28 February 2012

Vacation Season, Part IV: Vacation Squared

The week before last, Steve's boss asked him to attend a conference in his stead, so of course I cleared my schedule so I could go with him.  And that's how last week's posts about our trip to Angel Fire, New Mexico, ended up being written in...

(drumroll please)

...San Francisco!

(I wasn't able to go with Steve to a conference in Tahoe a few years ago, and I vowed to do everything I could to travel with him in the future.  Anytime our hotel and Steve's airfare and food are taken care of, it just seems silly not to make a vacation of it.)

The first day we were there was probably my favorite. While Steve was in a class, I walked about a mile to the farmers' market at United Nations Plaza, where I spent a whopping $4.05 on carrots, red onions, beets, garlic, and new potatoes.  (Why is a story for another day.)

I loved their garbage/recycling/compost bins:

Nothing like gratuitous use of the word "landfill" to remind you that your garbage doesn't just go "away," it goes to THE LANDFILL.

By the time I got back to the hotel with my veggies, Steve was out of his class, so we headed back out.  And that's when we saw this:

Austin has a carshare fleet of Smart cars, but these carshare cars were electric and plug-in hybrids with their own dedicated parking spaces and chargers (like we saw on our Leaf tour).

Moving along...it was lunchtime, so we ducked into a little bar/restaurant, Absinthe, which turned out to be pretty awesome.  We ate at the bar, which was copper, and there was an amazing assortment of liquor bottles lined up against the windows across from us.  My favorite part was the citron pressé, which was a DIY project consisting of a glass of ice, a small carafe of water, a little glass of simple syrup, and a little glass of two parts lemon juice and one part lime juice.

Delicious.  Just like my favorite summer beverage.

Absinthe is in the theater district, around the block from Davies Symphony Hall.  Steve had discovered that the symphony sold last-minute tickets for $20, so we picked up some tickets before lunch and then returned for the pre-concert lecture.  We always like to go to the pre-show talks to gain some insight into the music we are able to hear (especially because I'm pretty much illiterate when it comes to classical music), but this one was particularly interesting because, in addition to the usual lecture, the organist also gave us a little introduction to the organ and how he modifies the sound to meld with the orchestra:

There are A LOT of buttons and pedals on an organ, so a lot goes into playing it competently.  San Francisco has the largest organ in the Americas -- 8,000 pipes!  The hall was recently remodeled and is gorgeous, with glass baffles hanging from the ceiling that give it modern style without detracting from its traditional grandeur.

Between the organist, a piano soloist, and the orchestra themselves, the performance was outstanding, and we had a special treat when the conductor and the pianist stuck around for some really interesting (and funny) Q&A afterward.

After the symphony, we walked through Japantown (where I bought an umbrella with bunnies on it) and then had pizza with our friend Becky (who rode the wave of friends-leaving-Austin a couple of years ago).  Although we took the bus back to the hotel after dinner, I probably walked five miles that day -- and loved all of it.

24 February 2012

Vacation Season, Part III: The Power of Dirt (and Sun)

Last month, while we were skiing in Angel Fire, New Mexico, we hopped over the mountain to have dinner with my cousin Margie, who lives in a really lovely adobe home in Taos.  I would have loved to share pictures of her home, but it was dark when we were there, so I didn't take any.  Margie was nice enough to show us around, though, and tell us about adobe construction.  It seemed clear that this mixture of sand, clay, and straw was ideally suited to New Mexico's hot, dry climate -- that's why Santa Fe is almost totally made of adobe structures like these:

Apparently there's an ordinance that all construction in the city (or some central area that seems to be pretty broad) has to be adobe.  It makes for a really unique town, quaint in its own special way.

But back to Taos.  Margie told us about a special feature of her house that also makes it well-suited to northern New Mexico winters, too.  It has a wall like this on the south side:

(picture from LX&R Design)

It's called a "Trombe wall," named after Felix Trombe, who developed the concept for use in modern homes.  It ain't pretty, but covering a thick stone/brick wall with glass (with a small air space in between) allows heat to build up in the wall and radiate into the structure over a period of several hours to keep the house warm throughout the evening (Margie's house has small wood-burning stoves, but no central heat).  Because heat radiating into your house through the walls is exactly what you don't want during the summer, Trombe walls are generally built with an overhang that shields the summer sun (which travels higher in the sky) but allows the lower winter sun to work its magic on the glass; appropriately placed deciduous bushes/trees can also be effective in blocking the summer sun but allowing the sun through the branches to the wall during the winter.

Adobe obviously predates the concept of green building, and Trombe walls date back to the 19th century (before Monsieur Trombe worked out the kinks in the 1960s), but the concept of using, essentially, dirt to defend against cold weather has been around for thousands of years.  On the way to Angel Fire, we saw an example of that at Pecos National Historic Park, the site of Pecos Pueblo and Spanish Mission ruins.

Those are the ruins of the 18th century Spanish mission church.

I don't know if this method of construction was technically adobe, but it was definitely made from what they had on hand -- red clay dirt, formed into bricks, stacked, and then covered over with a layer of...more red clay dirt.

I'm not going to claim the former residents were exactly toasty during the cold winter months, but you know they were industrious and used the most insulating wall design possible.

Yeah, those walls were THICK.

This is an underground area (don't remember what it's called) where the people would go for various rituals.

This?  Not historic at all.  It's the back porch area of the Visitor Center.  I just thought it looked cool.

22 February 2012

Vacation Season, Part II: The Road to Angel Fire

Our ski vacation to Angel Fire, New Mexico, took us through northwestern Texas, and around Lubbock we were surprised to find this:

All around us.

TONS of them.

We probably saw a thousand of them within about half an hour.  And they're HUGE.

Yeah, those are cars on the road.  And a train.  And the windmills tower over them.  We estimated that the base of each windmill is probably 8-10 feet across.

Truthfully, I don't know much about wind power.  One of the builders we talked with tried to talk us into a (much smaller) wind turbine in our backyard, but it didn't seem to be cost-effective, so we didn't really explore it.  I don't know how much wind it takes to operate them (I don't think Austin gets enough...but I could be wrong).  I don't know if you can buy, for instance, 6 kilowatts of windmills (like we contracted for six kw of solar panels).  I don't even know how a turning windmill actually generates electricity (although I am reminded of making electromagnets in junior high science class), or how these thousands of windmills are tied into the local (or regional, or statewide?) grid.  Pretty much the only thing I know is that they are transforming the landscape not only of northwest Texas (where wind is pretty much a constant) but also of power generation in Texas.

 On our way back from Angel Fire, we discovered that there is a windmill museum, the American Wind Power Center and Museum, in Lubbock.  We had wanted to stop in and check it out, but our desire to just get home won out.  Next time.

Interested in learning more about wind power?  Or about how the ocean can help to generate electricity?  Click here for the scoop on a wind farm project slated for the coast off of Cape Cod.

20 February 2012

Vacation Season

There's something about the time between Christmas and spring break that makes me want to go on a trip.  I try to avoid traveling (and especially flying) at holidays, so around January I'm usually feeling like I need to get away.  And this year, since Steve and I hadn't been skiing in a really, really long time, we decided to take a ski vacation to New Mexico.  (Being from Colorado, this was a little weird for me, but it was a shorter drive, and the skiing was actually quite decent.)

Steve was in charge of planning the trip, and upon the suggestion of a co-worker, he chose Angel Fire (not far from Taos).  It's a smaller resort in a small town, without many of the amenities of major resorts, but the upside was that it was shockingly affordable.  We stayed at the resort lodge for something like $70/night, and since we were staying at the lodge, we got half-price lift tickets.  At a time when some resorts are charging well over $100/day to ski, the $32 we paid was a steal.

The first day we were there, Steve went snowboarding on his own.  I walked him out to the lift and took a picture of him.  You know, like it was his first day of school.

I had planned some days off from skiing based on our last ski trip, to Crested Butte, when I only skied three days of the week we were there.  Crested Butte is an idyllic little ski town, and I loved hiking, ice skating, cross-country skiing, wandering around, reading at their cozy little library, etc.  Angel Fire, it turned out, is more the kind of place where you have to make your own entertainment.  I did some reading in our room and then headed out to the post office to mail postcards to the bunnies (yeah, our bunnies get mail) and to our neighbors who were taking care of them.  Angel Fire's only post office is about three miles from the lodge, which is longer than I would have liked...but not as far as it can become if you take a wrong turn along the way.  All in all, I walked about seven miles on that trek, but it was a beautiful day, so I can't complain.  I took this picture looking from the main road into town up toward the resort during a brief period of clouds...

...but soon the gorgeous blue sky returned:

We both took the second day off (since we drove, we weren't constrained in what we could pack, so we had lots of books) and then spent the last three skiing on a really relaxed schedule.  Staying up at the resort made it easy to wake up whenever we wanted to (um, late) and then mozey out to the slopes.

I even managed to find a few little jumps that were pretty fun.

Did I land it?  Yes, yes I did.

Oh, perhaps you noticed our new helmets?

We've never used them before, but we decided this was the year to go ahead and make a modest investment in the most valuable assets we have: our noggins.  (I think we spent about $100 for the two of them.)  I would estimate that about half of the skiers/boarders were using them, and I think it's only a matter of time before not wearing a helmet will be as shocking on the slopes as it is on a bicycle.  In fact, during our trip we heard about two or three skiers dying of head trauma at other resorts, so it was an easy decision.  And they're comfortable and kept our ears nice and toasty, so it was no imposition on our ski comfort.  The only thing was that mine left a tiny gap between my goggles and my helmet (see the sliver of forehead in the picture?), and my head got a little chilly.  Steve's was a perfect fit, though.

I'd love to say that New Mexico skiing was totally inferior to Colorado skiing, but in reality it was very comparable to the best resorts I've been to (although there were a lot of areas of branches and even some rocks poking out of the ground due to the lack of snow this year).  And the lift staff by far the friendliest I've ever seen -- they blew me away every time we rode up the lifts by asking whether we were having a good day, were enjoying the snow, etc.  And the resort seemed to go out of their way to accommodate the miniature skiers, too, with lots of kids' lessons and even a tubing hill right there on the main mountain, with a moving walkway to bring the inner tubes back up to the top.

It always tickles me to see the ski school groups looking like a mother duck and a bunch of ducklings.

The only area where I could fault Angel Fire is in the food/lodging department.  Our room was fine -- by no means fancy, but clean and modern enough, and definitely a great value -- but the only window opened out onto the indoor pool area, so we didn't get any natural light and couldn't even really keep the drapes open.  Likewise, meal options were very limited, especially up at the mountain itself.  Once we found The Coffee House, a little cafe on the first floor of the lodge, that became our go-to lunch spot.  It would have been our choice for breakfast, too, but we had brought our own milk, cereal, and fruit.  (Fortunately, the room had a mini-fridge.)  Unfortunately, the cafe wasn't open for dinner, and none of the other restaurants in the lodge were too impressive.  However, the resort owns a "country club" (I put that in quotes because I'm not sure if it's really a country club) a few miles away that has a fine dining restaurant, Elements, where we ate twice during our week.

The first time we had a lovely dinner with one of the very best waiters ever.  The dining room is a large, rustic space with huge beams and a massive yet cozy fireplace, and as we waited for our dessert, we decided that we wanted to finish our meal in front of the fire, which our waiter was happy to accommodate.

All of the food was delicious, and piano music supplied by a very talented (and fun) pianist was the icing on the cake (er, souffle).  It was an easy decision to return later in the week for "martini night," when we shared complimentary appetizers and ordered light entrees in the lounge area.

But back to the skiing, and to finish with something funny: Steve got a new snowboard before our trip to Crested Butte a few years ago.  It was on clearance, it felt good, rides fine, and the yellow matches his jacket.  It has this big "5150" across the bottom, and we didn't know what that meant until we looked it up and discovered that that's a reference to the second of California law that relates to putting someone on lockdown if they're a danger to themselves or others.  (If I remember correctly, this law was used to get Britney Spears under control a few years ago.)  So the implication is that Steve is a snowboarding lunatic, which couldn't be further from the truth.  He is probably the most safety-conscious person I know, and while he takes more risks on a snowboard than, say, in his car on the highway, he's the last person who would need to be committed for excessively risky behavior.

Over the next few days, I'll share more about our trip, including, of course, some neat green stuff that we had to leave Austin to find.

18 February 2012

Twelve Cents

We finally received our first utility bill since the solar panels went live on October 20.  Due to technological challenges with the city's billing system, we actually received three months all together (but still separated out by month.)

A longer post is in the works once we have a chance to analyze the data further, but now for, the bottom line is that electric service cost us a whopping twelve cents in that first month.  With long, sunny days in October and November, we actually had a surplus of 181 kilowatt-hours, which covered nearly all of our base customer charges for electric service.  (Our total bill was more than that, since water, wastewater, garbage, and street service are all on the same bill, but the $80 or so that we would have spent on electricity was down to pocket change.  Combined with our monthly $11 gas bill for our range, grill, and fireplace, that's not bad.

14 February 2012

Valentine's Flowers

The last six months or so have been really confusing for plants in Texas.  The summer was so hot that everything went dormant, so when fall finally set in, the landscape experienced a second spring, and winter has been so mild that our gardens are still all abloom.  Over the last few weeks, I've loved checking out the flowers budding around me as I have gotten back to running around the neighborhood.  Here are some of the specimens I've seen in the last few days.  First, the roses:

Then there's this purple lantana that is intertwined with...um...a yucca?  Our lantana has died back (although it's starting to sprout again), but this lantana has been perky and bright all winter, and I love how it looks with the yucca-or-whatever:

I'm not sure what this is (firebush?), but it's growing everywhere:

And then there's our yard...and our roses:

There's our red knockout:

And our double pink knockout ("double" 'cause it has more petals than a regular knockout rose):

But my favorite of our roses is the mutabilis, which has grown a ton since the fall:

With those two huge stems that sprung up recently, it's our biggest rose bush, and it has the most roses right now.  They're not necessarily the kind that you would cut and put in a vase (but we can see them from our bedroom window, so who needs a vase?).  They're flat five-petaled roses, and what I love about them is that the flowers change colors (hence the name), from yellow to peach to pink.  A few days ago they were mostly peach:

Yesterday, after a big rain (and even some sleet!), and just in time for Valentine's Day, every rose on the bush had turned to a sweet, soft pink.

Conventional wisdom, at least locally, says to prune rose bushes on or around Valentine's Day.  Not only is it an easy date to remember, but it's around the time of the last freeze, so it's a good time to get them ready to put on a nice springtime show.  So it was with that in mind that we headed out to the Natural Gardener last weekend for a presentation about rose care by the owner of the Antique Rose Emporium.  We had already figured out that antique roses are basically easy to grow, whereas hybrid roses (the fancy new varieties with the biggest blooms, longest stems, etc.) are finicky, so all of ours are antique varieties.  We were hoping to hear whether this winter's mild weather warranted a change from the Valentine's Day pruning schedule, as well as any other insight into how to care for them...and we were shocked when the presenter grabbed his hedge clippers to demonstrate proper pruning technique and proceeded to haphazardly attack the rose bush he had on hand.  It probably didn't take more than two seconds and he was done.  But his point was that there's really no wrong way to prune an antique rose; the important thing to keep in mind is the optimal size and shape for its location and purpose (hedge vs. specimen, etc.).  So I was feeling pretty good about going home and doing some pruning, but after the presentation wrapped up, three questions from the audience made us change course:

1. Are the pruning rules different for single-blooming roses (that only bloom once at the beginning of the season, instead of all summer long)?  Answer: Yes -- pruning a single-bloomer now will make it a zero-bloomer.

Good to know.  We'll skip our single-blooming Sweet Briar rose and get into a habit of pruning it right after it blooms.

2. Should newly planted roses (less than a year old) be pruned?  Answer: No.

Okay, so we're exempt from all rose pruning this year.

3. Why aren't these cuttings rooting?  (The question-asker showed the presenter a little pot where she had tried to plant a 3" cutting from a rose stem.)  Answer: Because it was planted upside-down!

Everyone had a good chuckle, and then we learned the proper way to plant rose cuttings -- which I kept in mind as I pruned my neighbor's overgrown rose bush that grows along our property line (he's super-easygoing and had offered to take out the rose when we took down part of the fence, so I knew he would be okay with some pruning).  Since another of his roses didn't survive the summer, I thought it would be nice to give him a clone that he can enjoy.  So we now have four cuttings planted in some soil in a ziploc bag.  I'll keep you posted on how goes.  (So far I'm zero-for-whatever on cuttings, but I'm ever the optimist....)

So that sums up our recent rose adventures.  But I can't resist adding this last picture. It's a sign that's posted at the Natural Gardener.

Clearly I'm not a parent -- I didn't get it at first and thought it was a nice gesture to give lost children a beverage and a little plaything.  Then it clicked.