The cast (from L to R):

Noa "Naptime" Grayevsky, Anicia "Bleeding Steak" Timberlake, Sarah "Gnawer of Bones" Carsman, Andre "Boulder Bowler" Mount, Sivan "The Feenish Composer" Eldar , Alice "It's a Lumbar Pack, Not a Fanny Pack" Goff, Neil "The Catchphrase Juggernaut" Ghosh, Arthur "Daddy Long Legs" Dudney.

The clan arrived in waves.

Anicia and Alice came first, threw chilliness to the wind, and promptly secured two tubs that would serve as their corporate headquarters for the remainder of the trip.

The Berkeley faction Sivan, Sarah, Noa, Andre) arrived next and—opting to hold off on the warm, stinky water for the time being—toured the grounds. (Neil and Arthur arrived shortly thereafter and were subsequently greeted in the dining commons of the group's luxurious mobile accommodations.)

Near the office (pictured above) a kindly, round gentleman peered up into a tree. A family of long-eared owls peered back.

The ground beneath the owl tree was littered with poop ("owl pellets," to use the preferred nomenclature), itself littered with the boney remnants of unfortunate mice and other small  grassland creatures.

Mercey Hot Springs is a pretty cool place. There are a bunch of (supposedly turn-of-the-century) cabins up on the hill. Most of them can comfortably fit two or three people, so our mob had to be stuck somewhere else.

There were two sets of hot tubs—and when I say "hot tubs," I mean individual bath tubs with their own faucets. The nudie tubs were up the hill. But since the spring itself was at the bottom, these were (allegedly) the colder option.

Also: The lower tubs had a sauna!

They did look pretty sweet, though!

(And you know what? Rules, schmules. New Years beers and cover of darkness made quick work of the "bathing suit required" signs by the lower tubs.)

This sinister-looking device—from what I can deduce—reveals a shocking truth about the Mercey Hot Spring: it ain't even thermal! They just stick the water up in these pipes up in the air and let the sun do the work! What a sham! They must add the sulfur smell in later... Yes, you have to get up pretty early in the morning to pull one over on ol' Andre.

(They'd do well to paint the pipes black, in my opinion.)

There was even a pool! A pool!!!

Figuring that a bunch of young whippersnappers like us would probably be raising quite the ruckus on New Year's Eve, the management decided to stick us in this satellite building—alternatingly referred to as "the trailer," "the mobile home," "tornado bait," and, most perplexingly of all, "the walkabout."

The place had never before been rented to guests, so we were left to break it in. And we break it in we did! (My favorite parts was the Rothko-esque art  hanging (nailed) to the walls and the questionable DVD accidentally left in the entertainment center.)

Overall, it was very cozy. Much more luxurious than we could have hoped for.

They were stil putting the finishing touches on y olde walkabout(e) when we arrived (water heater, furniture, beds...). Word on the street was that they were planning on adding another room and a private hot tub in the near future, so there was quite a bit of construction equipment still around.

It's a good thing this tractor had a flat tire... Oh, the havoc young Andre would have wreaked...

Sarah and I were all talkin' up our recent van purchase. But then these jokers had to show us up!

Admittedly, their bus was the coolest vehicle I'd ever seen. With the wood interior and clever transformer furniture, it brought whole meaning to the concept of the land yacht.

The commander of this vessel, a nomadic carpenter by the name of Rick, promptly recruited Andre for a (grueling) sunset mountain bike ride.

And what a ride it was The piles of sun-bleached bones on the way up were intimidating, but quickly forgotten on the wild ride down. The poorly-photoshopped-ed image above shows the approximate route and the hills and dales we traversed.

Meanwhile, Noa commences the noshing. The kind of noshing that must be commenced when all eight members of an eight-member party are charged with providing food.

Our supply of grub was surpassed only by our supply of grog. Those that longed for Simpler Times were particularly pleased to discover that the cans of Trader Joe's cheapest ale went all the way to the back of the fridge.

Timberlake gapes at (and breathes on) a formidable stack of steak while the requisite beer-amid (byramid?!) looms in the background.

And I think I speak for the group when I say (those not averse to swearing, anyway): "HOLY SHIT! What a delicious meal!" Arthur and Neil prepared our first dinner and set the bar high. ("Dammit," thought I, thinking of the box of Aunt Jemima I'd planned for breakfast.)

New Years with Alice and Anicia means participating in the (slightly buzz-killing, but ultimately cleansing and uplifting) activity of stabbing a lemon, writing down a year's worth of secret regrets, and thrusting the wadded up paper into the prepared crevice.

Traditionally (if I'm not mistaken), said lemon is cast into the sea. A general lack of nearby sea, however, forced us to bury the lemon in the mud behind the trailer. The ground was kind of hard and we, without a shovel, didn't bury too deeply. (We put a piece of wood over the spot for good measure.)

Following a breakfast of lackluster pancakes and the best bacon any of us had ever eaten, the gang prepares for the first hike of the new year.

We left a scowling Sivan behind to "feenish" preparing the parts for her new composition.

Before setting out, Andre took a quick picture to make sure his lens was covered with schmutz.

Check.

Having recently gotten a bit of rain, the countryside was just starting to turn green. (Old Rick said it was due to go all out in about a month or two.) Even brown, the scenery was pretty breathtaking.

According to Larry (the kind and generous owner of the resort) there was a "shepherd's pile" on top of the mountain across the highway that made for a good hiking destination. You can't really make it out in this picture, but said pile was right on top of the highest point of the mountains in the background of this picture. With no official trails to be found, we put our wilderness skills to the test and immediately plotted the course of least most resistance: right on up the mother and over a few unnecessary peaks bagged along the way.

ZOMG! Adorable!!

Andre was glad to have at least one other trip photographer, documenting the mundane in true city-slicker fashion.

Sivan's tolerance for working was, apparently, pretty low, for soon we saw her bounding up the slope towards us, clad in a lily-pad sweater and fashionable boots, twirling and singing in a way that would bring a tear to Julie Andrews' eye.

Suddenly, in the distance, the group spied a strange and foreign object. A bucket of some sort (with nary a walrus in sight). From whence this bucket came, they could not know and decided to circle in for a closer look...

Presumably, the bucket was placed there for bovine hydration. I'd like to see the cow that would want to drink out of this.

I think those brown things are dead moths. Yum.

Sarah, Anicia, and Sivan decide on who's going to drink out of the bucket first.

This is the rural equivalent of a bunch of country bumpkins standing around a "No Parking" sign and debating what it does and where it came from—except that weird blue cubes are for cows to lick and signposts are for people to lick (at least, I did when I was a little kid waiting for the bus out in the snow).

This is what happens when the pilot realizes he forgot to turn off the stove.

I can't tell you how many times I've been out driving in the countryside thinking about how cool it would be to just park the car, ignore the trespassing signs, and just wander off. Well, apparently I'm just a goody-goody.

According to Rick and Larry, people do it all the time. You might occasionally run into a cranky rancher (and said cranky rancher might blast you with rock salt from his cranky shotgun), but that's a small price!

(I think this picture sort of looks like a movie set.)

Zounds! A hoof! Or, at least, that's what we thought it was. (Interesting how hollow it is... Cows must keep their stashes in their hooves...)

Neil and Arthur lead the way as the group density thins.

We were all dressed for a blustery winter hike. It was the first of January, after all But the occasionally blazing sun made for a rather temperate climate.

I was wishing I'd brought shorts on the steep hike up, but glad I was be-pantsed for the chilly hike down.

Glorious views were our treat every time we stopped to catch our breath, sip our water, and lament our chosen route.

The shepherd's pile looms into view!

Perhaps it was because the air was so still. Perhaps because it was because the temperature was nice and crisp. Whatever the reason, the clouds up here were outstanding!

The crisscrossing contrails of passing aircraft reminded us to Watch for Coyotes Vigilantly.

The shepherd's pile! Success! After a quick scramble u the last part of the mountain we fund the fabled pile.

Neil admired the view, Arthur kept an eye on the pile, Sarah (and tri-Sarah-tops) mugged for the camera...

...Anicia and Alice stole Arthurs seat, Sarah hid behind the ancient obelisk, Andre (not pictured) dutifully rolled a few boulders down the slope...

...and all posed for a group picture!

(Make 'em dance! Roll over the image with your mouse!)

I'm sure, sharp-eyed reader, that you noticed our diminished number in the shot above... Our rear flank fell behind. And, as per the pirate's code, were unfortunately left behind.

(More rollover fun! Cast your pointer over the picture to see how far Noa and Sivan made it.)

Everything Joe McCarthy worked for... down the drain...

The trip back down the mountain was (mercifully) much easier! We plotted a course down through a winding ravine which turned out to be real neat.

Earlier, Rick told me that he calls the round rocks that litter the mountain bike trails "baby heads." (He also told me to watch out for 'em, and zoomed on ahead.) Here we see where baby heads come from!

Ms. Timberlake proposes/demonstrates an alternative source.

Why is it that we feel the need to pick up rocks and carry them? (I personally brought back three big ones.)

Here, Alice shows off a nice meatloaf-colored specimen.

Another mysterious bucket. What the cows did with this one, I can only imagine.

(I took a peek under it... you don't want to know what I found...)

Certain cows, it seems, are also trained in the Philippine tradition to build terraced rice paddies.

Back at the top of the mountain we discussed our foolishness in not ringing a picnic lunch (or at least a couple bottles o' suds!). Much of the ensuing conversation focused on our plans for eating once we got back.

Sarah said she was hungry enough to eat a cow. One thing led to another and...

Sarah and Anicia: being productive.

A view from inside one of the tubs. Sarah polishes off a Richard Brautigan book and smiles warmly. (Get it!)

Alice and Anicia (also nerding it up, books in hands) peer over from their command center.

And—as if the place wasn't picturesque enough—a flock of birds flew noisily overhead as dusk filled in.

Stealing away before his comrades awoke, Andre ventured out to get some (almost) sunrise shots.

These photos don't really do the place justice, but it was amazing how quickly the colors would change in different light. Compare this picture with the one just above.

Aside from Alice, who thrives on urban bustle, most of us agreed that we could get used to living out here.

Not the fanciest gate, but it gets the job done. (Or does it? What is this sort of gate supposed to do anyway?)

OK. Last rollover, I promise. Stick yer cursor over the picture to look through the gate the other direction!

Yet another dramatic sky picture.

 

The closest we got to snow...

They'd recently had rain, so a lot of green was starting to poke up out of the dirt. All of the old, dead grass and weeds were still there, though, giving the hills a frosty look.

Larry, the owner, was in the process of removing himself completely from "the grid." Part of this entailed a switch to solar power. Most of the budget went into installing the pivoting towers for the solar panels before drying up.

Here, a tower nobly awaits its panels.

Heading nestward (back to the out-and-about), Andre found that his half of the bed had been usurped.

Here, Sarah orates vigorously while Alice shows concern for a waywardly expressive hand.

Like George Harrison said: all things must pass. Some wanted to stay an extra night but that didn't quite work out. The drive back, however, was nothing short of stupendous!

Our car took the 5 on the way down, so we figured we owed it to ourselves to take the scenic route back. (There were plenty of cows to "moo!" at.)

And—once again, being good city folk—we took care to document the cow sightings.

Every last one.

Anicia's thoughts: "Alright, sign! Don't mind if I do!"

Trip stats:

Miles hiked: ~4
Beer supply consumed: 60% (poor!)
Rocks added to shepherd's pile: 5
Rocks carried back from hike: 8
Delicious meals consumed: 7
Coyotes spotted: 0
Coyotes heard: 3 (?)
Rounds of Catchphrase (tm) dominated by the unstoppable juggernaut Team 1, co-anchored by Neil and Andre: too many to count