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Friday, July 10th, 2015
5:45 pm - A few hours this morning
The earliest thing I remember is walking around a city, near the coast. The bright afternoon sun made all the colors intense. The ocean was a striking Mediterranean blue, the dirt walkways and streets were a deep brown, the plaster walls a variety of eggshell greens, pinks, and whites. Doorways were dark and inviting. Roofs were speckled Spanish tile, or heavy chunks of unvarnished wood. Windowsills were thick slabs, windows were iron grids of tinted glass. Fluffy clouds decorated the sky. In the distance up the coast and out to sea there were curtains of mist and drifting fog, showing that I was in a patch of good weather. I could smell nothing - but that was typical, since I almost never smelled anything in my dreams.

At first I was just walking around, enjoying the scene...Collapse )

current mood: indescribable

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Tuesday, July 7th, 2015
3:40 pm - Metabolomics for fun and (potentially) profit
I while ago I had the privilege of attending the 11th International Conference of the Metabolomics Society. When I wasn't doing interviews I wandered around and had fun reading the presentation posters. Here's some neat stuff I saw:

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This is a graph of the "Carlson Curve", a kind of genetics equivalent of Moore's Law. The connection illustrated in the graph isn't entirely sensible, since Moore's Law isn't actually about dollar cost, but about information density. It gets the point across though.

IMG_9486

Did you know that your brain swells when you're asleep?

Perhaps this is why your head feels fuzzy when someone wakes you up too soon.

P.S.: I bet you've never heard of the Glymphatic System eh? Check it out.

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Breaking scientific insight! Japanese women tend to lie about whether they've been smoking recently.

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It's not something we often think about, but cooking creates smells because of food chemistry - and smells are complicated. Even a "simple" food like rice, seen as a relatively "empty" carbohydrate, emits hundreds of unique compounds into the air during cooking, creating a distinct smell.

The experiment in this poster attempts to identify all the compounds emitted by the different varieties of rice, to create a correlation between pleasing smells and particular compounds.

With that information, scientists can conduct more precisely targeted experiments to develop a variety of rice that grows well in a given region, and also fetches a higher price (because it smells better.)

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Here's a similar, but not identical, metabolomics experiment with wine. The neat thing I learned here is that one of the smell components of wine, according to wine tasters, is "bike tyre rubber". Hilarious! I've been a cyclist for a long time, and I tell you what ... bike tires don't smell good.

IMG_9494

The human body carries about 100 trillion microorganisms in its intestines (a number ten times greater than the total number of human cells in the body) and their role in digestion is extraordinarily complicated, and largely unmapped.

This experiment is pointing out something interesting: Our intestines absorb and process many different types of nutrients, and some them are found in the food we eat, but the majority of them are synthesized for us by the bacteria we carry within. Not just one or two types, like vitamin K and vitamin B, but the majority.

Without this symbiotic relationship, we would be so totally screwed!

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Here's one of my favorites. Scientists took three very different meals, ground them up into liquid, and ran the liquid through a high-performance liquid chromatography system...

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... Then they categorized the metabolites they detected, and plotted them according to their relative levels in each meal. This particular chart is only a small part of the data they collected. It's a heat map of the triglycerides they measured.

Basically, this is an extremely expensive way to prove that the American meal is chock-full of saturated fats, and the lightweight vegetarian meal is almost entirely fat-free, with the more "Mediterranean" meal in the middle. Whether this even constitutes useful information is debatable, as you may gather from the Wikipedia forest around triglycerides and all the instances of "[citation needed]".

Triglycerides of all types are broken down into their component parts inside the small intestine, and then re-assembled from parts and stuffed into large carrier packages, then passed into the lymph system and from there into the bloodstream. Those carrier packages are called lipoproteins, and they come in various sizes, and serve various roles as they move around in the blood. There are "high-density" lipoproteins and "low-density" lipoproteins, among others, and it's believed that the "low-density" ones encourage heart disease, while the "high-density" ones protect against it.

There is a fuzzy link between the balance of triglycerides you eat, and the balance of "high-density" versus "low-density" lipoprotein packages constructed to carry them around in your blood. It's not as simple as, "avoid fats", and it's not as simple as "avoid carbohydrates". There's also a large, mostly unknown, genetic component, so it's not as simple as "avoid saturated fats". But so far, the fickle finger of fate is pointing mostly at the "Mediterranean" meal as the smartest choice.

Now, if we all had access to those foods at reasonable prices, and we all ate just to stay alive, and not for pleasure or convenience, this would be life-changing information, wouldn't it?

Into this complicated mess, science marches on. At least the charts are pretty.

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Meanwhile, the local hardware vendors are giving out candy!

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Speaking of getting fat, here's a sobering bit of information. This is from an experiment done on mice, so take that as you will, but what it's basically saying is, if you gain a bunch of weight, your body chemistry changes on a permanent basis. Even if you work the weight off, and keep it off for years, your body will not behave in the old way ever again.

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Look! SCIENCE! It means: Perfect hair, perfect makeup, perfect lighting, perfect skin, and a pouty deferential look ... oh and some protective glasses, because hey, this is serious.

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Wednesday, July 1st, 2015
12:44 am - Digesting Seveneves: Wherein I struggle with being an armchair geneticist.
Stephenson needs to listen to his editor more, or perhaps get a different one. At least that's the impression I get as a reader - it seems like the touch of an editor has been too light. But for all I know, this book started out twice as long as the version we eventually got - and if that's the case I don't even want to think about how frustrating that original version was. There were times I imagined him opening a PDF file of a physics textbook in his word processor, doing "select all" and "copy", then finding a chunk of dialogue in his draft and planting the cursor smack in the middle of that and hitting "paste".

Okay, that's unfair. He is clearly chasing his own interests, and his long digressions into them are almost a trademark of his writing. But he just spends too much time talking about orbital mechanics, perhaps expecting that the concepts will magically become compelling to everyone if only he can get the explanations clear enough. They're fairly clear, and that's quite an accomplishment, but after the third or fourth obsessive tour through the physics, I was tempted to just turn pages without reading, looking for the quotation marks of dialogue that might advance the plot.

And that's especially frustrating, because the plot is fantastic! A thundering adventure with plenty of twists and macabre accidents, emphasizing the danger and desolation of space. Most of the time I enjoyed it hugely and was greedily stealing hours from my errands, workday, and sleep time, just to keep plowing along. I'd definitely recommend it, if you can tolerate the frequent asides.

I do have a few bones to pick, though. If I sound frustrated when I bring these up it's only because I'm holding the book to a very high standard - a standard of hard near-future science fiction, which might be the most difficult standard across all the genres of fiction - and I'm disappointed that every tiny little ramification of every movement into the fringes of science has not been thoroughly considered before me. Yes, it's harsh and unfair, and I'm a little prissy princess, but that's why this is a blog post: It's more about feelings than anything else. And I think there are other people out there - other hard sci-fi goons - who share my frustrations.

With that awkward disclaimer aside, I should also give out a warning: I am about to completely spoil the plot. I am going to spoil the hell out of it. If you want to read it yourself with an open perspective, you really should stop reading now. No, seriously. Hey; what are you doing still here? Go read the book! Quick!
Here we go.Collapse )

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Tuesday, June 30th, 2015
7:51 pm - Problems With Reality Mix 2
Surprise! It's another mix!

Problems With Reality Mix 2 (Lossless version)
Problems With Reality Mix 2 (AAC version)
Problems With Reality Mix 2 (MP3 version)

My day job has taken an interesting turn for the last few weeks, requiring me to be up at 7:30am or earlier, and put in 13+ hour days conducting interviews and making presentations. Very social, very extroverted. When the weekends came I felt a huge desire for private time. So I closed myself up in my house with the lights off and watched silly horror movies*.

A couple of movies into that, I felt an even bigger desire to mix loud clangy music together, extending the mental space I explored in the first "Problems With Reality" mix four years ago. It's like I was tired of being sane and normal with such intensity and needed to swing the pendulum hard the other way to "re-balance" myself. I don't know what that implies about my own psychology when I need to swing back away from something I've labeled sane and normal, but that's what it feels like. Maybe I'm just reacting to my culture's tendency to label extroversion as normal and introversion as a sign of disorder and weakness.

Way back in pre-history, perhaps extroverted people did rule the world. Then it all started to go sideways, when the first real introvert showed up, listened patiently to the extrovert talking and crashing through the jungle on their regular routine, thought quietly for a while, and then installed a tripwire across the beaten path.

Heh heh heh.

Anyway, here it is. I really enjoyed making this mix, and I hope you enjoy hearing it.



Tracklist behind the cut, for those of you who want to keep it a surprise.Collapse )

*Incidentally, the original movie version of The Dead Zone, with Christopher Walken, directed by David Cronenberg, is fantastic. It has a "tragic romance" aspect that I never appreciated when I saw it as a kid.

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Tuesday, June 16th, 2015
12:46 pm - Wherefore all these "apps"?
When we look at the current app world, why do we see so many odd business models and unworkable products fighting so hard for attention? Why is it such a mess?
Because there is a large group of "early adopters".
These people love to go digging around in the territory, and many apps get discovered that would otherwise be ignored.
These people also love to evangelize apps strongly, to each other and to the general public, because it gives them social status.
They are a key pathway to an app becoming adopted by the majority - a much larger, much more entrenched group, promising much more profit - and they are very active right now.
Think about any other product space, even the very large and common ones, like shoes, cars, jewelry, sporting equipment, movies, music.
Apps on portable devices currently outpace all of them in terms of the attention people are paying, combined with the upside to being a “winner” in that space.
If your app is wildly successful, you can make billions of dollars.
And so, people like Kim Kardashian feel a need to have computer programmers on their payroll.

Can't say I mind. I'll gladly sell the most expensive very highest quality picks and shovels to anyone who thinks there's gold in "them thar hills".

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Saturday, June 6th, 2015
9:32 pm - RULES
Path: news.ucsc.edu!agate!howland.erols.net!newsfeed.internetmci.com!204.246.1.19!news.tds.net!news
From: "Girdle Popper" <G_Popper@Hotmail.Com>
Newsgroups: alt.tasteless.jokes
Subject: Rules On How To Be A Man!
Date: 27 Jun 1998 20:24:33 GMT
Message-ID: <01bda207$4ddde360$8cd331cf@mypc.tds.net>

1. Name your penis. Be sure it is something narcissistic and unoriginal, like "Spike."
2. You are a man. Remember, no matter what, it isn't your fault.
3. Never ask for help. Even if you really need it, don't ask. People will think you have no penis.
4. Women like it when you ignore them. It arouses them.
5. Don't call, ever. If, God forbid, you have to talk to a girl on the phone, use only monosyllabic words and noises. Bodily noises are permissible.
6. Deny everything. Everything.
7. Life is one big competition. If someone is better than you at anything, either pretend it's not true or beat them up.
8. At any given oppertunity, point out how things look like genitalia.
9. Say things like "Wha...?"
10. You are NOT a virgin, ever. Males are born without virginity.
11. If your woman makes you go shopping with her, drive around until a parking spot right near the door opens up. If this takes hours, so be it: You will have the coveted "Door Spot" and others will worship you.
12. If you're ever forced to show emotion, just pick a random one, like rage, lust, or insanity, and display it at a random, inconvenient time. You won't be asked to do it again.
13. If you are asked to do something you don't want to do, first try your manly best to get out of it. If that doesn't work, go ahead and do what you were asked, but complain that you don't know how to do it and continuously ask questions on how to do each tiny part. If no one rushes in to do it for you yet, finish the job in the most half-assed way you possibly can and then yell "See? I TOLD you I couldn't do it." Eventually people will stop asking you to do things.

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Tuesday, June 2nd, 2015
1:43 am - NZ Day 13: Ruminating In Rotorua
Today we got another early-morning call with bad news. No dolphin snorkeling activity for us - the sea was still too choppy. Kerry and I decided that Whakatane was bad luck, so we checked out a day early and shoved our bicycles into a bus, and rode it back up to the lovely lakeside city of Rotorua.

The highway seemed even more twisty on this return trip, and we both got upset stomachs. It was early afternoon when we arrived in Rotorua, and instead of setting out immediately on the bike path towards Waiotapu, we decided to use our extra day to recuperate a little more and get an earlier start the next morning.

Most of the hotels in Rotorua were booked solid, and most of the rest had very high prices. Eventually we found one that was affordable and only a little bit crusty, and we flopped onto the bed and napped until our stomachs felt better. The discomfort inspired us to go through our luggage again and prepare another box of gear that we could ship directly to New Plymouth, instead of hauling it around for another three weeks. We paid for shipping online and left the box with the hotel receptionist, who promised to hand it to the carrier when they came by the next day.

I've been thinking lately: Travel is often romanticized and overrated, especially when it's the kind of travel that's packaged and sold to the middle class - and the aspiring middle class. For a while now I've been lucky enough to consider myself middle class, and one of the reasons I know this is, I have become a target for these romanticized, packaged experiences.

In the case of New Zealand, the package is obvious to me. It's, "come wander through a working model of Middle Earth! You'll dance with Hobbits, swing swords at orcs, and cast Magic Missile at the darkness!" Well, I could try and pursue that. I could completely embrace that vision - that product - and come to New Zealand intent on finding it. If I went with what the travel agents recommend, it would go like this:

Drop several thousand dollars on a helicopter ride into the mountains, then stand around for a few minutes in front of a rock formation that looks vaguely like the background plate for the city of Minas Tirith - except there's no city there, obviously. Then fly another helicopter to a meandering spot on the Mangawhero River, the backdrop for (and I quote) "the dramatic scenes of Gollum catching a fish." Then drive a few miles into a farmer's back yard, to a hill that, if you squint, kind of looks like Fort Edoras in Rohan - if you scraped off the actual fort. And look! Here's a hill that looks like Weathertop, if you squint and imagine a Weathertop-shaped structure in its place!

What better way to destroy a fantasy world? Heh heh heh.

Oh, how I mock the packaged product; but I do need to cop to the fact that I wouldn't be in New Zealand if it wasn't for the Lord Of The Rings films drawing my attention to it. Even if I'm not imagining myself in the Mines of Moria whenever I wander into a cave (like I did in Kentucky), I have still obviously been influenced by Peter Jackson's adoration for his native country, and our common roots of fantasy literature.

Kerry has been to India quite a few times. She has many stories to tell, and they thoroughly clash with the "product" of tourism in India. In India's case I think it would be fair to call that product the "Eat Pray Love experience". It goes, "be like Julia Roberts! Reject middle-class decadence by burning thousands of dollars in jet fuel to flirt with exotic men! Oh, and there's yoga, so it's totally legit." I wonder how many people see the movie, or something like it, or perhaps any one of a zillion Bollywood films, then go to India ... and it's beautiful and exotic, but it's also packed with constant harassment, heartbreaking poverty, chaos, inconvenience, and filth.

Of course, the "product" is not born of India, but more from a negative sketch of what's missing back home. And the same is true for the fantasy sketch of New Zealand. Even if we know they're fake, such things can have a perverse and lingering attraction anyway. I just burned thousands of dollars in jet fuel to ride a bicycle in an exotic location, and is there anything meaningful I'm chasing in it? Probably not. It's not for charity, it's not for self-discovery... I'm not running from a past trauma... I'm not even doing yoga! (Just some fake Tai-Chi!)

So, I can't shake the feeling that despite my high-mindedness, I am guilty of chasing the equivalent of the "Eat Pray Love experience" for geeks. I haven't thought much about the Lord Of The Rings films, except during the tour of Hobbiton - kind of hard to avoid, when you're walking around inside the Green Dragon Inn - but nevertheless I am mimicking the films in my own way, pursuing my own version of that product. I'm on a fairly self-contained journey (bicycling) through fresh air and nature (New Zealand), avoiding deadly beasts (cars) and exploring old ruins (Limestone Island) while casting Magic Missile (taking pictures)... A great antidote for my day-to-day job, which takes place at a desk. Where does the prepackaged fantasy world end, and my own mundane vacation begin? Am I the same posh, blinkered middle-class traveler that I look down upon for buying the "packaged product" of New Zealand as Middle Earth?

Perhaps I am, with just a difference in degree.

The most appalling packaged travel I ever took part in was a three-day cruise to a little island off the coast of Florida, on one of those gigantic cruise ships. There's a lot I could say about it, but I'll just say, every corner of the ship was enthusiastically designed to make me - the traveler - feel USELESS, like a pet hamster trapped in a giant food bowl. All that comfort backfired and made me feel very uncomfortable.

Maybe that's what the difference in degree is: Comfort level. Perhaps I demand some level of discomfort because it bestows some feeling of accomplishment, or worthiness. Something to set me apart from other people. Not for the impression it gives other people - I'm usually embarrassed at the attention I get when I mention my long bike tours, since I think it identifies me as crazy more than anything else - but for the impression it gives to myself. I seek something personal, in the dangerous roads, the harsh weather, the rough sleeping, the isolation. Enlightenment, on my own terms.

Well, it's true: Sometimes the uncomfortable aspects of travel can be the most enlightening, if you give them enough time to work on you. For example, I think the desolation of the small, meth-addled towns I passed through when cycling across the US helped me re-assess what was really worth worrying about in my own life. Of course, that's another thing that the middle class is vilified for: Traipsing through third-world countries and using poverty as a kind of framing device for their own trifling problems back home. I've seen plenty of scathing editorials drifting across Facebook, flouncing at "poverty fetishism", accumulating truculent "likes" like ants on roadkill.

Well, haters gonna hate, and ain'ters gonna ain't.

As an aside, I think it's very interesting that the author of Eat Pray Love wrote a followup book, gathering material about the meaning of marriage, as a tactic to conquer her own fears about it after her bitter divorce. To me, this says that "Eat Pray Love" - and the travel and the farting around and the talk of spirituality - was just a years-long phase where the author "got her sillies out" (as an ex of mine would say), and the follow-up book "Committed" is where the real work of self-improvement took place, back home in the 'States, back in another stable arrangement. I haven't read it, but perhaps she even admits to herself somewhere in those pages that she didn't have to travel to Bali to meet a man worthy of her time, and could have just as probably found one within 10 square miles of her house. She went to Bali to make her ovaries happy, just like I've seen many divorced men my age spend a fortune bedding exotic women to make their post-divorce penises happy.

All-too-human, but not exactly a spiritual awakening. ... Good thing too, because if a spiritual awakening cost that much money, it would be in very short supply!

Onward, to the next day...

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Sunday, May 31st, 2015
5:50 pm - Western Desert, parts 1-4
I was invited to post this on the Ambient Nights website as a guest mixer, but with the site under construction for the last 8 months and other work stacking up behind it, it's time to get this out on the internet.



This is mix 1 of a musical triptych about starting over - searching for lost identity.

The idea for the particular sound came to me when I was bicycling through the high desert of eastern Oregon in 2009.

I was out by myself in a vast hot space, filled with clean air and shimmering light, with the epic scale of nature and geology laid bare around me. It was brutally inhospitable and deeply comforting and intimate at the same time, and an environment well-suited for self-assessment. It was also scattered with the detritus of older stories, of pioneering settlers and farmers, who engaged directly with this raw landscape to establish a new life and independence for themselves. Those stories wove into my personal thoughts as I traveled, making my little bike trip feel like its own epic expedition into the western frontier.

A few years later I wanted to return to that feeling, and began searching for a way to encapsulate it in music. It was very difficult to find things that were differentiated enough to have character, while still fitting within the mental space I had staked out. Eventually I ended up with a patchwork of heroic - and somewhat corny - Western movie soundtracks, hallucinatory ambient sounds, local background noise from wind and animals, and languid, seductive steel guitar. I wanted something long: A soundscape with different parts telling a loose story, each brief enough to have structure but also long enough to get lost in - to let the mind wander - and use it to meditate on a theme.

That theme is, succinctly: Starting over with nothing.

Parts 1-4 are combined into a one-hour mix:

Part 1: Setting Out
Part 2: Frontier
Part 3: Oasis
Part 4: Lightning Storm

Here's an Apple Lossless (ALAC) version, for all you audiophile types like me. (322mb)
Here's an AAC version, suitable for playing in iPods and almost all other modern music players. (127mb)
Here's an MP3 version, suitable for digital players new, old, and ancient. (138mb)

The cover photo was taken by my father during a trip down the Baja peninsula 40 years ago.

You can click here for the tracklist ... or just skip this link and listen to it without knowing what's in store for you. :)

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Saturday, May 30th, 2015
6:17 pm - NZ Day 12: Bushwhackin' Whakatane

OMG WATERFALL! HURF BURF DURFCollapse )

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Thursday, May 28th, 2015
3:02 pm - NZ Days 10-11: Idle Time
After the excitement of Hobbiton, we took a day off in Tirau. We opened the door to our motel room, letting in the sunlight and letting out the cigarette smell, and just lazed around for the entire day, cropping photos, playing with the internet, and snacking. Aaaaaaaah!

Here"s a gallery of snacks we saw in New Zealand:Collapse )

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Wednesday, May 13th, 2015
7:37 pm - NZ Day 9: Hobbiton

YOU BEST CHECK YO SELF BEFORE YOU WRECK YO SELF, YKNOWHMSAYIN'?

Today we set out for Hobbiton, on a lovely 13-mile route zig-zagging past farms and pastures. Our tour was scheduled for late in the day so we had plenty of time to look around.


Let's go!!


"Hobbiton, this-a-way!" (Also, dork doing tai-chi, this-a-way.)

Well, it looks like it might be tai-chi, and I've done it before, but in this case I was just posing for the camera. Check out that beautiful countryside in the background! Sometimes it reminded me of California wine country, but less constricted by walls and highways. The hills can really stretch out and get a good roll going here.


"Caution while crossing. Your mother will guide you, while she searches for her severed left hand."


On farmland, trees often have a clear space beneath them that's a very exact height. I assume it's because the animals nibble off all the low-hanging leaves. This means you could actually figure out how tall the tallest animal in a field is, just by looking at the trees.


Kerry and I both had the same thought when we saw this bike: "If this were Oakland, that would be gone in 20 minutes or less." We're city-folk, yup...


Our picnic stop attracted a FREELOADER!!!! No free rides! Get off!

Kerry and I were mystified by these clinging dust clouds, until a local explained that they were dumping massive amounts of lime on the hillside to fertilize the soil and re-grow the grass. Here's a video of us coasting down the road, with lime distribution happening to our left:


When the wind's at our backs, we barely have to pedal. If only every day was like this...

And, if only every day you could meet a grumpy long-haired long-horned old goat by the side of the road, and feed him snacks! Check out the video:


Bread! Bread bread bread give me the BREAD. I am the goat, so bread is mine.


OOF! As soon as the goat realized Kerry had bread to feed him, he wriggled his way through the fence and jumped at her. Kerry's reactions are quick, so she fell backwards before the goat could make contact, and I grabbed one of his horns and held him in place. Kerry was back on her feet in a few seconds, no injuries.

It's a good thing that a goat's strength isn't proportional to his smell, or he would have been unstoppable!


"This is MY cabbage! Take a step near it and I will CLOBBER you!!"

When she saw us paying attention to the goat, the owner came out of her house with some cabbage we could feed him. She also told us a few stories about him. The general theme was: "Don't try to mess with the goat!" "Ouch, I got injured!" "Hey I warned you didn't I?"

It was a very lovely visit. But Hobbiton awaited! So we left the goat chomping cabbage and rode on.


The most important thing here is that you be alarmed!! (The details of the message can be buried in grass, for all we care...)


Even if the trees weren't trimmed this way, I'm sure the passing trucks would beat them into shape pretty soon...



Break time! Let's chomp some snacks and look at stuff...


The first highway sign pointing the way! Are you excited? I'm excited!


We made it to the visitor center, where we'll catch a shuttle into Hobbiton. Cloudy weather, but oh well. It'll still be awesome, even if the pictures aren't perfect.


The Hobbiton gathering area was awash in Japanese and Chinese tourists, each with approximately 3.5 cameras, including the obligatory cellphone screwed onto the end of a selfie-stick. I felt right at home among them, fiddling with my own avalanche of camera gear.


We took a look around in the gift shop but, to our surprise, there wasn't anything particularly special for sale. Lots and lots of t-shirts and exactly the same things you could buy online. I was hoping to find something novel to send to the nephews back home. Dang.

About half an hour later, we got in line, and were the first to board the shuttle. It glided across the road and over a hill, arriving at an official-looking gate.


One of our guides had to jump out and open it for the bus.


The sign reads, "before you dig, see site management."

Too late, maaaan, I'm already waaaaay digging it.

In case you're wondering, the electrified wires are to scare all the grazing sheep away. Nothing to do with corralling small children. Though I wonder... Do the Hobbits try to escape?


If it rains, they have an army of umbrellas standing by...


Oh boy oh boy oh boy oh boy! (Can't you tell I'm excited in the picture?)


Here's the first thing you see stepping around the corner. The guide took one look at my Twoflower-style Hawaiian shirt, my huge camera, and my even bigger grin, and pointed at me and said "You. Go first." So I walked ahead of the group and got to stand and compose this nice shot with nobody in the foreground.

The perks of looking like a dork. Perhaps I reminded him of that dorky actor in the video that Air New Zealand shows you when you're preparing for takeoff.


We have arrived! The tour has begun!


Very excited photographer; can't decide what to point at first!

Check out this little video panorama Kerry made, to set the scene:


Lots of things to check out here!


Hobbiton is maintained like a farm. All the gardens are real, and all of the produce on display is grown from those gardens.


The attention to detail is very impressive, especially since all the plant life is genuine.

For example, the trees are all heavy with fruit this time of year, but you won't find a single one on the ground, since that would imply an absence of hungry hobbits. It really does feel like they all just stepped out of sight for a moment as you happen to be wandering through.


It's all just SO CUTE !!!!


This pond was here before set construction began. During filming, a handful of frogs moved in, and made so much noise they had to be relocated.


I've always enjoyed little self-contained idyllic scenes, left unpopulated, as though one could step inside them any time.


At times, this environment eerily reminds me of walking around the Santas Village amusement park, back in Scotts Valley in the 1980's...


... And at other times, it reminds me of a very old fantasy computer game called "Below The Root" that took place in a forest of enormous trees with houses built into them.


Every dwelling is decorated for a particular occupation and it's fun to guess what they are. See the drying rack on the right? Perhaps this is the local herbalist?


I really started to wonder... What would be the logistical problems of a dwelling built into a hillside, instead of over it? Would you have problems heating the place? How would drainage and insulation work? And since I'm from California, how would it fare in an earthquake? (Very badly, I suspect...)

And yet, with all these drawbacks... Wouldn't it just be SO CUTE ???


Just think, you could grow produce on your outside walls, as well as your roof!



It's amazing how much variety the designers managed to cram into such a small chunk of land.


It looks appetizing... But this bread is made from colored cement! Sits out here all year-round.

In fact, it's a pretty close rendition of Terry Pratchett's "dwarven bread".


This is new wood decorated too look aged, using a combination of yogurt, wood chips, vinegar, and paint.


I've no idea if this is actual honey, but I assume it is, since there were actual bees crawling around on the jars.


I'd say these were supposed to be beehives, but elsewhere in Hobbiton is a beekeeper's house with some boxes out front that have removable sections of honeycomb. So... If not beehives, what are these? Bird houses? Special hives for Middle Earth "giant bees"?


Hobbits need to build better ladders if they're going to avoid injury!


More fabulous framing by Kerry.


The central Hobbiton attraction: Bilbo's house!


We made sure to take plenty of photos around it.


The other big attraction was the Green Dragon Inn, where the tourguide invited us to sit down and have a drink. We had the cider and the ginger beer, then mixed them together. The result was fantastic!


Here we are, basking in the warm glow of Hobbiton!


Check out all that fancy design work!


Hobbiton was gorgeous, and worth the price of admission. And for us, it was the high point of a lovely day spent riding through the same scenery that encircled the attraction for miles around. I think it would have been a lesser experience taking a car here. But I've been a bike snob for most of this century, so of course I would think that.


On our way back to Tirau and our hotel we were already plotting about the next visit, and what our nieces and nephews would think!

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Tuesday, May 12th, 2015
7:21 pm - NZ Day 8: Hamilton Gardens

Bursting into song about the wonders of New Zealand.
"The Russian fort is woody / In this town that's full of goodies / The butterflies, they flutter by / And farts come from their bootys"
Not bad for a first draft? At any rate, it is conclusive proof that I am 100% CLASSY.


Here's more evidence! (Gator #1 invited Gator #2 in for tea, but it was a TRAP!)

Anyway, the reason I'm all dressed up in sun-protective gear is because Kerry and I bicycled over to the Hamilton Gardens to spend the first half of the day snapping photos, disturbing insects, and bothering waterfowl, such as these:


That's a cicada skin, left behind on the underside of a leaf after the insect molted and crawled away. And of course, a duck, being ducky.

Hamilton Gardens was, and is, an amazing place to be a photographer. You're probably saying, "but I can see gardens all over the world; why would I want to waste my precious time in New Zealand walking around a garden?"

Perhaps some of these pictures will help explain why!


The place is a feast for the senses, and that feast has multiple courses. There are themed and curated gardens, kept carefully behind partitions, and large open sections that grow a little more improvisational and merge slowly across each other.

(You're probably looking at those pictures of thistles and saying, "he totally cranked up the saturation. There's no way those colors are real." Nope. That's how they looked, my friend!)


We didn't pay much attention to the signposts, and just wandered around. I have no idea how many of these plants are native to New Zealand, or even to the same hemisphere.


The Monarch butterflies were familiar, though! I grew up in a town called Santa Cruz, and during part of the year we could see them hibernating at Natural Bridges State Beach. (Check out this Forestry Service article about their migration routes.) Monarchs were brought to New Zealand from North America, and seem to have a pretty good foothold here, despite the cold winters.




They were very busy drinking nectar, so as long we we didn't interrupt them, it was possible to get incredibly close. Check out this iPhone video:


Now that is close! By the way, that loud hissing sound you hear is the cicadas, scattered throughout the foliage and talking to each other. It's intense, but after a while it fades into the background and you stop noticing it.

It makes me wonder: Do New Zealanders travel to places like North America and walk into the redwoods, and get disoriented because the forest is so very quiet?


The birds let us get pretty close too.


Anybody know what kind of bird this is?


That's me trying to blend in with the local foliage!




OAKTOWN REPRAZENT IN DA FOLIAGE YO.


One of the newer exhibits was this tudor-accented topiary, groomed into precise tessellations, and decorated with carvings of mythic creatures and gods.


I think some of the carvings were deliberately made to look deranged, or cartoonish, to evoke Lewis Carroll's poetry. I mean, look at that basilisk thing. Is it menacingly reptilian? Or adorably dopey? I can't decide.


And of course, what mythic garden would be complete without Pan, frolicking in the bushes? (Trying to track down a nymph no doubt.)


Elsewhere in the gardens, the Lewis Carroll influence was obvious!


The heat from the gravel and stones in this particular garden was mesmerizing, and the desire to sit down on that bench and lose a few hours was intense. The place had a sense of comfortable timelessness to it, like it would remain early afternoon for as long as you cared to linger there.


By contrast, the "productive" garden area - full of edible plants, and decorated with signs discussing composting and suggesting recipes - brought feelings of growth and renewal. Everything in it looked like it was just about to be pulled up and chopped into a salad bowl, or stirred into a stewpot. Mmmmm!



It looked delicious and I caught a few fellow tourists reaching into the exhibits and plucking out onions, or tomatoes, or peas, and sneaking them furtively into their pockets or mouths.


Even the things that weren't technically edible looked delicious.


Doesn't that flower just look good enough to chomp? (As an aside, I'm very pleased with the framing of this photo. It's on par with the framing that Kerry manages to get almost all the time. I don't know how she does it...)


Azolla: Free-floating water ferns! They contain a nitrogen fixing bacteria (Abaeberia azollae), and can be used as a mulch on the garden, or as chicken feed. Azolla grows rapidly and is a pest to lakes, ponds, and waterways, so it needs to be contained - like in this bathtub - for garden use.


The "productive" area was even more saturated with insects than the other gardens.


Among the "productive" gardens was one of more local origin called the Te Parapara Garden. Here's me pretending to be one of the wall carvings.



Dig this: Te Parapara was originally the name of the pre-European Maori settlement in what is now the centre of Hamilton Gardens!

The section is part tribute, part reference, and has two sub-sections, one presenting the uncultivated food the Maori gathered from the forest and grassland, the other presenting the system they developed for organized farming of these and other tropical crops in a sub-tropical climate. When Europeans showed up in the 1840's, this system was well-established in plantations all over the islands.


Speaking of tropical, another highlight for us was the tropical-themed garden. 200 different species of plants, according to the documentation, hardy enough to be grown outdoors but still giving the appearance of the tropics.



The colors were intense, and many of the plants had a thickness and stiffness to them that made the garden feel as much like a sculpture or a carving than something grown from the soil.


I wonder what it would take to grow these in my back yard? I have a bunch of succulents there already - perhaps it's time to add to the collection when I get back home?


Even the doorways were interesting here...


...And each of them led to something new and unique, like this Italian Renaissance-themed garden with many pockets and sections to explore.


Having so many distinct styles so close together, but confined to their own sections, appealed to my OCD nature. It was like browsing a collection of trading cards or figurines neatly organized on a shelf. Sharpened borders, matching sizes, and no intermediate space becomes just as important a part of the structure as the content itself.

I assume this is why most of my plants back home are in pots. They're all together in the garden, but they're also distinct and - in a very real way - protected from one another. Plants will happily fight to the death for root and sun space, and I don't want to lose any "weaker" species to "stronger" ones. I gotta catch 'em all!

Perhaps this is why I was so impressed by the Victorian Flower Garden:


All the plants seemed to be co-existing, even though they were placed together in what looks like a big tangle. I assume this is a combination of careful selection and careful grooming.


The effect was lovely, and the open setting - colorful and layered without being overwhelming - made this garden my favorite, slightly outranking the Tudor garden with the weird topiary.



We both wanted to stay longer, but we had a bus to catch. There were three or four sections that we just didn't have time to see. It would also have been nice to set down a little picnic blanket and have lunch somewhere. Nope! Got to get going.

There is so much of New Zealand to see - including dozens of things Kerry and I already know about and deliberately decided to skip - that it's unlikely I'll ever return to the Hamilton Gardens to finish my tour. Plus, the sections are always in flux - their contents are literally growing. A return visit would not be a return to the same sights as before. So if you think you can skip it just because you've seen my pictures, well, it just ain't so!

Kerry and I returned to the Albert Court Motor Lodge and fetched the rest of our luggage from the garage near the office, which the clerk had graciously let us use for our visit to the gardens. A while after that we were riding the bus out of town, towards Tirau. This would provide us a flatter approach to Hobbiton than the route we'd originally planned.

Tirau turned out to be a collection of shops strung out along Highway 1 where it briefly merges with Highway 27 and Highway 5, with a few motels scattered in like eddies in a river. Like speedboats in that same river, big trucks would come roaring up and down the highway through town at all times of day or night, with little regard for pedestrians or the wake of noise they left. We went out for dinner and watched them zooming by as we ate.


Out of curiosity, Kerry bought a popular local drink, called "L&P". Kiwis think this drink is awesome, but to us it tastes obnoxious. We've decided the "L&P" stands for "Lemon and Puke".

Our motel room reeked so much of cigarettes that we had to keep the windows open and even move the bed closer to the windows, but at the same time the noise from the trucks was punishing. Sleep wasn't easy.

But who cares! Today was amazing, and tomorrow we're going to Hobbiton!

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Monday, May 11th, 2015
5:07 pm - NZ Day 7: The Cat Bus (Or at least, the Bus To The Cat)
Even without the reconfiguring, our schedule always included one very long bus ride from Waipu down to Hamilton, so we could get off the northern peninsula of the island and reach the interior, close to the Hobbiton movie set. Kerry and I had to see Hobbiton, of course. If we went all the way to New Zealand and then skipped it, we would be beating ourselves with sticks at the end of the trip -- and when we got home our friends would probably beat us with sticks too. And it would serve us right! Hah!


We got up with plenty of time to spare before the bus, and packed the bikes up lazily. We both knew we'd just be going half a mile and then re-packing them underneath a bus. In seven days we've had to switch our gear between planes, a kayak, bicycles, hiking trails, a boat, a shuttle, and a bus, with four hotels and a post office in between. Sometimes it feels like it's the gear that's on vacation, and we're just chaperoning it along. "Here, let me fluff that pillow for you, camera. Is that seat comfortable enough, repair kit? Be sure and give me a good Yelp review after your trip."

(As an aside, it's day 7, and we've already been personally reminded by employees at two establishments to go online and review them on Yelp. That service has quite a foothold here, I guess.)


The bus churned and rumbled way, waaay up into the hills along Highway 1. We never even considered cycling on this part of the highway, and I was very glad for that. We could have been squished by this very bus! I dashed back and forth between the windows on either side, giddily snapping photos, but afterwards I looked at them and almost none were usable. I was countering the motion blur by shooting at 1/8000-second, relying on the amazing sensor in the camera to keep the photos from being grainy, but every time I saw a pretty scene at the roadside it flew out of range before I could compose the shot. I am spoiled by bike touring in multiple ways.



I caught a few interesting things, but after an hour or so I just put the camera away and chatted with Kerry, and then listened to The Amazing Maurice And His Educated Rodents while she took a nap. I've discovered a third thing that causes her to instantly fall asleep next to me: Riding a bus. The first two are watching tv, and reading fiction out loud to her. (Non-fiction doesn't seem to work.)

After many hours, we arrived in Hamilton, and set out to accomplish the day's mission: We were going to visit Diesel, the Rototuna Countdown Cat. Yes, that's right, we've traveled thousands of miles around the curve of the Earth in order to roll up and visit a cat that lives in front of a supermarket. We're perverse individuals that way.

We had to ride pretty far north from the bus stop - also the opposite direction from our booked hotel - to get to the right Countdown supermarket, and when we got there, one of the clerks told us that the owners of Diesel had in fact moved away at the end of last year and taken the cat with them. This was pretty disappointing, but the side-trip turned out to be worthwhile, because the very same shopping center had a pet store in it with another kittycat wandering around outside!


"Welcome to the shop! My name is Ginger Boy! I'll show you around."


"These are some of my favorite things! Actually, everything in here is mine, and it's all my favorite! Let me show you more!"


"Welcome to my apartment! My best favorite thing, is the food thing. Now you pet me while I eat, and that's two favorite things at the same time!"

(Nom nom nom nom nom nom nom nom.)


"Then afterwards, we sit and watch the Zebra Finches! If you want one, they're only five bucks each." (Ginger Boy was right, they're fascinating. I took a short movie of them darting around.)

After that visit, Kerry and I ate some mediocre fush'n'chups and cycled back across town to the Albert Court Motor Lodge. Hobbiton was only two days away, but before that we were going to explore the Hamilton Gardens! Fancy stuff! But before that: Lots of sleep.

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Monday, May 4th, 2015
10:40 pm - NZ Day 6: Waipu Wandering
We got a decent amount of sleep, and it was all downhill into central Whangarei to catch the shuttle directly to Waipu. This would mark our first diverging from the schedule we'd meticulously prepared over the previous two months. We would be skipping the Waipu caves and their dark ceilings, sparkling with glow-worms, but we would also be skipping another several thousand feet of hills, as steep as the ones that punished us on that first day of riding. Now we knew our limitations, and we knew this was a necessary change.

The bicycles fit sideways into the luggage compartment under the bus without any acrobatics, and we piled our bags around them, except for our backpacks which we were too paranoid to relinquish. My rough estimate is that we were carrying about $11000 worth of gear in those backpacks, mostly in the form of camera lenses. That's pretty absurd, especially since we could have left half that gear at home and barely changed our enjoyment of the trip.

The green countryside scrolled by, and we found ourselves in Waipu before my stomach had a chance to notice it was on a bus and get upset - a childish behavior that it picked up years ago when I was riding commuter shuttles to work. We stepped off into an early autumn day with a fresh breeze and just a hint of ocean salt, and a few minutes later we had our gear reassembled and were riding back down the main street of Waipu, looking for our hotel, and for a place to get snacks.


The motel room was cheap, but dingy and cramped. The single-pane window opened directly onto a parking space. All the usual hardware was stacked in a corner - television on top of VCR on top of mini-fridge, unplugged and dusty. We stripped the bikes down, hauled the bags inside, then hauled the bikes in after. The room was now incredibly cramped, but we didn't care - it was time to go out and get snacks!

The restaurant across from the hotel was excellent. Actually, it was as good as the hotel was bad! We ate burgers and salad, and drank cider at a spacious table. Encouraged by the weather, we decided to go out riding and see what else we could find. What we found was a pastoral paradise.


We rode out through a meandering patchwork of lush green fields, split by slow rivers along soft banks, and crisscrossed by dirt roads with deep ruts and high shoulders of tangled grass. Dark horses, cream-colored sheep, and speckled cows meandered around, nibbling on the grass or lounging in the sun, between fences of rusty wire and wooden posts. Across all this blew a steady coastal breeze, fresh but not cold, weaving into the trees and carrying the scent of the sea, and higher up, carrying along an army of fleecy white clouds, sailing like galleons in the sky. It was like riding around inside everyone's collective hallucination of the perfect day in the countryside. A living daydream, filling up every kind of sense.

It was a feeling like the one I felt in western Kansas, on a particular day when I was bicycling there three years ago. Not exactly the same; the Kansas air had been warmer, and pungent with the smell of old grass and wet soil. A Halloween smell. Waipu was bringing me a younger, lighter smell - something like Easter. Looking around, I would not have felt surprised to see little pastel eggs tucked into the hollows of trees, and peeking out from rabbit holes.

Savoring this vivid impression, I stopped by the side of the road and dug a chocolate bar out of my saddlebag. A hundred feet away, Kerry pedaled up to a horse behind a low fence, but it saw her coming and backed nervously away, intimidated by the combined size of bicycle and rider. Kerry chastised the horse for being a scaredy-cat, and giggled. "Silly horse," I said, talking casually over our headsets. "Doesn't it know that bicyclists always have snacks?"

Once again, all the effort of hauling these awkward bicycle contraptions around felt absolutely worth it. We were traveling within, not just traveling through.


We pedaled around the area north of town, then came back and made a left turn, headed towards the sea. The road curved around and undulated over a few gentle hills. Nothing intimidating like what we saw the day before, thank goodness. We stopped in a random spot, peed behind some the bushes, then flopped down in the grass and chomped through a bag full of bubble gum. This is how a day of cycling is supposed to go! Not a death march, but a long string of roadside picnics.


"I'm still getting used to the idea of spending an entire day riding a bike," Kerry said. "I mean, not pedaling the whole time obviously, but... It's strange being 'in transit' for so long, you know? I'm used to riding a bike to get somewhere. So I get this feeling of impatience, like, we should just never stop, and pedal hard, so we can hurry up and get to the next town, the next thing. But I know that's not the right way to think about it, so I'm pushing back against that idea in my head. That's taking effort, but I think I can get there. We'll see. Still, it's good that we're doing other stuff too and not just bicycling day after day like some of the trips you've taken."

"Yeah," I said. "I don't expect you to like bicycling as much as I do. You'd have to be as crazy as I am; and that's pretty crazy. But I'm really happy you're here with me."

"Awww," she said, and gave me a hug.


We rode on, and about a half mile later we rolled around a corner and found the water - a long shallow inlet with pasture on either side, sweeping out to connect with the deeper ocean, kinked by a few bars of white sand, and with a thin crest of surf sketching out the interface between the incoming waves and the receding tide. Just up from the shore on our side of the inlet was an old graveyard, the headstones bleached and weather-beaten in some cases and sharp and shiny in others, all behind a fence with a single strand of electrified wire strung along it in plastic brackets, to keep the cows from crapping on the dead. We parked our bikes and went strolling around.


You can tell we’re only out for the day because the bicycle in the picture is lacking about 40 pounds of extra gear!


Seeing this coastal graveyard and this blue ocean and these huge clouds brought a lot of other associations to mind. Some musical, some literary. Sting's "The Soul Cages" echoed through my ears. Fragments of poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson. Images etched into my imagination when I read "The Sea Wolf" in the 7th grade. I felt detached from my own era, but it wasn't a disorienting feeling; it was a comfortable one. This graveyard by the sea was telling me something.

"Here is an environment, a source of sensations, that you cannot make your individual stamp upon, no matter what you try. Even solid stone, etched with descriptions of who you were and what you did, and placed here, will simply wear away into an anonymous blob in a thousand years, and it will be millions more years before this place even begins to look slightly different, from exactly how it looked a million years before you passed through. Maybe the shoreline will have a different shape but it will still be the same shore. All the poems written, all the ships built and launched, all the perfect picnic days and garbage left behind in human history compresses down to a thought ... an afterthought, even ... and I could be anyone standing here. Or no one."

"But is that really true? Humans do have a collective impact, after all. In seven thousand years we managed to create the Sahara Desert from grassland, with help from domesticated animals. Some people say that 15000 years ago the Great Plains was forested and only became grass because humans kept setting fires. Others say the forest retreated naturally as the glaciers melted away. And, we're certainly good at mass extinction..."

Abruptly I realized I'd been staring at the same distant sandbar for an entire minute. I walked back to my bike and stowed the camera. Time to ride out for snacks!


Kerry chatted with a few people sitting around in lawn chairs, dangling fishing poles down into the water. They told her that if we wanted to swim at a proper beach, we should cycle only "a kilometer or so" down the road and we'd find one, along with a general store. That sounded good.

Of course, "a kilometer or so" turned out to be four or five miles. We were both rapidly coming to the conclusion that New Zealanders could not be trusted to give accurate estimates of distance. It's probably not Kiwis in particular, it's probably just people who drive cars and don't bicycle. Back home, most people have at least tried bicycling. In New Zealand, people ride mountain bikes on tracks, but touring seems to be strictly for tourists. The idea of using a bicycle to get from one town to another seems absurd to just about everyone we've talked to here...


Eventually we did find a nice beach, and a nice general store. Many snacks were snacked upon.


I've never seen such a perfect demonstration of a beach forming from millions of discarded shells!



We collected a bunch of them and took a few photos, then left them around for kids to find. No sense hauling them back to the hotel.


As the afternoon moved on to evening, the shadows got deeper and more lush. Even though we were riding back the way we came, along the same road, everything looked different.


Whenever the temptation came upon us to stop and eat a snack, or take a photograph, we just went with it. The landscape seemed to be taunting us to find the right collection of buttons and switches that would capture the perfect photograph. Vacation with gadgets! Fun stuff.


Even the clouds got in on the act!



When we got back to town, I felt hungry and Kerry felt tired, so she took a nap and I walked over to the same restaurant, and went though the day's photographs.


Kerry's nap didn't last long, though: A bunch of Waipu locals gathered in the pub to watch the latest cricket game. Their shouts and laughter went straight through the thin walls of the hotel. Minus one star!


In the original schedule, Waipu was just a handy town to spend the night after exploring the Waipu Caves, but it turned out to be a fun place to explore in its own right, and very restorative. Kerry and I went to bed feeling a lot more refreshed than we'd been the previous night in Whangarei.

Good thing too, since the next day we'd be stuck in shuttles for six hours!

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Friday, May 1st, 2015
2:51 am - NZ Day 5: Snorkeling the Poor Knights
To get to the harbor we had to do an early morning ride, which was a lot more hassle than we expected due to the big hill between Matapouri to Tutukaka. A lot of tight curves, with no curb and almost no shoulder, and the two of us huffing and puffing at 3mph to climb our way up. On the positive side, the drivers were clearly doing their best to help. They would consistently slow down and give us most of the lane, swerving to the outside. It was nice to know they were allies.

Nevertheless, even the most polite driving can't eliminate that terrible feeling a cyclist gets when a two-ton metal monster is rushing up behind their back!


But we made it safely, stowed our bikes at the storefront, and walked onto the boat, ready for adventure! Here's a video of the journey out:


Whoo! Jumping into the water!

The Poor Knights Islands are pretty amazing, even if you're only experiencing them from slightly off the coast, which is uniformly steep and rocky. This is just as well, since the island group is a protected habitat, and the Department Of Conservation will fine you hundreds of thousands of dollars for merely setting foot on it - and far more if they catch you removing any of its unique species for sale on the black market.

Our boat dropped anchor about 100 feet from the nearest rock wall, and we got a polite but firm lecture on what we were allowed to do: Scuba, snorkel, swim, and paddle, but don't touch anything, and definitely don't pick anything up. We could dig it! The only thing we planned to take was awesome video!


I hadn't been snorkeling in many years, but it came back to me easily. Ever since splashing around in the pool as a child, I've always been more comfortable slightly under the water - pretending I was a submarine - than on top of it. And for ten bucks each, Kerry and I got wetsuits, making the water feel nice and comfy.

Handy tip: Cold wetsuit? Empty that bladder! Aaaaahhhh. It only feels unsanitary if you forget that most of our sewage ends up in the ocean anyway...


There were a few sea-caves within swimming distance. Dark, angular, foreboding holes in the rock, sucking in rivers of seawater and then spitting them out. I ventured inside one for a few minutes, swimming with the current and then bracing myself against a rock when the current reversed, so I could keep my progress. It was like being inside a slow-moving mosh pit: Every second you think you're going to get slammed against something, but the current surges with you, up against the obstacle, turning the impact into something less dangerous.

I didn't stay for long, since it was too dark to see much, but before I left I pointed my mask down and saw a group of scuba divers, creeping along the bottom of the cave with a flashlight. The water was much calmer down there - no current to jostle them around. Maybe I'll learn to scuba some day, and do the same thing? I hear the Monterey Bay back home has some great stuff...


The sea critters were delightful. I wanted to follow every fish I saw and tickle it! But even more interesting was the vegetation. Since we were right up next to an island, the water would slosh back and forth in long, languid motions like the sway of a gigantic pendulum, causing me and everything else around me to move gently within it. It created a kind of optical illusion, where all the rocks of the sea floor and the wall were moving, but all the long tendrils of seaweed that drifted out from them were standing still, with the fish and myself suspended nearby. The entire world was weaving dangerously around, but this little bubble of space was perfectly calm.

The temptation to swim over the top of a big crusty rock and just hang there, undulating in perfect sync with a curious little cloud of fishes, was very strong. We only had a few hours to explore a wide area, but I couldn't resist just hanging out for a while, at least a few times. Chillin' with my fish, yo. What an amazing experience.


Back on the boat, with our wetsuits off and our regular clothes back on, our next amazing experience was a sea cave, called Rikoriko. The guide claimed it was the largest sea cave in the world, but I honestly have no idea how accurate that is. It was a spectacular sight in any case - weird stuff growing from the ceiling, flickering lights reflecting from the water and dancing across the walls, long reverberation trailing every sound...

Here's a video of the tourguide putting more accurate numbers to the size of the cave.


And here's what I saw when I took a glance at the ship's console:


When we entered the big cave, the GPS signal went dead. Awesome! WE'RE LOST!


After the cave, we spent some time motoring around and between the islands, while the guide gave a history lesson, including a few different versions of the story behind the name "Poor Knights". My favorite version is that when Captain Cook first saw the islands in 1769, the native bushes were all in bloom, creating a reddish fringe all along the top that reminded him of a traditional seafaring meal called a Poor Knight's Pie. He had been sailing for quite a while at that point, so he'd probably eaten one recently, because the main ingredient of a Poor Knight's Pie was old moldy bread. The ship's cook would fry it up and spread jam on it, creating a greenish-brown slab with a reddish fringe. It must have looked just like a little island on the captain's plate.

Ah, the life of the sea! There wasn't any Poor Knight's Pie on our boat, but they did provide hot drinks, instant soup, and several big pyramids of pre-made sandwiches. I was feeling very hungry, and even though the sandwiches had wheat in them, I figured, "hey, it's been a long time since I felt a reaction to wheat, maybe my body is past it now?" So I grabbed three or four of them at least - probably more - and devoured them.

Here's a hyper-speed tour through an arch during our last few minutes at the Poor Knights islands:


After that we motored back to the harbor. Kerry and I were not looking forward to another round of cycling, and we were also feeling the subtle onset of "land sickness", which is a kind of reverse sea-sickness that creeps up on you and makes you dizzy when you get off a boat. It made me think of all those old cartoons I've seen where sailors weave around on dry land as though they're perpetually drunk. I wonder how much of that stereotype - of sailors as drunks - was established just from watching them try to deal with this unanticipated problem, or the more serious long-term version of it, a debilitating psychosomatic disorder known as "Mal de debarquement"?

Even though we weren't feeling our best, we managed to get ahold of a shuttle driver who was between jobs, and convinced him to carry us and our huge awkward bicycles down the highway for half an hour to Whangarei. We had to stack the bicycles on top of the empty rows of seats, so it was a lucky coincidence that none of the seats were booked except for one, and that passenger graciously agreed to ride up front with the driver. It rained a little during the drive, making Kerry and I feel extra grateful we weren't out there pedaling. We made sure to leave a generous tip.


We checked in and scattered our gear around the little detached cottage, and flopped down on the bed. It would have been nice to sleep the rest of the evening away, but we needed dinner. At least we had plenty of food choices nearby. I located a thai restaurant only a few miles from the hotel and we crept reluctantly back onto our bikes.

Just outside the hotel we stopped to admire the Whangarei Falls, and I got a nice shot of a parasitized tree. It was my first up-close look at one, and I found it fascinating - more so than the waterfall, which was crawling with tourists.

Half a mile later, the road went sharply downhill. Every foot of descent was another foot we would have to climb back up on the return journey, and as the bicycles plummeted, my stomach did too. I was exhausted. I knew Kerry was even more exhausted, and already stressed out from riding too much over the last three days. She was not enjoying the trip right now, and it was all my fault for underestimating the New Zealand hills, and she was going to be angry with me for accidentally leading us down yet another one. I just knew it. At the bottom of the hill I slowed to a crawl, and still it seemed like a very long time before Kerry caught up. We rode the rest of the way to the restaurant in bleary silence. I felt panicky, and depressed, and altogether much more upset than I could remember feeling in a long time.

There was a bus stop nearby, and I stared at the schedule with the faint hope that we could ride a bus back up the hill, but it was too late at night. We locked our bicycles and shambled into the restaurant. I ordered the food. Kerry excused herself to the bathroom, saying she needed some time alone, and was gone for so long I began to get worried. I stacked our luggage up underneath the table and went looking for her. Each bathroom was enclosed behind a lockable door, so I knocked on the one that was locked, and she let me in. We both sat on the floor for a while, arms around each other, nauseated and tired.

We talked, and I told her what seemed to be going on with me: I was having a wheat reaction. The first one I'd had in a year at least, and it was no coincidence that I was having it on the day I'd decided to believe I was "cured" of that problem, and eaten a huge amount of bread. I was obviously not "cured". All the usual signs were there, chief among them the intense, sudden feelings of depression, plus the elevated heart rate, the double-rings under the eyes, and the total inability to calm down or think clearly. A kind of free-floating panic attack that doesn't stop. When it's especially intense, all you can do is lay on the ground and let time pass. Your rational mind knows that it's possible to stand up, but the panic is like a hot coal, burning the line between your head and your legs.

Kerry was dealing with her own panic attack, brought on by land sickness, hunger, and fatigue. She was upset about the hill, but not upset with me. It had been her choice to let me set the pace, and her choice to continue on it, and she told me so. We were both in bad shape but we were also both more interested in reconciliation than in conflict, and that was a big help. Eventually we got to our feet together, and when we walked out of the bathroom we found our food waiting at the table, and we sat down and devoured it. It was delicious. We stuffed ourselves and slowly began to feel a bit better.

I hauled out my phone and poked at Google Earth and other mapping tools for a while, and found an alternate route back up to the hotel that made the ascent much more slowly than the huge, steep hill we'd gone barreling down. We packed up plenty of leftovers and set out feeling much calmer. The night air and the lack of traffic helped as well.

It took about an hour to get home, but we chatted on our headsets the whole way. I told Kerry an improvised story about a weasel and a beaver who learned about each other through a newsletter, and had to fight off a bunch of romantic rivals to track each other down. When we reached the hotel we were both in much better spirits.

While unloading the bikes, we saw a huge orange cat and had to take a few pictures, even though we were tired!



I think we named him Maurice!


Here's a shot of our bikes - the most interesting transportation on the lot, I'm sure - before we hauled them inside the cottage for the night.

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2:05 am - Those evil tech shuttles!
A conversation late last night:

"Wow. There are a lot of protests scheduled for May 1st this year. Among other things, the 'anti gentrification' protestors are going to shut down the tech shuttle service at MacArthur Bart. That'll show 'em! Hah!"

"Yeah... Why can't people keep the perspective that the working class isn't the one you should pick on - or even the people who take the shuttle instead of driving a car or a taxi?"

"Well, in this conflict, Us Versus Them is apparently all about how valuable your skill set currently is. Which is surprising, because that means it's not about your parents, your politics, your religion, or your friends. It about your career. If it was fashion designers making 150k a year and riding shuttles, people would probably start hating fashion designers. But - what is gentrification about, really? If Oaklanders compel all the tech people to move out, closer to work, most of them will just move to East San Jose. That's a half-hour's drive away. A whole half-hour! What have they accomplished?"

"Not in myyyyyy back yard! A slogan for the upper and lower middle class. People are clawing at the ones just escaping poverty, probably because they listen, and the rich don't."

"Well, I can sympathize with prices going up so much they drive people out of where they grew up. It's what happened to me in Scotts Valley - I'll never be able to afford to move back there, into the redwoods. It's all million-dollar homes now. But ... I'm not going to claim it would be better for me if everyone in Scotts Valley went bankrupt and had to leave town."

"Hah! Why not?"

"When your community's displaced, it's gone. Displacing the one that came after it isn't going to bring it back."

"... I think we should start a website that shows neighborhoods going downhill and into decay so people can celebrate anti-gentrification."

"Hah! Oh man, what would that even look like? I'm imagining a picture of Detroit, with a big sparkly banner across it saying 'WE AVOIDED GENTRIFICATION! WE'RE ALL FESTERING AND DYING TOGETHER - IN ETHNIC SOLIDARITY!'"

"That is so REAL! I'm going to go hang out in that town!"

"If only Oakland weren’t constantly being renewed with waves of money and immigration, it could look like PROUD DETROIT! Nobody ruined THEIR culture with stupid tech money!"

"Charming."

"I know all my neighbor's names, 'cause we grew up and went broke together! And we’re all still here - well except for the ones in jail or dead - the QUITTERS."

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Tuesday, April 21st, 2015
10:04 pm - NZ Day 4: Maxin' and Relaxin' In Matapouri
I'm not actually sure what "maxin" means in this context. But I'm a 30-something so the phrase is wedged into my brain.


The first thing Kerry and I did - after a long sleep of course - was to walk slowly to the general store. Kerry flossed at the same time, because we are true heroes of efficiency.


Along with the usual candy and soda, we found enough ingredients here to make a decent Indian dish for lunch and dinner.


So far all the roads we've been on have been scrupulously well maintained. We told a couple of locals how impressed we were, and each of them laughed and said "Naaah". Maybe there was a recent push to improve the roads?

On the other hand, sidewalks and curbs are rare here, and the lanes are narrower, and most of the bridges are one-way.


Kerry's leg was feeling cramped and sore, so we walked very slowly to the beach. There were only a few people around, and the weather was fantastic! Here's a video of some of our antics, using the helmet-camera planted in the sand:


Whoooo bodysurfing! I almost lost my hat a few times.

Kerry went back to the beach house to rest some more, so I decided to walk to the Mermaid Pool formation in the meantime.




I think this little kerchief is supposed to mark the beginning of the trail ... But it might just be a lost swimsuit!


The trail, by the way, is steep. In some places you have to haul on ropes to stay upright.



At the top of the climb, you enter a lovely chunk of tropical forest. The cicadas get so loud they drown out the ocean, and the trail twists and curves so much that you can't see it beyond the next 15 feet.


I wouldn't want to carry a surfboard or a cooler through here! Of course, first I'd have to drag it up the hillside...



I can't remember the last time I've wandered in a forest like this one. Perhaps this is the first time. I was fascinated by the texture and color of the trunks, and kept brushing my hands across them as I walked.


Eventually I emerged and saw the ocean again.


In the distance I could spot the "Poor Knights Islands". That's where we're going tomorrow! Sweeet! Then I looked down, and saw the pools...


Quite lovely! And due to the lateness of the day and the season, I had them all to myself.



The pools are filled up slowly by the high tide, then drained slowly by the low tide. The water is a bit warmer than the ocean, deep enough to swim in, and a lot less turbulent than the surf. And of course the colors are amazing, even on a less-than-perfect day like today...


Here's a handy example of why modeling the physics of water is difficult!


The waves would constantly send water thundering up the rocks and just over the edge, causing a little bit to flow into the pool on the other side.


I lingered for quite a while, enjoying the wind and the light, and the all-encompassing boom of the surf. Eventually the sun dropped below the horizon and I reluctantly started back. Here's a little video I took while creeping through the forest:


Tromp tromp tromp!



Eventually I wandered back to home base, and had a lovely dinner with Kerry. This little critter spied on us for a while, until I tossed it out the door:


First time I've ever had a praying mantis wander into the house!

All in all, our stay in Matapouri was very restful, which was just what we needed after the previous day's ordeal. We weren't looking forward to the early-morning bike ride that would take us to the snorkeling activity, but we couldn't find any good alternatives to it. In retrospect we could have hired an independent shuttle operator to pick us up, and probably our bikes too, if only we'd known the contact number for one in advance. Oh well... Knowledge gained for the next trip!

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8:43 pm - I'm just going to leave these here...
Conan the Destroyer is totally memeworthy.











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Monday, April 13th, 2015
3:28 pm - Common culture
I remember growing up with the impression that everyone around me had news from the same source, and so I assumed that everyone was on the same page about it, but in retrospect, I think both those assumptions turned out to be wrong.

I think what was really going on was, I had only a few ways to connect, and a small community, and that defined the pool of people I could draw from when making a connection, which in turn created the false impression that everyone around me connected in the same way.

Here's an intersting example: I have a Ren & Stimpy shirt from the 90's, and last weekend I wore it out to Fenton's in Oakland. While I was standing in the ice cream line a 6'2" black man in his mid 40's approached me and said, "I used to watch that show with my daughter! My favorite part was when Ren went crazy for his bar of soap!" So of course, being a total ham, I acted out part of the scene, complete with mock screaming. We connected over that one piece of pop culture, over MTV and cartoons and "quality time".

I used to think, "the only reason we could do that is because MTV was, like, everywhere. Everybody had a chance to see Ren & Stimpy, and some of us liked it." But it just wasn't true. A huge swath of "my generation" was raised in households where MTV was banned, and plenty more were raised without cable television. And if it wasn't true then, it sure isn't now: MTV has passed into history. It's been off the cultural radar for years, for almost everyone. So why did that guy and I really connect? Because the sheer unlikelihood of it made it interesting.

And how is that different from culture today? It isn't!

The only thing that's changed for me, between then and now, is now I'm aware of all the ways I could connect, and the people I could connect with, if I had the interest or the bandwidth to pursue them. In fact I'm more than aware of them, I'm inundated with them. I have to constantly fight off new channels of information, new events, even new ideas. My phone pokes me, my inbox pokes me, Yahoo and Google poke me. It's especially vexing for my personality: If I'm not careful I get distracted by shiny new things, because I'm used to an environment where I need to dig to find them and collect and curate them. Now I need to dig my way OUT.

My point is, "common culture" was an illusion back in the day, and it's just as much of an illusion today. We still bond over what we like, and we still struggle to find those things and those people.

I remember being in high school and thinking, with a combination of rage and pride, that everything on television was insipid crap, encouraging bland sameness and groupthink. My go-to image of the counterculture I embraced was a doc marten kicking in a television screen. Am I supposed to be upset that we "won" that battle against sameness, through indirect means? The modern era may have promised ease-of-connection but it only delivers it in appearance, not substance. That's okay. So we haven't transcended our finicky human nature via technology - it doesn't mean we have to go back to eating paste and listening to Walter Cronkite just to find people to relate to. It just means that it still takes effort.

What did we all have in common back then, really? I mean, ALL of us? The list is pretty short, and even the big items are questionable: We all considered ourselves Americans. (But some of us embraced the government and some of us reviled it.) We all watched Saturday morning cartoons (except for those of us that couldn't.) We all either hated or loved Britney Spears (except for those of us that didn't care either way or didn't notice.) We all read a short list of "classic" novels in school (except for first-generation immigrants, or dropouts, or kids who just had to work.) We all ate fast-food (again, exceptions)...

Seems like any net that would encompass us all is full of holes. No change there. What happened is this: We grew up and noticed all the stuff beyond our own borders. The internet sure makes that a lot easier - gives people the chance to push those borders at an earlier age - but they're still people. They plant stakes and find an identity over time. It was a complete fluke that a lot of modern culture got cut from geek cloth; I think it happened mostly because a lot of geeks got rich and that turned them into tastemakers for a while, and back in the day if you were on the internet, you were also guaranteed to know how to operate a computer. Too many other people crowding in? Boring people? Forkboys and prudes making noise? How did we deal with this in the past? Oh yeah. We ignored them and deliberately narrowed our interactions.

How is this different from what we do today? Is isn't!

"Relevance" is all about what concerns you, not what concerns others. Embrace the fact that there is more information created every half-second than you could sift through in your entire lifetime, some of it pretty great. You're not "old" if you can't consume it all. You've just been around long enough to acquire tastes. :D

Oops, this went way overboard! I apologize. I should be writing code...

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Sunday, April 12th, 2015
9:28 pm - NZ Day 3: We Fight The Hills And The Hills Win
The slow grind of plate tectonics separated New Zealand from Gondwanaland about 85 million years ago. A dramatization of the event would go like this:

Gondwanaland: "Dang, I feel like I have way too many hills. There's got to be something I can do."

Hill: "Hey, I've got an idea! How about if you bundle a huge pile of us together, and shove us out to sea, and we can make our own island?"

Gondwanaland: "Are you sure? Wouldn't that be kind of suspicious, having an island made completely of hills?"

Hill: "Tell you what - throw in one flat piece. And a few lakes. If anybody asks, you say it was an accident."

Gondwanaland: "I'll do it!"

And so, the South Island was created.

Gondwanaland: "That went really well, but I've still got a bunch of smaller hills to deal with."

Smaller Hill: "Hey no problem - just do it again! And since we're smaller, you can pack even more of us closer together! We'll enjoy it. We'll have a hill party!"

Gondwanaland: "Hahaha! You little guys are crazy. But if that's what you want, I'm totally doing it."

Smaller Hill: "Closer! Cram us even closer together! Yeah!"

Gondwanaland: "You got it! Have fun out there..."

Smaller Hills: "Wheeeee!"

And so, the North Island was created.

Okay, so there's a difference between historically accurate and dramatically accurate. But it's still accurate. Kerry and I got direct verification of this New Zealand hill thing on day 3, when we attempted our first day of fully-loaded bike touring.

On paper it looked like a long, but manageable day, if we took our time and paced ourselves.



34 miles, which is just a little bit over my standard budget of 30 miles a day for touring. I figured it would be okay, since we had all day to ride, and the day after we would just be hanging out at the beach.

I WAS WRONG. I was so, so wrong!

WRRRROOOOOOOONNNNGGGGG.



We started out in high spirits. We put the finishing touches on our bikes, including Kerry's good-luck-charm leaf from Limestone Island.



Then we spent a while taping up the bicycle shipping boxes for delivery to New Plymouth. We left them in the hotel lobby, and the shipping company picked them up for us the day after we left. One of the perks of cycling in a "first world" region!



Ready to go! Head-mounted camera activated!! DORK ALERT veep veeep vreeeep

FrmApr-IMG_9080


It looked dorky, and the footage it recorded was very shaky, but after running it through Adobe Premiere's stabilization routines (which took a very long time) I got a nice video of the first few minutes of our ride in fast-forward, as we crossed Whangarei to Mainfreight Transport (shipping out a few more items) and then made our way north out of town, towards the dreaded Highway 1:



The first thing you'll notice about this video (aside from riding on the left) is that the road appears to be nice and flat most of the time. That's New Zealand lulling us into a false sense of security. Oh, you evil, deceptive country...

Our first snack stop of the trip!



We were late getting on the road, so it was lunch time when we reached the edge of Whangarei. We'd already experienced the hassle of roundabouts, and had to push the bikes up one really steep hill that was being used as a traffic detour, making is especially noisy and hazardous. But we were still in good spirits.

We chatted on our helmet intercoms the entire time, exchanging directions and making jokes, or just making fart sounds. Those intercoms completely altered the experience of riding together - suddenly it was extremely easy for us to hear each other, all the time, no matter what the traffic noise or the wind was like, or how much we drifted around on the road. We could just chat like we were sitting together at a restaurant.

It got to the point where, when we got off the bicycles and shut down the intercoms, we would have to say "what?" all the time, because we were so used to being heard loud and clear just by muttering. When the batteries died - which would only happen after 7 or 8 solid hours of riding, or when we forgot to charge them the previous night - we felt the lack of communication acutely. We were riding together, but we weren't really together.

Long story short, those things kick ass.



Anyway, we had snacks! I'm not sure what "Mother & Lift" is, but it's for sale here. We bought the first of many fistfuls of candy, and ate some "fush and chups" spread out on greasy paper, on a tiny table by the roadside. Salty and delicious! A few birds landed nearby, including one who kept scaring the others by doing that same "RAAaaaaaaahhhh!" thing we saw yesterday. We tossed food scraps to the other birds, just to piss that one off. Hah!

Then we rode ... And hit Highway 1 ... and rode, and rode, and rode. The hills got really big, and the traffic got really dense. Often the trucks couldn't move aside because some other driver was sitting in the adjacent lane, so they roared by us at close range, as we sweated our way up yet another hill on a shoulder that was so narrow it barely existed at all. We took frequent breaks but it was hard to keep morale up, since it was obvious how much danger we were putting ourselves in.

In the early evening we finally turned away from Highway 1 and drifted into the town of Hikurangi, and planted ourselves in front of a convenience store, considering our options, and eating snacks to try and brew up some more energy. Here's a movie of me "enjoying" chunks of licorice that looked like pavement:



Deliciouthh!

Hikurangi had a motel that looked alright, but if we spent the night there we would lose a day in our schedule, and lose our chance to hang around on the beach in Matapouri Bay. We'd booked a bunch of really cool stuff at the beginning of the trip, in a short span of days - kayaking, the beach, snorkeling, a waterfall, some caves - and it wasn't flexible. That was a mistake.

An even bigger mistake was hauling so much gear around. We both overpacked, and that amplified the pain of climbing hills. If you can keep your momentum it doesn't matter so much that your bike is heavy - but when you glide to a stop at the foot of every hill and then have to haul everything hundreds of feet up, then burn all that energy into your brake pads on the way down, it's just punishing. The question "Why am I doing this to myself?" plays over and over in your head with every turn of the pedals.

Kerry very gamely agreed to push on towards Matapouri and our fancy reserved cottage, even though it was getting late and the route promised additional hills. I told her I was overwhelmed by the difficulty of the route so far, and if I'd known, I would have cut the day into thirds, and avoided Highway 1 at any cost.

"I know," she said. "I can tell you really want me to like bicycle touring as much as you do. You wouldn't have deliberately scheduled a first day like this, because this sucks. It's a terrible first impression."

She was right!



Of course, we pedaled out of Hikurangi and immediately hit this. Another crazy hill, followed by several more.



Miraculously, we both kept our spirits up, even though we cursed the hills and the traffic regularly. I think it helped that we were high on endorphins and could eat all the sugary snacks we could handle.



We took another long break at around 8:00pm. The sun was below the horizon but still coloring the sky with pastel rays, and the air was still warm. From the road we took this picture of some very dense and spooky woods. Back home, trees don't usually grow this close together. We imagined small children wandering into them with baskets of goodies and vanishing forever. WooooOOOoo!



When we took the next break, half an hour later, it was almost fully dark. (The shot above was a long exposure.) We were both quite exhausted and very worried about making it to the cottage without simply weaving our bikes into the ditch along the way - or worse, over a cliff. It didn't help that I had to stop for quite a while and lay down in the road to try and fix my rear fender, which was making a very unpleasant grinding noise.

On the plus side, the cars had tapered almost completely away. Most of the time we had the road to ourselves, and we rode in two glowing pools of light, feeling the wind move softly around us. No engine noise, just our own voices and the occasional bleat of a sheep, the whinny of a horse, or the moo or a cow, and a crash in the bushes as some mammal or bird dove aside. It was like going on a night-hike while camping, but more comfortable. At one point we shut off our headlights and looked up, and saw a night sky crammed so full of stars that it was hard to pick out any of the usual constellations.



Any of course, we found roadkill. This is dead possum. They look a bit different than the possums we're used to back in California. Less rodent-like and scruffy. For the health of New Zealand, a dead possum is actually a good thing. You can read about it here on the Department Of Conservation website.



Finally we reached the seashore, close to 10:00pm. Since Whangarei, we'd been riding hard for almost eight hours. We lounged on a bench, breathing the salt air and resting, while the surf crawled endlessly into the cove below. There was still more ground to cover.

The road turned south, following the coast along several more long, rolling hills. We moved slowly and it took another hour to reach Matapouri and find our little beachside cottage. We barely had enough energy to haul the bikes inside and creep into the bed.

In retrospect, I can say without a doubt that this was the hardest day of the trip, by far. Even the brutal Tonragiro Crossing in -8 degree wind chill was much easier than this, because we weren't each hauling a hundred pounds of gear up multiple mountains - just snacks and water. The next day, on the beach, I thought for a while and made a short list of the toughest days of bicycling I've ever done in my whole career as a bicycle tourist, and this day came in second.

(In case you're wondering, the day that came in first place was this one in Missouri.)

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