West coast road trip day 1: Oregon zoo

As mentioned in my last post about general updates and major life events, we just moved from Seattle to Los Angeles about two weeks ago. While movers loaded and hauled away most of our stuff, we also needed to transport a car, and we figured it would be a good opportunity for a once in a lifetime scenic drive down the entire west coast, starting from near the Canadian border and ending quite a bit further south. We crammed everything we could into the car (including a 5 month old baby) and headed out from Seattle after a long and chaotic moving day.

The drive was just as scenic as expected, and more. We took highway 101 (aka the Pacific Coast Highway) pretty much the entire way down, which often follows the coast and is right on the Pacific Ocean (although some parts are further inland). If you google something like west coast and route 101, the first results that pop up are “The Classic Pacific Coast Highway Road Trip,” with “classic” being swapped out for other adjectives like “ultimate” or “epic,” depending on the particular article and the level of enthusiasm of its author.

hand drawn map of highway 101 along west coast
the route we took from seattle to los angeles (on the left, along the coast). image credit: fodor’s.

Regardless, it was an amazing drive. We went through incredibly scenic areas, from dense forests to rocky cliffs along the coast, and also visited several large cities after Seattle, including Portland and San Francisco.

We started the trip at a more leisurely pace on the first day by just driving from Seattle to Portland, and we spent some time sightseeing a bit before moving on. In particular, we visited the Oregon Zoo in Portland, which has won awards (many of them, in fact). It was impressive!

boardwalk into a green forested area
entrance to the oregon zoo in portland
three sea otters
sea otters
two giraffes standing under trees
how’s the weather up there?

We saw bears, bald eagles, sea otters, seals, giraffes, bats, monkeys and apes (including chimpanzees) and much more. It was also our daughter’s first trip to any zoo. Overall, it was a great start to a long and epic trip!

Status update!

If you’re a regular reader of this blog – and if you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume that you are – then you may be asking yourself where in god’s name I’ve been for the past few months. What can I possibly have been doing that would justify this extended hiatus? Who do I think I am?!

I don’t have a single great explanation. I have several of them.

Back in February, I mentioned that my wife and I had our first baby, Ava. This alone was a life-altering event that has occupied most of my time ever since. The whole experience has been amazing, and we are really lucky to have had a healthy baby. Perhaps too healthy – she is better described by words like robust and zesty. A real zest for life. No idea who she gets that from.

baby on play mat looking curiously at camera
ava, 5 months old

Somehow, in addition to working full time and caring for a newborn, I also took a few classes at a local community college in Seattle. I had previously talked about taking a computer programming course last fall, and a chemistry prep class as well as a geology class dedicated to dinosaurs, both in winter quarter, from January through March of this year. I wrote a few brief posts related to topics from that class, such as asking which dinosaur had the longest neck, but overall that one was just for fun. My primary motivation for taking classes, though, has been to get some additional math and science courses under my belt, since I feel like I never really got the formal education in those areas that I should have, years ago in college. After finishing the chemistry prep course, the next logical one to take was general chemistry – so I took that in spring quarter, April through June. While this one was also pretty difficult, I’m proud to say I got an A in each class.

And then, a week after the chemistry class ended and with a 5 month old baby in tow, we moved across the country, driving about 1,200 miles from Seattle to Los Angeles.

We are only in LA for 12 months for my wife’s job – getting additional training – but as you can imagine, this move involved an extraordinary amount of planning and execution to pull off successfully. We had to find a new place to live in LA (without being able to fly and visit in person, due to the pandemic and the baby); find and secure child care in LA (again, from across the country); figure out what to do with our house in Seattle; hire movers; plan out a week-long drive down the west coast; and then actually pack up the entire house and move.

By now, you can probably see why I haven’t had a chance to continue updating the blog over the past few months.

That being said, all of that planning and execution related to the move is behind us, and we’re mostly unpacked and settled into our place in LA, ready to explore and enjoy the city. We only have a year, so we want to make the most of it. I am taking summer quarter off (in an academic sense, at least) so I can focus more on everything else mentioned above and start some other projects.

What this means for you is I’ll be cranking out additional blog posts on a regular basis. You can thank me later!

What to do in Maui

As mentioned in my last post, we recently got away for a week in Hawaii. What a trip!

pool surrounded by tropical plants and palm trees
resort life

This is a bit of a break from rocket activity, but it’s not totally unrelated – I did finish reading an excellent biography of Wernher von Braun during the flight, and I plan to write a couple of posts about that in the near future as well. And if nothing else, I needed an excuse to post a few pictures.

The Pacific Northwest is beautiful, but it can be pretty gloomy in the winter months – lots of darkness and clouds, with very little sun. This winter was particularly cloudy. Imagine day after day, week after week, with full cloud coverage, and virtually no sun. Relentless!

Luckily, Hawaii is not terribly far from Seattle: it’s just about a five hour flight. We’d never been to any of the islands before, and we decided on Maui.

The trip was a welcome relief from the despair of Seattle’s winter, and also a respite from the endless news coverage about the coronavirus throughout the country, particularly in Washington state. (See previous post.)

Below is a summary of our week’s activities in Maui, and of course, a couple of pictures.

road curving around a mountain in a tropical forest
road to hana

Itinerary highlights!

Sunday – flight from Seattle to Maui

Monday – beach day at Kaanapali beach, dinner at Star Noodle in Lahaina

Tuesday – Drove the Road to Hana, and toured Ono Fruit Farm; dinner at Da Kitchen

Wednesday – breakfast at The Gazebo, explored Lahaina and Kihei and spent more time on the beach

Thursday – visited Ali’i Kula Lavender Farm and drove to summit in Haleakala National Park

Friday – Whale watching and snorkeling on Pride of Maui boat tour, and then beach in Wailea

Saturday – Kanaha beach, dinner at Mama’s Fish House in Paia

Sunday – lunch at the Fish Market Maui (fish tacos!) in Lahaina, and flight home to Seattle

beach sunset
beach sunset at kaanapali

We stayed at an airbnb in Lahaina, which was amazing. And of course, the trip was definitely punctuated by multiple trips to Costco (the only one on the island) to stock up on food and supplies, and for filling the gas tank.

Note: prices are even higher in Hawaii than they are in Seattle, and that’s saying something. But as you can see from the itinerary above, we really packed in a full week of adventure and also relaxation.

Below are a few final pictures (and, as always, check out my instagram if you want to see more).

view of haleakala crater from the summit, obscured by clouds
haleakala summit
another beach sunset
another beach sunset
black sand beach with palm trees
black sand beach on the road to hana

Sometimes you have to take a break from building and launching rockets, if only to rest and recharge, and then get back at it!

What to see at the Museum of Flight in Seattle

I recently had a chance to visit the Museum of Flight in Seattle for the first time – long overdue, in fact, since we moved out to the area more than 18 months ago. It was an impressive place with some great exhibits. In particular, we spent most of the time in the Charles Simonyi Space Gallery, although there was much more to see.

This also comes on the heels of my recent trip to the Henry Crown Space Center at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago.

Soyuz (Russian) descent module
Soyuz (Russian) descent module

One highlight was an actual module from a Soyuz spacecraft. Soyuz was the human spaceflight program in the Soviet Union (and continues today in Russia), and the Soyuz rocket and spacecraft were integral parts of this program. Interestingly, the Soyuz rocket is the most reliable launch vehicle, as well as the most frequently used launch vehicle, in the world. The first Soyuz manned capsule was used in 1967, and Soyuz flights have taken place more than 1,700 times since then, in both manned and unmanned missions.

Life sized model of the Hubble telescope
The Hubble telescope

The exhibit also had some life-size models of things like the Hubble telescope and even a life-size space shuttle that you can climb aboard. Pictures (such as the Hubble, above) obviously don’t do the size of these things justice, although the relatively small floating astronaut next to the telescope helps provide a sense of scale.

The Hubble telescope is of course extremely well known. It was launched into low earth orbit in 1990 and remains in operation today – 30 years later! – and it’s produced countless amazing images of the cosmos.

One thing that I didn’t know was that the Hubble is expected to last until 2030, or perhaps as late as 2040, and that its successor is the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled to be launched in 2021 – from an Ariane 5 rocket. What a time to be alive!

Museum display titled Rocket Science 101
Rocket Science 101

The space gallery also had a variety of other exhibits, including some interesting info about how rockets work, differences between solid and liquid fuel rockets, and displays related to the world’s largest rockets and orbits. I’m no expert on any of this, and I really enjoyed this “Rocket Science 101.”

I only included a handful of pictures here, but for more, you can check out my Instagram.

The Museum of Flight really has a lot of other exhibits to see as well; in fact, it’s primarily dedicated to aviation and airplanes (e.g. from the early days of flight and the World War I and II era), with only a smaller space dedicated to spacecraft and rocketry. But it’s absolutely worth a visit, whether you live in Seattle or next time you’re visiting.

Why I drove 7 hours through the mountains to a rest stop

I recently finished building my first high power rocket, and mentioned in my last post the difficulties involved in finding a launch site, especially at this time of year. I’d need to find a local rocketry organization that has a launch site (i.e. either owns the land or has permission to use it) and secures the FAA waiver for the appropriate date, and then – weather permitting – I could launch. Unfortunately, this is all easier said than done.

There are only a handful of organizations in the PNW, and most of them don’t hold any launch events in the winter. I did come across one group, Gorge Rocket Club (located in northwest Oregon) with a promising launch calendar even in winter months, and there was a recent weekend with a scheduled launch. I decided to go for it.

The FAA waiver allowed a launch window of just a few hours starting at 9:00am, and the location was in Goldendale, WA, which is a 4 hour drive from my home. This meant hitting the road at 5:00am when it was still dark outside for a nighttime drive east into the mountains. No problem so far. Just need to load up on coffee and a couple of podcasts.

Snow covered mountain road with pine trees on both sides
Snowy mountain roads in Snoqualmie Pass

The drive out there would have been a bit more scenic if it weren’t in the early hours before sunrise. Due to a combination of darkness and fog, I couldn’t really see much of anything. On the way back, I did see some of the scenery; Snoqualmie Pass in particular is beautiful.

But as I drove through the pass and dawn started to break east of the mountains, I noticed the roads getting increasingly icy, and snow was beginning to fall. That’s not a great sign for a scheduled rocket launch. The further I drove, the more heavily it snowed.

Finally, as I approached Yakima about three and a half hours into this drive, I got the not-totally-unexpected news that the launch was cancelled due to heavy snowfall and no visibility. It was total whiteout conditions.

Isolated rest stop with snow on ground
Not the most desirable location in Washington

I pulled over at a rest stop to make sure it was really cancelled, and took the opportunity to make use of the facilities while I was there. Then I began the three and a half hour drive back through the mountains to Seattle (this time with some better views).

I took a picture of a sign before I left the rest stop, though. The image basically sums up my day:

I didn’t literally fall, but I definitely slipped on some metaphorical level and landed on my ass. Also, my head physically separated from my shoulders when I heard the cancellation news.

But this is all part of the fun of launching rockets. I’ve read others’ stories about their first launches where something was cancelled, or the FAA waiver never went through, or the rocket launched but then suffered some catastrophic failure. C’est la vie. It was a pretty low key scenic drive.

I may get a chance to launch again in the same area in the next few weeks, though, and if so I’ll certainly take advantage of the opportunity. Fingers crossed!