Category Archives: adventure

A small concert for solo cello, deep inside the Grand Canyon, during a meteor shower.

Sunrise seen from The Coconino Plateau off the North Kaibab trail. This is a beautiful natural promontory and stage, but experiences high winds which, at least during the morning as I hiked past, made it unfit for performance.
First sighting of my podium, the Redwall Bridge on the North Kaibab trail, 2.8 miles and 2000 vertical feet below the North Kaibab trailhead. The Redwall bridge is seen as a straight line deep in the canyon seen here.

Six years ago,    while hiking rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon the first time,  I discovered a profoundly spectacular location with interesting acoustics.    A wooden footbridge crossed a chasm,   forming a convenient stage,    with sheer rock walls ascending close together towards the north rim of the canyon,   2000′  overhead.   The Kaibab trail is even, in spots, blasted as a “C” shaped ledge into a sheer-vertical cliff face.  It is the largest and most topographically interesting  space I’ve ever gotten to sing in.

What stood out, to my ears, was the unusual quiet and echo.   It is free of almost any noise,   except the sounds of small ground squirrels or birds traipsing in the underbrush.       But when a sound was made, the echoes were unusually distinct and lively.   Echoes would echo, and echo,  and it seemed you could hear the fourth or fifth reflection of a handclap.    I stopped and whistled  for a few minutes,     and remember thinking to myself,   wistfully:

“If only I had my cello”.  

Six years passed.  A time of incredible growth and flux,    and now I find myself living on the west coast,  theoretically within a day’s drive of this spot.    (13 hours from the San Francisco bay).   The idea is still high among my crowded backlog of adventures / projects / enthusiasms.  And then the news arrives,  that the Perseid meteor shower this year (a regular August occurrence) was expected to be unusually brilliant this year,  “The brightest in a decade” even.        This finally pushed the idea (of revisiting the North Kaibab trail with my Cello) from “A good idea worth doing sometime”  to “A unique opportunity to do now“.    I messaged a few friends to inquire if anyone wanted to go,  and join me in a middle-of-the-night cello recital on a footbridge in the canyon,   beneath the brightest meteor shower of a decade.    Many were interested but could not attend due to prior commitments,  or the extreme driving:hiking ratio (near 2:1).   but the invite met an enthusastic “yes” from a friend who, it turns out,  was more apt a fellow adventurer than I could have known beforehand:  not only a willing impromptu adventurer,  but an aerialist/gymnast/theatrical producer,  with extraordinary insights and ideas about unconventional audience/performer relationships.

Talking to Strangers: Lou Fischer

BuB motorcycle
The BuB streamliner motorcycle, piloted by Chris Carr, reached speeds in excess of 367 mph with a 3 liter, 500 horsepower turbocharged V4 engine on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

I was bicycling by starlight in the middle of the desert at midnight, 20 miles from anywhere in the middle of Goblin Valley Utah,  in late August.   Crossing deserts during the night is necessary when the daytime shade temperature is between 110 and 120F   (but there is no shade) and ground temperatures reach 150F before noon.  But it is also a treasure to ride in the desert at night:   the skies are the clearest of anywhere on the continent.  One day before the August full moon, I was riding by star and moon light alone.  Nobody was on the road. Cars would pass maybe once every half hour or two, and when they did, I could see their headlights ten minutes away, hear their roar minutes away.  I’d been riding this way, solo, for a few hours,   racing towards Moab Utah and Arches NP trying to arrive on my birthday and see the full moon rise over these incredible landscapes,   when I saw a parked car on the side of the road up ahead,  lights off, with it’s trunk open,   and a fellow standing next to it.

I should mention that,  when asking locals about what to expect,  before crossing the 100 miles of open Mojave desert a few weeks back,  from Joshua Tree  to the Colorado river,  multiple independent sources repeated several times “It’s where people go to bury bodies”,  or “Ever seen ‘the Hills have Eyes’?”.

But I saw his camera tripod, and no bodies. I had also benefited previously from a trucker who stopped and shared an ice chest of gatorade with me in the middle of the Mojave desert; here was an opportunity to pay it forward. And I was curious.

He certainly did not expect a jovial Gordon “hello, howdy! Are you okay, need any water?”.      Not when the loudest thing he’d likely experienced for his last hour was the click of his camera shutter,  sand underfoot, and what night creature sounds as occur in August, in the deep sand and sagebrush desert, at midnight. I tried to mitigate his shock by speaking from a respectful safe distance of 50 feet or so.

To say he was “Startled” would be an understatement.  We were in one of the most desolate places in the country, after midnight, in the dark. He’d probably felt himself the only person for miles,  ten seconds prior.  Bicycles riding by starlight are stealthy!  I saw him reassure  himself (discretely) of the location of a bottle of bear-spray on his hip,  his countermeasures.   I had sympathy for this;  I had done similar before hailing him.  We were both assessing each other. And then we talked.

We progressed quickly from threat-assessment  to rapport and shared enthusiasm. Two gearhead adventurers, alone in the middle of the desert at midnight talking under starlight .  We talked for over an hour.  Before I resumed bicycling,   he made me promise to message him before I arrived in Chicago, where he would host me.   He also took this picture of me,  which is one of my favorites of the whole trip:

Photo by Lou Fischer. Gordon Kirkwood bicycle crossing Goblin Valley Utah through the night in late August.

Lou is a photography buff and documentary filmmaker, his youtube channel is “Bonneville Stories”.   Some of his work is linked below.   His brother held a land – speed record on motorcycles;  He was in town to document the fastest motorcycle in the world, the BuB streamliner motorcycle,   which reaches in excess of 360MPH  / Mach 0.5.    I often think of this encounter as one of the more rewarding “talk to strangers” lessons in good faith optimism… especially since pessimism could easily have prejudiced this introduction to nonexistence. It would have been easy to make an excuse to pass a car in a desolate area.

This story, from six years ago, came to mind in the context of two especially significant meetings this last week and next, discussing character development and education in science, technology, engineering and math with DARPA,  the Navy,   and a large private philanthropy whose director has honored me by asking for my input.  As I refine my thoughts I’m enjoying revisiting a few of these experiences which in retrospect seem like formative decision points or character building moments.    Stay tuned! 

How to take an evening off when you’re working at the opportunity of a lifetime: go see a beached whale.

copyright gordon C. Kirkwood 2015
The whale, seen from the front, is awesome. Such a huge mouth! This exposure was made by burying tripod legs in sand and collecting light for half a minute, and light-painting it with the small flashlights we had with us.



The artist residency at Autodesk’s Pier-9 Workshop is  hard to leave at night. It is easy to be workaholic when you love what you are doing and have the priviledge to work in such a space, where so much thought and so many resources have been invested to remove every possible obstacle to progressing from concepts to designs to physical realities.   It is hard to be confronted with both such immense opportunity, and the finiteness of time.   And so leaving becomes difficult,  but last night I had a really good excuse:

My friend Shanee posted on social media a link to a news article describing a dead sperm whale washing ashore:

guys!! guys!! a sperm whale washed up in pacifica!! who knows what beach this is (you can see more in the video)?!! who wants to go check it out with me before those pesky scientists get to it?!

And so,  in the midst of very earnest hard work,  I found myself recognizing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity of an even more ephemeral sort than this four-month residency,   and yielding to the call of adventure.   Vehicles were coordinated, and it was agreed that Shanee, Elle, Erika, and Sunny –  coincidentally,  and delightfully,  all extremely brilliant, interesting, and attractive women – would converge on my location at Pier 9 from all over the bay, and progress from there together in Shanee’s car to Pacifica.

For the briefest moment, I almost gave in to fatigue, inertia, and the overwhelming awareness of how much work I have to do to achieve my goals of this artist residency.  It was midnight, after all,  and on a tuesday where,  that friday,  I had my first formal critique of my residency.   Then I remembered that the most magical evenings of my life have consistently  resulted from stepping up in such moments,  and going farther.  I even have a letter my grandfather wrote, attesting to how he was almost ready to go home and get to sleep when, instead,  “I chose music”.  The rest of that letter,  to his mother,  described the series of events that led him falling in love with the young soloist of the night,  who I and all his descendants get to call Grandma.  Staying in rarely opens new chapters.

We parked as near as we could and walked on trails the rest of the way,  and the stars were brilliant overhead on a cloudless clear night. I reflected on the providence that this morning,  for the first time in a month, I had thought to bring my SLR camera to work with me,  and had my tripod under my desk.

copyright gordon C. Kirkwood 2015
From a distance, it wasn’t clear whether we were in the right place. However, with a camera and tripod, I took long exposure photographs and there, in the crux of the cliff, was the whale- ringed in irridescent rings of velella jellyfish.


copyright gordon C. Kirkwood 2015
What at first appeared to be tide lines in the sand, on closer inspection turned out to be millions of velella jellyfish.  Also:  adventuring along a beatiful coastline under the stars at 2am with talented, smart, adventurous and attractive women?  Erika, Shanee, and Sunny are respectively a national geographic submarine captain,  a marine biologist, and bioreactor-startup founder.


copyright gordon C. Kirkwood 2015
The whale was the largest animal I have ever been so close to, or am ever likely to.



copyright Gordon C. Kirkwood 2015
Sperm Whale south of Pacifica, CA.