Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Rocky Mountain High: Colorado Trip, Part 2

Brace yourselves, folks, it’s another “in the sky” blog entry. Here I am in seat 11J on an Airbus A330/300, currently about 37,000 feet somewhere over the southern Gulf of Alaska in the northern Pacific. We’re well clear of US airspace, and now 4,116 miles (6,621 km) from Tokyo. Got all that??

I’ve made three trips home to Colorado in the time I’ve been living in Kuala Lumpur, and this is really the first time I’ve seriously wished I had had a few more days back home. I’ll be happy to get back to my life and my routine in Malaysia, naturally, but the two weeks I spent in the US just flew by, particularly the second week. This has been a new “exit route” for me this time… instead of flying from the dreaded Los Angeles airport, I instead flew from Denver to Salt Lake City, then flew out from there en route to Tokyo. I was seated on the wrong side of the airplane to get the really impressive shots of the Colorado Rockies as we flew west from Denver, but here’s one decent shot from the right side of the plane, showing the fresh dusting of snow on the northern mountains in my home state. By the time we crossed the Continental Divide and were descending into the state of Utah’s capital city, the views of the still-snowless Wasatch Range of the Rockies were stunning. Salt Lake City’s suburbs go right up to the edge of the mountains (on the left side of the photo), and the rise of the Wasatch Range is pretty dramatic. And here’s the city’s namesake, the Great Salt Lake, a vast body of water with salinity so high, there is little life there (certainly no fish). We actually had a pretty substantial delay once we boarded the airplane, about an hour’s wait while they sorted out some weight and balance issues with the cargo on the plane, but I’m in a window seat with nobody seated next to me, so I have no complaints!

I thought about ending the last entry with this particular photo, but decided to stick it here in this entry instead. This is me snoozing on my mother’s sofa with my 13-year-old Amazon parrot, Shiloh, hunkered down and “nesting” on my chest. I got Shiloh when she was about four years old, many years ago. Unlike most pets, however, Amazon parrots are incredibly long-lived in captivity. Many live 65-75 years, and I believe the record is a male Blue-fronted Amazon who was an amazing 114 years old when he died. Unless I live to a very ripe old age, it’s entirely possible that Shiloh may outlive me. I can truly say she doesn’t look a day older than she did when I first brought her home! Shiloh is a Red-lored Amazon, and although her species isn’t renowned for “talking,” they are particularly affectionate as far as Amazon parrots go, and Shiloh is a loving bird indeed. She does say “hello” and can imitate whistles and laughter quite easily, but that seems to be the extent of her vocalizing ability. My mom has been so good about caring for Shiloh during the time I’ve been in Malaysia, getting occasional help from her friends and neighbors, as well.

And here’s my Jeep! Woo hoo! So now, all four of my cars have made an appearance at some point on my blog. The intrepid Tiara and somewhat-new Kia Spectra back in KL, and there was one shot of my beloved Toyota MR2 Turbo in my garage in Denver on an entry from 2009. And this is my Jeep… a vehicle with an engine so large, it would literally break the bank to drive in KL. In Malaysia, road tax is calculated based on engine displacement, whereas in Colorado, it’s based on the residual taxable value of the car. Thus, new cars are expensive to license, but go down dramatically as they age (and their value decreases). So in Colorado, this Jeep runs about US$35 a year to license. Since it has a monster 5.9-liter V8 engine, however, it would cost a bomb to license in Malaysia… a completely staggering RM14,734.50 a year, or US$4,765! It’s a 1998 Grand Cherokee, so the entire value of the vehicle isn’t much more than that, anymore. Maybe if the US had a similar road tax formula, we wouldn’t have such an onslaught of huge, gas-sucking vehicles on the road. The vast majority of cars in Malaysia have engine displacements of about two liters or less, and those cars are perfectly suitable and capable. That said, though the Jeep isn’t exactly fuel efficient, it is a fantastic vehicle for taking into the Colorado mountains. It’s actually the third Grand Cherokee that I’ve owned, and each of them have reliably taken me on some of the roughest, rockiest, and most breathtaking backcountry roads imaginable. Though it’s largely senseless to own such a trail-capable, gasoline-hungry, all-wheel-drive vehicle in most places, in Colorado, it’s completely logical. I’m just glad I have a more fuel-efficient car to drive most of the time there. When I lived in Denver, the Jeep was mostly used just for hauling things and for off-road adventures in the mountains.

Back to the photography, this picture here is from Echo Lake near the base of Mount Evans, the dominant peak of Colorado’s Front Range just west of Denver. We actually got some light snow shortly after I snapped this photo. Though the sun’s angle ensured a high-contrast sky, the clouds nestled in and around the jagged terrain of the mountains really gives a sense of height and grandeur. As with most of these shots from the Rockies, it’s best to click and enlarge them if you really want to see the photo properly.

As in the photo above, one of the things I like to do at high altitudes is to use nearby trees or rocks to either “frame” the photo or to lend a sense of perspective (mostly related to the perception of height). In the two following photos, taken on the high mountain road between Evergreen and Idaho Springs, elements in the foreground are really used simply to convey the magnitude of the vast conifer forest in the background.

Back in the lower elevations, we stopped off in the westernmost suburb of Denver, a town called Golden. We went into a bar and had some draft beers and appetizers. One look at this plate of nachos, in all their disgusting, decadent, and delicious glory, and you’ll understand why so many Americans are overweight. This is the sort of rubbish we eat… I don’t do it often myself, but on occasion, it’s a lot of fun to bond with friends and family over a pitcher of beer and a plate full of future obesity. What a mess.

I’ll take a break here and watch a movie or see if I can get some rest… will pick this back up later on.

Well, the flight from Salt Lake to Tokyo didn’t crash, so apparently their weight and balance calculations were correct. We chewed up a LOT of runway on the takeoff roll, though, and the angle of attack on the climb-out was pretty shallow, too, so I’m thinking that aircraft was pushing its maximum take-off load. Anyway, that flight was uneventful, but the delay in Salt Lake meant a bit of a scramble to catch my next flight in Tokyo, as there was only about a 40-minute window. However, I made it, my luggage made it, and I had a great seat (exit row) on the seven-hour flight down to Bangkok and slept almost literally the whole flight, waking only long enough to eat about half of the lackluster dinner they served. It does seem to be pretty hit-or-miss with Delta’s food, from what I can tell. Some are quite good, some are very forgettable. None are up to the standards of Singapore Airlines or Cathay Pacific.

So now I’m sitting at the gate in Bangkok, awaiting the final short flight back to KL. I only flew Delta between Bangkok and Denver; the KL portion has been served by Air Asia, and I will not make that mistake again. I spent a solid hour arguing my case with them about my checked luggage. What a nightmare. I have one bag that’s about 24 kg, and another that’s 13 kg. Look at this picture! How much trouble could that one little suitcase in front possibly be? I “prebooked” my luggage for 25 and 15 kg, so I figured that would cover me. However, their site won’t allow you to put two bags on one leg, so I put the 15 kg on my outbound flight, then proceeded to e-mail them via their website TWICE from the United States regarding the luggage issue. The site clearly says that they would respond to my inquiry within five days – I didn’t get a response to either e-mail, the first of which was sent a week and a half ago. So what I learned here is that when their site says “supersize your baggage!” and offers you different weights for different prices, that weight is for all your checked luggage combined, not per piece. You’d think the site would state that pretty clearly… but it doesn’t. So because of this lack of clarity and the total non-response to my e-mails, I had no clue, and they tried to charge me 2,150 Thai Baht or something for “excess baggage,” which is a fairly huge sum for a small suitcase (it’s about US$80, I believe). So I went round and round with various people, none of whom were empowered to do anything, naturally. I was never belligerent or abusive (I actually never even raised my voice); I just kept stating my case over and over again and refusing to leave the counter. I didn’t think that their failure to do their job (responding to my inquiry) was something I should be penalized for. As I told the agent, had they responded within five days as the site said, and explained things, I never would have brought the second little suitcase. In the end, I wound up agreeing to pay about 850 Baht, which is more than I’d have cared to pay, but better than it had been. What a bloody nightmare, seriously. They also allow your carry-on bag to only weigh 7 kg, which is complete rubbish. The empty bag itself probably weighs half that, at least! Delta allows carry-on bags to weigh up to 18 kg, which is actually pretty generous (mine weighs about 14). I’ll not use Air Asia again for any final leg of a return flight from the US if there’s any chance of checking more than one bag! Consider this a lesson learned.

More later once I’m back in KL!

Okay, so I’m back and largely recovered from the flight(s). It was about 22-23 hours of actual flying time, and I reckon around 35 hours or so of total transit time. Here's a shot of all the stuff I brought back this time. Like before, it's a lot of food and things I either can't get easily in KL (or at all) or things that are much cheaper in the States. I brought back two suits this time, too, as well as a car stereo for the Kia. It was really odd returning this time… even though the time in Denver went by really quickly, I felt like I had been gone from KL for a long, long time. When I walked in my condo, it seemed almost unfamiliar to me. That’s never happened before. The sensation wore off soon enough though, and I was back to work and right back in my routine as of the next day.

So it was an enjoyable visit all in all. I got to catch up with friends and family (and my parrot), my mom’s surgery went smoothly and all the news was good, and I got to enjoy some great food and soak up some incredible weather. If the flights weren’t so very long (and costly), I’d surely go back more often! The shot here is of Bear Creek, not too far from where my mother lives… very nice area for hiking and wandering. And the final picture is from our last foray into the mountains, this scene of the Never Summer Mountain range from the Peak-to-Peak scenic highway near the small town of Nederland, Colorado. What a beautiful day that was!

More entries to come soon as we head into the final months of 2010.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Colorful Colorado

Though my home state of Colorado offers scenic beauty at any time of year, autumn is by far my favorite season. The days are still mostly warm, and the evenings are cool and crisp. Last year, I visited in September, so I wrote about my love for this time of year in the Rocky Mountains then. This year, I got to fly back home to visit in early October... most of the leaves at higher elevations in the mountains have already hit their peak color (and some have fallen off the trees completely), but lower elevations are still covered with golden yellow aspens, and the trees in Denver are just starting to change colors. It's just a wonderful time of year, a few short weeks where the transition from summer to winter yields a comfortable climate with plenty of clear, blue-sky days, punctuated by the brilliant colors of the changing leaves.

It's been an enjoyable holiday... getting to visit with friends and family. My mother is recovering from major surgery now, so we've been trying to get her out and about a little more each day as she works towards her recovery. One day, we took her brother and his wife, who were visiting from Atlanta, into the foothills and along the Front Range, where I snapped many of these photos. In the afternoon, as we returned to Denver, we stopped by an open-space park in the foothills west of the city. The sun was low in the sky... that "magic hour" before sunset, so the quality of light was outstanding. The warmth of the setting sun, the long shadows and deep contrasts between shadow and light made for a very enjoyable hike along the creek. This stem of scrub oak leaves, a deep red color, was backlit by the sun and really caught my eye.

One thing about life in the mountains is that there's a real struggle for life above a certain altitude. Yet life always finds a foothold and manages to carry on. We went over Squaw Pass, just west of the city, which reaches an elevation of over 11,000 feet (3,350 meters), and trees have a hard time growing there. Yet they still find a way... here is what I thought was a nice shot of a young tree which was growing and thriving in the most inhospitable home... the side of a rocky cliff high in the mountains.

Down at lower elevations, life takes on a much more recognizable shape. Here, a mule deer buck pauses during his "fattening up" for the coming winter. People in Colorado are very accustomed to wildlife... seeing deer, elk, foxes... even in the suburbs of Denver, it's not unusual.

I'll add some more pictures and write more in a second entry later. I have a couple of full days left here in Colorado, so if the weather cooperates (there's snow in the forecast), we'll head back up into the mountains and I'll take some more pictures. This last photo was taken looking over a rocky outcrop towards a forest that, although already filled with plenty of barren trees, still shows bright yellow swaths of aspens amongst the evergreens. I'll always consider Colorado to be home... no matter how far I wander. :)