Los Angeles, September 2011

Only one week after going to England, I had a business trip to Los Angeles. Since I only very rarely get a paid trip to the USA, I decided to stay a three days longer in Los Angeles and do some (preferably interesting) stuff.

Since I was located near Universal Studios (I was there for a workshop/conference), the first thing I did was 'indoor skydiving', which is located nearby.

It's pretty much a vertical wind tunnel. You wear a baggy suit, wind is blowing from below and you try to 'float' in the airstream.

Indoor skydiving

Most of the time you are moved around by a trainer, who directs you how to position your hands and arms and pushes you back into the main airstream if you drift too much towards the walls (which is, for a beginner like me, essentially all the time).

It is fun, but you don't have much time to adjust and enjoy - I already had one of the more 'deluxe' packets, which meant about four minutes 'on the air' (two times two minutes) and it was over before I started to get a feeling for the proper position and movements.

Indoor skydiving Indoor skydiving Indoor skydiving Indoor skydiving Indoor skydiving

Though it probably depends a lot on how much 'body control' you have. Another guy had just two 'flights' of a minute each and he 'flew' better in his second minute than I did after four.

It's a fun thing to do, but as far as cost/excitement ratio is concerned, you'd probably better jump out of an airplane and skydive for real.

Though you are probably less likely to go upwards in real skydiving...

Indoor Skydive Video
Movie, 5MB, 26 seconds

I then went on the Universal Studios Tour.

Universal Studios Logo Globe

It turned out to be surprisingly outdated and old-fashioned. I had been there more than two decades earlier (back in 1988) and a lot of it was still the same.

The same 'New York Streets', the same 'Western Town' (which they even admitted was mostly there for the tour anyhow, since nobody has been filming Westerns here for ages), and even the same 'Flash flood', 'Earthquake' and 'Jaws' effects that had been there decades ago.

Even the old 'rotating tunnel effect' still existed, though it used to be painted white back then and represented an avalanche (as far as I can recall), while it now was painted 'desert sand' and linked thematically to the 'Mummy' movies.

Now I might just be jaded, since I had seen all that before, but even for someone who was new to all of this, how much of an attraction is something referencing Jaws (made in 1975) these days? Even 'The Mummy' is by now more than a decade ago, which makes it feel like an old movie, especially in a fast-living industry like entertainment?

There were some new elements though - some 'dancing cars' on robotic arms (referencing "The Fast and the Furious"), which were, unfortunately, cheaply done; and the heavily promoted 'King Kong 3D', which I have to admit was ok, but not living up to the hype.

As far as 'sets' were concerned, there was a crashed 747 that hadn't been there 23 years ago, the 'How the Grinch stole Christmas' town (both looking more as if they were just dumped on the lot after filming had been completed) and, as the only 'usable' set, the street from 'Desperate Housewives'.

Painted generic skyline Generic small town set Jaws fire Jaws animatronics
Desperate Housewives Home Desperate Housewives Home Blue screen

After being a bit unenthusiastic about Universal Studios, I managed to drive out one late afternoon to the Griffith Park Observatory and was quite impressed.

Griffith Park Observatory

The standard, cynic, European view of Los Angeles is one of glitter, empty facades and commerce, so the Observatory was a humbling experience.

It's a prime site with great views over Los Angeles and it's a non-commercial place (ok, they have a small gift shop and a cafe at the Observatory itself, but they are fairly low key affairs). No big commercial sponsor logos, no fast food vendors, just a place dedicated to science. A fairly good exhibition, free entry and a very stylish building (and not some utilitarian concrete block). Hard to really explain why, But standing there was a really impressing experience and made me question some of the assumptions I made about Los Angeles as a city without taste or science.

Being up there for the sunset was just great!

Astronomers Column Griffith Park Observator Griffith Park Observator Griffith Park Observator Telescope Griffith Park Observator
Griffith Park view Hollywood Sign

Though other things played right into Los Angeles stereotypes. I wanted to go the Compton airport for a flight and talked to the pilot on the phone and he asked me whether I had received instructions on how to get there. I mentioned that should not be a problem, since I had a navigation system, but he advised me that I should probably ignore that, since it would probably guide me down I-105 and it would be better to approach via route 91 since the navigation system would probably lead me through an 'unsafe neighbourhood', since South-East Los Angeles isn't one of the safest areas around.

I'm not sure how risky it would have been (while staying on the larger through-streets during noon on a sunny Friday), but it pretty much re-established the image of Los Angeles as 'dangerous gangland'. (And seeing a police helicopter circle for an hour over a small group of houses just in the next block didn't do much to counter that image.)

But the reason to get to that airport was worth the (possibly slight) risk. As can probably be deduced from the fact that I talked to the pilot before driving to the airport, this was not a typical flight.

I had been flying in biplanes twice, once in a Stampe SV-4 and once in a Tiger Moth. And I had seen a Stearman in a hangar at one of the sites and it seemed like an impressive plane. Much larger than the Stampe and looking a bit over-powered, a bit being the 'muscle car' of airplanes.

And there were Stearman sightseeing flights from Compton airport.

Since I had considered doing a sightseeing flight anyway, this seemed like a much better way than doing it by helicopter or some other small plane.

Also, there was the possibility of having a short go at the controls myself (something they pretty much discourage on most planes... :-) and even the (worrying) option of aerobatics.

Strearman Plane

We took off from Compton Airport, going west.

Biplane Passenger Biplane Pilot

After a couple of minutes, we made a low flyby at Hawthorne Airport, letting off some smoke (the plane has a smoke generator), which is a way of saying 'Hello!" to the people at the tower before pulling the plane up again and heading on

Hawthorne Airport Hawthorne Airport

Then we headed onwards toward LAX. I was quite surprised how close we were allowed to go to a large commercial airport. We flew less than 1.5 km to the left the runway, which feels quite close to the landing Jumbo Jets.

LAX Flyby

The strange thing was that we were not flying in airspace controlled by the LAX tower, but flying 'unsupervised', due to the fact that LAX only has East/West runways, so everything that is North or South of the airport is not of much relevance for the traffic at the airport.

After LAX, it was out over the Pacific and, after a left turn, continuing along the coast.

Left turn over coast El Segundo Refinery Manhattan Beach (not the New York one, obviously) Roundhouse Marine Studies Lab and Aquarium

Then it was time for a quick 'flying lesson'. "See the pedals at your feet? Put your feet on them; keep your heels on the floor. If you press them forward the plane swings in that direction. Push the joystick in front of you down and you lose altitude, pull it up and you gain. Put it to the side and the plane banks and turns. That's all that is to it. Got it? Look in the mirror." (There is a small rear view mirror over the front seat, so you can see the person in the back seat. Mike is waving his hands in the air.) "See, I don't do anything. You control the plane."

I'm pretty sure that a real flight lesson would be somewhat more comprehensive (probably including the useful "how to land a plane" part), but as far as "need to know basis" goes, it was clearly sufficient.

Flying a biplane is fun!

I didn't do much beyond trying to keep it flying straight and level and was very careful with the controls (it's one of the situations where you really want to avoid doing anything unexpected and stupid...), but it was actually easier than it is on flight simulator games.

Then Mike took over the controls again and went a bit farther along the coast, having a look at the Palos Verdes peninsula, another area that didn't really fit in with the usual image of Los Angeles as an ugly town.

Palos Verdes peninsula Palos Verdes peninsula

To have a good view of the coast, we flew low over the water.

Quite low.

According to my (unadjusted) altimeter, we were about five feet below sea level, but in real life, we were about 10 feet above. Which still feels close to the water, especially when you are aware that the plane has no retractable landing gear.

Palos Verdes peninsula, low flight

The pilot told me later that you can actually skim over the water if you want to - the wheels are quite large and unless you really hit a big wave, you just bounce off from the surface. And, if you get really low, you can feel that as a pilot, since the ground effect gives you additional lift.

Quite interesting what you can actually do with an airplane - but I guess the chances to do stuff like that are decreasing.

Next we headed out a bit further away from the coast, for a number of reasons.

Palos Verdes peninsula

First of all, out on the sea were some low clouds (which had been over Los Angeles during the morning, but had moved out towards the sea by now), giving as a good opportunity to take look at the airplane silhouette with a rainbow halo.

Biplane shadow on cloud with halo Biplane shadow on cloud with halo

The second reason for going out farther was to look for some marine life. We didn't spot any whales, but we did see a group of almost a hundred dolphins, which we circled.

Dolphins seen from biplane

And, the third and final reason was that it was time for the tough question: "How about a looping?" I had been struggling with that question since I had booked the flight (I am not much of an adrenaline junkie and I do avoid rollercoasters that have loopings or inversions).

I knew I wouldn't really enjoy it as such, but on the other hand, there's not often you get the chance to do something like that, and I would probably regret it more in the future not having done it than I would regret doing it.

So, yeah, let's do it.

Put the camera away safely (there's a small zipped leather pouch for exactly that purpose), holding on very tight to the support structure of the plane (I was strapped in securely, but it's still better to have something to hold onto) and off we went.

Quite an unusual feeling and luckily the plane is built very solidly, since I had been holding on quite tight.

I was relieved that it was over and I had done it.

But then we were pulling up again. I thought we might be doing a second looping, but we sort of stopped halfway through.

"By now we are basically weightless."

The nice thing about experienced pilots is that they are usually utterly calm. So hearing a calm voice, talking to you as if you were sitting at dinner somewhere is a good thing to keep you from worrying.

On the other hand, the 'physics translator' in the back of my mind automatically equates "weightlessness" with "free falling", which is not something you want to think about in a plane.

"Oh, by the way, when you look out over the left wing, you can see Catalina Island."

At that point I was so busy staring straight at the instrument panel, desperately not trying to notice where the ground and the sky (or anything else, even Catalina Island) where in relation to it, so I can't really confirm where it was at that moment. Maybe over the left wing. Maybe somewhere above my head - I really wasn't (quite intentionally) paying attention to the view.

The manoeuvre he flew was actually a 'Hammerhead', which means flying as straight up as possible and then letting the plane 'fall' over a side.

It seems that aerobatic manoeuvres are a bit like potato chips to pilots - you can't just do only one.

And we also did a roll.

"If you look over the right wing now, you can see Catalina Island again, only it's upside down now."

Aehm, yes.

Then we were upright again.

And it was time to get back to sightseeing, so we turned towards Long Beach, having a good view of the Queen Mary.

Long beach container terminal Queen Mary at Long Beach Queen Mary at Long Beach

"Do you want to take us home?"

Sure I wanted to!

Basically I just had to follow the L.A. River for a while. Straight flying, but I needed to stay level had to correct for drifting, so it was flying with purpose. (As opposed to just playing around with the controls.)

Just in case you wonder: Los Angeles has a river?
Yes, it just doesn't look like one. It's that straight concrete channel that's popular for car chases in the movies, since it is mostly a flat, straight concrete that has no traffic and can be easily sealed off for filming and the bit of water in the middle of it (the actual Los Angeles River) does hardly show up for most of the year.

Then we needed to head more directly towards the airport again.

"See the large building towards the left - fly directly towards that." I was a bit surprised anyone in the US actually saying that - the purpose (using the building as a landmark for direction) was clear, but the phrase still sounds ominous...

Then we were close to the airport and Mike took over the controls again.

The helicopter was still circling the houses below. We did one final turn over the helicopter to lose some height and get on course for the runway and we were back on the ground again.

Compton Airport Compton Airport landing approach Compton Airport back on the ground

Definitely a great flight.

I chatted with Mike and another pilot afterwards, where they explained a bit about the manoeuvres and that the pilot had spared me the 'spin'.

At least I did step away from the plane in better condition than the kid in 'Space Cowboys' did, even though, as the other pilot put it, "If Mike had wanted to make you sick, he could." (I don't doubt that. But luckily the company is Biplane Fun, not Biplane Challenge, and fun it was!)

Some data about the flight: Total flying distance was about 114 km, max altitude (during the looping and hammerhead) was about 2200 feet and flight time 47 minutes, giving an average speed of about 145 km/h and I was flying the plane myself for about five minutes.

Biplane flight path

On the way to the airport I also did an unexpected visit to a tourist attraction. I knew that I needed to have my camera on a leash and I forgot to bring one, so I looked for some big shopping center, hoping to be able to pick up something (at least a thread of twine or something like that). I looked for a shopping center in one of the hotel brochures and found the Hollywood & Highland Center, so I drove there. When I arrived, I noticed that this had very few actual shops (and none of them being 'general stores'), but mostly restaurants and cinemas. Stepping outside, I noticed that I was right beside Grauman's Chinese Theatre, with the concrete handprints and the Walk of Fame outside. (Not much to see, though, since the street was closed for setting up some sort of red carpet event.)

Hollywood & Highland Center Hollywood & Highland Center Grauman's Chinese Theatre Grauman's Chinese Theatre handprints Grauman's Chinese Theatre handprints
Red carpet event Red carpet event Walk of Fame Hollywood Sign

After the biplane flight, I headed over to the LACMA (Los Angeles County Museum of Art). They had a Tim Burton Exhibition there and were obviously expected large crowds, since the tickets had to be pre-booked for a specific entry time. I'm not sure whether there wasn't any crowd due to lack of interest, due to limited availability of tickets for the individual time slots or because the exhibition had almost run its course, but it was pleasantly uncrowded.

No photographs allowed, but in summary of the exhibition: Tim Burton was really great once and it was good to be reminded of that (especially with the bland 're-imaginings' he is doing now).

I was a surprised how large the LACMA is, since it is not only one building, but a group of them, with some interesting stuff to see. (Even, surprisingly, I had seen some of the artwork a couple of years ago in Bilbao, where they were shown at the Guggenheim.)

There was also some interesting stuff outside, like a circle of animal heads from the Chinese zodiac, a 'spaghetti sculpture' to walk around in called 'Penetrable' and a group of 202 street lights.

Zodiak Snake Head Penetrable Urban Light
Urban Light Urban Light Urban Light

Walking around a bit, I made a short visit to the 'tar pits'.

Tar Pits Megatherium Disgruntled animal sculpture

Then I listened a bit to a Jazz concert that was going on in front of the LACMA that evening, before I headed back to the hotel.

I had to get up early the next morning. I was going to a whale watching tour at Dana Point Harbour, which was pretty much at the opposite end of Los Angeles. And while I had originally booked for a 10:30 tour, they mailed me a week before the tour that I would be on the 9:00 tour (with 'check-in' at 8:30), so I started out fairly early.

While the weather had been 'sunny and blue skies' on the previous day (great for flying), the morning was pretty much overcast. Which was fine for me, since I didn't have to worry much about sunburn when standing on the boat and looking out over the sea. (Though it makes the pictures look a bit dull.)

The first question when all were on board was "Do you want to see whales or dolphins?", which clearly went in favour of dolphins. I was the only one wanting to see primarily whales - mostly because there are many places where you can see dolphins, but only very few places (like far off the coast of Iceland) where you have a chance of spotting blue whales. But it's not an either/or decision anyway, just different places with higher chances of spotting one or the other.

And we spotted dolphins first.

Common Dolphin

They swam along with the boat and, which is a reason why catamarans are cool, they swam between the two hulls, so you could see them right below you.

A neat feature of the boat were viewing ports in the hulls, so you could go below deck and see the dolphins swimming right beside you - it doesn't look that good on pictures, but lying there (it's mostly a crawlspace) and seeing them go by was amazing.

Dolphins under water Dolphins under water Dolphins under water

A while later we found another, even larger, pod of dolphins. (The first one was about 80 animals, the second probably about 150.) At first I thought there was a local spot of rain, since the sea looked a bit rough there, but coming closer it was obvious that the reason for that were dolphins (also, raindrops rarely jump out of the water and make bellyflops, so that should have been a hint).

Common dolphins Common dolphins Common dolphins
Common dolphins Common dolphins Common dolphins
Common dolphins Common dolphins Common dolphins

After the dolphins, we moved towards an area that had the possibility of blue whales - I didn't really expect much, since we had been looking for whales from the biplane on the previous day, and Mike also mentioned that he hadn't seen any for the last three weeks, so they might have moved on. (On the other hand, since they dive for a long time, it's easily possible to fly over them and be gone before they resurface).

Maybe it was also because we were at a different spot (we didn't fly that far south along the coast), but we managed to spot a blue whale.

Blue whale Blue whale Blue whale
Blue whale Blue whale

They are quite impressive animals. I can't really think of anything to say about them that I didn't already write here.

This one was nicknamed 'Bubbles', since it had the habit to blow out some air while starting to dive down (as in the third image above), which is not a typical behaviour for blue whales and made this one quite distinctive.

We did see the whale surface three times (with 12 and 13 minutes in between), but then headed back to Dana Point Harbor (the next group was waiting and we spent too much time with the dolphins).

On the way back, we spotted another small group of dolphins, made a quick circle around them and headed on towards a fog buoy.

The attraction here was a group of sea lions.

Sea lions on buoy Sea lions on buoy Sea lions on buoy

The buoy makes a 'foghorn' kind of noise every couple of seconds, but the sea lions don't seem to mind - maybe they are even attracted by it.

To quote the tour guide: "How can you tell they're sea lions? Because they are lying there!"

Which was a cheap joke, but, surprisingly, also accurate. For some reason (which I missed - probably something to do with the length of the foreflippers) seal wouldn't be able to get up the buoy, while sea lions (obviously) can.

And then we went back to the harbor, passing by a group of pelicans.

Dana Point Pelicans Dana Point Pelicans Dana Point Pelicans Dana Point Pelicans

With that, the trip was over and it was time to drive back north.

During the drive, the weather improved and it was sunny again.

I drove to the California Science Center, which was great. They had a couple of interesting space exhibits, but mostly it was about interacting with things and less about looking at it.

Apollo 18 capsule Apollo, Gemini and Mercury capsules

While there were the usual experiments about mechanics, light, sound and similar physic stuff, which naturally lends itself to experimental exhibits and these were well done, I was amazed by an exhibition about ecosystems.

Which is probably best explained by the exhibition about life, which was boring (the exhibition, not life...)

For life, they had some stuff standing around and lots of text, video and audio explanation. So you see pictures of various plants, animals, bacteria and so on and get something like "They all look so different, but they really have a lot in common, they all use energy in various form, they all replicate...", giving basically a textbook definition about 'life' and mentioning that they all have that in common.

So far, so factually correct. But that's something you can also have as a web site. There is nothing really special to justify going to a museum.

Similar with brains - they had a couple of brain models and then a sign lit up saying 'monkey', 'cat' or 'salmon' and you had to press the button at for the right brain.

And there was some glass displays with various graphics of the human body and you could move a 'lens' to one of the marked points and a presentation would start. Slightly more interesting than moving a mouse pointer, but still just a simple selection mechanism for an audio/video player.

Everything was scientifically solid, of course, but to learn the facts would rather read a book about it (or maybe listen to it as an audio file) than stand in a museum for that. (Well, realistically I would just look it up on Wikipedia, but the argument remains the same.)

Even worse was the car/mobility exhibition, which not only looked more like a promotional display of a car manufacturer than a science exhibit. There would be so much you could do with crash tests, but just putting a number of crash test dummies on display saying 'we make cars safe' is not scientifically helpful.

And, scientifically and educationally, the most annoying offender was a display about construction materials for bicycles, which had five rods of different materials (iron, wood, carbon fiber, aluminium and steel, as far as I recall) and you could press a button and, like on a quiz show, three LED columns would light up and give a relative rating for weight, cost and strength

No real interaction at all - you were just supposed to press a button and believe in some infographics.

And that's for something where at least one of the criteria (weight) could have been experienced directly, if the rods wouldn't have been fixed to the display. So the whole thing is actually discouraging you from finding things out by yourself. And while it's harder to show 'strength' directly (if you let visitors try too hard to test for that, things might break), something could surely be constructed (in the 'earthquake' exhibit, for example, there were two structures built in different ways and you could push them, just to find out which was less rigid).

So, why did I like the ecosystem exhibit? Because, oddly enough for a science museum, it didn't care much about specific facts in a clever way and just tried to get the ideas across.

For example, there was an exhibit about Darwin's finches.

You can write and explain a lot about how finches need to get at different kinds of food, how their beak adapt to different food sources, how a 'specialist beak' might exploit an otherwise inaccessible food source, but might let the species down in case that specific resource stopped being available.

Or you can just fill a box with little marbles of different sizes and provide sticks with different tools at the end to collect the marbles.

And while a rod with a small ring at the end will allow you to gather small marbles quite quickly, it is very hard to collect larger ones. While a hook is a fairly universal tool, but harder to operate, so you can collect all marbles, but it will take more time. And a sort of three-finger-rake will allow you to quickly scoop up a bunch of larger marbles, but it's hard to get the small ones.

Darwin's Marbles Darwin's Marbles

In almost all respects, it ignores the original topic. There is no 'scoring', so you can't really tell whether it is better to have three large marbles or five small ones, it has nothing to do with bird beaks and there is no real competition, since everyone has their own marbles, so the whole concept of 'survival of the fittest (tool)' does not come across.

But it is an utterly great presentation, because it's fun, it's a physical activity and something 'special' that you wouldn't experience at home on the computer in the same way (I had to wait for about five minutes until there was a gap between children playing with it and giving me a chance to snap a picture) and you get the idea across that there are different ways of getting at resources and that they have their advantages and disadvantages.

Everything beyond that is just something you can read or learn later. That doesn't have to be in a museum.

There was a similar display about how animals get to remote places (like islands), where there was a 'target' in the middle of a box and you needed to get some ping-pong balls there. One of the sections had a little raft, on which you could put a ball and move it carefully to the center. Another one had a couple of wooden sections that could be moved up and down (like waves) and you could 'float' or 'swim' your ball to the island in the center. Or you could use put the ball into an airstream and 'fly' it over.

Again, basically just a game, but a fun activity, something making the museum special and it gets the basic idea (or maybe even just the right question: "How does a remote island get populated?") across.

Or barnacles. What you had to do was to put your arms through rubber sleeves and catch ping pong balls that were blown around.

Be a barnacle Be a barnacle

Nothing really useful about barnacles being taught, except for the concept that some animals do not move around and still have to feed.

Which is something that is often ignored and a display like that helps to remind people of this much better than having a video presentation about real barnacles. (Because it's a different thing of hearing someone say 'Barnacles can't move around' and experiencing something similar and then learning later about sessile life forms.

And so on. In a similar way, a simple labyrinth game was used to show the problems wild animals are facing when lose in a city; probably much better than a video about a real bobcat would have done.

Although there were missed opportunities. For example the display about dendrochronology (dating trees based on their ring patterns) was fun to play around with and got the idea across (even that would have something that might have worked equally well on a computer), but would have been much better if it used segments from real trees. That wouldn't probably have worked quite as neatly, but it would have been something a museum could do well.

Dendrochronology Dendrochronology

But anyway, I was very impressed by that museum.

After having been to a number of science museums, I was getting a bit jaded. And while demonstrating "if you pump the air out of a glass dome, you can't hear the bell anymore" is a good scientific presentation and science museums should have that, it gets boring to see that again and again. While here I have been going through the museum and thinking "neat", "clever" and "I haven't seen that before" a lot.

But even though I liked the science museum a lot, I had to move on.

There was a concert I wanted to see that evening.

It was at the Wiltern, which is a great venue for concerts, a 1930's Art Deco place with a grand and old-fashioned looking interior, which is kind of a star in its own.

But the reason for wanting to go to a concert was a rather unlikely one. When I knew when I would be in Los Angeles, I looked up events for that weekend and noticed that Ladytron would be giving a concert there.

The unlikely link here is that I had been on a snowmobile tour in Svalbard earlier this year and one of the other guests there was Reuben Wu (on the right side of this picture, who is keyboarder, songwriter and producer for Ladytron.

So finding myself in Los Angeles at the same time when someone I happened to meet somewhere way north of the polar circle was giving a concert, just seemed like a good reason to pay a visit.
I later found out that Dallas, a friend of Reuben, who also had been to the snow mobile trip, had also been to the concert. Sometimes it's a small world...

Getting to the concert was unexpectedly easy and comfortable. While I had a rented car, I also noticed that there was a metro station close to where I was staying and another one right at the Wiltern. And while Los Angeles (stereotypes again) is not really known for public transport (I was surprised that it even existed, much more how extensive it was), it was a faster way to get there than using the car and I didn't have to worry about finding a parking space.

At the Wiltern itself, things went a bit unexpected, but ending up nicely.

I had ordered the ticket in advance as 'will call', so I needed to pick them up at the box office. (For some weird reason there is an option where you can print out your tickets at home, which would have been much easier, but that is only available to US citizens.)

I wasn't quite sure whether there would be fixed seats or 'first come, first choice' seating or even whether there were any seats at all (though when I looked for images of the Wiltern interior, they all showed seats).

When I got my ticket, I noticed that it had something like 'Seat G06 084' on it, so it looked like it would be fixed seating (and 'seating group 06' didn't seem like it would be even close to the stage). But I also noticed that there was a queue for the entrance (and not for the ticket booth), which looked like people had a reason to queue. (Or maybe people in Los Angeles are just well behaved concert goers.)

So I got into line (hadn't anything else to do) and found out that this was the 'early entry queue'. For a couple of additional dollars, you could have ordered a 'early entry ticket', which allowed you to get in before those who didn't pay the premium did. (I hadn't even seen that option, but maybe it was on the US only part of the booking process.)

So it was rather pointless for me to be in that line.

But then someone from the venue walked along the line and ordered VIP passes, which not only allowed you into the building (though only in a fenced off bar area, not into the hall itself) about an hour earlier (which, at that point, meant 'now'), but also allowed you into the hall before the 'early entry ticket' holders.

So my choice was either to hang around an hour outside and see about a hundred people go into the hall before me (by that time I had sort of figured out that the seat numbers were meaningless) or just pay more than they did, sit around in comfort and have a drink and be at the front row.

Easy choice.

So I ended up directly in front of the stage, right at the middle of it, which was a great place to enjoy the concert (and I did enjoy it).

But it was a very 'commercial' way of going to a concert, getting a good view by just paying more, instead of just being there early and queuing. (Yes, that's how it usually works for concerts with seating, where the seats are more expensive the better they are, but I hadn't encountered that for a concert with 'standing room' (and the floor was standing room only, no seats at all, so the 'seat numbers' were just ticket decoration anyway).)

Getting out after the concert there was a bit of a nasty surprise.

I got out of the venue at 23:45, only to learn that the last train had gone at 23:42 and the metro was closed. So I was stranded in the middle of the night in the Mid-City district of Los Angeles.

I noticed there was a bus line running along Wilshire Boulevard towards the Wilshire/Vermont station, which was the station where I would have needed to change trains to get towards Universal City. So I decided to walk there (it's just about a mile away) in the hope that maybe either that metro line would still be running or there might be a bus running in parallel to that line as well.

No luck on both counts, though.

The metro station was closed as well and there is no dedicated 'night bus' service in Los Angeles (with busses essentially following the metro line). Even worse, the busses were mostly specifically not coinciding with the metro lines. Which, of course, makes sense, since you don't need a bus line where there is also a metro line (at day), but it made it very difficult to find a way back to Universal City using the bus system. Especially since I would have to change busses at least twice and it wasn't quite clear how often the connecting lines would be running or whether they would be running at all. Turns out that I would have been stranded in Westwood at about the farthest point along the route from where I wanted to go. Only the first bus line would have still been active and I the next bus on the 761 line wouldn't have been there until 6 am. And even if I had waited for that, I would have been stranded in Ventura again, since the 750 line doesn't run at all on weekends. So the good impression that the Los Angeles public transport made on the way towards the Wiltern vanished quickly...

Luckily, after walking through the night streets of Los Angeles for about an hour, I managed to find an empty taxi.

Good thing I made it back to the hotel at still a reasonable time (about 2 am), since there was another bit of driving to do that day.

I didn't have to get up quite as early as for the whale watching tour, but I had more distance to cover.

I was heading to Wrightwood for some ziplining.

I have been to ‘tree-top adventure’ climbing sites in Germany and the UK and the bit I liked most was the zipline at the end. I also had enjoyed ziplining at Grouse Mountain, even though I missed out on the interesting bits (where you go over a valley) since it was still closed that early in the year.

So when I found out that there was a place that is almost nothing but ziplines, I knew I had to go there. None of that 'obstacle course' stuff, just three 'sky bridges' and a bit of rappelling in between. So all the good bits and none of the work. Seemed a bit lazy, but also like lots of fun.

Also, it wasn't just trees on flat ground, but going back and forth between the mountainsides, so at some parts I was ziplining 300 feet over the ground. And some of the ziplines were quite long. And it wasn't just one 'big attraction' zip line, which would be over after half a minute or so, but a four hour tour (of course, probably only about four minutes of them would be spent zipping along), so it would be worth driving into the mountains for.

I was a bit apprehensive at first when I drove out towards Wrightwood, since the weather in Los Angeles was not that good and I was afraid the whole thing might be cancelled. Since it was California, I had specifically rented a convertible and was a bit grumpy when I had to get off the highway to close the top because it had started to rain. But right after passing Devore Heights the weather suddenly changed and five minutes later I had to stop again to get the top down, since there suddenly was nothing but blue skies. The mountains really act as a meteorological divide here.

So I arrived there with perfect weather and much too early (I wasn't quite sure how much traffic there would be on the way and I rather wanted to be early than to miss my time slot), but luckily there was a space left on the next tour, so I could get right to 'outfitting'.

Ready to zipline Ready to zipline

We were eight people in the group, three friends (one of them had their birthday) and two couples (of which one of each had their birthday - or, in one case, just enjoying the tour as a birthday present), so I was the odd one out, since my being there wasn't in any way birthday related.

In addition to us there were Sean and Amber, the guides.

The whole tour was very much just 'the easy, fun bits'. We had nothing to do but hang around (literally) lean back and enjoy the ride. Everything else, like clipping in the two safety lines or attaching the pulley to the zipline was done by the guides.

So we just stepped up to the ziplines, waited until everything was made ready, leant back into our harnesses, grabbed the handlebars (so we would not turn on the way), pulled our legs up and off we went. The only thing we had to do ourselves was to break at the end of the line. For that we needed the big work gloves that we were wearing, just to press down onto one of the cables (all ziplines had double cables) and slow us down.


Since the ziplines are quite long, they were designed to give you a bit of excess speed (partly since they are long enough that wind has a real effect on the way, but mostly, if you come short, you might have to pull yourself along the line for quite some distance), so breaking was necessary. (For safety, there was also a kind of knotty thing close to the end of the line that would have stopped you if you completely forgot to break, but that would have been a bit rougher).

It was just a gorgeous day.

Not only the ziplining itself was great, but it was also amazing scenery to zipline in.

These were just the warm-up ziplines:
(The ones where they determine whether you might have some problems and they could still get you off the course before you move on to the higher and longer ones.)

Easy ziplining Easy ziplining Easy ziplining

After three ziplines there was some 'abseiling' and we were back on solid ground.

Rapelling Rapelling against the sun Rapelling against the sun

Nobody had any problems, so it was time to go to the main part of the course.

Which had the only part that actually required a bit of effort on our side - the sky stairs, which we needed to walk up to the next ziplining platform (though the effort was, admittedly, trivial, since it basically meant walking up one floor on stairs).

Sky Stairs

One more look at the scenery (San Gabriel Mountains, with Mojave desert in the distance).

San Gabriel Mountains San Gabriel Mountains

Checking all the cables and security lines again.

Lots of security lines

And off we went into the scenery.

Ziplining Ziplining Ziplining Scenery

To give an idea how '3D' the whole place was and at what heights the various lines and bridges were, here are some pictures that give a bit of an idea of the height differences involved. (And if that alone wouldn't be breathtaking, we also were at an altitude of about 2100 meters above sea level...)

Ziplines and sky bridges Ziplines and sky bridges Zipline above

After zipping around, it was time to go a bit slower for a while and cross some of the sky bridges, take a good look at the scenery and have some photo opportunities.

Sky bridge Sky bridge Sky bridge
Sky bridge photo op Sky bridge photo op Californians

And then it was on to the longest of the zipline. Just to give an idea of the distance, the receiving platform is marked on the second image.

Longest zipline Longest zipline

And then some more, back and forth along the mountainside...

Ziplining in Wrightwood Ziplining in Wrightwood Ziplining in Wrightwood

On the last zipline I managed to handle the camera and take some pictures while rushing along the line (I tried that earlier with setting the camera to interval shooting and just hoping for the best, but that only resulted in unfocused pictures of my shirt and the sky.)

Halfway along the zipline

I also tried to take a picture of my shadow on the ground, but that is hard to see due to the height.

Shadow on floor Shadow on floor

And then, almost four hours after we set out, we were at the final tree of the course. One final rappel and we were back on the ground.

Final rappel Final rappel Happy group

I was planning to drive back the way I came (via I-15) when Sean (one of the guides) mentioned the Angeles Crest Scenic Byway (SR-2) as an alternative. I hadn't known about that, since my navigation system did ignore that route because it takes a bit longer, since you have to drive a slower than on the interstate. (So sometimes it is better to listen to people than to technology...)

But what you get in exchange for using a bit more time (which I had in excess, since I hadn't anything else planned for the day anyway and was also on an earlier tour on the ziplines than planned) are a good, near empty, route with lots of possible stopping points and scenic views.

And nice, sunny weather.

In short, the perfect road for fun driving with a convertible in California.

San Gabriel Mountains San Gabriel Mountains San Gabriel Mountains
San Gabriel Mountains San Gabriel Mountains San Gabriel Mountains
San Gabriel Mountains San Gabriel Mountains and car San Gabriel Mountains and car

After having done quite a few interesting things in a very short vacation, the next day it was already time to go home.

But there was one more place I wanted to visit - the Theme Building.

It's the odd spidery structure that makes Los Angeles LAX airport instantly recognizable.

The inside is a bit overdone 60's retro future - complete with a cheesy theme playing in the elevator, lava lamps, glittery bits in the bar counter and lots of rounded shapes in the design - it feels a bit like being on a set of a cheap sci-fi movie, but that's fun too. I had some time after checking in my luggage, so I had a drink at 'Encounter' before I really had to go back home.

Theme Building Theme Building Theme Building Interior

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