It’s a small world, after all

Humans like to think big. Skyscrapers, bridges, interstate highways, that sort of thing. Lake Powell has about 1900 miles of shoreline. The Bingham Canyon open-pit copper mine is 2-1/2 miles wide and covers almost 2000 acres. The Great Wall of China stretches for 13,000 miles.

But the world is small, really. The coronavirus responsible for COVID-19, SARS-CoV-2, is big for a virus but still really small. A typical virion is about 100 nanometers across. Nano– means 10-9 so that’s 0.0000001 meters in length. You’d need 10 million of them laid end-to-end to get a meter’s worth. One virion has a mass of about one femtogram. The prefix femto– means 10-15 or 0.000000000000001 grams. It would take a quadrillion coronaviruses to get a gram!

Micro-organisms rule your world. You harbor a bacterial colony in your gut. Without them you can’t digest food, so you’d die. Plants need nitrogen to live. They have bacteria on their roots that extract nitrogen from the air and convert it to a usable form. Without those helpers living there, the plants would die.

Microbes are the oldest and most diverse of all life forms. When microbes started to photosynthesize and produce oxygen the planet eventually became inhabitable for species like us. Microbes are found in every possible habitat. No ecological process is possible without them.

Now a virus is not like a bacteria or other microbe. It doesn’t really meet the textbook definition of “alive” although it certainly acts like a living thing once it gets the chance. A bacterium is huge by comparison, about 10 times bigger or 1000 nanometers across. But on a human scale that is still tiny.

I got to thinking about very small things because I got my first dose of the Moderna vaccine. The dose is 100 micrograms (10-6) or 0.000001 grams. With two shots you get 200 micrograms of the mRNA vaccine.

A COVID infection is estimated to be between 109 and 1011 virions per person. That’s a mass of between 1 to 100 micrograms. So, if you want to fight a war on a very small front you need very small soldiers but you still want to have more than the other guy!

The number of coronavirus cases in the world is about 115 million. That means all the SARS-CoV-2 in the world has, roughly, a mass* of no more than a dozen kilograms. That’s it. Somewhere around 25 pounds!

We humans spend our days in the macro-world. We drive cars and watch TV and play golf and all of those things we can see and touch and feel. But the REAL world is the micro-world, and especially the nano-, pico-, and femto-worlds. An atom is on the order of 100 picometers (pico- is 10-12) in size, and in the end, all we are is collections of atoms.

So, like I said, it’s a small world, after all.

*1 microgram times 115 million (1 E-6)(115 E6) is 115 grams (0.115 kg) and 100 micrograms times 115 million (100 E-6)(115 E6) is 11,500 grams (11.5 kg).

Perseverance!

Humans aren’t going to Mars anytime soon. There’s no reason to. Robots are much better suited to such endeavors.

NASA put another rover on the Martian surface today. It was a superb display of engineering and technical prowess. It’s also proof that complex, interdisciplinary problems can be solved. Obviously something like climate change is much bigger than this as the social, political, ecological, and economic constraints are greater. Not to mention more fluid and unpredictable. But that doesn’t negate the point—when people set their minds to solve something they can do great things.

Humans can do OK in earth orbit. They can live reasonably well in a low-flying spacecraft. They can stay in shape for several months to a year in the free-fall (“microgravity” in NASA-speak) environment. Individuals have to be selected carefully for such missions. The technical skills alone are daunting, not to mention the close-quarters living and separation from loved ones. Kind of like submariners, although they can always surface and get some fresh air. Not a choice for the astronauts and cosmonauts!

Supply of such vessels is a big task. Rockets can send about 50 to 100 tonnes of material per launch into a low-earth orbit. The Saturn V of Apollo days is still the king with a 140 tonne payload. A tonne is 2200 pounds (1000 kg), so 50 tonnes is 110,000 pounds and 100 tonnes is 220,000 pounds. SpaceX is supposedly developing a 150 tonne lifter this year.

How much is that? A Ford F-150 pickup weighs between 4000-5000 pounds so let’s call it 2 tonnes. So a 100-tonne lifter could bring 50 Ford pickups to the space station! That would be a big help, eh?

100 tonnes of water, good old H2O, is 100,000 Liters. That’s 50,000 2-L PET bottles! If you could gather that 100,000 L of water into a cube, it would be about 15 feet on a side. That much water takes one whole rocket launch.

You can imagine all the things the occupants of a space station need to survive, not to mention keeping the thing in working order and being able to do the work you are up there to do. 100 tonnes is really not that much stuff. The average American, by the way, creates about four pounds of trash, per day.

So you see that robots are far better for space exploration. I think there is a good chance that Perseverance or some other remote probe of Mars will find living things. I think it will happen in the next few years. There won’t be any little green men or Martian monsters (so disappointing!) but there will be something. It will not be “intelligent” in the sense we mean. And we mean that to say “like us.”

No, it will be more like something we find growing in acid mine drainage. Or perhaps at deep-sea hydrothermal vents. There are lots of extremophiles on earth, creatures like tardigrades that can survive and even thrive in extreme environments. You must check out methane ice worms!

Something is alive on Mars. Dormant, perhaps. Well hidden, to be sure. But I’m convinced we will have our “close encounter,” it will just be done remotely with a 20-minute time delay. That’s a good thing. If one of us was up there, fretting over our oxygen supply or return-launch window or any of the multitude of things worth fretting about, we might miss it. The instruments on the rover have a much better chance of getting the job done.

Good luck to ’em.

DVDs!

I like DVDs. I collect ’em. But I’m cheap. I try not to spend big money. So I spend a lot of time browsing the collection at Edward R. Hamilton, they usually have good deals.

Like this one, only $7.95 for 12 movies:

OK, so maybe this one is just twelve versions of the same movie, but you catch my drift. I like bargains.

I usually won’t spend more than five bucks for one movie. But I make exceptions if I find something interesting. I’m interested in what they call “classic film noir” which means Hollywood-made low-budget crime melodramas from the 40s and 50s. So if I find something like Woman on the Run or Too Late for Tears, I’ll spend a little more.

Movie art was very different then! Here’s what I mean:

By the way that’s the inimitable Lizabeth Scott being abused. If you are looking for the archetypal femme fatale, look no further.

Roger Corman is enjoying a renaissance with many of his 60s and 70s films being re-issued, like this enduring classic:

We just watched a mash-up of horror and comedy called Creature From the Haunted Sea which was hilarious and had a spectacularly wacky plot. No one will ever accuse Corman of making deep, thinking-man’s movies. He liked action and scantily-clad women. But that doesn’t mean the films lack any sort of theme or meaningful intent. Those things should be subordinate to the movie itself anyway, don’t you think? Corman’s goal was to entertain, and he did that on-time and under budget, which means he made money on almost all his films.

Movies are the ultimate collaborative art form. They require, at the very least, dozens if not hundreds of people to make. The big blockbusters cost tens of millions to produce. Over the years I’ve found that cost and quality are not necessarily connected. More expensive films look and sound better, but they aren’t always better films. Much of the appeal of classic film noir is the restricted palette. The producers and directors had to be brisk and efficient and work with what they had. They learned to create tension and urgency in the story-telling with a minimum of fuss.

I’m perfectly capable of being a movie snob. I took a film class in college. We watched (and analyzed) Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni and stuff like that. I can discuss auteur theory and semiotics and Russian Formalist Criticism if I have to.

But mostly I like to watch movies in the comfort of my own living room. I need breaks for things like using the toilet and re-filling my bourbon glass, and you can’t do that in the theater. Plus you have to be around a lot of noisy people and you have to watch what’s being shown instead of what you put in the DVD player.

Now I don’t mean to say anything bad about the theatrical experience. I still remember watching An American Werewolf in London in a packed theater and everyone in the place screaming and jumping at the same times. It was like being at a ball game! And I’ve made a point to go see a few movies when they came out, like Pulp Fiction (fabulous) and Eyes Wide Shut (terrible), but you can see how dated I am. If I go to a movie theater more than once in a decade that’s a lot! I think the last two films I saw in person were Master and Commander and The Simpsons Movie, and those were 2003 and 2007 releases.

Well, that’s not entirely true. Those are only the most recent major motion pictures I’ve seen in person. I have been to our local film festival in the Scott Valley which unfortunately focuses on documentaries (which I can’t stand) instead of feature films. I did see the excellent Bullit County in 2018, though.

So you can see I prefer the humble DVD. I don’t even stream movies or use Netflix or Prime or Hulu or any of that stuff. I like the actual, physical plastic box with its disc nestled inside. Believe it or not I keep up on some contemporary cinema. My lovely bride is a big Star Wars fan and we’ve watched all the latest films in that series. We both like the Mad Max franchise and we own the latest, Fury Road (2015). The most recent movie in the collection is probably 2017’s Small Town Crime. You usually have to wait a few years for recent releases to find their way to the DVD market and then a few more years until they show up in the bargain bins.

Now if Jason Statham and Amy Smart would get off their asses and make Crank 3 all will be right with the world!

X-C

I used to do a lot of Nordic skiing back in the day. Otherwise known as cross-country skiing. I’m a downhill skier these days, but once in a while you have to use those old X-C skills.

The best spot at the Mt Shasta Ski Park isn’t actually in the Ski Park but in the adjacent Forest Service lands. You get their via a chairlift, but you have to cross the boundary to access the area.

Today the off-piste skiing was hard going and we had to get around on the groomed runs. Fortunately the killer powder stash was in good shape and we were able to get in some big, fun, freshie runs. The road back to the Ski Park had not been plowed or groomed so it was a bit of work getting out the first time. A couple of guys had broken the trail so it wasn’t too bad. Soon enough a flock of powderhounds had hit the same slope and the same route back and the return trail got easier.

It’s a good workout, walking and/or skiing on a relatively level surface. At one point I loosened the top buckle of my boots so I could effect more of a kick-and-glide style, but with alpine (fixed-heel) bindings, there’s only so much flex, and it isn’t very efficient. I did a lot of old-fashioned tromping, not to mention plenty of vigorous poling, to propel myself. And there were spots where one could get a good skating rhythm going. That’s always satisfying because you can get up some speed and feel like your knocking off the yards quickly.

The sun came out and the blue skies and mountain views were spectacular. As much as I enjoy downhill skiing, I miss the peace and quiet (and lack of crowds) that come with cross-country skiing. It’s a whole different world outside the resort boundary. I think I need more of that.

Back-to-back

The recent snowstorm hit Siskiyou County hard and created havoc for travelers and truck traffic on the interstate. I-5 was closed for about 36 hours while crews rescued trapped motorists, cleared wrecks, and removed snow. Hundreds of southbound tractor-trailer rigs were parked in Yreka and along the shoulders of the freeway as they could not get through. The same thing happened in Redding as northbound lanes were closed at Fawndale.

Chaos for some is opportunity for others and my ski partner and I decided there would be excellent skiing at Mount Shasta Ski Park. Access to I-5 was blocked in Yreka so we went south on the old highway until we saw the backlog at the Edgewood on-ramp where the CHP had set up a control. No one was getting on I-5 so we turned around. The CalTrans information line said that motorists should look for “alternate routes” and that’s what we did. We tried to get across Louie Road towards Lake Shastina but were thwarted by snow drifts. We doubled back to the interstate (no one was on it!) and found our way to County Road A12. From there we found our way past Lake Shastina to Highway 97 and into Weed. The entrance to I-5 was open at College Avenue so we took advantage of that and continued south.

When the CHP says a road is “closed” what they really mean is that access is restricted. I-5 is a key artery and it was open to local traffic. You just had to find entrances that were not blocked! We fell in behind a plow just before the McCloud exit and he scraped the road clear of snow and laid down some cinders for us which made that big looping curve easier to navigate. He pulled to the side once we were on Highway 89 and it was smooth sailing from there to the Ski Park Road.

The skiing was challenging as the snow was quite deep, at least two feet in most places with some sections getting twice that. It was too thick and heavy for the intermediate runs—you had to stay on the groomed sections or you’d get stuck. On the steeper pitches you could get up enough speed to “plane” in the powder and actually make some turns. It stormed most of the morning and by noon we were wet and tired. The trip home was uneventful as there was still no traffic on I-5 (other than locals) and the surface had been continuously scraped and sanded.

The next morning we decided to try again and planned to head out to A12 and 97 but we changed our minds at the last second as we saw traffic moving on I-5. Just before the Weed Rest Area, at the Edgewood on-ramp, chain controls were being enforced and scores of trucks were making a mess of things. After crawling along for about 15 minutes through the craziness we slipped past the last of the big rigs chaining up and climbed over Black Butte summit. The road surface was packed snow with some icy spots but fortunately a CHP vehicle was out in front leading the pack at about 40-45 mph. I always say it isn’t the road conditions that make the driving dangerous, it’s all the idiots driving recklessly. The speed control kept us all in line and relaxed and we eased down to the turnoff without incident. The officer led us all the way to the Ski Park Road before pulling over. That’s the way it is supposed to work!

Like the previous day the crowd was small. Most skiers like good weather but there are a handful, like us, who enjoy the storm days. The snow is fresh and the “refills” are a delight to ski. It snowed heavily all morning and we chased the powder all over the mountain. It was much better skiing as the surface had firmed up a bit underneath and the new layer (about a foot) made for softer, easier turns. Nonetheless it was still challenging. If you fall in the big, deep drifts it can be a real hassle to get back up. There is often not enough firm surface for leverage and you can flounder around like a fish out of water. I fell once and pitched forward, heading for a face plant, but I was able to use my momentum to roll over and throw my feet (and skis) over my head and have them land downhill. It’s a lot easier to get up when your head is uphill and your feet are downhill!

Despite the challenges there was great skiing and beautiful snow in heaping piles everywhere so we had a lot of fun. The usual group of powder-hounds was in attendance and everyone was happy. Since I-5 was closed to northbound traffic the large numbers of Shasta County snow enthusiasts were unable to get to the Park so we locals had the place mostly to ourselves.

The trip home on I-5 was eerie. An enormous caravan of mostly trucks had been cleared and given the go-ahead to resume their southbound journey and the bumper-to-bumper traffic jam stretched for miles. My buddy and I had never seen anything like that before. The northbound flood of backed up traffic had not reached Mt Shasta City and there was no one behind us on the interstate most of the way home. It is the weirdest feeling to be on a freeway with no other vehicles behind you. I kept thinking I’d “missed the memo” or something. How could we be the only ones on the road?

The whole two-day adventure made me appreciate how dependent we are on our freeways and our commercial truck traffic. And how easy it is for Mother Nature to make a mockery of both!

Dust-on-crust

Mt Ashland lost a lot of its snow base over the last two weeks due to high temperatures and some rainfall. Fortunately a recent storm provided some replacement snow. We ventured out early yesterday morning on reports of six inches of fresh stuff and discovered that much of the mountain was still quite ski-able. Don’t get me wrong—they could use another foot or more! There were still hazards just poking out of the surface or lying in wait just under the snow cover.

In fact, my buddy took a spill on our first run and lost a ski when he clipped the top of small tree. We’d been in line for about half an hour before they loaded the Windsor lift and although there was no wind it was quite cold. I’m never cold when I ski, but when you stand around without much movement the chill sets in. We were both a little stiff and awkward going into our first turns and it took some time to get fully warmed up.

It was mostly grey and overcast but visibility was good and the conditions, overall, were decent. The soft layer on top of the packed snow made for some nice, easy turns but it wasn’t enough to keep you floating. We found ourselves, on the steep runs, having to really work our edges. Every run was an adventure as you could not predict the response from turn to turn. Sometimes you’d feel the hard bottom and sometimes you would encounter wind-blown areas that had iced over. On the gentler slopes the turning was nearly effortless and we hardly broke through the “dust” on top of the firm “crust.”

At the top of the Ariel lift (which takes you to the summit) the area off the chair and at the start of the runs was treacherous with icy spots and wind-packed bumps. You really had to concentrate (I fell twice!) to get past those hazards. Once you were down in the shelter of the trees the skiing was good and we managed to have some long sequences of easy turns. Exploring the rest of the mountain we found a lot of variability and we had to work hard to adjust to the changing surfaces underfoot.

Since we got there for the opening and skied without breaks by the time it was almost noon we were done. When we left the flood of half-day afternoon ski traffic coming up the hill was impressive. People are really starved for skiing!

On the last half mile of the road out I came around a turn and had to stop quickly because a big pickup was blocking both lanes. I put on my flashers and hoped the cars behind me would be able to slow down in time—that’s never a sure thing on snowy/icy blacktop. It turns out the pickup was using a chain-and-hook tow line to pull some fool in a Jeep out of the embankment. How that guy got his Jeep into the ditch I’ve no idea but it was a real redneck festival. They managed to get the Jeep back on the road and the guy in the pickup simply unhooked the chain from his rear hitch and then drove off. The fellow in the Jeep also drove away but he was still dragging the chain from the mount on the front bumper! He was lucky he didn’t run over the thing and seriously damage his tires or frame. It was a real hillbilly move, I hate to say. I mean, c’mon, you have to pick the damn chain up and stow it before you drive away. And next time, fellas, have someone run up the road and flag the traffic coming down so we don’t plow into you inadvertently. What a shit-show that would have been!

Big storms are a-comin’ and Mt Shasta Ski Park is poised to get absolutely hammered. They are predicting at least two feet tonight and maybe another foot tomorrow with more waves of snow to come on top of those. They need snow even more there than at Mt Ashland as many of the runs are closed due to lack of coverage. We will go exploring there later this week, probably Thursday or Friday (or both). Sometimes at Mt Shasta the snow can get so thick and deep that you can’t get down the hill on the moderate slopes, there’s just too much resistance. You have to be on the steepest pitches in those conditions in order to get enough momentum to bust through the “Cascade concrete.” Hey, it’s a great problem to have: too much snow!

New books!

Just when we needed new reading material a big box of books came in the mail today. Our favorite bookseller is Ziesings, a mom-&-pop on-line and print catalog shop. When I say mom-&-pop, I mean it literally. When you call to make an order you get either Cindy (mom) or Mark (pop).

They run their store out of their home in Shingletown, an alpine hamlet in Shasta County, east of Redding and on the way to Lassen Park. They still print and mail out a voluminous catalog, and used to do all their business that way, but they now of course have a full-fledged website and on-line business. I usually call in or email my orders.

This latest batch is not complete—Kim Stanley Robinson’s Ministry for the Future is backordered—but it’s chock full of goodies.

Starting at the bottom of the pile is Dopeworld by Niko Vorobyov. It is subtitled “Adventures in the Global Drug Trade.” I usually like fiction but this non-fiction story appealed to me. You can’t get much better than Don Winslow’s fictional takes on the U.S.-Mexico drug trade (like The Cartel and The Border), but sometimes you have to read a book with footnotes in it!

House of the Rising Sun by Richard Cox had an appealing title, for sure, and looks like one of those apocalyptic, dystopian SF tales we like. It’s new from Night Shade Books.

Lame Fate/Ugly Swans by Boris and Arkady Strugatsky is a reprint of a two novels from the 1960s Soviet Union. The brothers wrote in their native Russian and their work did not reach a Western audience until the 1980s. Roadside Picnic is their most famous work and deals with the aftermath of an extraterrestrial visitation, a theme they often returned to.

Stark House Press in Eureka, California, consistently publishes interesting reprints from the 1950s and 1960s paperback mystery and suspense market. Much of the great post-WWII American fiction writing emerged from the popular press, especially in crime and detective stories. We just finished the superb duo (“Beat Back the Tide” and “Footsteps in the Night”) from Dolores Hitchens, a largely unknown writer today but an accomplished and successful one during that time. The new duo is from Ruth Sawtell Wallis, another of the many women who wrote in these typically male-dominated genres.

Kimberly Unger is a game designer and Nucleation, a techno-thriller, is her debut novel.

Caldwell Turnbull delivers his first novel as well, the futuristic The Lesson, from Blackstone Publishing.

Red Dust is science fiction from Cuba. The writer goes by the pen name Yoss. He’s apparently a well-known and successful author in that part of the world and also sings in a heavy metal band.

One of my long-time favorites, Octavia E. Butler, is enjoying a bit of a literary renaissance. Unfortunately she died in 2006. Mind of My Mind is from 1977, and is one of her earliest books.

That’s quite a pile! Should be plenty of good reading ahead—crucial during this Isolation Apocalypse.

What’s on your bookshelf?

Vaccines are good

When the first polio vaccines were created and mass immunizations against that dreaded disease happened in this country the scientists who led the way (Albert Sabin and Jonas Salk) were hailed as heroes.

That’s right: the country—and the rest of the world—thought of them as heroes.

Many have greeted the emergence of the various corona virus vaccines as a godsend. Which they are, of course, as we can finally move toward that elusive goal of “herd immunity.” People have been aching for a “return to normal” after this long year of restrictions and lockdowns and the vaccines are a key piece, if not the most important step, in that process.

Then you have the anti-vaxxers. I can hardly maintain a rational, even-handed approach to the so-called arguments these people use. I’m going to say something I rarely say: they are wrong. Dead wrong. Stupid wrong. Dangerous wrong.

I like to keep an open mind. I like to recognize uncertainty. I try not to be doctrinaire, or rigidly opinionated.

But we are in the midst of a global health crisis. Many of the strategies to deal with COVID-19 involve only simple behavior changes. Wearing a mask, for example, and practicing social distancing. These are things that require no pharmaceutical companies and no multi-million-dollar research labs. The problem is that people have to actually do them! Unfortunately, we have conflated reasonable public health measures with an assault on civil liberties, and a significant number of people steadfastly refuse to participate and thus continue to spread the disease.

So we need a vaccine. We’d need one anyway, because that is how we deal with viral diseases. Some vaccines are spectacularly successful, like smallpox, and the aforementioned polio vaccines. In Afghanistan, where the Taliban have control, doctors and nurses who try to administer polio vaccines are intimidated, threatened, and even killed to prevent them from inoculating children. But we all know the Taliban is a morally corrupt, violent, and intellectually stunted bunch of fanatics. We should expect that kind of idiocy from them.

Here in the States we have educated, middle class people, along with their celebrity cheerleaders, who are opposed to vaccines for almost the same reasons the Taliban opposes them!

Somehow a vaccine is bad because it is not “natural.” What could be more natural than using the infectious agent against itself? Isn’t that the basis of homeopathy? Isn’t that one of the so-called “alternative” medicines embraced by the “natural” crowd? RNA is older than humanity. Older than most life forms. What could be more natural than RNA? Do these people really think essential oils and herbal potions will prevent them from getting a viral infection and/or viral disease?

As an old schoolteacher I have to say I see now who paid attention in science class!

People happily drive cars and use computers and cell phones, all of these things the products of a high-tech, industrial society with big, bad multinational corporations doing the bulk of the work. Yet people object to vaccines because they are produced by the same big, bad corporations in the same high-tech, industrial economy!

Almost everyone in the States was vaccinated as a child against things like diptheria, measles, pertussis, tetanus, etc. These things killed children by the score in every town in the world for millenia. Now they don’t. The very thing the anti-vaxxers are against actually protects their un-vaccinated children! Because almost everyone else is vaccinated, un-vaccinated children in the US are relatively safe. Things would be different if they were in a third-world country where those diseases are still prevalent.

People happily vaccinate their dogs against rabies, parvo, and distemper, but balk at getting vaccines for themselves. It doesn’t add up. It’s an intellectually indefensible position. I get that some folks have auto-immune diseases or other complications that make vaccines problematic for them. But that’s a very small subset of the general population. The vast majority of us will benefit from vaccines with little or no complications.

ALL MEDICAL PROCEDURES HAVE RISK. All medical procedures have risk. Say that again and again to yourself. There is no ABSOLUTELY SAFE treatment for anything! 100% safe is an illusion. NOTHING is 100% safe.

Vaccines are pretty damn close. One of the things that phased trials do is make things safe. Vaccines have to be safe FIRST, and effective SECOND. You can count on vaccines being safe. Some don’t work so well, but they won’t hurt you. Your risk from the vaccine is far, far, far, far less than the risk from the disease you are being inoculated against.

So when it is your turn to get the corona virus vaccine, go get it. Don’t hesitate. Do you want to get this pandemic under better control? Do you want some return to normalcy?

THEN GET THE VACCINE!

And don’t listen to celebrities, You-Tubers, conspiracy theorists, “natural” healers (hah!), and the other cranks who didn’t pay attention in science class.

Ski day #3

Once again I violated my retirement rule about going to a public place on a weekend. But Saturday promised to be a beautiful day and even with the prospect of a large crowd my ski partner and I decided to check out the scene at Mt Shasta.

We left early of course, and we were glad we did, as we got stuck behind a couple of real amateurs on the road up to the ski park. One chap in a 4WD Ford pickup was fishtailing in the icy spots and crawled along at 15 mph. He finally got out and locked his hubs—which he should have done beforehand—and we were able to pass. Then we got behind another fellow who was in an older 2WD pickup and barely had enough traction to maintain his 15 mph. About 100 yards before the parking lot he stopped and put on chains! What a lame-ass! Pickups, because of the lack of weight over the rear wheels, are notoriously bad in the snow. Four-wheel drive (along with something heavy in the cargo bed) really makes a difference.

We found a good parking spot very close to the base area. While we geared up for the day the flood of new arrivals continued. Long lines formed at the ticket booth and the rental shop and the lack of face coverings and social distancing was noticeable right away. Employees seemed unprepared for the rush. They could have avoided most of that by simply requiring reservations and refusing walk-up sales. But it’s not my business to run.

The line for the Douglas lift was unorganized and people were milling around in clusters. My buddy decided to cut through by using the line reserved for Ski Patrol, and I reluctantly followed, but amazingly no one noticed. The lift operators were friendly but obviously distracted and we loaded without trouble. We zipped quickly down to the Coyote lift. At the top we were greeted with friendly shouts from a mask-less lift operator. We told him he should wear a damn mask, and to his credit he did that the rest of the morning. At one point the line at the Coyote lift degenerated into a free-for-all and I told one of the employees they should get out and organize things. It was fixed the next time we hit the bottom. You have to wonder about a place where the customers have to tell the employees their jobs!

Despite our frustrations with the lack of COVID-compliance, we managed to get on the lifts with very little crowd contact. We also discovered that our favorite place, an out-of-bounds* section with steep terrain and deep snow, was being ignored. We happily skied there all by ourselves. It takes a little hiking to get back to the park, but they had groomed the return road which made the trip much easier.

Mt Shasta Ski Park has a detailed description of their safety rules on their website but I have to say they get a failing grade for this trip. Many of the customers did not wear masks in line and the lift operators simply ignored them. At Mt Ashland they would have been asked to mask up or step out of line until an employee brought them a mask. It seems like a small thing, but with the surge in cases all across the state and the nation it is idiotic not to make an effort. Skiing itself is not particularly risky. People are outdoors and mostly well-spaced. Lift lines get crowded fast and people bunch up, and that’s pretty much the only real risk to skiers so it makes sense to take some simple precautions. At Mt Ashland the lines were marked with ropes and there were gaps between the lines and an employee walked up and down encouraging people to stay properly distanced. It isn’t that hard to do the right thing!

Despite our disappointment with the management of the park (I intend to write them a letter), the skiing in our special spot was superb as the thick layer of snow was soft and playful. The weather was sunny and windless and the views of Mt Eddy and Lassen Peak were outstanding. The top of Mt Shasta was bathed in an unusually impressive lenticular cloud for most of the morning. My partner and I really enjoyed the relaxed, crowd-free backcountry hike back to the boundary, and we both got to practice our kick-and-glide skating technique and got a good workout with the pole thrusts, too.

I suppose I learned my lesson. Follow the rules! That is, my own rule. Stop going places on the weekend! I’d really like to go back to Mt Shasta when we get another storm cycle but because they seem indifferent to enforcing their own COVID policies I’ll have to be extra vigilant. We’ll see. I may just spend the rest of the season at Mt Ashland! I feel lucky to have two resorts so close by. Both mountains offer a unique experience, they are not really comparable, and I would hate to give one up in favor or the other. But they need to get their shit together down there.

Most of the time our ski day is over by noon. We like the “go early and hit it hard” approach, that’s our M.O., so by lunch time we are usually ready to leave. The crowd had not abated by then and in fact the road was closed to uphill traffic as the parking lot was at capacity. The short-term forecast is looking pretty bleak so it may be a few weeks before we get any decent chance for another powder day.

Stay safe out there!

*I should note that going out-of-bounds at Mt Shasta Ski Park or at Mt Ashland is not against the rules as long as you use the access gates provided and don’t cut across roped-off sections. Both resorts abut National Forest land so there are no restrictions. It is definitely an enter-at-your-own-risk behavior!

Ski day #2

Mt Ashland is closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays so hitting the slopes early on a Thursday morning is a popular event for local skiers. It snowed about ten inches from the time they closed on Monday until the time the lifts were spinning on Thursday. Since we are always in pursuit of the powder that was good news.

We managed to get a decent spot in line and waited about half an hour for the chairlift to start loading. We made some fresh tracks top-to-bottom on the first few runs which is always nice. In fact, it’s the whole reason we go at all.

Skiing is fun, but there is much more to it than flying over the top of hard-packed, slick snow. Even a battered, unwaxed pair of skis, on a groomed surface, will send you down the hill at dangerous speeds. Going straight and fast isn’t really my thing. In fact that’s called schussing, not skiing.

Skiing is turning. A skier leaves behind a sinuous track. The deeper and softer the snow, the turns get more fun. And once you get the hang of turning in powder, it’s actually easier. It is certainly easier on your body!

So, we chase the powder. Powder skiers are geeks. We obsess over weather forecasts and webcams. We talk gear and technique constantly. We imagine conditions at faraway ski resorts and plot how to get there in time to catch the “freshies.” COVID has put a damper on travel plans, that’s for sure, but local skiing is still an option.

So far, guests at the resort have adapted. People are making an effort to mask up and stay distanced. At Mt Ashland the lodge is only open for rentals and lessons. There’s no food service, and worse, no bar. Quaffing a pint or two after some exhilarating runs is one of the best parts of the experience!

It’s a different sort of ski season, like everything else. I’m excited by the opportunity to keep heading out there and I hope we can keep it going. And that Mother Nature does her part with lots of snowstorms.

Speaking of heading out there, we are heading to Mt Shasta tomorrow.