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Mysterious Mountains Below

About a week ago I flew out to San Francisco to attend the American Chemical Society’s (ACS) Spring National meeting. These meetings are always a great combination of sight seeing, visiting new cities, networking, and learning more about the field of chemistry. I was attending the meeting to give my first oral presentation (at this type of conference) and present a poster about my current research and promote my latest publication in the Journal of Cheminformatics.

There is a major downside to attending these conferences: They typically involve flying. Personally, I would rather drive to any destination than fly. It never fails that when I have to fly there will be a delay (unless, I book the earliest possible flight). On top of the inevitable delays, flying requires a lot of rushing to arrive early so that you can sit and wait which isn’t the most satisfying feeling.

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The return flight home was delayed, so here’s a classic staring through the window at the airplanes picture

However, there is one aspect to flying that I absolutely love which involves the window seat. I love looking out the window and seeing the landscape change beneath me. It is the only time when you get to see mountains, oceans, cities, and plains all within a few hours. There’s  a certain enticing mystery about the earth below that makes the actual flight time pass by rather quickly. Besides, flying over the Rocky Mountains provides great inspiration for a writers heart.

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From the airplane the Rockies almost look like big hills. Almost.

* * *

Mysterious Mountains Below

I see you there
Down, far, far below
Snow-capped peaks
robed in brown.
From here,
you don’t seem
so big.
Or majestic.
No, from here
I see sand piles
Whose tops
are colored white.

But,
if viewed from
the ground;
how rugged
must you be?
As you tower
high above the sea.
Whose snow ridden
peaks stand there
unobtainable to those
such as me.

No, from here,
inside this plane,
you are but specks.
Specks, capped with white
and wrapped in brown.
Small dots, scattered
upon the ground.
Such sights,
are seen briefly
As soon,
your majestic peaks
will lie, hidden,
beneath the clouds.

* * *

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From the flight home. Not all of the mountain peaks had snow.
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I’m not sure which city this is, but it certainly was beautiful at night (assuming you don’t mind the light pollution)

A Beaver, Our Local Lumberjack

Athena and I have a standard walking path for her morning walk before I leave for work. This path wraps around a small man-made pond and has several dirt walkways that branch off from the Greenway. Our favorite dirt path goes along the edge of the pond between a cluster of small pines. When we first moved to Raleigh the pines here were extremely dense, but sense that time a beaver has taken up residency in the surrounding area. His favorite trees to chop down are pine trees.

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No longer in the shade
No longer isolated
No longer, lost in the pines.
Instead, the land is open
and I see across the pond.
Where apartments are my sky-
line.
There upon the ground, I see
the remains, where trees once stood
is now a shoreline covered
in stumps.
Whose points, no man could construct
but, were built instead by the
chomp of a beaver’s teeth.

Bike Tire in a Tree

Michelle and I were taking the dog for a walk the other day when we stumbled across the most random thing hanging in a tree.

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Surprise! Someone had ruined their bike tire and felt the best place to hang it was in a tree. When we saw this I had a mix of different emotions. Clearly, I was shocked to see a tire hanging in a tree (it would be weird to expect a tire in a tree). But, then I my feelings were bouncing back and forth between ‘this looks kind of cool’ to ‘why the heck would you leave your tire in the woods!’ Michelle and I tend to get a little cranky when we see people leaving trash or broken parts in the wood.

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Bike tire in a tree

what a sight to see!

Never, did I expect

to find amidst the green

black rubber hanging

forgotten from a limb.

Carried in,

but not back

out again.

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Today, I was Dropped

Today, I was dropped.

This simple line sounds horrible to anybody outside the mountain biking community, but for anyone who’s ever gotten on a bike before they know the truth. Getting dropped is fantastic. The term getting dropped means that you rode with someone who was faster and/or more skilled than you. In layman’s terms it means ‘you ate their dust.’

And today, it happened to me. My buddy and me paid a visit to some trails here in the Raleigh area to get an early Saturday morning ride in for Easter. This was my first time riding with him, but I knew from earlier conversations that his skills on a bike were well beyond my own and I was looking forward to the challenge of keeping up.

Needless to say, the ride did not disappoint. When the ride first started I did an okay job of keeping up with him. The technical sections of the trail were within my comfort zone, but as our ride and fatigue progressed the technical sections became increasingly difficult. Well, they became increasingly difficult for me as my buddy was able to easily ride over everything. Leaving me far behind.

But, that’s the point of getting dropped. It forces you to find the limits of your comfort zone and then expand it. You don’t want to be seen walking up that climb, so you dig deeper and pedal harder to reach the top that hill. The fear of being dropped causes you ride the brake less on the downhill or through those corners as you chase a dream of keeping up with those in front.

The desire to not be dropped forces you to become a better rider. You start practicing missing skills or improving endurance by adding an extra bike commute into work to increase your time in the saddle. Throughout the week memories of being dropped on the last ride haunt you, making you hunger for the next trip. The next trip where instead of getting dropped, you plan to do the dropping.

* * *

Unfortunately, I didn’t take the GoPro out on this ride so there are no pictures available. Which I think begs the question: Does the ride even count?

Medoc Mountain State Park Adventure

This past February I celebrated my 26th birthday at a campground. Since I am from Michigan where winter is usually marked by snow and cold this was something unheard of to me. When Friday arrived it was a beautiful day with temperatures hitting the 70s and the lows only reaching the 50s. Perfect camping weather!

Michelle and I loaded the adventure mobile and hit the road. The chemistry department hosts Friday evening seminars (3:40 to 5 pm), so we did not get on the road until almost 6:30pm that night. The down side is that meant we drove while it was dark and missed seeing new scenery while driving through northeast NC, but the perk was that we also missed the insane rush hour traffic of Raleigh. Trade offs.

We reached the campsite fairly late, but between the headlights of the car and some flashlights setting up camp was extremely easy. The easy set up was extremely exciting since this was our first time using our new tent. After Christmas we had bought a new 2-person backpacking tent from REI for a couple of reasons: First, after almost freezing to death on a camping trip to Falls Lake we realized that we needed a tent that could trap our body heat better in colder conditions. Second, we are planning a two week camping trip out west this summer and we wanted a small easy to set up tent for the drive out. Our new tent met all of these criteria! The smaller tent was a huge success! It was super easy to set up and kept us extremely warm on the second night when the low’s dropped into the 30’s!

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Athena’s never been overly thrilled about mornings.

When I was growing up my family lived on a farm with a lot of access to wood. We even used a wood burning stove to heat the house. This meant that any time my family went camping, we could just grab wood from the pile to load the truck bed. But, now that Michelle and I live in the city we don’t have the same abundance of fire wood available and instead have to purchase our wood from the campground. However, if you arrive later in the night the park office is typically closed and you can’t get any wood for your first night at the campground. What a travesty! After a summer of arriving late to campgrounds, Michelle and I discovered that two of our local grocery stores sell firewood, so we no longer have to worry about arriving without firewood! All major crises can now be averted! Such as having firewood for a breakfast campfire in the morning!

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mmmmm…campfire coffee

Saturday was an absolutely beautiful day! The temperature peaked around 80 degrees and the sun was never hidden by any clouds. This resulted in the perfect conditions for lounging in hammocks and drinking campfire coffee! In my professional coffee drinking opinion (note, not actually a professional coffee drinker), the best tasting coffee always comes from a campfire (regardless of the coffee bean roast). Athena even spent some time catching up on rays in front of the tent as well.

After a long lazy morning lounging around the campsite, we decided that we needed to explore the hiking trails around the state park. We started out on the Discovery Loop trail which follows the Little Fishing Creek. Eventually, we reached a crossroads with a bridge that spanned the river and sent us down the Medoc Mountain Trail loop. Before starting the Medoc Mountain trail, we had to stop and let Athena go for a swim; it was warm enough that I even took of my hiking boots to play in the water!

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Getting my feet wet in Little Fishing Creek!

Once we finished our hike, we headed back towards camp and started racing the clouds. Throughout the day the weather had changed from cloudless and sunny to a dark horizon. The afternoon was spent watching the dark storm clouds roll in, until eventually the rain arrived in the evening. Athena, Michelle, and I hunkered down in the tent to listen to the rain patter on our rain-fly, with only a little worry about leaks from user error during setup. Luckily, there were no leaks. While hunkering in the tent there were fairly frequent flashes of lightening and booms of thunder that had us considering seeking a safer location in the car. Meanwhile, Athena slept through the storm.

Luckily, the storm only lasted a few minutes. This was long enough for Michelle to beat me in a game of cribbage and for Athena to rest up after an exciting afternoon, but it was short enough that we still had time for an evening campfire. We were celebrating my birthday this week and it would have been a shame to miss an evening campfire, hobo pies, and s’mores. This camping adventure made my 26th birthday a truly remarkable day.

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Toastin’ some mallows

You can watch video footage of our Medoc Mountain Adventure here.

These are some of my favorite pictures from our trip. I hope you enjoy them.

* * *

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This is my system for pouring coffee fresh off the campfire! Athena and I typically battle over who gets to keep the sticks
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Climbed a rock! 
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Just me working on some breakfast
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Athena loves her sticks
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Queen Athena lounging in the camp
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Hiking through the pines!
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Michelle towering over me from the top of the bank.
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Classic bench photo!
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The density and sharpness of this photo is amazing.
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Starting the climb of Medoc Mountain
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Going up Medoc Mountain. I played around with some angles in my editing software to increase the drama of this shot
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I thought this mini stream was simply beautiful
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Athena’s excited to go swimming!
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Athena found an even bigger stick!
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Athena contemplating life while wading Little Fishing Creek

 

Quick Ride

It certainly did not feel like spring when I left the house this morning. My weather app listed the temperature at 34 degrees Fahrenheit, and it definitely felt that cold! But, after an insane couple of weeks I needed to get my bike out on the trail and blow off some steam before presenting at my group meeting. So, I made sure to bundle up and head for the trusted and true Lake Crabtree trail system.

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There’s no greater sense of accomplishment than being the first one at the trail head!

After arriving at the trail head, I took off down the trail chasing the local KOM (King of the Mountain) time and my hands were instantly reminded about the cold (I should have worn heavier gloves!). I have just started tracking my rides using the Strava app and there’s no better motivator to help you push your limits then chasing a KOM. (It also helps if you need to get off the trail quickly, it would be a shame if I was late to my own presentation). Unfortunately, I am still a long way off from being a legitimate contender to this mountain (about 6 minutes to be exact), but I can still dream of distant glory.

When I first entered the trail system, I scared about 5 blue herons into flight. They love to land and hang out right on the edge of the lake by the trail. I will admit, one of my favorite things to watch is when these birds decide to take flight. On the ride back in I discovered that these beautiful birds had returned to their spots, so this time I stopped to snap a couple of photos. The green of the brush in lower right of the photo certainly provides a sharp contrast to the surrounding browns.

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Love these Herons! On my ride in about 5 of them took flight at once. Go figure I forgot my GoPro today.
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I couldn’t believe that they just stood there letting me take their pictures!

After stopping to take some photos I had to try and get some classic ‘bike on the trail’ pics. First, I tried playing around with it near some brush with the lake in the background. Using a center-focus filter I tried to white out the edges to draw your focus towards the water. Did it work?

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If you don’t have a photo of your bike on the trail, did you really go for a ride?

After using the brush for framing, I had to go for the more traditional picture with Lake Crabtree in the backdrop. This time you can really see the green of the grass indicating that spring is finally starting to get here!

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* * *

I am constantly amazed at my bike’s ability to instantly reduce my stress levels from 1,000 to almost zero. There’s something magical about the sensation of flying down singletrack, hopping logs, and narrowly dodging trees. It creates a peaceful serenity where the only sounds you hear is the wind, the noises of your bike, and even traffic from I-40. It provides an instant escape from whatever worries are occupying my mind. Even pausing on the trail to take some photos is enjoyable (it actually helps me to pause and appreciate the surrounding scenery).

Spring

Even though winter has put up a valiant fight, spring is finally starting to take over. The mornings still get cold, but the sun stays out longer and the days are slightly warmer. The transition between the seasons can be both wonderful and torturous.

When spring arrives it brings back the birds who grace us with their songs and occasionally turn our patios into nesting grounds. Or at least, a bird has turned our fake patio tree into a temporary nest.

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There are even some eggs inside, which means in a few weeks Michelle and I will be able to listen to the baby birds chirp while we sip our morning coffee on the swing. (Don’t worry, I made sure not to disturb the nest when taking these photos).

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Spring.
A time of new life
When winter’s icy paws
loosen their chilling hold.
The sun returns to us
brightening our days
warming our hearts.

Spring
A time of new life
Flowers bloom, amidst the thaw
Trees slowly begin to bud
Bird’s nest to raise their young.
Molding winter’s day
into Spring’s new art.

Defying Labels: A Mini-Adventure

When I was a kid going biking or hiking wasn’t a specific hobby (at least where I grew up it wasn’t), they were both just activities that you did. If you were bored, you went for a walk in the woods or you grabbed your bike and started pedaling done the road. There was never a set distance I was trying to hit or a specific mountain to conquer. You simply stepped outside and enjoyed what nature had to offer. If it was mundane, you created something magnificent.

The smallest hills were transformed into mountains, the dirt road became a 100 mile race track. As a child I didn’t have to seek out adventures, they just happened. I made life an adventure. But, then you begin to grow older and the nameless activities of youth begin collecting labels. Once an activity has a label, the sense of wonder and adventure associated with it is lost. Why? Because labels have definitions and expectations, and if those expectations are not met then you did not truly experience that activity.

I first became aware of this fact after moving to North Carolina. Hiking and camping in NC is more than just a past time, it is a religion. A faithful following. You are supposed to dress a certain way, carry the correct gear, and use the appropriate labels. If you say hiking you better be climbing a mountain; otherwise, you are only going for a ‘walk in the woods.’ If you go camping make sure to specify if it’s car camping, backpacking, or in a camper. Keeping track of your sense of adventure can be easily lost amidst these labels.

That is why I purposefully force myself to seek the natural beauty, wonder, and amazement in my everyday surroundings. You can’t always climb a mountain, but that shouldn’t stop you from going on a hike. You can’t always ride your bike on epic downhill, but that doesn’t mean you can’t pretend that you do. Sometimes, you just need to get out side for the simple joy of being amidst nature.

Athena and I tried to do this yesterday. We went out and created our own mini-adventure in our own backyard. Using the right angle and some clever filters even a simple game of fetch can become rather stunning.

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Of course, you can’t play fetch without teasing your dog some as well. Thanks to GoPro’s Time Lapse feature I was able to capture this epic shot.

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After a competitive game of fetch, I felt inspired to take Athena out on the trail. I had recently watched Seth, from Seth’s Bike Hacks, attempt to transform his French Bulldog, drama, into a trail dog and was wanting to test Athena’s trail mettle. Athena has pretty good sprinting capabilities, but for anything longer than a mile she simply doesn’t have the ability to hang. Luckily, the ride around our lake is slightly shorter than a mile. She certainly did enjoy the short ride and run around the lake.

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There was one point while we were playing with the GoPro and searching for that perfect angle that I decided to work on my bunny hopping skills. The mythical bunny hop has eluded me for years, but every once in awhile I try to attempt it. This time I decided that hopping, or in this case running over, my GoPro would be a good idea. I may have failed at clearing my camera, but I got this awesome photo from the attempt. It almost looks like I am atop the world here…almost.

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Failed bunny hop attempt 

Finally, Athena and I went and rode on some super secret trails that crisscross the woods behind our apartment. Once again experimenting with lighting and angles gave me a pretty cool picture.

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Overall, our mini-adventure Sunday behind the apartment was quite spectacular. It certainly was enough to wear the dog out for the remainder of the day.

 

Curve of a Disc

Athena and I woke up this morning and went on a mission: Capture the perfect image for the Tuesday Photo Challenge. This week’s theme was Curve and as an Ultimate enthusiast there was only one way to interpret this theme: Throwing a Frisbee. Plus, it was a great way to take Athena out for a game of fetch. We decided to take the GoPro out and experiment with the Time Lapse setting and the surrounding scenery.

I hope you enjoy the photos!

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Nothing quite captures the definition of curve like the flight-path of a disc. The ability of a Frisbee to defy the law’s of physics is mesmerizing as it slices through the air. When you think the disc will fly for miles, it falls; when you think it can drift no farther, it gains new life and hovers on. The only limitation of where you can throw the disc is your own creativity.

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All photos were taken using a GoPro Hero+ using the Time Lapse setting.

Becoming Self-Sufficient: Baby Steps

Recently, I decided to take some time and reflect upon the direction my personal and professional life have been going. Occasionally, I like to sit down and write out a list of some of my short- and long-term goals. If I get lucky and save the list of goals from the last time this happened I can even compare to evaluate my personal growth.

During my most recent analysis, I realized that I was very happy with the amount of riding and writing that I have been doing, lately. When I started this blog, the goal was to help increase my creative writing by adding a constant motivating source (i.e. Publish blog posts to keep my content updated). But, something else happened along the way as well: It inspired me to start documenting my mountain bike adventures (such as rides to Tsali Rec, CNF Forest, and, Lake Crabtree).

From these rides and experiences I quickly discovered that I was lacking in some very essentials skills as a mountain bike rider. I needed to learn how to work on my bike. This realization became very apparent after my ride at the Tsali Rec trail system last October when I experienced my first flat. Since I had never had a flat before, I never thought to carry a spare tube or pump when I went riding. Luckily, my tube popped only a mile from the trail head, so Michelle and I had very short walk back to the car.

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Learning a life lesson at Tsali. Always carry a spare tube and portable tire pump. (2016)

After that ride I started carrying a tube with me (I am still looking for a good spare portable pump though. Any thoughts about CO2 cartridges vs hand-pumps?). But, beyond thinking about what tools I needed to carry to become a self-sufficient mountain biker on the trail, I wanted to learn the ins and outs of maintenance for my mountain bike.

Fast forward several months after my blown tire experience and I had been hitting the local trails pretty heavily when my brakes began screeching. Besides the clear annoyance such a noise brings to my ride (and the rides of my fellow trail users), this potentially indicates a possible problem with my braking system. I could have dirt between my pads and rotors, my pads are worn out, or a bent rotor.

For a moment I thought about going to the bike mechanic and dropping my bike off, the Easy option. A couple of days, the problem would be totally fixed. But, that wouldn’t help me reach my goal and settling for easy didn’t taste so well after reading Greg Heil’s article, Stop Asking for Easy: A Manifesto for Doing Hard Things Voluntarily. Between Greg’s motivational words and the desire to save some money while learning a new skill I dove into the challenge head first.

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My Yaheetech Bike Repair Stand getting its first use!

After a thorough cleaning of my bike, I decided to start by replacing my pads (cheapest item and most likely worn out) and replaced my brake cables as well (they were getting a little old and a friend suggested replacing them anyways). Surprisingly, replacing the cables and pads was extremely easy. Pop stuff in, pull stuff out, and cut the extra. The hardest part was realigning the caliper after inserting the new pads so that there was minimal resistance (rotor grinding against the pad when the brake lever isn’t depressed). The alignment took me forever! Mostly, because I was a dunce and didn’t understand what bolt to loosen and tighten to adjust the caliper position. Naturally, I ended up loosening and adjusting every bolt until I discovered what each individual bolt’s purpose was on my braking system. I can safely say that I now know my caliper system forwards, backwards, and even sideways!

Since replacing my pads I have taken my bike out on several more rides. My maintenance fix appears to have helped (at least the front doesn’t screech anymore!), but my back brakes still yells like a banshee. Hopefully, after a few more rides this will go away once the new pads are fully broken in.

Taking the extra time to work on my bike instead of going to the shop was extremely rewarding. I learned that even a computational chemist has the ability to fix things with his hands (after working with a keyboard all day it is nice to know I can do physical work as well) and I now know more about my bike and braking system than I originally expected. Replacing brake cables and brake pads may not sound like a giant step, but it certainly is a baby-step towards becoming a more self-sufficient mountain bike rider.

What challenging bike maintenance problems have you faced? Any suggestions on a portable bike pump to carry? How have you stopped your disc brakes from screeching down the trail?