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My first backpacking trip

It took less than five minutes for the sweat to soak through the back of my shirt. Less than a hundred yards before I ran out of breath. More than an hour to finish the first mile. And yet, somehow, I lugged thirty pounds of backpacking gear up and down a mountain. Those were probably the most excruciating twelve miles of my life.

Two weekends ago, my friends and I drove to Yosemite for some much needed time away from the city. We arrived late Friday evening and “stealthily” set up our tent on somebody else’s campgrounds. That’s when we realized that we were woefully ill prepared for the frigid night.

I woke up the next morning to numb toes. We drove to our trailhead, stopping by Tenaya lake to admire the beautiful backdrop of mountains rising above the water. By the time we started hiking, it was close to noon and the morning chill had dissipated, replaced by a steady heat that radiated from the surrounding soil and rock.

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We made our way north from Tioga Road towards Ten Lakes. During the first two miles, we couldn’t go more than a hundred yards without calling breaks. When we finally hit the switchbacks, it took everything I had just to put one foot in front of the other.

But there would be moments–and they would be so sweet, and oh so rewarding–when the beauty of the mountains would be too loud to ignore. When you become keenly aware of the smallness of your being, and your heart wants to be swallowed by the vastness of it all. And it is those moments when you forget about the thoughts in your head, the ache in your legs, and the path ahead or behind of you; because what you have beheld is too overwhelming for words, and too overpowering in its glory.

It could be the sight of mountains beyond mountains.
The way the sunlight illuminates the bark of the trees.
Or the towering cliffs of granite that speak of eons long gone.
The way the butterflies dance in the meadows.
And even that one lone tree, stripped bare, standing defiantly against the rocky slopes.

Surely, there was no other place that I’d rather be. Than here, in the midst of Your peace and beauty.

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As we were descending the other side of the mountain that we had just painfully climbed, we could see four of the lakes that make up Ten Lakes. I really wish that we had the time to explore all ten, but we stayed at the first one. I could not have been more glad to finally kick off my shoes and dip my feet into the water.

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I wasn’t really planning on swimming in the lake, but I guess I had to do it after all the sweat and tears I shed to get there. I definitely didn’t regret it.

 

First time in Yosemite, June 2012

These are photos from a trip last year that I had been meaning to post up. I forget where I took these pictures, but words and names don’t really matter. They speak for themselves.

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Mt. Diablo

This weekend I had high hopes of catching a glimpse of the Orionid Meteor Shower at Mt. Diablo. I imagined streaks of light flying through the night sky, maybe even flashes of red or blue. At least, that’s what Vicky led me and D– to believe would happen. We set off late Saturday afternoon and made it just in time to catch the sun gently set behind the rolling hills. The tall blades of dried yellow grass waved in the breeze around us. From another peak, we could see thick fog roll in from the bay in the horizon, filling the valleys and troughs until all you could see were the dark peaks of hilltops that managed to stay above the haze. They looked like floating mountains on a sea of white.

We set up camp and hunkered down next to the fire pit, waiting for the spectacular stargazing experience. Meanwhile, we distracted ourselves with Phase 10 and s’mores-making. I’ve learned that when you’ve spent 10 minutes patiently toasting your marshmallow to perfect gooeyness, it’s a damn near tragedy when it falls off the end of your stick before you could catch it between your graham crackers.

Midnight rolled around, and somehow Vicky roped me into climbing the hill beside our campsite to see if we could see Orion on the other side. Between the three of us, we had one headlamp, one rapidly dying flashlight, and one iphone. The lack of light wouldn’t have been so bad if the slope wasn’t so steep. And frankly, I am terrified of climbing down steep downward grades–memories of bad biking accidents relived. To my relief, the path plateaued nicely and we were rewarded with the most beautiful night view of the bay area.

Did you know that the moon can set too? It was a crescent of soft red light, hovering low above the horizon. Beneath us, the city lights flickered soundlessly, ceaselessly. Just like the multitude of stars above us. We laid down on the path and watched the sky, mesmerized by the thousands of celestial bodies turning and traveling through space. Burning bright in the eons before and the eons to come. When you look up into the stars, you see eternity marching onward even as we are caught up in our light and momentary troubles.

Unfortunately, I only saw one shooting star that night. We thought we could sleep until the hour before dawn for better visibility. But the next morning saw a cloud-filled sky and gone were our hopes. Still, everything else more than made up for it.

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Frog’s Leap Winery in Napa

After spending one very cold night on Mt. Diablo, we drove to Napa to enjoy wine and warm sunshine. We went to Frog’s Leap, an organic winery that also has cheerful vegetable patches and thriving flower gardens. I think I enjoyed admiring their grounds more than the actual wine itself, which was also delicious.

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They had cornhole set up on the lawn for guests to play. It’s harder than it looks, especially when your’re motor functions are enhanced by wine.

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We also made a short visit to Mumm Napa for some champagne. I didn’t quite enjoy that place as much as Frog’s Leap. I will definitely have to go back next time I’m in Napa.

Most Adorable Kitten in the World

Also, on our way to Mt. Diablo, we stopped by a free cat adoption at a pet store. That is where I found the most adorable kitten in the world. Seriously, I don’t think I’m a cat person. But I was quite taken by this little charmer’s bright blue eyes. They really stand out against her/his snowy white fur. Ah, kitten! If only my landlord allowed pets, all the memories we could have had!

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A few weekends ago, my friends and I piled into the car and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to enjoy some sunshine and oysters. Sunshine, we did not get. But we definitely got our fill of squishy mollusks at Tomales Bay Oyster Company. It was the first time that any of us had attempted to shuck our own seafood. Armed with two pairs of gloves and two shucking knives, we turned to face a bag of fifty tight-lipped fresh oysters that needed to be opened, grilled, and consumed within the hour. I dug my knife into one but only managed to chip the shell after some fierce twisting. Fortunately, we learned that oysters laid on a hot grill will automatically pop open once they’ve cooked. Thank God, because there was no way we were going to open 50 raw oysters by ourselves and still have all our fingers intact.

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Mm, so large and salty! I ate mine with some lime juice and a touch of tabasco, but maybe we’ll bring some custom sauces next time.

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I never cracked mine open, so I don’t have my own “victory pose.” At least somebody did.

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Like a pro.

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We went for a short hike and watched the coastline slowly appear as the fog rolled down the slopes.

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Hey! That’s a funny-looking eucalyptus.

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I asked this at the beginning of our Big Basin hike this past Saturday.  To which the usual response is: If nobody is around to hear it, then does it still make a sound?  Surrounded by towering redwood trees, we chuckled at the cuteness of this cliche philosophical question (or at least I did).  But little did we know that later in the afternoon, while walking through the peaceful sun-dappled forest, we would actually hear the sound of a tree falling.

At first, we mistook the popping and crackling for somebody firing a BB gun; but when we caught a glimpse of falling branches, we knew without a doubt that we had just been graced with one of nature’s little secrets. This alone would have been the highlight of the trip, but the hike turned out to be even more spectacular than I expected.

Not that the forest isn’t amazing as it already is.  There was so much to enjoy.  I smelled the earthy fragrance of damp dirt, touched the chips of deep mahogany redwood bark, peered into the dark interior of enormous, hollowed tree trunks, and studied the growing mushrooms emerging from the sides of fallen giants.  Most amusing of all were these brightly colored banana slugs, hanging out under the shade in between the moss and lichen.  It’s hard to miss their moist and glistening bodies.  And there were literally tens and tens of these mucous-y, detritus-munching fellows all along our hike.  I was almost afraid I’d step on one by accident; although, Juan and I did secretly wondered if smushed slugs were yellow inside as well.

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Ferns made up most of the undergrowth.  Their leaves curled up in the drier parts, unfurling only in the shade or by the banks of the creek.  I like looking underneath the leaves for the hundreds of tiny brown spores that were no doubt releasing copious amounts of pollen, flying through the air and into my nose to stimulate the release of copious amounts of snot.

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Juan found a large black centipede with bright yellow spots.  Insects are cool in a grotesque “ew, I can’t believe it’s alive” kind of way.

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I don’t like spiders, but I love admiring their beautifully spun, symmetrical webs.  How do they know exactly how to spin their webs in precise, geometric shapes?

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I don’t have pictures of this, but while we were passing by a creek, we saw salamanders mating with each other under the rocky crevices.  A yellow one.  And a black one.  We saw their limbs and bodies intertwined with each other while they tumbled with the current.  That was the second highlight.

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You can’t tell from this picture, but the rocks underneath the running water are stained rusty orange.  If you pick up a pebble from the pool, your fingers catch some of that color.  Clay deposits?

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And finally, the third highlight of the hike was when we came across a baby snake on our path.  I guess none of us thought it was poisonous given its cute size, but we also did not look very closely.  Vicky picked it up while I snapped pictures of it.  Only then did she notice its tail rattling against her hand.

We realized that she had just picked up a rattlesnake.

Whaaat?  Mind blown.  The next ten minutes basically saw Juan and I stupidly chanting,”Vicky, you’re our hero.” Of course, it was exciting only because she came out of this alive and bite-free.  I don’t know what Juan and I would have done if she had gotten bit, especially since we were still at least four miles from the park headquarters.  But overall, I’m really glad we spent the day away from the city.  It’s not everyday you get to 1) hear a tree fall, 2) watch salamanders get it on, 3) and watch your friend, unknowingly, pick up a deadly snake.

Yesterday, my classmates and I went trekking through the woods on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County.  After a tedious take home exam last weekend, it was refreshing to get out of the city.  There was clear skies, crisp air, and nature to be had.  After a few detours, we finally found the trail head near Alpine Lake and began our epic 7 mile hike.  I don’t know if we intended to do the entire 7 miles, maybe four, but somehow got roped into completing the entire loop by our youthful enthusiasm.  Only when my thighs started burning did I start to think that we were just a tad bit over ambitious, and by that time, it was too late to turn back.

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There were “waterfalls” on the first leg of the journey.  Unfortunately, I don’t have pictures of them.  No tripod and not enough light under the trees.  Slightly underwhelming since I expected more rushing water, but that might have to do with our relatively dry winter this year.  Still, it was nice to see a babbling brook, moss covered rocks, and fallen trees.  We scrambled over lumpy tree roots and steep steps, and found a small clearing to enjoy our lunch.

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Once we reached the top, we were greeted with spectacular views and wonderful sunshine.  The hillside was covered with dry, pale yellow grass with patches of faded green that hinted of past lushness.  We looked out over the wide landscape of rolling hills studded with dark evergreen trees and felt the wind pushing and flattening the growth around our feet.

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The troopers.

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We continued on the High Marsh Trail which took us through more heavily wooded areas and gnarly bushes.  If we had started the trail two hours earlier, we probably could have enjoyed the scenery more.  But since we only had two hours before dusk, we were on a brisk pace with no time to spare for the camera.  Much of it was spent looking at the ground, trying not to slip and fall off the edge of the narrow path.  Occasionally, we were passed by trail joggers who made us feel bad for complaining about the steep inclines and tricky footing.

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Finally, after four hours of exhausting muscle work we finally made it back to our car.  Bed and shower has never felt this good.  Oh beautiful California wilderness, until next time.

Napa in December feels like autumn.  The fields are a blend of rich, warm colors–red brown from the bare vines, and underneath the branches, a sea of bright yellow flowers and green grass.  When the late afternoon sun hits the fields, everything seems to glow.

Originally, we had planned to ride a tandem bike through the vineyards and stop at various wineries en route.  Not only would it be romantic, but I figured it’d be safer for me, knowing my terrible track record with biking.  But my hopes were dashed when we mounted the tandem and realized that our legs couldn’t touch the ground, our feet dangling ridiculously as we struggled to rotate the pedals.  So we traded the tandem in for individual bikes and hoped for the best as we made our way on the Silverado trail.

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It was a easy ride once I stopped thinking about flying off my bike.  I loved the clicking sound of the wheels as we sped down the road, the chilly breeze numbing my bare knuckles and filling my unzipped jacket.  The fields stretched out from us in both directions, ending in dry, brown hills studded with shrubbery in the distance.  The flatness was broken by occasional vineyard fans that look like tiny wind mills meant to prevent frost by stirring up the cold air from the ground.  We zipped by the rows of vines, stopping to admire farmhouses, victorian mansions, and even a large winery that looked like a giant fort.  For the first time in years, I actually enjoyed myself on a bike.

We visited three wineries.  At Napa Valley Company, we were intimidated by the uncomfortable silence and the absence of other visitors.  We spoke in hushed tones like intruders trespassing on a private party while one of the staff poured our drinks without making much of an effort to engage us in conversation.  Maybe that colored our perception of the wine, but we decided that it wasn’t worth purchasing and promptly left.  At Mondavi, we found bigger crowds–which isn’t necessarily better–but better wine and a lighter atmosphere.  We tasted my favorite Moscato dessert wine, which manages to be sweet without being cloying.  At Silver Oak, we tried some heavy and thick cabernet sauvignons, the strong scents of which filled our nostrils, leaving behind a feeling of rawness on our tongues after each sip.

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We didn’t have time to visit smaller wineries.  Instead, we decided to ride back to the rental shop, pedaling hard so that we can return our bikes before the shopkeeper left.  The sun set behind the hills and the air seemed to drop 10 degrees.  My thighs were burning as I strained to keep up with Juan.  I imagined that I was flying as we passed by more vines, cows, fences, and mailboxes.  We made it back just in time, and when we walked back to our car, my sore butt let me know that it felt every rock and bump on the road.  I can’t wait to go back next time to experience what biking in Napa would be like in a different season.

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It’s not a good sign when you find yourself absentmindedly staring at the computer for twenty minutes and realizing that all you’ve done is click back and forth between gmail and NYtimes.  Bleakly, I shuffle the half a dozen articles strewn across my desk, left open on the page where I lost interest and skipped to another one.  “I’ll come back and finish them later” is what I told myself a week ago.  And if you look at my planner, I’ve written the same thing on my daily to-do list—everyday—for the past two weeks.  Most notably, “morning run” has been carried over for almost a month, and I have yet to hit the pavement and kiss the morning sun. 

Even baking has turned its back on me.  After investing a bunch of eggs, a pack of basil, and half a jug of milk, I have nothing to show except curdled custard and deflated dreams of creamy, delicious ice cream.  Determined to get something right for the week, I attempted Lemon Raspberry Bars, which turned out aesthetically mediocre and gustatorily disgusting.  At this point, I just gave up—both in the kitchen and at work.  I could not wake up in the morning without groaning, shove my way through the crowded train without mentally cursing, and sit at my lab bench without sighing.  Come the weekend, I promised myself, I would turn a new leaf.  I would bounce back with renewed rigor.  The weekend would be spent in a blaze of glorious productivity that would compensate for my lack thereof during the week. 

                    

Who am I kidding?  I probably would’ve lounged around all Saturday, beat myself up for being lazy, and do the same thing on Sunday.  At the end of it, I’d be neither relaxed nor productive.  Thank goodness I was going white water rafting in Maine.  It’s not the Caribbeans or fancy shmancy Europe, but the trip was a godsend. 

I had my misgivings about the trip.  Not only because I held out some hope that I would be productive if I just sat myself down at my desk, but I’m also not the type to chase after thrills.  I imagined my small body being thrown into the merciless waters, my head slammed against the rocks on the river bottom.  But at this point, I rather face potential death by rocks than endure a stinking hot weekend in Cambridge. 

                    

Our group headed out onto the Kennebec mid-morning on a dreary, cold day.  The water was a deep grayish green that was warm to the touch despite the chilliness of the air.  Tall evergreens lined both banks of the river; so dense was the foliage that you felt like there was nothing else besides you and this river.  I stared at the them, hoping to see moose antlers poking through the leaves.  With my chest strapped to a smelly life vest and feet stuffed as far as they could go into the foot holes, I braced myself for impact.     

I was completely drenched in the first few minutes.  Three to five foot waves crashed into our raft and toppled over the sides.  I tried to shy away from the oncoming deluge, but found it much more exhilarating to watch the tall peaks and deep troughs of foamy, white water rise up and fall around us.  I loved it.  Once we sailed out of the rough patch, I couldn’t wait to go through the next set of rapids.  But even the calm waters held a magic of their own.  Drifting lazily down the river, its surface broken by ripples and gentle waves, I was at peace.  An occasional bubbly spot marked the places where the current hit hidden rocks. 

                     

The sun finally broke through the clouds when we came back to our cabins.  I grabbed my camera and went for a walk.  The surrounding countryside was so quaint and rustic that my pictures really don’t do it justice.  They’re probably better than what I could put into words anyway. 

                     

                     

                     

                     

                     

                     

                     

                     

It’s been a week since I’ve been back, and life’s so good.  Not that everything is perfect—most of my experiments didn’t work and my cherry clafoutis was a bust—but I could find joy in the things that I do.  Sometimes when you stop trying to control your life, every little blip doesn’t seem so dramatic anymore.  Like when you’re riding on a raft, buffeted by the waves, realizing that there is nothing you can do except to ride it out.  It leaves you with a peace that comes with knowing that there is something out there bigger than you. 

Attempt #2 at making Basil Ice Cream was a semi-success!  This time I used a double-boiler to heat the milk and eggs to prevent curdling.  If you’re one of those people like me who hate mint flavored ice cream, then I’m certain you’d love basil.  Most people tend to associate its strong, bold taste with savory Thai dishes; but in ice cream, it becomes something rather delicate and refreshing.  The only thing I wish I had done differently was to let it churn for longer in the machine; otherwise, it would’ve been perfect.  But you know, I’m cool with that. 

                    

Basil Ice Cream from 17 and Baking