Celebrating Summer (in February!)


“Good times” is an apt summary of this past summer in Santa Barbara (and other places.) One of the things that I’ve enjoyed the most about graduate school is my freedom of my schedule, especially in the summer. No classes to teach, no classes to attend, and as long as my experiments aren’t hitting any major brick walls (I got pretty lucky in this regard by having a research project basically fall in my lap when I accidentally figured something slightly interesting out), I can afford to take some time off and find some summer fun. Since it’s now winter (and more truthfully, since I just haven’t posted very frequently recently), I can reminisce on some of the highlights of last summer.


Another good thing about being in graduate school is the chance to travel. If we toil in lab and never share our results with anyone, then we are just indulging in our own curiosities and never teaching or learning anything new. So sometimes, we get to attend conferences. And this summer, most of my group hopped on flights to Seattle for a great conference that featured some of the best research in my field. My phone is filled with notes from some of the more attention-grabbing talks, but “comparing ordered and disordered SAM layers” and such are probably more interesting to me than anyone else. The conference itself was just days of lectures and posters, boring to an outside observer but I was giddy nearly the entire time. The conference high that comes with traveling to a new place, learning new things, and finally connecting faces to names from research papers didn’t quite fade as the week went on.

During our free time, we made efforts to explore the city. Literally, we covered Seattle from top to bottom. The Seattle Underground, which looked like a kitschy tourist trap (and it probably is to an extent), ended up proving to be a really remarkable piece of history. As we followed our tour guide into the underworld, the damp smell of dirt and brick brought back memories of a basement in Ohio from 18 years ago. The dirt floors, brick walls, and 2x4s supporting the world above us was a look at the leftover subterranean passageways that were once the ground floor of most buildings. To avoid the floods that frequently came with the tides, and after a fire destroyed a sizeable portion of Seattle’s buildings in the late 1800s, city leaders decided to build on top of the old city’s ruins. For a while, many merchants still conducted business in the narrow underground alleys that formed while the city was being rebuilt. Seattle Underground is now what remains. Aboveground was Pike Place Market, a popular farmers’ market that is also the site of the first Starbucks store. Still higher we went, not to the Space Needle, but to a spectacular view of the city skyline from Kerry Park, where many others had decided to spend their evening to watch the sunset.

And even higher we climbed. The conference was coming to an end; we had enjoyed our fancy dinner banquet, which was held inside the Museum of Flight (a great choice of venue with our dinner being preceded by a free walking tour of old and new planes) But instead of going to the concluding lectures of the conference on Friday, I and a few other researchers rented a car. The whole rental process ended up being an ordeal on its own, but we finally ended up with a tiny compact Ford Fusion, and five of us squeezed in for a two hour drive to Mt. Rainier. Instead of the hearing a few more talks about organic semiconductors and learning about the awards for best poster on the last day of the conference, we found ourselves looking right at Washington’s geological jewel, the towering peak obstructing our view of the cloudy sky behind.

Lake Almanor

The week before heading to Seattle, we were in Northern California. Kierstin’s dad works for PG&E, and just about every year, they rent one of the PG&E-owned cabins for a week of “camping” (as they call it), boating, and fishing. A short walk away from the cabins and you are in mountain wilderness. Buckthrush brushes softly against your leg as twigs and dead leaves crunch beneath your feet. Birds flutter overhead and chipmunks skitter across the ground. The cool mountain air smells fresh each time you take a deep breath in.

At Lake Almanor, there is plenty of nothing to do; doing nothing on the deck of the cabin or while floating around in inner tubes on the lake. There’s never a shortage of food; chili dogs, pozole, tri-tip, tacos, pizza and there’s never a shortage of drinks to wash down the delicious meals. Usually, there’s fish (Friday is traditionally a big fish fry), but this year, we saw signs of deer, sparrows, ospreys, yellowjackets, dragonflies, bears, chipmunks, bluejays, lizards, dogs, and skunk. If it crawls or flies by that lake, we saw it. But fat swimming fish were not around this summer; only the tiny minnows released by the county were seen in the water. But fishing isn’t really my thing anyway, and I was happy to read books and eat and drink my fill.

Camping at the Beach

The cabin trip was not enough for me; I need a real camping trip each summer – tent camping. Dirt on the ground, burrs stuck in our socks, dead yellow grass, trees with sun shining through their mossy hair, and hills all around was our “beach” camping. A fifteen minute drive to Morro Bay is the best we could do this year for beach camping, with Southern California beaches filling up 6 months in advanced. My sister and her family and a few friends joined us on that Friday evening to help set-up camp in Los Padres National Forest off of Highway 41. On Saturday, we made that short drive to the beach. We found a dog beach, since of course, our dog-child and my sister’s dog were camping, too.

The sand was hot beneath our toes but the white water from crashing waves kept us cool as we ran back and forth between the tide and playing football or Smashball or just enjoying a bath in warm rays from the sun. The skimboards and boogie boards came out, and we had just a single casualty as the wind took the skimboard like a sail and split someone’s lip open a little. We made up an impromptu Beach Beerlympics, which mixes the depressant effects of alcohol with the stimulating ability of adrenaline from fierce competition. Of course, a fun time was had. It was five hours in the hot sun, and so that night, after grilled tri-tip, a few more drinks, and melted chocolate and burnt marshmallows in our s’mores, everyone was happy to head to bed early.

My sister and her family wanted to hike on Sunday morning before they left. Or I should probably say, the parents wanted to hike. The kids, not so much. I think we made it from our campsite to the trailhead when the kids started to ask if we were finished yet. But I don’t blame them. Even though it was early morning and we were in a wooded area, the sun was beating down through the trees. It was nearly 90 degrees. Halfway up, another hiker warned us of a rattlesnake they spotted. Of course, that didn’t make the kids any happier. We were out of water already, and we were all hot and dirty. Eventually, the hot hills had my sister and her family turning around. I told them that if they didn’t hear from me in a few hours to come look for me at the top of the hill. Even though I was parched, too, I wanted to reach the top. So I took off running. I was dirty and dry and hot and sweaty. The sun was pounding down; it was inside my head making my temples drum.

Finally, I reached open sky and could see the peak ahead. Hawks circled above. I made it to the top, where Morro Bay in the distance could be seen through the misty sky. I ran back down, not making it very far when I ran into my sister and her family. They decided not to turn around, to not quit. The kids were still hot and tired, but we got a second wind and ran downhill to get to the trailhead. There were fast switchbacks, steep grades, but finally we were down to green shrub and the creek and bridge near our campsite. The kids were happy to be at a more familiar elevation.

After my sister and her family headed home, the rest of us took the highway to Paso Robles. Instead of spending the day in the dirt or sand and heat, we sought civilization. It wasn’t much cooler in Paso Robles (105 degrees!) but there was a shaded patio at a local brewery where we did some tastings and munched on some appetizers. Our last dinner at camp was chicken tacos seasoned in salsa and lime juice, grilled and tender. We stacked the chicken high on soft tortillas, covered it in onion and cheese, and served them with chips and pinto beans heated right in the can over the fire. There was one last s’more to be had for each of us before we headed home. Nothing feels better than a hot shower and your own bed after you come home from camping with dirty feet, sunburns, and chapped lips. I think even Simba relaxed a little when he got home. Happy dog, happy people.

It’s hard to believe we crammed all of this in our summer. It was a great summer though; besides just travelling and having fun, Kierstin graduated from 17th grade and got a real job. And there was so much more that we did, but I’ll just stick to sharing a few of my favorite pictures from these great summer days in Santa Barbara (and beyond.)


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