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Grand Canyon Vistas

I wrote about my first glimpse of the Grand Canyon previously which unfortunately was in fading light at the end of a long day plagued with travel delays. However, the next day was perfect and we started off with gifting my parents a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon for their 40th wedding anniversary. [1] By their accounts, it was nothing less than spectacular and I can only imagine given what we saw later standing at the rim.

Grand Canyon vacation

View from Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon

We started out by first driving to the Desert View watchtower which is about 20 miles from the park entrance and then driving back to stop at various points for views of the canyon. Fortunately, the crowds weren’t bad since school was still in session and the season wouldn’t begin until a few weeks later. It was a slightly cloudy day and we even got a few drops of rain as we stood on the edge of the precipice taking in the sights of the canyon. I hestitate to repeat but the grandeur of the Grand Canyon cannot be understated and it lives up to all the hype you hear before visiting it. The watchtower is a newish structure built on the framework of an older rudimentary building by the Native Americans. This vista was discovered way before any white man stepped on this continent and I’m sure it must’ve been worshipped.

Desert View Watchtower - Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon vacation

We stopped at two more points – Lipan Point and Moran Point – on the way back to the Visitor Center for more of the spectacular views. As you trace your eyesight down the serrated edges of the canyon, you see the river below that carved it as a thin green line making its way out. I wondered for a moment if the river will continue to burrow its way and the canyon would look different after couple of hundred years but the plaque on the edge said the river had literally reached the foundation of the continent and wouldn’t make the Canyon any deeper. Now it’s up to us to be as minimally disruptive as we can to this amazing natural wonder.

Grand Canyon vacation

Moran Point - Grand Canyon

We made it to the Visitor Center by 1pm but unfortunately, it started pouring and we had to shelve our plans to continue and had to start driving back to Vegas. We’ll definitely back and maybe visit it from Phoenix to take in more of the dry and arid landscapes of Arizona.

Grand Canyon vacation

Moran Point Panorama - Grand Canyon

Footnotes:
  1. It’s at least $200 a pop so obviously, we all couldn’t go plus it was meant to be something exclusive and special for them. More on experiential gifts rather than material gifts later. []

The Grandest of All Canyons

Thanks to an hour and a half delay due to a high-speed chase that culminated in a shootout on the famed Route 66 – now an interstate, go figure – we were racing down route 64 to catch a glimpse of the canyon that’s referred to in the grandest of the terms, before sundown. Add to that a wailing toddler frustrated at being strapped in a child seat for 6 hours and a fuming parent whom we never can make happy, nerves were frayed all around. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t make it as light failed rapidly as the sun went down at 7:30pm. We parked our car in the now-almost-deserted parking lot and rushed to Mather Point, the observation outlook near the Visitor Center. The biting cold, very different from the hot weather in Las Vegas that we left a few hours ago, hit us but we made it to the edge. All the frustration and tiredness simply vanished.

The view was even more spectacular than I had imagined. The Grand Canyon has never been described in subtle tones (hues maybe) but in spite of the hype, it completely lives up to it. “Holy shit” were the first words out of my mouth as I saw the vast expance from the South Rim of this gigantic chasm in the earth. I’m not sure what makes an impression. Maybe it is the sudden explosion of space after driving thru uncharacteristically tall trees, or the hues on the layers of the rock weathered by time, or the literal edge of the continent you’re standing at, or simply the stark beauty of the harshness of nature.

This is the view I got that evening. Not much of a picture considering the circumstances and the light and better pictures and vistas would come the next day but nevertheless that first sight of the canyon cannot be experienced again.

Grand Canyon Mather Point

More later.

The Land of the Blue Smoke

Shaconage, or the land of the blue smoke as the Cherokee Indians called what we now call the Great Smoky Mountains. Straddling the state lines of Tennessee and North Carolina, this most-frequented National Park in these United States, is literally that. If you stand atop Clingman’s Dome, the highest point in the Smokies, you can look out at miles of forests over old hills and the creeping civilization beyond. The mist rising from the valleys of the mountains has a distinctive blue tinge. The fall colors start from the top of these mountains and move to the lower heights as the season progresses like a time-lapsed Mexican wave of reds, yellows, orange, and greens. Somehow, we seem to have made a tradition of heading out to parts of the country with great fall colors every couple of years so this didn’t feel all that new. Still wonderful and glorious but not new.

We timed our long-overdue vacation for the fall season mostly for two reasons; one, obviously to take in the splendor of autumn that Texans are bereft of, and two, to avoid the madding crowds of the families with school-going children. In addition, we chose to time our visit on weekdays because with its proximity to several high-population centers, this park draws visitors in droves over the weekend even during the off-season. It turned out that was a prudent move because we learnt later that roads were packed the weekend we left. Even leaving earlier than usual in the mornings will help you escape the slightly-late risers. The car line waiting to get in at Cades Cove as we exited made us thank our stars for getting there early. We had learnt a lesson the previous day when we ran out of parking spaces near a popular hiking trail and had to park half a mile away.

View from Newfound Gap

The best way to take in the Smokies in a short time, is to drive through it. At a leisurely speed. You can go north-south on US-441 or otherwise called the Newfound Gap Drive or head west to Cades Cove on the Little River Road or east on a very short loop called the Roaring Fork Motor Trail. There are numerous trailheads along these roads that you can pull off and head into the forest. Either way, if you visit during autumn, the fall views are astounding wherever you look and after a while, you just have to stop trying to capture it all on your camera. The dappled light on the trails with various shades of green and red or the bright hills mottled with warm colors will not get old. To take it all in a longer time, well, you just have to stay for couple of weeks and hike a trail every day. There are trails as short as 0.5 miles and as long as 12 miles; not all are destination hikes, some are simply journeys unveiling a different version of fall and chances to come across bubbling creeks. You can sit on make-shift wooden log benches or stones cleared of moss and gape at the beauty around you or continue deeper into the forest to seek even more wonders.

View from Roaring Fork Motor Trail

Wildlife, I think, is smart to keep away from trafficked areas in the park and those that do venture, are often attracted by availability of easy food. Once a bear or an elk is spotted, hordes of people gather around with their smartphones pointed at the animal without any regard for safety. Thankfully park rangers are quick on the scene to prevent foolish people from getting too close. We encountered couple of black bears and elk but from a safe distance. The missus had been wary of running into them while on a trail but I’m sure such instances, given the crowds, are rare.

Farm at Cades Cove

Talking about crowds, the park at this time of the year is full of retirees toting fancy camera equipment gear; patiently setting up their tripods and clicking long exposure shots of the streams. You’ll rarely encounter families with children and even if you do, most with toddlers trying to push up a stroller on a trail. We wish them luck mentally and thank our stars that our kid prefers to walk everywhere. We haven’t used a stroller in six months. By the end of the trip, according to our pedometer app, he would walk nearly 20 miles and climb an altitude of 1,500 feet over three days. Not bad for a budding hiker. As long as he doesn’t go ‘into the wild‘, it’s good practice for a lifetime of adventures across the wonderful vistas that this country affords. Back to the old folk; it’s admirable that most are well into their 70s and even 80s but are walking up and down the trails as much as we are. Some are with grandchildren but most are with people their own age, all thanks to Medicare, I guess, that allows them the luxury of spending time and money on things other than healthcare. Also, missing are people of color. We went three days without seeing a black or Hispanic family and encountered only two Asian or Indian families. National Parks unfortunately, are still domains of white folk.

Photographers at Roaring Fork Motor Trail

Although there are only so many places you can go, every turn of the road presented a different vista and variedly so at different times of the day. It hadn’t rained a drop while we were there but the gushing streams along the Roaring Fork trail or the Lynn Camp Prong Falls road would make you think you’ve just missed a downpour. While we could easily spend more days hiking around, we had to get back to work and our lives in Austin. As we drove through the park one last time early Friday on our way toward Atlanta, we were presented with a glorious fall morning at the Newfound Gap and few minutes later at the Ocanaluftee Visitor Center on the south entrance that truly caped off a great vacation. Even a herd of elk came up to the road to bid us farewell. Or they were simply welcoming the weekend visitors.

Morning at Newfound Gap in Smoky Mountains

Morning at Oconaluftee Visitor Center

Until next time. More photos for your perusal here.

Lightroom 5 and Photomatix Pro

Lady Bird Wildflower Center Lily Pond HDR

I finally got around to buying Lightroom 5. Processed this photo from our visit to the Lady Bird Wildflower Center couple of weeks ago using Photomatix Pro plugin for Lightroom. A tad too monochromatic but still came out great, I think.

PS. The real intent of this post was to check how the new image size i.e. 640px width looks with the expanded column width for the blog. If you’re reading it in the feed reader, hop over and check it out. Better?

Spider Silk

This week in New York, the American Museum of Natural History unveiled something never before seen: an 11-by-4-foot tapestry made completely of spider silk.

Weavers in Madagascar took four years to make it, and the museum says there’s no other like it in the world.”

[Source: NPR] This is uber cool. More than one million spiders were used to harvest the silk (no, they were not harmed). Nearly 80 people ‘silked’ the spiders every morning before releasing them back into the wild. The radiant gold color of the tapestry is the natural color of the silk. I hope I’m able to lay my eyes on this amazing piece of artwork that cost nearly half a million dollars to make.

The Case for Cougars

From PLoS Medicine: Older fathers have dumber kids. The more geriatric the dad, the dimmer the progeny, on measures including “thinking and reasoning, concentration, memory, understanding, speaking, and reading”…the secondary finding, which was that older mothers were associated with smarter children. Uh-oh! Considering we have the exact opposite situation, this doesn’t bode well for our future progeny. Well, at least now we have an excuse.

A Texas Fall

Blues & Reds

I know it is December and time already for snow to fall but you see, in Texas we like to savor our season and tend to hang on to them for a little longer. I’m sure Texas doesn’t readily leap to your mind when you think of a glorious autumn with red trees along melancholic yellow pathways. no one ever drives down here to get a taste of the brilliant fall season but when one lives here, you got to make do with whatever you have. Especially when getting out of the state alone is equivalent of driving through five northeastern states.

I wouldn’t bother heading out trying to capture whatever fall presents us in Texas but as I have repeatedly hammered into your heads that I just bought a Nikon D40, the urge to look for pictures everywhere is kinda overwhelming. My only class this semester although technically on-campus is located in a building that is considered the westernmost extent of a sprawling Texas A&M campus. Although Texas A&M with its military-style barrack (not baroque) architecture (thanks to its Corps of Cadets history) finds itself in a list of the country’s ugliest campuses, it has its share of beauty.

The building I mentioned before is actually part of the privately-owned Research Park and is landscaped with an artificial creek and tree-lined pathways where townsfolk come to get their dogs loose. I have been eying this park ever since I have attended three classes in this building (getting a certificate in ArcGIS, you see). So thanks to the newly-acquired (ok! I know you know) Nikon D40 and hints of falls visible, Ash and I head out there one evening. We are blessed with an unusually pleasant and warm evening with only a nip in the air. Lots of people with their dogs going crazy and absolutely still air with an occasional whiff of breeze. As the evening progressed, the sky decided to flare up with bright reds and oranges (not the fruit). Texas is known for its brilliant skies and sunsets but this evening was extra-special as if it was making it worthwhile for us. The air was absolutely still at times which reflected the skies perfectly in the water presenting unique photo ops that I went crazy over.

More pictures after the jump. Click for larger view:

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New Orleans: The town that never should have been

New Orleans brings to mind several images dominated of course by the debauchery-riddled and flamboyant Mardi Gras. But death, destruction, despair, and desolate landscapes are far from your mind. The city stands on a rich cultural heritage and although (ecologically) as I argue, the city should not exist; it not only does but also prospers and throbs with urban vibrancy. However behind the glitz and glamour of the chic French Quarter with its colonial architectural trimmings lived one of America’s poorest cities. Crime was rampant and racial divisions were never more pronounced. I had stopped over for a night while traveling to Texas last year just before Katrina hit so it was an immensely sad experience to see a city shaken at its very foundations. We talked to a local architect who had nothing but frustration and disgust writ all over his countenance over the rest of the country’s apathy. And rightly so too. People seemed to have forgotten that this is just the beginning and the worst might be lurking behind the next hurricane.

The basin of the world’s third largest river (after Nile and Amazon), New Orleans and much of Louisiana stands on unstable ground that constantly changes its geographic form every thousand years. The mouth of the Mississippi has moved left and right since forever and it continually seeks to do so. But it finds itself restricted and controlled by the sub-standard levee system (the Dutch do it better). New Orleans is famously known to exist below sea level and if you look at the cross-section of the city, you will see a great depression in a bowl-like fashion protected by feeble contraptions erected by man. In spite of many warnings by scientists and climatologists, stubbornness of American people (in the region) often mistaken as resilience failed to inspire any preventive action. The result — Hurricane Katrina literally exposed the dangers of human impact on marshlands by destroying nearly 80% of the city. Levees snapped like twigs and all talk of their engineering prowess was muted.

To Cameron - Rita was here

We walked through the Ninth Ward and even after six months we could see destruction and wrecked home as far as our eyes could see. It is almost that this part of town has been declared a ghost town and no cares to rebuild. The catch however might be that probably the best option is not to rebuild. Easier said than done; this area was inhabited by mostly low-income people because no one else wanted to live on ‘that’ side of the town. The low-income people also happen to be mostly African-American so the issue of not rebuilding slowly transcends from that of rational thinking to resolving issues of social and racial equity. Can we genuinely deny these people from coming back? If we can stop them from living in this vulnerable location, where do we put them? Of course, New Orleans needs people who can work low-end jobs at the bars, restaurants, grocery stores and those people cannot live in flood-safe areas occupied by the middle- and upper-class residents. So technically, the low-income people have a choice of living in flood-prone areas that are cheap to build in but face risks of destruction almost every year or not living in New Orleans at all. So will New Orleans exist as an urban space without its share of poor people that are needed (relative and in an economic sense) in a society? Probably not; no matter how much the upper class of New Orleans citizenry secretly wishes. Hence my conclusion that New Orleans may or must not exist in its current urban form; it should either drastically evolve to live sustainably and densely so as to reduce its ecological footprint in a worsening ecosystem or in a worst-case scenario, count its losses, cherish its history, pack up and move on.

Levees and War

Cities have died before either gradually due to economic or social decline or suddenly due to natural cataclysmic changes. Our capacity to absorb havoc wrecked by nature might have increased and it might take one heck of a natural disaster to wipe off a city especially in a developed nation. As I mentioned, the next hurricane season is expected to be worse and so will be subsequent seasons; natural processes or global warming — the consequences are similar. If at all we choose to rebuild, the way we do it will be paramount in testing the hypothesis that man learns from history. Sadly, I think that we often prove that hypothesis wrong.

Note: This was the last post in my series on Sustainable Development in South Louisiana and New Orleans. I am disappointed that I didn’t get much feedback but then I didn’t write it for it anyway.

The Divine Ratio

The most fascinating part about Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code is the emphasis on PHI — The divine ratio or in simple numerical terms: 1.618; This number, existed in almost all the secret societies in the ancient world and today the focus has shifted toward it modern successor — the PI or 3.142. PHI, on the other hand is much more complex and as you unwind the mysteries of the number, it continues to amaze you. I have always loved a semblance of order amid chaos and no chaos can be more chaotic than nature itself. To discover that even in nature, there exists an underlying template is almost akin to discovering the concept of God. The easiest way to describe PHI is to talk about the famed Fibonacci Series.

The Fibonacci Series is just another way to derive PHI, named for the Renaissance Era Italian who rediscovered this mathematical principle. In this number series, each number is the sum of the preceding two: 0, 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, 89, 144; Any number in this series divided by its preceding number is a ratio that gets closer and closer to PHI as the numbers get larger and larger. It can be best described visually by the accompanying visual image of a PHI spiral. “Fibonacci’s Summation Series creates a PHI spiral — the universal form used in Nature — from flowers to cyclones to galaxies — pattern and proportion of living, growing things. Whirling bodies emit particle trails and wave energy tails like the PHI. In biology, a plant unfolds its leaves in Fibonacci intervals. The PHI spiral is the geometry of growth”.

Get a little more creative when you are alone in the bathroom. Measure your height and divide it by the distance from the belly button to the floor. You get — yup, the PHI. The examples are endless; from the proportion of female bees and male bees in a colony, petal arrangements of roses, the breeding patterns of rabbits and the shape of our galaxy. Phi is also claimed to have been crucial in the design of the Great Pyramids, the composition of the Mona Lisa and the construction of Stradivarius violins. Leonardo Da Vinci, almost celebrated as God in Dan Brown’s classic novel regularly used the PHI in his paintings. I have been utterly fascinated by this number and am just beginning to explore its endless connections.

Try this puzzle: Elvis can climb stairs one at a time or two at a time. This means he can climb a flight of, say, four stairs in five different ways: 1-1-1-1; 1-2-1; 1-1-2;2-1-1;2-2. How many ways can Elvis climb a flight of, say n stairs? Why in the heck do I mention this puzzle? A special treat for the ones who guess it.

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