Science Travel 2014: A Year in Review

I figured I needed to write this post before we were too far down our 2015 paths to really justify reflecting on 2014.  As readers of this blog know, I’m all about conservation, but I’m also adamant about getting out there and enjoying nature and engaging in science for fun.  Life is busy, and making time for these sorts of experiences can be a challenge, but it’s so worth it.  We owe it to ourselves.  

“The mountains are calling, and I must go.” ― John Muir

Off the road on Beartooth Scenic Highway – Sept. 2014
In 2014, I hiked, swam, ran, and learned.  Interested in where I went and what I saw?  Read on!  Fair warning, this is a photo heavy post, which is really what I’m most interested when “reading” about nature.

Me and Mer and our boos.  Lake Michigan – Jan 2014

Meridith and I have mentioned our yearly New Year’s Eve get together with our college besties on numerous occasions.  We rang in 2014 with that group of lovely friends from a cabin on the shores of Lake Michigan.  In the afternoon, on the first day of the year, we took a snowy hike down to the shores of the lake.  We went sledding, threw snowballs, and marveled at the vast, frozen body of water. It might have been a little chillier than a new year’s day walk in sunny CA, but I still think it was well worth it!  Walking out of doors is, by far, the best way to ring in the new year.

You can see the ice piling up at the lake shore behind him!

The core NYE crew – Lake Michigan Jan 2014

Napa Tri Crew – April 2014
I think fieldwork ate the rest of January, February, and March.  I was outside and all up in science literally all the time.  This was my first field season, so I hope you’ll excuse the lack of recreational activities.   

In April, I ran my second sprint triathlon with some of my favorite ecologists (and friends!). The Napa HITS Triathlon series begins with a swim in Lake Berryessa, followed by a bike ride beside some beautiful vineyards, and ends with a run through the rolling hills.  I love this race because whenever you start to think “Oh dang, I’m really tired!” you can just look around at the gorgeous surroundings and get energized again.   
During May, Daniel and I traveled a little bit north and west to see his cousin graduate from Sonoma State University (we are so proud of her!).  Point Reyes National Seashore is only a little bit away, and we had never visited the park, despite it basically being in our back yard.  This was part of our effort to hike once a week, which we were still going pretty strong on up until this point.  We had a great time, but I made my classic National Park visiting mistake.  I always forget National Parks are huge!  We were aiming to visit the lighthouse and attempt some whale watching, but when we got to the nearest ranger station, the lighthouse was another 45 minute drive up the coast.  We decided to maximize our outside-of-the-car time and just hike from where we found ourselves (Bear Valley Visitor’s Center).  I did feel like a bit of a liar, I had totally brought Daniel out with the promise of charismatic megafauna.

The meadow along Bear Valley Trail – Point Reyes National Seashore May 2014
Bear Valley Trail – Point Reyes NS May 2014

Either way a really nice park ranger gave us all the options and highlighted the map.  Obviously, Mer and I love park rangers.  We ended up choosing the Bear Valley Trail, which lead to the coast, though we didn’t have time to get all the way to the water.  The trail did pass through several different ecosystems, including a Douglas Fir forest, a riparian zone, and an open meadow (looked like a dry meadow, but not sure).

June was a busy month for me.  I was starting the bulk of my summer fieldwork in July, so while I was prepping for that effort, I was also trying to pack in some fun outings.  We spent one awesome Saturday at a local you-pick place called Clover Leaf Farm.  Cheap, organic, and very pollinator friendly!      

Somewhere around the middle of the month, our local chapter of the Society for Conservation Biology (SCB-Davis) sponsored a hike down to the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area.  One of my friends, a bat ecologist, lead the hike, and right around dusk we watched thousands of Mexican free tailed bats leave their roost under the bypass to forage.  It was really amazing and the pictures 100% do not do it justice.  

Clover Leaf You-Pick Farm – June 2014
Mexican Free-tailed bat population under they bypass – Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area June 2014


Finally, at the very end of the month, Daniel and I took his cousins (the one who graduated college and her brother who just graduated high school) on a camping trip to Lassen Volcanic National Park.  I had never been to this park, so it totally counts toward my big goal!  We tried to listen to the USA world cup game on our drive from Davis to Manzanita Lake Campground.  It was a great campground, with a convenient general store and great access to the beautiful hiking loop around the lake.  We took the lake loop before heading back to set-up camp and make dinner.  I’m proud to say that this was a vegan camping trip save the marshmallows the others ate (I ate these, which are fantastic).  

Manzanita Lake Lassen Volcanic National Park – June 2014

The next day, we took two short-ish hikes.  First, we took the 2.8 mile round trip hike to Paradise Meadows.  I was pretty into wet meadows due to a wetland review paper that I was helping to put together, so I talked everyone’s ear off about these cool ecosystems on the way out, and was super intense about other people who were walking out onto the meadow when we arrived.  Even a little annoyance couldn’t compete with the view though!  Next, we headed to a very unique ecosystem via the Bumpass Hell trail.  This 3 mile round trip hike lead us to a landscape of hydrothermal features.  It’s a volcanic national park after all, and this is one of the main places where steam vents out from all the heat belowground.  I always wonder what was though when people first discovered natural features like this (poor Bumpass must have been freaking out!).  The team called it a day after this and demanded sustenance.  

Paradise Meadow Lassen Volcanic National Park – June 2014

Bumpass Hell Lassen Volcanic National Park – June 2014

On our last day, we started with a 2.4 mile round-trip hike to Kings Creek Falls.  This was by far my favorite hike.  The vistas were out of control!  If you ever take this trail, don’t be faked out by the not-waterfall-waterfall about 2 miles in, keep going!  In the afternoon, we had planned to hike Mount Lassen, but the crew was pretty tuckered out.  Instead, we opted for some lunching by the river and a trip to the main visitor’s center.  This trip was one of my favorite summer memories.       

 Kings Creek Falls Lassen Volcanic National Park – June 2014
Family at Cave Run Lake KY – July 2014

I traveled home to Kentucky in July for my cousin’s wedding.  Maybe you don’t know this, but a summer trip to Kentucky isn’t really complete without a river or lake visit.  Almost my entire immediate family got to spend time out at Cave Run Lake swimming, snacking, and generally goofing around.  It was a super fun time.  

In August, Daniel and I took our NYC Engagement Trip.  You can read all about that in a previous blog post, but suffice it to say much (science related) fun was had!

During September, I took a weekend trip to Montana to visit one of my best friends from high school who was about to move overseas to Spain.  It was a truly great weekend, and I feel so blessed to have been able to spend that time with her before she was gone.  She was staying with her sister and brother-in-law in Bozeman, MT.  If you’ve never been to Bozeman, you should really check into it.  She picked me up at the airport, we got some food at the local co-op, then we headed out on a hike.  Seriously, my kind of town.  

My girl Emily!  Beartooth Scenic Highway – Sept. 2014
Bozeman MT – Sept. 2014

 For the next two days we traveled through northern Yellowstone National Park (near Mammoth) and back up the Beartooth Scenic Highway.  I had been to Yellowstone before when Mer and I visited on our Amazing Besties National Park Roadtrip in 2012, but it was interesting to see the park in a different season.  The geothermal feathers were fascinating, as always.  We also hiked along several rivers and streams with my buddy’s family before we took off on our own.  We took in the great views along Beartooth highway, and even pulled off the road for a quick hike through the alpine tundra (my crush of an ecosystem) to a high elevation lake.  It was a great send-off for a friendship that has lasted 14 years.

A high elevation lake off Beartooth Scenic Highway – Sept. 2014

For the rest of September and all of October and November I prepared for my qualifying exams.  I studied, ate my weight in cookies, did enough yoga to keep me from chewing my fingers off, and was otherwise completely sessile.  I think I only ventured outside to tend my garden, and I think I even neglected that in November.

December 4th was judgement day, and I passed!  I spent the following day (Friday) in my PJs in my bed, glorious.  But by Saturday afternoon, Daniel and I were on the road for Santa Cruz and some time to reset in nature.  If you’ll recall my previous post about the novel Flight Behavior, you’ll know I was super excited about the idea of viewing one of the migrating monarch butterfly populations.  Lucky me, just a little bit over an hour down the road at Natural Bridges State Park there was a monarch roost.  We walked along the wooded path to the population, and while it was really beautiful, it was impossible to photograph with my little point-and-click camera.  There were only a few small remaining clusters of butterflies as the rain earlier in the week had dispersed many of the individuals.  We oohh-ed and aahh-ed, and this elderly park ranger let us check out the colony through his spotting scope!  We then took the path up and around, through a freshwater tidal and a salt marsh, then out to the coast.  The water was cold, but you always have to put your toes in, right?  The day was still young, so we got some coffee and took a 30 minute drive up the road to Henry Cowell Redwoods State Parks.  You can never go wrong with coastal redwoods, and I’ll just leave it at that.

Natural Bridge’s State Park CA – Dec 2014
Natural Bridge’s State Park CA – Dec 2014

I love recap posts like this, because I really didn’t think I did that many fun outdoor things this year, but I obviously did.  I also discovered a ton of pictures when I was reviewing from hikes and walks in the local Davis area.  What a year!  I cannot wait to see what adventures 2015 (20Upgrade!) has in store.

What about you?  What fun science/nature adventures did 2014 bring you?  Any big plans for the new year?

Henry Cowell State Park CA – Dec. 2014

Take the Bus! Good for the Environment, Your Wallet, and Your Wanderlust

And now for something a bit different!

We’ve been writing a lot in the past few weeks about life as a graduate student or some of the things we are learning while on our respective doctoral journeys.  However, if you will recall, we also love to go on journeys in general.  Meridith and I have always been avid travelers.  We have visited numerous other countries together (South Africa, Costa Rica, Panama, England, Aruba…) and separately (Kenya, Argentina, Ireland, Thailand…).  While traveling overseas is, literally, one of the best things ever, one of my favorite bar questions to ask people is, “What are the top 5 locations you want to visit in the United States?”  I think we spend a lot of time fantasizing about getting to far-off, exotic locations, and that can cause us to overlook the beauty in our own backyard (so to speak). (Editor’s Note: This is so true! One of my big epiphanies from my summer traveling Europe – by bus and train! – was that I had totally under appreciated all there is to see in the good ol’ U S of A.)  And while I might get to visit friends or make new friends when traveling overseas, getting a co-conspirator for your State side adventuring is a bit easier.

As Mer is one of my all time favorite partners in crime, she and I have always made a point to visit one another regularly.  Our college roommates (and often an all-star cast of their amazing boyfriends/girlfriends/partners/pals/siblings) make a point of gathering for New Years Eve.  That’s always a treat, and usually involves doing a multi-city flight out of California, to home, to the NYE destination (Boston 2015!), and then back to California.  While well worth it, that gets expensive.  If you add onto that a trip home during the summer and plane travel really starts to take a bite out of your budget.  So, what’s a budget-conscious, environmentally-minded person with a severe case of wanderlust to do?  Well, you can hop on the Greyhound and get to a regional destination with little money, hassle, and C02 wasted.  When I was living in Long Beach and Meridith was in Las Cruces, we were frequenting the Greyhound route between Long Beach and El Paso on a semesterly basis!
NYE 2014 Crew
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, Rachel.  Take the bus? I have a car!”  Yeah? Then find a bunch of friends and pile into the car.  Carpooling is great, and sometimes it is the most logical option.  But, maybe you have a more flexible schedule, you’re traveling solo, or you really want to cut your carbon emissions.  In that case, you should really be looking up the local Greyhound and Megabus schedules.  I’ve written about my internal conflict concerning the environmental impacts of travel here, and I’d suggest you check it out.  For those unwilling to read my previous ramblings, my conclusions are simply that bus travel is the most cost effective and environmentally friendly way to transit regionally.  Since writing that post over a year ago, I’ve had numerous conversations with people who just can’t seem to get over their bus hang-ups.  Maybe this isn’t the most glamorous way to move about the world, but if you are a reasonable traveler who keeps their wits about them, you have very little about which to worry.

Maybe you’re willing to give it a try?  I’ll give you a few tips from my numerous Greyhound adventures and misadventures to make your first bus trip a breeze.                     

Cat Bus.  The best kind of bus.
First, and foremost, put your patient pants on.  Unlike plane or train travel, hitting the open road on a Greyhound requires a little less coordination on the part of the company.  This might also be part of the “you get what you pay for” part of this equation.  I’ve been on some very punctual bus trips…I’ve also waited and waited for my connection.  Really though, I’ve slept in plenty of airport chairs waiting for my connecting flight when it was delayed.  So, meh, I’d call this a wash really.  I just tend to expect the bus to be a little behind its time. (Editor’s Note: For most people this goes without saying: double check your departure time AND date. I’m going to share my most shameful Greyhound experience because I love y’all. I’m not even sure if I ever told Rachel this, but last NYE my partner and I bussed to/from Chicago and I totally made us miss our bus because I was in charge of the tickets – we were still new and he didn’t know yet how horrible of an idea this was – and got the dates mixed up. So when we were leaving to catch our bus, I took our tickets out and realized that our tickets were for the day before. Cue full shame meltdown and us having to buy a whole ‘nother set of tickets day of, which meant paying full price.)

Once your bus arrives, where you sit matters a little bit more than where you sit on a plane.  Really, you don’t want to sit near the bathroom.  Obviously, right?  You should also choose your seat mate (if you have to have one) with at least a little care.  My brother has a theory that, when you’re on the bus, you’re much less focused on how you might die than when you’re 10,000 feet above the ground.  So, I have (unscientifically) concluded that people are generally less inhibited on the bus.  For this reason (or something), I’ve had a lot more interesting and friendly conversations on buses than I’ve ever had on planes.  If you want to chat, look for the person who looks like they want to converse.  Want to sleep?  Look for a fellow napper.  In my experience, there is generally at least one bus occupant who really needs to drop the mic; I would suggest not sitting with them.    

Mer took a 12 hour bus ride so we could surprise our friend
on his birthday!
Seat selection handled, now it’s time to occupy yourself.  If you’re doing a regional tip, you can try to choose an express bus that has wifi.  The wifi on buses is free, unlike on planes.  You probably won’t be able to stream Dr. Who, but you can check your email, access gDrive, and generally get some work done.  There are also, often, power outlets so you don’t have to worry about your computer or tablet crapping out on you.  This is my problem on, literally, every flight.  Why don’t I learn?  I’m not really sure if there is a cause and effect situation here, but I have found it much easier to get work done on the bus than the plane.  Again, maybe because I’m still on the ground?     

Normal travel tips apply on the greyhound as well.  Climate control can be something of an issue on the bus.  Consider your relative hot/cold scale when choosing an aisle or window seat.  Wear layers so you can add and subtract as needed.  Also, you really do want a blanket and a pillow.  There will be no smartly dressed attendant to hook you up with one if you forget.  Bonus points, you can bring liquids on the bus!  Beverages, peanut butter, hummus, and anything else delicious and spreadable is totally allowed.  This makes it way easier, for me at least, to avoid the pull of buying weird airport or plane food that is strange in my tummy and wrapped in a bunch of obnoxious, ultrathin plastic.

Night bus.  Also a good option.
How long will your bus adventure be?  The longest I’ve been on a Greyhound trip, to date, was 20 hours from El Paso to Long Beach.  It was a haul.  And as stifled and dehydrated as I usually feel getting off a plane, I felt downright stinky when I disembarked in Long Beach after a 20 hour coach trip.  You’ll feel way better if you can brush your teeth, change your shirt, and apply some deodorant during a layover.  Do yourself and the person receiving you at the end of the line a favor and stay fresh.    

Last tip?  Don’t be a douche-bag…or something like that.  The most common argument I hear from those reluctant to travel via bus is that it isn’t safe.  Not to sound harsh but, these may be the same people who want apps on their phones to keep them out of “bad” parts of town.  Get out of the bubble and give yourself a chance to not be afraid of others.  I’ve met some friendly, sad, unnerving, and genuinely hilarious people on Greyhounds.  And you know what?  I’ve met the same set of people in so many other places!  See my original statement above, be a wary traveler, but don’t be afraid of other humans who are just trying to get from point A to point B.  As Patty Griffith would say, “Grow kindness in our hearts for all the strangers among us, till there are no strangers anymore.”    
There you go, now take the plunge!  Your wallet, the environment, and your wandering soul will thank you!  (Editor’s Note: Benjamin and I are planning on taking a train from Boston to NYC then Megabusing back to State College! Yes, it’s more time-consuming and we’ll have to chill in the cold while waiting for the bus, but the money saved is going to be so worth it!)

Hiking after one of my bus trips to visit Meridith in New Mexico.

Joining the Ranks of Tourists and Fangirls in Yellowstone

Obligatory “NP Sign” Photo

Day 13
Yellowstone National Park
Total Miles Hiked: 3.5ish (70.7 overall)

After the rain

Nearing the completion of their Master’s theses, two young, wild women struck out on the adventure of a lifetime. Meridith and Rachel’s 2012 Besties National Park Roadtrip was a transformative journey around the Western US National Parks. 10 states. 9 National Parks and 1 National Monument. One summer of fun!

Yellowstone, the Disney of U.S. National Parks. America’s first national park welcomes over three million people each year, and Rachel and I were certain we wanted to be part of the excitement during our adventures. When we were first planning our trip (which was a very exciting and motivating time during that spring semester) we knew we wanted to take our time exploring this particular gem. Three days seemed adequate, but I’m sure we also could have spent the entire summer there hiking and learning. Even after all of the hiking we had just completed at Rocky Mountain NP, plus arriving at Bridge Bay Campground at 2 am, we couldn’t wait to explore this national treasure!

Right on time!

I hope we don’t need to remind you folks, but on our Awesome Besties National Park Roadtrip we weren’t messing around. We went on an early morning jog along the Natural Bridge Trail (this was when we were being extra amazing…I don’t think it lasted all summer), which was both invigorating and a prime opportunity to try and spot a moose!  Post-jog and granola hoovering, we struck out toward the epicenter of all that is Yellowstone: Old Faithful. And wow, the crowd here couldn’t have been more different from others we’d seen at the previous parks. People of all ages, itty little dogs on leashes, bikers, hikers, photographers, families, and us were all milling around until the next eruption time. Conveniently, eruption timers were plastered all over the viewing area. Old Faithful really did live up to it’s hype and was spectacular to view.

As per usual, we sought out the park ranger that looked like they had the full low-down on the park, and, as per usual, we were not disappointed. A lovely old couple took turns answering our questions and suggesting possible itineraries (Editor’s Note:  Jim and Dot are the business!  Go find them!). We explained we had three days, and while we wanted to hit up the major tourist attractions, we were also quite badass and wanted to do some tougher hikes and see some wildlife. Pausing only to insist we go check out another geyser about to erupt, this couple quickly outlined where we should adventure, and and passed on an important safety tip. Apparently, up until this point in our trip we had been walking bear lunches and didn’t even realize. My thoughtful, well-meaning mother bought me a Bear Bell to attach onto my pack to ward off bears. How sweet!  However, according to our newest ranger friends, these bells acted more like dinner bells than warding off bells. Good to know; acquiring bear spray was necessary.

Meridith’s idea of heaven

Luckily, we could mosey on over to one of the many stores scattered around the park by way of the the largest log structure in the world. Thanks to my love for science documentaries I was able to give Rachel the briefest of overviews of the famous, historic Old Faithful Inn. The highlights: super fantastic craftsmanship and the ice cream shop we found. Rachel treated me to an ice cream cone, and I was in heaven. But, as my luck would have it, heaven was about to get even better. As we wandered back into the lobby, we noticed a man at a small table, which seemed to be set-up for a book signing. Recognition washed over me as I felt my face flush with excitement and sudden anticipation. There, seated before us, was one of my personal heros. The dude who writes the “Who Pooped in the Park?” books. Gary D. Robson, in person. Rachel was kind enough to let me fangirl a bit and we went up to get a photo. If you’ll take a moment to imagine a grown woman, possibly with ice cream smudged on her face, trying to contain her excitement whilst in line among a sea of young children, waiting to meet a gruff older man sitting at a table with scat samples covering it….well, then you’ve pretty much nailed the scenario. I managed to resist elbowing a few 8-year-olds out of my way before getting to the front of the line.

Our second Grand Canyon together!

Still star struck, we battled the brewing rains to finally get to the gift shop with bear spray. I was a little dumbfounded at the steep price, but I suppose if you are investing in your personal safety that price is well worth paying (Spoiler Alert: we never needed the bear spray so now when not out on hikes with me, it lives on the rack behind my apartment door where it waits for State College’s unluckiest home intruder.). I honestly don’t remember the entire conversation, but I chatted up the sales clerk while purchasing the bear spray and through some combination of comradery and the ol’ Meridith charm, I walked away with the staff password to the wireless internet in addition to the bear spray! SCORE! We waited out the rest of the afternoon rain while bingeing on stolen…borrowed internet.

You know, just hanging out on top of a mega-volcano

Now you might think that it was a total bummer to have rain on our first day of visiting Yellowstone, but it was actually quite beneficial! The afternoon storm scared off the majority of people so we were able to hit up the major tourist highlights without dealing with the crowds! We were treated to amazing experiences and sights at the various geothermal elements, artists paint pots, and even the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone. Even more, we got to enjoy a pretty sunset and several of the majestic bison! One even was sweet enough to pose stoically in front of the setting sun before ambling across the road right past our car. Being the responsible and safe park goers that we are, we kept a safe distance from the wildlife and stayed inside the car in a designated pull off area. (Excuse me while I side-eye and judge everyone else not as responsible as us). All in all, it was a perfect first day in Yellowstone. We tucked in early because we knew that day two was sure to hold ever more excitement!