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

Next up: sun and sand in southern California

June 13, 2013
We're back! Read about our trip here.

We've thrown together a last-minute escape to southern California. Ben's cousin is getting married in LA at the end of June so we decided to make a trip out of it with the motorcycle.

We'll head down the coast on Route 1, with stops at the Hearst Castle and Santa Barbara.

Hearst Castle
Cross your fingers that we survive the LA freeways and make it to San Diego for a few days of relaxing on the beach. (The last time I went to San Diego, I was 6 and had the chicken pox. I'm hoping to avoid contagious diseases this time.)

Ocean Beach Pier, San Diego
San Diego Zoo

We'll confront the summer heat for a few days of hiking at Joshua Tree National Park.

Joshua Tree National Park
Key's View, Joshua Tree National Park
And drop by LA for a quick visit and the wedding before making a mad dash back to San Francisco the next day.

Satellite view of LA

- Steph

Photos from Christian ArballoNathan RupertThomas Hawk, John CurleyAbhijit Patil and the International Space Station

When the fog rolls ins

June 12, 2013
route 1 pacific coast highway fog
The fog, and the barely discernible road below

We still don't understand San Francisco seasons — the beach was pleasant in the winter, Big Sur was deliciously warm in November and Half Moon Bay was cloudy and cold in March. Most confusingly, on Saturday we spent the whole ride out of the city shivering. Ben remarked the drive home was like riding through hell: cold, misty and windy.

And yet the roads were packed with cars. Which brings me to a theory I have recently devised: Motorists who use the roads all year long should get their own special lane in the summer to let us bypass the fair-weather roadsters ruining our favorite routes.

On Saturday, we were attempting to enjoy one of those favorites routes: the coastal highway up to Point Reyes Station. In the winter, the sun was always out, the roads were empty and we could escape the city in 20 minutes with miles of open road ahead of us.

Route 1 as it should be
Yet this weekend, the Golden Gate Bridge was shrouded in fog and I had to hold onto my helmet to fight the wind. Worst of all, we couldn't escape the traffic. Just when we thought we had it beat, it backed up for miles leading up to Stinson Beach.

Approaching Stinson Beach (before we hit the traffic)

Fortunately our perseverance paid off and we enjoyed a delicious lunch at Marin Sun Farms, a butcher shop and restaurant with grass-fed and pasture-raised meat (SF's food consciousness is rubbing off on us). And far enough away from the city, the weather was indeed beautiful. But we're hoping we won't have to endure the cold and fight the traffic all summer long — because if we do, this might have been our last trip to Point Reyes for many months.

(And that would make us sad.)

- Steph

Revisiting the Cold War

June 10, 2013
nike hercules missiles sf-88 san francisco
Nike Missile Site SF-88 in the Marin Headlands, circa 1959.

Ben and I aren't old enough to remember the Cold War. We were 4 years old when the Berlin Wall came down. The first geopolitical event either of us remembers is the Gulf War. (The first historical event that Ben remembers understanding is the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin.) Luckily for those of us too young to live through the threat of impending nuclear doom, there are historical artifacts like the Nike Missile Site, which we visited a few weeks ago.

Just a couple of miles from the Golden Gate Bridge, the missile site was one of 12 in the Bay Area prepared to launch a nuclear-armed missile in the event of a Soviet attack. It represented the last line of defense against an air assault. If Soviet bombers got past the Navy and the Air Force out in the Pacific, the missile defense airmen were in a position to detonate a 20-kiloton nuclear bomb within 100 miles of the U.S. coast. When the threat of attack shifted to come from over the North Pole, they aimed to detonate over northern California.

The theory was to explode the bombs into the stratosphere — the second major layer of the earth's atmosphere, which begins at roughly 40,000 feet — to avoid the formation of a mushroom cloud. In the nightmare scenario for the Bay Area sites, the Russians would force an explosion over the San Francisco Bay that would suck all the water out of the bay and draw up a cloud of sludge that would have covered the city. By detonating further away from the city and higher in the atmosphere, the military calculated that the harm to civilians from the nuclear blast was preferable to the widespread destruction that would be wrought by the incoming megaton bombs.

The airmen didn't need to hit a precise target; the real threats were the shock wave and electromagnetic pulse that accompany a nuclear explosion. The overpressure from the explosion created by the shock wave would cause the bombers to fall out of the sky while the electromagnetic pulse would knock out electronic devices, including communication systems, electrical appliances and aircraft ignition systems. The blast would have the intended consequence of halting the attack, but it would have also disabled U.S. military and civilian hardware. (A 1962 nuclear test on Johnson Island in the Pacific caused a much larger than expected electromagnetic pulse, knocking out about 300 streetlights, setting off numerous burglar alarms and shutting down telephone lines in Hawaii, 900 miles away.)

The site in the Marin Headlands, known as SF-88, was manned round-the-clock by 18- and 19-year-old soldiers schooled in the mantra: "We are the last line of defense." The Army Air Defense Command required that 25 percent of all Nike sites be capable of launching a missile within 15 minutes of receiving a signal or warning; 50 percent had to be capable of launching a missile within 30 minutes. Recounted Chief Warrant Officer Terry Abel:
[During] the Arab Israeli 1973 War we actually were at battle stations. We were not even at five minute. Everything was hooked up, all the launchers were loaded, all the missiles were elevated and we were ready to fire.
Nike missile sites in the Bay Area.
The Nike antiaircraft missile system remains the most expensive missile system ever deployed, as well as the most widespread (300 sites in 30 states) and longest-lived (25 years nationwide)[1]. The development of inter-continental ballistic missiles — which fly at altitudes and speeds beyond which the Nike missiles could reach — rendered them obsolete and the last Nike missiles were taken out of service in 1979. The site in the Marin Headlands was closed in 1974, but escaped demolition and is now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. It is the only restored Nike missile site in the country and Nike veterans host an open house there on the first Saturday of every month.

At each part of the base, a veteran of the Nike units gave a history lesson combined with personal memories of being stationed there. In the highlight of our visit, a docent raised one of the missiles to the firing position before leading us underground to the missile storage facility, which illuminated for us just how nuclear war could have begun. The docent for that section of the tour focused mainly on the technical specs of the weapons and the state of readiness of the soldiers, while a docent from earlier in the tour enjoyed recounting stories of the geopolitical tensions of the era. (He claimed that one of the Soviet leaders was terrified by the Star Wars movies, believing that if George Lucas could have imagined the Star Wars technology, then the U.S. must have been able to build it. We're pretty sure he said it was Nikita Khrushchev, but Khrushchev died six years before Episode IV, and even if he wasn't talking about Khrushchev, we've never heard any such claim before — has anyone else?)

And what's a little firsthand history without crazy conspiracy theories, thanks to the docent manning the warhead building. It's never a good sign when someone asks you (with the requisite drawl), "Have you read the internet lately?" Ben tried to answer diplomatically by asking if he was referring to the recent NYT editorial on Obama overspending on nuclear upgrades — thinking the guy, like the one at the previous station, thought MAD was pretty mad and the de-prioritization of nuclear readiness was a good thing. But instead we got an earful about how afraid we should be, with the government not investing enough in tactical nukes. China and all these other countries are building tactical nukes, and we've got nothing comparable to retaliate with, so be afraid! Then he told us all about the beauties of the neutron bomb, describing its radioactive after-effects like a pyromaniac bragging about the awesome fireball he just made. It's not everyday you run across someone who is sad that the government took his nuclear weapons away!

- Steph

I've made every attempt to factcheck the information I've included above, but I had to rely on the oral history recounted by the docents and publicly available information on the internet, and as such cannot guarantee its accuracy.

Photos from the Nike Historical Society, Telstar Logistics via flickr, National Park Service, AlexK_MA via flickr and me.

Seattle: indoors

June 3, 2013

Picking up where I left off on our trip to Seattle, during which it rained (surprise), leaving me to entertain myself indoors for two days.

I started at the Klondike Gold Rush Museum, dedicated to the 1897 rush to find gold in the Yukon. It's a small, excellent museum that leads you chronologically from the first announcement of gold, to the mad rush through Seattle up to northwestern Canada and finishes with the long-term economic consequences. Most compellingly, it chronicles the journey of five prospectors, using their own words to recount their journey. And best of all, it's free. (Thanks National Park Service.)

My most interesting historical tidbit from my visit: The co-founder of the Nordstrom department store chain, John Nordstrom, was among those who headed to Alaska in search of fortune. He staked a claim, which came under legal challenge, and lacking the funds to defend his title, settled for $30,000 and returned to Seattle with a net profit of $13,000. He used that money to open a shoe store, which under his sons would eventually grow into the Nordstrom's chain. The claim he sold? It paid out millions in the years to come.

Looking to further escape the rain, I next headed to the Seattle Public Library, which is as unlike Widener Library as any library can be (Harvard's Widener Library being the last library in which I spent significant time).

I curled up with a book in one of these purple chairs.
The "red floor."
The next day it was still raining (Ben and I are in agreement that we could never live in the Pacific northwest — we need sunshine) so I visited the Seattle Art Museum. I focused mostly on the American frontier and the native American art and bypassed modern and Renaissance works. I've found that in regional museums, I often most enjoy the art indigenous to the area (for example, the colonial art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston).

We were happy the weather cleared for our final day of wandering (along the waterfront up to the Olympics Sculpture Garden) before heading back to SF. Ben's company headquarters haven't moved so we figure we'll be back in the not-too-distant future.

- Steph