Annual Best Photos of the Year

There were a lot of photos this year that were good. I had a lot of material. Here are some of my favorites and ones worth discussing. Quickly I’ll describe each one.

There are 25 photos here. I have many more in this link.

A very cool Castle in Southern Germany that my mom and I went to see on our way to Lake Constance. More photos in the link

NeuSchwanstein Castle near the Austrian Border. Most photographed castle in the world.

One of my favorites. Taken in Brussels, Belgium on a very cool tour we took there with Peterjan, a good friend.

American WWII Cemetery in Luxomberg. Just left of the tower in the middle is the grave of General George S. Patton.

An awesome view from Lagos in southern Portugal. Great place to swim and cheap.

Tile wall decorations in an Arabic temple.

Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. Still under construction after over 100 years.

Two of my favorite photos. First is a long hall in El Escorial castle north of Madrid. Second is a reflection of that hall and maybe the best photo I’ve ever taken. Only one rivals it in my mind.

Looking up at the telescope and moon from the observatory in Stuttgart, Germany.

Not a great photo perse, but this is of the train that goes below the English Channel. It was a 25 minute ride from England to France, and I barely had time to take off the helmet and visit the bath room. It filled up with cars after the photo was taken.

Wonderful church near Ulm, Germany. I really enjoyed the reflection.

One of the best days in my year. My friends and I watched several Rugby games of fellow exchange students and relaxed on the mats there. Fun group of people.

Another fantastic day. Towards the end of our stay the six of us spent most of the afternoon hanging out by the lake near campus. Really good friends: Emmet, Carlos, Gosia, Jessica, myself, and Kasia.

Another cool reflection photo from Copenhagen, Denmark. The town is full of canals, and they are too scenic.

Again in Copenhagen, this one inside the famous fort that guarded the city.

After picking mushrooms in rural Poland I snapped this of my booty.

Warsaw, Poland. I really enjoy reflection photos, and the stones made it even more enjoyable.

The castle in Krakow, Poland framed nicely with the trees.

Fun curvy road near the Mediterranean sea north of Valencia, Spain.

Same road, but this time with an old church and the sea in view.

Jessica and I at the Guiness Brewery Bar enjoying fresh Guiness.

Grandma, me, Mom, and Aunt Gayle at my graduation in December.

Gonzalo, Kasia, Gosia, Carlos, and me in Amsterdam. These are some of my best friends in the world. This wasn’t my camera, but I really enjoy the memories from this time.

I snapped this one in my Physics laboratory. The lines you see are from a unique physical principle using a Fabry-Perot Etalon.

A ride story for Christmas

It was a day of accomplishment, a successful day. I awoke early, camped out at a KOA not far from Rapid City, South Dakota. I was there for a rally called Braveheart, a group of friends that get together every year having met on a web site. The friends you make like that can sometimes be the best kind This story involves one such friend.

Unlike the previous 5 days I rolled up my sleeping gear, packed my luggage, and took down the tent. See, the rally was over and everyone was going home. Everyone but me. I was only partway through my trip. In previous summers and this one included I had conquered 46 states and two Canadian Provinces. This day would round out the contiguous states and accomplish a motorcycle traveling goal.

On the way to the hotel where most rally attendees stayed I stopped by another where two friends from Iceland had stayed. Earlier that summer they purchased a motorcycle from another friend and rode that across the United States. Their trip was an impressive one and still going too, but they would have to turn home soon. I was unable to wake our friends, affectionately called the Bezerkers due to a patch on Tommy’s vest. Nanna was his wife and riding partner, and the two of the made quite a pair and quite a site.

Since they weren’t answering the call it was time to meet up with the others. Some of the people I knew from past rallies and others I had only met days before. Two of those people are Trapper_Canada and his wife Kat who had ridden in from Saskatchewan. They are a neat couple and fun to ride with. Others like Raymond and Emu and Chuck are old friends that meet up whenever the opportunity arises. They’ve ridden together extensively, and just to see them grouped together will make you laugh; wait till you hear them talk. There were many more people at that rally, around 80 in all, and all are worth mentioning and will be soon.

This day wasn’t a normal day however, not even for the last day of a rally. Two people I had met that week were Frmrpat and Plowboy. These guys are brothers raised on a farm up in Circle, Montana. They invited me to ride with them and see their place only about a day’s ride away. Farmer knew of my desire to see as much as possible along the way and offered to show me the more scenic route. And by more scenic route I mean more of the same but in a less direct manner. See, when you get in that part of the country things don’t change much, not for a long time.

After saying goodbye to our new and renewed friends the farmer and I headed west on Interstate 80 towards Sturgis, SD. This is a neat little town famous for another motorcycle rally. We were only two weeks early for that, but as I understand it it’s nicer that way. Since we had already gotten all the souvenirs we wanted earlier there was no reason to stop, and we rode on past the currently barren one horse town.

Before long our small gas tanks needed a fill and us a rest. The climate in the west is arid, and it takes a lot of water to maintain one’s hydration. I remember purchasing a little beef jerky at the gas stop to supply my energy. Breakfast obviously wasn’t keeping up. We said goodbye to Plowboy and his wife who were headed with the van and trailer on the faster roads, and the farmer and I turned north.

This was really nice for me and more special than even he knows. I’ve ridden quite a bit, and most of that was alone. There were only two times I can recall from before that time that I had ridden any distance with another person, traveling I mean. Many times, at rallies for instance, I had ridden with people and ended up at the same place for the night. But only Strider1 and Trev had ever ridden with me outside of their own area. Farmer would be the third person to do this, and until now the last. This means a lot to me, and even though it may be only one day’s worth of riding it sticks in my memory. That and the rest of the day.

The road was a straight one, almost inperceptively straight. It endured hours with nary a curve. One could ride days up there is seems and see little more than road and grass, not even the bank of a curve breaks the vastness of it. If you look at a road map of that corner the Dakotas you’ll notice the lack of roads, maybe 2 per county. There’s no natural boundary to cause builders to make a curve. It’s a hypnotizing experience, and pretty soon one can lose concentration. Usually at times like this I find myself singing, sometimes the urge to sleep is strong. But there are ways to break the monotony like moving around, and of course picking favorite tune and shouting it out loud. Before long our tanks were low and it was time to stop again.

Somewhere in there we were passed by two other travelers; you can see them in that second picture. In the town of Buffalo there were approximately one gas station, one house, and one post office, so it was eventual that we would see each other again. Bikes cannot pass up gas stops when they are that far apart. It was a father and son crew both riding older Gold Wings headed somewhere further north. While we drank orange Gatorade to cool off and rehydrate, they took off and were long gone before we hit the road again. There was no reason to hurry; the company was too good.

We had at some point slipped into North Dakota. Politically we were in a different place, but the scenery didn’t change. The farmer graciously consented to me looking around for a pin to fit on my vest. I had started collecting pins after my second trip, and this meant usually it was my second visit to a state before buying the pin, but I didn’t have a plan to make it back to ND anytime soon, so this was my one chance. We found a pin soon enough, quite a nice one with a duck on it suggestive of hunting, and it was time for the road again.

Not long later we were to head west again. We were in South West North Dakota as I like to say and turning away. The farmer knew of some neat sights along the way, and he made sure we stopped at Theodore Roosevelt National Park. Unfortunately our ride that day would be a long one, and we only had time to stop for a picture and some ice cream. The ice cream was delicious on that hot dry day, and the rest very worth the time. I still had my National Parks entry card and stopped in just for a map before we headed out.

I asked the farmer at some point what made the park worth of even being there. It seemed that this part of North Dakota was only flat and that there wasn’t much to see. I realized soon enough what the attraction to ND’s only National Park was. We began riding into canyons and the scenery changed quite a bit from less than exciting to something special. I had never seen anything like this before and really enjoyed it. The dryness of it all and color of the rock walls running alongside of the road was only a hint of what the rather large park offered. Of course my riding partner had seen it already and once remarked how he had canyons like that on his very own property. I could hardly wait to see it.

I was taken off some that the government would take the only nice peice of land away from North Dakota. I thought it a shame the state’s biggest attractor should be federally run and the proceeds out of reach for them. It is however a nice memorial to a great president and a testimonial to his forethought and legacy.

It was another long stretch to the border, but I anticipated every minute. Up to then I had ridden in 47 states and my last was only minutes away. The anticipation heightened my awareness, and every sign on the horizon piqued my attention. Each time one would come into view I’d strain my eyes to read it. Most left me wanting more, some were interesting like “Home on the Range”. I still wonder what is over there. Soon though the one I had waited so long for was in sight and I snapped a quick shot. I was in Montana!

This is again one of those times most people can relate to. Remember when you were a kid and in school you talked about Maine, or France, or Australia, and as a kid with a still small world view you remember thinking “that is so far away, I’ll never get there”? The world is a big place, but each time you break down that barrier it feels a little smaller. Montana was one of those ‘too far away’ places I would never see; only there I was. I still remember the feeling of hair raising excitement upon entering the state.

Now, Frmrpat is from Montana, born and raised. And I am from Texas, so of course there is some rivalry between us about how big things are. And to this day I have never set foot on property larger than his. That’s not to say it doesn’t exist, and if I do say so myself there are many such places here in Texas. Don’t tell him that though, he prefers to live in that state of denial. 😀 I guess this is as good a time as any for me to tell his joke but in my own words.

“Two ranchers were talking, one from Montana and the other from Texas. The Texas farmer, bragging about his property, speaks up and says his is so large he could get in his truck in the morning and ride all day. The sun would set before he reached the end of his land.

‘The Montanan thinks about that for a minute, always having to one up the Texan, and says ‘yea, I used to have a truck like that too.”

The farmer loves that joke and of course switched the roles of the two gentlemen in the story from the original telling to fit his needs. When he did that I found my own version about how the Montana man’s cow was so big that the beef had lasted an entire year, and the Texan replied “I had a cow like that once too”. He didn’t laugh as hard at my joke.

He and I swapped lots of stories like that, and at our last gas stop for the day he presented me with a state pin in the shape of Montana. The farmer is a gracious man and quite generous. That would not be the end of his hospitality. We rode on in to his town sometime before dusk and took the nickel tour. There would be more time later on land and by air to see Circle, Montana so I didn’t press for too much. Plus we were exhausted; it had really been a long day, and the heat made it even more tiring.

I said his town earlier, but what I really meant is the town nearest to where he lives. See, the farmer and his brother with their wives and father live out in the boonies as we used to say. Directions to his house might read, “follow the one road out of town till it turns to gravel. Eventually it will turn to the right and you’ll be in the neighbor’s farm. Go several more miles and there’ll be a driveway on the left…” His place is really secluded, and that’s a nice thing.

Remember how I said the farmer was gracious? Well he really is. Upon arriving he fired up the grill and asked what we should put on it. See, the farmer raises cows and keeps a few pieces in a freezer. I chose rib eye, and that was a good choice. The meat was excellent, hand cut and home raised. I can’t remember a better one I’ve eaten. This was a great way to end a great day.

Later that night I went outside to reflect a little. This is when I noticed how close the stars were. They don’t call Montana Big Sky Country for nothing. You can see so much of the sky, and it was so clear I bet there are few places even in Texas that can rival his view of the night. I snapped a couple photos to remember it by.

That was a pretty cool day in my life, and I took plenty of photos to remember it. Here are all of them. And sorry about not posting a story last week, I was real busy with graduation and work. I did write one, but you’ll have to wait to read it.

Good night and Merry Christmas.

Tough Decision

Boy, this was one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever had to make. Tonight I declined an offer that was hard to turn down. And given most any other circumstance I would have taken it. This thing at UT is so exciting for me however I had to accept. The scientist I will be working for studies glaciers in Antarctica and on Mars. If things go well I’ll be able to go there with him.

What was so hard about that decision? Well, the other offer was very strong and I could start school immediately at a great university. This has been weighing on my mind for months, and finally I had to act having both offers on the table and a deadline approaching. I tried to express my feelings in the letter. One of the worst parts is disappointing the other scientist. I feel like I led him on a little.

I’m sure soon enough this won’t bother me anymore, but there might always be a little doubt. One good thought is that there are worse things in life than having two equally good options.

here is the letter

—————

Dr. C——,

I wanted to thank you again for the offer you have extended to me. I am very grateful to have been accepted to the Atmospheric Sciences graduate department at Texas A&M, and it is a very good offer. I want to apologize for taking so long in sending this email; you have been very patient and this quality will make you a great advisor to your students.

I took so long in replying because I was waiting for another offer and did not want to make the decision without knowing my every option. Yesterday I accepted that offer, and unfortunately that means I will decline the one you afforded me. This is not a reflection on you personally or your department. I consider you both to be outstanding, and my understanding is that you do great science. Neither is it based on the university because Texas A&M is a magnificent school, and one would be very lucky to attend there. The campus is beautiful, and the reputation of the university is top notch.

I do not make this decision lightly. It was one based on my personal goals and desires. And while a career in Atmospheric Science would be rewarding both mentally and professionally, there is something else that I prefer. So I will pursue a different path in a different field. My hope is that it is as good a choice as the one I am turning down, and yet my fear is that I make an error in doing so.

Please understand this was not easy for me. I am walking away from a great opportunity: one to be a successful scientist in a growing field and possibly make an impact on the world.

I will send the formal letter to the graduate school soon. Thank you for understanding, and thank you again for your time and patience. One would be very fortunate to have such a good advisor as you.

Isaac Smith

Geminid Meteor Shower

Geminids

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

The Geminids are a meteor shower caused by an object named 3200 Phaethon, which is thought to be an extinct comet. The meteors from this shower can be seen in mid-December and usually peak around 12-14 of the month. The Geminid shower is thought to be intensifying every year and recent showers have seen 120-160 meteors per hour under optimal conditions. The Geminids were first observed only 150 years ago, much more recently than other showers such as the Perseids and Leonids.

Radiant

The meteors in this shower appear to come from a radiant in the constellation Gemini (hence the shower’s name). However, they can appear almost anywhere in the night sky, and often appear yellowish in hue. The meteors travel at medium speed in relation to other showers, at about 22 miles per second, making them fairly easy to spot. The Geminids are now considered by many to be the most consistent and active annual shower. In 2005, viewing of the shower was restricted due to a full moon washing out the fainter meteors. The 2006 shower had a less full moon.

This info taken from Wikipedia

———————————

Where to look

Best viewing windows: Friday morning, December 14; the last couple of hours before morning twilight. Also, the entire night of Thursday evening/Fridayednesday morning, December 13/14 after about 8pm local time.

The Geminid radiant is above the horizon for nearly all hours of darkness and the optimum observing point shifts throughout the night. Early in the evening the best observing position is to point your feet northward, westward, or southward and look straight up. Late in the evening your orientation could remain unchanged, but you should shift the center of your gaze to about 45° above the horizon. By late morning, the best vantage point would be to point your feet towards the north, east, or south and set your gaze to a point about 45° above the horizon.

First day in Spain

I woke up the next day after nearly enough sleep. The hotel room wasn’t as nice as the night before, and I remember the bed being not as comfortable as hoped. After a nearly warm shower and charging my camera batteries I woke Jessica so we could prepare for our last long ride. The previous five days had been only riding and sleeping, and we were looking for some down time. Earlier that week we had been in Warsaw, Poland, and it was a non-stop riding extravaganza trying to make it all those miles and still leave us some time to enjoy the beach.

Our friends Carlos and Elena had both invited us to stay with them in their homes and beach house in and near Valencia, Spain. They were so inviting that we could not turn them down. At the time we were north and a little east of Barcelona and about seven hours from our final destination of Carlos’ beach house in Benicassim.

It was a long drive, but our desire to avoid the interstate/toll road made it even longer. In the next town south and along the coast we found a supermarket that had food for sale, and we broke fast in the parking lot there while taking in the new culture of our host country for the next week plus. Spanish life is interesting and different than ours, much more European like the Germans or French than our culture and yet so very different than either of them too.

Our road was the old coastal highway and we passed clear blue beaches like Costa Brava and Costa Dorada one one side and wonderful range of mountains on the other. While making time with traffic Jessica snapped some good photos. She did a good job too. Our whole trip she had been the moving photographer and took her own shots as well as my suggestions all the time riding a motorcycle. That was something I had always done myself, but having her there allowed me to concentrate more on riding and also more on sight seeing.

You can see here that West of us were mountains, and east was the sea. Last photo is our destination city.

Some towns were so cluttered and touristy that traffic was nearly a crawl and occasionally worse. It reminded me of Panama City Beach or Corpus Christi around peak season. There is one advantage to riding a motorcycle in Europe however: motorcycles can do anything. And I mean that. Bikes can ride in between cars, on the shoulder or even in the oncoming traffic’s lanes to pass slower and bigger cars headed the same way. In a couple of those towns we left cars waiting forever that would probably take an hour or more to cross just a short distance, but our advantage was utilized to the utmost, and we eventually passed all of that.

Barcelona came upon us soon enough, and a quick and poor decision led us right through the heart of that big city. Originally the intent was to take the loop or city ring around to avoid all the traffic of the beachfront road and the stopped up highway that ran through town. The latter was where we ended up though. This was of course about the time it began to rain. Imagine navigating a motorcycle in one of the heaviest trafficked cities in all of Europe, in the rain, and with no idea where you are going.

Jessica and I had a vague idea of directions from our time there six months earlier on a big trip around Portugal and Spain. Thanks to that experience I was able to find my way past the Sagrada Familia and other famous structures by architect Gaudi. The previous time there Jessica and her friend Alison (also an architecture student from the University of Kansas) led/drug me around the city to see his most famous works. Don’t tell them, but I actually enjoyed that about the Barcelona. Other things there were not so exciting to see, but I had seen some television special on his works years earlier and I secretly hoped to see them while there.

Now, the rain in Spain has a reputation for staying mainly in the plain, but I am here to denounce that entirely. I think that little grammatical jewel was little more than a clever rhyme that tricked millions of people throughout the years. The substance of the quote is in fact entirely opposite of the truth and so far from reality that only a thespian more concerned with plot and script than geographical accuracy could have invented it. Spain’s plains are the driest portions of all of Europe. There is no true desert on that continent, but this comes close. Within ½ hour traveling inland from any coast, north, west, south, or east the land gets so dry almost nothing can grow. Well, the north does have a larger wet region, but it’s more hilly there than flat. The heat in Spain only adds to the desert feeling that we were all deceived for so long. Of course that heat is exactly what the two of us were seeking. And we soaked it up.

It was supposedly a holiday weekend, and our this time “flesh and blood” hotel host made the suggestion that we follow the speed limit especially on our road where the police would be out in full force. And believe it or not Spanish police don’t have much patience for foreigners. Thankfully, however, we were not pulled over nor photographed speeding, which seems to be more a fad of northern and western Europe rather than down south. Other than a mix up while trying to get off the highway (the only way we found to leave Barcelona) we didn’t get too lost, and pretty soon the sun came out to warm us, and for the first time in months I was able to ride with just a t-shirt on.

This sounds so strange saying it now, and I can only imagine how it sounds to someone not there. This was the middle of August, and instead of sweating while riding we were obliged to don heavy winter clothing including but not limited to ski gloves and pants with fleece vests underneath. The entire trip had been more like a fall colors ride to me than a summer vacation. I had worn my heavy jacket with liner the entire trip, the entire summer even, and this was my first opportunity to get some sun on my arms, and I gladly took advantage.

Europe’s weather is an enigma to me. During the entire year the temperature in Stuttgart (where I had spent that amount of time studying at the university) only broke 80 degrees Fahrenheit twice, and to a Texas boy, that just wasn’t enough. The winter wasn’t so cold that I couldn’t stand it, but it was determined to be the warmest winter on record going back 500 years.

So we rode on our trusty steed to our almost final destination, Benicassim, where Carlos awaited us at his parent’s beach house. Finally we could enjoy summer! Our first goal was to get down to the beach for sun and swimming. So Carlos with his mom and sister escorted us to the waterfront where we could finally relax and enjoy some time without motion. They left us alone for a little while, and soon Jessica and I found ourselves walking along the boardwalk. The town was really old with houses from the 1500s I believe, maybe older, and the wooden walkway along the beach had vendors and artists selling their peices. We passed some really interesting sand work/art and I had to snap some photos.

Views from Carlos’ balcony.

Something that caught me off guard was that the beaches in Spain are clothing optional, mostly for women’s tops, and I found myself very distracted. Of course while walking down the beach with a pretty girl you can’t stare at other women so I had to be mindful and not a complete hound dog drooling out of the corner of my eyes. It was later in the evening when we took that walk, so there weren’t as many people taking that liberty as we would see in coming days.

Now some readers here will look for photos of these women, but it is in very bad taste to take those kinds of pictures on the beach. I think there may be some in the background of a couple, but they were not intentionally photographed nor are faces seen.

Beach Photos start here

That night Mrs. Carlos’ mom treated us to a traditional coastal meal with fried squid, bread and salad, wine, and a few others I have trouble remembering right now. And I was so hungry I ate everything on the table. I couldn’t get enough. Jessica had snacked before swimming, but in the commotion I forgot. I’m sure his parents feared I wouldn’t stop eating and they’d have to get more food. It was a nice experience staying in a Spanish home. I was able to speak with Carlos’ parents in Spanish and explained that the three of us had met in Germany where we all studied and that Jessica and I were traveling around seeing everything we could. I’m sure their son had explained it all many times before, but the conversation got us all introduced, and we learned about each other. Dinner was not the end of the evening however.

The night life in Spain only starts around midnight, and some time around 1am we met up with the wacky friends of Carlos and headed down to a beach club where we could enjoy drinks and music. The music was loud, and we brought the drinks. The party lasted nearly all night, and I suppose it went on well after we went to bed. One thing I really enjoyed about Benicassim was that for a coastal city on the Mediterranean there were very few foreigners. Most people there were Spanish and owned or rented beach houses for the summer. Just half an hour south in Valencia it would be different.

While at the beach club I snapped a couple shots of fire twirlers, and one of Jessica, Carlos, and I.

All the photos from this day are here.

Riding in France part 2

Morning came, and we slept in. After all, weren’t we relaxing? Weren’t we on vacation? No need to see everything all at once. Of course hunger set in. I always seemed to get hungry before Jessica, but she would always succumb sooner or later. After a couple fruitless attempts at “cafeterias” that ended up being coffee shops and some not quite service stations we found a full-blown super market. This was possibly the biggest I had seen during the entire year with maybe an exception of one Tesco in Poland. We stocked up on fruit, water, pastries, and things to make a picnic. And that picnic would turn out to be quite an experience.

After refueling we were back on the road, and it wasn’t long before we had reached Lyon. During that time though we passed through more quaint French towns passing amazing stone churches and even a sunflower field. We had to get back on the four lane for a while – which ended up being most of the day. Lyon is the second largest city in France and third largest metropolitan area, or maybe I have those numbers reversed.

Jessica had pushed a little that we head directly south to Marseilles where there would certainly be famous architecture and we could make better time, but I had a secret goal, two actually. For months I had been talking and reading about the Milau Viaduct, the tallest bridge in the world. Its towers were over 340 meters, much more than 10 football fields tall, and I wanted to ride over it. My other goal was to ride to Andorra, a small mountain country between France and Spain. The Tour de France sometimes goes there, and most of us have seen photos of those mountains. But it turned out much farther west than we wanted to go, so we compromised. Heading west (but just for a little while) we passed on the monstrous sprawl of Lyon and got back into the real mountains and windy roads.

These were really cool mountains, used for farm and forest. Soon it was colder due to the altitude and signs warned of steep inclines and dangerous curves. It was all the Vulcan could do to get us some of the longer climbs. We had packed heavily, both for cold and or wet riding and the beach. Along with three cameras, a laptop, and nearly no tools, we had each brought clothes enough to go a week without doing laundry, plus there was water and food. We were carrying a lot, but the bike kept on pulling.

Only a couple times during the months that I rode her around Europe did she make a noise that disturbed me. This was the first day that happened, and it took a couple more times and some heavy looking for me to find a loose radiator bolt causing the problem. A quick look that day told me the tire was inflated properly and wearing normally for extended road trips. Motorcycle tires wear faster than car tires usually going about 10k miles before needing to be replaced and long trips wear them even faster due to extended duration at full temperature. Some tires go longer but not much, and a guy with a strong throttle hand can burn all the tread off a tire in a thousand miles. This one was going as I planned, and if it all worked out I could ride it until I sold the bike where upon the next owner would need to do something about it soon. For then I kept my eye on it.

It became obvious that things were getting bigger regarding mountains and bridges. A couple times I remember passing some bridges that made me question where I was thinking we had passed the viaduct. They were tall already! But I knew where I was and knew we still had some way to go.

Around midday we came into a neat town that straddled a river in a valley between two mountains heavily populated with red roof houses. While crossing the bridge in the center of town both of us noticed something that we had never seen, never imagined before. It was a church/chapel on top of a rock. And this was no ordinary rock. It rose straight out of the ground hundreds of feet, and capped on top was a quaint center of worship dedicated to St. Michael, the saint of heights. I made an earlier than needed gas stop where we decided this was the place to picnic, and we needed to find out what was going on over there.

I still cannot believe that this thing was built where it was, but after hiking the 600 or so steps and seeing it first hand it is starting to creep into my skull. This place was real. And more than that, it had a partner. Not far away was another rock/hill even taller, although not a protrusive, with a crucifix on top. The designer had done both at the same time. I was impressed! The view from a couple hundred feet above the valley floor plus the right timing and sunny afternoon told us this was the perfect place to picnic. And after snapping a few hundred photos (combined) we climbed down do a bench along the path and munched on apples, cheese, French bread, and water. It was a lunch made in heaven, in France.

See all the photos from the Church here.

While quietly dining we talked about our perceptions of the French lifestyle and remarked that this lunch may be uncommon for us, but to the people passing us going both up and down these steep stairs it was probably a usual meal. Jessica had even had first hand experience from a few weeks before when a fellow architecture student, also international, had invited her to his house in a different part of France, and his family had showed her around Paris along with his hometown. She said every day they ate like that. I believe it.

All too soon our lunch was over and we were back on the road, this time with the afternoon sun in our faces. We were finally approaching Milau, and my senses were piqued. I didn’t want to miss this for anything. And I wouldn’t – this thing was big! The first indication was at a road stop once we had gotten back on the toll road. There were people from everywhere and lots of motorcycles. People were coming from all around to go over this bridge. Well, most were probably trying to get from Paris to Barcelona or other destinations along the road, but the bridge was such a remarkable thing that it alone made the trip from those two cities more than two hours shorter. The other bikers weren’t traveling as evidenced by their lack of real travel gear, so I figure they were trying to enjoy the mountain roads as much as Jessica and I were.

I think we were about 40 kilometers at that point from Milau, and the distance was mostly uphill. We were climbing. The altitude there was so great that the bike had trouble keeping up even with the speed limit, and we, without other option, took it easy the rest of the way. A sign gave away the upcoming bridge and overlook. It worked out that the visitor center for the tallest bridge in the world was on the north side, the side from which we were coming. I say that because had it been on the southern side Jessica would have probably pushed that we keep riding rather than stop for photos. In the end it worked out well. We got lots of good views and a nice hike that took us up to the bridge itself. She was even nice enough to take a couple of me grinning my face off with enthusiasm.

I had had very few motorcycle related goals when I bought the bike that April. One had been to “ride” to England across the channel by way of ferry and back by the under-channel train. And another was to enjoy riding the Alps. I did make it to England exactly as planned, but the Alps will have to wait for another trip. I had done that already in a car, and there were many places to see besides. This day would see one of the goals completed.

A panorama of the viaduct and canyon (warning big)

All the bridge photos here.

As they say, all good things must come to an end, and we had to get back on the road before it got too late. Something happens there though we weren’t expecting. After crossing the Viaduct, which turns out to be about as wide as the Grand Canyon but not nearly as deep, we climbed for a short distance more, but then it was all down hill. This was the point that separated coastal France from the main body. One could tell from the humidity, soon to be flat out rain, plus the almost pure downslope without pause that before long we would see the shore. And that was true, but the day wasn’t over yet.

I had kinda promised that we would be speaking Spanish before the day was out, and since we were already on the interstate it would be easy enough to just buzz down and mark off some miles. So that we did with only one altercation – a near miss on running out of fuel near a town with no gas stations. In the end we were rained on and managed to find fuel, and as the sun set we could see the Pyrenees mountain range on one side and the Mediterranean on the other. This made for some interesting scenery.

Remember that steak I didn’t order the previous night? Well I made up for it tonight. At the Spanish border we stopped hoping to find an inexpensive room and some dinner. The dinner we found at the border crossing welcome center, but it was really bad, cold and tough My disappointment was magnified by being tired and learning that we would have to keep riding to find shelter. Eventually we made it to the next big town, Girona, and found a room with decent pricing. It wasn’t anything special, and already we could tell the differences between France and Spain. That pride the French people carry with them and their work is totally non-existent in Spain. The contrast is striking.

That night we slept hard after riding over 14 hours and through cold, rain, and cold again. We woke up near the Mediterranean coast in a medium sized town and promised ourselves no more interstate. We were in Spain and nearly there!

Here are all of the photos from that day.