Monthly Archives: April 2007

Back Online

Posted by on April 20, 2007

I have some stable internet for the next two days. I will be off to Volcano National Park for the rest of the day and I should have a good sized update later tonight (or tomorrow morning for most of you).

Tomorrow (Saturday), I’ll be up on Mouna Kea for the day looking at telescopes and taking photos. Sunday I’m off to Maui to finally get some beach time and edit some video.

Just Another Day in Paradise

Posted by on April 18, 2007

Going down to South Point going to have myself a time...

Going down to South Point going to have myself a time...

*Complete collection of photos from the day is here.

Sunday I had to make a decision as to what I wanted to do first. I figured I that I’m still several time zones off of local time, i might as well make the drive out to South Point (Ka Lae) and see the Green Sand Beach. (Mahana Beach)

I was up at like 4:30am, checked my email and messed around on my computer because the sun wasn’t up yet, and was off in my Jeep by 6am. Having been to South Point before, I knew it was hot and windy, so I stopped at a grocery store and purchased some food and three liters of water.

The trip to South Point is about 70 miles from Hilo. It goes right past the gates of Volcanoes National Park (more on that later) and gives you a great view of Mona Loa. Its two lane road for most of the way (outside of bits of Hilo and Kona, everything on the Big Island is two lanes). You go from sea level, up 4200 feet around the National Park, and then eventually back down to sea level.

Some of the scenery along the way is stunning. This is the view from a the road on the way to South Point:

Eventually, you turn south off the highway and the road gets progressively worse. You leave the lush, green landscape of the windward side of Mona Loa to the arid, windy, brown which is South Point.

The first thing that strikes you is the wind. There are only a few scattered trees and all of those trees are permanently bent over from the wind.

Someone, at some point, figured there was money to be made from all that wind and put a wind farm at South Point. Unfortunately, they forgot to budget any money for upkeep and repairs. The wind farm is odd because it has the feel of an old abandoned factory or a grain elevatory, but its pretty new. Its spooky. Some of the blades turn. Some don’t. Some are missing. Some have no blades at all. Everything is in some degree or other of rusting away.

There is a row of wind mills near the shore which still appear to be working, but its probably only 10% of the total of the farm.

Eventually the road turns to hell. The pavement starts to break apart and eventually disappears altogether. You are at South Point. The southern most point in the United States of America. It is believed that this was the point where humans first set foot on Hawaii about 1600 years ago (its the closest point to Tahiti, where Hawaiians are believed to have come from).

The interesting thing is that there is really nothing there to indicate that the place has any significance whatsoever. There is an old plaque indicating the South Point Complex was here, but nothing to say why that’s important. There is also a beacon which is, or maybe was, run by the Coast Guard as sort of a mini lighthouse for the point. I have no clue if it still works. There is nothing to indicate the geographical significance of the place.

The only reason people come to South Point now, other than the occasional oddball tourist, is for fishing. Guys come down here to fish and seem to just set up camp. The cliffs they fish off of are anywhere from 30 to 100 feet high. I’m not certain what they catch, but this seems to be one of the more popular spots on the Big Island.

The actual southern most point of South Point isn’t well defined. I managed to get the latitude on my GPS as low as I could, but didn’t want to risk going out further where I could get hit by the surf (which was pretty high) and wreck my camera. You can sort of see how two little parts just out at the very southern most point. I think what is southern most might change on the basis of the tide.

South Point Satellite Image

The next stop was the Green Sand Beach.

Its one of my favorite places in the world for several reasons: 1) its hard to get to. Its not like many attractions where you can take a tour bus, walk around and get back on the bus. There are no roads going to the beach, nor are there directions or signs. If you manage to get there, you’ve earned it. 2) Its unique. Its a one of a kind place on the Earth. Its the only beach with green sand you’ll find anywhere. 3) The surf get channeled into a narrow inlet and its always very powerful, which makes for good body surfing.

Its about two miles or so from South Point to the beach. You either need to hike or take a four wheel drive out there. It’s serious off-roading. I rented a Jeep Wrangler on the Big Island and used every bit of its abilities. I was literally rock crawling for a good portion of the drive.

I spent most of my time there shooting video. During my stay, the number of people at the beach fluxuated between 1 (not including me) to about 12. A dozen people at that beach seemed like a lot because its a pretty small area. Its also totally enclose. You have to climb down the rim of the cinder cone its housed in to get to the beach.

The reason the sand has its green color is due to the presense of a mineral called Olivine. Olivine (Mg,Fe)2SiO4 is very common in the mantle of the Earth but is not common in the crust. The cinder cone that once erupted here was rich in Olivine. Over time as the cone eroded away, the lighter ash and other minerals eroded first leaving the harder Olivine. The reason why the sand isn’t perfectly green is that Olivine can take on a more golden color if its more iron rich, and more green if its magnesium rich. Gem quality Olivine also goes by the name Peridot.

After swimming and shooting video, I began the drive back to Hilo. I made a short stop at Punalu’u, the Black Sand Beach. There are actually many beaches with black sand on the Big Island. Punalu’u just is unusually large and fine grained. The sand here is just crushed up basalt, which is the rock that makes up all of the Hawaiian Islands.

At Punalu’u you can see many Green Sea Turtles. There was one on the beach sunning himself when I was there. (I also saw one swimming off the shore at South Point.)

I was only there about 15 minutes before I loaded back up and headed “home”. I got the start of a good sunburn (which hasn’t hurt or peeled so far) and drank about 3 liters of water.

The day was a pretty good start to Hawaii.

I am not dead

Posted by on April 16, 2007

I haven’t posted in a few days, but I’ve been pretty busy. I have lots of photos I uploaded to Flickr. Sunday I went to South Point and the Green Sand Beach. Today I visted Akaka Falls and tomorrow I’m off to Volcanoes National Park. I’ll try to put a post up about my adventures soon and some context to the photos.

I also have been taking a lot of video, but it’s much harder to edit all of that than it is to upload a photo.

Oh, Hawaii!!

Posted by on April 15, 2007

I’m writing this in my room at the Arnott’s Backpacker lodge in Hilo, Hawaii. I’m 3,903 miles as the crow flies from my starting point in Minneapolis and now 5 hours behind CDT (Hawaii doesn’t have or really need daylight savings because of their location closer to the equator).

The weather here is, as always, amazing.

Sunday I’m off to South Point to see the green sand beach and shoot some video. Monday should take me to Volcanoes National Park.

Hawaii Ho! (Not the Don Imus sort of ho)

Posted by on April 14, 2007

If you’re reading this on Saturday April, 14, I’m on my way to the Big Island of Hawaii.

I have a lot of photos from my day at the Getty Museum in LA up on Flickr. I’ll have a write up, hopefully, sometime tomorrow.

I should be putting up my first videos next week from Hawaii. We’ll see how it goes. It will be my first real attempt at video editing. I’m treating Hawaii as a test bed for my video, so don’t expect anything great right out of the chute. I’m assuming the first few will suck.

I got to see LA from up on Mullholland Dr. tonight with Bietz and I tried taking a photo of the skyline with my tripod. It was my first attempt at long exposure, night photography. I think i still need some work.

LA Skyline

The Train Never Ends

Posted by on April 12, 2007

Last night I had dinner with my friend Mike Bietz out here in LA. We went to a restaurant that served insects and we had worms and scorpion on shrimp toast. Honestly, if I hadn’t known that they were insects, I never would have guessed.

Before I started to eat however, I really hit a wall. I got tried and started to feel sick. I think whatever I might have caught on the train was hitting me. On the way back to my motel, I threw up three times on Santa Monica Blvd. I had to pull over, open the door and puke.

On the way home I stop at a 7-11 and get some orange juice to see if I could keep that down. Nope.

So its now 5:50 local time and I think i’m going to go and buy some Gatorade and come back and sleep. I think I’m deyhdrated. I puked up most of the fluids I had yesterday.

I’d like to point out the irony that on a trip around the world, the first place I get sick is in the US. My immune system is usually pretty tough, but it wasn’t tough enough to stop the sickness that is Amtrak.

The Amtrak Diaries

Posted by on April 11, 2007

Lounge Car

April, 9th, 5:15pm CDT, Somewhere between Cleburne and McGregor, TX

I’m writing this on the Texas Eagle. Train number 21 out of Dallas en route to San Antonio. They just called for people with 5:15 reservations in the Dining car. I’m sitting in my seat watching the idyllic middle Texas countryside roll by.

If you have never taken Amtrak before on a long journey, I can give you one word of valuable advice: Don’t.

Long distance rail service makes no sense as a competitive mode of transportation in the US. How does Amtrak suck? Let me count the ways:

1) Its slow. I don’t have any data in front of me, but I have to believe that a bus is as fast or faster than taking a train. We had to make several complete stops to let freight trains go by. It took two hours to go from Dallas to Fort Worth. When the track ran along side a road, we were regularly passed by cars. You’d think that a train would be faster than a bus, but I can’t see how in any realistic sort of comparison of the two. (The only exception might be in North East Corridor routes between Washington and Boston, where routes actually make sense) It’s a four hour drive from Dallas to San Antonio. The scheduled time for the train (not the actual time which is longer) is a little more than 10 hours. Comparisons to plane travel are so obvious as not to warrant mention.

2) Its not comfortable. Dallas to LA is about 48 hours. A standard coach class ticket doesn’t give you a sleeper car space, you have to sleep in your seat. If you want to upgrade to a sleeper car, you’d have to pay more than the price of a plane ticket. The ride in general is bumpy. About the same as a plane flight in turbulence. Unlike a bus on a highway, you can’t get cell service along most railroad track. The train stations are on a par with bus stations in terms of cleanliness. Often, they are the bus stations. The seats are larger with much more leg room than a plane, but given the length of the trip, it would have to be. The food they serve is expensive and not very good. Complain all you want about airline food, but at least the flight is over in a few hours regardless how well you get fed. The seats don’t recline all the way to let you lie down, even though there is enough room. The total experience isn’t hell, or as bad as a similar length bus trip, but its not like a hotel either.

3) The cost isn’t worth it. If you want cheap, take a bus. if you want fast, take a plane. Rail travel sits an an awkward no man’s land between air and bus travel, where it takes as long as a bus, but costs almost as much as a plane.

All that being said, people still take the train. I’m amazed. I’m doing it just for the novelty of it, but there are a lot of people on this train who are not.

8am CDT, somewhere west of San Antonio

I’d say it was one of the worst nights sleep I’d ever had, but that would imply that I got any sleep. Even with two seats to yourself and lots of legroom, its still near impossible to get any sleep. The pillow they give you is the smallest pillow I’ve ever seen. Its about the size of my hand. We pulled into San Antonio at about midnight which was cool because there was fog all over the city. The train station is right next to the Alamo Dome. I walked the five minutes to go to Denny’s for something to eat because I didn’t want to get gouged in the dining car. While I was “sleeping”, they unhooked our car and attached it to the LA bound train. I don’t know if anyone can sleep through a railroad car getting hooked and unhooked.

I’m in the lounge car as I write this in hopes of getting an outlet. No dice. My battery is down to 8%. I know there are outlets somewhere. The one in this car isn’t working. I’ve seen lots of laptops on the train, so I’m amazed there aren’t more outlets. It would seem to be the natural thing to supply electricity for people on long trips and would be something to differentiate trains from other modes of transportation.

6pm MDT, El Paso

Doing some back of the envelope calculations based on the Amtrak time schedule, it takes 48 hours to go from New Orleans to Las Angeles. The total distance is 1995 miles, resulting in 41.5 mph. I think that much of what ails passenger rail transport in the US could be solved by just doubling the speeds of trains. We’re not talking about Japanese bullet trains here. Just something going 80-100 mph would turn trips of unreasonable length to something much more reasonable.

The problem is that Amtrak doesn’t own the rails it runs on. They’re owned by various freight companies. (Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Union Pacific, Southern Pacific, etc) Amtrak was created in the early 1970’s because the railroad companies didn’t want to be in passenger business anymore. The Nixon administration created Amtrak thinking it would die in a few years on its own. It has since shown much more skill at lobbying than it has at running a business. They lose about $1 billion dollars a year which is subsidized by the federal government.

To make passenger rail effective, you’d need separate tracks for passenger and freight trains. The rail for passenger trains needs to be designed for much faster trains than freight. If you doubled the speed of passenger trains, you could effectively remove all the sleeper and dining cars from all but the most lengthly runs, and all the staff needed to cook food and manage the sleepers. That would in turn decrease costs (Amtrak employees make on average 20% more than airline employees) and make rail travel more attractive on both ends: time and money. New tracks would be expensive, but you can amortize it over a very long length of time.

Most of the people I’ve met on the train are very nice, ordinary folk. A few however are batshit insane. One woman was going out of her way to tell EVERYONE about another woman who spilled some water on the floor. She began muttering to herself when there were no people to talk to. She started talking to herself about how she would confront the woman with her lies and how scriptures warned of wickedness…..all about a water fountain that shot water a bit too far. When the woman who spilled the water eventually came by, she tried to confront her and the woman said “oh, I’m sorry. I didn’t notice”. The batshit insane woman was then all “oh, I’ll clean it up”, after spending the last half hour doing nothing to bitching to everyone about the water and not cleaning it up.

There was another woman last night who took the time to talk to every Amtrak employee on the train last night to tell them her life story and how she should get an upgrade to a sleeper car. A woman a few rows ahead of me I think has an IQ as low as you can get without being retarded. She has the speech patterns and intellect of a 12 year old in the body of a female offensive lineman with no muscle mass. If you’ve read the Onion, think Jean Teasdale.

Amtrak trains also smell bad. For whatever reason, my car doesn’t smell. Every other one does. Unlike a plane, you have lots of people going to the bathroom, eating and throwing away garbage. On top of the bathrooms and garbage, you have an enclosed space with lots of people who haven’t showered in days. You also can’t open the windows.

I passed on eating in the dining car for every meal so far, but I have “reservations” for 7:30 tonight. “Reservations” means that you eat in shifts because they can’t fit everyone into the dining car at once. Its about as expensive as eating in an airport.

8:51pm MDT, Somewhere near Lordsburg, New Mexico

I just finished dinner in the dining car. I was seated next to a man who must have been in his late 70s or early 80s. He knew everything about the railroad having worked in it for 32 years. He has ridden every Amtrak route in the US. He was also one of the biggest pessimists I’ve ever met. To him, everything was going to hell, everything was worse, everything was horrible. Unlike most people, I tend to be pessimistic towards individuals but optimistic towards the world in general. I didn’t argue anything too forcefully because it was dinner and he was old. We are as a people are better off in almost every possible way than we were decades ago. By any measure, we have more food, bigger houses, more income, longer lives, and a better environment than we did before. Good news doesn’t sell however. Good news can’t be used to pass legislation. We are bombarded with bad news all the time and its no surprise why most people think things are always getting worse. Moreover, this has pretty much always been the case. The old days we can see with 20/20 hindsight and it was understandable and safe. The future is always ambiguous and unknown. I don’t know many people willing to resort to a 1970’s lifestyle, let alone a lifestyle from the 1940s or 1900s.

The meal itself OK I guess, for being served on a train. I did find out that for about $100 more I could have upgraded to a sleeper car and got all my meals included. That probably would have been worth it for the meals alone on a two day trip.

As I write this, there is a small group playing guitar and singing in the lounge. I’ve had a few conversations with some people on the train, but for the most part I’ve kept to myself and slept.

We should arrive in Tuscon around 1am and hopefully get rid of some of the crazies in my car. The guy I had dinner with told me of a seven day trip from Chicago to Seattle to LA to San Antonio and back to Chiacgo. I think I’d shoot myself first.

Someone please remind me of this post when I consider taking the Trans-Siberian Railway.

6:30 am PDT, Somewhere west of Palm Springs near the Salton Sea

Another poor nights sleep. Was awoken at the stops for Tucson and Phoenix when tons of people came on board the train. For the entire trip, everyone has had a set of two seats to themselves. For a trip this long, cramming people in airplane style would make this unbearable. They started trying to do that in the middle of the night when the Arizona passengers started filing on. The trick is to make sitting next to you so unappealing they sit somewhere else. I managed to achieve this feat by farting just when they were seating people. Worked like a charm.

Thankfully, I slept through Arizona. Not because Arizona isn’t an interesting place, but because I didn’t want to have to deal with setting my watch for Arizona time. Arizona is now the only state in the lower 48 that doesn’t use daylight savings. I can really care less about that if I’m visiting, but the train uses local time, so I’d have to have reset my watch twice in a span of a few hours.

I don’t know what they’re growing outside of my window. It looks like a palm tree orchard. Just before I saw what looked like a farming operation for large bushes. I have no clue what grows on them.

The shops and signs in Southern California have more Spanish writing than the signs in El Paso did, which borders a Mexican city of over 1 million people.

48 Hours

Posted by on April 9, 2007

If you are reading this between noon on April 9th to noon on April 11th, I’m sitting in a chair on the Sunset Limited between San Antonio and Los Angeles.

I decided to take the train for no other reason than I’ve never taken a long train trip before, and this was a great opportunity to do it. The trip from Dallas to LA is 48 hours with a 7 hour layover in San Antonio.

Other than the novelity of taking the train, there is really no reason for anyone to ever take a long train trip. If all you care about is price, take the bus. If you want to get there fast, you take a plane. The train sits in a no-mans land between bus and plane. It costs almost as much as a plane trip, but takes as long (or longer) than a bus trip. While 48 hours on a train can be more comfortable and have better scenery than a bus, its still a 48 hour trip. If I wanted to upgrade to a room with a bed, I’m going to pay more than a flight.

As it is, I’ll have to sleep two nights in a chair on a train.

The trip also takes about 10 hours to get from Dallas to San Antonio which I don’t understand, because its a four hour drive. From what I can gather from the Amtrak site, there are no stops between Dallas and San Antonio other than Fort Worth.

I’m guessing my next update will be one or more updates written from the train with a ton of photos.