Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Mt. Adams, December 23rd

A couple days before Christmas, RD and I made an attempt at Adams. Up at 6 in North Conway, with lunch and gear packed the night before, we were on the mountain by 7:30, so we had plenty of daylight to play with. But going was slow. Even the Appalachia parking lot had gotten a couple of inches of snow during the night, and the higher up we went, the more accumulation we encountered.

Elevation seems to influence weather even more during the winter than in summer. The hike up the Airline takes far longer in the winter than summer, inducing you to study the forest in somewhat frustrating detail. The whole time we had a pretty good idea of how far it was to treeline simply by the temperature. When we needed our hats, we knew we were about to pop out.

When we did emerge onto the ridge, visibility was limited, and snowdrifts began to seriously impede our progress. It probably took us an hour to get from treeline to the Airline Cutoff—a distance that only takes fifteen minutes to cover in the summer. Our snowshoes helped with the snow, but the pitch of the slope made us slide back, sometimes three or four steps in a row. The quads and hip flexors felt this part of the hike.

Unfortunately, the clouds never lifted as the weather report had suggested, so we never got to look across King Ravine. However, the rime ice on this trail sign was superb.

Past the Airline Cutoff, the wind increased sharply as we rose above Adams’ western ramparts. This made the going much easier because the snow was scoured from the mountainside, allowing the teeth of our snowshoes to bite into the granular snow, but of course the air grew a great deal colder, too. At the junction of the Airline and Gulfside Trails, we paused for a picture, a bite to eat, and a powwow about whether to continue.

Given the limited visibility and the difficulty of distinguishing cairns, which had become white lumps of rime by this point, we decided to forego a summit attempt and instead descended along the Gulfside to Madison Hut, which was rebuilt by the AMC’s construction crew during the late fall. It was a chilly walk downhill made eerie by the strange sensation of recognizing landscape features that, given the snow and ice, seemed very out of context. I was glad we did not continue up the summit cone, which I do not know so well as this section of the Gulfside.

The new Madison Hut, which CC was working on until Thanksgiving, looks snug and very similar to its predecessor (this photo shows the old bunkrooms, of which the skeleton has been preserved because it dates back to the thirties). The interior is apparently different, but since the hut was boarded up for the winter, reviews will have to wait until next summer. Not yet ready to head down the Valley Way, we trekked up to Star Lake and found the moon rocks, though the white quartz was concealed by a layer of ice.

The wind was fairly cutting here, too, so we turned around and sped past the hut onto the powdery length of the Valley Way. The snow was so deep that we could slide down the steeper patches at a great pace. Before long, we were exhausted, however, and the bottom half was a drudge. We were off the mountain at two, without having seen a soul the entire time.

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Food-Safety Bill Squeaks Through

Lost in the turmoil over the DREAM Act and DADT, the tax compromise and debate over ratifying the START Treaty, the food-safety bill passed the Senate last night by unanimous consent. Given that it only takes an objection by one Senator to slow down the voting process by several days, and the bill had previously received 25 no votes, its easy passage was an enormous surprise. What happened?

The food-safety bill has been rattling around the Capitol since the early on in the 111th Congress, but despite prompt action by the House, the Senate, in keeping with its “deliberative” nature, dragged its feet. The bill would give the FDA substantially increased regulatory powers and $1.4 billion to hire thousands of new food inspectors, among other things, but it faced considerable opposition. In particular, small producers rose up en masse because the House version would have compelled them to pay substantial inspection fees and achieve the same standards for cleanliness as large producers, which would be both impractical and pointless. (A farmer who slaughters a few of his own grass-fed cattle doesn’t encounter the same issues as corporate operations that process thousands of animals a day in one abattoir.)

In any case, thanks to Jon Tester, Senator from Montana and a former organic wheat farmer, the Senate bill made an exception for “family-scale” operations (note the usual ridiculous conflation of domesticity and agriculture)—farms with annual sales under $500,000. The bill passed the Senate shortly thereafter by a vote of 73-25. While some have called it bipartisan, and it did pick up the support of a number of Republicans, the bill’s supporters were overwhelmingly Democratic.

It appeared, then, that the House needed only to pass its own version of the Senate bill (the language of the two bills must match or else representatives from both houses must reconcile the differences between the chambers, necessitating another vote on the final product) for the bill to advance to Obama’s desk. But then, appallingly, someone discovered that the Senate bill included revenue raising measures that, as directed in the Constitution itself, must originate in the House of Representatives. So the Senate’s efforts were all for naught, and a new bill needed to be advanced. With time short, and other, higher profile bills awaiting consideration, it did not appear that the bill would again be brought up. With Republicans taking over the House next year, this would have likely been the last of the food-safety bill.

The bill’s particular foe was Tom Coburn, an Oklahoma Republican who is particularly conservative and rather more ideologically consistent than most of his caucus. He objected to the increase in power for the executive branch through the assumption of new regulatory powers, preferring instead to rely on the power of the market to encourage voluntary self-regulation (not so popular with those who caught salmonella last summer). Joined by a coalition of corporate lackeys (wonder which party will receive more donations from agribusiness this year?) and the ignorant (some observers simply refuse to acknowledge the Tester exemption and treat this bill as the death knell for localism), Coburn stood ready to gum up the Senate if Harry Reid scheduled another vote on the Food-safety bill.

Until last night. Despite overwhelmingly negative predictions by the few observers in the press followed the story, Reid managed to pass the food-safety bill by unanimous consent. Evidently, the dogged Oklahoman blinked. What little has been reported about the bill’s success fails to explain why he stood down, but my guess is that the Senator feared making a futile gesture that would keep the Senate in session through Christmas day. The bill clearly had the votes to pass, and Coburn would have enraged the other Senators if he kept them in DC much longer. Thus, if my hypothesis is correct, this is one of the few times when Democrats have successfully manipulated their opponents into surrender. Hurray for Harry Reid—his recent re-election seems to have been cathartic, if the lame duck session is anything to go by.

The food-safety bill now heads to the House, which will need to vote on it once more before it reaches Obama. Without no filibuster available to the House GOP, its passage is assured, so Obama will sign it shortly. It should be a great relief to food consumers (everybody) that FDA will now be able to force companies to recall most tainted food (not meat, however). We shall have to see how vigorously Republican presidents fulfill the new mandate before rendering final judgment. However, as discouraging as the past couple months have been politically, passing the food-safety bill is a major achievement, and for all the problems with the Democratic leadership, they deserve a great deal of credit on this front.

I took the picture at the top during the summer of 2004, driving through the Palouse region of southeastern Washington State.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Nearing Solstice

My apartment was suffused with light this morning. Evidently, there is something to be said for rising in the dark.

The steam is coming from the Lamont Street Lofts, which were originally the Arcade-Sunshine Company, a rare example of industry (laundry and dyeing) in the District.

And again, on the morning of the seventeenth. I got up early to bake some gingerbread (last day of classes before winter break) and was wide awake for the entire symphony. Milo in the Phantom Tollbooth never had it so good.

There is nothing like watching a series of sunrises or sunsets for developing a sense of place, but what with schedule and blocked horizons, it's rare to get an unobscured view of one in the metropolis.