Real time, Just in Time

I finally finished posting about my big trip. I hope that I can stay a bit more current now. Today was technically my first day of school. It was mostly an orientation-type meeting. Nevertheless, I was so excited about my first day of school that I woke up an hour early and could NOT go back to sleep. (Unheard of!) I had a great day. I think the highlight of it was when I was having a conversation with a friend/collaborator and some question came up about how the BLAST alignment algorithm works, and I said, “Oh, well, I’ll just run downstairs and ask Ian Korf!” Davis is awesome.

Anyway, here’s a random video I just came across that I took with my camera while I was sorting flies with Spencer Johnston. Indecisive little bugger, isn’t he? (Not Spencer, the inchworm!)

Fly Hunt: Last Leg

We left Vegas, and drove straight home. I was mildly hungover and totally exhausted. Nothing noteworthy happened (I slept a lot, while Saint Justin drove the whole way.) I’ll just post some pictures here.

North of Vegas:


Leaving Nevada:

Cool rocks:
Somewhere in here we enter California:
Welcome home!

Fire damage:

Sailboat on Mono Lake:

California’s happy cows:

Going up (looking back down) the Sonora Pass (my car was maxing out at 20mph here!)

Beautiful river:

Sunset. Trip’s over!

Fly Hunt: College Station to Las Vegas (Part Two)

Day two: I woke up at about 8:30 am, feeling reasonably refreshed. I figured I’d have breakfast in Roswell, but I didn’t get there until lunch time. At some point, I saw female (or was it male??) fruit-fly genitalia in the cloud formations and realized that I was D.O.N.E. with flies. I had to keep my cooler stocked with ice, but other than that – no more. So, now I was just trying to getting to Vegas in time for a drink. Ha! I know – it’s always time for a drink in Vegas (as I later discovered while drinking a Pina Colada for breakfast,) but I’ll say no more about that, as what happens in Vegas…

Roswell was just as cheesy as I’d remembered it, with alien heads for streetlights and “Aliens Welcome” lettered on the Arby’s sign, and “out of this world” omelets. I’d always passed through at night before, and I like it less in the morning light. I tried to check my email at the Civic Center, but I couldn’t connect to their wireless network. I left without eating breakfast. Actually, I’d stopped in Tatum for coffee and ice (for the cooler,) so my appetite was duly suppressed. I thought Tatum was a pretty neat, quintessential New Mexican town. There was obviously a metalwork artist in residence, as every street had a cool metalwork street sign, with a coyote or cactus or something on it. I really liked those signs, AND there were a ton of motorcyclists cruising around. I apparently, as a convertible driver, was welcome into their ranks. “I’ve got a convertible, too!” says one of the silver ponytail guys gathered at the gas station. And, I often got the little hand wave off to the side and down a bit that is typically reserved for their own kin. Maybe it was just the camaraderie of being out on those lonely roads together. I mean, I guess you don’t really find yourself in Tatum if you’re not on a proper road trip.

Leaving Roswell, I entered the part of New Mexico that I love the best. Crazy cactus forests and gorgeous vistas of the mountains in the distance. I drove through Lincoln, “the home of Billy the Kidd” and that was not only beautiful country (by now I was in the foothills of those distant mountains,) but it had this great western frontier feel to it. I think it’s a very well-preserved historic town. You really feel like you stepped back in time a bit. Plenty of signs to let you know what you’re seeing, but no gas stations to sell you trinkets. I stopped in Capitan for some New Mexican food, which I had been craving all day. I ate at El Paisano, a friendly family-run restaurant, with a somewhat upscale decor and the prices to go with it. It wasn’t outrageous, but I think my lunch (with water) was over $10. I got a sampler-type lunch with a couple of enchiladas and a taco and maybe something else. The sauces were great and definitely took care of my craving. It was very good, but not outstanding, and I would probably try a different restaurant the next time I roll through. When I left, I stopped next door at Calamity Jane’s for a cup of coffee, and I have to say that it was the best cup of coffee I had on this trip (and I drank plenty.)

I stopped at the Valley of Fires Recreation Area to take some pictures. I will definitely come back here to camp sometime – I bet I’d be the only camper there, and the terrain is other-worldly. I love how you can see that the rock was once all melty and now it’s dotted with a variety of cacti and some shrub that smelled really nice. The rest of the way to Socorro was very pretty. Once I got there, I had to make a decision about whether I was going to hit the interstate or continue on these smaller roads. Since I’d been going 70 mph pretty much the whole way (and that’s about as fast as I want to go,) I figured I’d stay off the interstate. And, if I went west on 60, then I could check out the Very Large Array, you know, from the movie Contact with Jodie Foster?

As I approached the Very Large Array, it started sprinkling. I could see that there were storms ahead of me in the distance, and the lightning in the clouds made for a fabulous light show. It seemed an appropriate background for the search for extraterrestrial life. I was impressed with how large the radio antennas were and amazed at how vast an expanse of land they cover. I didn’t see them all clustered together like they were in the movie, but maybe I was just in the wrong area.

Then, I entered the storms. I have never driven through the desert in the rain before, and it was spectacular! I think this might be the most memorable part of the trip for me. Unfortunately, I couldn’t take many pictures because I didn’t want to get my camera wet and also, I was a bit frightened, so my adrenaline was pumping and my hands were clenched on the steering wheel. All of a sudden, the parched desert turned into a giant river. The washes that I’ve never seen wet were full and flowing over the road. I was hydroplaning every few hundred feet and I couldn’t see the white lines in the road, my visibility was so limited. Thunder and lightning. What a thrill! I was alone on this long, lonely stretch of road for about an hour and a half, going about 50 mph. And, while a little scary, it was really beautiful. All of the big cracks in the desert ground turned into miniature canyons with miniature rivers carving through them. Little waterfalls everywhere. It was really cool. A side of the desert I’d never seen.

I finally made my way to I-40 (yawn) and to Vegas. I stopped briefly at some big store near the Petrified Forest and stretched my legs and looked at rocks. Later, I could see the lights of Vegas reflected in the clouds from about 100 miles away. I noticed the light emanating from the top of the Luxor at about 50 miles away. The Hoover Dam was under construction or something, so that was really slow-going. I would have enjoyed the opportunity to slow down and enjoy the view, but it was almost 3am and I had been on the road for about 16 hours. Ugh. Here’s the view from the hotel window at the Excaliber.

Fly Hunt: College Station to Las Vegas (Part One)

This was a pretty long, but relatively uneventful leg that I made in two days.

Day One: I stopped in West for Kolaches. Then, I took hwy 6 across West Texas. I’ve traveled due west from the DFW area many times, but I’m not sure I ever took this route. Maybe I always feared it would be too slow and I just wanted to get out of the state already, but I’m glad I took it this time. The speed limit was usually 65 or 70, not too much small town slow down, and it was actually quite pretty. I kept forgetting that I was in West Texas. I passed through a lot of quaint little towns (frequently encouraging me to drink Dr. Pepper on a regular basis,) and beautiful, green, ever so slightly rolling hills and farm country. I stopped on the side of the road many times to kick the rotting prickly pear cactus, hoping that flies would come swarming out. (Not one.) This majestic Brahman bull/cow/whatever watched me and laughed (I know s/he was laughing!!) Anyway, beautiful creature, really. When you drive by, you have to do a double-take because it feel like you just drove past some very large, silver exotic animal.

I tried to make it to Roswell. I’ve been there before, but I thought it might be a different sort of experience to camp there. But, I got out of College Station a bit later than I’d planned, and once again, I’d taken the scenic route, so I didn’t really get close to Roswell before I had to stop. I stayed at a very cheap, but comfortable and clean motel. I think this photo of the towels in the bathroom sorta captures the spirit of the place. Obviously, they wash these towels frequently, and they care enough to fold them as best they can, however, they can’t afford to get new ones when they fall apart. Or, maybe it’s just not wort it. I paid $27 cash for the room, including a $5 key deposit that I got back the next morning. I slept on top of the bedding, wrapped in my own sheet. Those who know me well know that these are extreme measures for me.

I discovered that the flies that Spencer and I collected were all dead. I’m not sure if they didn’t wake up from the CO2 or if it got too hot (but, I was very careful about regulating the temperature – by now I’d learned my lesson!) I still tried to dissect some of them because I knew I had a mushroom feeder that was really different from the other mushroom feeders I’d found, but it was pointless. They all went into the ethanol, whole.

It was after 3am, and I was completely exhausted, but I decided to put the hookah together. I had a nice smoke and watched Blind Date or something – telling myself that I could sleep as long as I wanted in the morning and I’d just get to Vegas when I got to Vegas.

Fly Hunt: Mansfield to College Station

I hung out in Mansfield with my folks for a couple of days. While I was dissecting the flies that I’d caught in Fayetteville, I realized that the light on my scope was getting dim and I’d left the charger at the JGI. Fortunately, I was able to have someone (thanks, Jen!) overnight it to me. But, for a wile there, mom and I were joking that I’d have to do the dissections with her reading glasses (which I tried to do.) Actually, I realized that for some of the flies, I could do the dissections without any magnification at all. I’m such a pro now. (Plus these were a pretty large species, plus their guts are dark purple.)

Jen Lin, this picture’s for you!

A little culinary diversion here. While I was home, we went to Joe T Garcia’s, probably my favorite restaurant in the world. That’s right, move over Michael Mina, Joe T is in la casa. I’m having to stop myself from writing a full restaurant review, but let me just say that if you are in the Ft. Worth area AND you have at least 4 people in your party AND you have a couple of hours to kill, then go there. You will probably have to stand in line outside of the restaurant to get in, almost no matter what time you go, but the experience it is worth the wait. AND, while you’re waiting, walk up to the patio bar and order a pitcher of margaritas and some plastic cups to bring back out to the line with you.

With a happy belly and no hangover (watch out for those margs!) I left my parents’ house the next afternoon and headed south for College Station, stopping in West for some sausage and Kolaches! Yum. I stopped at the Village Bakery on my way there and at the Czech Stop on my way back, and let me tell you, there was no contest in my mind. The Village Bakery was definitely the winner. I’m still kicking myself for straying. I used to go to West every year to hear Brave Combo play at West Fest. I highly recommend this experience to anyone in the area (Holly, are you out there?)

So, I got to College Station and it was raining pretty hard. Spencer took me out to Lick Creek Park to put out some traps. It was wet and muddy. Spencer is a “true gentleman” as he would say of someone he admires, and I had a great time listening to him. I was most fascinated by this insect called Strepsiptera which are very strange and mysterious. The males and females look nothing alike, and you’re almost guaranteed to never see them together. That’s a male on the left and a female on the right, both adults. (Sorry, I can’t remember from where I swiped these images, and I can’t seem to find them again!) The females live their entire lives inside a host insect. They decrease the nutrient intake of the host and cause them to be sterile, but if I remember correctly, they actually extend the lifespan of the host! The female hangs out with the tips of her body projected through the exoskeleton of the host and waits for a male to come along and fertilize her. The males, after emerging from their host insects (literally, on the fly!) have about 5 hours to fly around and find a female to inseminate. Crazy! It’s also interesting how the Strepsipterans hijack their host’s own tissue to create a barrier so that they aren’t recognized as a foreign object. And, there’s more. If you’re as intrigued as I was, which you’re probably not, google them. There’s lots more great stuff. Or, I think that Carl Zimmer might talk about them in his book. I haven’t even read it yet and I have no problem calling it a must-read! It’s at the top of my “reading for nerdy pleasure” list.

So, the next morning, Spencer and I went to the traps. A couple of them were flooded, but a couple of them yielded a pretty good haul. And, we found some more mushroom-feeders. So exiting! I also saw a larva wiggling around in some sap flowing out of a tree. A slime flux, I think it’s called. Collecting with Spencer was so much fun! I’m pretty sure he would have stayed out there poking around in the forest with me all day, but I had to get on the road again, so we went back to the lab to sort flies. This was my best species identification learning experience. By now, I had a little more confidence, thanks to what I’d learned from others along the way, and Spencer had plenty of time to sit with me and help. He had the Patterson and Stone book handy, so we could look in the scope and then flip through it, back and forth. When we were finished sorting the flies, he showed me how he uses the flow cell sorter to estimate genome sizes in flies (and other things, I guess,) but I didn’t have time to stick around for the whole demo.

Oh, I almost forgot! We went to the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum. It was pretty cool. This sculpture has pieces of the Berlin Wall in in, and these horses are supposed to represent freedom or something. I’m no arteest, and while I remember the wall coming down, I think I’m too young (and socially ignorant) to really appreciate what the wall stood for. But the horses were beautiful, and it was cool to see chunks of the wall.