Dare Mighty Things: Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles

A friend who works as an aeronautical engineer at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in La Canada, California (just above the Rose Bowl near Pasadena) offered to give us a tour of the campus. We said yes!

Sound Stage? for Mars Production?
Sound Stage? for Mars Production?

There is a considerable amount of security, as there should be for a partnership between CalTech and NASA that does research for space and “security programs”.  We started our tour at a kind of visitor’s center. We walked past a herd of deer placidly lounging on the grass completely unperturbed.

The place is empty on a Saturday. It is easy to imagine what a weekday might be like with every cubicle full, and engineers conducting experiments in the viewing areas. Our host, John Luke, showed us one area that they use to figure out how to get the Mars Rover unstuck. However, it also looks like the perfect sound stage if you wanted to fake a Mars landing!  All the conspiracy theorists who think we have never been to the moon would love it.

JPL Open House traditionally in June, may resume if funding permits
JPL Open House traditionally in June, may resume if funding permits

I found the organization of the place fascinating from the kinetic sculptures to the tennis court sized area for larger drop tests. I love their motto: Dare Mighty Things.  John Luke works on the Mars Landing team. He is very enthusiastic about the designs they are devising to ensure the Rover makes a soft landing.

You do not have to know a rocket scientist to tour JPL.  Public tours are available and if funding approves they will resume their annual open house in June.  (Like Disneyland for aspiring scientists!)


Fight On! University of Southern California Homecoming Football

The Coliseum was rapidly filling with red and yellow-gold clad fans. We joked as we parked next to “USC Surplus” that the surplus was for the millions of different USC shirts we saw fans wearing as they streamed along the sidewalk.  In the stadium the diversity was greater: little girls and coeds were wearing song girl uniforms; men and boys were wearing football jerseys; t-shirts with messages abounded, including my favorite, Keep Calm and Fight On!

USC vs Stanford at Homecoming in the Los Angeles Coliseum
USC vs Stanford at Homecoming in the Los Angeles Coliseum

Campus was packed fountain to fountain with tailgaters, students and alumni–more crowded than I had ever seen, even at graduation.  We were all a bit overwhelmed and found a quieter place at the food court near the bookstore to rest for a moment and enjoy conversation before the game.

We joined the throngs headed for the stadium about 4:20.  It is normally only a 10-minute walk to Exposition Park, but on this day the crowds slowed to a shuffle and the new light rail metro on Exposition Boulevard added an additional complication.

The official start time was 5 p.m. as the game against nationally ranked Stanford was televised.  About then, we sat in the seats we bought through Stub Hub and watched the USC Marching Band perform a pre-game show.  I was tickled since I enjoy the band as much (or more) than the football. The clock on the scoreboard indicated that there was about 14 minutes to kickoff.  The color guard presented and the band played America the Beautiful and the national anthem.

USC won the coin toss and chose to receive.  The clock was reset to 15:00 and we were off on the rollicking ride of Trojan football.  It is more active than a Catholic church service, without the kneeling. Stand up, sit down, make some noise, make a lot more noise, stand up again.  There were many exciting plays and the jumbo-tron made watching the game easier with replays but sometimes I got caught up watching the screen instead of the field.

The song girls looked great. Our majestic mascot Traveler makes an appearance whenever a touchdown is scored, so he galloped out twice in the first half.

Best Mascot Ever!
Best Mascot Ever!

The real excitement for me was at halftime.  The rivalry between the Leland Stanford Jr. University “Marching” Band and the USC Marching Band is long standing. The Stanford band is like one big inside joke. Their show was true to non-form.  Then our band took the field and put on a show, including the impressive Leland Stanford Junior Countermarch. (link to YouTube video of 2011 performance)

Ultimately, in spite of losing the last 4 games to Stanford, losing our coach mid-season (for the better), cast as the underdogs against the nationally ranked team, the Trojans triumphed with a last minute 47-yard field goal.  Pandemonium ensued.  The fans deserve some credit for the win as their enthusiasm never flagged.

I am a proud Trojan alumna of the University of Southern California living in Northern California. I have only been to a handful of football games since I graduated and mostly at Cal Berkeley or Stanford.  After my 25 year reunion, I decided that if I had the opportunity, I would take my children to watch a game in the Los Angeles Coliseum.  Mission accomplished.

Rockclimbing in Jo Tree

The azure sky is so clear we can see a jet stream from a passing plane for miles. The crisp November air and the warm sun, sand and rock are perfect for a climbing lesson for my two sons.  We are at Trashcan Rock in Quail Springs, Joshua Tree National Park.

Climbing Filch with an audience.
Climbing Filch with an audience.

My brother Dean scrambled up the backside to set up the anchor and belay rope and then helped the young men get their shoes and other equipment together.  We watched my over-50 brother give us a climbing demonstration.  With great concentration and arm muscles tense and bulging, he climbed up the face using his feet and hands. We all mentally compared his physical exertion with our own fitness, and I found myself lacking.

Marcos climbed first. Marcos called out “Climbing,” and Dean replied “Belay on.” Marcos made it look relatively easy. He has climbed before but always in an indoor climbing gym, not on an actual rock.  Before too long he was approaching the top.

Joshua Tree NP, named after the unique plant, is a special place.
Joshua Tree NP, named after the unique plant, is a special place.

Tevis climbed next and he worked harder in the beginning to find a way to use his feet more effectively.  Learning to climb on a 5.6 face is challenging and each climber took breaks by “falling” and letting the rope hold them.

Marcos climbing Filch.
Marcos climbing Filch.

We relied on Bob Gaines, Best Climbs Joshua Tree National Park in the “Where to Climb Series.”  The first climbs were on the east face, “Filch”, which Bob Gaines suggests, “Begin off a boulder. Climb the wide crack to thinner jamming.” Then one of the other routes opened up so we moved around to the west face.

There are 13 routes on the west side.  We had time to eat fried chicken while Dean moved the anchor rope, or static line. Tevis climbed B2 next. He worked to stay out of the fissure while still using the crack to help him climb to the top.

Joshua Tree attracts climbers, hikers and picnic eaters from around the globe. Two Belgians were free climbing (no ropes) on other routes near us. A variety of people stopped to watch.  It is a calm, relaxing sport to watch—opposite of the intensity felt by the climbing team.

Everyone is safety conscious--including Nigel.
Everyone is safety conscious–including Nigel.

The biggest risk of rock climbing for the spectator is sunburn.  Do not be like me—remember your sunscreen.  The most common injury to a climber is scraped knuckles, called a gobie. Pack bandaids.

Joshua Tree National Park is 140 miles from Los Angeles and the nearest airport is Palm Springs. Accommodations are more limited and more affordable in Yucca Valley than greater Palm Springs.  The park entrance is $15 for a 7 day vehicle pass (bargain!).

Nomad Ventures in the town of Joshua Tree rents shoes and some gear; not harnesses or ropes.  I googled “rock climbing lessons, Joshua Tree” and 7 schools came up, so if you do not have a big brother who can teach you, check one of these out.

Viewing a Tour de France Start: Givors, 2013

July 14 is Bastille Day and I am in Lyon looking for signs of the holiday: flags, bunting, fireworks for sale. It is also Sunday and most shops are closed and celebrations appear to be confined to a community fireworks show after dark. Fortunately the trains are running on time and I was able to get up early and catch the 7:30 a.m. train to Givors to watch the start of Stage 15.

This is going to be a brutal day of cycling. At 7:30 I did not need any kind of jacket and it is likely to be 39 degrees (C) in 242.5 kilometers on the top of Mont Vonteux. When my blistered feet bark at me I tell them they could be pedalling up Mont Vonteux and they are silenced.

Too bad I don't read French!
Too bad I don’t read French!

I arrived at Givors Ville (zhee-vor vee) at 8:00 a.m. and went straight into the heart of the village for a chocolate croissant and coffee. I appreciated that every shop specializes and that they prize quality over convenience as I buy the croissant at the La Patisserie and then schlep across to the coffee bar.  At 8:20 I felt braced for the long wait to 10:45 start.  I scouted possible viewing sites and the crowd was still light but the railings were already full.

I climbed a low wall and decided my view was just right.  The parade started and I did not want to miss any of the fun while looking for a better spot.  Everyone around me spoke very little (no) English and my 3 French vocabulary words may have doubled in the last 24 hours but could not support conversation.

The sponsors entertain the waiting spectators with floats and decorated cars and by throwing free hats, energy bars, water, and other sponsor stuff at the crowd. Everyone was enjoying the morning. Thankfully the spot I choose stayed in the shade most of the morning.  Personal space means something different in France and my first squeeze in was a from an older man with a cane who sat on the wall (and on my foot). He was so cheerfully trying to talk to me in French even after I said, with a very bad accent “No parlez vous France.” He said “No parlez vous Englais” and happily continued to speak to me in French. The young woman on the other side of me did her best to translate but her English was very limited. No matter. Trying to catch prizes and hooting and hollering for favorite cycling stars is a universal language.

Stage 15 starting line in Givors on Bastille Day.
Stage 15 starting line in Givors on Bastille Day.

There were several French “artistes” that my next French interloper, who leaped on the wall where I swore there was no space, cheerfully pointed out to me (easy since he was right next to my right ear).  I was thrilled to see the great Eddy Merckx, 5 time winner of the TdeF and holder of record for most stage wins.  Also saw Bernard Hinault up close. You may have seen him on television. As the director of external affairs he is always managing the podium awards ceremony at the end of every stage. His nickname is “The Badger” and he is the author of our word of the trip: poleaxe.  My son Tevis and I watched the Tour in Norway and we saw a brief bio of Bernard Hinault. He is one tough cookie: he rode through a line of striking miners who attempted to block the Tour and leapt off his bike and started swinging. Then a few years ago some protestor thought he would make a statement by interrupting the presentation of the yellow jersey. Hinault did not hesitate and “poleaxed” the protestor (knocked him right off the stage).  Tevis liked the word so much that he has managed to use the word everyday so far.

At about 10:10 the bicyclists began lining up and signing in. Then they moved to the starting line. Earlier than expected, at our 10:30 the red light started flashing on the Program Director’s car and whoof! They began the controlled start and were away.  Just like that the air was out of the balloon and everyone started packing up, including the pros who are in charge of all of the logistics for this mega event.

With a glow of satisfaction I headed to the train station.  When I got there I noticed a group of 3 Canadians looking at signatures on a Canadian flag. Hoping they spoke English I went over and introduced myself and asked them how they got the signatures. One of the them, the young woman in the group, was following the tour for several weeks. She had the most success getting signatures by standing by the area where the riders sign in (and it helps to be a woman as there are few female fans). The guys where were from Manitoba and Ottawa said they had to wear team jerseys and hats to get riders attention. Today they got Dan Martin’s signature, the Irish rider who won an earlier stage.  They were so enthusiastic and were having such a good time without paying a bunch of money for special credentials.  Made me start thinking about future years…

Back in Lyon I wanted to find a place to watch the rest of the Tour with English commentary. So I asked the desk clerk if she could recommend an Irish Pub. She wanted to argue and say they would not be showing the Tour in English. I just asked her to mark the map and I would take my chances. Here I am at Johnny’s Kitchen (Irish pub restaurant) watching the Tour on BBC EuroSport sans air conditioning.

It is hot here so I cannot imagine what it is like on Mont Vonteux that looks like a moonscape and is known for its wind. Add a million CRAZY fans and Bastille Day. I pity the riders. The nasty part of the climb is the last 20 kilometers and the BBC announcers expect Chris Froome (UK, Team Sky)  to kick butt. I hope he does. I like his quiet modesty. There are not as many American fans here and fewer American riders. The drug scandal that rocked Lance Armstrong’s world took out most of the experienced American riders as well. They are out for the season or retired.

In preparation for the trip I started reading Tyler Hamilton’s autobiography. It is a demoralizing read and scary to see what people will do to their bodies (or ask their athletes to do) in pursuit of competitive victory and cash. Mt Ventoux has been mixed up with drugs historically. A Frenchman, Jean Mallejac, collapsed and later recovered in 1955 due to amphetamines.  And this is the mountain where Tom Simpson died due to drug use in 1967; the determined cause amphetamines and alcohol. In 2000, Lance Armstrong and Marco Pantani raced to the top fueled by doped blood.

I suspect that this haunted finish did not dampen my enthusiasm because even with drugs this race is a brutal test of human endurance.  For example, today’s climb is 1512 meters over about 20 km. At 20 km marker, Sylvain Chavanel is the first of the breakaway to cross.  No one expects him to beat Froome, Quintana, Contador and Valverde.  The gap is already closing.

Oh my gosh, Chris Froome has thrown down the gauntlet at 7 km and pedaled away like he was on the flat. He is superhuman. Only Quintana is with him at 3 km. Contador has battled back to just 30 seconds behind but the rest of the GC rider are more than a minute back. The BBC announcers are over the moon. They say the toughest part is yet to come. What? Stairs?

Contador has fallen back to 51″ at 1.6 km.  Who will win the stage? Will Quintana and Froome battle for the finish?  No gifts today, Froome just took off at 1.3 km. Froome did it! He beat Quintara by 31″ and Contador by 1’40”.  It will take a lot longer for everyone to finish. EPIC day.

Post Script: The next day was a rest day and Chris Froome was buffeted by questions at the morning press conference about possible drug use. It seems a bit unfair to be accused without any evidence, such is the legacy of the cheaters.

Viewing a Tour de France Finish: Lyon, 2013

I began taking an interest in the Tour de France when Greg LeMond won his first of three Tour de France races in 1986. He was from the Sacramento area and the Sacramento Bee dedicated lots of column inches to his racing. After a few years I began watching it from morning till night–each stage several times–on Versus cable channel. In the fall of 2012, the 100th Tour de France route was announced and I realized that I had the means to see it in person. I called a friend who knows France and determined to focus on a City that offered a finish and a start and settled on Lyon. And that is how I found myself in Lyon France on July 13 to witness the finish of Stage 14.

It was thrilling! We walked a couple of kilometers towards the finish line near the Stade de Gerland (soccer stadium). We were only 1.5 hours before the expected arrival of cyclists. We spent the morning seeing historic Lyon and watched the middle of the race on television. The race route in Lyon was a challenge with one section that looked like Lombard Street in San Francisco, and several hard turns into the last kilometer.  When we left the television we knew there was a breakaway (a group of riders that rides away from the Peleton or the main group of riders), but we did not know if they would be caught. In anticipation of a possible sprint, we picked a spot at the 1 kilometer marker where sprints often get serious and began our vigil.

I learned later from some seasoned Tour followers from Canada, to see the finish near the finish you need to camp out at about 8 a.m. and wait. We missed a lot of the parade (goes by about 2 hours before the finish). The announcers spoke in French, of course. Our neighbor at the barrier spoke a little English and translated. Then we learned he was from Bulgaria and spoke only a little French as well. Still better than our limited vocabulary.

Our Bulgarian friend said that the announcer was mainly telling us to keep our arms and bags behind the barrier and other safety warnings.  Gradually the announcer became more excited and began shouting his announcements with the name “Julien Simon” repeated frequently.  The official cars stopped roaring by and we began to only see gendarmes, then photographers, then we could hear the crowd roar let us know that they were seconds away.

The breakaway was still away! The first couple of riders came on our side of the street and periously close to us. Then there were a few stragglers (still going VERY fast) including American Teejay Van Garderen of BMC.  Several minutes passed and then the crowd roar sounded again and we say the police motor bikes and suddenly, boom: the peleton led by Team Sky and the yellow jersey on Chris Froome. Wow.

I did not learn the actual winner until we got back to the hotel.  Matteo Trentin of Omega Pharma-Quickstep (Mark Cavendish’s team) won the stage.  Julien Simon was close and said in an interview that if there had been a few more turns in the course it might have been a different result. Meanwhile all of the other standings remained the same.

If you are not familiar with the classifications: Overall leader of the Tour with the lowest time wears the Yellow jersey and is currently Chris Froome with a 2’35” lead; the sprinters compete for the green jersey and because there are points along the route and not just for top finishing, Peter Sagan is in green; the King of the Mountains wears red polkadots on a white jersey and Pierre Rolland is KofM; the best young rider, Michal Kwiatkowski of Omega Pharma-Quickstep, must be under 23 and wears white.

After the excitement of the peleton, we walked to the actual finish line to see the set up. I bought souvenirs. My son Tevis had work to do so he peeled back to the hotel. I walked back along the course and stopped for a cold Diet Coke. I relaxed at an outside table and enjoyed a interesting conversation with a couple from Britain who earn a living transporting bicycles for tour groups and follow le Tour on their motorbikes.

I was hooked and wanted more Tour, so when I got back to the hotel I figured out the options for taking the train to Givors in the morning to view the start of Stage 15.

Post Script: Velo reported in the September issue: “It was Trentin’s first win of the Tour –the fourth for OPQS, following Cav’s pair of sprint wins and Martin’s TT victory– and his first win, period, since 2008. Trentin was considering going back to university, but instead opted to race for another year; it turns out he secured a different education, this one at the Tour.’

“When you work alongside a rider like Cavendish, you learn a thing or two,” Trentin said, “I just waited patiently and unleashed my sprint with 100 (meters) to go.”

Jump into Ireland, Jump into Belfast

I am missing Belfast, Northern Ireland. You are only surprised by that statement if you have never been. I have been lucky enough to spend considerable time in Belfast both on vacation and on Habitat for Humanity Global Village builds for two weeks at a time.

New Titanic Museum in Belfast
New Titanic Museum in Belfast

For a period of about 10 years I flew to Ireland about every 18 months. Every experience was special.  The first trip was a 4 days in Dublin. Epic. Then I won a trip to Ireland at the Sacramento Irish American Club’s St. Patrick’s Day party. My friend Cameon and I drove around the island with a quick trip through Nor Ireland. We laughed our way through learning to shift the car and drive on the other side. We had such fun.

Shortly after that I was invited to join a Habitat build with Northern Ireland Habitat for Humanity. It was a life changing experience. It was 2000 and the Troubles were technically ended by the peace process, but the evidence of strife was still easy to find. That was part of the attraction–amazing, wonderful people amidst political conflict. Oh, and did I mention that Northern Ireland is beautiful. On that same trip I climbed the Giant’s Causeway and hiked to the Belfast Caves.

I had the opportunity to hear Van Morrison live in his home town, and Brian Keenan to read from his latest book at a literary festival. The disturbing political murals are a reminder that peace is a process, not a single vote. Every visit provides signs of progress.  I am in love with Derry (slash Londonderry) and spent a wild day in a thunder shower (technically in Donegal) after passing soldiers with automatic rifles patrolling the border. I walked in a St Patrick’s Day parade in Downpatrick where the great saint is buried.

I made several subsequent trips to build homes or to visit friends. In a recent issue of Afar magazine I spied an ad for Ireland that featured the new Titanic Belfast museum. The Titanic was built in Belfast shipyards. It does not hold any fascination for me, and yet I will go one day.

Maybe one day soon. I am keen to see friends and ride my bike up to the Habitat work site.  I am looking into a flying visit before I report to Yorkshire for the first stage of Tour de France 2014.

That’s So French

I have been learning French phrases using the Memrise application on my tablet. One of the phrases that does not make sense to me, “je pourrais etre americain” is translated as “I think I am an American.”  When would I not be sure?

My Friend Maigret
My Friend Maigret

I was laughing about it with a friend and he remarked that it makes sense if you speak French. And at some intuitive level I know what he means.

I just finished a mystery by Georges Simenon, My Friend Maigret, written in French in 1949. It is unusual in that Chief Inspector Maigret is called into solve a case but instead of approaching the case in the tradition of other English-style mysteries by examining the body and the scene of the crime, and so forth. Instead he meanders around the island casually observing people and consuming copious amount of alcohol. Amazingly he manages to figure out who committed the crime relying on his sense of things, without evidence. It was not a very long book so I read it in a day and it gave me a hint of how different the experience will be from other places I been.

It is hard to describe that sensibility that is so French. It is passion, nuance, and sensuous pleasure. Frenchness is a feeling not a thought. This is what makes the Tour de France the premier bike race in the world–the verve, vineyards, sunflowers, and the special pain.