FROM CATALINA, ISLAND (CA)
A Birthday at Sea
AVALON, Catalina Island, CA, June 3, 2008 - You know what they say about the "best laid plans of mice and men?" Well, my original plan was celebrated my birthday with a friend at home, in Scottsdale. But when that did not pan out, I had to quickly devise a "Plan B." Or make it "C." For, I decided to spend my birthday at sea.
I got up early this morning to drive to Long Beach (CA) to make my booked 2PM ferry crossing to Catalina Island. I decided to go to that island of the coast of California basically "because it was there" (as Sir Edmund Hillary said when asked why he wanted to climb Mt Everest). And also because I have never been there before. And because there is plenty of sea around an island for me to be able to spend my "birthday at sea" without having to aim very carefully.
Along the way, I kept getting calls and text messages from people who are important in my life, wishing me a happy birthday. Some of them had already sent me their gifts. From others, a thought and the call was the gift. By late morning, I also got an unexpected gift - from the Sate of California, or more precisely the city of Indio. It was a speeding ticket. Yet I really did consider it a gift. Some people get birthday gifts, I get birthday tickets. :-)
I had just filled my tank with gas and was getting on the I-10 heading westbound toward LA. I saw some trucks ahead of me, one of which had pulled into the left lane. So without setting cruise control as yet, I accelerated to pass him on the right. That's when I saw a CA Highway Patrol car which the truck had blocked from view. "Oops," I thought.
"You were doing 101 in a 70 mph zone," the officer informed me politely, even with a smile.
"Oops, oops," I thought. "That's what you get for buying a 495 horse power V12 rocket ship," I chastised myself. I had no idea I was going that fast. As I said, I had just gotten back on the highway. But I had a feeling that 31 mph over the speed limit this could land me in a heap of trouble.
Ironically, I was listening at that very moment to another birthday voice mail from a friend who was wishing "something wonderful to happen" to me today. "Right," I thought and laughed. "This is just wonderful."
"Wonder if he is going to handcuff me and take me to jail?" I thought next while waiting for the officer to process my license and write up a ticket. "Nah... I'll talk my way out of it," with Al-Khadir's help, of course," I reasoned. After all, I also did in Montenegro and Scottsdale in the last two months.
Just as I was about to get out of the car and let A-K work his charm on the officer, when I saw him opening his car door and walking toward me. Before I had a chance to do anything, A-K had already done his thing.
"I wrote it up as 85 mph," the officer said, smiling. "That should keep you out of any serious trouble."
"Thank you so much!" I said. "I'll accept it as my birthday gift."
"your birthday gift?" The officer looked at my driver's license and smiled even more broadly. "Happy birthday!" he added as he walked away.
"Whew," I thought. "Thank you, A-K!"
Luckily I had left early enough so I had no trouble making it to the docks of Long Beach in time for my ferry ride. Alas, finding the Catalina Landing (dock) took me more than half an hour. You'd think they's put up a sign or two, wouldn't you? Nope. I had to ask three people, all of whom gave me wrong directions, and then eventually call my hotel in Catalina to get the correct directions. They were also partially wrong, but got me close enough to the port so I could see the Catalina Express boat (right). No, they did not bring out Queen Mary out of mothballs for a birthday ride to Catalina (left). I did enjoy a nice view of Long Beach from the Queen Mary dock (middle).
Leaving the Long Beach harbor (left) gave us a chance to see Queen Mary from a different angle (middle left), as well as the Spruce Goose (Howard Hughes' failed mammoth airplane, now under that bubble (middle right). It was a beautiful day for sailing, as you can see from the pictures of the Long Beach harbor and the city skyline in the background (right).
The 22-mile ride across the channel to Catalina Isle took over an hour in our speedboat. The only excitement was created when a school of dolphins decided to frolic around us, and when we saw land again (Catalina Isle - right), with a sailboat making its way across toward Long Beach.
As we were approaching the Avalon (town name) harbor, we saw lots of water activities. Having see this parasail exhibition, I decided I would try it myself tomorrow. Again, something I have never done before. Wish me luck... :-)
I was in for a big surprise when I saw this big cruise ship ("Paradise") docked just outside the Avalon harbor. I had no idea ships as large as that made the ports of call at a tiny place like Avalon (right two shots). I commented to a couple of other passengers that the cruise ship population is probably considerably bigger than that of the entire town.
Speaking of the town, it's a very picturesque place, as you can see from the above shots. It has its unique marine architecture, attesting to its origins, probably in the late 19th century. There are no cars allowed on the island, except for the Sheriff's and the supply trucks. The rest of them are all golf carts, like the ones you see in the rightmost photo.
My hotel had a cure courtyard (left) and a cuter view of the city hanging on to the cliffs above (two middle shots). And as is so often the case these days in my travels, another bird, this time a seagull, made it into the picture standing so close to me (middle right). I went for a walk around town, and enjoyed some of the old charm Avalon offers.
A stroll along the harbor offered some more beautiful views of the Avalon Bay. The round red roof building that seems to dominate the skyline is a casino. On my way back, I caught a glimpse of the most elaborate sand castile I have ever seen. No wonder the city father had erected a fence around it. And before I returned to my hotel, two more seagulls decided to hover so very close to me. I don't know what that's about. Just like my car seems to be a speeding ticket magnet, I seem to attract birds like a magnet.
And that's all she wrote from Day 1 of my visit to Catalina Island.
CATALINA ISLAND, June 4 - it is not often that I sleep for eight hours straight. But I did it last night, having had to rise early on my birthday. Not being a morning person, it is also not very often that I do something physically strenuous first thing in the morning. Most people seem to like morning exercises. I do all of my heavier workouts in the afternoons or evening. But I had booked a parasailing ride for first thing this morning, the only time that was available. So I had to scramble to make it to the dock on time, sleepy waves still in my head.
"Captain Sean," a typical California blonde from Los Altos via Long Beach, and his partner in crime, Carlos, a transplanted Mexican, were waiting for me. I liked both of them instantly. "You've chosen a great life for yourselves," I said.
Sean was munching on some pastries, so he just smiled and nodded with his mouth full. I told him to take his time with it.
"Yeah, it is great," he said when he swallowed his bite. "And what do you to?"
"I am a writer."
"That's real cool. What do you write about?"
At that moment, I got a text message from a friend. As I started replying, just to say that I was parasailing, I said to Sean, "hang on a second. Let me reply to this message and then I'll answer your question."
By the time I was finished typing, Carlos had unmoored the boat and was reaching for the "body armor" (the harness) I was to wear while pretending to be an eagle. "For a living, I mostly write about global business and financial issues," I said.
"I am answering your question. You asked me what I write about. I said I make my money on business and financial subjects. But I really write about anything, about life and people I meet."
I could write about you, too," I added about pausing for a second, "especially if you drop me in the water."
Both Sean and Carlos doubled up laughing. It was a good way to start something I have never done before that could be potentially a scary experience.
Carlos strapped me in and gave me my rights and their disclaimer.
"That was a good CYA, much shorter and sweeter than the stuff we get on airplanes," I said.
The remark cracked them both up again. And off we went, smiles on our faces...
As I was quickly rising on take off as if pulled up by an invisible hand, I had sense of sheer exhilaration. It was only much later, while talking to a friend on the phone, maybe an hour or so after returning from this parasailing trip, that I remembered that maybe I was supposed to be scared. At the time, I had a feeling of sheer joy, like an Icarus who actually could fly.
As I was taking off, we were circling around another cruise ship. It took me a while to realize that it was different from the one I saw yesterday (see above Part 1). By the time we completed about a 45 degree circle around the ship, the line that attached my parachute to the boat seemed fully extended. You can see how high I was at that point from the rightmost shot. I am guessing it was a few hundred feet long?
The views from that elevation were spectacular (two left shots). I looked up (middle right), and then down (right). "Where only eagles dare," the title of a WW II movie kept buzzing through my head. I felt as light as air that swirled around me.
Then I took a couple of pictures of this unlikely "eagle" that I hope none of you will send to any of my media friends for publication (two left shots). Of course, I hadn't showered or shaved. I told you I had slept in... :-) As we circled the cruise ship, new vistas of the Avalon harbor opened up (two right shots).
...as did the views of the ship from different angles (two left shots), and of the northern coast of the island (middle right). After reaching the maximum altitude at this point, I noticed the line going slack. The boat must have slowed down. And so I gradually descended toward the ocean. "Guess Captain Sean is trying to get himself into a story," I joked with myself, getting ready to get dunked. My only regret would have been the camera with which I took these pictures. But when I was only about 10-15 feet from the water surface, I heard the engines roar and felt the line getting taught again. And up I went again...
By time time we completed about a 270-degree turn around the ship, I was able to read its name (left). It was "Monarch of the Seas," definitely a different vessel from the one yesterday. Then I noticed something really interesting... a school of dolphins frolicking in the ocean just a little bit east of the ship's starboard side (middle). I gave the northern shore one parting glance (right). It was time to prepare for a landing.
You can observe the final approach and landing from the "pilot-eagle" vantage point. I also want you to meet my two companions - Sean and Carlos - who contributed to an amazing flying experience, even for someone who has flown several million miles around the world on several airlines. It was by far the most exhilarating one. I felt wide awake when i stepped off the boat.
I asked Sean where the best coffee on the island is served, and he pointed me to a charming Cookies & Coffee shop (left), tucked in one of Avalon's back streets, next to a cute local market (middle). The proprietor, Gene, a father of three small boys who has owned the shop for two years, even let me take my coffee and the scone back to my hotel without paying when I told him I had left my wallet there. I did pay him later on, with a compliment on his trust.
"This would have never happened in LA," I said.
"Never," he agreed emphatically. "I am from LA originally."
On my way back to the hotel, I noticed a cute sign in a store window (right). "Eat, sleep... and go fishing" - sounds good, but i can think of one more thing that's missing that would make it a truly blissful day for me. And with that thought ended the first part of my second day of my "birthday at sea."
Glass Bottom Boat Tour
The next chapter of my second "day at sea" was a glass bottom boat tour. It was the most boring thing I did all day, quite a contrast to parasailing.
In fact, it was so boring that I was more interested in these cruise ship scuba divers that looked like a seals colony (two right shots).
Views of this "Nautilus" submarine were mildly interesting...
...as were those of this giant black bird (left), and this striped sea bass feeding frenzy (the other three shots). But similar scenes of fish feeding frenzies that I saw in Montenegro and Thailand, for example, made this a moderately interesting experience, at best.
The Raft Boat "Eco Tour"
My third and final leg of the second "day at sea" was an "eco tour" on a speedy raft boat. The boat was skippered by a young island girl called Sandra, who was very knowledgeable about both the marine and other wildlife (right - that photo was taken by my cell phone camera). As one might expect, I suppose, from a rare bird on Catalina island - a human native! :-) There were two other couples in the boat, both from that cruise ship. One woman from San Francisco was complaining the whole time of being sick. Wonder why she bother taking a boat tour, especially in rough seas?
By mid-afternoon, the weather had turned bitterly cold, very windy and misty by the time we pushed off the dock. I realized I was grossly underdressed in my shorts and two t-shirts. I borrowed a parka from Sandra, but even that was hardly enough to keep me warm. For the first time in my life, I was glad to be wearing a life jacket - for protection against the wind! :-)
I asked Sandra what that black skull and bones flag was about that she was flying at the back of the boat. She said that's a remnant from a buccaneer festival they have on the island every fall. "So some of us never take it down," she said. "Maybe we like to imagine ourselves as pirates," she added with a mysterious smile.
We did not see much wildlife during our ride up the eastern coast of the island. But what we saw was interesting. Like that bald eagle, for example, perching on a branch of a dead tree (two left shots). I was the first bald eagle I have ever seen in a natural habitat. Sandra told us many stories about the extent to which she and other ecologically concerned Catalina residents have gone to help the eagles survive, and actually grow in numbers from 40 to 80.
We saw another bald eagle perched on a high cliff (far right). But the cutest bird scenes involved the great blue herons. A couple and their four babies practically posed for me (right). What a great looking family! Sandra said that they mate for life. Sounds like an uncomplicated and happy life...
As Captain Sandra took us further up the coast, with my pants and back getting soaked from the ocean spray, I caught a huge pelican in flight (two middle shots). Sandra said they have a wingspan of about eight feet!? If you look closely at that cave just to the left of that boat in the rightmost shot, you will see an opening that matches the shape of the island map. That's why it is called among the locals as the "eye of the island," Sandra explained.
I took a picture of that vertical cliff in the left frame because it is such a pretty rock formation. If you look up from there, you can see a solitary tree with an eagles' nest clearly outlined against the sky (middle). And then it was time to say goodbye to the east coast of the island and head back to port. All the frozen bodies in the boat seemed to welcome the change of course, especially that woman from San Francisco who was whining and moaning to her husband the whole time. I felt sorry for him. We only had to endure that for two hours.
Sandra took a course that took us far off the island's coast. As the wind and the waves buffeted the little raft (right), even I was thinking if I still remembered what that emergency number was we had to dial if something happened to the captain (Sandra had told us about it before we took off). But as you can see, we made it back safely, without having to send out an SOS.
And that's all she wrote from my second "day at sea."
CATALINA ISLAND, June 5 - The day I sailed back to mainland was a beautiful morning in Catalina Island. The air was as crystal clear as you might ever expect at sea. Which makes it a great day for pictures, of course...
,,, as you can see from the above picture-postcard scenes as we sailed out of the Avalon harbor.
I took the two left shots of the "Jet Cat" Catalina Express boat I was on so you can see how powerful a wake it leaves behind. And then I noticed that we had an escort, like a farewell honor guard, saluting us as we were leaving the island. Hundreds of little black birds were flying alongside the boat, skimming the surface of the ocean. Sometimes they got so low their wings tipped the water, leaving "birdtrails" behind. I automatically looked up to see if there were any "chemtrails" the airplanes make in the sky. Luckily there were none. Birdtrails are so much prettier. Our feathery honor guard stayed with us for about five miles, I reckon. At that point, as if somebody yanked their chain, they turned around and flew back toward the island.
As we were entering the Long Beach harbor, big freighters were leaving loaded with containers to their gills (left). I was thinking about the enormous capacity that they ferry around. For, each of those little boxes is a truckload of goods. So think about how many trucks are sailing on that ship! Once again, we also passed the Spruce Goose and Queen Mary, this time basking in morning sunlight (middle). Our feathery honor guard in Long Beach harbor consisted of two pigeons. They laded on deck and fearlessly walked all around us as if they had paid the fare, too. :-)
More than six hours later, I was in Flagstaff, elevation 7,300 feet. Whenever I approach this northern Arizona city from the west, it looks like I am driving in Switzerland.
Beautiful black pine forests rise up to about 10,000 foot-level (left), after which point there are only a few shrubs, and then nothing but bare rock and snow all the way up to the top of Humphreys Peak (middle left), elevation 12,700 feet (3,900 meters). On a spur of the moment, I decided to stop by the Coconino County Fairgrounds in Flagstaff (middle right). Turned out to be a great idea. First, I witnessed a rather idyllic scene I have not seen since my childhood. A horse being shoed while its owner sat patiently waiting, and a dog supervised the procedure.
Things got more interesting as I approached the race track. There was evidently a dressage competition under way. This man in a pink shirt on a beautiful black horse was just starting his show. So I took a few pictures, and then switched my camera to the video mode. Take a look...
Flagstaff horse show (2:21 mins)
...at this YouTube posting of his ride.
I walked out of the racetrack at about the same time as this red head rode out on her horse.
Sedona Sunset and Beyond...
Afterward, I decided to take a scenic route to Sedona through the Oak Creek Canyon.
The two left shots were taken at the top of the canyon, before starting to descend to Oak Creek, the sculptor that created this natural beauty, along the steep slope mostly consisting of switchbacks. Views from the bottom of the canyon (two right shots) were no less spectacular than those at the top.
When I got to Sedona, I looked at the mileage since I left Phoenix on Tuesday morning. Nearly 1,000 miles (1,600 km) in two and a half days. And here I was intending to spend a couple of days at sea. So much land in between...
Well, after all this driving and an increasingly sore back to remember it by, I decided to take it easy this evening. So I got a light takeout dinner at a local health food store, and returned to my hotel. As it was close to sunset, however, I decided to take one more short drive - to the Sedona airport mesa - from where one can enjoy spectacular views of the red rock country...
...especially in a setting sun, as you can see from the above pictures. I also took a video here...
Sedona sunset, part 1 (1:01 mins)
...and posted it later on on YouTube for your easier and faster viewing.
Some people even made a picnic out of watching the sun go down (left). It took another 15-20 mins before the sun actually did set (two right photos)).
By this stage, I was more interested in the people watching the sunset than the sunset itself. So I made another short video of that scene, from which I excerpted the above stills...
Sedona sunset, part 2, (27 secs)
The sunset concluded with a hearty applause by the crowd for such a good show the sun had put on. No kidding. They did clap. Check out the above YouTube clip.
What happened after that falls into the category of "what happens in Sedona, stays in Sedona." Suffice it to say that it was more interesting than what anything that had preceded it. I never got to the dinner that awaited me in my hotel room fridge or my quiet evening.
The following day, Friday, June 6, the 64th anniversary of the D-Day, a friend of mine from Sedona and I went to this Buddhist temple (Stupa) after lunch for a quiet and relaxing chat. The weather was perfect, the site gorgeous, and the scenery breathtaking, as you can see.
My friend showed me that if you hold your hand in front of this wooden Buddha's, you can actually feel the energy coming out of it. I thought that's perhaps because the statue was perfectly aligned with that mountain peak behind it (which I named the Nipple Peak in one of my earlier hiking travelogues from Sedona). In fact, if you look at the left photo, the peak looks like Buddha's eighth chakra.
And that's all she wrote from this trip. By Friday night, I was back home.