Who Am I?

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A nobody; a nitwit; a pilot; a motorcyclist; a raconteur; a lover...of life - who loves to laugh, who tries to not take myself (or anything) too seriously...just a normal guy who knows his place in the universe by being in touch with my spiritual side. What more is there?

30 July 2010

Flying High (No, not what you're thinking)

Nice picture, eh? Nothing wrong there, just a shot of the instrument panel of a Bell 206B helicopter flying along in straight and level flight. I’m on my way home. Nice flight on a beautiful day.

A closer look at the GPS atop the dash (you might have to click on the picture and open it up bigger) reveals that I have 120 miles to go and I am making a groundspeed of 117 knots. On the instrument panel we see that I am at 4,500 feet, heading 190 degrees – basically southbound. My torque (power setting) is 80% and it’s giving me an indicated airspeed of 100 knots (about 109 knots “true” – meaning, corrected for altitude and temperature). If we subtract that 109 knot true airspeed from the 117 knot groundspeed, we get a tailwind component of 8 knots. So much for the fancy pilot stuff.

Oh, and from the picture we know one other thing: The Boss is not onboard. He hates flying that high in a helicopter. I understand that. All that plexiglass, and not a lot of structure around you...it can be disconcerting - like sitting on a stool on top of a *tall* flagpole.

Now I’m just the opposite: I like to fly up high. It’s cooler up there. Smoother too, usually. And sometimes you can find a ripping tailwind - although not this day.

When I worked for Petroleum Helicopters, flying out in the Gulf of Mexico I very quickly came to realize that most helicopter pilots fly low. Of the “small” helicopters (e.g. single-engine and smaller twins), nearly everyone stayed down at 1,000 feet or so. There were exceptions (like me) but they were few.

Me, I’d go up. Even on relatively short flights (e.g. 15 or 20 miles) I’d go up to 2,500 feet or higher. Like I said, it’s cooler up there. And there were far fewer helicopters to run into. In 1998, my friend Andy Bell was the miraculous survivor of a mid-air collision with another helicopter. Sadly, the other pilot was killed. It happened at 1,000 feet. Believe me, I did not fly at 1,000 feet. Ever.

I’d talk to other helicopter pilots about the merits of flying high, and they would generally agree with me. But in practice, I’d always see them slogging along, down low, even on long flights! If I brought the subject up again, they would get an uncomfortable look on their face and say something like, “Yeah, but I just prefer flying low.” They couldn’t explain it, it’s just how it was.

Over the years, I’ve come to believe that many helicopter pilots are subconsciously…I don’t want to say “afraid of,” but let’s say “worried about” a catastrophic failure of some sort. The possibility of such a thing is always on their mind – maybe not consciously, but it’s there. There could be an in-flight fire…or a problem with the main transmission or tail rotor. And if such a thing were to occur they would want to be able to put the helicopter on the ground (or water) in as little time as possible. And so it makes them uncomfortable to fly up high. In certain emergencies, time is of the essence.

Situations like these are what give pilots nightmares. The thought of being “up there” while the helicopter is coming apart is horrifying. And so they fly low, thinking that they’ll just dump the damn thing on the ground at the first sign of trouble.

Personally, I could not ever get into an aircraft unless I had confidence that it would stay together for me. If I really thought that there was a strong probability or even just a possibility of a catastrophic failure, I would not be able to fly. And in the case of the Bell 206, it especially is a proven, reliable design. Maintained properly (and ours is), the pilot and passengers should not ever have to think about catastrophic failures.

With this in mind, I decided to see what it was like up a little higher. So I climbed up to 6,500 feet.

In this picture, you can see on the GPS that I have 104 miles to go. My groundspeed has dropped a bit to 115 knots. But! I had left the power alone for the climb. You can see that my torque gauge is now showing only 75%. The reason it dropped is because the air is thinner at 6,500 and the blades have less “bite.” So the engine isn’t working as hard. I could pull more power, putting more pitch into the blades, up to a maximum torque of 85%. But notice that my indicated airspeed has also dropped to 95 knots (107 knots “true”). Subtract this from the 115 knot groundspeed as we get a tailwind of 8 knots –exactly the same as down at 4,500.

So I just left the power alone and stayed at 6,500 as long as possible until I got close to Home Base. Then I reduced power and glided on down. Well, helicopters don’t really glide, and you don’t pick up much speed in a descent – not like you would in a “slippery” Learjet, say. But you do get some.

Let me show you three final pictures, which display why I like flying high.

Here’s the temperature at 1,000 feet, where my Boss likes to fly: 85 degrees. The problem is the humidity, which makes that 85 degrees feel much hotter.

Here’s the temperature at 4,500 feet: 70 degrees, which is better.

And finally, here’s the temperature at 6,500 feet: 60 degrees! Now that’s cool.

The flight home was 150 miles in length. It usually takes pretty close to 90 minutes, give or take. This particular day it took 1:25, even with all my climbing (which we do at a much slower airspeed than cruise). Had the Boss been onboard, we would have spent that entire time in an uncomfortable, humid, 85 degree cockpit.

Thanks, but no! I like flying high whenever possible.

26 July 2010

The Face of Facebook

Do you know the kid in the picture above? Seems like a fairly average, normal kid, right? Well it turns out that this “kid,” when he was a mere 22 years old, turned down an offer by Yahoo to purchase his company for…you’d better sit down… one billion dollars. That's right, $1 billion.

The kid is Mark Zuckerberg. He's 26 now. In 2003, when he was a student at Harvard University, Mark and a couple of his geeky friends were trying to figure out how to turn their school's paper yearbooks into an online version. What they came up with was Facebook.

Of course you've heard of Facebook. It's one of these new "social networks." Facebook is a website that doesn't really do anything other than allow you to easily connect with people. That's it. It's "kind of" like MySpace and Twitter, but not.

You sign up with Facebook, enter your actual identity information like who you are, where you are, your interests, where you grew up and such. Then you interact with others. You bring them into your social circle by adding them as friends. Or they find you through the Search function and add you as a friend. You post news about yourself, read news about your friends, share pictures back and forth, or simply chat. It's what AOL tried to do in the beginning. But AOL charges you. Facebook is free.

Facebook keeps people connected.

Zuckerberg and his crew tapped into this very basic human need - that people are interested in the lives of others around them. So they designed Facebook as a platform from which you can do just that.

Popularity of his new service soared from the very beginning, when it was only available to students at specific colleges. As they rolled it out to more and more schools, it grew at an astounding rate. Zuckerberg knew that he'd eventually open it up to the general public. That happened in 2006. Facebook then became available in most countries besides the U.S., and in many other languages. By the summer of 2010, Facebook saw its 500 millionth user sign up. That's 500,000,000 users. Fully half of them visit the site every day (I must plead guilty here - I've been "checking my Facebook" on a daily basis since I signed up in 2007.)

From the very beginning, other companies wanted to buy Facebook. Venture capitalists wanted to invest, but they always wanted a piece of the company in return. People began offering incredible amounts of money for the company, up to Yahoo's offer of $1 Billion.

For his part, Mark Zuckerberg has never been interested in the money. He's always maintained that his goal was not to get rich, but simply to let people connect with each other.

It seems so...wrong, so contrary to the American Dream. Typically we start a little business, grow that business, then sell it to a bigger business, right? Then you either take the buttload of cash you made from selling your business and start all over again, or you start buying up small businesses that have become successful. That's how the American corporate system is "supposed" to work.

Mark Zuckerberg is different. It's hard to believe, but he truly is not in this for the money. And in fact, Facebook is still a private company. And while it is "worth" umpteen billion dollars, it is not currently making much money at all. It doesn't have many assets, and doesn't generate all that much revenue. This is because Zuckerberg absolutely detests the kind of internet ads we've typically seen (e.g. banners and ads where you have to click-through just to get to the page you originally wanted). Ads are what bring the revenue for online companies, and Facebook has very little advertising.

It has been postulated that soon, everybody in the world that has a computer with internet will be on Facebook. That's a mind-boggling concept. But I don't doubt it. If that happens, it'll be because of the far-looking vision of a geeky kid from Harvard University who had the lofty-yet-simple idea that people all over the world ought to be able to more easily communicate with the people they care about.

Question: Could YOU have turned down $1 Billion for your company? I'm not sure I could have.

25 July 2010

Cellphone Rant Number...Four? Five?

Regular readers know of my love/hate relationship with the cellphone. My most recent post about them was back in February. Bear with me as I address the subject yet again.

I understand that cellphones are indispensable, and their proliferation is becoming more widespread. But I still think there should be limits. And currently society seems so infatuated and enamored with these little technological marvels that there seem to be no limits at all on their use.

Three of us were going out to eat this past Friday night: Erik, who is 35; Mark, who is 30, and antediluvian, 55 year-old me. The establishment of choice was the popular-if-overrated Bonefish, a chain which has from its opening 6 years ago enjoyed tremendous success in Pensacola’s fickle restaurant industry. On the weekend it’s always jammed, with the wait for a table sometimes as much as 45 minutes to an hour.

Erik said that he’d probably be late or might not even come, which is typical of him. I had planned on leaving my phone in my car, but against my better judgment brought it into the restaurant since I wanted to hear from Erik. Sure enough, he texted me that he was on his way just as Mark and I were being seated after a 30-minute wait. (My friends don’t actually use their cellphones as phones anymore. All they do is text each other.)

We ordered our drinks, and then while perusing the menu Mark began a lengthy texting session with a girlfriend. The waitress eventually came back and I spent some time with her discussing the appetizers and specials and such. Since Mark was still so immersed in what he was doing that he was oblivious to us, I ordered the appetizers. The waitress and I both looked and him rolled our eyes.

When Mark finally disengaged from his phone, he looked up with that expression on his face of someone who has just walked into a room, or had just woken up from a nap. “Oh, you’re back!” I said sarcastically. “I’m sorry,” he said with a smirk. “What appetizers should we order?” I told him that I had already ordered them. And of course, one of the two was unacceptable, so we had to call the waitress back and re-order.

Just about then Erik arrived. Claiming to not be hungry, he just ordered a glass of wine. His cellphone is always out, and he set it down on the table in front of him. But he would pick it up every couple of seconds as he was carrying on some Facebook “conversations” with friends. Mark too would periodically consult his phone for incoming messages. At times I felt as if I was dining alone.

You can tell people that they’re being rude, but the trouble is, young people (even supposedly grown men in their 30’s) do not see it as such. And you cannot convince them of it. They just laugh. Ha-ha, it's not rude! Yes, it is. And if I push the issue, then I'm the one being rude. Of course! Why didn't I see that?

I finished my meal quickly. We paid the bill and left. We split up cordially. I did not return my friends’ rudeness. I've really tried to not let inappropriate cellphone use make me angry, but fuck it, I’m done. I’m done associating with people who cannot separate their online or digital lives with reality. I’m done being with people who cannot lay their damn cellphones down for a single hour while they have dinner with someone else. (And also, I'm done being nice about it. Next time I'm in a similar social setting with people who are so obsessed with their phones, I'm simply going to leave.)

My new rule is that I’m not hanging out with anyone under age 40 anymore. It seems so “old fogey” of me, I know. But I’ve just reached my limit - had it up to here, as it were.

But wait! As it turns out, even that won’t work.

Ironically, a couple of days into the new week I had lunch with a fairly successful realtor here in town who is in his mid-40s. During lunch, even he kept pulling out his Blackberry to check it for messages and send texts. He would apologize each time, but he kept doing it. And when he wasn't actually using it, he'd put it on the seat next to him so he wouldn't have to keep fishing it out of his pocket.

I thought our infatuation with the cellphone would eventually abate. But I was wrong. People keep finding new uses for these…I guess we have to call them “personal communication devices” now. They are not considered an intrusion, and people feel no compunction whatsoever about whipping 'em out anywhere, anytime. So I’m fighting a losing battle, I know. There is no going back. Society has changed, and the cellphone is simply going to be a part of every aspect of our lives, like it or not.

And I don’t.

24 July 2010

My Bonnie Died Over The Ocean...

So Tropical Storm Bonnie fizzled. When it re-emerged into the Gulf o' Mexico she never did strengthen. And although it pretty much did follow the path that the National Weather Service had predicted, the storm was not cause for worry.

Oh well. Win some, lose some. Next!

Figuring Things Out

The speedometer on my motorcycle says, “Harley Davidson Certified.” It gives one the impression that it would be highly accurate, right? We’ll get back to this.

After Matt and my disastrous, nearly-fatal hike down into Tallulah Gorge, I realized that I was terribly out of shape. Well, I sort of knew that even before the hike, but the hike drove the point home with the precision of one of those laser-guided bombs the U.S. used in Iraq.

The next day, still huffing and puffing (and hurting), I mentioned to Matt that I had already begun exercising, which I have. Jogging around the block. It’s a good mix of uphill/downhill/uphill again. Gets the old heart rate going, it does.

Okay, well it’s not exactly jogging. Trudging, really. I would love to jog, but I just cannot run. It starts off as a jog, then quickly degrades to a trot, a brisk walk, a casual walk, and finally a sweat-soaked half-crawl back to the house. I mentioned that once-around-the-block was 9/10th’s of a mile, and I did that three times in the evening for a total of almost three miles.

Matt raised a suspicious eyebrow. “Oh, really?”

I know that eyebrow. I didn’t know whether he was being skeptical of my actually doing the walk, or the distance, or both (probably both). I couldn’t prove the former, but suspected the latter. He lived here, and he knows the route. I figured I better check it out.

I had originally made the lap around the block on the motorcycle. Harley’s speedometer (Certified! remember) said that I covered a distance of 9/10th’s of a mile. So the other evening I was in the Jeep, coming home from…uhh…work (although my friends do not call what I do for a living “work”). Before turning into the driveway, I zeroed my trip odometer and circled the block. What I came up with was…(drumroll) 6/10th’s of a mile! As the kids would say, WTF!

So my big three laps is really only just shy of two miles. Dammit. Here I thought I was really pounding out some marathonic distance, when in reality it wasn’t even a walk in the park. Hell, we walk more than two miles in Walmart fer cryin’ out loud. Especially if you have to buy something for your car and then cheese, which are at completely opposite ends of the superstore.

I thought I was doing so well, but I should have known. For one thing, my riding buddy Jacob’s speedometer and mine do not match. I arrogantly assumed his was wrong and mine was correct (“Certified!”).

Also, it takes me a half-hour to do those three laps around the block. If it really was three miles, that would make my walking speed about 6 mph. And it ain’t that, I can assure you! It’s more like 4 mph, which is more reasonable, but still pathetic.

So kids, don’t believe everything you read. If I ever get stopped for speeding on the bike, I’m going to point to the speedometer and ask the cop,
“Would Harley Davidson lie?”

Apparently they would.

23 July 2010

Here We Go Again...

I wonder- have I already made a post with this title? Because it seems that history just keeps repeating and repeating for us here in Pensacola. Why do I say that? Feast your eyes on the image below (taken from http://www.intellicast.com/ where I get most of my weather info).

Yes, it's Tropical Storm Bonnie! Right now, as we speak it is entering the Gulf of Mexico. The winds are 40 to 50 mph - not a terribly bad storm.

But look at that projected track! *IF* the storm were to hold on that exact track (it won't), it would pass right over Mississippi Canyon 252, the site of a certain oil well blowout you may have heard of.

Wherever the storm goes, left or right of the currently predicted track, it's going to churn up the gulf waters. What effect this has on that big slug of oil still sitting out there east of the mouth of the river is unknown.

But it's gonna be interesting!

22 July 2010

Weather-Guessing and Computers

Look at that picture above. Now that is something no pilot wants to see. The XM Weather (as depicted on my Garmin 496 GPS) is showing an area of heavy precipitation adjacent to and around the Brewton Airport (12J). Red is bad. I was only 32 miles out when I took that picture, but I had been watching that storm blossom from 50 miles away or more.

It's summertime, and here in the South that means lots of thunderstorms. Earlier in the day I had been heading for Birmingham, Alabama. Before taking off, our employee there told me I'd be dodging thunderstorms that were all around the area. In flight, the Boss looked at his iPhone and told me the same thing. But I am usually not too concerned. Thunderstorms usually either move or burn themselves out. Using the scroll/zoom feature of the 496, we looked at Birmingham's weather. Sure enough, storms ringed the city. I just shrugged and said that things would absolutely be different by the time we got there...IN AN HOUR, our enroute time. And sure enough, they were. We had no problems getting in or out.

But coming home, there weren't any storms around that I could see other that one over Home Base had been lurking and building for a long time. I wasn't really worried; there are plenty of other places I can go to wait it out. But I would be annoyed. The day had started early (as most of them do). Now, I wouldn't land until six p.m., meaning I wouldn't get home until after seven. Deviating or diverting would delay things even more. Hey, we pilots are human! I try to be philosophical about such crap, but after a long day I just want to put the helicopter away and go home and get something to eat.

The closer I got to home, the more I realized that the XM weather was just wrong. For some reason it thought there was "weather" in a place there was none.

In the picture above I am over the city of Brewton. The airport is dead ahead - that little sliver of green just below the horizon (kind of hard to see if you don't open the picture up in a new window). No rain around. Allas klar, herr kommissar!

Here we are closing in on the airport. Nothing but blue sky do I see. So much for XM Weather! HARUMPH! (By the way, that little gray thing with the pyramid on top is my ZAON XRX collision avoidance device - which every aircraft ought to have! It also plays through the incredible Garmin 496. And just above the ZAON is a sandbar on a winding river between me and the airport.)

Well, wait. Normally the XM Weather is very accurate. But once in a while it shows stuff that is simply not there. Fortunately the reverse is not true: If there is a storm cell, it WILL be displayed. I suspect that there had been a storm of some sort over Brewton, but that it had just dissipated in the interim and was still showing up in XM's computer for some reason. Typically there is a "lag" of five minutes or so between what the screen shows and what's really happening. But this was ridiculous; I'd been watching this storm for a half-hour.

Which brings to light one of the weaknesses of XM Weather Radar. It is a computer generated "product," compiled from various radar sources. It does not show precipitation but only moisture. And there's a difference! Big clouds can hold a lot of moisture. Generally, at some point that moisture gets too heavy and falls out as rain. Thus, if the radar measures a certain amount of moisture we assume that rain is falling underneath that area. But that's not always the case.

I've seen huge red blobs on my GPS directly in my flight path. But me, being down low, can see that there is no rain coming out the bottom. ATC controllers, who see the same red blobs on their screens, will start freaking out that I'm about to fly into such an area of bad weather. But truly understanding what's going on with the weather takes input from more than one source. Sometimes all you need is a good set of plain ol' Mark II eyeballs.

We pilots, if we're diligent about our jobs, learn a lot about weather since it so directly affects us. I'm grateful for every modern tool that we've developed to help us understand what's happening right now (like the weather radar displayed on my GPS screen) and make fairly intelligent guesses about what's going to happen in the future. But I'll tell you what: The more I learn about weather, the more I realize how little I know about it. And that's the funny thing about Mother Nature - she doesn't always play by hard and fast rules. Sometimes she fools the computers.

16 July 2010

Flying Across America: The Follow-Up

The Flying Across America guys came through Pensacola this week on their way back to Dunellon, Florida from where they started their cross-country trip on June 21st. Jason Schappert and Vincent Lambercy and I had been talking, texting, Facebook messaging and emailing for a while, so it was good to finally meet them in person. Hopefully for them too.

On Monday morning, they flew over from Baton Rouge, where they had spent Sunday night. I had contacted our local television station and our local newspaper about their trip. However, with Navy, Air Force and Army bases so close by, Pensacola is a pretty big aviation town and sadly, two guys flying across the country in a small plane is just not all that newsworthy here, no matter what their message was.

A road-weary Jason and Vincent and N512R on the ramp at Pensacola. How those two tall boys fit into that tiny plane is still a mystery to me. And I saw it!

So I picked the guys up at Pensacola Regional Airport a little after noon. First stop was lunch and a tour of the outstanding Museum of Naval Aviation down at the Navy Base. I always love going there – and I don’t do that enough. The huge building is jammed full of airplanes, both on the floor and dangling on cables from the ceiling. I mean there are no open spaces. Every time I visit, it’s different. They’re always adding or rearranging the planes, changing things and making them better. In addition to the static displays which are not cordoned off (unlike the helicopters are in the Army’s museum at Ft. Rucker which you cannot touch), there are tons and tons of other things to view and do. It’s just an unbelievable place for any aviation buff. Best of all, admission to the place is free!

After dropping the guys off to check-in at their hotel, I went home to start supper. I figured they were tired of restaurant food, so I’d planned to pick them up a little later and treat them to some home cooking. That way, we could hang out and chill at my place and they could tell me all about their trip - the uncensored version. Which is exactly what happened.

Because all three of us are pilots, we have a natural affinity that is common among our group. We talk the same language, both in and out of the cockpit. Pilots understand each other. It’s why we sometimes like to associate only with other pilots and often have trouble relating to normal people. Both Jason and Vincent absolutely love to fly, and their enthusiasm is infectious. Fortunately they were hanging out with a guy who loves to fly as much or more than they do.

As I had expected, the trip was quite an adventure. And except for some bad weather on the eastbound leg through Texas, things went pretty smoothly with no real hiccups, mechanical or otherwise. A lot of stuff made it onto their Facebook page and website…but a lot more did not. Understandably, they found it difficult to do all the stuff associated with the trip during the day and then blog or write about it at night when they just wanted to get some rest. So as they lounged around my living room, they filled me in on some of the juicier details.

Some people scoffed at what Jason and Vincent were doing, claiming that it was “no challenge,” that anyone could do it. And that was exactly the point! The goal of the trip was not to set any records or prove anything other than to demonstrate the incredible usefulness and flexibility that general aviation offers, both for passenger and cargo operations. It’s a message that needs to be emphasized.

When you have your own plane, which is not all that expensive, you can travel on your schedule, not be a slave to the airlines. You can go to places which are not even served by the airlines – and there are many, many cities throughout the U.S. with no scheduled airline service at all.

You want to go to Crestview, Florida? Hattiesburg, Mississippi? Tuscaloosa, Alabama? You can’t get there on Southwest! Or any other airline for that matter. Granted, these are not huge population centers or tourist destinations. But you can probably think of some large communities in your own areas that have no airline service either in the town or even conveniently nearby.

Sometimes you have to drive over an hour or more just to get to an airport with a dinky commuter plane service (we call them “regional airlines” now), then take that to a so-called “hub airport” to catch a connecting flight to someplace close (hopefully) to your final destination. A trip from Brewton, Alabama to Hilton Head, Georgia would be a difficult, all-day affair either by car or airline. But not by private plane! Depending on what kind of plane you owned, it could take only two hours or less (albeit longer in a Cessna 150).

So the guys did it, crossed the country from coast to coast to (almost) coast, mostly on schedule, spreading the good word and proving what those of us in the business already know. They did get to spend an extra night or two shy of their intended stop that day, but would not have had to if they were in a plane with even slightly better capabilities. Remember, Jason’s Cessna 150 only cost him $18,000 and had the most basic instrumentation and fuel capacity. But it ran like a top and never skipped a beat.

From Pensacola, they took off next morning on the final leg home. In a couple of days, Vincent would board a 10-hour flight back to his home in Switzerland. Watching them climb out and turn eastbound, I felt a little sad - for them. I'm sure that although they would certainly be happy to be home, at least one part of them probably wished they could keep on roaming around the country.

Jason and Vincent have something else up their sleeve, but they did not share it with me, no matter how much wine I plied Vincent with (Jason does not drink, drat the luck). So we’ll have to wait and see. Meantime, I congratulate them! They are great guys, and it was a pleasure getting to meet and hang out with them. They were still in good spirits and obviously having a lot of fun despite being crammed together in that little plane for nearly a month.

I sure wish I could have gone along with them. Maybe next time…

Jason's Website

Vincent's Blog

15 July 2010

Oil Spill July 15th Update: Success At Last?

And the good news is that as of about 2:30 this afternoon, BP announced that they had stopped the flow of oil into the Gulf of Mexico. Not “reduced” it, STOPPED it. They did so using yet another cap placed over the exposed wellhead. This is sort of confusing, because I thought they had said that the casing was leaking from more than one place – not solely out the end of the severed pipe, but at other places upstream as well.

But I’m not arguing. If they say they have it stopped, good for them! It’s great news.

You have to know that BP was trying as hard as they could to figure out a way to cap that well without relying on the relief wells to kill it. I believe that the future of deepwater drilling in the Gulf of Mexico depends on the oil companies proving that they have the technology to stop a major leak. Without that assurance, the government isn’t going to be highly disposed to allow more drilling. So let us hope that this cap works until the relief wells can get in there and kill it for good...or, at least until BP figures out what they’re going to do in that lease-block.

People keep asking me what the beaches are like along this part of the gulf coast. Now I can't speak for the Alabama and Mississippi coastlines, but I have to say that here in Pensacola, aside from one stretch of days when he had it pretty bad, the worst we got were tar balls and patties which are either "horrible" or "tolerable" depending on your point of view. That’s not to say we are completely oil-free, but our beaches have not been closed and the water is still arguably swimmable.

I say “arguably” because there are those who believe that the gulf is so polluted by the massive amount of oil that’s already been leaked that swimming in it poses some long-term health risks. Unfortunately, if these people are right, the effects may not become apparent for some time.

Tourism has definitely been harmed. Understandably, business is down at hotels and restaurants and other related businesses. What’s surprising (and a little disappointing) is to hear all the people who are already getting ready to hit BP up for “lost revenue” due to this accident. Anecdotally, I heard of one aerial photographer who was amassing his flight records from last year to prove that his business was worse this year...and that it was the fault of BP and the oil spill, of course. Not saying that people are going to be deceitful, but it does appear that some believe that there is an open, unlimited checkbook for "compensation," however weak a case can be made for it. It will be interesting to see how long BP continues to pay up merely to avoid class-action lawsuits.

I'm thinking that the money faucet is fixing to be turned off like the flow from the oil well, and soon! A couple of things may influence this:

1) The one thing we do not know is how nature is going to handle this situation. The gulf has incredible restorative powers. I am optimistic (although I seem to be the only one) that the oil that is already in the water won't remain in its present state forever, or until it washes up on some tourist beach or Louisiana swampland. In fact, I believe the gulf will heal itself pretty quickly.

2) Once the oil has stopped leaking, and the pollution in the gulf has been reduced to random areas of tar balls and patties, tourism may increase for the rest of the season. People may come to the gulf coast to vacation after all. It might not be a total loss. August and September might be okay.

Ahhh, I'm getting ahead of myself. Let's just see what happens next. In any event, getting the oil leak stopped is major news, and we're all glad to hear it.

06 July 2010

Matt and Me (and the Fourth of July Hike)

When Matt asked me to come up to Atlanta for the Fourth of July weekend, and I didn't have to work, I eagerly agreed. “Maybe we’ll do...something...go hiking or something…” he suggested vaguely, in that tone of voice that always makes me go, "Oh shit."

Heh. The “something” he had in mind turned out to be hiking the Tallulah Gorge, which is in Tallulah Falls State Park. It is reputed to be the toughest, most strenuous hike in all of Georgia, which I do not doubt. One website describes the gorge floor trail as, "...challenging at best, dangerous at worst." The Park Service does not even allow people on the trail if it's wet from the rain.

It is a beautiful, secluded place. They filmed parts of the movie “Deliverance” there. We’d hiked it before, back when I was younger and lighter and in (much) better shape. It was in early Spring then, when it was too cold to swim. This time, we wanted to partake of the big slippery rock-slide at the bottom of the trail. Saturday was forecast to be nice, so we ditched Alisha and the kids and struck off for the northeastern corner of the state.

We started down around noon after, um, gorging ourselves in preparation on a big meal of bison burgers (or so they said) up in the town of Clayton. Hey, can't hike on an empty stomach! It was a stunningly beautiful day: temps in the 80’s and low, low humidity. Unreal. It is 500+ steep steps down to the bottom of the gorge- the first set of falls. By the time you get to the bottom you’ve already got muscles hurting in your legs you didn’t even know you had. There is a gate when you get down there.

To go past this point you need a permit from the ranger station at the top. Only 100 permits are issued each day, and they go fast on nice weekend days. (We had gotten our permits earlier, before going to lunch, heh-heh.) The permit lets you hike a little over a mile further downstream to Bridal Veil Falls, where you can slide down the falls into a huge natural pool. The things nature can come up with! It is awesome.

The trail is not easy. Lots of climbing over obstacles – fallen trees and granite slabs the size of a small house. And you alternate between boulder-hopping and traversing steeply inclined sections of slick granite. Watch out for snakes! Oh, and big spiders. It’s treacherous and you have to be really careful to keep from getting hurt. The trail was crowded, as we expected on such a nice holiday weekend - but mostly with people coming out. The only really out-of-shape guy we saw that day was me. Everyone else looked like granola-eating nature freaks and I felt like smacking their healthy, little, rosy cheeks.

We did see a lot of bruises and blood. And of course we, the supposedly experienced hikers, did not have Band-Aid one between us. No snake bite kit either. Plenty of Pringles though! Fortunately, this was one of those rare times when neither of us spilled any blood of our own.

By the time Matt and I got to the very end of the trail, it was almost two o’clock. Our supply of Powerade was almost depleted, and of the 98 other people allowed in there, nearly everyone else had already come and gone. Less than a dozen remained. Very quickly even they left and we had the place to ourselves. Odd- we thought for sure that others would stick around until the temperature cooled off a bit, which was our plan for the return hike. Everyone has to be out of the gorge by sunset, which wasn’t going to be until well after eight p.m. so there was no rush. (They don't allow camping down there, unfortunately, or we would have.)

For the couple of hours we did have, we stayed and had a great time hanging out in one of the most beautiful places on earth, sliding down the rock into the water, trying not to get hurt, or snake-bit, or sunburned. We managed to do all but the last.

I was not looking forward to the hike back. In fact I was dreading it. We got to the bottom of the stairs okay, but my legs were already burning by then. Plus I was out of breath, huffing and puffing like an old steam locomotive and whining like a modern turbine engine. But there was no train, no elevator, no cable car or helicopter to come get me. There was only one way to the top: up those 500+ goddamn steep steps.

Gritting my teeth, we started up. On each flight, Matt would run ahead, egging me on, the bastard. “Just tell me if you need to take a break!” he’d say cheerfully, sprinting to the landing at the top of each section. I would finally arrive some time later, gasping for air and Powerade (which was in his pack), cursing him under my breath. Well, not really under. I did get to the top, but it was a chore. It took a level of guts and determination that I am unaccustomed to producing these days when just climbing into my Jeep Cherokee can cause me to break a sweat

Even today, three days later, my legs are still sore. They may be permanently damaged. Matt and I spent Sunday grilling hotdogs, eating my famous crabmeat potato salad, and doing pretty much nothing, just hanging out by his pool, letting the rum punch soothe our aches and pains - mine more than his, of course.

I hope everyone else had a great (if less strenuous) holiday weekend.


Here are the intrepid hikers at Hurricane Falls. Matt had the good grace to hide my considerable girth behind that big rock.

The observation deck at the bottom of the stairs, taken from across the river. See those boulders? Looks like it's pretty easy to cross, eh? Trouble is, many of them are *just* far enough apart that you cannot span them with your legs. So you have to jump. Not easy (for some of us). From that platform you cannot see...

Hurricane Falls

Looking downstream from one of the (many) places I nearly fell in.

Ah, your humble blogger/pretend-outdoorsman. Dear God, are those the beginnings of manboobs?? Who chose this pic?! (Ed. note: It looks that way to me too, Bob.)

Watch your step! One false move could send you sliding to the bottom - and it would hurt, baby. (This one you really have to right-click on and open up to appreciate the relative size of the people - yes, there are people - in the pic.)

Bridal Veil Falls

Matt sliding down the Bridal Veil Falls. It literally was as smooth as glass. Great fun!

The pool at the bottom. It's about a 30 foot drop. Or so.

Matt enjoying nature's own whirlpool bath just upstream from the falls.

About Tallulah Gorge (a little history)

Georgia State Parks Website (Tallulah Gorge)