The ramblings of a working, knitting, writing wife and mother.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Day I Hiked Mount Wilson

So every now and again, I get these ideas. Epic ideas. Ideas that will take a whole lot of determination and dedication if I’m going to accomplish them. I do it often. Like, hey, why don’t I knit this crazy intricate shawl in one month? Or oooh, wouldn’t it be great if I stayed up all night and watched every single movie that Miyazaki ever made? My current personal favorite is that whole dumb thing where I signed up to run a 5k. (Who let me do that?)
Now these epic ideas are usually set up for me to fail. If you add up the total run time for all those movies, it would take more than a single night to watch them. Even if I put in three knitting hours a day (a true luxury), the shawl would not be complete in my allotted days. You see? I set myself up for failure. All The Time. It’s like a disease.
Seven weeks ago, my husband took my children to Idaho, and stayed there. I’ve been without them for days and days, and I knew what would happen. Suddenly given all the time in the world, I would wander aimlessly around my house thinking gleefully that I could do whatever I wanted . . . but then come up short on what that actually was, and suddenly it would be time for them to come home again and I would have done nothing. I cannot waste an opportunity like this!

So I made a spreadsheet. It’s a thing of beauty, all categorized into columns with spiffy labels like “Housework,” “Exercise,” “Crafting,” and my favorite, “Social activities.” I made a spreadsheet that would require me to not be a hermit reveling in my solitude. See that? I’m a planner, though an incredibly ambitious one. There’s more stuff on that spreadsheet than I could ever finish in seven weeks, and now that I am days away from getting my family back, I’m slowly letting the unfinished stuff go. I had a good run; I did a whole bunch of stuff on that spreadsheet and then a little extra that I didn’t plan for.

One of the spreadsheet items was to go on a hike every Saturday as part of this new idea I have of not being obese anymore (so sick of that, but at least that plan doesn’t seem to be failing). My first week, I went up the Mount Wilson trail to Orchard Camp and couldn’t have been happier with myself, until it dawned on me that before my hiking time ran out, I wanted to get to the top of Mount Wilson.

And there we go again. Doomed to FAIL.

I am not a strong hiker, nor a fast one. The Sierra Madre Search and Rescue team requires its initiates to get to Orchard Camp in 90 minutes wearing a 40-pound pack as they go. My first time, with less than five pounds, it took me 180 minutes (yeah, DOUBLE). Now the hike to Orchard Camp is brutal, no mistake, but I was being passed by people RUNNING up it. Like, they do it for fun. Running.

I started obsessing about getting to the top. What was up there? I’d heard there was an awesome telescope or two, a hot dog stand, and a view to die for. I had to see it. I had to do it, and I had to get up there before my family came home, because when Ducky is here, he’s the one who gets to run up mountains while I take care of children.

For the next few weeks, I continued doing yoga. I started training for the 5k. I hiked, many times to Orchard Camp, and just couldn’t get any further. Once you hit the ruins at the camp there is a sign with an arrow pointing to the trail that would take you to the top. That trail is Straight UP, and every single time, I would look at it, get a kink in my neck, start to get a little dizzy, and finally I would tap the sign (that’s what the cool kids do, I saw them), and make my way back. Not enough water. Not enough energy. Not enough time. Just . . .no.

But Mount Wilson is HUGE, and the trail through Orchard Camp isn’t the only one that will get you up there. So I planned another tactic, here on my last day, my last chance. I was ready to fail, really, but I wanted to see what the trail up there would be like if I started on the other side.

I woke up this morning later than I’d like. I always plan to be on the trail by seven in the morning, but that’s actually when I woke up. I carefully filled my water bottles that I was bringing with me, 1.5 liters worth. I packed 500 calories worth of Clif energy bars (I hear you. Ugh, Karin, those taste like cardboard. Yes, they do, but you’re eating them wrong. Scramble up 3.5 miles of steepness before you open one. After that, I assure you, they taste like heaven). I laced up my boots and smeared on some sunscreen. I put my phone in my pocket just so I’d have some sort of clock (no service where I was headed), and forgot my ID and my credit card.

Chantry Flats is twenty minutes north of my house. I drove the windy road, sang some songs, tried to make peace that this was my last hike, and I should enjoy it and not stress over where I go or how far or high. As I got closer, I passed bicycles manned by those poor souls who are bigger masochists than I am slogging up the hill. I passed those other poor souls who weren’t there early and had to park alongside the mountain since the spaces in the actual lot are usually full before seven. I’m extremely fortunate. I have Ducky’s truck with a yellow sticker in the back, which means I can move this orange cone and park in the ranger lot. Useful. 

I park and stick a mint in my mouth; it’s a special mint, smaller than a watch battery. It will take about three hours to dissolve, and I love them for hikes. They keep your mouth wet; they make your water taste colder than it actually is, and they help you avoid getting a ball of mud at the back of your throat from panting up all that dust. Great mints. I lock the truck, clip on my daypack, and start down the trail.

Along with half the population of the state who also thought it would be a great idea to go on a hike for Labor Day. There are the usual groups. The really buff guy with his girlfriend who absolutely did not wear the right shoes. The Asians in their groups of three (two men, one woman, and she always has bandanas all over her head and face). The young couple who brought their tiny dog, which the man is carrying. The large group of teenagers, and that one guy who is so extreme that he not only is running down the trail wearing nothing but shorts – he’s doing it with a punching sack thrown over his shoulder (I’m not kidding.)

I queue up with them, and we make our way down Cardiac Hill. Normally, I do the loop the other way and come up, so this is sort of new. It’s steep. Very, very steep, and goes on forever. It is not lost on me that in order to hike up this mountain, first I have to march a quarter mile DOWN into a canyon. Oh well. Things even out after the bridge at Robert’s Camp, and then the ascent begins. Gently. There’s a wide trail and lots of shady canopy. There are cabins, really quaint little places where no one lives. One of them is named for Tom Bombadil and I find that so charming that I want to hop over the fence and knock, just in case.

Most of the multitude is headed toward Sturtevant Waterfall, an easy, family-friendly hike. Not me, though. I pull off at the Mount Wilson turn off, noticing immediately that I have a problem. There’s an upper trail and a lower trail up the mountain, one going left and the other going right. Fortunately, there’s a gatekeeper – who was actually just some random hiker who happened to be resting at the junction. He looked the sort that had probably been on at least one of the trails before, so I asked him which one he’d recommend.

“They’re the same distance,” he said immediately, which I had already gathered from the sign. But then he went on to say that the lower trail had more shade, and that’s all I really needed to hear. I thanked him and headed right. Or I should say UP in a right-ish direction. The trail went alongside the Sturtevant one, just higher, and I may or may not have hummed Loch Lomond as I went along (You know? You take the high road and I’ll take the low road? I mean, why wouldn’t you? It’s practically required.) Before too long, I found myself standing at the top of the falls, or what’s left of the falls since we’re very, very much in a drought. The falls are more of a trickle, mossy, sad, with so many people standing in the few inches of water at the bottom.

The trail there is difficult, rocky, narrow. Super narrow. Like “why don’t they have a rope to hold onto here” kind of narrow. Imagine yourself on a skyscraper, outside on the window ledge, except the window ledge is rock and it slopes outward. That’s the trail right here over the falls. I crept over it very carefully as I had no desire to ruin everyone’s day by falling to my death (can you imagine!).

The rocks continued, but the narrowness didn’t. Which is a very good thing because as I made my way into the beautiful shady area where the upper pools feed the waterfall, a helicopter came by. The search and rescue helicopter. I heard it coming, very close. I wondered what it was doing there, but then I saw what it was doing to the landscape. All the debris on the sides of that trail lifted up, pulled into the copter’s wake and coming right at me. My husband has spoken of this, how the wind from the blades will fling everything around, but I’d never experienced it before. I put my back to the gale and hugged the rock, feeling the back of my neck and legs get pelted with stray leaves and sticks. The helicopter flew off, and I started again, headed the opposite way. Another hiker came down a few minutes later wondering what had happened. I just pointed at the helicopter and went on my way, wanting to be somewhere else should it make another pass.

Things got a little boring after that (because I know you were just so captivated before). There were no more people. The trail kept going up. I hit a sign indicating that Spruce Grove was a mile and a quarter further on. I tried to remember if I’d seen that in my research of where I was going (I’m terribly ambitious, but I’m not ridiculous. I may fail often, and I still may have to turn back, but not because I don’t know where I’m going). No more horses were allowed on the trail after that sign. More steepness.

I took a water break and let a family pass me. Four of them. All of them beautiful, tanned creatures with muscular legs and trekking poles. I most certainly did not want them behind me. They marched past, talking, laughing, not even breathing hard. I panted against a tree for another minute until I couldn’t see them anymore before continuing up.

A few minutes later, I passed a father and his young son coming down. They both had large backpacks, and it was clear that they were on their way home from a father / son camping trip at Spruce Grove. The dad asked me where I was going.

“Mount Wilson,” I answered promptly, innocently. He sized me up and down and got this look on his face.

“Yeah?” He said, incredulously, and I wanted to smack him. “Well, uh, that’s . . .” he looked behind him at the steep trail ahead of me. “Quite a ways in.”

“I’ve got all day,” I said, moving around them. “And no one will care if I have to turn around.”

“That’s probably what will happen,” he said, also moving on. It made me furious. I know what he saw when he looked me up and down. A frumpy overweight mother of two in a really, really large white T-shirt, a dorky hip pack, and a sloppy pony-tail. I know what I look like. If I make it or don’t, what’s it to you? This is my body. I LIVE IN IT. I know what it can do, and when I push it some, most of the time I’m surprised what it’s capable of. And I take offence when men who are older and heavier than I am decide to judge my ability to hike. I may not be fast. I may not be strong. But I decide if I can or can’t, when I give up, if I’m going to give up. There is no need for you to comment.

I was so angry about it that I almost made it all the way to Spruce Grove campsite on just rage. Might have done it too, if the helicopter hadn’t come back. By this time, I figured that they were searching for someone who had probably failed to return the previous evening. I wasn’t on a ledge, thank goodness. I was standing in a wide space full of trees. The copter came down close, so incredibly close I could see the man hanging out the side looking. I turned away from him and tried to radiate that I was not the droid they were looking for. They gained some altitude and passed on, and I braced myself for what they were trailing behind them.

The WIND! The NOISE! Pulling at my clothes, ripping at my hair, dirt trying to get into my eyes even though they were tightly closed and I pushed my sunglasses against my face. Then something rammed me in the shoulder and took me to my knees. I cowered, waiting for it to be over.

Things settled, leaving behind this strange delicious scent, which I guess is what it smells like when you rip a bunch of leaves off the trees all at once. I stood up and turned to orient myself in the direction I was supposed to be going. At my feet, right there at my feet, was an enormous branch, ripped off its tree by the helicopter. That’s what had clipped my shoulder; that’s what brought me to the ground.

I hit the ground again, on my knees, putting my hands on the branch. It was so big. Right There. The jagged, broken edge had just barely clipped my shoulder on the way down. It didn’t even hurt anymore. If I’d been one more step up, it would have fallen right on my head.

You bet I prayed. You don’t get your life saved like that and not say thank you. Nor do you get up again without extending an invitation that, since something divine came to be with you in that moment, why not stick around? Enjoy the scenery from under the trees?

I passed through Spruce Grove, where there were many campers in untouched tents. No disastrous windstorm for them. I kept my head down and marched through, coming to another sign not too far after.

This! This sign. This is where I made my mistake. I had a choice. Go left 2.75 miles to reach Hoegees Camp or go straight up for 3 miles for Mount Wilson. Well. It was practically the same, you know, except for that elevation thing.  If I had taken the left trail, I would have hiked across the mountain pretty much back to where I’d started.

But I didn’t. I went up into a surreal spot of the trail. You could see the trail, little yellow brick road as it were, winding up through all these trees. Usually the trail has mountain on one side and a drop off on the other. This had slopes, sort of, and rocks, and a lot of open ground. So open; it was weird. And it was steep. I started taking smaller steps, mountaineering steps. I panted. My mint was gone. Step, breathe, step, try to gather some spit together so you can swallow, step, swallow? Nope, step. My left ear got blocked with the gunk that was building up in the back of my throat. Step again. Why didn’t I bring another mint? Because the one thing I was certain would drive me absolutely nuts while hiking would be to hear those mints rattling around in the bottle the whole way. I know; there are about a million ways to get around that particular problem, but the one I chose had deprived me of mints for two thirds of the hike. It just wasn’t my day for good choices.

I pulled to the side of the trail because over the sound of my own pulse, I could also hear someone behind me, and from the sounds of it, they were moving faster than I was. Much to my surprise, it was the Gazelle family AGAIN. I’m not sure where I passed them, but it must have happened. They weren’t talking and laughing anymore. The mother, tiny little thing, was actually panting too. I felt a little better that it wasn’t just hard for me. They passed, plus one more guy I hadn’t seen before, and I was back to being my only company. Well, me and the squirrels.

The squirrels are gorgeous, did I mention? They are a bluish silvery grey with the fluffiest tails ever. They make the squirrels at Caltech look like scrawny little rats. This open spot was their playground, chattering, chasing. One of the games seemed to be how close they could get to me before freaking out and running up the nearest tree. I had a lot of time to watch them, what with my progress being So Slow. I stopped a few times, thinking back to what I had read of the trail. The last mile or so is horrible, I remembered reading. But the switchbacks really help.

Switchbacks. Switchbacks? I looked behind me. I looked ahead of me. I wasn’t near any switchbacks. That meant I wasn’t even close. I thought of going back to that sign, the one for Hoegees, but my water supply stopped me.

It’s like when we would go snowmobiling to Flag Ranch in Idaho. First, you call ahead to make sure the gas station is open. If it is, you can go. But there is a point on the trail where you cannot turn around, because you will run out of fuel before you make it back to your vehicle, and that would be very, very bad. After you hit this point, you have to continue in order to put gas in that snowmobile. Then you can return. That’s where I was with my water. I knew at the top I could refill my bottles. I knew I wouldn’t have much fun heading back with what I had left. It was only upward for me.

I’d probably gone back and forth on a few switchbacks before I realized what they were. Hey, didn’t I just make a turn a little bit ago? Yeah, there’s the trail under me, oh, but ahead of me, where did the trail go? Ah, there, up and around – oh wait – Switchbacks! Horaay!

I hated them about three more turns in. I tried to think of other things, but you actually kind of need to concentrate. The open bit was behind me – it was back to mountain on one side and incredibly steep drop off on the other. Up and turn, up and turn the other way, one more turn, oh look a lizard.

Lizards are plentiful on these trails. You don’t really see them until you’re right on top of them, and then they freak you out by skittering away from under your boots. Some of them get to be quite large (by large, I mean, six inches long or so without the tail). I love when they try to run away from me by running the direction I’m going. It takes them so long to veer off, and I like to watch them.

I couldn’t see much of this lizard, except that it was big and strange. I paused to look at it, on the side of the trail, wondering why it looked like that, not like the other lizards.

Then it made a noise. You know the one. Not the hissing noise that geckos make sometimes. This was more of a rattle. Yeah. I think my heart sort of stopped about then.

I started backing down the trail as slowly and smoothly as possible. The rattlesnake went quiet, and then did me the extreme honor of coming out into the open, draping all three feet of itself across the trail. It was beautiful, but I couldn’t really appreciate it until later. While I watched it, very still, hands at my chest, tears running down my face (yes, I cried, shut up), all I could really think about was how very, very far away I was from anything, and how terribly long it had been since I had seen another human.

Fortunately, the snake had zero interest in me once I was out of its red zone. It slipped across the trail, so quiet, moving so well it was like someone was pulling it across on a string, keeping its rattle tail up as it went. I watched it go, waiting until it was far enough off the trail that I could put some distance between us.

The adrenaline from that encounter had me flying up the next five or so switchbacks like I was running across a parking lot. Too bad they weren’t the last five. I found one last sign indicating I had 1.4 miles left to the top, and I laughed. 1.4 miles? Ha! That’s nothing!

Let’s just say that the last 1.4 miles to the summit of Mt. Wilson are every bit of something. I think 80% of the elevation gain of the trail happens in that last 1.4 miles. I had to stop, frequently, but I did notice that it was sunnier up here. That while the trees I was walking past still towered over me, nothing was towering over them. Then I walked out into a patch of sun and the view became clear, spreading out and down in overwhelming majesty. (Yes, majesty. It was breathtaking. Literally, I had to sit down again. That view made me dizzy and just shy of hyperventilation.) There were other peaks, but they weren’t above me. Below, so so far below, I could see the Santa Anita racetrack. The freeway. For a girl raised at sea level, it’s really something to find yourself that high (it’s sort of weird to be surprised, I mean, I had been climbing upwards for, like, four hours straight). I stared with my mouth open until the height started making me sick. I tucked my attention back on the trail, remembering that there’s probably a very good reason I’m only five foot five and why on earth had I wanted to come up here anyway?

More switchbacks and rests later, I finally staggered to the summit. Where I was promptly disappointed. It was a parking lot. A huge tangled mess of radio antennas and cables and towers. There was a tiny museum, and two large observatories labeled 100-inch telescope and 60-inch telescope. I did not go in to look at them. I limped instead to the most attractive thing I could find – a water fountain. Two little girls beat me there, getting themselves a drink. Their parents, little brother, and an old woman I assume was their grandmother followed them. They went over the bridge to look at the telescope while I filled my bottles.

More people came – old people, dressed nicely, carrying huge cameras. Tiny people in summer dresses with lovely ribbons in their hair, running over the bridge because when you are three that bridge is big time fun. Old Asian men who should really be using a cane but for whatever reason they choose not to, walking the way they do, tiny little steps, hands behind their back, slightly hunched over. No one had a pack. No one was covered in helicopter dirt.  Obviously no one I saw had hiked up here.

I went a little further, breaking eye contact with anyone I found staring at me (everybody). Up ahead there was a café with even more little families out for the holiday, drinking iced tea, eating hot dogs and cherry pie with ice cream. I meandered around, looking at the map because I did not want to go back down the way I’d come, but I wasn’t quite sure where the other trailhead was. Little dogs came to sniff my boots as their owners pulled them away from me. Two very stately gentlemen eyed me up and down, and I wanted to jump up on one of the picnic tables and yell at them all that I had NOT driven up here. I had CLIMBED. There was a rattlesnake! There was a tree branch! Stop looking at me like that – I earned my place.  

I refrained. Instead I meandered to the parking lot, where the trailhead was supposed to be. I could not find it, and I wasted so much time just going around and around, getting frustrated, passing people, pacing around the lot. Finally, three teenage boys took pity on me.

“Ma’am,” one of them said, and they circled me. “Did you lose your car? Where’d you park? The other lot, maybe?” I bet I looked pretty wild when I met his eyes; he actually took a step back.

“I parked my car at Chantry Flats,” I said, not snappishly, but rather on the firm side. I swept my hand toward the south. “Seven miles down the mountain.” That made them all sort of straighten, their eyes getting big.

“Damn, lady,” one of them muttered.

“I’m looking for the Mount Wilson trailhead; do any of you know where that is?” They didn’t. I thanked them and paced some more.

Thing is, I could see it; the trail. Well, I could see where it went meandering off into the distance, but I could not see how I was supposed to (safely) get on it. There were some safety cones and big “do not enter” signs where I thought the most likely place was, and after way too many passes back and forth at that spot, I mentally squared my shoulders and headed that way. Basically, I got down on my stomach and dropped onto the trail. And then, then I started down.

For the first long while, I worried. This bit is where most people get lost, and honestly, I did not have the energy to do something like that. But I was going down, so at least that was good. The trail widened into more of a road, forking sometimes with no sign to indicate which fork would be the one I wanted. It took me a while, but I eventually realized that these forks weren’t really forks. They were also switchbacks, but for whatever reason, enough people had cut down them a different way (shortcuts) as to make it seem as though there were two paths.

I went alone, but at least I had full water bottles. There were tons of rocks; I could hear an eagle crying somewhere. It was disorienting. Before I got properly afraid, I stumbled on a sign that was almost too old to make out. Chantry Flats, it said, via Upper Winter Creek trail, 5.5 miles with an arrow pointing down. I said another little thank you prayer.

Of all the muscles in your legs, fourteen are dedicated to helping you move up a hill or stairs. Fourteen muscles so you can compete with gravity and move away from the earth. So how many do you think help you come down?


The next two and a half miles were a startling sort of agony. I descended along another switchbacked trail so much steeper than the first one. The turns were less than twenty feet apart. I counted. I moved back into the shade, but I noticed that the light was hazy, the kind that filters through the trees and leaves little dust spotlights all over. I was losing the light. I tried to guess what time it was, but it did me little good. I had a finite number of steps left, and I needed to get them behind me before dark. I had not brought a flashlight, or really about seven of the ten essential things that you are supposed to bring with you on a hike (pocketknife, flint and steel, first aid kit, whistle, some ID to identify the broken remains of my body, none of that – worst boy scout ever!).  I hadn’t thought of it, honestly, because I had never been on a hike this long.

Along the sides of the trail, poison oak covered practically everything. At least it had the decency to be already dressed for autumn in gorgeous shades of reddish pink. It made finding resting spots difficult, though. By this point, I was just moving without thinking, sort of like how you drive sometimes and suddenly you’re there and you can’t really remember getting there? I’d tune out, then stumble and wake myself back up. I leaned against the trees. I paused at the corners of the switchbacks to curl around myself, hands pushing against my knees. At one point, I just flat out flopped down in the middle of the trail – why not? It wasn’t like anyone was coming. It wasn’t like I was going to be in the way.

I passed only one other soul during this time, a man about my age, with ginger hair in a ponytail and a beard; he was running up as I was limping down. I made a fuss over him. “Wow, another person!”

“Little sparse up there?” He asked.

“Post-apocalyptic kind of solitude, so be very careful.” We passed each other, but then he called down to me.

“HEY! Are you all right? Do you need any food? I have some.”

I thanked him, but I still had one Clif bar in my bag; I was definitely not hungry, and I was only halfway through my water. The only problem with me was the distance still left to the bottom. He went on, and, because I had no other choice, so did I.

The trees grew closer together; the switchbacks lengthened, evened out a bit. I saw little buildings with private property signs stuck to their sides. I started to hope. At last I hit the junction I was looking for – the one that meant that I was definitely not lost, that I had been going the right way this whole time. The junction for Hoegees camp. I could go right to Hoegees and then head back up Cardiac Hill, or I could go left on the Upper Winter Creek trail and end up right next to my truck. 3 miles.

I stood at the junction and turned a full circle, just wishing there was someone there who I could celebrate with. I Knew Where I WAS! I’d been here before! This is a hike I’ve already done, more than once.

The thought of going up Cardiac Hill made me sort of throw up in my mouth a little bit, so I opted for winter creek. The incline was much more gentle, even though it was farther. I had to go up hill a bit, but after all the down, it felt better (for a little while). But at this point, really, nothing felt good. I could feel the grit from the helicopter dust caked in my neck, itchy and irritating. My ankles were going to break any step; I was certain, and I sort of wished that I had wrapped my knees. My shoulder ached where the tree branch hit it, as did my lower back. I stopped so many times, wishing that I had someone hiking with me, someone stronger than me, like my husband. Someone who could shift my focus onto something other than how there were still three miles left to go.

I was still far from it when I could finally see the parking lot. There were two fire trucks there, and I saw the bright orange search and rescue van heading back down to the station. For one tiny second, I really hoped that someone had come looking for me. Not that I really needed it, but after being alone that long, not quite sure if you’re even headed in the right direction, it would have been nice to know that someone was looking. (They weren’t.)

But just seeing it, being close enough to hear the fire trucks’ engines running, hearing someone’s dog barking, was good enough. I don’t know how I did it, but I definitely picked up my pace. I zipped around the corners of the mountain until, at last, I hit the road. Three more corners, past the picnic area, past the trash cans, past the orange cone, and into my truck. I slammed on the air conditioner and took a long drink from one of my bottles.

And then, after I stopped moving, after I knew that I was done moving, that’s when the pain really hit. If all the nerves in my legs were violin strings, it would be as though someone were grabbing them all at once, pulling them as much as they could, and then letting them go to jangle in horrid screeches. Over and over and over. I curled up on the seat until it had died down enough so I thought I wouldn’t be a danger if I drove.

Twenty minutes to my house, and I sobbed the whole way. Because it hurt. Because that was such a long, long hike (15 miles!). It took nine hours. Here I’d finally done it. I made a big, ambitious plan and followed through. I proved that dad walking out of Spruce Grove with his son wrong about my abilities. But I wasn’t crying because I was proud of myself. I was crying because that was so stupid! It was too far; and I shouldn’t have gone without at least one other person. I shouldn’t have gone at all! I should have stayed home and scrubbed my bathroom, mowed my lawn. Knit a sock.

I came home to a quiet house. No one’s home. I posted that I’d made it back safe, but that’s just not enough. So I wrote this because it was an adventure. I really thought I’d feel more triumphant if I managed to accomplish this. But no. I’m just limping around, sort of empty; it’s strange. But I do know a few things.
I was not on that hike alone, for which I am grateful, and I will never, ever do it again.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Welcome to Caltech

So my niece sent us a drawing of herself with the instruction to take her to our places of employment and show her around. My actual job is kind of dull, but the people I work with are all sorts of interesting. So interesting in fact that whenever anyone comes for a visit and we're thinking of things we want them to experience while they are here, a visit to Caltech is in the top three (there is also a turtle / koi pond on the grounds - it's not all microscopes and bacteria around here).

Here's what Danyelle saw when she came to visit.

Behold the impressive Broad center, where science is happening.

Science is fun and interesting, but the first thing you need to do before you enter a lab is learn about lab safety! Always wear proper shoes, clothes, and sometimes even goggles and lab coats. Also, know where the first aid kit is and know how to use the emergency shower station in case you spill something on yourself that you need to wash off in a hurry.

Our biology lab specializes in taking the best pictures in the world of some of the smallest living organisms. Some of our favorite things to take pictures of are Caulobacter crescentus bacteria (a cousin of e. coli), mycoplasma pneumoniae (the bug that causes pneumonia), and the HIV virus.

Before we can take pictures, first we have to grow our bacteria in tubes. You can grow bacteria in just about anything. We use liquid solutions called media. Some of our solutions even have gold added to them! It only takes a few hours for bacteria to grow, so you can start a solution in the morning and take pictures of it after lunch! Once you have a nice group of cells to image, you need to place them on a slide or a grid so they can go into the microscope. Our lab uses both - a wet slide for light microscopy (the kind you're probably used to)

or a copper grid to put into our special, big electron microscope.

Since a drop of media can contain thousands and thousands of bacteria to take pictures of, we only need a tiny bit for each slide or grid. To help us, we use a special tool to pipette small amounts. It works just the same as a straw.

When your grids all have bacteria on them, it's time to take them to the basement where the electron microscope has its own special room to help protect it from movement and sound. Because when you're taking pictures of very small things, it helps to be as still as possible.


Taking pictures of things with an electron microscope is tricky because when you beam electrons on your bacteria, it makes them fall apart after a short time. And trying to figure out the structure of a bacteria after it falls apart is like trying to figure out how a watch works by looking at one that's been smashed by a hammer! Right, not very helpful. Scientists try to get around this issue by mixing their samples with special chemicals, embedding them in plastic, or freezing them.

Our lab uses a method called plunge freezing to create our samples. We use a machine called a Vitrobot to freeze our bacteria. Freezing protects the bacteria from the electrons and keeps them looking almost exactly the same as when they were swimming around in the media, but you have to freeze your samples very, very quickly in order to create clear, see-through ice. Freezing things too slowly will create crystals, and crystals will make for bad images just like having static on your television set will disrupt the picture. We drop our bacteria grids in a mixture of liquid nitrogen and ethane so they freeze instantly.

After they are frozen, the grids have to stay frozen solid. If they warm up even a little bit, the ice can make crystals. So we put the frozen grids in a cryo-holder (it's like a thermos filled with liquid nitrogen) until they are ready to put in the microscope.

The next step is to put the grid into the vacuum of the microscope and take your images. Our microscope is hooked to a series of computers that save the pictures you take. We also do a special technique called a tilt-series where you take a whole bunch of pictures of one bacterium at different angles.

After you take all the pictures you want to, the last step is to analyze your data - or look closely at the pictures you took. For a tilt-series, this last step is called reconstruction. It's where you take all the pictures and stack them on top of each other to create what we call a tomogram. Remember that gold we put into the solution? Under the microscope, that gold shows up as large black beads that we can use as markers when we are stacking images. This gives us a complete 3-dimensional image of our bacterium - a real break-through for seeing new things and figuring out how things work!

Here's an example of how a tomogram is put together to form a 3D picture and how it helps us learn about bacteria cells.


Thanks for taking a trip to our microscopy lab at Caltech today. I hope you learned a lot!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Happy Anniversary - 100 Random Facts about my Husband

Today is our ninth anniversary, and in honor of that, I'm posting 100 Facts About my daring and darling husband, Richard. He's a cutie and I love him completely.

100 Random Facts About My Husband

1. He has two emotions that he recognizes – anger and calm.
2. He has a complete lack of empathy, but he has come a long way and knows when to ask for clues.
3. He has way too many hobbies: shooting, camping, skiing, snowmobiling, horseback riding, wrestling, reading, hiking, gardening, water sports, rock climbing, fishing, on and on.
4. He started working when he was thirteen and hasn’t stopped since.
5. He had a febrile seizure when he was two and was officially dead when he arrived at the hospital. (Obviously, he came back, but wow, good job psyching out your mother.)
6. He is so afraid of spiders that even talking about one will break him out in goose pimples.
7. He hates tomatoes so much that he doesn’t even want ketchup on the table.
8. He served a mission for the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City and gets teased for this a lot.
9. He was born in Waycross, Georgia.
10. His best companion for fourteen years was a yellow lab, Husky mix named Cocoa.
11. He is a professional driver and is licensed to drive anything with wheels except an airplane and a passenger bus.
12. His greatest wish is to live off the grid in Alaska or Montana.
13. He used to watch the Man from Snowy River every single day.
14. He loves instrumental music.
15. He cannot spell, but he can write beautifully.
16. He reads quickly and devours thriller books by the dozen.
17. He loves to have his back scratched and isn’t quite satisfied until he is bleeding in more than one place.
18. He does not know his own strength or realize his own worth.
19. He gets loopy on medication. Once, when hospitalized for a kidney stone, while I was buttoning up his pajama top and telling him I was going to go get the car, he informed me that he was not going anywhere with me because his wife was coming to get him. When I left the room and came back, he told me that he knew I was coming and that “someone” wanted him to go somewhere. He claims I should just be grateful he knew he was married.
20. He is protective and loyal.
21. He is slow to make decisions, needing to do extensive research about brands, read reviews, etc. even if he’s just purchasing a toaster.
22. He loves to haggle and make deals.
23. He has a very fine hat collection and loves to dress up in old-fashioned clothes.
24. He is part Cherokee Indian.
25. He has an accent. People often think he is European and ask me where he’s from. I have to explain constantly that he is the result of a Georgia born father and a Montana raised mother.
26. When he talks to, listens to, or watches people with a Southern accent, he will adopt it for hours.
27. He hates people to baby him when he’s sick and would rather be left totally alone.
28. He once killed and ate a robin while he was roughing it in the wilderness. He does not recommend it.
29. He is pragmatic – just like MacGyver.
30. Before we were married, he would disappear into the wilderness quite often for weeks at a time just to be alone.
31. When I met him, he had forty-two girls’ numbers in his cell phone who all wanted to be his girlfriend.
32. He tried to pretend that he didn’t like me, even to himself.
33. He got slightly misty-eyed on our wedding day, but he only sheds tears on the days when I bring one of his children into the world.
34. He never does things in halves.
35. He is charismatic. People do things for him that they wouldn’t do for anyone else.
36. He has a permanent retainer on his front top and bottom teeth.
37. On our first date, he took me to the mall and bought me $120 worth of classy clothes because he liked to see me in them and he had been saving up to do it for months.
38. He is a member of the National Ski Patrol.
39. He once filmed for a movie while skiing backwards down a mountain.
40. The sight of blood does not bother him in the least – or anything else gory for that matter.
41. An aptitude testing center told him that the best job he could have would be a fighter pilot.
42. He can exert 160 pounds of pressure by bringing his non-dominant hand into a fist.
43. He does not hold still while he sleeps.
44. He hates doing dishes, and hates it even more when dishes are left in the sink to soak.
45. His favorite season is winter, but he lives in a state that doesn’t have one.
46. He has perfect pitch. You think I’m kidding, but I’m not. Perfect Pitch.
47. Richard has been the sound editor for lots of movies, but none of them are ones you would know about.
48. Richard has also been a voice actor for the anime series Ah My Buddha. He voices the principal of the high school along with a few other minor characters. How did he get the job? He was just there at the right minute.
49. He has broken most of his fingers.
50. He’s also broken his foot and has trouble with certain shoes. Probably because he didn’t use the crutches as long as he was supposed to.
51. When riding his horse, she threw him into a tree, and he rode her around for another two hours with cracked ribs.
52. When I met him, the calluses on his hands were so thick that it was hard for him to feel how hot or cold something was.
53. He can grow a pretty awesome beard and mustache.
54. He never misses a shot with his .45 rifle.
55. He would rather be an hour early than a minute late.
56. The first of my birthdays we celebrated as friends, he took me out for a Jamba Juice and then we went back to his place to drywall his basement.
57. He had a “testing routine” for all his would-be girlfriends to see if they would be worth the effort of building a relationship with. I passed.
58. His nickname is Ducky and even his mother calls him that.
59. He tries every summer to consume his own body weight in fried squash.
60. If unsupervised, he will drink a gallon of whole milk every day.
61. He does not play video games or computer games.
62. I had to make a hard argument for him to buy a cell phone.
63. He is left-handed.
64. He tells people that he’s six feet tall, but he’s not. He’s 5 feet 11.5 inches.
65. He’s a tease. An incessant one.
66. He loves to read colonial American writing. The syntax and passion really move him.
67. He loves James Bond movies.
68. He can fix absolutely anything.
69. He likes to vacuum (which is good, because I don’t).
70. He is so secure in his masculinity that he doesn’t have trouble tossing feminine products into his cart while whistling, and he owns a pink phone.
71. That man can rock the color red so hard it’s difficult to take him out without him getting fawned over by every female we see. I’m surprised he hasn’t been kidnapped.
72. People are usually slightly surprised to discover that he married someone like me. What can I say? Opposites attract! It's because he is good at bringing out the best in people and working with their strengths. He's a good leader, but he doesn't like it.
73. He has a faulty sense of relative time, mostly in the realm of goals. At one time in our marriage, he really thought he could put up a fence around our six-acre lot in a weekend.
74. There are a lot of days where he’s working so hard that he forgets to eat. This drives me insane.
75. He can play the harmonica.
76. He was once mistaken in an LA restaurant for Quenton Tarantino.
77. He’s also been mistaken, on more than one occasion, for Johnny Depp.
78. He is a volunteer on the world-famous Sierra Madre Search and Rescue team. He loves it.
79. He takes interest in my interest. I can give him a Knit Picks catalogue and not say a word to him. He can then flip through it, and in ninety seconds, say things like, “You’d love to make that. And that in a different color. You like that but would never knit it. That’s a no. You’d love to have some of that, but you know you have too much already.” And his commentary will be one hundred percent accurate.
80. Every time I say I can’t do something because I don’t know how, he’ll return, “But you can LEARN!”
81. When startled, his response is to attack. I learned this the hard way early on and have never, ever tried to shock him or scare him since. (He went for my windpipe.)
82. Even though he served a mission, he mysteriously does not know how to cook. Though he can grill barbecued chicken legs like nobody’s business.
83. His idea of cooking is to put parsley . . . in everything.
84. Every once in a while, I will come home to a candlelit bath, storm soundtrack, and darkness while he takes the kids away and comes home with dinner. I love these days, and I love that they don’t happen often enough to not be special.
85. He likes to kidnap me for our anniversary. He’s spirited me away to Las Vegas and San Diego. Once we crashed someone’s ballroom dancing group dressed to the nines. The group were so thrilled that they rearranged their whole schedule to cater to us.
86. He’s actually quite good at listening, but he looks like he isn’t paying any attention at all.
87. He looks like he isn’t paying attention because he is one of those rare people who can think three steps ahead and focus on more than one thing at a time.
88. His fast thinking means that when I spell things for him, three letters at a time, in a rhythm, it grates his nerves. He doesn’t want the rhythm. He wants me to just give him the letters. Reversely, when he spells things for me or tells me phone numbers, I have to have him repeat it several times because he goes too fast.
89. He is an amateur ham radio operator (and made me get my license too). He gets a kick out of messing with his radio. His call sign is KK6EJJ.
90. He’s so intelligent that he knows exactly how to be incompetent enough to get me to do things for him.
91. But he will change diapers. I think we’ve changed equal numbers.
92. We are not equal on number of baths we’ve given the children. He almost always gives them their baths.
93. He doesn’t know what to do with newborns, and while he loves our kids very much, he enjoys them more when they can interact with him.
94. He is fearless. He can jump off cliffs, out of helicopters, and even (get this) give speeches in public without getting nervous. He’s not set up the way other people are.
95. He’s not very good at relaxing. He prefers movement and learning and doing something.
96. However, he will watch youtube videos for hours at a time if you get him going on something (i.e. pranking).
97. He is devoted. I have never once worried, ever, that he was bored with me or wanted someone else. And for someone with low self-esteem like me, that’s really saying something about his fidelity.
98. He has a hard time with closed-minded people, false people, or arrogance.
99. If he promises something and shakes your hand, that’s a blood oath, and he will be true to his word, no matter what.
100. He really is my favorite. Always. I love you, darling.