Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Fall Foliage 1500 Miles from Home: Aspens in Aspen (With a Tangent on HDR imagery)

There are certain places which every photographer must visit in his or her lifetime, and certainly Colorado's Maroon Bells at sunrise is high atop that list--even more so during fall foliage season.  Indeed, there those who make the high alpine lake shore near Aspen an annual pilgrimage, to the point that the Maroon Bells are characterized by some as the most photographed scene in North America.

The Maroon Bells about 15 minutes before dawn
After a long several weeks at work with nary a moment for any interesting photography (working with the government come the end of the fiscal year always makes for busy times!), I needed a break.  The red rock country of the Colorado Plateau did have its siren call in my ear, and I might have headed out to revisit my favorite place on Earth, Bryce Canyon.  Yet with October here and its palette of fall colors that come but once a year, I decided to see something I had not before and booked a flight to Aspen, hoping to catch the aspens at their peak of brilliant yellow even as the Front Range of the Rockies picked up the beginnings of their wintry white cloaks.

Fall comes earlier to the high mountains of Colorado than it does to the Piedmont and coastal plane of Virginia where the majority of the trees are still largely green--according to my trusty copy of Laurent Martres' Photographing the Southwest, the peak of fall color typically arrives in the last week of September to the first few days of October--but I couldn't get away from work any earlier than the Columbus Day holiday weekend.  Fall colors are notoriously fickle, too, depending on factors from the amount of summer rainfall and temperatures leading up to the fall to wind and rain once the leaves turn.

Despite predictions of a later-than-usual peak for the area, I saw plenty of completely bare patches standing along the slopes as I flew over the Front Range from Denver--alongside many still-green stands of aspens, indicating a combination of less-than-optimal summer conditions and winds which had stripped bare many of the trees which had already changed colors (I'd seen the wind forecast a day before my trip--which didn't leave me very happy).  No matter: there's always something to photograph in Colorado!

I started my day in Aspen with a drive up to nearby Marble, a tiny community with only one paved road (and that recently-enough done that Tabitha, my GPS, kept trying to steer me off onto alternate routes).  A lot of the names of Colorado's towns reflect the state's mining history--Telluride, Agate, Leadville, Gypsum, to name a few--and Marble follows that tradition well as it is named for its marble quarry, from which material used in D.C.'s Lincoln Memorial came.  At the far end of town, CR3 turns into a dirt road with a warning sign that there is no winter maintenance and that only 4x4 vehicles are permitted beyond that point: good thing I rented one (and no, please don't tell the rental company, who I know forbids offroading).  This is the beginning of the road to the Crystal Mill, one of Colorado's many treasures and a perfect late afternoon photo shoot location.

Lizard Lake, approximately halfway between Marble and the Crystal Mill
Martres describes the 5.5 mile trip from Marble to the Crystal Mill as a rough but "non-technical" drive--but then, he's comparing it to some of the really challenging routes in the desert southwest.  Although I have some experience with offroading--having driven Jeep trails in the Anza-Borrego Desert among other routes--and have owned a SUV for years, I have to say that the average Joe won't want to tackle the drive to Crystal Mill and should hire a driver and vehicle in Marble.  Most of CR3 beyond Marble is incredibly rocky and demands a high-clearance vehicle with large, tough tires and deep wheel wells, and the vast majority of the route is a single lane which often includes a steep drop-off to the Crystal River far below.  I put my Chevy Tahoe into first gear and full-time four wheel drive and still felt the 45-minute drive worthy of the white knuckles I sure had.  There are stretches where it's tough to see far ahead as you top over a rise, and you dare not come to a full stop for fear of sliding on the loose rocks that continually make the ride a jouncing rollercoaster experience.  You will meet other vehicles, and chances are one or the other of you may even need to back up to find a place wide enough for the other to get by.

The Crystal Mill is worth the drive (or ride, if you're not up to wrangling your own SUV there).  Dating to 1892, the structure stands on a promontory overlooking the Crystal River and is surrounded by aspens which at their fall color peak are gorgeous to behold.  I've seen a few beautiful old mills in the Appalachians, to be sure, but those don't have quite the dramatic background of snow-capped Rockies as does the Crystal Mill.  The mill actually was a power station which provided compressed air for silver mining activities in the surrounding area.

My only complaint was that I managed to get only thirty seconds or so of sun on the mill; the skies had gone to a solid, dreary white during the drive up from Aspen and offered only the occasional gap of blue through the dense cloud cover.  That made my work as a photographer significantly more challenging; nothing makes an image more lackluster than the low contrast of grey, boring skies.  So I set up for a HDR (high dynamic range) shot, taking several bracketed exposures which I intended later to combine in Photoshop into one image which rendered the full detail of the scene and which would allow me to expose for all the rich color of the mill itself while still getting some density to the sky.

Techie side note: HDR can work well for images with significant difference between the bright (or highlight) and dark (or shadow) areas; camera sensors only capture a few "stops" (with each stop representing twice the brightness or darkness of the adjacent one) of light from highlight to shadow--typically anywhere from 5 to 10 stops--whereas the human eye sees a range of up to 15 stops.  Couple that with the fact that our eyes and brains constantly adjust to whatever we're focused on in a very dynamic process which effectively allows us to take in an even broader range of light and dark in a way a single, static image cannot, and you see the problem which HDR is designed to address.

Above, I took three separate exposures, each one full stop in difference than the next.  Given I'd set my exposure compensation to underexpose the shot by a third of a stop (to try to avoid losing the highlights on the water or in the skies), that gave me photos at -1 1/3, -1/3, and +2/3 exposure across a range of two full stops (and thus expand my camera's dynamic range by an extra two stops as well).  I won't bore you with the details of how I processed the HDR image itself as there are many more in-depth explanations available via Google.

See the skies I had to work with? Clouds are good, but images need open patches of sky, too!
The drive back out was just as rough as the drive in had been, with the sole benefit of not meeting any oncoming traffic.  I stayed in Glenwood Springs, a community right off of Interstate 70 and about an hour to an hour and a half's drive northwest of Aspen proper--where I could get a hotel room for under $100 a night instead of paying through the nose with Aspen's high-end boutique rates.  Still being one eastern time made an early bedtime more effective (a good thing as the drive to the Maroon Bells plus needing to be there well before dawn meant a very early morning).

Even though CO82 has a HOV lane (M-F starting at 6:00am) as you near Aspen, traffic was pretty light on my drive down to the White River National Forest and the Maroon Bells.  I figured even with the fall foliage a bit past its peak, a holiday weekend in autumn would find the place packed for the sunrise, yet as I pulled into the Maroon Lake parking lot at approximately 5:50am, there was only one other vehicle present.  Yes, it was bitterly cold: I'd used the Aspen forecast in determining clothes to bring, not thinking that the Maroon Bells were 2000 feet higher up in elevation than the town, and even layered, 18 degrees is darn chilly!  (Side note: arm warmers, designed for cyclists, are a great invention.)

Sunrise may not have been until around 7:15am--and it was completely dark when I arrived--but the skies began lightening not long after 6:00am, so I headed out into the elements and up to the lake shore to set up my tripod and await the magical experience of a Maroon Bells dawn.  (See the photo leading off this blog entry for the scenery I contemplated, my fingers and toes freezing, for about an hour before the sun's first rays struck the peaks.)

On a perfect morning, there will be a few clouds in the sky and absolutely no wind--the slightest breeze will set ripples across the lake and spoil that stunning reflection.  I must say, the morning of October 10 was very nearly perfect!  This really helped make up for the fact that the aspens nearest the lake shore in the shot's foreground had completely shed their leaves.

A graduated neutral density filter will work wonders here, as the first rays of the sun on the Maroon Bells (particularly with any snowfall on the peaks) will create significantly more contrast across the scene than any camera sensor or film can capture.  I went with a 3-stop filter (meaning the lightest areas of the filter let through around eight times as much light as the darkest), and even stacked a second 2-stop graduated filter in front of it for a few shots.  As with the pre-dawn shots I took and the Crystal Mill, bracketed exposures with an HDR image in mind aren't a bad idea, either.  Do note that the first golden rays will strike the peaks about 10 minutes after "scheduled" sunrise (according to the time in my GPS' almanac).

After the best moments of sunrise, it's at least an hour and a half to two hours before the sun will have crept high enough over the peaks behind and to the photographer's left to evenly illuminate the trees surrounding the lake.  I spent about half that time in my car, warming back up from the bitter cold (and cursing having only brought thin cycling gloves) while I transferred photos to my laptop, then set out along the the Crater Lake trail, which climbs above the far shore of Maroon Lake.

The trail to Crater Lake offers some great views of aspen thickets, showing off the skeletal, white trunks, and at the right time of year their brilliant yellow fall foliage.  It's not a particularly rough or difficult trail, and at under two miles one-way from the parking area isn't an all-day affair, either.  Nonetheless, even though I knew I wasn't in the same shape I had been last fall when Beth and I tackled the brutal Fairyland Canyon hike at Bryce (alongside about 20 miles of trails in and about Zion), I had to stop and catch my breath repeatedly on the ascent.  I kept giving myself a hard time--after all, I'd done Delicate Arch earlier this year on a solid sheet of ice--until I consulted the altimeter on my hand-held GPS (Tabbycita, she's named, for her big sister in my car): the hike rises over 1000 feet in the first mile to mile and a quarter, and a large portion of the hike is over 10,000 feet above sea level!  My blood is simply too thin for that sort of exertion that early in the morning.

There is a fantastic view well worth the hike not quite a mile into the route, looking back down at Maroon Lake from one of the few clearings in the aspens.  If you ever attempt this trail and feel like turning back, make sure to force yourself onward until you do make that viewpoint.

Looking down on Maroon Lake
Stop and spend a few minutes catching your breath, because from there the terrain crossed several shaded switchbacks which anytime outside the middle of summer are likely to be packed with a layer of ice.  Crampons would be a good idea in the backpack of a hiker following the Boy Scout motto, and I honestly felt the going more difficult and slick than Delicate Arch had been back in January.

Crater Lake
Crater Lake itself is a so-so sight in my opinion given the rigors of the hike to reach it, but it does offer a much closer look at the Maroon Bells than the classic shots down along the shores of Maroon Lake.  Would-be mountaineers are advised by signs not to attempt climbing the "deadly Bells" without proper preparation and experience, citing dozens of deaths by even otherwise-experienced climbers annually.

The good thing about the hike back down--besides the fact that it's downhill almost the entire way!--is that you can encourage (or have a chuckle at) all the mid-morning hikers huffing and puffing their way up the path who stop to ask you if it's "much farther" or worth the hike.

By the time I got back to the shores of Maroon Lake at nearly noon, the sun had indeed illuminated the entire basin around the lake.  Unfortunately, between several mallards and a bit of a breeze spoiling any reflections, the pre-dawn clouds having moved on and left behind totally-blue skies, and several dozen tourists posing for quick shots against the majestic backdrop, there wasn't any real chance of capturing a good image, so I set off to Aspen in search of a bite to eat.

Aspen can be very crowded, particularly during ski season as well as the peak of summer and fall foliage, but I found it surprisingly laid-back for a holiday and even found free-for-the-day parking near the city's pedestrian core.  Almost all of the restaurants along the core do seem to be dinner-only establishments, but I found a real gem in the Red Onion, which purports to be the town's oldest restaurant and bar and which dates like the Crystal Mill to 1892 and the area's silver boom.  I enjoyed a pint of local pale ale and one of the best seared ahi tuna salads I've eaten, with the tuna cooked absolutely perfectly (raw inside with a thin layer seared but not blackened) and just the right amount of lemon vinaigrette (most restaurants go way overboard with dressing!).

As I know Beth would never willingly ride out the route to the Crystal Mill and not sure I'd have such an appropriate 4x4 rental the next time in the area anyway, I decided I'd better tackle the punishing drive again while the skies were sunny and take a mulligan on the prior day's overcast grey blanket, rather than spending any time in the many quaint shops of downtown Aspen (with signs proclaiming such encouraging notes as: "Be prepared to spend money!").

The drive out to the Crystal Mill was no less punishing than it had been the prior day--at the end of it, I actually had to crank the Tahoe's full-sized spare back up as it had worked itself nearly loose from beneath the car during the trip--but I did get some fantastic color and light on the mill as my reward.  I also met a young artist hard at work capturing the scene in a painting--certainly the scene is one well-suited to artistic inspiration.  Even with the superior light of my repeat visit, I actually liked the HDR image I made the day before better, though.

I had planned to hit the Maroon Bells for a second morning before flying home on Tuesday, putting to work what I'd learned on my first day there, but when I headed out of the Hampton Inn in Glenwood Springs at a quarter to five, it was raining, and the forecast for the Aspen area was hardly any different.  As I drove down CO82, I did watch the skies closely for any sign of the clouds breaking up--remember, some clouds are a good thing in photographs--but with a repeat of Sunday afternoon's gloomy skies and cloud cover which would stop the pink alpenglow and sunrise's magic cold, I decided to put my frequent flier status on United to work and catch earlier flights home.

Will I make the Maroon Bells an annual pilgrimage as do so many other nature photographers?  Well, it was indeed spectacular and something I'd see again, though there are so many other destinations and sights calling...  Well, next time Beth needs to come along, so perhaps in a year or two, I'll find the shores of Maroon Lake in my travels again.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Keeping the Old Forester Going: DIY Belt Replacement

Earlier this year, I started doing a lot of the maintenance on my car myself--more out of a sense of, "if you want it done right, you've got to do it yourself," than necessarily to save a few dollars, though the latter is nice, too, given the typical mechanic charges more than double what I make per hour.  One of the first tasks I tackled was flushing the power steering system, which solved a multitude of problems--but eight months later the steering started acting up again, this time with an audible squeak I hoped was only the pump drive belt and not the pump itself going bad.

Drive belt cover removed to show the power steering
 & alternator belt (left) and air conditioner belt (right)
I've got nearly 90,000 miles on my 2004 Forester XT, and though I've been pretty good with the upkeep, it's nonetheless eight years old.  The steering system had really started to squeak when I first started the car, and the steering wheel had started vibrating again along with the car idling a bit rough at times like it had before I flushed the fluid (don't get me started on how Jiffy Lube had put the wrong fluid in--yeah, I know Dexron III is labeled as transmission fluid and not steering fluid, but that's what Subaru designed the car to take and that's what should be used!).  Replacing the pump would set me back around $150-$400 in parts, depending on whether I went with the OEM or an aftermarket pump, so I figured I'd first try replacing the belt and flushing the fluid again.

I don't believe drive belts are supposed to look quite like this...
The existing drive belt definitely needed to be replaced: as you can see in the photo above, it had split along the length of the belt into three sections, and was starting to fray along one of the strands as well.  I'm actually a bit surprised my battery held a charge, given the same belt drives the alternator and obviously  wasn't working very well, as it was slipping and squeaking a good bit.  The fact the belt is hidden away beneath a cover is no reason I shouldn't have caught this sooner (nor an excuse Jiffy Lube shouldn't have noticed it during one of their services).

Getting the right replacement belt was harder than the replacement itself.  My understanding from much consultation with the Internet tubes is that the generic aftermarket belts from auto parts stores don't quite fit right compared to the OEM ones, and unlike most parts debates across Subaru forums, almost everyone agrees on that point.  I drive right past a Subaru dealership on the way to work, so figured I'd stop in and that their service department would have something like that in stock, but alas, they "were at the warehouse," already closed for the day--and come Monday, the same tech greeted me with the same line he'd given me a few days before: "Oh, I've got some bad news on those belts... they're at the warehouse."  Yep, closed for the day again, too.

The delay pushed back the repair until after I got back from a trip to Vegas with my sister (that's a long story involving a skinny ginger git from Harry Potter and worthy of its own blog post).  Facing a commute to the office with a seriously-deteriorated belt, I decided to tackle the job before going into work.

Under the hood with the belt cover still in place
For the 2004 Forester XT, the accessory drive belts are located beneath a plastic safety cover (pictured above, foreground).  This comes off with the removal of two bolts--have a ratchet with metric sizes on hand, and you'll have no problems getting it off and out of the way.

Bolts which need to be loosened to remove the power steering & alternator drive belt (red circles)
Even split and as worn as my belt was, it had plenty of tension and wasn't about to slip right off.  I could have cut it--the existing belt wasn't exactly in great shape anyway--but given the new belt installation requires getting things loosened up, there's no avoiding releasing the belt tension.  There are three bolts for the power steering and alternator drive belt (which are mirrored for the air conditioner compressor drive belt); I've circled them in red in the photo above.  The two leftmost bolts are called out in the service manual and serve to tension the belts--to adjust, first loosen the bottom bolt a few turns, as it locks the entire assembly in place, then turn the top bolt to move the alternator up or down and thus increase or decrease the belt tension accordingly.

Before you get too far and wonder why the belt doesn't seem to be getting any looser, here's something my service manual neglected to include: notice the third bolt (center right, above)?  You have to loosen it as well so that the alternator can pivot as you adjust the long bolt on the left; a half turn or two is all it should take.  I had to really lower the alternator to be able to get the old belt out and the new one in, running that long bolt nearly all the way out.

While you've got the power steering and alternator belt out of the way, you should go ahead and replace the air conditioner belt, too, as belts tend to show similar wear, and you can't get to the a/c belt without first removing the power steering one.  The tensioner is similar to the one for the power steering and is located just to the left of the air conditioner compressor (the thing with the big pulley on the right of the image above).

Once the new belts are in place, just reverse the process you used to loosen the components and relieve the belt tension in the first place.  The belts should be tightened until they displace about a quarter of an inch under firm pressure, something you can measure by putting a straightedge between the pulleys and then pushing the belt down with one finger while measuring the distance it moves down with a small ruler (easier said than done).  Don't forget to tighten the bolt which allowed the alternator and compressor to pivot down.

I did the change-out in about 10 minutes before going to work one morning, so it should be easy for anyone to accomplish.  No special tools are required--just a socket wrench--and the parts aren't particularly expensive (both belts together set me back around $25 from a local Subaru dealership).  Replacing the belts eliminated my car's squeak, smoothed out the steering system, and should be good for another 90,000 miles or so.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Birthday Browsing in Barcelona

Normally, my birthdays are spent at home, with a cake fresh out of the oven and perhaps some steaks hot off the grill, but this year--turning 29 for the 8th time--I got to enjoy the annual celebration whilst abroad.

Beth and I had had a couple of days to get our bearings in Barcelona, with Beth dusting off her Spanish and me trying to absorb some of the local Catalan.  We'd walked La Rambla, enjoyed each afternoon and evening sitting out on a patio or courtyard somewhere with a glass of cava, a mug of cervesa, and a fair bit of vina blanca.  We'd learned the shortcut to the Metro from our hotel and could navigate the mass transit system like locals (well, almost).  But like so much else of our trip, I'd decided just to play my birthday by ear, with only a rough idea as to what I wanted to do.

After a nice continental breakfast at the hotel, we set out for a bit of shopping.  Beth wanted to track down some Mothers' Day gifts, and I'd seen a photo of a hat shop in one of the many travel guides we consulted prior to the trip which gave me an idea of how to answer Beth's question: "What do you want for your birthday?"  Yes, Sombrereria Obach is something of a tourist staple, but it's also quaint enough that I just had to stop in and see what new headwear I could find.  I ended up with a floppy cotton hat which I can roll up and stick in my pocket and which is a bit smaller than the fedora I often travel in.  Prices at the shop reflected its location just off the big tourist drag (at €55, it's one of the more expensive hats I own), but hey, it was my birthday after all!

Beth shows off her scarf from Barcelona
After a bit more shopping with stops at a scarf shop--where I exchanged the gift favor and got Beth the fashion accessory that seems a necessity amongst Barcelona natives, namely, a frilly scarf--we hopped a train to nearby Montserrat... a topic for a later blog; all I'll say for now is that Mussolini would be proud of the punctuality of the Spanish train system.

Thanks to Barcelona's latitude--somewhere between NYC and Boston despite having a much more Mediterranean climate--even in early May sunset didn't come until 8:30pm or later, leaving us plenty of time to head out on the town for a birthday dinner after getting back from Montserrat.  (Side note: On the train ride back, we shared seats for part of the trip with a woman traveling with her cat in her lap; I cannot believe how calm and laid-back the kitty was on public transportation!)  Beth had been after me to pick a good place to eat, and I spent most the train ride flipping back and forth through the Barcelona city guides we had on hand to try to narrow down our selection.

Let me stop for a moment and point out that Barcelona is considered one of the world's top gastronomic destinations, with the broader metropolitan region claiming what is rated by many critics to be the planet's number-one eatery (ahead of Keller's "French Laundry" and "Per Se" in the US and several Paris restaurants) in El Bulli.  Unfortunately, with Chef Ferran Adrià deciding to close this July, reservations are completely unavailable at El Bulli--but fear not; there are still plenty of fantastic places to grab a bite in Cataluyna.

I ended up picking a little hole-in-the-wall called "Bar Seco" on the hillside of the El Poble Sec neighborhood leading up Montjuïc based on a description in one of our travel guides--as I wanted something not too loud, not too crowded, not requiring reservations (as it was already after 6:00pm!), and which offered a genuine, local experience.  It's not too far from the nearest Metro (Paral-Lel on the L2 and L3 lines), though I will say the neighborhood was certainly more residential than some of the more urban environs we'd spent the past couple of days getting to know.

Bar Seco, street view
Bar Seco became one of the highlights of our trip!  The self-described alimentació (which Google helpfully translates as meaning "feeding" in Catalan) is indeed something of a hole-in-the-wall, with a small set of bar seating supplemented by perhaps four tables for two and in-season about the same amount of terrace tables outside.  The proprietors are proponents of the "slow food" movement, which is a sort of antithesis of our American notion of McDonald's-style fast food joints: slow food emphasizes local ingredients and flavors.  Bar Seco does that throughout their menu and their (non-dry) bar selections.

For a change from all the Cava and other vina we'd enjoyed on our trip so far, Beth and I opted for local cervezas (beer), with the unappetizingly-named "Glops"--an unfiltered dark ale--as our favorite winning out over a Montserrat brewski.  We went with the recommendation of our server on our choice of tapas, with some absolutely fantastic patatas bravas (I apologize for not recalling the local distinction of same--other than that they were the best we had the entire trip) and vegetarian-friendly sandwich fare for Beth (a bocadillo made with local cheese and fruit, along with the best veggie-burger I've ever eaten).

Though not a full dinner spread, we nonetheless filled our bellies.  For the first year in many, I didn't have a cake fresh from a box (some traditions win out over the fully made-from-scratch cooking that generally goes on at Chateau Papillon), and given our scheduled early morning departure to Andalucía, we didn't try to catch a spot of gelato on our way back to the hotel.  Nonetheless, it had been quite a good birthday indeed.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Weekend DIY at Chateau Papillon: Toilet Replacement

Channel-lock pliers. Bolt cutters. Hacksaw. Brake cleaner. WD-40. 9/16 box end wrench. Chisel. Screwdriver. Socket wrench. Hammer. Putty knife. These are some of the tools needed to remove the old toilet in my bathroom at Chateau Papillon, thanks to the heavily-rusted flange bolts holding it to the floor. After all that, I wonder if a sledgehammer might not have done the job of all of them together and with more satisfying fun to boot.

Replacing a toilet isn't really that hard of a job--I've tackled far more challenging DIY projects at Chateau Papillon in the past.  Still, like so many home improvement jobs, it ended up taking a lot longer than I'd expected; I had figured on about an hour total to remove the old toilet and install the new one, and it took closer to three.

Why the new toilet?  It was an "impulse buy" at Costco, I have to admit.  Beth and I had gone specifically to check out a laundry sink--something I spied at a Costco in Richmond last summer but which until now our local one had never had in stock--and right next to the sink were several high-efficiency, dual-flush toilets for under $90.  That's a pretty good buy; I'd looked at similar units at Lowe's and Home Depot before, typically for upwards of $150 with several brand-name models over $280.  Couple with that the fact we'd just gotten back from Spain, where like so much of Europe the toilets are similar to the one in the store, and we were sold.

Not to mention that my bathroom's old toilet was wearing out--I'd had to replace several parts on it over the past couple of years.  Nor that it was a water-hog, slurping down around 5 gallons per flush.  I don't think it dated back to the original home construction (mid-'60s), but the toilet wasn't much newer than that, either.

First, the old toilet (pictured above) had to come out.  Turn off the water, flush, pour a bucket of hot water through to empty the bowl, and remove.  You'd think that wasn't going to be a very difficult task, but you'd be wrong.  Two flange bolts hold the toilet to the floor, and the problem with older toilets is that the nuts on those bolts are typically rusted solidly in place.  Worse, the flange bolts heads simply fit into a slot on the flange beneath the toilet, so there's very little leverage to be had: the entire bolts will just spin in place.  Enter the list of tools and materials leading off this post...

I tried penetrating oil, WD40, and even brake cleaner (which consists mostly of very light, very volatile hydrocarbon solvents), and though I did thus manage to dislodge quite a bit of rust, that was it.  I had the most success gripping the tops of the bolts with some really big channel-lock pilers and using a box-end wrench to twist the nut in the opposite direction--though this really crushed the threads on the ends of the bolts.  Unfortunately, one bolt was so rusted that the end simply snapped off when torqued--and of course it wasn't the end between the toilet and the floor that broke.

Next came a chisel; I figured if the bolts were that fragile, I might be able to snap them off beneath the nuts.  This meant some rather awkward hammering, as I didn't want to slip and shatter the toilet itself into a million tiny fragments of porcelain.  That didn't get me very far, and next up was a hacksaw.  The problem there was that my toilet was crammed back into a nook, giving me all of a couple of inches of space and a completely useless angle to use the saw.  I gave up on the saw, but perseverance paid off in the end when I managed to get a pair of bolt cutters onto one of the two.  This gave me enough leverage to twist the entire toilet free without further work on the second bolt, as I was able to rotate the toilet around the flange enough that the bolt head aligned with the slot used to originally install it (sort of like the wide part of an old-fashioned keyhole).

A wax gasket serves to seal the bottom of the toilet to the floor flange and sewer pipe, preventing leaks.  The old gasket has to go so that the new one will seal properly.  I discovered in removing the sticky, gunky old mess that whoever had installed the current toilet hadn't taken out the original gasket--there were two, nested sets of rubber seals and wax gaskets!  (You can see one of those in the photo to the left.)  A putty knife, several pairs of gloves, and some rags took care of that phase of prep, all the while with a rag stuffed into the pipe to prevent icky sewer gas from filling the room while I worked.

Notice, too, that the old toilet tank had leaned right against the wall and collected a nice bit of moisture, as well as some mildew where the original wallboard had apparently never been painted at all.  Taking care of that required a scrub brush, some bleach, and a couple of hours of drying time followed by several coats of paint--thankfully, we still had part of a gallon of the "Miami Mist" color on hand.

Everything finally prepped meant it was time at last to install the new toilet.  New flange bolts into the flange: check.  New rubber seal and wax gasket: check.  Remove the rag in the sewer pipe: check.  With Beth's help, I got the new toilet in place, gave it a little twist (to seat the wax gasket properly), and secured it to the floor.  Note that I absolutely slathered the new flange bolts with WD-40, as I expect I'll need to move the toilet at least once when I get around to a total bathroom remodel in a couple of years and retile the floor and walls.  Hook up the water, fill, and flush: nice.  No leaks.

The dual-flush on the new toilet uses only 1 gallon of water for the "light" flush (and though it may be a bit grotesque of me to say so, I do typically follow the Southern California dicta of letting yellow mellow to save water, too) and 1.6 for the "heavy" flush.  While some high-efficiency models are prone to clogs and otherwise problematic, this one seems to work like a charm so far.  (We'll see if the dual-flush mechanism on top of the tank confuses anyone the next time we have guests over...)

The old toilet, thoroughly cleaned, ended up on the cub for Habitat for Humanity to pick up, bound for a new home no doubt.  A little disappointing, I must say, not to take drag it out into the woods for a consultation with a shotgun, but, like the new toilet upgrade, a more environmentally-friendly choice.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Getting Our Bearings in Barcelona

At one end of La Rambla, Christopher Columbus gestures the explorer's vague but determined "thataway."  At the other stands the Plaça Catalunya. In between: an opera house, art museums, street vendors, living statues, and tourists, tourists, tourists finding their way through the Catalan capital city's most famous walk.

Our flight arrived shortly before noon, giving us plenty of time to head over to our hotel, get settled and cleaned up, then hit the city for our first immersion in Spanish culture (or, I should say, Catalan culture; Barcelona may be a part of Spain, but it is first and foremost a part of Cataluyna--with a separate Romance language that reads to the uninitiated like some cross between le français and Español, or Castillian).  Though we were staying out in the Forum neighborhood--a mishmash of modernisme architecture, contemporary corporate-consumer-antichic, convention center, and overdeveloped beachfront--Barcelona's public transportation is excellent and got us to the city center in short order via a 5 minute walk and 20 minute Metro ride.  And though Barcelona is deservedly described as an eminently walkable city, the 3-day Metro passes we picked up for around €12 were well-worthwhile investments.  (One other thing of note: Barcelona's Metro is similar to the London Underground more than to the Washington, D.C., Metro from our home in that transfer stations are apparently two separate stations connected by a few flights of stairs and a kilometer or so of tunnel.  I'm much more used to walking 100 meters and taking an escalator to switch lines--I'm glad we took a cab from the airport instead of trying to take rail and bus!)

In the Plaça Catalunya, but not the more humble Font de Canaletes
We began our promenade down La Rambla from the Plaça Catalunya, though somehow we missed the most of the plaza itself--apparently taking the Metro exit closest to the street instead of the square.  I suppose over 10 hours of flying and nearly 14 of total travel is a lame if honest excuse for that oversight.  That was too bad as we missed the Font de Canaletes, the fountain whose waters guarantee he who drinks them will return to Barcelona.  For what it's worth, I don't think it takes a mystical sip from an antique fountain to ensure that we'll one day visit the city again--Barcelona is certainly one of my favorite cities from even our brief stay.

The street itself is named for the Arabic word for "intermittent stream" or "riverbed" (n.b. I'm relying on my guide books and Wikipedia here--Arabic is unfortunately not a language I know enough even to curse in) after the drainage paths around the old city walls of the Barri Gòtic.

Even on a mid-week afternoon a bit ahead of the real tourist season, La Rambla is busy!  Fortunately, the street is limited to pedestrian traffic--I can't imagine if a la Bangkok the narrow thoroughfare had cars, motorcycles driven by the terminally insane, tuk-tuks, and the occasional lorry or two trying to plow their way through the crowd.  The press of people alone is more than enough for the agoraphobic ambulator.

Several of our guidebooks mentioned the "living statues" performing along La Rambla as a point of distinction--now, perhaps I'm just culturally ignorant here, but I've certainly come across these folks elsewhere in the past, from the French Quarter in New Orleans to Chicago's Grant Park to an appearance in the countryside village of the British buddy-movie-satire Hot Fuzz.  Said simian statuary does appreciate a coin tossed into the hat much as any public performance artists--but do watch your pockets (as you'll be far from the only blithe tourist stopping to gawk, snap a photo, and fish out some spare change).  We had no problems with pickpockets and felt pretty safe in Barcelona as a whole, but I'd be remiss not to pass along a gentle public service reminder about not ending up as "that tourist" who has to call up American Express for a new set of traveler's cheques (does anyone use those anymore?) and the embassy for a new passport...

To be honest, we didn't stop for many of the more traditional tourist sights along La Rambla; several were undergoing renovations (the most familiar architectural element in Europe does seem to be scaffolding, followed closely by construction cranes), and the crowds were just stupendous along much of the route.  Nonetheless, there's something for almost anyone to see, from several impressive churches (at home in any self-respecting city from old Europe) to a large outdoor market to the Gran Teatre Liceu to homes and businesses cast in Mediterranean colors with their balconies overlooking the street and its passengers (see the photo leading off this post).

Streetscape near the portside end of La Rambla
One thing I must point out: like so many once-darling streets and squares in cities across the world, La Rambla has lost a bit of its charm in recent years with the gradual incursion of high-end retail chains, coupled with the profusion of cheap, made-in-China souvenir stands--what I'm looking for in a city are quaint local shops and restaurants set alongside plazas slightly off the beaten path (of which there are plenty in Barcelona, mind you--more on that in a subsequent blog post).

The Plaça Rieal
Snacks in the hotel lounge at lunchtime weren't quite enough to keep us going as the afternoon wore on, but neither of us really wanted to grab a bite at the sort of trite, tourist-filled eateries directly along the course of La Rambla.  From our last trip to Europe and visits to Frankfurt and northern Italy, we had our hearts set on spending several afternoons out on the patios of a smaller cafe or the like.  We took in a few side streets, straying into nearby neighborhoods like El Raval and the Barri Gòtic but saving a more in-depth exploration of them for a later day of the trip.

Finally, dwindling blood sugar reserves drove us into the first likely restaurant we came to, a place named "Trobador" (which location, I honestly don't recall--they've got three or four in Barcelona, with at least two along the route we walked).  There we settled in for a quite tasty late lunch; I had a crispy whole-fish and Beth a pasta, along with a nice bottle of wine.  The waiter told us he'd worked in Georgetown at a hotel restaurant for a couple of years and was well-familiar with our hometown of Fairfax, VA, and directed us to a nice wine shop in Barcelona where we could pick up what we'd enjoyed with our meal or anything else which caught our fancy.

Refueled, late afternoon found us at the opposite end of La Rambla, at the Monument a Colom.  Christopher Columbus, the explorer famous to every American schoolchild, made Barcelona his port of call upon return from his discovery of the New World, reporting back to his financial sponsors Ferdinand and Isabella--and the city erected the monument for the the 1888 Expo to commemorate his historic achievement.  (As a side note, our trip also included the spot where Columbus made one of his bids to the Spanish crown, proverbially falling to his knees within the Alhambra's walls as he wore down the royal reluctance to coughing up cash for his expedition.)

Much like New York's Statue of Liberty, the Washington Monument, the Space Needle in Seattle, Paris' Eiffel Tower, and any number of other tall, vaguely-phallic monuments, tourists can pay a few dollars (or Euros, as the case is here) to ascend to the top of the edifice for a panoramic view out over the city.  There's a tiny elevator--with room for the operator and perhaps two to four visitors depending on their girth (I'd err on the lower side for the typical American on holiday...)--which runs to the top, opening out onto an observation platform nearly 200 feet above the street level.  Barcelona on a good day nonetheless presents a fairly hazy view.

The Port Vell, or Old Port
There's plenty more to do at the base of La Rambla, between the Port Vell (Old Port) area, a large if boring mall (the Maremàgnum, complete with tourist-standby IMAX theater and aquarium), a sprawling and fantastic Maritime Museum, and the nearby neighborhood and beach of La Barceloneta.  Honestly, we'd planned to visit the Museu Maritim, upon the ringing endorsement of a coworker and my general enjoyment of such things (a highlight of the trip to London a few years back was the Cutty Sark)... but we simply ran out of time.  Well, even without a sip from the Font de Canaletes, I have little doubt we'll pay a return visit some day, particularly given the fact after the trip Beth identified Barcelona as one of her favorite cities to have experienced.

But for us, with the setting sun, we headed back to our hotel for a well-needed night's sleep with our first taste of Barcelona sated, our tummies full of delights, our wallets somewhat lighter, and a better idea of what we planned to tackle over the next few days. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Notes for the Frequent Traveler, Part 1: Lounge Hopping for Our Spain Trip

The frequent traveler lives by airline lounges and what amenities each offers: showers after a long international flight, perhaps? Free snacks and booze? Which has the best views of the comings and goings out on the tarmac?  Where is the best place to check e-mail, unwind, or catch a couple of hours of shut-eye before the next flight?  Is there even a reason to trek over to the lounge instead of just sitting at the gate?  No doubt the infrequent air traveler won't find much of interest in this blog post, but for those of us who love to travel, these are weighty matters indeed!

Beth and I put these issues to the test during our recent trip to Spain, which involved flights from our nation's capital; Frankfurt-am-Main, Germany; Barcelona, Spain; Málaga, Spain; and Brussels, Belgium.  So how did the lounges stack up?

IAD: Lufthansa Senator Lounge

  • Decent selection of hot foods
  • Free beer (Shock Top and Beck's) and other alcohol
  • Showers available downstairs in the Business Lounge
  • Light, airy, and modern design
  • Located in B Concourse
  • No free wifi (other than airport's)
  • Alcohol isn't self-service and attendants are sometimes hard to find
First off, we paid a visit to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge at Dulles (IAD) on our day of departure, despite the fact we were flying United across the pond.  A somewhat little-known yet open secret is that the IAD Lufthansa Lounge is a Star Alliance Gold lounge, meaning that any traveler who holds gold status with a Star Alliance member airline can visit it in connection with a Star Alliance flight (for a real shocker: domestic flights, too; I've had no problems visiting when flying United to St. Louis or Seattle, for example)--not just those flying Lufthansa.  The lounge is over in the B Concourse, but it's almost right across from the train station, making it an easy trip from check-in at the main terminal.

Beth enjoys a Beck's in the IAD LH Senator Lounge
The Lufthansa Senator lounge is a welcome alternative to the United Red Carpet Clubs as it is generally far less crowded (excepting the times around the morning ANA flight to Tokyo or the later Germany flights) and offers food--and no, the RCC's selection of cheese cubes, crackers, and celery sticks does not count as food.  It's also much brighter, cleaner, and more more modern.  Really, the only downsides are the hours--it opens around 8:30am (the RCC opens at 6:00), the Germans uncharacteristically take a siesta around lunchtime, and the lounge closes earlier than the RCC--and the trek over to your United flight in the A, C, or D Concourse, which means leaving the lounge at least 45 minutes prior to scheduled boarding.  The wifi isn't free, either, and although IAD offers airport-wide free wifi now, the signal quality inside the lounge was so poor I found it nearly worthless.

Just be sure to allow yourself plenty of time to catch the train loop back to the main terminal, A, then the train to C or shuttle to D (or to walk to the shuttle station at A or the far end of B): I'd leave the lounge no later than 45 minutes before your flight boards, earlier if flying internationally (as you'll have to do a document check at your gate).

There are showers downstairs in the Business Lounge--which Star Alliance Gold passengers should be allowed to access regardless of their class of travel, as the Senator Lounge is technically the more "prestigious" of the two.  I've never had the chance to try them out, though, since Washington is my home airport and there's really no need for me to shower given I could have at home.

Unfortunately, due to ABC laws in Virginia, the Lufthansa lounge isn't self-serve when it comes to bier, wein, schnapps and the like--which may come as a surprise to the seasoned international traveler used to pouring their own.  Attendants can be hard to find; I've noticed they will occasionally open the mirror behind the bar and glance out quickly, so you can either catch their eyes then or go over and knock at the kitchen door.

Finally, over the past couple of years, the Senator Lounge's food selection has fallen off a bit in quality, and it can be more crowded than it used to be.  Still, it's leagues ahead of the Red Carpet Clubs, as you'll soon see.

IAD: United Red Carpet Club

Locations: Near gates C7, C17, and D8
  • Three locations
  • Free house wines, beers, and bottom-shelf liquors
  • Free wifi via T-Mobile
  • Dingy and outdated
  • Very crowded
  • Food options almost non-existent
Beth and I left the Lufthansa Senator Lounge about an hour before our flight, and the train (B to Main Terminal to A to C) followed by the long walk from the  station (you see, C/D Concourse is "temporary," and has been for 20+ years--and the train station is where the MWAA eventually plans the real C/D concourse to go) took us a good 15 minutes.  That still gave us time to visit the United Red Carpet Club closest to our flight: the C7 location.

Anyone who's visited the IAD Red Carpet Clubs knows why the lounges play second fiddle to the LH Senator Lounge.  They're all poorly-lit (located at tarmac level, e.g. in the basement) and are typically too hot and are ridiculously crowded--the past few trips to Europe, I haven't been able to find a seat anywhere in the lounge!  Nor do they offer any real food: mornings mean bananas and toast (maybe), with the rest of the day offering cheese cubes straight off a 1970s party tray coupled with crackers and celery and carrot slices.  At least the Red Carpet Club went to free booze about a year ago (dispensing with the often-argued "chit" system where international travelers were supposed to receive two drink coupons)... but the gratis selection is limited to a couple of cheap beers on tap, house wines, and bottom-shelf liquors.  Still, the house wines are usually okay.

The lounge does offer free wifi--members automatically get it, and Star Alliance Gold or international  first or business passengers can request a one-time T-Mobile voucher card--and it typically works far better than the free wifi in the airport (though when the lounge is busy, performance predictably drops).  You can also talk to flight agents (Beth and I did our EU-bound document check at the club, for example, instead of waiting at the counter at the gate).

FRA: Lufthansa Business Lounge

  • Good selection of free bier, wein, and other beverages of choice
  • Decent food items, including an omelet station (mornings only?)
  • Light, airy, and modern design
  • Typically very crowded
  • Long waits for showers
  • No free wifi
  • Hot!
In Frankfurt, the Star Alliance traveler has plenty of options, as the airport is a hub for Lufthansa.  As we were connecting onward to a Schengen-zone destination (Barcelona), that meant first going through passport control (immigration) and then clearing security again, but we still had plenty of time even with as confusing a layout as FRA can be.  We ended up at the Lufthansa Business Lounge near gate A26, as we were departing via A29 for Barcelona.

Beth with an espresso in Frankfurt
The Lufthansa "lounge dragons" (a play on the fact that they, like most airline lounge attendants around the world, stand guard like dragons before a moat and often have less-than-sunny demeanors if you're trying to sneak by them) have the admittance process down to a science, using a barcode scanner on your boarding pass.  The downside is that you thus need an onward Star Alliance flight (switching to another alliance or terminating at FRA means no lounge for you).  If you're flying business--as Beth was--or first class, the lounge scanner sends you right in.  I, as a Star Alliance Gold member flying onward in economy class, had to also present my Star Alliance Gold membership card (United 1K or Continental Platinum for me) before the computers would allow Fraulein Lounge Dragon to let me pass.

The Schengen-zone Lufthansa Business Lounge, like many of the Frankfurt lounges, can be very crowded--feeling almost like a domestic Red Carpet Club in the US.  We did manage to find an open table, though, near the buffet area, and settled in for some much-needed espresso, juice, pastries, and, in my case (despite it being around 8:30am) a big, delicious witbier.  One other comment: like apparently so many European airports, Frankfurt (including its lounges) seems to be kept at sauna temperatures by management.

BCN: Star Alliance Lounge

  • Spacious and not too crowded
  • Okay selection of free alcohol
  • Poor food selection (particularly for an international lounge)
  • No free wifi
  • No arrivals facility
In Barcelona, there are two sets of lounges available in Terminal 1's Schengen area, where hub carrier Spanair operates: the Sala VIP Lounge, and right across from it, the shared Star Alliance Lounge.  (Spanair doesn't have its own flagship lounge for some reason.)

There was a lot of talk a couple of years ago when the new terminal (T1) opened--when Star Alliance passengers shared the Sala VIP Lounge--that the new Star lounge would be absolutely posh, with such things as Playstation 3s, massage tables, and a golf simulator.  Apparently, some contractor pocketed all the funds for those things (I'm joking, I hope), because they're either not well-marked or simply aren't there.  The lounge is pretty spacious, anyway--though granted we were there at 6:00am prior to our flight down to Málaga, so the time of day could have something to do with it.  Food selection wasn't great--certainly not on par with what I expect of international lounges--but the pastries and a café were fine to start the day since we left our hotel earlier than they had breakfast available.

I understand there's free wired Internet access, but the wifi is pay-only. We only had a few minutes in the lounge, anyway (with a 6:50am flight out!), so I didn't really worry that much about it.  A little food in our tummies and some caffeine to start the day is all we needed, and we avoided paying the ridiculous €2+ for vending machines at the airport.

AGP: Sala VIP Lounge

  • Not crowded
  • Spanair is too cheap to treat it as a Star Alliance lounge
We started to stop by the Sala VIP Lounge in Málaga on our way back to Barcelona, but it was a dark omen when there was no Star Alliance signage outside the lounge.

I presented my United 1K card and boarding pass and asked the agent at the counter if they honored Star Alliance status, and she explained that Spanair wasn't willing to pay the airport and lounge for passengers to use it.  She did say that they'd let me in (as a Star Gold flying Spanair), but that as it wasn't a Star Alliance lounge, I couldn't have a guest.  Beth was willing to see me on inside, but I demurred and thus we both bypassed said lounge.

BRU: Brussels Airlines Business Lounge

Beth enjoys some Trappist-brewed
 Leffe in  Brussels 
Beth and I finished up our trip with a connection in Brussels, Belgium, and we completed our lounge tour with a stop at the Brussels Airlines Business Lounge after shopping several chocolate vendors in duty-free.

  • Two varieties of Leffe (a Belgian abbey beer)
  • Temperature actually somewhat comfortable
  • Food options leave a bit to be desired
  • Espresso a bit weak--particularly by Euro standards!
  • No in-lounge bathrooms!

Belgium is known for both its chocolatiers and its brewers, and I certainly didn't let the morning hour dissuade me from sampling the Leffe ales (I had both a brown and a blonde to start my day--how's that?!) the lounge had on hand. Granted, InBev/Anheuser-Busch produces said beers and does so in quantity (InBev is headquartered in Belgium), which would typically preclude any kind of quality, but we're definitely not talking Bud Light, either! These "abbey beers" are very similar to some of the Trappist ales I've tasted and made for a good morning indeed.

I do have to say the espresso machine let me down a bit; the stuff it put out would be strong by coffee standards in the US, but we're talking Europe here. Judging by those more stringent specifications, the stuff was little more than muddy water. Food was only so-so, a bit above the Spanair lounge but still little more than a few croissants and a dish of snack mix (well, the lounge dragon's counter did have a bowl of gummi bears, too). Beth accidentally poured me a grapefruit juice, and I found that as an adult I found the stuff palatable--last time I tried it I was probably 10 and had triple the tastebuds I do today.

The biggest downside was that the lounge lacked its own bathrooms--or if any were in evidence, I couldn't find them. There were some shared facilities in the hall outside the lounge, shared apparently across the Star Alliance and OneWorld lounges--but which made the average US shopping mall bathroom look like something from a penthouse suite at the Four Seasons. I'm used to even the domestic Red Carpet Clubs having bathrooms a notch over the rest of the airport, if not full shower facilities to boot.

Still, the beer alone made the stop worth it.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Updated Chateau Papillon Bird List

It's that time of year: Spring migration, and time to keep an eye and ear to the skies for any new birds for the Chateau Papillon list.  Although we haven't added any "life birds" via the yard in a while (not since the Red-breasted Nuthatch last September), April and May have nonetheless contributed three new birds to the yard list.

In addition to two more warblers (a nicely-colored male Palm Warbler a few days back and a Northern Parula I identified by ear this morning), a long-time expected species finally put in an appearance with a mixed blackbird flock in early April: the Red-winged Blackbird.  Though the latter is perhaps North America's most abundant bird and the Palm Warbler one of the most common wood-warblers, they're still welcome additions to the list.  I also heard a Great-crested Flycatcher several times today, despite never being able to get my binoculars fixed on him.

Male Eastern Towhee on the fence at Chateau Papillon
All of our work naturalizing the yard and making it as bird-friendly as possible is paying off, and I only expect us to see more new species ahead--we're only at three warblers so far, and we ought to be able to chalk up a dozen or more in time.

Spring has brought the early arrival of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds as well, forcing us to dig out the nectar feeder a couple of weeks before we usually would, along with several "old friends" passing through, including a large flock of Purple Finches, several Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, and a Northern Catbird.  The springtime evening breeze carries the calls of the Barred Owl from the woods behind us, and of course our friend the Pileated Woodpecker pays frequent visits for our suet.

Sally asking for a meal worm handout

And, of course, Harry and Sally--our resident Eastern Bluebirds--are hard at work on a clutch of four eggs.

We stand now at 59 confirmed species in the yard; maybe we can make 60 before the end of springtime:

  1. Blackbird, Red-winged
  2. Bluebird, Eastern
  3. Bunting, Indigo
  4. Cardinal, Northern
  5. Catbird, Grey
  6. Chickadee, Carolina
  7. Cowbird, Brown
  8. Creeper, Brown
  9. Crow, American
  10. Crow, Fish
  11. Cuckoo, Yellow-billed
  12. Dove, Mourning
  13. Finch, House
  14. Finch, Purple
  15. Flicker, Northern
  16. Flycatcher, Great Crested
  17. Goldfinch, American
  18. Goose, Canada
  19. Grackle, Common
  20. Grosbeak, Rose-breasted
  21. Hawk, Cooper's
  22. Hawk, Red-shouldered
  23. Hawk, Red-tailed
  24. Heron, Great Blue
  25. Hummingbird, Ruby-throated
  26. Jay, Blue
  27. Junco, Dark-eyed
  28. Kingbird, Eastern
  29. Mallard
  30. Mockingbird, Northern
  31. Nuthatch, Red-breasted
  32. Nuthatch, White-breasted
  33. Owl, Barred
  34. Parula, Northern
  35. Phoebe, Eastern
  36. Robin, American
  37. Siskin, Pine
  38. Sparrow, Chipping
  39. Sparrow, Fox
  40. Sparrow, House
  41. Sparrow, Song
  42. Sparrow, White-crowned
  43. Sparrow, White-throated
  44. Starling, European
  45. Swallow, Tree
  46. Thrasher, Brown
  47. Thrush, Wood
  48. Titmouse, Tufted
  49. Towhee, Eastern
  50. Vulture, Turkey
  51. Warbler, Palm
  52. Warbler, Yellow-rumped
  53. Waxwing, Cedar
  54. Woodpecker, Downy
  55. Woodpecker, Hairy
  56. Woodpecker, Pileated
  57. Woodpecker, Red-bellied
  58. Wren, Carolina
  59. Wren, House

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

A Question of Light: Mesa Arch at Sunrise (Or, Sometimes It Pays to Be Late to Work)

It's often said that the majority of nature photographers are late to work--and the intent of that statement is not that we're out taking pictures and then heading into our "day jobs." No, the best light comes during the so-called "golden hours" surrounding sunrise and sunset, and that means getting up, dressed, grabbing a bite to eat (and more importantly, a mug of coffee), trekking into the field, and getting gear set up for those fleeting moments, all at times that honest folks are still sawing logs and making drool puddles on their pillows and too-often in temperatures which drive sane folks to hike the covers up over their heads instead of hiking out into the countryside.

The iconic monuments of the desert southwest are no exception to this rule (indeed, many stand as exemplars of the golden-hour), and my destination on this late-winter morning, Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, stands near the top of the mandatory dawn locales.  Sunrise turns the bottom of the arch completely and brilliantly orange-red with reflected light from the red rocks below.  Fortunately for the morning-challenged (a demographic into which I solidly fall), Mesa Arch involves neither a particularly long drive nor hike. It's perhaps 30-40 minutes from Moab and at most a 10 minute hike from the road, mostly across level ground, too.  A flashlight is helpful, but pre-dawn illumination should be good enough if you watch your step but still keep up a good pace--I had no problems at all.

Turret Arch through the North Window -- Arches National Park
Visiting red rock country, I didn't have a concrete plan for my first morning on the ground after a drive along the Colorado River and sunset at the Fisher Towers.  I had considered visiting the Windows district in Arches National Park for sunrise for the classic shot of Turret Arch through the North Window--which I'd photographed last spring with Beth but came away with a photo I wasn't entirely pleased with due to the late-breaking sun and the shadows across the bottom of Turret Arch.  That, too, is a fairly close drive from Moab and not a tough hike (though positioning for the traditional composition does require climbing about 40-50 feet up some steep slickrock formations, as well as crossing an area which may eventually be made off-limits to protect the cryptobiotic soil).  But I'd skipped Canyonlands on my previous trips to Utah, and Mesa Arch would be something new.

Even being fairly near the town of Moab and my body having the advantage of still being on eastern time for such a short trip, I still faced quite the oh-dark-thirty morning.  Why do I torture myself with such an early dawn--leaving my room's warm confines well before the hotel has populated its complimentary breakfast bar with stale Danishes and coffee overheated to the point of providing its own charcoal filtration?  That golden hour: yes, sunlight is in no short supply in the high desert country... but here's the rub: most of that sunshine (particularly during the mid-day hours surrounding high noon) comes in at a poor angle, its harsh rays falling from directly overhead burning away contrast.  More importantly, the softer, more diffuse "golden hour" light reflects off the landscape's reds and oranges to create fantastic, glowing illumination which makes for far superior photography.  High noon is best spent inside an air-conditioned cafe, sipping a cool beverage, reviewing the morning's photographs, and planning for the late afternoon's shots.

Mesa Arch at "Sunrise" -- Too bad the sun didn't put in an appearance!
I was a bit surprised to find several cars in the parking area when I pulled in well before sunrise, at about 6:30am.  For the most part, I'd nearly had the Moab area to myself in the off-season, and I hadn't encountered another vehicle on the drive out to Canyonlands.  Either some folks had actually camped out in the park (not likely given the overnight temperatures!), or had gotten up really early for Mesa Arch.  At the end of my short hike, I found about a half dozen photographers set up already, apparently part of a group expedition.

Now, as a photographer, I not only respect others' shots but the use of parks by anyone else out enjoying nature, be they hikers, birdwatchers, climbers, or joggers.  I unfortunately discovered that respect isn't a universal value, though, given how a couple of the members of the group really monopolized the viewpoint of Mesa Arch.  Typically, there's room for all; for example, when photographing the Towers of the Virgin at Zion National Park last fall, I found myself in the middle of a photography seminar perhaps fifteen strong, but was able to take a spot that yielded some quite nice photography without disrupting anyone else.  Here, one lady in particular kept moving closer to the arch as dawn approached, using a wide angle and interposing herself into my composition (along with those of a couple of other photographers from her own group who'd set up to the left as I had).  Worse, she just camped out in the photo; she could have filled a fairly large memory card with images in the time she spent blocking the shot for the rest of us.  I dunno, but my photographer's ethic says I don't spoil the enjoyment others may be getting out of nature just to make my own shot work.

The grey, cloud-cloaked dawn left me with the last laugh, so to speak.  The large group checked their watches a few times, grumbled about sunrise having come and gone with no glimpse of the sun itself, and eventually gave up and left.  A late-arriving couple, one foreign hiker, and I were all who remained, lingering in the hope against hope that perhaps the sun would at last show.

Finally, the sun did indeed peek above the low clouds, still low enough to the horizon to render that wonderful, reflected light up from the canyon walls below onto Mesa Arch.  I can only imagine what a proper sunrise would have done--what a fantastic spectacle that must be, and surely a requirement for a later trip back to Canyonlands--but unlike the early birds who left, defeated, I did get a glimpse of what Mesa Arch is supposed to look like in the right light.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Silicone Intercooler Pipes for the Forester

In trying to track down a minor fuel leak under my hood, I noticed what appeared to be a very timeworn hose--and though large parts of said hose were hidden away from sight, its purpose was clear: the hose led from turbocharger to intercooler, and I can't imagine having that hose fail while driving would lead to good times.  So after a bit of research, I ordered not the cheaply-built OEM plastic pipe but a snazzy silicone set which would stand up to the temperatures of a turbocharged engine better and look good at the same time.  Replacing the turbo hoses would involve my first real bit of mechanical disassembly under the hood and give me some good practice for future maintenance.

The intercooler with its fancy new silicone Y-pipe installed
Between the appropriate Haynes repair manual and Peaty's excellent instructions over at the forums, the process wasn't too difficult and something any amateur mechanic could tackle--the hardest part was working the old hoses loose and getting the intercooler out without bending any of the delicate metal radiator vanes (you can see some bent vanes in the photo above--not due to my handiwork, I can assure you).

The original intercooler pipes--cheap plastic covered with foam wrapping
I made sure to clean the fittings well--they had a little bit of cooked blow-by oil on them from the turbocharger, but not as much as I'd feared.  Still, there was enough oil that it makes me wonder if I might need to replace the turbocharger itself in the next couple of years; I'll definitely give it a good once-over when I have the intake manifold apart when the weather gets a bit nicer.  I did after all have the engine throw an AVCS-related code a couple of years ago, most likely due to an oil filter screen dropping down into the AVCS body--and in the process, the turbo could have starved for oil a bit and taken on a bit of excess wear.

While I had the intercooler off, I also gave the engine a treatment of Sea Foam straight in through the throttle body, given it hadn't had an upper cleaning for at least 20,000 miles (if ever--I asked for one at my 60k service, but am not sure the mechanic actually performed it or not).  On the 2004 Forester XT, there just isn't a vacuum line which feeds all four cylinders equally, so applying the cleaner straight into the throttle body is a necessity and cleans the throttle butterfly, too.  Surprisingly, the Sea Foam didn't yield quite as much smoke as I'd expected--some folks describe the effect as a spy-gadget smokescreen as atomized carbon deposits make their way out the exhaust--maybe the mechanic had actually done an engine upper cleaning after all.

I went with the Samco intercooler hose set for the 2006-and-newer Subaru Impreza WRX (part TCS332).  Samco doesn't make a Forester XT-specific hose set, but two of the three pipes in the WRX one are directly compatible with the 2004 FXT: the Y-pipe (the replacement of which had started this whole exercise) and the short coupler between the intercooler outlet and the throttle body.  The third hose, the blowoff valve recirculator hose, won't work in the 2004 Forester XT due to being the completely wrong shape, but my original BOV recirc hose looks fine.

Putting the intercooler back on wasn't too hard--the hoses were significantly easier to reattach than they had been to remove.  After a bit of idling in the driveway to make sure nothing was leaking, I took the car out for a spin.

The completed installation
I do need to work on the vanes on the intercooler a bit; bugs and even some small pebbles (!) sucked in through the hood air scoop have left their marks on the delicate metal. It's a painstaking task with a safety pin, though, and something I don't want to do when it's near-freezing outside.

Next up: maintenance on some of the oil supply lines to inspect (and in two cases completely remove) poorly-designed filter screens from inside the banjo bolt union screws.  One of these already caused a "check engine" code on my car a couple of years ago--thankfully without doing apparent damage to the oil control valves--while another can critically starve the turbo of the oil it needs to spin at 100,000+ RPM.  I've still got plans to take apart the intake manifold and fix the cold-weather leaky fuel line problem affecting so many Subarus, but that's a task for warmer weather and a long weekend.  After that, I may install the OEM turbo boost gauge to see just what sort of output I'm getting from my stock turbocharger.