Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

January 17, 2004

Bush's space initiative

President Bush’s new space initiative has thrown astronomers into a tizzy. First, it seems to have as its priority not the exploration of space, but the use of space. The emphasis upon putting humans back on the moon and sending humans to Mars is puzzling given the fact that it takes ten times the money to send humans to space than it does to simply send robots.

An immediate effect: NASA yesterday canceled a shuttle mission designed to update the Hubble telescope. Scientists have already created more than $200 million worth of equipment which is sitting on the ground waiting to be added to the Hubble. That equipment will now sit idle.

The Hubble telescope is responsible for over 1/3 of what scientists know about the universe. Astronomers wait in line for years for their brief turn at using the Hubble to further their research. Without the repairs, the Hubble will be left to deteriorate and will be useless in a couple of years.

Instead, all NASA resources are going to be aimed towards the goal of putting a space station on the moon, and sending a man to Mars. The switch in priorities has forced NASA officials to change direction in the past days.

The underlying question is philosophical: Do we explore space and learn what we can learn, or do we focus on conquering it for its practical applications? Are we planning to mine the moon? Mars? Or, are we simply sending men there to flex our muscle as we did when we first sent men to the moon?

I would hope that space would maintain a status similar to Antarctica: International treaties allow all countries to explore Antarctica, but exploiting it is forbidden.

The Bush space initiative is costly. Extremely costly. And you can bet it will get more costly as it progresses. More importantly, however, it represents a complete switch in priorities away from exploration and towards exploitation.


January 16, 2004

Big Sur Highway

California Highway 1 from Cambria, CA to the Monterey Peninsula has to be one of the most dramatic 100-mile stretches of road in this country.

During those 100 miles, there is not a single intersection. To the west is the ocean, and to the east are some very impressive mountains which run for 70 miles without a gap large enough to permit a road into the interior. There are few gas stations and only a handful of restaurants.

Highway 1 clings to west side of the Santa Lucia range. The mountains drop precipitously into the ocean. I was glad that I was on the inside lane all day, as the cliffs which drop down to the sea are frightening, sometimes several hundred feet tall.

The area is beautiful but undeveloped, thanks to a great number of reserves, state parks and national forests. The Hearst Corporation also owns hundreds of thousands of acres along the coast which have served as a cattle ranch for the past 100 years.

The federal and state lands are safe, but rumors have the Hearst heirs negotiating with developers. The land is worth billions.

First point of interest: The elephant seals. They are breeding on this part of the coast. I stopped for a half an hour to watch these enormous blubber sausages flop around the beach and nap.

Elephant seals make hideous noises, most of them flatulent. The male will rear his head back and make a sound similar to a sewer gurgling, except many times louder.

As I drove north, the surf became ever higher. By the time I neared Monterey, I was convinced that the biggest of the waves were 15 feet tall. I do know there are high surf warnings out, but it is difficult to tell the actual height of the waves, even when standing on the beach watching them come in.

Whatever the numbers, I think the waves I saw crashing onto the cliffs today represent the most powerful natural display I have ever seen. It is one thing to see waves slide slowly up a sandy beach and lose their power; it is another to see an enormous wave plow into a rock cliff without slowing down.

I stopped at several viewing points. They tend to protrude into the ocean, allowing you to see miles of beach spread out on either side of you down below. When I looked along the length of the beach, I could see burst of water shoot into the air thirty or forty feet, as if the entire beachfront was being bombed.

The huge waves pummeled the base of the mountains. The noise when they crashed in was like a jet passing over. There wasn’t a crack like you hear with thunder, but there was the rumble.

Every now and then, one particularly large wave would roll in. When I stood on the beach, it looked like a mountain range moving my way. What a feeling! I felt as if I was out watching a funnel cloud or something--knowing I should be in the basement. However, I was perfectly safe.

Because Highway 1 is carved out of the cliffs, it is susceptible to rock slides. In fact, there were crews clearing rocks at several points today, probably in response to the recent earthquake.

I stopped at the top of a cliff which I estimate to be 700 feet over the ocean. The din from the rocks below was deafening. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of seals. I got my binoculars. What I thought were little patches of seaweed in the ocean were in fact packs of seals, frolicking in the huge waves. To top it off, a couple pointed out a couple of whales about two miles of the coast, their spouts plainly visible every couple of minutes.

The coastline gets more vegetated as you move north. The bald green hills give way to scrub brush, which finally turns into coniferous forest. Just before Monterey, there is even a small grove of redwoods tucked in a ravine. I stopped there and took a walk amongst the old 250-foot tall giants.

The 100 miles took me over six hours. Many stops and many 20 mph curves. I won’t take the road again for a few years, I am sure, but I would recommend it to anybody who wants to see spectacular scenery. I would suggest driving from south to north. You want the inside lane!


January 15, 2004

Cambria

I am in the delightful little town of Cambria on the CA coast. The coast just gets nicer as I move north. Today, I was treated to the ocean crashing on one side of the road with cows grazing on the green hills on the other.

Cambria is tucked in a little ravine near the ocean. Tall trees. The smell of pine. Tight little streets. Very little traffic. My first non-chain hotel of the trip! But it has no phone line, so I am borrowing a computer across the street at a copy place--so I will be brief.

Tomorrow, it is past the Hearst Castle and up the coast. There are no hotels for the next 130 miles, I am told. However, it is a spectacular stretch of coast.

The coast here alternates between sandy beaches and rocky cliffs. The surf is high. The sun is bright. Palm trees have given way to pine and juniper.


Random thoughts from the CA coast

I drove 200 miles up the coast from San Diego without seeing a single farm field, or any substantial area which wasn't developed. It was sobering. It was 230 miles up the coast from SD before I saw any stretch of highway that was less than six lanes.

After Santa Barbara, however, as I went west, it became remote. The area is beautiful, but much of the land is owned by the Air Force, which keeps it undeveloped. Very few roads, and long stretches of beach which are uninhabited. I plan to drive up the coast to San Francisco. The road is two lane much of the way.

Today we went on curving back roads up and down the huge green hills. In between the hills are alluvial plains, perfectly flat, where cauliflower and broccoli are grown. You could smell them both. Made me want to spray Round-up on the whole works.

When you leave the 200 mile megalopolis, you also leave the zone of Jaguars, BMWs, Mercedes and expensive SUVs. I overheard somebody in LA refer to a Buick as a rent-a-car--not something a legitimate person would be caught dead in. Here in Lompoc, it feels like Fargo. More down to earth. Jaguar sightings are blissfully rare.

This town on Lompoc has very, very few restaurants. Unlike Fargo or Grand Forks, which have one of the highest per-capita restaurant counts in the nation, I had to scour the town here yesterday to find a decent breakfast. Lompoc is a bedroom community for Santa Barbara, apparently. People do their shopping there.

Many California grocery stores, including both the big ones in this town, are closed due to a strike. It has been going on for several weeks with no end in sight.

I see tonight that Carol Mosely-Braun dropped out of the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Only a week or so after I endorsed her! Ouch.

Today we drove on a little stretch of highway which was the original hard surface road from LA to SF, built in the 30s. It was 20 feet wide, all concrete, in good shape. They did it right, but since then the routes have changed and roads have widened considerably. To fifteen lanes or so.





January 14, 2004

Lompoc

Spent today touring around the city of Lompoc, CA, a town of 46,000 about ten miles from the CA coast. This is the California I enjoy--rolling green hills interspersed with fields of vegetables and cut flowers. Cousin Roy and his wife Margaret took me on a day-long tour of the area today.

In addition to the beautiful scenery, Roy, who has taken more than a half dozen trips to China in the past four years, and has spent that time studying Chinese history, has been telling me about his experiences teaching Chinese students. He has shown me many amazing pictures of Shanghai, where new buildings are sprouting like bamboo. Roy is a teacher, and I have been treated to a graduate level seminar on Chinese history.

The weather on the central California coast is perfect. High of 65 degrees. Cool nights. Fog in the morning. Clear during the day. Green hills, at least this time of year.

I would write more, but the pizza just arrived. And I am hungry!



January 13, 2004

Pea Soup Anderson's

Okay, the guy who founded pea soup is long dead, and the people who have taken over his restaurant (Pea Soup Anderson's) are con artists. A shallow dish of the stuff is $4, and a hot beef dinner is nearly $10. Or you can get the special, which includes pea soup, for $14. None of it is as good as the food you can buy in downtown Fertile.

I stayed at the Pea Soup Inn. Another rip off. Their idea of a continental breakfast was coffee in tiny cups and pastries out of a plastic bag. No cereal. No toast. No juice. Nothing.

Plus, there was a wild party in the room next to me all night which required earplugs.

I thought the pea soup-colored decor was kind of neat, though. Pea green carpet, pea green paint, even a pea green wardrobe. Next time I paint, I will have to consider pea green.



Reagan Library

Last evening when I sat down to write in the weblog, I ran through my day to see what there was to write about and plum forgot that I had visited the Reagan Library that morning. I saw the sign on the freeway, and drove in.

I forgot about the museum in a few hours because it wasn't memorable. I don't get a kick out of seeing the suits and dresses people wear to this or that state dinner, or collages of old pictures I have seen many times already. The only fun thing was the replica of the Oval Office, and even that was no big deal.

My response to the Reagan Library was much the same as it was to the Baseball Hall of Fame this past summer: Boredom. I didn't learn anything. The history part of it was watered down enough to offend nobody, and I don't get much kick out of artifacts. I don't care if Pete Rose gets into the Hall of Fame or not--because as far as I can tell, it is just a bunch of plaques on a wall.

Glad I skipped the Nixon library when I drove past it Sunday.


January 12, 2004

The Home of Split Pea Soup

It took me a couple of hundred miles of travel, but I finally found a little farm town near the coast which doesn't have so much activity. It is called Buellton, and it is the home of split pea soup. Gotta like that. I plan to have a cup for lunch tomorrow in a restaurant owned by the man who invented the stuff I used to hate so much as a kid.


Pasadena

When people tell me, "Oh I have a friend there, give them a call when you go through," I usually don't. But this time I did, and ended up getting a nice tour of the city of Pasadena, CA, a ritzy suburb north of LA, by a person I might have met once before but I am not so sure.

The tour was conducted in a BMW, I'll have you know. My host took care to take me on some hair-raising high speed curves in the city to demonstrate how his car "held the road." Also, the BMW suspension is so good that you can take speed bumps at 55 mph, a great advantage in residential housing developments.

Pasadena is an old city. We passed the Rose Bowl, which is situated in a green ravine surrounded by steep hills. Clinging to those hills are hugely expensive homes occupied by the rich and famous. We then drove the route of the Rose Parade, which still was lined with temporary grandstands.

The neighborhoods are deeply shaded by old trees. Pine, live oak, sycamore, eucalyptus, even some birch. The homes are opulent. My host saw there was an open house at one house that was for sale, so we pulled over and walked through.

The home was on a tiny strip of land, maybe 40 feet deep from the road. This required that the home be long and narrow, no more than 20 feet wide. All the rooms were lined up in a row. The home consisted of 1800 sq. feet. It had no pool. It had virtually no yard. The price? $975,000. Just down the street are homes which go for $10-15 million.

After driving through the grit and grime of Los Angeles, you start to understand what these people are paying for. Prestige, certainly. But mostly, quiet. Townhomes closer to downtown Pasadena of the same size--1800 sq. feet--sell for $550,000, and they were nothing special. We visited one, and the cars roared by just outside the screen door. So, if you want peace and quiet, tack on about a half million to your housing budget.

Traffic was mucked up by limosines in downtown Pasadena. The stars were arriving for the People's Choice awards, whatever that is.

I was surprised by the tall trees and the abundance of green grass. I walked through a nice ravine which featured a fish pond and a stream. It was so deep in a ravine that you couldn't hear the traffic.

It depends upon how you measure, but there are at least 15 million people in the LA area. It is crazy. In fact, in the 200 miles along the coast running from San Diego, through LA and on to Santa Barbara, there is no let up, no undeveloped open country that I could see. Nothing more than a tiny state park every now and then.

It is obvious why people are here. It is 70 degrees and sunny today, and it is far prettier than AZ, if you subtract the highways and malls from the scenery.

But I found myself longing for a stretch of open highway. Something less than 10 lanes.


January 11, 2004

A heart-warmer from Warroad

Here's a great story from the Grand Forks Herald about a man who lived in an 8-foot-wide trailer in Warroad until he died, at which time he left a surprise for everybody.