Thursday, January 25, 2007

Redwood Reverie

If you’re ever feeling uninspired or busy-brained, go sit in solitude in an old growth redwood grove. That's kinda tough to do if you’re anywhere but Northern California/Southern Oregon, but it would probably be worth the money to make the trip out, even if you’re from Miami and it’s just for a day.

I set out for the Newton B Drury scenic drive on the ol’ Mongoose this morning, and after some serious quad burn along the patchy paved/graveled coastal road where I was passed by one car and passed one person, I found that the six-mile scenic drive was closed to cars. I couldn’t have scripted it any better to enter my first experience with these enormous trees by flying down an empty two-laner. It’s a good thing there weren’t any cars on the road because I kept wobbling over the center line, preoccupied with tilting my head back as far as it would go, my eyes chasing the enormous trunks into the blue sky. I’ve ridden better with a stomach full of moonshine, but I didn’t care. At the bottom of the grade, I pulled over and read a plaque with a Steinbeck quote. It was about how the redwoods make the most irreverent men humble with awe. I had to laugh, because I think these trees might also have the opposite effect on humble folk, turning the most reverent person into a child. Just minutes earlier, I was pedaling with my arms raised, flying past 10, 12, 14-foot trunks, cheering for these beautiful ancients like they were some of the last ones on Earth. Oh … yeah …

I made it to the extravagantly-named Big Tree. You have to give it to the pioneers, they didn’t mess around with any fancy stuff. Putting dimensions on this tree doesn’t do the experience justice, but at 21-feet wide, the trunk takes longer to walk around than some apartments I've called home. And it’s as tall as a football field turned on end. I tried to take Big Tree's photograph from base to tip, but didn’t have a lens with a wide enough angle. And it’s around 1,500 years old, born when King Arthur was fighting the Saxons, the Chinese were constructing the Great Wall, and the tribes of this area were living in the shade of the giants, catching salmon, hunting game and generally doing a better job of managing their environment over thousands of years than the civilizations that replaced them would do in 200.

I heard laughing as a couple came down the trail, and I realized the Ever Living Trees were having the same effect on them. They were both smiles when they stepped into the clearing. “Is this the bi— . Holy … I guess this is the big tree!” That was from the guy, who must have been in his thirties. Big Tree subtracted twenty years from him too. “THAT is a big tree. No, that’s a biiig tree.”

Nope, he didn’t say “fantastically lofty tower of bark and branch” or “woody fortress of insane proportions.” I guess the simple name fits. After hiking the rhododendron trail and the Cathedral Trees trail, I noticed the second major effect this trees had on me: Calm.

Inner peace.

Outer peace, too. I felt no need to rush or head back to camp. They’d taken their time getting that big, maybe there’s a lesson in that.

So tomorrow, at my own leisurely pace, it’s on to Jedediah State Park to witness more of the glory.

Friday, January 12, 2007

If You’re Parking In San Francisco…

I really hope that San Francisco doesn’t float off into the Pacific, because it’s an amazing city that was kind to the bioTrekker. Well, other than finding parking. The streets were actually wider than most of Portland’s, but a free parking space is a mythical creature there, like trolls or Republicans. There was no way I was going to chance too much city driving in the hills or triangle-shaped intersections, so after a brief stay at a campground across from Candlestick Park (I’m calling it that forever, I don’t care how many companies plaster their logos on it), I headed back to the East Bay to enjoy a wide asphalt swath in front of a local “mom and pop” general goods store by the name of Target. The Targets weren’t around (it’s pronounced Tarshay, I think they’re French), but the store manager informed me that, yes, as long as it was only for a night or two, I was welcome to bask in the sunshine on their paved paradise. So after a few nights there, I scooted over to a space next to a vacant corner lot in Berkeley. Sure, the lot was fenced and topped with enough razor wire to ward off a legion of Trojan footsoldiers, but maybe the property owner had buried some gold ingots in there. My only concern was that the resident street artists who had done such a lovely job on the buildings would whip up a free “Biodizzle My Nizzle” mural on the outside of the coach. I like to be able to pay for that sort of thing.

There is a place to park oversized vehicles on the Embarcadero, but it’s $30 a day … for pavement. No hookups. No sewer station. No affable Chinese manager who tells you that the best restaurant nearby is called the Clam Shack. But for the last night, I splurged and parked my tourist attraction on Pier 30, right in the shadow of the Bay Bridge. It was almost worth it, just for the view. I never imagined I’d find parking in downtown San Francisco on a pier, three feet from the bay, although at one point, a tugboat was heading straight for me. I thought maybe I’d be torpedoed or asked to move, but instead, the tugboat docked next to a van. A guy got off the tugboat, gave a package to the guy in the van, got back on the tugboat and tugboated off. I would’ve taken a picture, but I was afraid that I might have just witnessed a Russian Mafia weapons exchange.

Algae Scientists Cage Match

Yesterday was my last day in San Francisco, and I spent it well. Hiked to the top of Buena Vista Park with some friends and got a little random mandolin serenade from a guy on a park bench. Then, for evening entertainment, I went to learn about algae at a very cool community media center on Valencia Street. Like a lot of biodiesel enthusiasts, I’ve heard about algae’s potential as a feedstock. If it lives up to its promise, algae could possibly do for biodiesel what seed crops can’t: lift it to a place where it could replace consumption of petroleum diesel. But that day is not today, and I’ve been jonesing to hear more about this from someone who has actually worked with the stuff. In other words, a real, live scienteest. Like manna from heaven, that scienteest was delivered in the form of Jonathan Meuser, a graduate student at the University of Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colorado.

I’ll write a lot more about everything we learned from John in a more formal capacity on the biotrekker site, but for now, I’d just like to give some fun general impressions. When I first learned about the whole algae thing, I had to chuckle. I imagined thin, pale men and women with glasses, all dressed in white. I pictured them slaving away in the poorly lit basements of universities and colleges, sallow-eyed and scorned by their parents and peers for their choice of career paths.

“What’s it going to be, son? Doctor … lawyer … engineer?”

“No dad, I’m going to be a scientist.”

“Why, that’s great, Eugene! Chemical weapons and pharmaceuticals are biiiig business these days.”

“No dad, actually, I’m going to study algae.”

There would probably be a lot of silence at that point. It must be a little like telling people that you’re majoring in Byzantine Poetry.

And there would probably be a lot of taunting.

“How’s the snot-studying going, Eugene?”
“It’s algae. It’s not snot.”
“Ooooh, snot snot? Huh Huh Huh. Did you hear that Dirk? Snot snot?”

That’s not to mention the nicknames: Algae Boy, Spirogyra Freak … you know how teenagers can be.

But then…

One day, you figure out that it’s possible to turn algae into one of the fastest growing alternative fuels, and if you can crack the code and get the Dirks of the world to pass legislation funding your projects, you will not only make more money than your lawyer father, you will literally save humanity from itself. Who’s the snot studier now?

At least, that was my fantasy, so you’ll forgive me if I was a little disappointed that Jon turned out to be a casually cool California native with a healthy complexion who could play the charming resident role on one of the many prime time hospital shows. He is skinny, though.

Still, there were two points that evening where my dreams came true. The first happened when Jon put up an energy efficiency graph, comparing the efficiency of petroleum fuel and ethanol. The point of the chart was to show that a lot of energy goes into the extraction, production and transport of petroleum, and regardless of how inefficient it is, the companies doing it will simply charge the consumer as much as they need in order to cover those costs. I think that was the point anyway. To be honest, I never figured the chart out. I’ve tried to be a chart guy, but it doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m pretty sure I was the only person there who still counts on fingers. But one of the gents near the front was a chart guy.

He said, “That’s a bullshit argument.”

Jon thought he was talking about the argument for petroleum.

The guy near the front said, “No, I mean your argument, that’s not true.”

In the science world, that’s like getting pimp-slapped by a raving methadone freak. The room was tense, but after a thirty-minute discussion of the chart, with talks of MIT studies and Bayezian analyses, they came to some form of agreement. It was the equivalent of a bare-knuckle cage match. Jon said that he encouraged people to have a critical look at all the information being discussed. That was the pile driver that allowed us to move on.

In the second round of mind-blowing discussion, Jon put up a slide of several multi-colored blobs, photos of algae under a microscope. He asked if anyone knew what types of algae were being displayed. I again felt like a two-bit hack when several folks in the audience rattled off names that ended in coccum or something similar. During the algae discussion, something like a Jeopardy lightning round happened. Jon and another fellow had a back and forth about lateral gene transfer that Alek Trebek couldn’t have explained to me with an entire deck of cue cards. Just before I began pondering whether Flash Gordon could beat Superman in a foot race, I heard, “The way they think chloroplasts evolved is that it was a bacteria that was able to photosynthesize and some type of eukaryote engulfed it and kept it.”

For future articles, I will do my best to have John explain details like this to me on my own level of science comprehension, which is somewhere around fourth grade. Then, I’ll translate for any fourth graders who might be reading. But to sum things up, and prepare you for future articles, I’d just like to say this: I joke about it, but by the end of the night, there was the prevailing sense that everyone there was on the same team. I came away feeling that it was a room full of people who are changing the world in a positive way. And if we can get the Dirks in government to help them out, we’ll all be a lot better off.

Blinding Generosity on the BART

A few nights ago, I was hitting the midnight Bay Area Rapid Transit train back to Berkeley. I had my bike and my backpack, fully loaded with my laptop and my camera. All told, about $2,500 worth of equipment, not to mention about two months worth of writing and photos that I haven’t backed up. I’d told myself repeatedly to be very careful with that bag.

The train I was on didn’t go to my station at North Berkeley, so I prepared myself to transfer as we pulled into the first station. I rolled out of the car and used my bike to scoot across the platform to the other train, and then down a few cars to one that wasn’t so crowded. I got into position, when a Latino guy with a Fedora style hat (who is now my new personal Lord and Savior) came into the train, out of breath, to tell me I’d forgotten my bag on the other train. After losing control of my bladder, I scooted out of the car I was in and back across the platform. Instead of leaving my bike in the middle, I hauled it with me through every car, pulling open the ridiculously difficult doors between each one and barely noticing the curious onlookers. The hat-wearing gentleman was behind me, guiding me to the next car and encouraging me that I could make it. I made it. My bag was miraculously still there. I grabbed it and rolled off the train. I wish I could have kissed the feet of that generous man, but all I could do was catch his eye for a moment and mumble, “You saved me.”

I don’t know how he followed me on foot so quickly. I even made it back across to the other train in time. It seemed like the trains stayed there, perched at their respective platforms for much longer than they usually do. So one of three things happened: either time stood still, I moved at the speed of light, or that short, well-dressed fellow was actually the One Omnipotent Being (or OOB) in human form, able to manipulate both BART drivers at the same time. Whoever he was, I love him.

So after severely scolding myself with a, “don’t you ever do that to me again, do you understand?” I quickly made a promise to The OOB that I would go buy the fattest Christmas Turkey I could find and give it to the next Tiny Tim I saw.

So, I’d like to testify: There are good people still left in the world. Thank Jehova for that. Halelujah and Amen.

Street Talk, Installment One

Street Talk will be a regular feature on the blog. It’s basically just a feature where I’m going to report, word-for-word, a random sampling of the things I overhear on the street in each place. I think it gives a good idea of the local flavor.

PARENTAL ADVISORY: Things are going to get a little gritty and foul-mouthed in the Street Talk section, so if you’re sensitive to gritty and foul-mouthed people, don’t read it (but how can you resist the temptation?) If you’re a kid, don’t repeat anything you read here around your parents until they start cursing around you. If you’re a teacher whose class is following along, I’m sorry. I don’t make the street talk, I just report it. Maybe you can do the cyber version of earmuffs with this entry?

San Francisco Street Talk
Scruffy looking man, maybe sixty, wobbling around a bit, approaches a group standing outside a movie theater on Haight Street. Makes fart sounds with his mouth. Guy in the group makes fart sounds back to him.

Scruffy guy: Hey, don’t steal my lines.
Guy in group: (laughs)
Scruffy guy: I’m like George Carlin on coffee. (Wobbles and makes more fart sounds) Wanna hear a joke?
Guy in group: Okay.
Scruffy guy: Why don’t you wear a skirt in San Francisco?
Guy in group: I don’t know.
Scruffy guy: Because your balls will show.

Two girls in tight jeans and huge sunglasses walking through the panhandle of Golden Gate Park, past the crowd of drummers and park sitters. Someone in the crowd yells: Wow! Haaaappy New Year! Young kid, late teens or early twenties, passes them at the same time. Spins around and starts talking as he walks backward, and says: No, Happy New Year to ME. Where are you ladies rolling in from? The girls laugh and keep on walking.

Olive skinned bald guy holding a book, screaming at the top of his lungs in Chinatown to the crowds passing by, most of them crossing the street and ignoring him: Ain’t no Buddha! Ain’t no Mohammed! It’s the Holy Bible! The Holy Bible!

Fashionable tennis players in Golden Gate Park. Mid to late thirties. Late morning. New Year’s day. Tennis player one: Do you hear them playing drums over there on Hippy Hill?
Tennis player two: Yeah, are they there a lot?
Tennis player one: Yeah. All the time. I’ll have to take Judy over there some time, she’d get a kick out of it.
Tennis player two: It’s pretty cool.
Tennis player one: I feel like I’ve stepped into a time warp. It’s like the summer of love all over again.

Guy, maybe forty, laying on a dirty blanket on the sidewalk on Filmore street, yelling: Don’t you people know how much fucking pain I’m in?

Kid in a group of three, maybe early twenties, wearing a baseball hat and “cool” clothes. Says while talking to his friend: If I don’t get laid, I get angry.

A blond lady with a scarf and retro clothes, maybe late twenties, walking down the street with a to go box, one guy on either side of her. One guy carries a roll of wrapping paper.
Lady: I got it heeeere man, and it’s mine, and it’s beeeeautiful.
First guy: But where exactly did you get it?
Lady: I got it heeeere.
Second guy: Yeah, but where’d you get it, off the back of a truck?

A guy on the bus, wearing a long sleeved t-shirt under a short sleeved t-shirt, a wallet chain and a five o clock shadow. Talking on his cell phone: Do you know how to spell marijuana, okay? It’s T-Y-L-E-R, okay. That’s me.

First Steps

It’s been a month and a half, and this wee campaign is still in its infancy, but we managed to toddle our way to sunny California after some tentative crawling around the moss-padded safety of northern Oregon. So the first real step of this journey was one of 620 miles, from Portland to Vacaville, California, just north of San Francisco. That’s a pretty good stride for a newborn. Of course, there were some initial incidents involving trees and awnings and ladders, but it takes some scrapes to get a feel for your dimensions, and it’s only going to take a few stitches to patch up.

The rideshare experience was a good one, and it’s something I’d advocate to all RVers who are open to other people and aren’t in a huge rush. There were five of us, plus bags, and we had room for more, but it was good to stretch out. We were supposed to have eight, but a no-show and two last-minute bail outs turned out to be a blessing because we ended up crashing in a parking lot and there was just enough room for everyone to sleep without anyone on the floor.

So Colleen, Mike and Kris started out as strangers when we picked them up on Friday afternoon, but by the time we all piled out into the morning sunshine on Saturday, we had made some friends. You do a little bonding when it’s two in the morning and three cups of coffee and 500 miles have pulled down your emotional walls. Plus, splitting the fuel cost turned a $200 expense into a $50 expense. That’s $30 cheaper than a greyhound bus ticket, even though you miss out on the experience of sleeping in an upright fetal position while having your seat repeatedly kicked by a hyperactive ten-year-old. Mike said the bioTrekker ride reminded him of the Green Tortoise bus rides of the sixties, only without the Grateful Dead music, pillows on the floor and smoke billowing from the windows. Colleen said it took the “creepy” out of Craigslist. Kris was nice enough to stay up and help the driver stay awake and look for a truck stop or rest area during the last few miles.

We made the trip from Eugene to Vacaville on one tank of biodiesel, and even passed up the opportunity to fill up at biofuels stations in Medford. There are no biodiesel fueling stations right now on the I-5 corridor between Ashland and Sacramento, which isn’t an issue if you have a large enough fuel tank to cover the 330 miles.

Still, the biodiesel scene in Northern California is impressive at first glance, especially in the communities surrounding San Francisco and along the coastal corridor north to Eureka. It’s exciting to have the opportunity to really explore it in depth, and synchronicity brought a great host. Christopher Murphy, who is the president of the SOCOBIO biodiesel co-operative in Santa Clara, happened to see the bus on the freeway and gave us a call on New Year’s day to help out with some biodiesel-related information. I’ll be talking with Chris a lot more to get a better feel for all the latest NorCal happenings with biofuels and sustainability.