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Saturday, February 6, 2016

Welcoming in the Year of the Vulture

My daughter the innkeeper. And, apparently, a slave-owner. Amber's school held a "Colonial Days" event, and all the fourth-graders were assigned various roles to play. According to her job description, innkeepers utilized slaves for cooking and cleaning (though none were portrayed by any of the students). When I asked her why she owned human beings, my daughter replied "the people during those days were English." 

The Year of the Monkey is almost upon us, with today (Saturday) being the penultimate day of the Year of the Goat. Tomorrow will be Lunar New Year's Eve, a time in which families across the Chinese-speaking world get together for the year-end meal. In China, this time of the year can be one of incredible chaos; while Taiwan isn't quite as bad, the island usually sees gridlocked freeways, overcrowded tourist sights and hotel rooms and restaurants with jacked-up prices and rates. Here in the U.S., it's business as usual, with celebrations usually limited to Chinatowns (though the holiday is also an important time in Korea and Vietnam; we live next door to a Vietnamese shopping center that will celebrating Tet). Speaking of Taiwan, I was amused to read comments on Facebook from friends and acquaintances there on a recent cold spell the island was having a couple of weeks ago. While temperatures did drop to almost freezing in Taipei 台北, and many places received a rare light dusting of snow, all this occurred around the same time we here in the Washington, D.C. area had around two feet (60 centimeters) of snow dumped on us. True, with their concrete walls, tiled floors and complete lack of insulation, Taiwanese apartments can feel almost as cold on the inside as the weather is on the outside (and on a serious note, Taiwanese media reported up to 85 deaths from hypothermia and cardiac arrest). Still, I couldn't help but feel that some Westerners, at least, seem to get softer with each year they stay on the island. 

When we were living in Taiwan, we coped with the short winter season by wearing sweaters indoors, and relying on space heaters to warm up the rooms (my wife even insisted we bring our kerosene heater with us when we moved to Taichung 台中 from Yokkaichi 四日市). In fact, compared to Japan, Taiwanese homes in winter might just be more bearable. Japanese homes (with the exception of those in Hokkaidō 北海道) also tend not to be insulated, and winters in Japan are a lot colder, and for a much longer period of time, than in Taiwan. When I lived in Tōkyō 東京, I relied on space heaters, electric blankets and, eventually, wall-mounted air conditioners with heating functions in an effort to keep warm. But even with these, plus kerosene heaters, kotatsu 炬燵 and extra covers for the futon 布団, those wooden (and ferroconcrete) homes could still be very cold and drafty. I remember visiting a 17th-century wooden home in the city of Takayama 高山, located in the Japanese Alps 日本アルプス; even though I was wearing thick socks, it was still painful to walk across the frozen tatami mats 畳. It's those kinds of memories that make me appreciate the central heating system we have in our current residence. 

Two weeks after Snowzilla, I went hiking today in the Wildcat Mountain Natural Area in Warrenton, Virginia, 39 miles (63 kilometers) from our home in Falls Church. It was 37°F (2.8°C) as I started walking from my parked car and ascended 100 yards (91 meters) up a narrow, steep trail. My guidebook describes the climb as being "difficult", but I found it to be pretty easy; no boasting, as I've let myself get out of shape since we went to Shanghai. I'm assuming that our obese society has necessitated the need to re-evaluate what defines "difficulty":

The trail is maintained by The Nature Conservancy, which has placed informative signs along the path:

A long stone wall marks the top of the ridge, and a 420-foot (128 meters) gain in elevation:

A lot of the snow on England Mountain has already melted, though plenty of the white stuff still remains:

Stone walls delineate where hikers can and can't go, as England Mountain (where the trail is located) stands on private property:

The trail is muddy and wet in places due to snow melting, and I had to cross a number of babbling brooks this morning. It was at this point pictured below that I was passed by another hiker and her two dogs, who started growling at me. According to the woman, it was because I was wearing a hat. Apparently, American dogs are not sure what to do when encountering headgear or umbrellas (the latter once given to me as an excuse by an embarrassed dog owner when I was hiking on a rainy day):

A rare touch of green (admittedly enhanced after being uploaded) in the otherwise stark winter scenery:

The sound of rushing water and wind blowing through trees is Nature's way of serving New Age musicians:

The highlight of the hike today is the Smith House, which was abandoned about fifty years ago but is still in remarkably good condition. Before reaching the house, I passed by the Spring House, where pond ice or flowing water was used to prevent dairy products, fruit and meat from spoiling:

The interior of the Smith House, photographed from the outside (I didn't try to enter what is still private property):

Behind the Smith House is a chimney and fireplace, all that is left of a 19th-century homestead:

Selfie time outside the Smith House:

While I was walking around the property, a pair of Black Vultures emerged from one of the upstairs rooms. One vulture flew onto a nearby branch, while the other one took up its post atop the chimney on the roof:

Exterior of the Smith House. You can see the pair of Black Vultures in the second shot:

Back on the trail and passing by the reservoir that once served the Smith House. My guidebook describes a "dry bed", but obviously it isn't, at least not after the recent snowstorm:

This section of the trail is still covered in snow, though the snow pack here is hard, making it easy to walk on, and shallow. I thank the Nature Conservancy for the green-and-yellow markers it put on the trees, enabling hikers to pick out the trail despite the snow cover. This was also the only section of the hike where it was cold enough to have to put on gloves: 

Another bit of color. The trail must be nice in autumn:

The snow eventually gives way to ice. On the drive to Wildcat Mountain Natural Area, after exiting I-66 and turning onto Carters Run Road, I encountered a couple of large patches of ice on the road that forced me to slow down considerably so as not to skid off the road:

Back to the first section of stone wall encountered at the top of the ridge, and signifying the end of the loop trail. From here it was back down the "difficult" section and then to my car parked along England Mountain Driveway:

Some vital statistics for the last hike of the Year of the Goat include a distance of 3.4 miles (5.5 kilometers) covered on foot; an elevation gain of 840 feet (256 meters); and a total walking time of just over two hours. Who knows where my feet will take me next as the Monkey awaits.

新年快樂! 恭喜發財!




Sunday, January 24, 2016


It's over. The great blizzard of 2016 has moved on, after dumping up to almost two feet (61 centimeters) of snow on the Washington, D.C. area. The storm doesn't have a catchy name like "Snowpocalypse" or "Snowmageddon" yet, but the Washington Post says the amount of snow that accumulated over the weekend will probably rank in the top five snowstorms to have ever struck this region. 

The fun actually began on Wednesday. Even though everyone knew a blizzard was due to arrive by Friday, people were caught off-guard by a relatively light dusting of snow on the evening of the 20th. Though it only amounted to a couple of inches or so (five centimeters), the fact that it happened just as the evening rush hour was getting into gear combined with the lack of preparation by the authorities to bring traffic to a halt. What would've taken some people minutes to get home ended up taking several hours. Fortunately for me, the snow only started falling as I was getting off the shuttle bus at my apartment complex, so my commute home wasn't affected. Here is the view of from our balcony later that evening:

Thursday was uneventful weather-wise, but it did happen to be my daughter's tenth birthday. In addition to the gifts we gave her, Amber received an additional present in the form of the next day (Friday) being declared a snow day due to the approaching storm:

For its part, the federal government decided it stay open until noon on Friday, so I went to school for one class. The snow began falling and the wind began blowing later that afternoon. By the time we went to bed that evening, cars in the parking lot were beginning to get covered (ours included):

Saturday was the worst of the blizzard. This was the view that greeted me after waking up yesterday morning:

Amber could barely contain her excitement:

The snow was coming down hard, and the wind was furiously whipping it around, but a blizzard like this was too good to pass up. So after lunch my daughter, my wife and I bundled up and headed out into the elements. For me, it was a chance to break in my heavy-duty winter jacket, which I had had specially made last winter while we were still living in Shanghai, but had not yet had an opportunity to wear. Despite my hands freezing up each time I took off my gloves to take a photo, and the pain my face was feeling from the stinging snow blowing directly at me, my body was surprisingly warm in the 23°F (-5°C) temperatures:

Outside was a winter wonderland:

The kids in the apartment complex were taking advantage of the one slope on the grounds. That's Amber walking up, partially obscured by a tree. And despite appearances to the contrary, there were no casualties that afternoon:

While my daughter continued to play on the slope, I took a walk around the compound. Some people were trying to dig their cars out from under the snow despite the fact the blizzard was still going strong:

The cemetery next door:

The boulevard going by our apartment building was sensibly empty of traffic:

Little snowmen were scattered about the grounds:

Our car. Despite appearances, we were relatively fortunate, a result of our location. Cars several spaces down from ours were almost completely buried:

I took this picture while standing in the middle of the road, facing directly into the wind:

Another view from our balcony, shortly after returning home:


A couple more pics:

It was still snowing after dinner, but the worst of the blizzard was over by this point. My daughter and I ventured out once again, while my wife decided it was better to stay inside and enjoy the warmth. Amber busied herself with making snow angels:

Some people were going to have their work cut out for them the following day:

Today (Sunday) was sunny, and with the storm having moved on, it was time to survey the damage. Our balcony this morning:

Pamela had made this snow...thing yesterday, using an old pumpkin from Halloween (which explains its plump appearance). And in case you're wondering, yes, we do still have our Christmas tree up:

I went outside on my own after breakfast, leaving the apartment complex and venturing out into the neighborhood. I first trudged through Oakwood Cemetery: 

After seeing how the dead were coping with the snow, I walked down the hill toward the metro station. The sign seems very appropriate (and gives an idea of how much snow had fallen), but the youth soccer field buried underneath had been closed at the end of autumn to give the field time to recover:

Kids enjoy being kids:

A frozen creek:

It'll be a little while before the cyclists and joggers can get out on this section of the W&OD Trail again:

Hands down the best snow sculpture I've seen this weekend:

Pigeons at East Falls Church metro station wondering what had hit them the previous day. Also probably wondering what happened to all the people - the Washington Metro system stopped operating on Friday evening, and remains suspended as I write this at around 8pm on Sunday evening:

From the station, I reversed course and walked back uphill, using the middle of the street as the sidewalks were unusable unless you wearing snowshoes. At the Eden Center shopping complex, some stores were reopening and the parking lots were being plowed, but things were far from normal:

Following lunch, the three of us went outside as a family unit (that's my camera-shy spouse in the background, clad in her own made-in-Shanghai winter coat):

As I wrote earlier, the situation with our car wasn't as bad compared to some other vehicles, but we decided to start clearing away the snow:

The apartment complex's management was loaning out snow shovels to the residents, but supplies were limited, so we got to work using only a bucket, dustpan and ice pick. About an hour into the job, a shovel became available, but it still took the three of us nearly 2½ hours to remove most (but not all) of the accumulated powder:

And so we got through Snowzilla. Until this weekend, my experiences with blizzards had been limited to being forced to stay indoors by relatively small storms in Tōkyō 東京 and Washington state. I found this blizzard to be fascinating and even exciting, but I don't really want to go through another one anytime soon. Seeing as our next post will be in the Baltics, however, I'm not sure my wish will be granted. All the time I was straining my back and risking a heart attack removing the snow piled up around our vehicle, my mind kept returning to past travels - to places like Waikiki, Okinawa 沖縄, Ko Samui and even Kenting 墾丁, which might give you a good idea of my personal preferences.

The snow may be done for now, but the cold weather will continue. Temperatures are going to drop to around 12°F (-11°C) tonight, meaning everything is going to ice over. Fortunately, both my daughter and I have snow days tomorrow (good thing for me, as I didn't do my Russian homework this weekend), but I have been around snow enough to know that it's going to get messy and ugly once all that white stuff starts to melt (and rain is predicted for the middle of the upcoming week). Thailand is looking better than ever as a retirement option...

Amber's post-Snowzilla snowman