More hiking?

Yep! I think I’ll be doing lots of hiking this summer. Yesterday, I hiked to the top of Mt. St. Helena (pronounced hell-EEN-uh for those not from around here.) I was worried about this hike because I thought I would be too much of a wuss to handle it, but as it’s the day after and I’m still walking around (and most importantly, my knees didn’t hurt yesterday!) I must be tougher than I thought. It was 10 miles, about 2100′ elevation gain.

Hey, it’s Napa Valley!

Views like this all the way up.
Yep, like this.
View from the top. Only a single cloud in the sky.

I was diggin the Manzanita. It’s red.
Like good Californians, we went wine tasting after the hike.
I didn’t like the wine, but I liked this sign.


So that I don’t always have to hike alone and so I can make some friends who are not ten years younger than me, I decided to join this Meetup group. My first adventure with the group was a 4-day trip to Eugene, Oregon to do some hiking. We stayed at a hostel and did some very scenic local hikes. It was kinda chilly and rained a little, but it was so much fun – and beautiful! Fortunately, the people I carpooled up there with were really nice and funny (as was everyone else!) and very knowledgeable about the terrain we were driving though. Hopefully, I’ve made some new friends.

The first hike we went on was to Sweet Creek Falls.
This was a short easy hike along a river that had fall after fall after fall, culminating in this one.

There was snow on the ground and it was chilly, but not too bad, and it rained for most of the hike, but it was light. It was very lush and green.

Then we drove to the coast to see the Heceta Head Lighthouse. It was really beautiful. Not so much the lighthouse, which was cute, but the coast was pretty spectacular.

Chris, the Meetup organizer, had contacted the Eugene Hiking Meetup group organizer, Mark, so we could all hike together. Only Mark came out to hike with us, but he was awesome. He drove us around in this old ambulance that had been converted into a 20-passenger van. And he brought his dog Bonkers, on whom I must admit I have a huge crush!

Sleepy Bonkers
The Vanbulance

The final hike of the day was at Enchanted Valley. It was kinda weird and boggy.

Some Enchantment

The next day, we split up and my group went to the Willamette National Forest. The trail was muddy and at times a little steep, so I felt like I was finally getting a little exercise.

At one point, the boys started hauling ass ahead of us, but they were kind enough to leave a giant arrow on the ground at a fork for us. I thought it was pretty cool.

I split off from the rest of the group so that I could try out my new little pen fishing rod. It took some practice, getting it to cast and reel in smoothly. I didn’t get a bite, but I found a big elk antler down by the water, so I got a nice trophy!

Fishin’ Hole

On the way home, we stopped at Table Mountain for a little walk through the wildflowers. It was a really neat place that I hope to come back and explore sometime.

My carpool friends:



Zim Zim Falls

The weather has been really nice here, and I’m inspired to get outside more frequently. Also, I think I’m kinda bored. School/work keeps me really busy, and I really enjoy it, but I definitely don’t want my life to be so one-dimensional. So a couple of weekends ago, I decided to go on a hike somewhere pretty close by. Somehow, I came across this hike to Zim Zim Falls and it seemed perfect because it was only about an hour away, it was an easy 4ish-mile hike, and the drive there was scenic. Oh, and a waterfall!

Here are some pictures from the drive there.

Putah Creek

Lake Berryessa

Putah Creek

This creek just flows right over the road.

To get to Zim Zim Falls, I had to cross Zim Zim Creek several times. My feet got wet, but I was prepared for that.

There are signs of hunters everywhere. I ran into a guy who told me that in a month, when turkey season opens, you’ll be hiking along and run into a guy with a gun slung over his shoulder. I’d be worried about getting shot, so I’m glad I made it up there when I did.

I made a wrong turn and ended up hiking straight up the side of a hill. In the picture below, you can see the creek running through a bald spot in the valley below (that’s where I was supposed to stay) and at the bottom of the picture, you can see the steep trail I was climbing. I climbed straight up for about an hour. I kept thinking that the falls must be just ahead. I thought that I could hear the water, but it was just the wind in the trees. (I know, for someone so smart…)

See how far away the valley floor is now (below)? Now I’m hiking along the top of this ridge.

There were lots of pretty flowers, and at this point, my mood was good enough that I stopped to take some pictures of them.

Then, I saw this:

Can you spot the waterfall? There’s a little white smudge against a dark circular patch of rock. Now, I was bummed. It’s way over on the other side of the valley. Nevertheless, I hiked all the way over there because I was going to eat my lunch at the base of the falls, dammit! I ate lunch at around 6pm.
I’ve gotta figure out how to turn these pictures around. Anyway, here we are at the base of the falls.
I’ve got to work on my self-portraiture skills, too.


I recently learned about this new NIH initiative to crack down on “brain-doping” in academic researchers. The idea is that if scientists use brain-enhancing (I prefer mental-capacity-enhancing, or mental-creativity-enhancing, or MCE) drugs, it is analogous to athletes using physical performance-enhancing drugs like steroids. So, in the competition for funding, the MCE drug users would be at an unfair advantage.

While I honestly do not know anyone who takes MCE drugs, I must admit that if I did, I would be asking for the hook-up! I believe that the NIH should actually be obligated to prioritize funding for scientists who are willing to risk the (mild!) side effects of MCE drugs in order to produce top-notch scientific results. If I were running a big funding agency, I might well REQUIRE all of the PIs/post-docs/grad students whose salaries were being paid with my grant money to sign a contract outlining their commitment to taking MCE drugs on a regular basis for the duration of the grant. Although some evidence suggests that MCE drugs cause a drastic reduction in the length of a young academician’s career, post-docs and grad students are cheap labor and easily replaced. Really, if you can get one year of high productivity out of a grad student or post-doc via the use of MCE drugs, then you are going to be way ahead of the curve.

I think that the true tragedy of this emerging anti-MCE drug policy is that the researchers who are both law-abiding AND the most enthusiastic about and committed to the advancement of science will be forced to rely solely on the archaic (but legal) substances that we currently associate with increased mental performance: primarily coffee, but also beer and/or wine. The diuretic effects of both caffeine and alcohol serve to frequently distract many young scientists from the task at hand, arguing further for the benefit of using “next-generation” brain-doping substances.

What’s the downside, really? We quickly come up with a cure for cancer? Someone figures out how to grow corn on Mars to power our cars? I say, give me the drugs!

Tucson Drosophila Workshop

My plane stopped in San Diego on the way to Tucson.
I was looking for the wildfires the whole way down there. Here are a couple that I could see as we were descending into San Diego.

I guess I’d have to report that I found my “conference camping” to be quite a success. The weather was great (with one caveat: I had to borrow a sleeping bag and an additional blanket from some locals – thank you!!) It was about 30-45 minutes from campus instead of the 15 minutes I’d anticipated, but who would have thought that Tucson would have some of the worst traffic I’ve encountered in years! Despite the travel time, I really enjoyed returning to the campground to unwind after a long day of staring into a microscope and/or talking with a bunch of super-smart people doing very cool research. The starry night sky was a lovely alternative to a hotel room ceiling, and once I had enough layers, my tent offered a restful night’s sleep with a pretty morning view of the sun peeking over the mountains. I have to admit that I might have felt differently if there had been an active (i.e., late) social nightlife (like, at the hotel bar) with this crowd, but there was not, so I don’t think I missed out on anything because I was far away.

I got to the campground after dark, so I tried to pick a spot that looked appropriately spooky since I would be camping while most of my friends were at Halloween parties.

The view in the morning.

The view in the morning from my sleeping bag.

The general format of the workshop was that someone who is an expert on a particular group of Drosophila would give a brief presentation about the phylogeny and ecology of that group, and then we would each receive a handful of vials, labeled A -M (or whatever) containing different species of that group, and a key. Then, we just figure out which vial has which species and we have plenty of time and help to do it. That was the bulk of it.

We also learned how to observe fly assortative mating behavior and how to squash chromosomes. I have to admit that I was utterly amazed after pulling salivary glands out of a larva, soaking them in a stain, squishing them under a coverslip, and then looking under a microscope to see the polytene chromosomes. I’d always had the impression that only some very skilled microscopy-type folks were able to produce images of chromosomes that were definitively informative. BUT, with plenty of patient instruction and minimal effort, in less than an hour I was able, on my first try, to visualize a chomosomal inversion. (What?!?!? That’s STILL blowing my mind.)

Teri graciously hosted dinner at her house our first night there. This is the view of the moon from her driveway. She has a beautiful house. I wish I’d taken more pictures, but it was dark and I was socializing.

I really loved this sink, though, so I had to take a picture.

We went on a tour of the stock center. This is one of the rooms, full of vials of flies – I don’t remember which group of flies these are. While broadly (and this comes from a microbiologist, remember,) Drosophila all like the same environmental conditions, if you want to keep happy strains in a stock center, you have to have rooms with different temperatures, humidities, etc.

We also took a field trip to collect desert Drosophila. First stop: a giant fallen saguaro cactus. Of course, you must have a machete if you want to collect the desert fruit flies, and we had several, so we caught many.

I tried to find more Drosophila on other cacti (there were many species nearby) but I couldn’t find any. Most of the other dead/decaying ones were very dry. Only the saguaro was appropriately funkified.

Next stop: somewhere in town, near Sergio’s house, I think. We got to see how Sergio traps flies. Choosing the best fly-trapping technique is dependent on all sorts of things, so there’s no one right way to do it, but this method sure did work very well here. That 2-liter bottle is wrapped with some adhesive paper to cover a hole so that the flies cannot escape. If you look closely, you can see many many flies inside the bottle.

We also collected at a few similar traps, containing different sorts of bait at Stacy’s house. My favorite catch there, though, was this praying mantis. I used to see a lot of these as a child in North Carolina, but don’t think I’ve seen one since, so this was particularly nice. Thanks to Aneil for posing with the beastie for me.

There was this sculpture at the entrance to the building where the workshop was held that was such a joy to view each morning (and I say that with a Martha Stewart accent, for those who know.) Truly, it was a joyous celebration of science and scientists. (OK, I’m done now.)
Here’s a chunk of it that has our friend, Drosophila (we’ll assume melanogaster), a DNA double helix, a cactus, a mushroom, cross-section of some plant tissue, and there’s an enzyme-substrate complex over there to the right.

My favorite part (I think) is these two lab-coat guys pulling apart the dividing cells. (But, I took pictures of each part of the sculpture if you want to check out a different one, just let me know.)

On our last evening, after dinner at the Sonoran Desert Museum, Patrick O’Grady gave a nice tribute to Bill Heed. I have to say, as a tribute of my own, that during my “Fly Hunt,” I heard Bill Heed’s name many times. I honestly hadn’t heard of him before, but all of the people who spoke of him were people who I admire and each of them spoke of him with tremendous respect. He was planning to participate as an instructor in this workshop, but died just a month or so before. It’s strange that I should feel such a sense of loss for someone I never met, but nevertheless, I feel like I just missed the opportunity to meet a great naturalist, a great scientist, and a great mentor.

Conference Camping

I’m going to a Drosophila species identification workshop in Tucson next week. I love Tucson. Mostly, I love the surrounding saguaro forests. So, I decided that instead of staying in a hotel, I’ll just camp. I’ll pack light, rent a car, and drive to the campground with my gear. The weather should be perfect: low 80s during the day, mid 50s at night. There’s a campground with showers about 15 minutes away from the workshop, which starts at 9am every day. When I’m camping, I get up with the sun, so I’ll have plenty of time to get there in the morning. Then, in the evening, what do you do in your hotel room, anyway? Watch TV? I’d rather read in a tent. Maybe smoke hookah by the campfire. Wake up with the birds, hike over to the remains of a prehistoric village… So, am I crazy? I’m thinking that if this works out, why not always camp when I go to conferences? It’s cheaper AND it’s doing something that I enjoy. Any thoughts?

Ernst Haeckel

I’m in the process of decorating my new room. I have always been a nomad, and I understate when I admit to moving every year since the day I left home (for college) at age 17. So, decorating is really not something I’ve ever done. (Well, not since that flouncy pink canopy bed I loved so much as a pre-teen.) Typically, as I move in to a new place, I’m already thinking about where I will live next. So, I don’t bother to settle in. However, I think I might actually be settling in to my new place, and I’m starting to think about decorating. I am inspired by a friend (a fan of Albertus Seba,) who will remain nameless because he would be mortified if I posted his name in my blog. What sort of space am I inspired to create? I want a space in which Charles Darwin would feel at home – surrounded by images of the beauty and diversity of nature.

A couple of years ago, I started collecting old chromolithographs, I suppose with the idea of displaying them at some point. They are beautiful and created by a laborious process in painstaking detail, usually by artistically talented biologists. I only have a couple of them. One is from an old German book and is a bunch of crazy looking mushrooms. The other is from a 19th century elementary school astronomy textbook (I bought that one just after Pluto was demoted.) I also have a nice Audubon print. Now that I’m in decorator mode, I decided to collect more, and I (re)discovered Ernst Haeckel.

I was introduced to him in grad school, in a “Theory of Phylogenetics” seminar. He’s the “ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny” guy. I saw his controversial embryo drawings. He also drew this “Tree of Life” that’s STILL what most folks who do not believe in evolution think we’re talking about. His thinking was cutting edge, but he’s best remembered for not quite getting it right and it turns out that he wasn’t entirely honest in the process. But, I digress. There are books dedicated to this topic, and I recommend reading them. What I didn’t know is that he was an artist. He published this book, Artforms of Nature (in German,) that is chock-full of some AMAZING lithographs.

I’m writing about this now because I recently bid a (relatively) large amount of money on ebay for a couple of original Haeckel lithographs. I didn’t win the auctions, and I’m glad because I just found this website that has high-resolution scans of pretty much the whole book. Sure, it’s not as good as having the originals, and I would still love to collect the originals. But, for the purposes of decorating, this resource is great! Print, frame, hang. (Good thing I have access to a large printer!)

OK, so it’s easy to appreciate the beauty of the hummingbird, but what really gets me excited is the prints of the under-appreciated forms of life. Like protists and sea slugs.

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: 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.