Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Powder day

April 14, 2014

After our four-day Tahoe trip in March, we thought we might be done skiing for the year. Then it snowed 41 inches in one week and we couldn't resist the allure of powder skiing. And damn, I now understand why people go out of their way to track down fresh powder. Powder skiing is almost a different sport from what we've been doing the rest of the year — I felt as if I had to learn to ski all over again. It is challenging, exhausting, exhilarating and not quite as terrifying as it seems because the snow is surprisingly soft when you fall. And as you can see from the following video, we fell a lot. Once again, we took turns filming with the GoPro on our helmets.

One of the best parts of skiing at Kirkwood is that when they have enough snow, you can go anywhere. On the backside of the mountain, you can ride pulley lifts along ridge lines and "drop in" wherever you want. You can crisscross between the trails or you can tuck and follow a groomer's tracks uphill and then make your way down what you originally thought was a sheer rock face. In the video, I tried to capture just how limitless the terrain feels. When you look around, all you see is snow and mountains.

Sometimes it's hard not to see skiing as a manufactured activity. When there's no fresh snow, you spend all day on hard pack, racing down as fast as you can, only to be whisked back up the mountain by a high-speed lift. But on this trip, surrounded by feet of fresh snow, skiing seemed like the most natural way in the world to get down the mountain. Halfway down we'd often collapse on the snow in need of a break, but this too seemed natural. We were working hard just to make it to the bottom.

Our passes are RFID-enabled to track our activity on the mountain. The technology doesn't work perfectly — the sensors sometimes missed me yet picked up Ben — but at the end of the day you see roughly how many runs you did and how many vertical feet you skied. According to the app, I skied 166,704 vertical feet and took 148 lift rides this year.

And finally, one of the best parts of the day was getting to try out my new skis in powder. My parents bought me my old pair of Salomon X-Screams about 14 years ago during the transition from straight to parabolic skis. They were getting a bit long in the tooth in terms of the technology behind them. Not to mention, they were long, literally. My new skis are a full 13 centimeters shorter. But still, 14 years ... not bad.

I had been halfheartedly saying for years that I wanted to get new skis, but it never seemed that pressing until we started skiing regularly this year. When I walked into the demo shop the first time, I had no idea what to look for in a new pair of skis. I hated the first pair I tried (I could barely stop on them and I learned how to stop on skis when I was three). If it had been up to me, I probably would have given up at that point and stuck with my old skis, but luckily, Ben was less easily deterred than me. On our next trip, I sweet-talked my way into a free demo day and tried four different pairs (Salomon Rockette, Volkl Aura, Nordica Hells Belles and Salomon Q-88 Lux). I couldn't get rid of the Rockettes fast enough, the Q-88 Lux didn't make much of an impression and the sizing didn't match up for me on the Hells Belles. But from the moment I put on the Volkl Aura, we just clicked.

Here's what Ski Magazine has to say about the Aura: "It's a damp and powerful athlete built to be as proficient in powder as hard pack. In the former, it prefers charging to skimming. On firm snow, it bites like a bulldog. It never gets bounced around, but it does demand muscle. This ski will encourage you to go fast and take chances." I asked the demo guy if I should have any reservations about buying the Aura. He said they might be more difficult to turn at low speeds. My response: "That's fine. I don't believe in going slow." The skis were sold out in the pro shop, giving me some extra time to waver about my decision. I called my dad for reassurance and found a women's skiing forum filled with adoration for the Aura. Decision made, we purchased the skis the next day.

Now they're one of my favorite possessions and I'm sad they have to spend the next eight months in the closet. I reassured them that we have already purchased our season's passes for next year.

The road to Kirkwood

Morning mist on the drive to Kirkwood

- Steph

Four days of skiing in March (with our new GoPro)

April 6, 2014
We took off four weekdays in March to ski at the three Vail resorts around Lake Tahoe, which our season passes get us into, without the weekend crowds.

It was our first ski trip with our new GoPro, and we alternated wearing it on our helmets. These are some of the best moments on video:

(Edited by Ben in iMovie. The music is a remix of Asaf Avidan's Reckoning Song.)

The first night we stayed on-mountain at Kirkwood. In the early morning, we watched the snow grooming and setup before the sunrise and the crowds. This was the view from our window:

Steph wanted to buy new skis, and had tried several demo skis on our last outing. This time she confirmed the right model — Volkl Aura's — but they didn't have them at Kirkwood. So the second day, we went to Northstar to pick up the new skis. On the third day we skied Heavenly, which had very little snow; the scenery is beautiful but the skiing is the least good of the three resorts. On the fourth day we skied at Kirkwood again. We confirmed our earlier impression that Kirkwood has the best snow, Northstar has the best infrastructure and food (and also very good skiing), and Heavenly is very big and beautiful but doesn't have great skiing.

I've been trying to improve my skiing; I ski the blacks and some double blacks but I still look and feel pretty sloppy. At Kirkwood the first day, while Steph was trying demo skis, I took a three-hour lesson. (They're normally absurdly expensive, but we found a deal that made it reasonable to do once.) It was a good lesson and I improved a little (focusing on pole plants and balance), but not much. I'm thinking next year I'll upgrade my skis too; they're beginners skis that I bought in college, and I wonder if having better skis will help me get to the next level.

For the last three nights we stayed in South Lake, and two nights in a row we had dinner at a great restaurant called Base Camp Pizza. They had live music outside, which we listened to sipping beer around a fire pit while waiting for our table. This was their excellent beer list:

Steph with her new skis:

These two were taken by the mountain photographer:

- Ben

How to ski through a blizzard

March 9, 2014
The visibility got much, much worse than this.

After experimenting with the various Tahoe resorts last winter, we took the plunge and bought a season pass this year. To make the pass worth it, we would need to ski six days (a single-day ticket costs between $74 and $116). At the beginning of the year, it was looking like we had miscalculated — through the end of January, we had only skied one day and the mountains were barely open. Determined to go up again even without snow, we booked a hotel and car for one of the first weekends in February.

And what did the forecast for that weekend turn out to be? Snow from Thursday night until Monday morning with accumulations of up to six feet in the mountains. Six feet! When I was a kid, there was one winter where we got as much snow as Michael Jordan is tall (6'6") and it was a record. And Tahoe was going to get that much snow in a single weekend.

Lest you praise our perfect timing, it turns out that skiing in a Tahoe blizzard is not exactly ideal. First, you have to get to Tahoe, a 3.5-hour drive in the best conditions, with at least one mountain pass above 8,000 feet. Second, it was actually raining at lake level (5600'), with the rain turning to snow at about 7000', which meant skiing involved crossing the rain/snow line as you descended. A lot of people drove up to Tahoe that weekend and didn't ski at all. Not us.

We skied both days at Northstar because it was the only one of the Vail resorts that was open all weekend (Heavenly closed because of wind and Kirkwood because of avalanche control). Most of the mountain was in the "snow zone," but it was very wet snow (a.k.a. "Sierra cement").

Things we learned about skiing through a storm:
  • Cover every inch of skin and do not uncover anything once you step outside. Don't take off your helmet to put on a neckwarmer; don't lift your googles to scratch your nose; don't take off your gloves to read a trail map. Once you let the water in, you will never be dry again.
  • Don't go off the groomed trails. If you do, you risk getting buried chest-deep in snow. It will not be easy to free your skis from the crushing pile of snow.
  • You cannot turn on the ungroomed trails; your only choice is to follow the tracks of the previous skier. Stopping will require tremendous effort by your iliotibial bands. You can try purposefully steering off the trail but you risk getting stuck (see previous bullet).
  • Memorize where you're going. Your trail map will disintegrate as soon as it gets wet, leaving it utterly useless for finding your way back to the lodge.
  • You won't be able to see more than a foot or two in front of you. This will make it even harder to find the lodge as you won't be able to see any of the trail signs.
  • You will be able to wring water out of your gloves. But don't: There might still be a dry layer somewhere in the glove; wringing it out guarantees it will be 100% wet. 
  • Don't go into the lodge until you're ready to be done for the day. Once you take off your gear, you'll discover just how wet you are. The line to use the blowdryer in the bathroom will be longer than any lift line you've seen all day.
It was all in good fun. We're not complaining, especially because this is where we found ourselves two weeks later:

We're hitting the slopes again this week, new GoPro in hand.

- Steph

We got a GoPro!

March 8, 2014
I've been wanting to buy a GoPro for a long time. They're a very popular line of action video cameras, and the quality of the product is supposed to be nearly as good as their marketing. (If you have a few hours to burn with incredible action footage, check out their featured videos.) Whenever I motorcycle, or sail, or ski, I think it would be great to capture it on a GoPro.

We thought about getting one last year, but ran the numbers, and with all the accessories we'd need (motorcycle mount, ski helmet mount, wifi remote), we decided it was too expensive. We figured we'd wait until the next line comes out and the current line goes on sale. But Steph decided to surprise me and buy me one for my birthday! Actually a few weeks before my birthday, but just in time for the ski trip we're planning to Tahoe next week. She applied her deal-hunting wizardry and figured out a way to combine discounted gift cards for REI with a clearance coupon from a branch that closed, bringing the price down a bunch.

To practice using it before we ski next week, and because we hadn't been on the bike in a while, we took a little ride up Route 1 to Stinson Beach, with the GoPro attached to the windshield. I put together this video when we got home:

- Ben

A motorcycle parade

February 15, 2014
route 1 pacific coast highway motorcycles
We tried something new on New Year's Day: a group motorcycle ride. We met up with 70ish other bikers for a 150-mile ride through Marin. The caravan of bikes was a sight to behold, but it’s probably not something we’ll do again. We didn’t enjoy the rigidity of group riding.

The ride was organized by Wanderlust, a meetup group for motorcycle enthusiasts in the Bay Area. We arrived at the meeting place in San Rafael by 9 a.m., thinking that our 7 a.m. alarm was painfully early. Others though had actually traveled much farther — lots of riders came up from the South Bay (an hour away) and one even rode out from beyond Placerville (two hours away).

We were impressed by the ride’s safety rules. The roughly 50 bikes were divided into four groups. Each group had a lead, who set the pace, and a sweep, who made sure no one was left behind. Passing was forbidden and everyone was supposed to ride single file, at least four seconds behind the preceding bike. Each rider was responsible for the rider behind them; if your follower missed a turn, you had to buy them lunch.

motorcycle road russian riverThe crowd was eclectic. Age-wise, we were among the youngest; experience-wise we were probably in the middle. There were some brand new riders and others with decades of experience. Most riders were on cruisers, with a lot of Harleys and a few Goldwings in the mix, though there were a few sport bikes too. There were a lot of passengers as well, though without fail men drove and women rode (you almost never see a male passenger and female driver).

The first half of the ride was fairly unremarkable. We’re familiar with that stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway and with all the cars on the road, no one was driving too fast. It was weird though to be at the mercy of others. If it had just been the two of us, we would have stopped at least half an hour earlier for water and a bathroom break. But the group kept going until a pit stop in Bodega Bay. (Another rule: If the group leader stops and doesn't take off his/her helmet, don't take off yours.)

Past Bodega Bay, the traffic cleared and, with the road to ourselves, the leaders opened up a bit more. Riding this stretch in a group convinced us that we don’t want to do group rides in the future. Ben is a very safe driver and normally if I want him to slow down, I can signal him easily. Riding in a group takes away that autonomy because there’s pressure to keep up with the rider in front of you.

motorcycling point reyes

Our halfway point was the Union Hotel in Occidental, where we stopped for lunch. Obviously it’s hard to find a restaurant that can serve 70 people at once, but the food at this place was nonetheless pretty disappointing and very expensive (even by our California standards). We had finished eating before the next table even received their food, so we decided to head home early.

Back on our own, we enjoyed the ride a lot more. We understand how others might enjoy group riding, especially riders who don’t usually have the chance to ride with others. But because we ride together, motorcycling is always a social activity for us and we like the freedom to set our own pace and our own route.

farmland petaluma hills

- Steph

Blood orange mojitos

January 19, 2014
It's blood orange season, a nugget of information we would not know had we not stumbled upon this Smitten Kitchen recipe last year and subsequently polished off our very first blood orange cocktails. Fast forward to this week, when I am shopping for my (wildly successful first attempt at) chicken pho, and spot none other than blood oranges. I bring them home of course and we recreate last year's blood orange margaritas. We then branch out on our own to make the most delicious cocktails we've enjoyed in months: blood orange mojitos. Behold.

blood orange mojito cocktail recipe
Blood orange mojitos
Serves two

1/2 cup blood orange juice
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
2 tablespoons simple syrup
6 tablespoons rum
Leaves from several mint sprigs

Muddle mint with rum. Add remaining ingredients. Mix and pour over ice.

Drinks in hand, play the longest game ever of left-handed jenga.

- Steph

Our Thanksgiving tradition

January 16, 2014
For the second year in a row, we spent Thanksgiving camping near the beach. Does twice make a tradition?

Like last year, we wanted to use the four-day break to escape the city, and it doesn't make much sense to head north or west at the end of November on a motorcycle. That left us heading back to the Monterey/Carmel/Big Sur area.

We even stayed at the same campground as last year because it's one of the few campgrounds between San Francisco and Monterey that is open at that time of year. We recognized some of the other campers from last year, who had actually been speculating on whether we would return with the motorcycle. We did!

This year, we decided to be a little more festive with our food. Instead of standard camping fare, we stopped at Whole Foods to pick up turkey, pies and beers. We clearly took the minimalist route compared to the other campers, with their grills, giant tents and table settings.

We once again enjoyed a beautiful sunset and even took a stroll down the beach.

The next day Ben wanted to unwind from a stressful week at work so we returned to the Refuge, a hydrothermal spa where you move from a sauna, to a freezing pool, to a hot tub. We went last winter with friends, proving once again that California is awesome because you can wear your bathing suit in January.

I found a well-reviewed Hawaiian restaurant for dinner. Ben liked his wasabi tuna bowl so much that he's tried twice to recreate it at home.

At this point our plan was continue to Big Sur for a few days of hiking but Ben wasn't feeling well. Instead of making him sleep outside with a cold and a sore throat, we decided to spend another night in our Monterey hotel and to hike instead at Point Lobos State Natural Reserve, considered by some the "the crown jewel" of California's state parks. It's usually too packed to park, but the rangers let us through on the motorcycle. We hiked the coastal trail, stopped for a picnic lunch and relaxed on the beach.

The next day we took our time making our way back home along the coast. The drive was beautiful as always.

- Steph

DIY: Media cabinet

January 14, 2014
Our TV has been sitting on a little IKEA corner table since we moved into our current apartment, with gadgets and jumbles of wires un-aesthetically spread around it. So we've thought about getting some kind of media cabinet/table for a while, but for reasons of cost or time never actually did.

With a long time since our last serious woodworking project, however, we decided to build ourselves a media cabinet. We (mostly Steph) researched a bunch of designs, and we found a Crate & Barrel bookcase (which, turned on its side, doubles as a media table) that we liked. At $199 we thought about just buying it, but it was a little too big, we didn't want black, and we wanted better-quality wood, so we decided to adapt the design and build it instead.

The original design

As usual, we started with SketchUp. First we copied the design:

We went to Discount Builders Warehouse, where we planned to buy the lumber, to make sure they had wood that would fit the design, and liked their 3/4" pine.

To better attach the shelves to the vertical boards (and for better aesthetics, if we could do it right), we decided to route 1/4" grooves for the shelves. SketchUp makes it easy to create "components" out of repeating pieces, and create a layer of rulers that can be turned on and off.

Once we liked the design, we could copy the whole thing and separate it to create a cut list. (We tried using the Cut List plugin, but it's not very intuitive and this worked just as well.)

With our cut list we went back to the store to buy the lumber. Unlike with the kitchen counter, when we carried lumber on the bus, this time we needed much larger boards, so we rented a car.

With each project, we have a reason to buy a few more tools. This time we added a saw horse and drill guide. Our parking space (under our porch, enabling a dangled extension cord) again doubled as our carpentry shop.

Over several weekends, we sawed, sanded, drilled, routed...

... assembled...

... primed, painted, and finished...

I wanted to attach the vertical boards to the top and bottom using dowels. Our precision gets a little better on each project, but it's still not perfect. So at the end everything was just a tiny bit off, enough to prevent it from being assembled perfectly. Taking out most of the upper dowels and trimming some of the rear boards made it all fit. The 1/4" shelf grooves, some dowels, eight screws on the sides securing the top and bottom, rear boards flush on all four sides, and flat metal braces screwed into the back make it very structurally sound.

And finally, our new media cabinet!

The store might have under-charged us a little for the lumber, because we got all of it for around $50. Not including new tools, the lumber, paint and miscellaneous parts for the project cost around $100. Factor in the value of appreciating your own well-done work and that's a pretty great value.

- Ben

Wine country camping

January 4, 2014
A few photos from a November weekend trip to Sonoma. We enjoyed an amazing brunch at the Fig Cafe in Glen Ellen on the way to Sugarloaf Ridge State Park, where we hiked Lower Bald Mountain and camped next to a (surprisingly quiet) Boy Scout troop. The next day we attended a wine tasting held in a airplane hanger. It was a nice, easy weekend getaway.

- Steph