Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Blue Ridge Parkway? or Heaven? You be the judge...

After our rotten and rainy Saturday on the BRP (Blue Ridge Parkway) we awoke in Boone, NC with bright and sunny skies. Seriously, it was like a whole other country. First, we backtracked a short way to visit Grandfather Mountain. They actually make motorcyclists read a half-page "Hazards Warning" upon entering the park that basically explains that this is a Mountain with twisties and possibly even SWITCHBACKS on it and that you should neither take these things too fast nor too slow, lest you fly off or fall down. This, of course, made me grin from ear to ear with gleeful anticipation. So we took off (at a reasonable pace) and cruised up to the first building on the mountain, which was the Nature Museum. They had some really fantastic displays there. My favorite was the dendrochronology. They had used a tree cross-section as a timeline and marked rings on the tree with historical events that took place in the year the ring formed. Informative and aesthetically pleasing! Also, based on their displays of native plants, I'm fairly certain that I have strawberries growing in my flowerpots out front. They were supposed to be asters, I think. That's what I get for using my compost as fertilizer.

The Nature Museum also included a number of live critters on display. We saw the otters, but they were asleep in the shade and not out being cute for our benefit. How rude! They had some zoo-like animals and others that were quite plainly rescued animals that were unable to survive in the wild. Like this majestic guy, a bald eagle who was maimed by a gunshot wound. Our favorite, however, were the genial black bears. The bears were quite interactive, at least as long as someone on our side of the wall had a packet of treats in hand. Yes, at Grandfather Mountain you are encouraged to feed the bears! This seasoned pro was working the crowd of tourists quite handily. There were kids competing with each other to see who could toss their food closest to her mouth, because if it was close enough she'd snatch it out of the air. Too far away, and she'd let it roll off, to be licked up later, when she got around to it... We sat down in a shady spot and considered our options at that point. We could:

1) Eat a bear and hope nobody noticed
2) Gnaw each other's arms off
3) Go back to town for lunch

We, quite reasonably I think, pointed our headlights down the mountain. We stopped for a quick photo, where you'll notice the pointy bits sticking out of the mountain behind us. Those are, apparently, the nose and beard of the Grandfather. If you look at the mountain from the right vantage, it's supposed to look like an old man in profile, complete with bushy beard. Who makes this stuff up, anyway? We rolled back into Boone, NC for lunch at Tupelo World Cafe where I had Roasted Yam Jalapeno Soup. It tasted as fascinating as it sounds. The menu looked startlingly similar to, but more diverse than, the one at Coyote Kitchen, and it turned out that's because Tupelo's owners were the founders of the Coyote Kitchen. They know good food, that's for certain.

Thence, it was ON WITH THE CURVES, ALREADY!!! We didn't get too many more pictures that day, because we were "burdened" with riding mile after mile after relaxing mile of sweeping curves through mountains, glens, passes, and meadows. After the 13-hour slog from Dallas to Atlanta on the previous Saturday, and the treacherous rainy riding the day before, the BRP on a Sunday was exactly what I needed. I got into my groove. I even have an iTunes playlist especially for this mood, appropriately titled "Sunday Morning". I jammed, I rolled around curves and over hills, past waterfalls and cabins, wineries and horse pastures. It really was heavenly.
Oh, and the forest? The rain from the day before had given everything a clean glow, a little lift. It smelled fresh and fertile and green. How I can describe a smell as green after making fun of someone for seeing a Grandfather in a mountain is surely one of the Great Mysteries of the Internet. We whiled the hours away cruising through some of the prettiest territory in North Carolina. We did get some scenic overlook shots that day, and there was some mighty nice scenery to look over.

There's really no way to photograph it and ride it at the same time, but we had the distinct pleasure of riding the Linn Cove Viaduct that day. I will leave it to your trusty Googling skills to find more photos of it, if you're interested. It made my enginerd senses tingle because the construction of that particular bridge was used as an example of first rate work in some of my engineering classes back in the old school days. It made Rose's biker senses tingle when she recognized, halfway down the viaduct, that her desktop wallpaper for a darn long time had been a publicity shot of her motorcycle riding that same stretch of bridge. This would be the geek equivalent of waking up in a closet full of stuffed animals plus one wrinkly alien and realizing that you were IN THE POSTER with E.T.

It was getting to be arm-gnawing time again, so we grabbed one more scenic overlook shot and scooted on across the border into Virginia, where we both worked for the week. How mundane!

Monday, June 23, 2008

All the road that's fit to ride...

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Atlanta for work, and then the following week I had to be in Abingdon, Va. For those of you who motorcycle, you probably know what turf is between Atlanta and western Virginia. For those of you who don't, it's quite seriously where angels would go to ride a motorcycle, if they had to choose something within the Continental US. Here's a graphic to make it clear:

You should notice two things about that picture. First, that no matter how you route yourself, you end up skirting or crossing Great Smoky Mountain National Park (green blob at map center); and second, you can't draw a straight line from Atlanta to Abingdon because the roads are all bendy. Given that the Smokies are round-ish green mountains with lovely vistas and moderate temperatures that are a human's best friend and that non-straight roads are a motorcycle's best friend, this is then teh perfect place to ride. Ask any angel you meet.

Really, I can't say enough about how fabulous and fun the ride was, IN GENERAL. However, our first day out was rainy, and I assure you that while our rainsuits kept us dry, there was no love lost on the clouds (aka: fog as thick and soft as cotton bolls) we stumbled through when we ATTEMPTED to ride up on the Blue Ridge Parkway. Notice, if you will, the fact that although this photograph was taken at a scenic overlook, there is no scenery to overlook. The background closely resembles a cotton boll. After a little bit of that, we gave up and visited Linville Falls instead. A very short and pleasant hike through easy territory yielded us this neat little vista point:
Rose liked the flowers along the way. They call these "Mountain Laurel" but they look nothing like the Mountain Laurel I know here in Texas, and most disappointingly, they don't smell like my Mountain Laurel. *le sigh* I guess the angels got busy arranging the roads and forgot to perfume the flowers. Then again, it could have been the cotton boll fog just absorbing the smells. We only hiked out to the first waterfall because we were in serious danger of gnawing
each other's arms off at that point. Dark was falling and we had yet to reach a town that would do for dinner and hotel as we'd been ambling along the Parkway and other back roads in South and North Carolina which are known for their scenery but not their plentiful commercial services. Probably because the two are generally mutually exclusive. At a rest stop on our way up to the Parkway Rose found a plant with leaves bigger than her own head. Given that we couldn't see much further away than 100 feet because of the rain and cotton bolls fog, this was a choice bit of scenery for that day. We decided to take a tip from Mad Maps and go for dinner at a place called the Coyote Kitchen. This was a serious leap of faith for me because I've eaten at enough Tex/Ari/Cali/New-Mex style southwest eateries actually located in the Southwestern United States that I'm pretty much a connoisseur by default at this point. I don't enjoy the misguided attempts of yankees trying to make Southwest-Mex food and getting it wrong. Frankly, if I think the place is going to bill itself as a Southwest-Mex eatery, I'm only going to eat there if it is:

  1. south of I-30
  2. if I see actual Hispanic people in the kitchen preparing the food* or
  3. it comes highly recommended.
Furthermore, the I-30 border is a stretch. I used to say I-20, but I found a good TexMex place in Fort Worth that's just south of I-30 so I moved it north just for them.

Blessedly, and under clause 3 above, the Coyote Kitchen was fantastic. They were veggie/vegan friendly, the staff were friendly and attentive and above all, everything tasted fantastic. They had a number of different Caribbean-style salsas, and while I only ate the Mango Lime and Cranberry Chipotle myself, I would say based on these two that all the salsa in there was good enough to feed the angels. Seriously, it was so good I bought the t-shirt. Now I can say, when hyping this place up to random strangers on the street, that I have Been There, Done That, and Bought the T-shirt.

We drifted off that night with happy tummies and thoughts of waterfalls dancing in our heads...
And we woke up the next day to glorious sunny skies and perfect riding weather. But that's for another post...

*Yes, I am aware this is a blatant racial stereotype. I'm willing to accept the potential consequences to my immortal soul so as to avoid eating things like burritos topped with marinara.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008


NASA advises you to go take a look at the moon tonight. It'll look large and lovely as a result of an optical illusion that nobody understands, just like microwaves and non-dairy creamer. There are a few theories on why the moon looks so large when it comes up on the horizon, and there are great explanations of them on that link.

I've experienced that myself... the most glorious moonrise I ever saw actually looked like a massive grassfire in the mesas of New Mexico. It spread thick and red and wavy across the horizon, getting larger and larger as I drove toward it, cursing the fact that I had no cell phone reception and the nearest land line was 14 miles TOWARD the fire. For a while, I honestly wondered if I'd have to ditch the truck in an arroyo and hope the flames passed overhead. Then, suddenly the upper edge of the moon popped out crisp and clear into the cooler layers of air. The atmosphere stopped playing mirage tricks and the orange moon rose splendidly over the mesas and canyons.

It's a terrific memory and one that I hold out any time someone says they don't get what the big deal is about light pollution. Happy memories and good moongazing tonight, internet!

Friday, June 13, 2008

Strict Scrutiny...

Recently, the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals heard the case of a Maj. Witt of the US Air Force (USAF). She was a combat nurse, highly decorated, 18 years into her service. She had literally been an Air Force poster child, her image used in recruiting materials over the years. Until, in 2004, someone snitched on her and informed one of her superiors that she had 'the gay' - it's a disease, you see, something like 'the plague' or 'the I'm about to be expensive.' She was investigated and ultimately given an honorable discharge, all just one year before her eligibility for a lifetime pension.

Because I'm a nerd, I read up the review of the case at and found out some really interesting things which I'm about to share with those of you who are lazy, link-averse readers. For instance, a lot of folks I've heard criticizing those discharged under the Don't Ask, Don't Tell (DADT) policy dismiss the issue with an argument along these lines: "She knew the rules, she broke 'em, she got discharged, and now she's whining about it? Shut up, already."

The thing is, Maj. Witt DID NOT break the rules. She did have a civilian partner, but she didn't talk about it, didn't write about it, didn't protest about it. In fact, her partner lived 250 miles from base, so she didn't flaunt the fact at the occasional grocery-store run-in with fellow servicemembers. She was abiding solidly by the rules laid out in the policy.

Now, what's nerdy and interesting about this decision of the 9th Circuit, and the reason that it made the news at all, is that in light of the decision handed down by the Supreme Court in Lawrence & Garner v. Texas in 2003 the appeals court has required a higher standard of proof from the military that the discharge was justified. That is, there has long been what the legal profession calls the "rational basis" test to determine whether laws like this are reasonable. Basically, the court asks the government why it must discriminate against some of its citizens. The government then says that it had a rational basis for enacting the law or policy in question, and from there the court has simply ruled on whether it was implemented fairly.

Since Lawrence, however, the court is looking more closely at the rational basis itself, not just the application of it. (In Lawrence, the Supreme Court said that the state of Texas had no rational basis for regulating private sexual behavior between consenting adults, even if they have the gay.) The Lawrence decision gets into a legal doctrine called "strict scrutiny" which the 9th Circuit declined to require of the military in this case. Instead, they've required some middle ground between rational basis and strict scrutiny, probably because applying strict scrutiny would effectively destroy DADT outright. The Supreme Court would be very likely to overturn a ruling like that, so the circuit court walked a line here between making an eloquent point and howling at the moon.

So, the rational basis for DADT has always been that keeping servicemembers closeted was necessary to promote unit cohesion, individual morale, good order and discipline, and readiness among the troops. All laudable goals, assuredly, but quite vague. HOW EXACTLY, the 9th Circuit has asked, did Maj. Witt (remember all those medals and commendations?) threaten good order and discipline? If the protests of her co-workers, superiors, subordinates, and patients are any indication, the only thing about her that damaged morale was her ouster. The only possible way she could have been perceived as a threat to readiness is if someone thought they could use her pension dollars for something else and had to get her out of the way to do it.

This will be VERY interesting to watch. Kinda like watching someone work their jaw in futility when you ask them how, exactly, my impending gay wedding threatens or damages their straight marriage in any way.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

proud of these girls!

These are some friends and family of mine who just ran a 5k for Breaast Cancer Research fundraising. I'm proud of "Team Treasured Chests" for their hard work and commitment. That shirt on my sister (on the far right) is from an organization called Save the Ta-tas that donates part of their proceeds to breast cancer research. The slogans and shirts are fun to wear ("If loving ta-tas is wrong, I don't wanna be right!") and the money goes to a good cause. If you have ta-tas or you know someone who does, and you'd like to keep it that way, go browse their catalog.

I am so proud of you ladies!

Monday, June 02, 2008

Carlsbad, NM - redux

A Murder of MotorcyclistsRose and I just got back from Carlsbad, NM. We went there last year on our road trip, but on that visit it was merely a waypoint. This time, we met up with friends from the Dykes on Bikes e-mail list and the whole point was to visit the caverns and the surrounding countryside, like Roswell. Here we are, a small group of Dykes on Bikes, ready to go into the caverns. Your friendly, neighborhood giant amazon is easy to spot. In fact, this theme was so pronounced that our friend Chelli took a picture of a cavern formation to exemplify it. Here: I'm the tall one, of course. See? That's me on the right. Now, ordinarily, I'd do a whole cool ride report on how fabby the roads were and all the great places that we ate and all the sorts of things I get excited about. In the case of this trip, however, we were in the unenviable position of having to ride from the edge of the Texas Black Prairie across the Western Plains to the edge of the Guadalupe Mountains. The operative words there are Prairie and Plains. The chief difference between them is their aridness, and they're not much to look at beyond that. They do make for some outstanding sunsets and sunrises with the wide open spaces in front of you. Unfortunately, that only occupies about 2 hours of your day, and then you still have the other 22 in which to contend with the pancake-ocity of it all. So: flat, pancake-ocity, and the tumblin' tumbleweeds. What makes the tumbleweeds tumble, you may wonder? Well, I'll tell you - it ain't the sheer joy of skipping over the thrilling landscape. It's the plain desire to look at something OTHER than the plains. That, or the blistering wind. :)

Our chief form of entertainment on this ride, after we'd seen the caverns, was to ride across the prairie/plains taking pictures of each other.
GWe had ourselves some fun up in Roswell. The Harley dealership out there has a couple of big bikes on display with an alien and an MP, respectively, riding them. We took some silly photos of ourselves hugging the aliens and whatnot before settling in to a nice light lunch of BBQ ribs, sausage, and all the trimmings.

Oh, Cavern highlights, lest I forget: we walked through it with a Ranger who just happened to be starting his route about the same time as us. He showed us all sorts of neat things about the cave that you'd never find without a guide and a flashlight. There are places right along the path where you can see bat bones being fossilized right into the drip-formed stalagmites, and rock formations that glow if you give them a good dose of light. They even have a cave ghost that you can see in photographs...BOO! He's a natural rock formation that doesn't look like anything special until you use the flash on your camera. Then those eyes pop out of the darkness at you! The low wall that keeps tourists on the trail and off the stalagmites is full of fascinating little 'easter eggs' if you know what to look for. Our ranger guide showed us a rubber high bounce ball, a glow-in-the-dark gecko, a keepsake penny, a Pennsylvania quarter, an American flag, and a few other neat little peeks and pokes that probably go unnoticed by 99.9% of the cavern visitors. Finally, a fossil that was dug up from the cave and put out on display to illustrate why it's occasionally good for things in the cavern to break:Nautilus
So, that was Carlsbad. Well, there was the bit about the largest North American Colony of Mexican Freetail Bats flying out of the cave and right over our heads at sunset and then the thrilling ride back down the mountain in the cool night air with the full moon rising. But honestly, you had to be there for that... so I hope to see you out on the road next time.