Friday, September 26, 2014

Colours of Pinnacles National Park

It started with me getting a little bored of the usual places for hiking. Surely, there must be something other than Muir Woods, Yosemite, or Lake Tahoe, that's within driving distance of the Bay Area?

It took a little googling to find Pinnacles National Park. The Guardian in 2013 listed it as Top 10 national parks in California, not bad given that it only achieved its national park status in the same year. I had the impression that it wasn't well-known, so we would be in for a quiet hike.

We took more than the expected two hours to get there. Google Map didn't include impromptu shopping at Costco. After a three-hour journey, we reached the Visitor Centre, got our receipt, gobbled up some dry croissants and hard boiled eggs, then made our way to the Bear Gulch Day Use Area.

We followed Kevin, our guide, on the Moses Spring-Rim Trail Loop.

First rule, stay hydrated. Second rule, ignore the omnipresent swarm of flies. They tend to get in your face. A lot.

My friend said the West Coast doesn't have Fall colours, but I disagree. Pinnacles National Park has the most vibrant hues. The contrast of lush green trees against reddish yellow shrubs was adorable. 

Perhaps, a little misleading too. It was as if the sun wasn't beating down on us, we weren't panting from the heat but enjoying a cool breezy afternoon.

Carabiner signs were aplenty, and we saw two different groups of climbers working their way up the boulders. Pinnacles must be a popular place for climbers because of its rocky formation. 

Nonetheless, I read that these rocks are mostly weaker volcanic rocks, and climbers should check out the park's advisory and FAQs before scaling up the wall. 

This uphill trail felt longer than it is because of the smothering Californian heat. I didn't want to admit to the boys that I was getting a headache from the sun. Unlike Muir Woods, there was no protective canopy, no good place to take a rest, no respite from the sun.

If Spring and Winter are said to be the best time to come, Summer and Fall are a test of mental and physical stamina. Having sufficient water was a matter of life and death. The danger of heat stroke was extremely high.

It was a relief to finally reach the Bear Gulch Reservoir. Disney and other theme parks must have sought inspiration for river rides here; the reservoir is as beautiful as a story book. I half-expected to feel styrofoam when I touched the rocks. 

You can't swim in the reservoir though. Not in those murky green water.

The entrance to the Bear Gulch talus caves is next to the reservoir, down a flight of tapered stairway. It was impossible for two-way traffic, we had to wait till a large group passed before we descended. 

Then, we slipped under the first fallen boulder and began our adventure weaving through the gorge.

The rocks were hanging at such precarious angles, I was certain we would be buried alive at the slightest tremor of the Earth. Most of the time, we were able to squeeze through the cracks between the boulders with ease. Other times, we had to take our bags off and limbo rock our way out at contorted angles. 

It just got better when we climbed down to the Lower Caves. The boulders formed a hole in the ground. If you managed to wiggle past that hole, you would still have to curl up and squeeze into the narrow tunnel leading into the cold, dark cave. 

Not for the claustrophobic. 

Kevin was the only one who brought a torch light. It was pitch dark; I could not even see beyond one step. Relying only on an iPhone light, I led the way in, followed by Panda, then Kelvin. 

Excuse the screaming at the end of the video. Kevin had discovered bats and advised us against shining our light at the roof of the cave. 

Apparently, the Bear Gulch Cave hold the biggest maternity colony of Townsend's big-eared bats from San Francisco to Mexico. The Upper Caves were closed at the time of visit because these bats were highly sensitive to human disturbance. The entire cave is in fact off limits from mid-May to mid-July yearly for pupping.

Miraculously, we made our way out of the Lower Caves without injury. A fellow hiker was not so lucky; he had cut his arm against a rock.

Oh well, worse things could happen.

It was back to the unbearable heat once we got out of the caves. Fortunately, the route back was a walk in the park, after our earlier uphill endeavour. 

Spotted the back view of a Blue Jay, as well as a couple of woodpeckers burying acorns, near the day use area. 

Once we got back to the car park lot, we grabbed our food from the trunk, flopped down by the roadside, and munched. Same batch of dry croissants and hard boiled eggs.

I was dead beat.
I think my prayers of finding at a new place to hike have been more than answered.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Boston: a beautiful walk into the past

We are zig-zagging across US almost every other week as part of our farewell tour, and our bodies are protesting: "Make up your mind! Tell us which time zone we should follow!"

Well, bodies, there are but more trips to come. We will try to load you with better food to make up for it.

Here's to our weekend in Boston!

Day 1 - Lexington, Concord, Minute Man, a night tour of Harvard

We took the red-eye flight on Friday night to save time, arriving groggily and bleary-eyed in Boston at 6am. Like our previous trip to San Diego, we bought a 2-Day Go Boston card so that we could make the most out of our 3D2N stay in Boston. This also meant brainless planning - just follow the main attractions on the card!

We were very fortunate that our hotel at Braintree had our room ready at such an early hour. We picked up our car, zoomed to the hotel, snoozed for an hour, then headed to Lexington for our Liberty Ride.

The drive took longer than expected because of bad traffic. Still, we managed to arrive in time for our 1pm ride in this little town - the birthplace of American liberty!

I read up a little on the American Revolution before visiting Boston, but nothing beats being at the actual venue where history took place. Our costumed guide gave us a blow-by-blow account of what transpired from the night of 18 April 1775 to that fateful day on 19 April 1775.

I love the drama of Paul Revere's midnight ride to warn Samuel Adams and John Hancock, and the readiness of the minutemen to fight for liberty.

Our trolley travelled from Lexington to Concord, going past the Battle Green, Buckman Tavern, and the Minute Man National Historical Park, just to name a few. We also stopped at North Bridge, where the first British fatalities happened and they had to retreat. I learned the famous 'shot heard round the world' from Ralph Waldo Emerson's Concord Hymn.

After the brilliant 90-min historical ride, we walked around the town of Lexington and took a closer look at the monuments at Battle Green. It was the beginning of Fall, and we were freezing from the chilly weather and light drizzle.

We also checked out the Minute Man National Historical Park before heading back to meet our friends, J and T, for dinner. It was near the Visitor Centre's closing time, so we were not able to view the video presentation.

(Nearly ran over two turkeys which were grazing by the roadside in Lexington. Of all my road trips, encountering turkeys just tops it off.)

It was pouring by the time we arrived back in Boston. We packed dinner at J's place because baby J had fallen asleep - a good thing too because it would be hard to find parking in that heavy rain.

After dinner, J, a professor at Harvard Business School, gave us a tour of the campus.

It was dark and wet when we reached but that just augmented my excitement. I love schools with a history, and Harvard is definitely on the list.

As expected, there weren't many students on campus at that time, but we did see a handful of wild bunnies on school grounds (where did all these animals come from?) J brought us through the quiet corridors and halls, as well as the classroom where he taught, as he explained how they run the MBA programme.

I was most impressed with the software. For example, they have a scribe in class to note down discussions and then key the data into a system, which runs all sorts of statistics to aide the professor's grading and assessment. Who answered what? Which rows should be called more often? Any subconscious assumptions or preferences that need to be addressed?

Fantastic classroom support for professors, effective classroom teaching for students, awesome jobs for alumni, big donations to school, more money to improve programme.

Virtuous cycle.

Day 2 - Quincy Market, Freedom Trail Walk, New England Aquarium, Legal Seafood

We did the smart thing - park and ride the 'T' into Downtown Boston.

Even with lower Sunday parking fees, it would be more convenient for us to move around with a subway pass. Plus, whole day parking at the 'T' is cheap at $4-$7 (list of garages here).

I also learnt from my mistake in Portland and did my research before taking the public transport. The 'T' has very clear signage and we reached town within 45 minutes (MBTA map here.)


We stopped at the Aquarium Station on the Blue Line to get the Beantown Trolley tickets. We were on Day 2 and the last day of our Go Boston card, but this trolley ticket allowed a 2-day access, which meant we could still use it on Day 3. An awesome deal, if you ask me.

While waiting to meet our guide for the Freedom Trail Walk, we checked out the nearby Quincy Market. The Sunday crowd was in and the cobbled streets were abuzz with activities.

Quincy Market is a prettier, cleaner Pike Place. I didn't have to queue too long for my New England Clam Chowder, but it was difficult finding a seat in the hall. I made do with eating while standing, before getting a table.

After lunch, we headed next door to Faneuil Hall for our Freedom Trail Walk. The Go Boston card came with a 90-min paid tour with the Freedom Trail Foundation, but there were also free guided tours and talks with the national parks service rangers.

We met 'Elizabeth Oliver', our lively costumed tour guide, and followed her through the Boston Massacre site, Old State House, Old South Meeting House, Old Corner Bookstore, Granary Burying Ground, Boston Commons (see full Freedom Trail map here).

The stories were fascinating. Did you know that back in the olden days, to identify a true Bostonian from an English spy, they would ask one another what's atop Faneuil Hall's weather vane? It's a grasshopper! (There's a time capsule inside, by the way.)

John Hancock was known to be highly jealous of George Washington, but he named his only son after Washington.

The famous phrase "Taxation without representation is tyranny" came from James Otis, a less well-known historical figure. He was buried in the same cemetery as Paul Revere. In his bonkers state, Otis told his sister he hoped that God would take him away in a flash a lightning when he dies.

His wish was granted a decade later.

Our guide also had us in stitches. "The pub across the street is the only place on Earth where you can drink a cold Samuel Adams, while looking at a cold Samuel Adams."

We were also invited to seat on the Democratic Donkey, and stand as the opposing Republican Elephant.

After the awesome Freedom Trail Walk, we strolled back to the waterfront to check out New England Aquarium.

I'm not an underwater animal lover (they are all slimy!) but the seals were so friendly, it was hard to ignore them. The penguins were not too bad either.

We took the 'T' back to Braintree and had dinner at Legal Seafoods, a famous seafood chain in Boston. I was tempted to play safe and order the sautéed mussels appetizer, but curiosity set in and I ordered the Lobster Bake. When it came, I nearly choked on my water.

One whole unshelled lobster sitting on my plate.

If there's one thing I'm scared of, it's seeing dead animals in their entirety on my plate. I imagined this dead body struggling and kicking moments before.

Still, I composed myself and did the tourist thing: posed for photos with my kill.

Then I gestured to the manager, trying not to look embarrassed. "So... how do I eat this? I don't know what to do with this."

"Well, we normally crack open the shell first," he began. Then, he noticed my hapless look. "You know what? I can get one of my staff to do the un-shelling for you." Top-class service.

The group at the neighboring table turned and asked with an incredulous look: "You have never eaten lobsters before?"

I gave a sheepish grin. Never one with its head and shells and everything on. And yes, we are from Singapore.

I think I just ruined my country's image.

Day 3 - Aboard the Beantown Trolley

On our last day, we decided to take the 2-hour Beantown Trolley ride. After checking out of our hotel, we drove to the parking garage at Wonderland, the end of Blue Line.

A word of advice on driving around Boston, according to my experience: Road signs are clear but sometimes they don't give you a lot of reaction time. Then, because of the angle some roads are laid out, I highly suspect I drove anti-direction a couple of times. Also, we lost our GPS signal in the myriad of tunnels. That cost us some time and an additional toll fee.

Oh yes, remember to stock up some cash for toll, and watch out for street parking which could be meant for residents only.

Despite mixed reviews of the Beantown Trolley, we had a pleasant trip. The tour guide cum driver did his best in giving a jovial presentation, but we could barely hear him with the wind blowing in our faces. We didn't mind though, because we just wanted to see more of Boston. 

My favourite is Charles Street at Beacon Hill. Some passengers got off at this stop. It seemed like a quaint place to shop and lunch.


I also got excited when we drove past Fenway Park. We watched the Red Sox movie, Fever Pitch!

Boston is known as a place for movies. We didn't join the movie tour but if you look hard enough, you will find familiar places.

We watched R.I.P.D and this stopped me in my tracks the day before. The shop where R.I.P.D officers got flushed out onto the street! It's a VCR shop in the movie, but I remembered the yellow front. I later verified that the movie was indeed shot at this Milk Street shop. Yay, spotted a 'celebrity'!

We planned to sneak in some time for the Swan Boats at the Public Gardens before heading to the airport, but it was too late by the time we ended our trolley ride. We had lunch at a cafe near the Old Corner Bookstore. Then, we popped by USPS to mail out a postcard to ourselves in Singapore.

This is something I want to do for all our trips. Preserving memories for posterity.


Thank you, Boston, for this lovely trip. You will be proud to know that you are the first place Panda said he wants to come back to in the future!