Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Indianapolis 500

The Indianapolis 500 has been on our list since we moved to Indiana, and as this year is hopefully the final year of our residence here it was time to go if we were going.  If you are looking for many pictures of Indianapolis Motor Speedway and cars going around on same, you can find all the pictures and videos in our Flickr set.

We found some other folks in our graduate program interested in going and met up for breakfast at a diner as the race starts around noon and we wanted to drive in together and had concerns about traffic.  The Indianapolis 500 brings in more than 300,000 people to the largest sporting venue in the world, according to Wikipedia, so you can see where traffic concerns originated.  However, it turns out that the police simply make all the roads going towards the 500 one way and by using all the lanes the traffic moved pretty well going in.  It probably only took us 45 minutes to go the 5-6 miles from the highway to our parking spot (we paid up ahead of time for one within easy walking distance of our seats).

We also paid up for good seats along the stretch leading to the start/finish line, with real seat backs and shade from an awning (this was a really good idea as the weather was quite sunny).  The 500 lets you bring in all the food and drink you want as long as it isn't in glass containers, so we were well supplied and didn't need to leave our seats to have everything we wanted at hand.  A member of our party with prior experience had reported on the low quality of the food available from the track, and that was apparently before they switched vendors and the internet reported that the food took a sharp downturn on top of that.

 View from the seats looking left

View from the seats looking right - the finish line is down by the famous 'Pagoda'

We got to our seats close to two hours before the main event, anticipating something they had billed as 'the race of champions' where classic and/or historic Indy cars would be unleashed around the track for our enjoyment. Now I know that it wouldn't make sense for these cars to actually be raced, as cars from different eras wouldn't be competitive with each other, and the safety equipment would definitely not be up to scratch. However, I was hoping for a little more than a low-speed parade in single file around the track - and you could at least open them up on the straights in front of the stands so we could hear them better. And maybe do more than one lap. So while it was interesting to see the historic cars on the track, this was not worth arriving early for. The pre-race entertainment also featured numerous z-grade celebrities arriving and being interviewed about the race, which was kind of hilarious in terms of what passes for entertainment these days.

A classic Indycar

Another classic Indycar

When the race finally did start, two crashes in quick succession (the first two of about five or six throughout) made for a slow start as they had to clean up the track and drag away the damaged vehicles.  Fortunately, as far as we can tell there were no life-threatening injuries during the race, with the worst crashes topping out at a few broken bones with full recoveries expected (which I consider extremely impressive considering they're often going in excess of 200MPH).

Driver getting out of a car he just crashed at ~200MPH

The sound of the cars was pretty special - even through the earplugs the sound of giant angry bees vibrated through the air and when a large number of them went by together it would be hard not to get excited.

video
Video with sound of cars

The race got more exciting as we figured out who the drivers were and started rooting for and against various people (I admit I rooted against specific cars that were sponsored by companies who are jerks) and the drivers got more aggressive as the distance to the finish decreased, leading to more close calls and more passes. The last fifteen laps or so were done after a crash, which basically resets the field so that they start close together and in a single-file line, so nobody was holding anything back at that point. I think the lead changed at least 5 times in the last few laps, with people I was both rooting for and against in the leaders, which was fun to watch.

A pit stop

 Lead cars on the final lap

The winner was pretty excited and rightfully so - he'd won this race 15 years ago but not since and fought his way up from 30th place earlier in the race after screwing up a pit stop.

Once the race was over, 300,000 people wanted to leave, and getting out was not as easy as getting in. Once you were on a road the police kept things in line but the parking lots were complete chaos as absolutely everyone tried to cut the line to get to one of the exits, leading to spiraling conglomerations of dozens of mini-lines trying to get into the one exit. We did some sitting around at that point before things started moving again. While I think there's room for improvement in managing traffic and pedestrians leaving the race, given the number of people present it wasn't that bad. Were we doing it again, we'd probably tailgate after the race until things cleared up, an option exercised by many.

That is people to the horizon.

Overall, we felt it was certainly worth going to once and would go again with a group to hang out with during some of the slower parts of the experience.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Alinea 2015 Visit

As with similar posts, we'd like to issue our standard food snobbery warning before continuing.

Alinea has been on our to-do list since setting up shop at Purdue.  Located in Chicago, it’s noted as one of the top handful of restaurants in the US.  It is part of the molecular gastronomy movement, which does fairly strange but tasty things with food.  We’d previously put some similar restaurants in Japan and Singapore (Yamada Chikara, Narisawa, and FiftyThree) to the test, and wanted to hit one of the big names back home.  However, Chicago is a good couple hours away from us and reservations are extremely difficult to get, so we’d been putting it off for a while.  A friend of ours from undergrad joined our PhD program this year and finally succeeded in chivying us into going over spring break (we still put in a full week’s work – just from home instead of having to go in).

We drove up to Chicago, dropped our stuff at the hotel, and played dress-up (the restaurant is a required-suit-and-tie kind of place) before getting a fancy black car ride over (our friend insisted) for our early reservation.  You get the same course at whatever time you go, but they charge more for later times – we were fine eating early to cut the cost down a little. 

We don’t want to go through the food dish by dish because there were too many of them, but the (mostly pretty poor) pictures are on Flickr in order, along with a scan of the menu.  One funny thing for us was that the restaurant was on a kaiseki (formal Japanese) kick for the menu we had, which meant that we’d had versions of several dishes before while in Japan…


like the raw shrimp in broth (above) and the tempura miitake mushrooms. Alinea’s versions were superb, but not surprising. One of the pairings was for a Japanese craft beer where Ana had actually visited the brewery with friends while we were over there.

We will mention a few of the coolest other dishes.



The charred parsnip and pork belly dish originally appeared on the table as the ‘logs’ on a pupu-platter-ish presentation for sashimi speared on fresh pine boughs, but then after the fire went out the ‘logs’ were extracted and cut up at the table to be the next course (char-roasted parsnip and seaweed-wrapped roasted pork belly), which was definitely one of the best.  I like parsnips a lot, but this particular char roasted one was something else.


These were edible floating candy balloons, with helium in them.  The string was dehydrated apple.  These were comical to eat and watch other people eat.


The final dessert course was painted onto a rubber mat covering the table in front of us, which was fun, and the frozen coconut milk ice cream was delicious.

The service was really excellent – casual in tone, cracking jokes, but silent and professional when called for, and they adjusted the pacing for our table. Some other tables we could see were moving through the food faster we were, but everything appeared just when it should for our table. I also appreciated that the sommelier kept good track of us and would top off the glasses should our wine consumption outpace the food it was intended to accompany. The wines were all interesting and well paired as well, I found some of them to be more interesting and surprising than the courses they went with.

After discussing it, Ana and I decided we’d be happy to go back for the price (enough to feed us for at least 2 months of regular eating), but we’d wait until they were on a new menu with less emphasis on kaiseki. We don’t mind kaiseki, but it isn’t new and surprising to us after eating it regularly for several years in Japan. For us, Yamada Chikara in Tokyo probably remains the best single dinner out of all time, but we'd be willing to give Alinea another shot at the title.

Friday, August 22, 2014

John Muir Trail Hike 2014 - Final Leg

This entry is the third in a series of three documenting our trip to the Sierra Nevada mountains and the John Muir Trail.  The full picture set is available on Flickr.

After coming back into town after the second leg, examination of the options made it clear that we didn't have enough time left to do a meaningful portion of the JMT and still make our flight - we could certainly get back on and may have been able to make it to Mt. Whitney, but if the weather continued to be not helpful and/or the ever-increasing altitude hit us even harder, we'd be in trouble.  The weather didn't look like it was getting better, and after Piute Pass, Muir Pass, and Bishop Pass, Ana was none too keen on taking on Kearsarge Pass or Forester Pass.  We also didn't have the correct permit to take the short route up Mt. Whitney. We could stay in town and do day-hikes, but that would end up getting expensive in hotels and restaurants quickly, so we figured we'd go home early and do a little good old fashioned sitting on our butts.

We got new plane tickets out of Vegas, ditched our very expensive shuttle service (was previously going to pick us up at a trailhead and take us directly to the airport in Vegas), took a bus to a bigger town, rented the one car they had available for one-way use (a dinged-up and extremely unimpressive Chysler 200), and hit the road.

We had daylight, so we took a somewhat longer route to Vegas in order to see Death Valley.

We kept looking at the mountains as we passed them and thinking about how it was probably raining up there right now, and how it was not raining in the car.

I believe this expression to be the product of flooring it and getting virtually no acceleration out of the car.

Yep, looks dark up there.

Most of the pictures in this post were taken with our friend's camera, which is about five times bigger,  heavier, and more expensive than our armored, waterproof adventure camera but takes much nicer pictures.

Overlooking Death Valley

The road down was extremely exciting, in a fairly terrifying way.  The rental car's steering didn't seem to have a lot to do with which way the wheels were pointing and I went very slowly down oversteering and then correcting.  The brakes started squeaking towards the end, too.

Pretty warm down there too.

Having never driven in the West roads like this were new to me.  You could see cars literally miles away and drive towards them for minutes before passing.

We saw some Hyundai test cars outside a campground area.  They had non-standard body panels and were obviously instrumented - probably stress-testing in the high-heat environment.  Our friend (herself an engineer) asked what they were testing and they tried to tell us all the wires were for "communication" between cars which is a complete load of crap.  If you don't want to get asked about your test mules, you probably shouldn't have huge wires coming out from under the hood while parked in a public place.

Also shortly after that it rained.  On this trip it rained on us in Death Valley.  I think that captures the frequency of rain on this trip well.

We'd never seen desert terrain like this before, we really felt the detour through Death Valley added a lot to the trip.

I pulled over at several ranger stations and visitor centers trying to buy a park pass (you're supposed to buy one when you drive through) but their terminals seemed to have lost connection and everything else was closed because it was getting late.  Sorry guys!  Also note I messed with their nonfunctional terminals in some serious heat.

There was a really nice sunset projecting colors on the clouds as we drove east towards Vegas.  We drove in darkness for an hour or two before seeing the city lights.  We also saw a thunderstorm in the distance, which lit the clouds up purple.  Ana blamed alien technology based out of Area 51.

We stopped at an In-and-Out Burger since everyone we've ever met from the West Coast raves about them.  While the buns were very fresh and tasty, as was the lettuce and other veggies, the consensus of our group was that we'd take a Five Guys over In-and-Out in most situations.  It definitely beats the major chains and the staff was very friendly and efficient but the burger just didn't end up being that exciting.

From the restaurant we went to the hotel (we rented a room basically to hold our stuff and take showers, since it was a 6AM flight the next day), then returned the car at the airport and took the midnight hotel shuttle to the Las Vegas Strip.

Some members of the party were more excited about this than others.

We did some minor gambling and generally tourist-ed around for a couple of hours.  Frankly, I thought to keep people interested slot machines had to give you fairly frequent minor wins but these just sucked down the $10 or so we were planning to waste without much pretense of being something other than throwing money away.

This was a pretty big change from the mountains.  I was glad to have seen it but don't feel much like I need to go back soon.  We eventually headed back to the hotel room and got less than an hour's sleep before heading to the airport, which made sleeping on the planes very easy indeed.

Overall, our planning for this trip was a little ambitious with respect to miles hiked at altitude, and the weather nailed us several times. We still had fun, saw a lot of things, and learned more about backpacking and our new gear.  We ended up doing about 110-115 miles total in the mountains in nine days, with the average mileage being dragged down by our warm-up day and stopping short of Muir Pass to avoid the storm among other things.  Our best day we did about 18 miles, and had several 15 mile days.  We could definitely do more under ideal conditions but I wouldn't want to be held responsible for doing a lot more at the altitude without more time to acclimatize.  The southern end of the JMT where you spend a lot of time in the 11,000-14,000 foot range we'd definitely need to plan on shorter distances.  Anyway, that was our big adventure for the year.  We enjoyed it and hope you enjoyed reading about it.  As usual, the full picture set is on Flickr.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

John Muir Trail Hike 2014 - Second Leg

This entry is the second in a series of three documenting our trip to the Sierra Nevada mountains and the John Muir Trail.  The full picture set is available on Flickr.

After coming into town at the end of the last entry, we took a zero-day to figure things out and get set to go again. Our friends weren't going to be able to hike again for at least a few days due to blisters (we did talk them into buying heavier-duty boots) so we headed back out alone.  Instead of starting where we'd left off, we bought a ride further down the trail to a section noted for being particularly beautiful.

The drive alone took us past 9,000' in elevation and that was for the parking lot at the bottom of the pass (we learned on this trip that 'pass' means "mountain that isn't quite as tall as the ones next to it while also being flat enough to construct a trail on").  On the plus side, it was a nice, sunny day, and we got a reasonably early start.


 We were going over Piute Pass, which cannot be seen in this picture.  This is leading up to it.

 We felt that Piute Pass was probably the most scenic area of the trip.  We went up past several small lakes in a series of ever-higher valleys.

Eventually we passed above treeline and things got rockier.

 View from the summit.  We found the elevation was really slowing us down - we needed regular pauses to breathe for a bit.  We'd feel strong/normal for a few steps after each break and then the fog would start creeping back in.  Ana reported seeing stars on the periphery of her vision.  This is not normal for us hiking at lower altitudes.

Sure was pretty though.  For a while...

A few hours later, clouds rolled in, the temperature dropped sharply, and it started intermittently raining and hailing.  The largest hail was pea-sized and it definitely stung.  We soldiered through it for a while but after a couple hours we were soaked, chilly, and not making much progress so we called it a day and camped.  Ana, in trying to find a silver lining, noted that the hail, in slicing up the vegetation, made everything smell piney and herbaceous, which was pleasant but not a fair trade for the hail.

The next morning was dry, if cold, and we were glad we'd camped - the trail beyond that point was very rocky and exposed and would have been dangerous in addition to miserable in the rain.


We had a food shipment waiting for us at John Muir Ranch so we went a couple miles out of our way to pick it up.  Our friends had also shipped there and weren't going to pick it up so we opened both barrels and raided their bucket for goodies.  They'd spent more time than us thinking about food and we found a lot of new-to-us bars and snacks in there that added variety and interest to our diet (for instance, buffalo and cranberry bars).  We had a lot more than we could carry and were accused by other hikers of working for Pro-Bar as we attempted to give a huge pile of them away.  For the record, Pro-Bars are excellent fuel, but no matter how excellent they are we couldn't carry an extra 10lb of them through the mountains.  Ana was finding her new boots collected rocks and bought giraffe-print gaiters to keep those out. 

Muir Ranch, as a major resupply point for the JMT, has a major store of hiker goodies that people have left behind/donated to future hikers that are kept in buckets  (we needed a new bucket just for the Pro-Bars we left).  I ate three packages of jerky out of the donation bins as I was craving protein.  However, not all hikers are American and not all hikers donate recognizable food items.  Some other hikers who were resupplying got into a stash of Korean "fish bars" from the donation bins.  Someone brave ate one and declared it not bad, and then several people sampled them and came to largely the same conclusion - but shortly thereafter a hiker who could read the label came in and informed people that the 'bars' were actually soup mix.  I think the people eating them mostly shrugged and kept going, but it was pretty funny.  

We took much longer here than we needed for the resupply to dry out ourselves and our boots after the rain of the day before.

Deer are not afraid of people on the JMT.

That afternoon clouds formed again and as rain started coming down we ducked into cover in a grove of trees to wait out the hail and lightning, which was both heavy and close.  It ended after an hour or so and we continued in light rain and made decent time. 

The sun even peeked out over the mountains a little.

We made our intended campsite at Evolution Creek, did a really good PCT bag-hang (our bear canister was too full after the resupply to hold everything), and generally felt like things were going pretty well.

The next morning we had to do the one actual stream-fording of the whole adventure.  Fortunately the creek had dropped overnight and it was not deep.  It was, however, VERY cold.

Cold cold cold cold cold!

After crossing Evolution Creek, we hiked up into the Evolution Lakes area, which is one of the more scenic on the JMT.

I would say that it lived up to its billing but Piute is prettier.

The further we went the more numerous and darker the clouds got.

As we approached Muir Pass, which we wanted to cross and be well down the other side of by the end of the day, it started raining and thunder started rumbling around 2PM.  We really didn't want to climb another 1,500 feet into more exposed territory with virtually no camping spots into the teeth of a storm so we made camp and got under cover.  An hour later it looked like the storm had cleared up and we had almost completely struck camp before the clouds came back in and it started raining again.  We talked to hikers coming down from the pass and they said it was pretty ugly up ahead, especially on the other side of the pass, so we stayed put.  Stopping so far from our goal for the day meant the schedule was out the window and we'd have to exercise our abort path, but I asked myself "If I went up there and was injured or died, would people say That was completely unforeseeable or What a dope?" The answer was too close to What a dope so we stayed put.  Looking at the clouds over the pass, I felt increasing confidence in our decision as they were quite dark and enduring.  We had a lot of time to kill before the next morning and spent most of it asleep, though Ana also got some knitting done (she added a whole 4oz. to her weight budget for needles and yarn and carried them the whole way).

Wanted no part of that storm at nearly 12,000' without cover.

The next morning was clear and dry again so we scampered up the pass as best we could in the altitude.  We were still slow but substantially faster than before, closing in on 2 miles an hour uphill at elevation, which isn't too bad.

Muir Pass 

The lakes up there often seem very blue indeed.

Hut erected in memory of John Muir decades ago.  Still very solid.

This could definitely save your life in a storm.  Glad we hadn't been up here needing it the day before.

The other side going down was quite rugged but very pretty.

We walked down this postcard-perfect valley along the river.

Was still fairly steep in places.


We were hearing from hikers who had been in the valley the previous day that they'd gotten several inches of accumulated hail in the storm the previous day.  Remains of it inches deep could still be seen in the shadows in the warm midafternoon.  The rangers were saying the weather was going to stay bad and that the next day was going to be particularly wet.  We were seeing a very clear pattern where each day started clear, gradually got cloudy, and eventually dumped on us.  We had a sneaking suspicion that it was the same water each time as the clouds did not move - they formed directly overhead and simply dissipated after dumping their rain and hail on us.  However, the rangers were saying that tomorrow was going to bring in a storm system from outside.  We were exiting over Bishop's Pass and wanted to get as far along as we could before the weather turned sour.

This is a view from the other end of that valley, going up the side towards Bishop's Pass.

We found an enormous drift of accumulated hail on the trail, probably 8-10" deep.  Yikes.  Also, green pine needles were down everywhere, having been knocked off the trees by the hail.

This day was still looking pretty nice, but we stopped at the last marked campsite short of the pass anticipating another afternoon thunder-hailstorm....which never materialized.  Some weather-traumatized through-hikers who were aborting their trip across the pass looked at the sky like dogs expecting a beating.  The consensus was that it not raining today made everybody very nervous about tomorrow.  The through-hikers had been out for 14 days and reported that it had rained on 12 of them.  It should be noted that the JMT is supposed to be a classic summer hike specifically because of dry and temperate conditions.  The rangers confirmed that we'd been getting more than twice as much precipitation as usual and that it was looking to continue indefinitely.  We had a nice night talking with the other hikers and hanging out, which was much more fun that staying the tent for 13 consecutive hours the previous day.

This is similar to our reaction to hail thunderstorms - we stuck our toes in more really cold water in lieu of one this day.

We were awoken by a thunderstorm at 4 AM, thinking the worst case scenario had come to pass and we'd be rained on all day. When it was time to pack up and go (5:30 AM),  it was merely overcast and we wanted to make as many miles as possible before more rain arrived.

We walked upwards through Dusy Basin and it was quite scenic, but we didn't want to pause much.  We passed a gentleman who had come over the pass the night before, heard about today's hypothetical weather, and was headed right back out over the pass.

We saw spots of blue sky and sun in the distance but the clouds didn't dissipate.

As we summited the pass (just under 12,000' elevation) thunder rolled around us and Ana reminded me that if my hair stood on end the current best practice is to hunch over and grab my ankles, which is more likely to route the lightning strike through limbs rather than head and heart.  Thankfully we didn't need to employ this technique.  We did get hit by hail again...and again...and again (total of five times this day).


The first part of the down was very rocky, rugged and steep.  We were torn between getting the hell down away from the storm and not wanting to slip and fall.

It cleared up a bit and we got intermittent rain and hail on the way down but not soaking heavy rain after the summit.

One moment that will live forever for me that we experienced walking down Bishop's Pass was running into about four young gentlemen in hoodies and shorts who asked us "Have you seen any caves?  For in case it rains."  Having already been rained on several times that day, standing there stinking and damp in our rainproof coats, packs, boots, etc, it was hard to overstate the fact that there were no caves, that relying on caves was not a valid Sierra Nevada survival strategy, that given the weather they should not go up any further in altitude and in fact should return to their car as swiftly as due care allowed.  I didn't point it out at the time, but if one of them got hurt they had no way to keep that person warm until help could arrive.  They were only ~3 miles from the car but I hope they made it back down OK; we got rain and hail within minutes of speaking with them.


We at least made it to the parking lot intact. This was the abort exit. We were not expected to be there and of course couldn't get cell service, so walked another 1.5 miles to the first building with a pay phone.  We didn't have any luck contacting our friends but we loaned our phone card to another hiker and when his ride came in we got a free ride back to Mammoth Falls which was fantastic (otherwise a 23 mile walk plus an hour's bus ride - but we would have hitched or something at least to the first town).  In the meantime, since we were standing in the tiny store of a fishing resort, we learned a lot about high-altitude trout fishing from a few people obviously passionately dedicated to the sport.  We checked into a hotel, and will pick up the adventure there in a future entry.