Saturday, July 31, 2010

Stories from the Road -- Silver Spring, MD

Having lived in Silver Spring for a year, I have many stories from this place. A common theme of these stories is that I loved living here. My first year of true work, and my first year of starting out completely on my own. This was the year I grew up -- finally.

One of my favorite memories of Silver Spring is the bus ride. I've discussed using the Metro before -- one of the best, smoothest, most convenient public transportation systems in the country. Of course, I did not live next to a Metro station. Driving to it was possible, but why do it in an urban area full of terrible drivers when a bus conveniently stops at your apartment complex? Every morning before work, I waited at the bus stop next to my apartment wondering what new experience was to come on the 20-minute ride to work.

One thing you can expect in Silver Spring is an encounter with a drunk person. Public intoxication is not a crime -- it's a rite of passage here. Walking after dark in Silver Spring is an invitation for a bottle of vodka and a story from a stranger. And, like the sober companions needing a lift to far-away destinations, drunk people need public transportation, too.

On one bus ride from work to home, a very drunk man entered the bus and immediately began talking -- to me. I was an obvious target, as I was sitting near the front of the bus and happened to be alone. The man sat across from me and began spouting genuine nonsense as soon as the bus started.

At first, I didn't even know he was talking to me. He wasn't looking directly at me, and the gibberish was not exactly informing me that I was his intended listening target. Quickly, his voice rose in volume, and he began to glare at me rather menacingly. Soon, he started to shout. Mind you, absolutely nothing was coherent. The only meaningful material to be understood was whether he was asking a question or not.

The questions were dreadful, as I had no idea what he was saying and he apparently expected me to answer them. Responding "What?" over and over again became increasingly frustrating for the man, and his tone became quite hostile. He began asking questions without waiting for answers (not that I would be able to anyway). Slowly, conversations from other passengers ceased, and the only one talking in the bus was the inebriated man. He talked to no one else.

My willingness to respond to anything he said was wearing off fast, which was problematic, as the angry tone of the individual was becoming rather alarming. It was at this point that I had noticed we had not moved from the latest bus stop in quite some time. Other passengers were beginning to whisper to each other, and I was staring straight at the man. Although he was too intoxicated and too focused on trying to get me to say -- who knows what -- to notice the lengthy stop, I took no chances and kept him from looking around.

This was somewhat risky, as my complete befuddlement at his dialogue was obviously bothering him. However, I suspected that if he noticed the lengthy stop, that would irritate him more. As such, it was a race against time. The other passengers were squirming. The bus driver was not so quiet in responding to a dispatcher. And I stared straight at the sloshed man.

Ten minutes later ---

A policeman entered the bus. He said nothing, as the distilled-enough individual was, by this point, yelling venomously. He grabbed the man very forcefully, almost humorously so. The man didn't seem to notice, but changed his listening target to the officer. They both left the bus, and the man was yelling very loudly on the sidewalk. The bus then departed, with the bus driver saying nothing. The other passengers applauded. And I? Well, I sighed a little, and looked outside. A couple of passengers told me "Good job" and such. All I could muster was a weak nod. For some reason, talking didn't interest me much at that point.

As we approached my stop, I pulled the cord. I got up to leave, and I told the bus driver "Thank you". He told me it was the second time that happened this week. I nodded, gave him a nice tip, and left the bus. I looked over at the bench and knew that the wait the next morning would be a particularly long one...

Stories from the Road -- The Georgia Aquarium

It seems I always write about how much I love places -- or at least write about the positive things in questionable places. This makes sense, because we generally tend to travel to places that we believe we will like.

Unfortunately, with conferences, you do not have the power to control where you travel. So it is with Atlanta.

Atlanta, America's answer for the generic big, ugly, cold (in feeling, not in climate), boring city. I try to find the good things about a place, but Atlanta does not have very many of them. The airport? A disaster area. The downtown? Completely uninteresting. The traffic? Self-mutilation (or worse). The food? Greasy fast food does not make me a fan.

I've known a lot of people who have lived in Atlanta at one time in their lives. Many of them rave about it. The ramblin' wreck of Georgia Tech (read that as you like). Home of the Falcons. The Falcons! We have a dome. A nice dome.

Sorry, I'm not buying it. If you have nice property you'd like to "sell", at least tell me it's in an exotic location. Atlanta? No thanks.

My question is...who vacations to Atlanta? And better still...why? If you have family in Atlanta, why don't you meet them somewhere cooler? Savannah isn't that far away. Chattanooga is an easy drive on 75. Charlotte is just a half-day's drive on 85. There are mountains nearby. Nice ones!

The American Meteorological Society, in all of its wisdom, likes to have the Annual Meeting here. So it was in 2010. I generally don't look forward to this conference anyway. My grant sure doesn't like the bill, and I get so little out of it science-wise -- that I tend to look forward to the extracurricular activities far more than the actual reason for being there. Perhaps one day I'll write a rant on the AMS. I've had one coming for a while -- maybe the time is coming. I digress...

One of the extracurricular activities involved (free) dinner (and drinks) at the Georgia Aquarium. This was easily my favorite experience during my stay in Atlanta -- but even this was a letdown. Perhaps my pictures from the aquarium express my indifferent mood. That's how I interpret them.

The aquarium was dark -- darker than usual for aquariums. It was after hours for the place, and not all of the exhibits were open. Not all of the lights were on. Fair enough. As it turns out, the photos I took here perfectly captured my mood of Atlanta. Drab, dull, boring. Despite the cool aquatic life I was seeing. Steve Zissou would have had a ball here. Maybe the fish would have been more cartoonish, but I could see him staring at a fish that killed his friend -- and he would say, "Wow."

Actually, the aquarium was beautiful. It's hard not to just stare at all of the life, mouth ajar, music filling your ears with the appropriate ambient soundtrack. But the dark silhouettes against a monochromatic blue backdrop were enough for me to remember it wasn't that much different outside of the aquarium. And some of the fish were sharks...

On the last night of my stay there, the hotel room window was open and the random sounds of city life were heard endlessly. It was relatively cool that night, and a breeze blew into the room. That is a favorite memory of the place. Why? Because I didn't see the streets, the buildings, the cars, the people. I imagined some place better.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Stories from the Road -- Bonneville, OR

Oregon is such a beautiful state.

I first entered Oregon on I-84 from Idaho. I was in awe right from the start, with the dry, rolling terrain following the road for miles. I've always liked the look of hills without trees. For some reason, they seem more formidable to me. And the grass was brownish in color. It seems that when everyone thinks of Oregon, they think of rain forests -- the endless onslaught of rain coming in from the sea. Fog hanging on to the coastal hills, like a comforting blanket. It's easy to forget the open steppes and high-rising treeless mountains to the east.

Experiencing Oregon by driving through it is the way to do it. Seeing the land slowly become more lush, the trees thicker and thicker, the Columbia River wider and wider -- it's a gradual change, but an unmistakable one. Pay attention, and you notice the trees change, and with it, the wildlife. I was lucky enough to drive through here when the weather seemed to match the changes in habitat. As the rain forests began to appear near and west of The Dalles, a low stratus deck hung to the crests. A subtle mist could be felt as I stepped outside. Just miles to the east, the sun was shining and the temperatures were soaring.

The town of Bonneville is right along the Columbia River west of The Dalles. There is a scenic dam here, with a fishery and a bridge that caught my interest. Technically, the bridge is located in Cascade Locks -- but to me, the memory of the dam is forever intertwined with the Bridge of the Gods.

The reason this is the case (aside from their close proximity) is that everything seemed so lush and vibrant here. The grass was thick, the trees were infinite, and the hills added a sense of enormity to everything. By this point, the Columbia River begins to form the gorge, which becomes even more pronounced as it heads west to Portland.

Unquestionably, there is a sense that the world closes in on you as you head farther downstream, deeper into the gorge. A sort of natural claustrophobia is created, as the trees approach the river, the hills become higher, and the river widens. It's a beautiful squeeze play for drivers along the route.

The sound of the spillway at the Bonneville Dam is overwhelming, but away from the dam, there is nothing. No sound. The wind was nonexistent, and the mist silently rested upon anything everywhere. This was my first rain forest experience, which would only become more and more pronounced after our stop in Bonneville. Nevertheless, it was here that I realized that all of the stereotypes of rain forests were true. It was almost so green that even I could see it.

I spent a lovely couple of hours at the hatchery and the dam -- watching little kids point out the newest fish seen behind the glass. I always find it somewhat disconcerting that I cannot hear the sounds of water behind the glass. It adds a bit of mystery to it. It's like watching a film, in which the sound is suddenly taken out. Often, a director will choose slow motion during these scenes. In hatcheries and aquariums, it is always involuntary for me to do the same. Everything is slower, more amplified. A subtle shift in direction of the fish is immediately eye-catching.

And then, looking at the dam, the water turns into a blur. All of a sudden, the only sense I can remember is sound. The sound of water falling furiously into the river below -- the drops becoming one white rush -- indistinguishable from all of the others.

A curious combination -- both enhancing one sense at the expense of the rest. And in the rain forest of northwest Oregon, it makes perfect sense. With the world seemingly caving in on you, everything slows down. It's a good chance to observe what we commonly miss and frequently drive through -- at our ignorant misfortune.

I-84 in eastern Oregon

Columbia River just west of The Dalles

Bridge of the Gods

Cascade Locks

Cascade Locks and the Bridge of the Gods

Bonneville Dam

Near the fishery/hatchery

A stream just south of Columbia River in Bonneville

Bridge for the train in Bonneville

The hatchery in Bonneville