Neighborhood Grinds is the black hole of first dates

Citizens of the South Bay:

Don't doom your blind first date to failure.  Avoid Neighboorhood Grinds like the plague for those hope-filled adventures with members of the opposite sex who have an intriguing online dating profile.

Trust me on this one.  It won't work out.  I've seen it again and again and again.

Under different lights she'd be clever, fun and gorgeous--better than you expect.  In any other environment he'll be an engaging, witty and attractive gentleman--the quintessential keeper.

But, all potential goes out the window in this place. Maybe there's something in the coffee.

It will undoubtedly go down like this.

She'll ramble about absolutely nothing for 90 straight minutes.  He'll sit there and nod quietly like a lost puppy.
She'll gesture wildly.  He'll tap his foot nervously.
She's probably psychotic. He might have Asperger's.

And if you're going to get dinner, go to a fucking restaurant that serves real food.  The awkward silences as you each bite into stale panini bread that crumbles all over your shirts won't help the case for a second date.

Plus, you both will annoy me.

With concern,


PS  If you image google "terrible first date", Sean Hannity shows up on page 3.  Think of him next time you consider of blind dating at my coffee shop.


Hello father time, it's me, James.

I think I blinked away 3 months of time.  I had so much to do and then *poof*, I'm here...still with so much to do.  Just a big hazy blur in the rear view mirror.

Now I'm sitting in a coffee shop.  For the first time in forever.

In front of me is the marked up script that's calling me to finally revise.   LOOK AT ME!  LOOK AT ME!  FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, STOP IGNORING ME!  YOU'RE SO CLOSE!    But it needs sooooo much work.  Do I have the patience for you?

I turned it upside down so I won't have to look at it.  But red ink bleeds through the last page.  So much red ink.  Goddammit I bled all over this thing and now I don't even want to look at it.

I move it to the other side of the table...behind my laptop.

A neatly stacked pile of 30 pages sits underneath--the first act of a caper script I started way back when.  It's a pretty damn good start.  Why did I ever stop working on it?

I crane my neck to the left.  My red-inked opus stared back like a lost puppy.

Oh, that's right, for you.

I push the new script aside.  Cant dive back into something big.

I know, I'll check my macbook desktop?  Always something good abandoned there!

There's the short I started last month!

This could work.

*clicks open*  reading....reading....reading....

This is terrible.  Was I drunk....or....well let's leave it at drunk.  Must have been drunk.

Flipping through my notebook--good idea--bad idea--awful idea--fantastic idea--that'll never work--

Hmmm....commit to something new.  There's an idea.

Did the red-ink script just bark at me?

Oooo! here comes my sandwich--a tasty grilled turkey panini with brie and fresh spinach on the side.  This will be tasty!  Exactly what I need.  Obviously I can't create and eat.  Let's see what's on the Huffington Post...and facebook and...


Hike09: Half Dome (Part 2)

Did you miss part one of this adventure? Check it out here.

It was starting to get seriously warm. Thankfully relief came from shade created by the biggest trees I'd see the entire hike. Beyond that, the next section wasn't particularly interesting compared to other sights on this hike. No waterfalls. No cliffs. No rocks. Just a walk through the forest. Well...a walk up through the forest.

I had a decent a pace going--passing small groups along the way. It was great! I'd be back to Liz in no time. The decent pace turned into a poorly planned one when the heat caught up with me on a sunny stretch about a mile up. My tongue could have been out panting for all I know. I took a seat, drank a few big gulps of water (still had 3L left, so far, so good), and continued just a wee bit slower.

I eventually reached a trail junction. The John Muir trail continued straight--only 200 miles or so to Mt. Whitney! I opted for the other way....

For the 8th time Mr. Sign, I don't need a permit on a Tuesday. But thank you, AGAIN, for the reminder. And what happens if after hiking 7 miles you notice this sign for the first time? "Oh forgot the permits, honey! Let me just run back to the car!" Maybe 'Don't LOSE your permit' would make for a better message at this point. With that word 'forget', it's almost as if Mr. Sign is laughing at the poor saps.

Walking on, things were much as they had been since I'd last seen Liz. More forest. More up. I saw a gathering of people on the side of the trail a mile or so from the summit. Turns out this is the last place to find water on the hike. This is how all those super athletic types carrying a single water bottle make it. Reminds me to take a sip. My bottle is almost out. Off comes my pack. Ahhhhhh. That felt nice.

I look at the "spring". It reminds me of the bubbling mudpot water hole from Survivor Africa. One guy has this filter pump contraption sucking precious liquid into his camelback. It's gross. I fumble with my bag as members of the Water Filter Clique ignore me. Out comes one of my untapped 1.5L arrowhead bottles. I transfer liquid into my drinking bottle, secretly wanting them to be jealous of my unmudded water. That feeling vanishes when I pick up my back again. Uhhhhg. Oh great, now they ALL look at me. Yes, I did make a grunting sound. I think I'll be hiking now. I continue up the hill secretly wishing I had a filter pump and less cargo. See what happened there?

The switchbacks ended as the trail made a straight, steady climb up through the last bit of forest. Is this the hard part? I stopped for a breather 2 or 3 or 10 times.

"You're almost there!" Oh good. Thank you! I smile. A couple hundred more yards and I still don't see "there". The panting picks up again. And another breather.

Again I hear..."You're almost there!" Yay! I want to be almost there! Another couple hundred yards...what the...

Yet again...this time from a man as old as my grandfather who looks like he just stepped out of a cabin for the first time today...."You're almost there!" "FRACK YOU, OLD MAN!"

But then finally, through the trees....there it is....

Here the trail left thick forest and wrapped up and over a broad granite ridge. Is this the much fabled sub-dome climb? The old man said I was close. But it was way too easy. Hmmm. In any case it gifted me the first fully breathtaking altitude view of the hike. A nice strong breeze also helped cancel the hot sun for the first time since leaving Liz. After a short and unchallenging climb past this scenic viewpoint the trail became fairly flat--weaving through a handful of scattered pine trees.

And then I hit a wall...

800 steps on the face of the sub-dome were all that remained between me and the half-dome cables. Eight. Hundred. Steps. In the sun. With no shade. Some small. Some a foot high. Deep breath. Time for energy beans.

I back-tracked to the last shaded area before the steps. It looked like the camp of broken dreams. Small groups of people napping--waiting for friends and family who continued on. Others chatting. A few seemed a bit impatient as they wondered aloud where their people were. I thought of Liz. I hoped she was OK. About 90 minutes had passed since I last saw her.

With the trees and the curve of the trail, you don't see the view in the image above until you've already climbed a few steps. It was amusing watching people make the 180. As I started to climb the steps, I actually heard a "Oh, hells no!"

"Oh, hells yes, sir. Oh, hells yes."

I took my time. Everyone did. Not that it was possible to progress too quickly. Precarious footing, exhaustion, and stand-aside pauses for those coming down kept things slow. Fortunately, I got to see this each time I took a breather break...

When I finally stepped up onto the top of the sub-dome I stopped in awe of the final challenge ahead. I'm sure I looked like a frozen jackass with my mouth open.

I composed myself and convinced someone to document the moment...

Yes, it really is as steep as it looks. That's not an optical illusion.  

A very disgusting pile of used gloves is available at the bottom for those who neglected to bring their own. The long armed dish gloves are my favorite. Who packs dish gloves for something like this? I guess it's better than bare hands, but still.

In case you thought holding on to metal anchored into rock on one of the highest points in the area during a thunder storm was a good idea...

I didn't end up taking out a camera while hanging for my life on the traffic-jammed walk up...so this is the last shot before the summit. That's a lot of people. And none of them were moving. The problem is that there's barely enough space for one person to pass through each set of poles. Factor in those coming down and the packs most people were wearing and it's a tight squeeze. When someone going up freaks out and can't move--or more likely--becomes totally and completely exhausted, there's no way to go around. You just have to wait. Everyone has to wait.

It was almost exactly noon when I touched the cable for the first time. Feels like 5:30 rush on the 405 with a jackknifed tractor trailer. Would have been nice to arrive earlier, but what can you do? Well, wait. You can wait. The climb gets really steep really fast and before long you're figuring out the best way to stand to conserve energy between short bursts when the pack moves. I tried the side stand. I tried the lean forward. I tried the two hands on one cable. I tried the stand backwards. None of it works. It's not easy to hold yourself up on a 45 degree rock face. Making matters more frustrating are the occasional superstars who think they're special and show off by climbing up the outside of the cables. To return to our freeway analogy, it's the jackass in the Escalade speeding past traffic in the break down lane. Yes, I know that's legal in MA, but this highway has no guardrail.

I noticed gaps between people higher up the cables. Why aren't those people moving!? Oh wait....I see.... Stand on one of the wood planks between the poles and wait before you can advance to the next one. Much better..for a minute.

The higher you climb, the steeper it gets. What was an easier technique closer to the bottom becomes a downright single option necessity by halfway up. Even with the rickety pieces of wood to stand on, it's insanely tiring as the strength needed to pull myself to the next pole become increasingly difficult to find.

At a few spots you climb over ledges in the otherwise smooth rock.

About 75% of the way up, I hit empty. I did not have the gas to move another step. Just my luck...some large person higher up was having a 100% freak out. Thank god (for me, not her). I closed my eyes and tried to draw energy from somewhere in my body to make this final stretch. Deep breath.

Rat tat tata tatat tat tat rrrat tata tat tat...

I open my eyes. A water bottle bounces down the dome along the edge of the cables. It hits a bump in the granite and flies away from us--rolling very fast to the sheer face of half dome and then....it was gone. Somewhere, almost 5,000 feet below, there must be a big pile of water bottles. I thought back to the people climbing up outside the cables. Is that what happens to a body that falls? Gulp. Another big breath. And off I go...

It's clear ahead. Non-stop. Pull. Pull. Pull. Gasping for air. Gasping. Pulling. It's leveling out! Finally! I made it! Yay! Ugh! Tired! Heart attack! No, I'm just being dramatic. Tired. Never been this spent. I stumble through the pair of poles and through the points where the cables bolt into the granite. I lean on a rock and ignore the majestic beauty around me to let my body catch up to my heart beat. Or is it vice versa? My head is spinning. I have no idea.

In a few minutes I felt normal again. I checked the time--1PM. An hour just to get up the cables. Yikes. I don't think I'll be back by 2.

And then it hit me. I made it!

Time to explore. This is what I saw...

Looking east...

Looking down into Yosemite Valley to the west. Just left of center is El Capitan. Yosemite Fall can be seen in the distance center right. The rounded formation on the center left is Glacier Point.

We drove up to Glacier Point (7.214 ft) the day before hiking. Here's a reverse angle... Rock climbers go up the sheer face. While sitting for a snack break, I watched a few climb up over the ledge. It took them about six hours to make the climb...so just a wee bit faster than me.

Again facing west but behind the Diving Board. Apparently the big thing to do is climb out to the very edge for the super dramatic photo almost 5000 feet above the valley floor. I'll get mine when Liz and I complete the trek together next time.

A clearer view to the east. The high point nearly touching the clouds on the top right is appropriately named Cloud's Rest (9,926 ft). Somewhere in the mess of rock in the far left is an overlook on Tioga Road called Olmsted Point.

We drove Tioga Road into Yosemite two days earlier. Here's the reverse view from the 8300 ft overlook--just a bit lower than the Half Dome summit. This gives a better angle of the sub-dome in the foreground than the Glacier Point perspective. From where we parked for our hike to this overlook, it's almost 40 miles. By hot air balloon it's probably less than ten.

The summit was much broader than I expected.

I wonder...who was the first person to stack rocks for absolutely no reason on the top of a mountain? If I Godzilla this tower, would the rocks be stacked up again tomorrow? But what if the stacker is up here now? I could be tossed over the ledge if I'm caught. Better just leave it be.

There wasn't much vegetation at the top but these wildflowers found a way to creep through a crack in the granite.

A better view of Upper Yosemite Fall...

After what felt like minutes, an hour had passed. Too easy to get sucked in. But I didn't need any more time. I had the chance to take it all in from all sides. I walked around a bit. I zoned out a bit. I had a few snacks. Liz was waiting. I needed to go. From the top it looked like traffic might have eased a bit...

Yeah...no. Not the case at all. Traffic was just as suck. Going down however, is a billion times easier than going up. At one point when I was stopped, a caravan of highly prepared Asian kids went down on the outside of the cables. They used this double carabiner technique to lock in and clip around the poles--never fully disconnecting from the cable. And they moved with this perfect precision....lock on, lock off, lock on, lock off, lock on, lock off. There were six or seven of them in a line and it was an almost zen-like contrast to the show-off assholes going up. I didn't see a tumbling bottle disaster in their future.

I passed an interesting college-aged couple going up. He was waring shorts and no shirt. Whatever. She was decked out in a full late 70's/early 80's red, white and blue bikini with some sort of bright colored headband. We were all logjammed at the same point and the guy in front of me asked if she was Danish. He said she sounded like she had an accent. I didn't hear one and she was borderline offended. "I'm American! What Dutch girl wears a patriotic bikini!?" I wanted to ask 'who dresses like an extra from a Sugar Ray video for a 17 mile hike?' but kept that one to myself since the clog was starting to clear.

After passing the Retro Beach Team, it was smooth sailing . 3PM now. These hours are falling off fast. And I still had at least 4 miles to Liz. It started with a stretch across the sub-dome and then back to the 800 steps down.

The sub-dome is much of the same going down. It's hard to pass people. The footing is tough. And if you don't like heights, you're screwed since there's no where to look but down.

After the sub-dome, I book it down the 3 miles of wooded trail that gave me heartburn going up--past the muddy watering hole, past the John Muir Trail junction. I picked it up to a jog in some places. Felt nice to let gravity pull me down. They say it's terrible for your knees but I didn't care...hopping around slow pokes with excuse-me and pardon-me yells half a dozen times. I had someone waiting for me, afterall.

On this section, a girl with a clipboard who I assumed to be a National Park Foundation volunteer was sitting on a boulder next to the trail--keeping notes on who was coming and going. 550 people had walked past her so far--already more than the 500 limit on the friday-sunday permit days. No wonder there was traffic on the cables. Last year they saw over 1200/day on a holiday weekend. Yikes. I couldn't even imagine. Looks like Mr. Sign might have value every day next season if they start requiring permits daily.

I hiked back into Little Yosemite Valley excited to see Liz again...only she wasn't there. No one was there. Hmmm....

Well...there was this deer...

I hiked another mile to the top of Nevada Fall...what would I do if Liz wasn't waiting. It was nearly 4PM at this point...six hours after I last saw her. Did something happen? Is she OK? Could she have walked back to the car?

I rounded a corner and there she was. Smiling and well rested.

I apologized for taking so long. And we shared tales of our adventures. For Liz that involved hanging out by the waterfall, writing, calling her mother--yes her phone worked--I looked at my brand new iPhone4 and saw that there continued to be no signal. She had tried to text me multiple times. I never received a single one. Odd.

At that we started the journey back down to our car, moving pretty fast the whole way. Liz annoyed an older woman who refused to let us pass and a family with six kids that walked at a snail's pace through the pouring rainy chaos below Vernal Fall.

With a mile to go on the last section of pavement to the trailhead, we looked like battle-worn refuges compared to the cleanly dressed families, elderly couples and running children scampering about. Liz's poles clanked the pavement with each step--drawing strange stares by those who were confused by the idea that people actually go hiking in a National Park.

Finally...we touched ground on the valley floor...

Our ride was still almost a mile away--a long, slog of a mile. The closed parking lot from the morning was now open and mostly empty. We reached the car at 6PM--12 hours after starting. According to the pedometer I had walked about 19 miles and I felt it. The car looked like an oasis--our chariot to a hot shower, a hot meal and a soft bed. As we loaded up, a couple passing us on bikes yelled over, "How was it?"

"Awesome. Perfect. Exhausting."


Hike09: Half Dome (Part 1)

4AM is early.  Even when you know you need to get up, it's early.  Even when you're excited for the day ahead, it's early.  Damn early.  Bleary-eyed doesn't quite grasp the visual of the two of us stumbling around a dark, unfamiliar cabin at that hour.  Yet we still managed to get our pre-packed gear into the car.

No McMuffin stop would be available this morning, so we made our own breakfast sandwiches the prior night--easy to heat quickly right before running out the door.  An hour after rising we were in the car driving to the trailhead about 40 minutes down a curvy mountain park road that at times (thanks to construction) became gravel.   As we reached the trailhead parking, our first moment of concern hit us.  The roadblocked lot was full--ALREADY!--at quarter to 6AM.  We U-turned and found a spot along a road half a mile away. With this minor glitch, we'd already extended our journey by a mile before taking a single step.

We left the car and started our bonus road hike to the trailhead (Elevation 4093).  There were plenty of people out and about.  Judging by the sizes (or lack) of packs, some were clearly embarking on much longer treks with others just on a morning stroll.  We found the Happy Isles trailhead and stopped for a bathroom break and confirmed to each other a plan that had been decided a few days earlier.

Liz wasn't going to summit today.  A couple nights earlier she re-stressed the ever-troubling hip in Mammoth.  It sucked.  The disappointment was overbearing but after a long conversation, we couldn't talk ourselves into making it a realistic option. So the plan was Liz would hike to the top of Nevada Fall and hang out there and in Little Yosemite Valley while I continued on the second half of the hike.  We knew her part of the trek would be no walk in the park...it's quite the climb itself so getting there would still be an accomplishment--but resting for a few hours would give her hip time to relax without stressing it into any danger zone.   She brought a journal and a book to pass the time--not that the views and nature couldn't cut it alone.  Did I say a "few" hours?  Heh...well, more on that later.

Off we went, up the trail--or path at this point as the first mile is paved.  Paved might sound nice in theory but I'd almost rather walk up steep dirt over steep pavement.  You can dig into dirt and earth with each step.  (I didn't say loose talus--that stuff blows.)   Apparently it was paved for access well before I was born, although pushing someone in a wheelchair up this hill would be a nightmare. 

The sheer glacier carved cliffs around us looked gorgeous at this hour with long shadows and a very early morning yellow hue painting the walls.  Didn't see many animals but heard a symphony of various birds making sure the world knew they were awake.

We climbed along the edge of the Merced river for a mile that felt like two until a break point came at a bridge (elevation 4464) down river from 350 ft Vernal Fall.   A great place for a breather, this bridge is probably the stopping point for a good number of people exploring this corner of Yosemite valley.  

At this hour though, no one around us seemed to be up for such a short trip.  (From experience with my parents when they visit, I'm sure a few east coast early birds who hadn't adjusted to the time difference were in the mix too.  "It's 9AM, my time!")  

Across the bridge is the last potable water on the trail.  I refilled my water bottle--14 miles of hiking remained between now and when we'd reach the water again.  We--of course--used the bathroom and started up the Mist Trail.  The pavement ended and before we knew what was happening we were walking up a trail of constructed steps along the edge of a granite cliff with a raging river below and a massive waterfall ahead.

A little side bar---we originally planned to hike a day earlier on our first full day in the park, but Yosemite valley was a scorching 98!!!! degrees.  Zoinks, that's hot (and it felt it.)  So we spent the day checking out sites that didn't require strenuous effort and had a few afternoon drinks at the Ahwahnee hotel bar.  It wasn't supposed to be quite as hot today, but 90 or a bit more wasn't out of the question.  The higher country where we'd be mid-day is about 10 degrees cooler, so a bit more manageable.  This day started out cool.  As we started this section of the trail around 7AM it couldn't have been more than 65 degrees with a crisp breeze helping to make it feel even cooler than that.  They call it the Mist Trail for a reason as we very quickly discovered.

Before you have a chance to see the fall up close, you hear the roar and shortly after that the moisture starts to dance on your skin.  We took a moment to secure and seal our bags (including cameras--sorry for the lack of images on this section).  We had a few cheap ponchos with us but decided not to bother.  I thought it'd be a better plan to store my long sleeve in the bag and let my t-shirt (not cotton, thank god) get wet.  How wet could we get?

It should be called the monsoon trail.  After rounding a corner near the base of the falls the onslaught of drenching begins.  The rock steps are soaked.  Pools of water are everywhere.  We. Got. Wet.

At a halfway point, a little rock outcrop provides a bit of shelter.  We were both shivering worse than an alleycat in a hurricane.  On we forged through the second half and, as if turned off by magic, the waterfall rain comes to an abrupt end.  After a hundred or so mercifully bone-dry steps, we reached the top of Vernal Fall (Elevation 5062). Glorious.

Looking back down on the mist trail...

We took a short snack and camera break and plowed ahead. Still climbing, the grade wasn't too severe...calm before the storm of sorts.  By the time we got to the Silver Apron Bridge (elevation 5204) to carry us back over the Merced below Nevada Fall, we had completely dried off thanks to the rising and warming sun.  It wasn't yet what I'd call hot, but the sun--now rising above the ridges--was strong.  I put on my lightweight long sleeve for cover and protection.  (Today was the first time I'd worn long sleeves on a hot weather hike). Liz already had hers on.

As we got closer to Nevada Fall a bit of mist filled the air, but now being on the opposite side of the river, it was just a minor cooling vs the drenching earlier. After a short section we were out of the wet breeze--but caught an impressive double rainbow in the mist cloud.  This guy would have loved it.  

The next section carried us up a steep stretch of granite switchbacking steps up the cliff's edge next to Nevada Fall.  There was a lot of stop-and-go up this breathless section until we eventually huffed over the final ledge up to level ground.   A short 1/4 mile detour took us over to a fantastic view from the top of Nevada Fall and then we headed back to the trail to continue on to Little Yosemite Valley where there's a campground and plenty of open space.  

The campground was about a mile up the trail and the elevation gain isn't too severe.  Unfortunately the gain was condensed over the first 1/4 mile...so Liz's hip pain and exhaustion started to catch up. She told me to go on knowing that I needed to keep a good pace.  We kissed goodbye and off I went--expecting to see her again in a few hours.   (A few....riiiiiight.)

Approaching Little Yosemite Valley (elevation 6095), I passed a mule pack going the other direction.  I stepped aside as 10-15 mules with three riders passed me with a dusty wake.  I always wondered how they transported supplies up to the remote ranger stations and campgrounds.  And there was the answer, marching right by.  I stopped at the last bathroom on the trail.  The ranger was unloading toilet paper that I assumed were just delivered by the mule pack.  I'd never seen so much TP at a toilet.  Inside there must have been 25 rolls with another several dozen stowed in a riser up above.  And I was in only one room of this big four-seat composting commode.  Guess those deliveries don't come daily.

Back to the trail I went and just as I was about to begin the last 3.5 steep miles to half dome--lo-and-behold--there was Liz, approaching the campground behind a few slow hikers.  I smiled.  The chance for an additional goodbye was nice.  We kissed again.  "See you in a few hours for real this time," I said.  "Be safe and careful," she replied.  I nodded. "A few hours. If I'm not here, I'll be at the top of Nevada Fall."  And with that I was off.  I checked my phone....no signal.  She better be there when I get back. Doesn't look like I'll be able to call...or text...or anything.  The clock on my phone said 10AM.  Few hours?  We threw around 1PM as a possibility.  I said let's plan on 2.   

I wouldn't see Liz again for over six hours.  Did I just ruin the cliffhanger?   Or did I just tease the intensity that remains? 

Hiked so far...almost 6 miles up 2,000 feet.
Left til the summit....almost 3 miles and another 2,800 feet.
And then the fun hike down.

To be continued....

The adventure continues... Check out part 2 here.