night listening to the surf crash ashore.






Day Two.

I was fitfully dozing when my wristwatch alarm went off at 5:30am, and rose with strange dreams still replaying in my mind. It was cold so I put on my full riding gear right away before breaking camp. The first two miles into Bandon were quite numbing, making for an early decision to stop for a cup of coffee. By the time I left, the sky was turning light. An hour later, the rising sun warmed my face and again bathed the coastline in beautiful light that begged me to pull over and take photos.

I reached the California border and Crescent City before 10am, and simply crossing into the Golden State seemed to warm the air several degrees. Redwood trees lined the road, filling the air with their wonderful scent. South of Crescent City the highway turned away from the coast, narrowed, and entered Redwood National Forest. Needing to arrive in San Fransisco that night, I couldn't afford to stop, but the ride alone was a glorious introduction. Each turn brought another gasp-inducing view. The late-morning sun filtered down through the massive trunks in bright shafts; while the comparison to the interior of a cathedral is overused, it is inevitable as I know no better description of the look and feel of the place. There was no other traffic other than a guy on a Harley who followed me and appeared to be having an equally wonderful time. In the south of the park, the views opened up as the road widened to four lanes and turned downhill towards the sea. I opened up the throttle, leaving my friend on the Harley behind as I cruised down a beautiful set of sweeping turns at 70, 80, 90 mph.

Just north of Arcata the views became suddenly familiar again. When I flew for Horizon, I had frequent Arcata/Eureka layovers. The layover hotel, the pizza joint, Lost Coast Brewery where I had enjoyed many a handcrafted brew... I kept an eye out around the old haunts, hoping in vain to spy one of my Horizon friends enjoying an overnight in Eureka. Not seeing any, I continued onward.

South of Eureka, Highway 101 becomes a four-lane freeway, the form it retains most of the way to Los Angeles. While a good road in its own right, it does bypass virtually all coastline along the way, so I was planning on taking California's justly famous Route 1 the rest of the way to LA. It doesn't begin until Leggett, some 90 miles south of Eureka. Because the intervening coastline is left undisturbed by roads or many other human touches, it is an especially wild and lonely place known as the Lost Coast. It is, I suppose, an example of how isolated the entire rugged west coast would be had the coastal highways not been constructed in the short period after civil engineering had progressed enough to make such roads possible but before environmentalism made it unfashionable to blast your way through untrammeled wilderness.

Perhaps I was enjoying the fast sweepers of Highway 101's Lost Coast bypass too much, because I somehow missed Leggett and the turnoff for Route 1. I didn't realize it until about 20 miles later. By now it was late enough in the day that my only hope of reaching San Francisco before dark was to continue on Highway 101 and bypass the rest of the northern California coastline. Otherwise, I could cut back over to the coast at Willits, and plan on riding the last hour or two in the dark. I glumly decided that scenery took precedence over timeliness and turned west on Route 20.

Boy, was I glad I did. What a road! It started out straight enough, then snarled into a series of tight, climbing switchbacks. After a fair climb, it leveled out and traversed the slopes with unending hairpin turns. As it reached the west side of the range, the trees thinned and the road straightened somewhat to allow for fast, open ridgeline sweepers. As it neared the coast, it again plunged downward with hairpins and switchbacks, finally ending 35 glorious miles at the small town of Fort Bragg.

Now I had high hopes of making up some time, for I had traveled this stretch of Route 1 in 2004 and recalled it being somewhat straight, flat, and fast. Actually, a large portion of it is straight and flat, but it is not fast because those straight and flat sections are broken up by innumerable little gullies that the engineers did not bridge for whichever reason, but built several slow, tight switchbacks down and up each side instead. It might have proven a fun road in another circumstance, but having already sliced my way through countless turns this day, and with my light fading fast, it was merely obnoxious and tiring. Around Fort Ross, the road became downright rugged as it again hugged the crumbling, heaving coastline. By now it was nearly pitch dark, heavy opposite-direction traffic was blinding me, and the road was not well marked with reflectors. I felt like I was groping my way through a maze marked not by walls but sheer cliffs. Once I hit an unseen pothole in the middle of a turn and my rear wheel began sliding out from under me. I yelped, eased off the throttle as I stood up, and then gingerly leaned back into the turn to return to my lane before an oncoming car hit me. I rode on over the crumbling road with shaking knees.

At Bodega Bay I stopped briefly to call Dawn, who was at MSP waiting for her flight to San Francisco. I was dead tired, cranky, and getting cold again in the night air, but Dawn's voice helped calm my nerves. I hadn't eaten a thing since Crescent City, which certainly wasn't helping matters although I didn't feel hungry. The first twenty miles outside of Bodega Bay were easy country roads, not at all unpleasant for night riding. The next thirty miles to Stinson Beach were slow and curvy, but were pleasant enough riding along Tomales Bay and through dense strands of Douglas Fir and Eucalyptus trees. After Stinson Beach, though, the road got steep, snarly, and pockmarked as it climbed over the Muir Hills. Worse, I soon climbed into a dense fog bank. It fogged my face shield and then my glasses, and even when I removed both I couldn't see enough to creep forward at more than 10 to 15 mph. It was a constant balancing act: just fast enough to stay upright on the bike, but slow enough to not unwittingly drive off a cliff. I lost all sense of position, direction, or time, putting all concentration into negotiating the next twenty feet of road at a time. Several times I reached what I thought was the crest, only to resume the climb after a short level stretch. Finally, past a full parking lot that obviously doubled as a Lover's Lane, the road finally began its downward stretch. I was out of the fog mercifully soon, the road surface improved quickly, and the switchbacks weren't so tight on this side. Soon after rejoining civilization I was rocketing along Highway 101 at a suddenly-blazing 65 mph (and getting passed by all comers!). Across the timeless Golden Gate Bridge, through the cheerful streets of downtown San Francisco, and back onto the freeway to SFO, where I checked into a cheap-and-seedy Travelodge.

My destination finally reached at 9pm, exhaustion and hunger overtook me. I had been riding for 14 hours and had covered 560 twisting miles; while far short of my record thus far (920 miles), this was far more tiring. After a long hot shower and a breakfast-supper at IHOP, I collapsed into bed for a 30 minute nap before Dawn called me to say she was on the ground at SFO. After a short, cold ride to pick her up at the airport, we went to bed to the sound of revelers outside, and I hoped my bike would still be parked there and unmolested when we woke up to resume the ride to Los Angeles.


(To be Continued in Part Two)

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

A New Adventure

Well, I'm not sure this blog has been so much neglected as it's been abandoned. A month is the longest I've gone without posting since I started it back in 2005. It hasn't been for lack of time: now that the summer is over and things are settling back down, I've been attending to such pressing matters as catching up on my reading. It hasn't been for a lack of subject matter: while nothing earth-shattering has happened on the line, there have been little incidents here and there that, at the time, I thought might make for a good blog posting. I can't say I'm suffering from writer's block because I've been making decent headway on my other project (although I won't come even close to making the goal I set last New Year's Day).

The problem, I think, is that I've lapsed into a sort of inertia where my flying life is concerned. With eighteen months in the left seat, I'm getting comfortably settled into Captainhood. The JungleBus hasn't been holding any major surprises. I'm still learning things all the time, but they tend to be small tips and tricks that make the job go smoother, no big revelations that make for interesting stories. Except for the occasional trip through Atlanta, I'm intimately familiar with the routes I've been flying. With little movement at my airline, I've even grown used to flying with the same group of FOs in my seniority bracket. I'm still enjoying my job, but it's an enjoyment more akin to sinking into your favorite couch to watch a favorite movie you've seen ten times already, as opposed to the sort that goes with strapping on boots and a pack and heading down an unexplored trail into the wilderness. I'm content with my job - just placidly, quietly content to coast along.

This isn't to say I'm bored with life right now, simply that most of my adventures as of late have taken place here on terra firma. I'm blessed with a wife who shares my hereditary wanderlust, and we've had a great year of traveling. We took major trips to Greece, Norway, and Italy this year, with shorter forays to Mexico and London. Of course, the more we see and do, the longer our list of "must-go" places grows. We're already planning 2010's Spring Break trip to go backpacking in Patagonia, and lately we've been getting a strong hankering for an Africa trip, too.

Motorcycling, too, has provided a lot of enjoyment this year. Last October, I bought a 1985 BMW K100RS, which I rode from Colorado to Minnesota before storing it for the winter. After retrieving it from storage this spring, I rode around Minnesota and Wisconsin for a few months before putting on a new set of tires and heading out west. I rode 1800 miles to Portland over three days; my longest day, from Wheaton MN to Three Forks MT, set my new one-day record of 920 miles. Over our anniversary, Dawn and I took the bike on a 800 mile trip through Washington's Olympic Mountains and San Juan Islands with our friends Brad and Amber. We'd been meaning to visit both places when we lived in Washington, and never did until now.

On the way back into Portland, the BMW developed an internal transmission problem that's common to the type. The shift selector shaft has a grub screw that tends to back out if its not secured with loctite, causing excessive shift lever play and, eventually, transmission failure once the screw drops into the gears. It's a simple fix once the transmission is off the bike and taken apart, but that's no easy task. The bike sat at the Portland airport for a few months until I had the time off to fly out, tear out the transmission, take it to a local mechanic for overhaul, and reinstall it. Twelve hours of labor and a few hundred dollars later, I have a 24-year old bike that shifts as smoothly as the day it was born. By the time I got it back together, it was too late in the season to bring the bike back to Minnesota via the northern route. I considered leaving it in Portland for the winter and riding back next spring. Then I came up with a better plan:


View 2009-2010 Round Robin in a larger map

I'm going to continue riding the bike throughout the winter and spring, completing a 8500 mile circumnavigation of the United States in seven legs, including the two I've already done. When I'm done with work tomorrow, I'm flying to Portland, and from there riding to Los Angeles via the Coast Highway. Later legs include LA-Dallas in January, Dallas-Atlanta in March, Atlanta-Cape Cod via the Blue Ridge Parkway in April, and Cape Cod-Minneapolis in May to have the bike back in MN as riding season gets underway. Dawn is joining me in San Francisco on Friday night and may ride along for portions of later legs, and my good friend Brad is planning on doing the Atlanta-Cape Cod-Minneapolis portion with me. In between legs I'll leave the bike stashed with friends, in storage, or at motorcycle-friendly airports.

I've already been on a good portion of the roads I'll be riding out west, but most of the southern states and east coast will be relatively new territory for me - at least from the groundbound perspective. The Appalachians, for example, I cross and crisscross on a weekly basis, yet I haven't driven through them since I was seven. Three of the four states I've never been to are in New England (the other is Alaska, a truly appalling omission). As I prepare to start this trip, I'm excited in a way that flying has not excited me in a long time.

No, I'm not abandoning the blog as I take off on my new adventure. I'll even keep writing about airline flying when I have good material - hopefully more than once a month! But you may have to bear with me for a few months as it also becomes a motorcycle, photography, and wanderlust blog.

To start off, here are a few pictures from the previously mentioned trip to the Olympics and San Juans.

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