SCOUT Epic, Day Six (August 10)

I was now getting used to the pace a bit better, and decided to change up my plans again. I had originally planned to camp at the end of day 6 at Sand Island. Not (at all) because it looked like a cool place to camp, just because I thought I’d be pretty tired, and would only really make it that far. I recalculated, decided to shoot straight through to Moab at the end of the day, and went for it.

First up today was Mesa Verde National Park. This was actually something I was really looking forward to, as “ancient” cultures really fascinate me, and I’ve always been particularly amazed that people would be able to build entire cities in the faces of these cliffs, and survive out here in a really unforgiving place. I should have planned ahead a bit more and 1. realized how far the drive is from the entrance of the park, to everything you can look at, and 2. arrange a walking tour in amongst one of the cave dwellings. Since I did neither of those things, I felt a bit rushed, and had to settle for mostly just looking at the dwellings from the facing cliffs (luckily I picked up a pair of cheapo binoculars along the way which helped a bit). It was still a highlight though, and I got to see a bunch of dwellings, check out the museum, and learn a bit more about the people of the area.

One thing I saw in the museum at Mesa Verde that really stuck with me was the demonstration of how most common pottery shapes can be directly tied to the shapes found in traditional gourds (pictured above). Really interesting, and so logical in hindsight.

After getting lunch in the park, I was on the road again, headed down to Four Corners Monument so that I could take cheesy tourist photos along with everyone else (including the random woman featured in one shot below):

The monument itself is pretty weird, and feels super random. It’s out in the middle of nowhere (well, I guess technically it’s in the corner of four nowheres!), with scrubby, “desert” around it in every direction. You drive for a long, long time to get there, and then there’s nothing except this weird plaza, surrounded by small stalls. The stalls are (partially) filled with Native Americans who are selling trinkets and tchotchkes. It’s eerie. Then there’s a line of mostly-silent people, who orderly wait their turn to head to the center of the monument and take their requisite 3 photos each (as dictated by signs posted all around the center). Very strange.

Anyway, I got my selfie, touching all 4 states at once, so I guess now I have technically “been to” New Mexico (had not been before). I also bought some “Navajo Frybread” from a stall near the monument (mmm delicious and oily!) and then I was done. From there, I got back on the long, boring, flat, straight roads, and headed into Colorado again, then turned and was off into Utah.

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I pretty much just drove right through to Moab, without really stopping. I think I pulled over a couple times just to stretch my legs, but didn’t really hang out anywhere. Once I got to Moab, I actually rolled right through, took a right on Highway 128, and started looking for a spot to camp for the night. The BLM maintains a number of campgrounds along this scenic byway, and since they’re first-come, first-served, I was hoping to get a spot not too far from town. I got pretty lucky and found a decent site in the Drinks Canyon campground, perfect for one small tent. I paid my $15, set up for the night, and enjoyed some pretty epic views from right on the banks of the Colorado River.

SCOUT Epic, Day Five (August 9)

Day Five started with a bit of a sleep-in compared to previous days. I was up and packed up pretty quickly (wanted to avoid any more rain), but was only moving by just after 8am. With some hustle, I was down to the trailhead just before 10am, and immediately cooking up some breakfast (re-heating yesterday morning’s leftovers, which spent the night wrapped tightly in foil, in the toolbox of the truck).

After filling up on food (and coffee), it was time to rumble back down the county road and get back on the highway. Another mountain pass, and I was headed over to Telluride. The plan had been to camp the night at Alta Lakes, but with rain hammering down as I entered Telluride, and the prospect of another wet night confronting me, I decided to just stay the night in town, and get a hot shower while I could. That gave me more time to explore and get out for a ride as well, so a shower would be very welcome after that.

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I grabbed lunch at Smuggler’s, an apartment at The Fall Line Condos, and enjoyed a shower after the sweaty hikes up and back from Blue Lake. With most of the afternoon left, I decided that a good ride was definitely in order, so I took the (free!) gondola up to the ski area, and headed out on Prospect Trail, following along via the MTBProject app on my phone.

What a ride! It had some climb, a bunch of downhill, loads of mud, and a bunch of pretty swoopy twists and turns. It was great. There were some areas that were rutted and rocky because of the recent rains, but it was still awesome. There were even a couple of creek-crossings, which were extra fun on the fatbike.

After that muddy ride, I was in need of another shower (and so was my bike!). I cleaned up, and then spent the evening strolling around town, doing a little shopping, and getting more food. I ended the day watching some of the Olympics from my room, and then passed out pretty early.

SCOUT Epic, Day Four (August 8)

I woke up early again (around 6:30) and packed up and got moving. My plan was to grab breakfast on the road, so I was out of camp pretty quickly. Stopped at Starvin Arvin’s in Montrose and got what turned out to be an insanely huge breakfast. My “side” was a cinnamon roll almost as big as a dinner plate. The actual breakfast (a “Hobo Scramble”) ended up being enough for 2 breakfasts.

From Montrose, it was a relatively quick drive down to the county road that takes you in to the Blue Lakes trailhead. The road is pretty rough (rocky/bumpy), but would be fine in a 2WD. At the trailhead I ran into a bunch of Forest Service workers who were heading out to work on the trail, armed with Pulaskis! I got my gear together, locked the truck and headed up the trail… only to be absolutely dumped on with rain within about 15 minutes. It continued to rain almost the entire way up, which only encouraged me to go faster and try to get out of it sooner. Of course I also didn’t have a pack cover, so my pack was drenched, which probably added another 10 lbs of weight to the hike.

Once up at Lower Lake, I set up camp and ended up taking a bit of a nap while the rain (and hail!) kept coming. It wasn’t too heavy, but it was enough to not really want to be out in amongst it. Since it was so wet, I brought all my gear into the tent, which turned out to be a bit of a mistake when I discovered a not-completely-sealed water bottle, leaking out of my pack, onto the floor of the tent. It turns out you can use paper towel at least a few times, squeezing it out like a sponge each time. After that little scare, and once the rain gave up for the afternoon, I was able to get out and take a good look around.

Wow. It’s gorgeous up there. I hiked up to the second lake as well (didn’t make it to the third lake, probably should have), saw marmots and pika, trout in both lakes and generally just stunning views. I’ll let the photos speak for themselves, although they really don’t capture the full majesty of the cliffs, lakes and surrounding forest all together.

Something that doesn’t normally engage me that much (nice, but not really my main reason for being out there) was the wildflower display. It was really, really impressive up at the lakes, and I found myself wandering through meadows/banks covered in all sorts of flowers. I was so captivated that I actually stopped to take pictures of most of them:

Back down at Lower Lake, I had some sunlight left so I set up my Tenkara rod and started fishing around the mouths of all the small streams feeding into the lake. After being completely ignored by most fish (apparently they’re pretty notorious there for being very used to people trying to catch them), I changed up flies and finally got a solid hit. Beautiful.

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That afternoon/evening, I also heard-then-saw 2 rock slides up on the face of the cliffs on the south-east side of the lake. A big boom/crack, followed by a roaring/rushing sound, and visible boulders bouncing down the scree-field below. It was a very impressive show. After a long and exhausting day, I was out like a light by 10pm. The next morning I had to get back down and then head to Telluride, so it was another long day coming up!

SCOUT Epic, Day Three (August 7)

Since check-out from the hostel I was staying in the night before was 10am, I figured I could get in a morning ride, and still be back in time to have one last shower. Turns out it was lucky I could get that shower, because the ride was a sweaty one, with lots of climbing involved. The views were amazing though, so it was all worth it. I rode around in amongst the Lower Loop and Lupine trails, which start (and end) right in town. Super convenient.

With the ride done, and all cleaned up and checked out, I grabbed some coffee and breakfast, and hit the road for Cimarron. I was kind of expecting to get lunch there, but this was another case of underestimating a small “town”, and in fact Cimarron is not even really that. There’s a general store there, but otherwise it’s basically just a campground, and then a huge dam. I hadn’t actually realized there was such an impressive dam (Morrow Point Lake/Reservoir), but it turned out to be a great spot for a little hike, and a little fishing. I didn’t catch anything (even though I watched a young guy catch and gut 4 or 5 trout right in front of me!), but it was a nice break from driving regardless.

From Cimarron I powered through to Montrose, where I stopped at Horsefly Brewing Co for lunch and a pint. Then it was back out to Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park to find my campsite and check things out. My site was pretty mediocre (next to an RV, no trees or anything really), but I booked it pretty last minute, so I was just happy to get it. The canyon, on the other hand, was incredible. I drove out to the end of the outlook road, and then hiked the Warner Point Nature Trail. From there I worked my way back through some of the lookouts. I liked Dragon Lookout the best (amazing view down the canyon, and of the “Painted Wall” with the “dragons” on it). On my last stop I met a recent college grad who was on an absolutely epic (and crazy) roadtrip that had already been going for a month. He was stopping all over the place, but driving hours and hours and hours a day, so he’d covered half of Canada and the US, and had done something like 10,000 miles already.

Luckily I had stopped in at the Visitor Center, so I knew there was a night time session at the amphitheater that night, which I went and checked out. “Ranger Molly” put on a great session about the nightlife and stars and whatnot at Black Canyon, which was quite fun. From there I went back to my campsite, and was lucky enough to watch two different lightning storms off in the distance (in 2 different directions), without either of them bringing bad weather my way. The stars were stunning, and with very little light pollution in Black Canyon, extremely bright.

SCOUT Epic, Day Two (August 6)

On the morning of day 2 of my roadtrip, I woke up early (about 6am) and packed up camp so that I could head to the dunes. I didn’t end up going all the way to “High Dune”, since I wanted to get moving, and wasn’t really hanging around for that long. I’d like to go back and try going for a hike deeper into the dunes though, maybe even camp in there. Camping would be tough just because you’ve got to carry everything, and hike through sand.

After the dunes I headed east through Monte Vista, on my way up to Crested Butte. I stopped off at North Clear Creek Falls (apparently Colorado’s most-photographed waterfall) to stretch my legs and take a look, it was pretty impressive. Rio Grande National Forest also looked pretty amazing, and I’d love to get back there and spend some more time on the river/in the park. Between the dunes and Crested Butte, I got a surprise when I came across a small group of guys on horses, in full Civil War regalia, riding down the side of the road. They were part of some sort of small town fair, but I hadn’t seen that yet. I also saw a dude dancing on the side of the road with headphones on, totally rocking out. It was a very Napoleon Dynamite moment. Here are some shots from along the way:

When I turned up in Crested Butte, I quickly realized a few things. First of all, CB is small. Like, tiny. Secondly, there was an arts festival going on (which shut down the main street of town) and thirdly, that Saturday night, in summer, is a bad time to turn up and hope to find some “last minute” accommodation. Being a cute little mountain town, it’s completely overrun on weekends. I called around all over the place, and the only accommodation I could find was a bed in a shared room in a hostel. Oh well, at least it had access to a shower.

Since I was a bit early for check-in, I went for a walk through town (and through the art festival), and grabbed some much-needed lunch at The Last Step. Then I could check in, so I went to get a quick shower (glorious), and claim a bed. I also met Kelsey, who was staying at the same hostel, and works for the Forest Service. We ended up hanging out in the afternoon and getting drinks/food together, since we were both rolling solo. We went to Montanya Rum (delicious cocktails), Brick Oven Pizza, and The Dogwood Cocktail Cabin.

After a few drinks, and another long day, it was time for a quick shower (just because I could), and then crashing in my dorm room.

SCOUT Epic, Day One (August 5)

On the first day of the trip, I wanted to head south through Deckers to go fishing, and then get down to Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve. The fishing in Deckers turned out not to be too great (and it was drizzling), but it was beautiful nonetheless. The water was also a lot colder than I expected, so I really should have brought my waders/boots so that I could have gotten out there properly.

From there, I took 67 and 24 down to Colorado Springs, and then I25 all the way down to Walsenburg. I was going to grab something “local”, but things seemed to be pretty shut/quiet, and I ended up just grabbing a burger at Carl’s Jr (barf) before heading out again. Heading west on 160 (some beautiful scenery along here), and then north on 150 took me to the Great Sand Dunes, which were super impressive. This is where I picked up my “America The Beautiful” pass, so now I have no excuse not to get out to more parks/forests etc.

I had originally planned to hike in the afternoon, and then camp at Zapata Falls Campground, which is a few miles outside of the dunes. When I talked to the rangers at the park though, they suggested that since I had a high-clearance 4WD (yay new Ranger!), I should head up Medano Pass Primitive Road a bit, where there are a bunch of first-come-first-serves campsites. I got there later than planned, so I was going to be hiking the dunes in the morning anyway, so this made a lot more sense (coming back that way already).

To be honest I was a bit nervous about heading up this road, because I’d read a little about it, and it sounded like some pretty serious 4WD-ing. I hadn’t even turned the knob to make sure the 4WD worked on the Ranger, and definitely hadn’t taken it off-road. I was also driving alone, and didn’t feel super prepared for if things got ugly (no winch, no high-jack, etc etc). But… YOLO. So I headed off, and it turned out to be relatively fine; some good mud, some sand, a couple of small creek crossings and I was into my campsite (site #0, right after you technically leave the park, just over 5 miles in on the road).

I initially grabbed a campsite a little further up the road, but after fatbiking up and down to the next creek crossing, I decided to come back to the the very first one, which was more protected and looked nicer. It was a pretty awesome campsite, although it had been raining pretty heavily (and continued drizzling) there, so everything was wet. Getting a fire going was pretty tedious and involved a lot of stoking and blowing. Eventually I got something to hold a flame though (albeit with a bunch of smoke), which gave me something to do in the dusk hours.

Southern Colorado and Utah (SCOUT) Epic Roadtrip/Adventure

When we moved to Denver, one of the primary reasons was to be able to get outdoors and enjoy nature a lot more. Between moving to a new city, then buying and working on a new house, I didn’t actually feel like we’d done much of that, so this summer I planned to fix that. With a three month from sabbatical, I had a lot of time on my hands, so I planned to take a road trip, and combine it with a bunch of hiking, backpacking, fishing and mountain biking. I spent a week on the road, heading south from Denver, then across the bottom half of Colorado, into Utah, back up to I70 and across to Denver again. It was amazing.

This post series will cover each day in a separate post, and will break down that portion of the trip, the things I did that day, and the things I saw. Keep an eye on this post, which will link all of them together.

Backyard Makeover

When we bought our house in Denver, we intentionally got one that didn’t really need any work done on the house itself. That didn’t entirely work out (yay emergency bathroom remodeling!), but most of our attentions have been focused on our yard, and particularly our back yard. We wanted a “livable” space, that we could spend a bunch of time in and really enjoy. It’s fun to look back at where we started, and where we are now.

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Major Fence Project

When we moved into our new house, the yard was a mess. That’s definitely still the case in some areas, but we’ve made a lot of progress with cleaning things up, and turning it into a real “livable” yard. One of the pieces of that journey was getting a real fence installed down the side/back of the property. Here’s what we had when we first bought the house:

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As you can see, it was a hip-high chainlink fence. Not only was it pretty ugly, but our neighbor has a dog, and our terror of an animal, Bambi, would just go insane trying to attack him through this fence. To replace it though, we had to get all those trees out of there, because they were all literally grow into the fence. That was a massive project on its own, but we got it done:

With that out of the way, we needed to get our new fence in. We opted for a horizontal-picket style, which is pretty trendy, and “modernizes” the house a little bit, without getting too crazy. I had never built a fence, but Erika’s family-friend Joe came and helped, so I learned pretty quickly. We got the back/side section done together in a few days:

We stopped there because both of us were busy, and it was a good stopping point anyway. That was towards the end of Summer, so the weather started turning a bit, but I managed to grab some good days in between snow and whatnot (Denver’s weather is crazy), and managed to get the rest of it down, down the side of our house, all the way to the front:

I’m pretty happy with how it all turned out (everyone keeps saying it’s more of a wall than a fence!), and now I know how to make one if I ever need to do it again. Nothing too complicated, just taking your time and thinking it through. The biggest mental hurdle for me was getting over thinking of the posts as being relevant to the position of the ends of the pickets. The posts just provide the structure/foundation, and then the framing that you put in is what handles the pickets (and attaches to the posts).

At least I know if this internet thing doesn’t work out I’ve got an alternate job to fall back on 😉

Guac-Off

During our last team meetup, we had a “guac-off”, where 2 of us made our own recipes of guacamole, and then everyone “blind taste tested” (aka devoured them, without knowing who made which one), and we voted. Mine won! In the end it was the texture (more chunky) that won it for me. Someone asked for the recipe, and this is the best I could give them:

  • Avocados (1-3 depending on size and how much you’re making, scoop out with a spoon, roughly dice, mash into bowl with a fork. Leave at least one half out, un-mashed, and add it in later to keep some more chunky texture)
  • Tomato (~1 whole, remove all the seeds/juicy bits, and dice the outside flesh)
  • Cilantro (handful, chopped up roughly)
  • Yellow Onion (~1/4, finely diced)
  • Lime Juice (usually 1 or less full limes’ worth; too much makes everything watery)
  • Jalapeño (~1, as much flesh as you want, and then include seeds to taste, that’s where the heat is)
  • Garlic (optional, I don’t remember if I had this during the meetup. Just a tiny bit (half a clove) either way, it really “comes to life” in guac)
  • Salt and Pepper (uses quite a bit of both, especially salt. Just keep adding and tasting until it’s good)

I start out by scooping, slicing and mashing up 1 avocado, and leaving one to the side. Then I’ll chop the onion, tomato, jalpeño and cilantro, and get that all in there. This is also when the garlic goes in (if you’re using it). While adding these, I’ll mix it and mash it a little bit, just to make sure it’s all mixed through. Now scoop, slice and throw in the other avocado, then add lime juice, salt and pepper. Mix it up (mashing a little more in the process) and keep adding salt/pepper until you get the taste you’re after. You can also tweak with more jalapeño or lime juice at this point, which is where a lot of the taste comes from.

For an interesting twist, throwing some chipotle powder in at the end can add a pretty good spice/smokey flavor.

Benchmade Volli vs Kershaw Blur

Benchmade Volli on top, Kershaw Blur on bottom.

I just got my hands on a Benchmade Volli, and thought I’d do a quick comparison to the EDC knife that it’s replacing, the Kershaw Blur (black non-serrated blade). Here are my observations so far:

  • The Volli is clipped so that it sits tip-up in the pocket. The Blur is tip-down, so that’s taking some getting used to.
  • The handle on the Volli is noticeably thicker/fatter than the handle on the Blur. Since the clip also has a higher profile, the entire package is quite a bit bulkier in a pocket
  • The AXIS lock on the Volli is really nice, and the locking mechanism along the spine is a nice touch — you can double-lock the blade open for heavier work.
  • The Blur has a faster spring-assist, and a more satisfying “clunk” when coming open. I think the sound/clunk comes partially from the aluminum frame (vs the Volli’s “G10” handle, which is some kind of plastic/fiber stuff).
  • The Volli has zero blade-play, which the Blur has a bit.
  • The thumb-stud on the Blur is “one-sided”, and has a bit sharper of an edge on it, which can be good or bad.
  • Because of the slightly wider handle (and thus wider arc to get around it), I find the Volli harder to close one-handed.
  • The straight edge on the Volli’s blade is a big plus for me. The slightly curving blade on the Blur really annoyed me when sharpening it.
  • Handle length is (almost?) identical. Blade is a little longer on the Blur.
  • The Blur is a little heavier .
  • I really like the blade grind on the Volli.
  • The Volli’s blade is a little thinner than the Blur, and is also ground down along the spine to make it appear even thinner still.
  • Since the handle on the Volli is plastic, I guess I won’t be able to use it as reliably as a bottle opener (note the scratched out surface on the Blur, where the blade meets the handle 🙂 ).

Overall, I’m happy with the Volli, and will definitely keep is as my EDC (at least for now). I do think that if you could take the Volli blade and put it on something resembling the Blur handle, but keep the AXIS lock, you might really have a winner.

Flint-Knapping Arrow Heads

Image shows leather hand-pad, copper-tipped pressure flaker, small stone (Jasper?) arrow head and larger glass/beer bottle arrow head (both made by me, today).

A few weeks ago I decided to have a look on Meetup.com and see if there were some meetups that looked interesting enough to attend in the area. I spotted the Wilderness Awareness and Survival Skills in Denver group, and joined it immediately. I’ve been interested in this sort of thing for a while, and even attended a week-long school with Tom Brown a few years ago. The next meetup was going to be a basic flint-knapping class, which is something I’ve wanted to try for a while. We talked about it at the Tom Brown Tracker School class, but like so many other things, didn’t have time to get any hands-on experience. I’ve also been watching a bit of Ray Mears stuff lately, and he does some basic knapping in some of his episodes, so I had some recent motivation to check it out.

The meetup was held in the court-yard/shared space between 2 apartment blocks, one of which our guide lived in. Andrew is a really personable guy who apparently works for Denver Parks & Rec at the moment. He’s also studied and been practicing primitive skills for a while, and these meetups are his way of passing those skills along to others. He was really well-prepared, and provided us with everything we needed (except a chair) to get started, and to make some simple blades/arrow-heads.

We were mostly aiming for 3-notch arrow heads, since they give a notch to got in the end of an arrow shaft, and then 2 side-notches for binding the head to the shaft. They are a little more complex than some of the others I’ve seen (or the ones that Ray Mears was making), but they aren’t that hard once you get the hang of things, and I guess could even work without any natural glue, which is an advantage. They definitely require a fine, strong point on your pressure-flaker though, so you need something like a deer antler, or if you’re using some modern tools, then a copper-tipped flaker like we used works nicely.

For practice, we used the bottom of beer bottles, which flake pretty nicely, are cheap and easy to acquire, and are pretty consistent (so you don’t have to figure out crazy impurities or anything). To get the base off, we put a giant steel nail inside the bottom, then just shook it up and down a little until it popped out the base. Then you start flaking off the edges and go from there.

You’ll need:

  • A strip of leather (which you use in your hand, to guard against sharp flakes, and the tip of your pressure flaker)
  • A round/smoothish rock (or a few different ones), for percussion flaking and also for “platforming”
  • A pressure flaker, which you can see in the picture above (that’s a thick piece of copper wire in the tip of a piece of Aspen (I think, the wood doesn’t matter that much, just make it soft enough to get the wire in there). Traditionally, you’d use a deer antler (which we also tried). They are amazingly strong, and already pointed.
  • Stone/glass to knap.

There are 3 main things we were told to keep in mind:

  1. Platform: this refers to setting up the edge that you’re working on. Basically, you use a rounded stone to abrade/grind off the edge so that you can remove all the small irregularities and provide something a bit more substantial for your pressure flaker to grip onto.
  2. Centerline: which is just referring to the rough centerline of the mass of your piece, on a horizontal plane. You always want to be flaking down from this line (into your hand, “under” the piece you’re working on).
  3. Acute: you’re looking for acute angles, below the centerline. That’s where you can get good flakes, and make progress. If the angle is obtuse, there’s nowhere for your flaker to grip, and you won’t be able to flake anything off.

I went back and found my notes from Tracker School about flint knapping, and was impressed to see that they lined up almost 1:1 with what I learned today. Getting a chance to try my hand at it really made a difference though, and I’d like to give it a bit more of a shot in the future. I’m particularly interested in super-simple, percussion-flaking, which is something that seems like it could be immediately useful in a survival situation (where you’re not going to have something like antler or copper wire handy for true pressure flaking).

A big shout out to Andrew for being a great teacher, and I really look forward to having some more classes and adventures with him and the others.

Automattic Grand Meetup, 2014

Once a year, all of Automattic gets together in one place for a full week of face-to-face work, learning, food and fun. We fly in from all around the world, shuttle to a hotel/resort/space of some sort, and then get together to work through a bunch of things. This year we descended upon Canyons Resort in Park City, Utah (another US state crossed off my list!). The week was roughly structured into a front-loaded, work-type-things section, and a tail end more loaded with activities. For my part, I:

  • Learned more about Node.js (and got a copy of coworker @TooTallNate‘s “Node.js in Action“), specifically in relation to some new applications we’re building out at WordPress.com
  • Worked with React.js some more (which is awesome and pretty exciting)
  • Went on a 5km run (walked the first bit, but then my knee was feeling OK so I ran most of it)
  • Took a gondola ride up the mountain, then went on a ~1.5 hour hike through beautiful aspens and conifers, past a trout-stocked lake and through some downhill MTB trails
  • Went on a guided fly fishing trip with guides from Trout Tales, where I (finally!) caught my first fish; and then my second and third as well
  • Visited High West Distillery for a tour, tasting, and picked up a bottle of their Son of Bourye (a delicious blend of Bourbon and Rye)
  • Met a bunch of new Automatticians and spent time hanging out and getting to know people new and old
  • Road tripped from Denver, CO to Park City, UT and back again with @alternatekev and @michaelarestad

Michelle did a great official write-up on the WordPress.com Blog.

Here is a collection of shots from the week (including the trip there and back):

* Title image taken by Luca Sartoni

Phantogram Blew My Mind

I just got back from seeing Phantogram play at the Ogden Theater here in Denver, CO, and they blew my mind. It was definitely one of the stand out shows that I’ve seen recently, which was extra impressive for a Monday night, at a venue I can walk to from my apartment, for $25.

Their set was super tight, and flowed really well. Instruments were switching constantly, and the four of them wove guitar, drums, keys, bass and samples together flawlessly. The two core members, Josh and Sarah, switched vocals every few tracks to provide a balance and variety that kept things interesting, while one of the best-executed light shows I’ve seen played on around them. Their stage presence was dramatic, powerful and engaging, when it wasn’t intimate and personal, depending on the track.

If you get the chance, go and see them, you won’t regret it.

I was moved enough to buy a shirt as a memento, which I almost never do at live shows.

* Header image from Wikipedia entry.

Why JavaScript Is The Next (or first) Programming Language You Should Learn

I’ve been asked a few times recently what programming language I’d learn if I was just starting out. Right now, the answer is definitely JavaScript, and here’s why:

Easiest Development Environment

I believe one of the biggest hurdles for people to get into programming is actually all of the other stuff around just writing code. Anything you can do to get to the point where you’re writing code faster (at least while you’re learning) is a win in my mind. Everyone has access to a web browser, which means everyone now has access to a simple development environment. If you’re using Chrome on a Mac, press cmd-opt-j. Welcome to the console, you’re now able to start writing JavaScript to manipulate the page you’re looking at. That’s pretty awesome. There are also a bunch of online editors and tools like CodePen, JSFiddle which allow you to dive into a more complete development/testing/prototyping environment right in your browser.

Simple

JavaScript makes it really easy to write simple code when you’re getting started, which is perfectly valid. Define a function, call it. Make a loop. Ignore the DOM (in fact, ignore the web almost entirely) and focus on simple logic and code. Start building objects and arrays. The OO-model in JS can be a little weird (especially around classes and inheritance), but that’s OK, you’re going to need to be flexible if you’re going to be a developer anyway. Once you get the basics figured out, you can start diving deeper and discover the full power of JavaScript.

Flexible

The flip side of the previous argument is that JavaScript is also super flexible (arguably too much so!). Once you move on from a few functions embedded directly in script tags in your page to manipulate an image or a menu, you can quickly move towards a fully-architected web application with many files, larger object/class-style structures, complex single-page-applications and a whole lot more. JavaScript actually scales up quite nicely to handle bigger challenges, and is ideally suited to web applications, since it’s so tightly integrated with the DOM and the browser.

Web-native

As much as native mobile app developers would have you believe that apps are the future, I still think that open web technologies are the key to the future. Give it a little time, and we’ll mostly be writing all of our mobile apps in HTML/JS, and deploying them in wrapper-apps to our phones. I consider this basically inevitable. Learning to develop for the web is super important. You’ll need to know it basically regardless of what main language you’re working with, because despite our best efforts, you will still end up manipulating CSS, tweaking some HTML tags, etc. That’s not going to go away any time soon I don’t think.

Inevitable

This is pretty far down the list, but that’s mainly because of a thought progression more than anything else. I actually see this as a really important reason for why you should learn JavaScript. Here’s the deal — if you want to develop things for the web, you will end up writing JavaScript. There’s no avoiding it. There’s only so much you can do with a server-side language (PHP, Python, Ruby). At some point, your payload is delivered to a browser, and if you want to do anything remotely interesting there, you have to do it in JavaScript. So if you’re going to have to learn it anyway, why not optimize that process (and perhaps use JS in more places, rather than less?).

Portable (browser/server/native)

Now that we have things like Node.js, JavaScript has moved beyond the browser. Not only can you write server-side JS (so you can build the front and back-end of your web application in JS), you can also use something like node-webkit to bundle it up into a distributable desktop application, or use PhoneGap to package it as a mobile app for any platform. No other language can match that portability right now.

Toolchain

If all of the above wasn’t enough, the exploding JavaScript community has really come a long way in the last few years as far as the developer’s toolchain goes. While we might not have the integrated, one-stop-shop approach of something like XCode for Mac developers, we have tools like Grunt and Gulp which allow us to build our own asset pipelines. Every code editor known to man has support for JavaScript syntax highlighting and linting, and we don’t need a build process like other languages, so we’re lighter on our feet anyway. There’s also a bunch of tools for testing; everything from unit tests to functional tests, to fully automated simulations of users-in-browsers.

So anyway — there’s never been a better time to get started with coding, and if you’re going to do it, I suggest starting with JavaScript. Start small, work your way up. View Source. Get on Github. Go nuts.

Personal Location Tracking

I’ve been pretty fascinated with the idea of recording my own location for a while now. I started using Foursquare at SXSW in 2009 and have mostly continued to do so since then (I have over 3,700 check-ins). You can see my check-ins being syndicated back to this website (using Keyring Social Importers), and if you scroll back through the history of the main page, you’ll get maps aggregating a few check-ins at a time.

TripIt helps me keep track of all (most) of my travels, and provides back some data (via API), which I also import into this site. Here are all of my trips since March, 2008.

In February last year, I started using Moves, and quickly came to love its simplicity. It’s a background app that runs on your phone and keeps track of your location. Using server-side data processing, they crunch the raw location information to figure out when you were walking, running, riding, or on some form of transit, then give you back a timeline and a map showing what you’ve been up to. It’s a really nice “set and forget” way of keeping up with how many steps (roughly) you’re doing each day, plus your other forms of exercise. The app has continued to make small improvements, and then on April 24, Facebook bought them. I can’t say I’m stoked about the acquisition, but regardless, it’s a cool app, and it collects some fantastic data.

Since it’s all data, and there’s a growing sphere of location/movement-related data services out there, shuffling your data around is just a matter of a little programming. As I mentioned, I’m importing my Foursquare data into my blog already. I also have a Moves importer that’s currently creating a text-only summary of my information. I’ll probably add simple maps to it at some point. Moves-Export is a pretty neat service that will automatically import your Moves data and can give you a better breakdown of things, plus auto-post to Runkeeper and Foursquare (if you like) when activities are over certain thresholds (e.g. riding for more than 15 minutes). Pretty awesome.

Today, Chris Messina tipped me off to Move-o-scope, an awesome web app that will slurp in your Moves data, and give you back a rich visualization of it all. It lets you toggle things on and off, pan around the globe and see what you’ve been up to. It’s fascinating. Here are some places I’ve been since last February!

It’s fun to turn on the “Transit” layer (orange/brown, seen in the last picture above and the first one in the post), and follow the lines around the globe to see where you’ve been, then turn it off and zoom in to get a feel for what ground you covered while you were there.

Automattic, 5 Years In

On May 11 (today) in 2009, I started full time at Automattic. I’ve written about my experiences over the years, and marked the occasion each year in some small way. Let’s continue the tradition.

automattic-logo

This year has actually been a particularly big year. Probably the headliner happened only a week ago; Automattic raised $160 million, on a valuation of $1 billion. That’s a lot of money. That’s a large valuation, and it feels kind of weird to be employee #35 of a company of that scale. We’re now at 247 employees, and we span 30[1] different countries. Whoah.

Other than that, this year we: had a pretty large secondary fund-raising ($75m, via Tiger Capital), made some exciting acquisitions: Cloudup, Scrollkit, Longreads, had another successful WordCamp San Francisco (where I spoke, and organized the Contributor Day again), launched WordPress.com Connect, transitioned to a new CEO (Matt Mullenweg, our founder), and a bunch of other interesting things both internally and externally.

On a more direct/personal note, I feel like I’ve settled into my role as a team lead, and my team and I continue to evolve our development practices towards a modern, iterative workflow, heavy with JavaScript, Sass, and the like. Shout-outs to Allen, Gary, Jennifer and Kevin (my team) for working with me as we continue to make it all up as we go.

 In my sixth year as an Automattician, I’ll be relocating to Denver (my second relocation since I started, capitalizing on working for a completely distributed company). I look forward to new adventures there, and continued adventures with Automattic. It continues to be an inspiring and challenging company to work for, full of interesting and impressively-smart people.

Thanks everyone for continuing to make Automattic home, it’s the best job I’ve ever had, and it would be hard to ever top.

[1]: Argentina, Australia, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, Canada, Denmark, Finland, France, Hungary, Iceland, India, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Russia, Scotland, South Africa, Spain, Sri Lanka, Sweden, Switzerland, United Kingdom, United States, Uruguay.