Tag Archives: California

Where Every Prospect Pleases

The wife and children and I live in a small two-bedroom condo. It’s all that we can afford here in the San Francisco Bay Area where things are pricey. We bought at the wrong time, in late 2005, just before the Great Recession. Not that the recession did much to bring down the cost of housing. If you’re very lucky, a half million dollars today will get you an ugly fixer-upper in a distant, soul-killing suburb. Or you can make do, like we do, in a rinky-dink condominium in a downtown neighborhood of the inner suburbs where the library and local bookshop are only two blocks away. I don’t know how anyone affords a detached single-family home here.

I’ve just read Two Years Before the Mast in which Richard Henry Dana – a Boston Brahmin turned common sailor – recounts his time spent aboard a merchant vessel working the coast of the then-Mexican province of Alta California in 1834-35. It’s amazing to me that the state could have been so sparsely populated so recently. Monterey, the capitol at the time, seems to have had no more than a few hundred residents. Anchoring in San Francisco Bay (which he calls Francis Drake’s Bay – actually a little farther north), Dana admires the perfection of the climate and the wooded hills framing the water. “If California ever becomes a prosperous country,” he prophesies, “this bay will be the center of its prosperity.”

Elsewhere Dana observes that “the beautiful is linked with the revolting, the sublime with the common-place, and the solemn with the ludicrous.” This is true, I suppose, of most everything that man gets his mitts on, but it feels specially true of my corner of California. It is beautiful in spring when the hills are green and the sun shines most days and the birds are everywhere. Hiking with the kids a week ago we identified over twenty species, from kestrels and turkeys to mockingbirds and wrens. A few miles away, however, by the bay shore, my office is built atop a toxic dump created by Silicon Valley entrepreneurs who cheerily poured their waste chemicals into old orchard plots forty years ago.

All things are apparently convertible to dollars. This is proof, perhaps, that something went horribly wrong. Or maybe it was ever thus. Profit is only another name for virtue here in the best of all possible worlds. I may resent the universe for seeming to require of me the things it seems to require. I may sincerely hope to vomit if I hear another colleague use the terms “KPI” (key performance indicator) or “B-HAG” (big hairy audacious goal). I may drive the freeways worshiping the wild hills and despising the tract homes and the filthy strip malls. I may repeat to myself again and again that only man is vile. But I try to remember that I’m a man too.

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“The Edifice of Peace”

The wife and kids and I spent last week at a cabin near Mendocino on the northern California coast, just down the road from what must be the world’s most scenically situated cemetery. If I could pick any place at all for my “long retirement,” the cemetery at Little River would be it. I’d order a custom-built casket with a window and periscope attached; in my earthy drawer beneath the pines I would decompose in perfect contentment with a view of the Pacific bluffs.

Mendocino was settled in the 1850s by New England logging families, Chinese laborers, and fishermen from the Azores. The Yankees left their mark in the town’s carpenter gothic architecture and converted water towers. The Chinese (whose numbers in the mid-1800s were greater than the total current population) built a Joss House, a Taoist temple, that still functions today. The Portuguese planted the otherworldly echium pininana that sprout twelve-foot-tall pink and purple floral towers, each of which could support whole colonies of bees and hummingbirds.

By the early years of World War II, when Japanese subs prowled off the coast, Mendocino was in decline. Later, James Dean’s East of Eden was filmed here, and several episodes of Murder She Wrote. Mendocino is sustained today by tourists motoring up Highway 1, by weekenders from the San Francisco Bay Area, and by the regular patronage of gray-market marijuana farmers who filter down from the woods when they need things like toilet paper or milk or a sit-down-and-talk at the local bar.

In the checkout line of the small grocery store in downtown Mendocino you can buy the Summer 2012 issue of Lapham’s Quarterly, but no celebrity gossip rags. You can buy superior tonic water for your evening cocktails and several types of gluten-free baked goods. Mendocino is that kind of place. Every restaurant down Lansing and Ukiah Streets serves local, organic foods. The coffee shop stocks organic almond milk for the dairy-intolerant. The toy store highlights products not made in China.

From the top of nearby Van Damme State Park we hiked through a “pygmy forest” where the acidic soil, without benefit of drainage from higher ridges, has stunted a dense growth of Mendocino Cypress, Pacific Rhododendron and Bishop’s Pine. Down a steep decline we came into the redwoods. Here wild clovers grow as big as a man’s hand. Butterflies, flapping drunkenly from pool to pool of light, tempt you off the path like fairies.

At the beach below the town bluffs we unexpectedly ran into some acquaintances. While we talked, the kids made friends with a local boy named “Monday” who liked to bury insects in the sand and watch them crawl out again. Next day, en route to the botanical gardens at Fort Bragg (where we would spot an osprey), we saw the beginning of a grass fire at the edge of the same beach. We pulled up to a hardware store and told them to call for help. When we drove by again several hours later the firefighters were still smothering the last patches of heat.

Back at the cabin, furnished in a 1940s theme, we cooked beans and rice and listened to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman records on vinyl, then watched (of all things) Back to the Future. It was, in every way, an escape from the present. There was no cell reception and I’d left my work computer at home. We drank in generous measures of quiet. The kids wanted to stay and breathe the salt air indefinitely, to give more time to the woods and beach, to dedicate themselves to chess and cards and drawing pictures. In full relaxation mode, my wife drank tea and read Stendhal while I drank tea and read Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders and passages from Walden.

Framed on the walls of the cabin’s one bedroom were old photographs of the proprietor’s parents, a then-young Navy officer and his high school sweetheart. There were framed love letters they had written each other during the last months of WWII, as well as birth and baptismal certificates, a marriage license, and paper menus from hotels and restaurants where they had dined, back in the days when fifteen cents would buy you a slice of pie, and five cents a cup of coffee.

On the nightstand I found a short essay written in 1945 by the proprietor’s mother, in a pleasant cursive script without erasures. She had titled it “The Edifice of Peace” but the c in “peace” I at first mistook for an s. Intentional? I wondered if it were perhaps a playful rather than a serious exercise, but not at all. Drafted by a nineteen-year-old girl on the threshold of marriage and the armistice, it was written in an inspired spirit of charming, heroic naiveté.

“You and you and you,” it begins, “are the builders of tomorrow’s world. Out of the chaos and destruction of the war each one of you has a stone to build into the structure of peace. What sort of a structure are you going to build? Not the same as the last one, which has crumbled away so completely before the whip of Mars.”

“This time,” she resolved, “we shall not build our foundations on paper treaties.” I nod my agreement. The foundations of even a moment’s peace, it seems to me, can only be built on more substantial things – things like exhaustion, necessity, and desire. Sometimes we’re lucky with the materials at hand.

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Birds and Boulders


Sick of the city, you wake the family early and hit the road. The countryside in San Benito County is green and empty. The land opens out below Gilroy and the asphalt is submerged in a lake of grass that fills the bowl between the eastern and western hills. Highway 25 skirts the miserable strip malls and tract-housing of Hollister, then slips into the long chiseled groove that marks the San Andreas Rift Zone between the Diablo and Gabilan ranges. South of Paicines oaks press the verge of the road and you pass through territory held by a colony of Yellow-billed Magpies (Pica nutalli). Crow-like with patches of white, their primaries and tertials flash an iridescent seaweed blue. The yellow muzzle is unmistakable.

Pinnacles National Monument is best avoided in summer. The isolated inland hills flare up infernally, even when not actually burning, and afternoons above 110 degrees are common. All the creeks run dry. In spring, however, the brook at Bear Gulch tinkles below a stone and timber ranger station built in the 1930s by Roosevelt’s Public Works Administration. You follow a hiking trail up the canyon through oak groves and weird vaults of rock. There’s a low buzzing of bees or wasps, but you can’t find their nest. A Steller’s Jay (Cyanocitta stelleri) in his black Robin Hood cap follows through the undergrowth. The trail leads into a cave where a flashlight shows little waterfalls purling through gaps in the rocks. Looking down into the dark your daughter spots (she says) some dinosaur bones. The far end of the cave is closed so that no one will disturb the weeks-long drowsy intercourse of bats.

The ‘pinnacles’ themselves are the fossil bones of a primeval volcano whose flesh has long ago rotted away. From an igneous shelf above the reservoir, where you eat a picnic lunch, there’s a nice vista of the high peaks: boulders and broken ribs of rusted stone that rear up from amid the chaparral and the few scattered pines. It’s about here that your son misplaces his one perfect walking stick in the world and insists on retracing his steps. Your daughter runs the other way to chase an Orangetip butterfly through blood-barked manzanitas. Overhead, lucky you, a massive California Condor (Gymnogyps californianus) slides past, soundless and assured, its finger feathers splayed and ten-foot arms stretched wide, a shipless rudder in the sky. Hold your breath. You have just seen one of Earth’s rarest birds.

Driving north on Highway 25 the weather shifts and clouds run in from the Pacific. You begin to dread that portion of the road ahead where the horrid strip malls start again, and the ugly houses, and the acres of concrete. You hope, in a way, that Mencken was right when he called mankind nothing more consequential than “a local disease of the cosmos.” Here is Paicines again, and now the little hamlet of Tres Pinos. Outside a sheet-metal warehouse some meat-headed kid is marching weighted barbells down the street, while a friend shouts encouragement. Thank God for birds and boulders, you think. It may be that we are nothing better than a rash on the leg of dame Nature, but what a gam!

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Bull’s Eye

My daughter made a face and stamped her foot for every plume she missed, but my son was more stoical.  A nursing gray whale and baby were trolling northward past the point, surfacing at three-minute intervals to send up smoky puffs of vapor.  Then, backs arched, they would dive again, and while they dived we would count and re-count the harbor seals napping on a brief scalloped island below, or laugh at the oystercatchers fussing for possession of a rock.  Meanwhile long rows of cumuli boiled in from the Pacific and the sun poured between to stripe the sea in turquoise and steel.

An afternoon’s drive south of San Francisco, the lighthouse at Pigeon Point is a blanched column of masonry built in 1871, twenty years after the ship Carrier Pigeon cracked open on the rocks to christen the knob of headland.  At 115-feet, Pigeon Point matches the Point Arena Light for tallest on the Pacific coast.  The original half-million candlepower Fresnel lens still inhabits the glassy crown of the minaret.  The Coast Guard lights it only for holidays and special occasions.  The tower is in such a state of decay these days that it’s fenced off for twenty yards in all directions lest some falling piece of debris murder a tourist.

To my mind Robert Louis Stevenson could hardly have picked a more romantic occupation than to follow in the family business and become, like his father and grandfather, an architect of lighthouses.  The grandfather, after whom he was named, designed and built Scotland’s Bell Rock Lighthouse off the North Sea coast, famous at the time (1810) for being raised at a steep toll of lives and fortune on the merest scrap of a rock that spent twenty of every twenty-four hours below tide.

In a short piece written in 1887 to commemorate the death of his father, Stevenson wrote that although he had been a “convinced provincial” and was hardly known in London, his fame abroad was such that in Germany he was called “the Nestor of lighthouse illumination,” while in Peru it wasn’t the tales and essays of the son that were read and admired, but the technical volumes of the civil engineer. 

Though Stevenson disappointed his family in his choice of career, the supernatural image of the lighthouse must still have meant something to him.  I wonder if we don’t see it refracted in ‘The Lantern-Bearers,’ another of his late essays, in which he recollects a boyhood custom of tying a tin ‘bull’s-eye’ lantern to his belt on a summer’s night, then covering it with a coat and setting out for after-dark adventures.  In the following passage I can almost see the pale, lean tower of a boy like a sort of mobile human lighthouse with the windows blacked, daring collision in a sea of night – content with a secret illumination, and withholding it from the world:

The essence of this bliss was to walk by yourself in the black night; the slide shut, the top-coat buttoned; not a ray escaping, whether to conduct your footsteps or to make your glory public: a mere pillar of darkness in the dark; and all the while, deep down in the privacy of your fool’s heart, to know you had a bull’s eye at your belt, and to exult and sing over the knowledge.

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The Tropic of Taqueria

Patrick Kurp notes a “culinary disappointment” during his recent trip to Portland: the inconvenient closure of the local taquerias.  I can sympathize.  I don’t know Mr Kurp but I used to live in Seattle, not far from where he lives now, and I can assure you that there is no such thing as authentic Mexican food in Washington State.  I’m surprised to hear that it may exist in Oregon, but Kurp once lived in Houston so he ought to know what he’s after.

Predictably, the Mexican food improves the farther one travels down the west coast of the United States.  From San Francisco southward is a golden territory.  The 38th parallel, as I imagine it, marks an invisible Tropic of Taqueria, roughly coinciding with the historical frontier of Spanish and Mexican settlement.  Our relocation to California six years ago was full of gastronomic consolations (local wine, year-round farmers’ markets, fresh artichoke and avocado, etc.) but easy access to real Mexican food was perhaps the most consoling.

A personal favorite is Taqueria La Bamba in Mountain View, not far from the campus of a certain Internet Goliath I will not name.  Their al pastor and carnitas (crisped at the edge and tender inside) are tasty perfections.  Also recommended are the Salvadoran pupusas, thick corn tortillas stuffed with pork or cheese and eaten with curtido, a fermented cabbage and onion relish.  Wash it all down with a glass of sweet horchata to put out the fire.  At La Bamba, a taco will set you back a negligible $1.85.

A more recent discovery is Victor’s, not far from my office in San Francisco.  While their al pastor failed to impress, the carnitas and sopes have been praised in my hearing.  The chief reason to eat here, however, seems to be the saucy compliments (and I don’t mean the salsa).  At Victor’s you get to hear yourself called “guapo” (handsome) at least a half dozen times by the motherly ladies behind the counter.  “Hola, guapo!”  “What’s it going to be today, guapo?”  “Hasta, guapo!”  This is what Victor’s is known for.  To judge by my receipt ($4 for a single taco), the special treatment comes at a premium.

Photo credit: Flickr user mrjoro

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Travelogue

Highway 101, the old Spanish El Camino Real, cuts through a grove of eucalyptus in the hills that separate San Juan Bautista from Monterey Bay.  As a child the dappled shadows of those tall trees and the green medicinal odor of their scaly leaves marked a sort of mystical boundary, a division between everything that was vaguely home (the greater San Francisco Bay Area) and the particular away which meant we were going to visit my maternal grandparents near San Luis Obispo, another 150 miles south.  My grandparents are gone now, but I still like to visit San Luis Obispo once a year.

As it descends to the alluvial plain where the Salinas Valley empties into Monterey Bay, the highway winds through a patchwork of changing landscapes.  Artichoke fields flank the road in the fog belt near the bay, where the weather is mild year round.  But south of the city of Salinas the summer sun tyrannizes.  Between the wooded scarp topped by Mt Toro and Palo Escrito to the west and the rocky Gabilan range to the east the July heat licks up from the scorched floor of the Salinas Valley like flames in a gas oven.

Chualar

Grant Street in Chualar

This is where Steinbeck’s Okies came to work in the 1930s.  Today’s Okies are the mostly Mexican farm laborers who fan out in teams across the irrigated fields and steer harvesters and tractors through djinn-like columns of whirling dust.  We made a brief stop in the valley town of Chualar, situated halfway between Salinas and the charmingly-named Soledad (‘Solitude’).  Chualar is a migrant worker town with a bit of an Old West feeling, a hint of bleak doom.  The Union Pacific rail line runs west of downtown.  The heat is breathless.  There are few trees, a few run-down houses, a handful of liquor stores. There are no pedestrians.  Everyone keeps indoors.  Late-80s-model cars cruise the streets and stop to disgorge a half dozen sweaty laborers in ‘Santa Muerte’ T-shirts who vanish into windowless saloons.  Vultures sail the updrafts overhead.

South of King City, the valley begins to lift and though the heat is still relentless the rolling hills make it somehow bearable.  Treeless white and yellow ridges fill in the uninhabited regions to west and east but near San Ardo there are vineyards planted for miles along the highway.  It’s easy to imagine you’re passing through some pastoral corner of Palestine or Lebanon.

Near San Ardo

Vineyards near San Ardo

Continuing south the hills grow higher and cover themselves with scrub oak and chaparral.  East of the highway are dozens of pumpjacks (also known as ‘nodding donkeys’ or ‘grasshopper pumps’), sucking oil out of the wells that still produce it.  This is the part of central California where Daniel Plainview in Upton Sinclair’s Oil! (and There Will Be Blood) made his fortune.  The oil men of central and southern California today are enjoying a counter-recessional boom thanks to rising crude prices.  From Coyote Hills southward to the Los Angeles basin, a scan of the region on Google Maps will turn up isolated grids of pumpjacks all through the Coast Ranges.

Near the headwaters of the Salinas River and the southern end of Monterey County is Camp Roberts, an abandoned army base that reaches into the hills toward Nacimiento Lake and San Antonio Reservoir.  A pair of retired howitzers frames the old ‘Camp Roberts’ sign on a hilltop.  To the west of the highway are blocks of empty barracks, review halls, storefronts, a post office and a church, all intact but broadcasting neglect in their shattered windows and the steel-blue paint that peels off in hand-breadths and collects on the gravel.

Hills near Camp Roberts

Ridge near Camp Roberts

South of Camp Roberts is Mission San Miguel Arcangel, which is under repair for structural damage suffered in a 2003 temblor.  The sanctuary and portions of the grounds are off-limits.  But the arcade, cemetery and perimeter wall are unrestored and give off an antique 18th-century air.  After the Mexican government seized control of Alta California and secularized the missions, Governor Pio Pico sold Mission San Miguel to an American named William Reed, who lived there with his wife and children for several years before they were all murdered on the grounds.  In 1859, nine years after California’s admission to the Union, President Buchanan gave Mission San Miguel back to the Catholic Church.

Mission San Miguel

Interior of Mission San Miguel, ca. 1934

The landscape freshens up considerably as Highway 101 passes the communities of Paso Robles and Atascadero and climbs into Los Padres National Forest and the Santa Lucia Mountains, redolent of deer and wild boar and mountain lion.  Then at Cuesta Pass the mountains are stripped bare again and the highway makes a steep, snaking descent to Los Osos Valley.  At the base of the grade is San Luis Obispo, spread out beneath Cerro San Luis and Bishop Peak, two dacite volcanic plugs in a string of nine that extend twelve miles to Morro Bay, the southern terminus of Big Sur.

Mission San Luis Obispo was founded in 1772 by Junipero Serra and the city that’s grown up around it retains much of the historic charm on offer in places like Santa Barbara, but on a smaller scale and with less pretense.  It’s also a university town and so is thick with students and the coffeehouses, restaurants and bars they support.  We were lucky enough to be there on market day when several blocks of Higuera Street are converted to an open air farmer’s market cum carnival and performance space.  My children were particularly interested in the massive barbeque pits, the Air Force Reserve brass band, a scruffy fellow riding a bike mounted with deer antlers, and a group of students at one particular street corner advertising free hugs.

SLO Market Day

Market day on Higuera Street

From San Luis Obispo we made a day trip to Pismo Beach (my son kept quoting old Bugs Bunny cartoons: ‘Pismo beach and all the clams we can eat!’).  There we spent several hours hunting dragons through the dunes and collecting sand dollars on the shore.  That evening at the hotel I had the pleasure of smoking my pipe to the hooting of owls under the stars.  The next day I spent an undisturbed hour at Phoenix Books on Monterey Street, where I purchased paperback copies of Montesquieu’s Persian Letters and Cynthia Ozick’s The Cannibal Galaxy.  San Luis Obispo used to have an even better bookshop, Leon’s, on Higuera Street.  It was an awful loss to me personally to find Leon’s gone a couple years back.  But Phoenix has only improved since then.  And it’s consoling to see that the old Leon’s sign -permanently affixed to the façade of its building- still lights up after sunset.

Books

The old Leon’s Books sign

Ah, books.  Ah, roadtrips too.

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Three Paragraphs of Nature

Bridge over the Marsh

There is an invisible boundary midway between Shoreline Park and the open tidal flats of San Francisco Bay beyond which the world belongs entirely to winged things: gulls and terns, innumerable songbirds, snoozing ducks and colonies of croaking pelicans, herons and egrets that stilt-walk through the grass and curl their necks into figure eights when they fly, and the large solitary raven that plucks mollusks from the oozing mud and breaks them on the rocks.  There are insects too: ladybugs and drab buzzing beetles, honeybees and bumblebees, and the broad black and yellow and small white butterflies that flit like fairies through the mustard flowers and the cowbane on either side of the path.

I spent my lunch hour today hiking down the levies that escort Stevens Creek and Whisman Slough into the Bay.  It’s a gravel trail on top that drops on the right into cattails and tidal ponds and on the left into lush sloping lawns that verge the creek, thick with marsh grass and hardy low shrubs, where ground squirrels scamper and jackrabbits hop incautiously from flower to flower.  At low tide the place has a rich sour odor of sweating mud and rotting vegetable matter.  A mile and a half out the fresh water from Stevens Creek ceases to flow eastward as it had all the way from the Santa Cruz Mountains and the saltwater from the Bay begins to push back up the half-empty channel.

Set here and there in the ponds are false islands, hunters’ blinds of sun-bleached wooden planking gapped like teeth when the gums have receded to allow for the barrels of shotguns in season.  There are metal towers for power lines, too, which seem oddly out of place, and the hum of electricity running through the cables is audible at a distance.  The path dead-ends at the open tidal flats, a vast killing field of saline mud where gulls in their thousands hunt the puddles for stranded fish, and clams and mussels poke up from the silt like paving tiles.  A bubbly, sucking sound of water leeching from the exposed earth in every direction makes a chorus to beg back the tide, which is on its way anyhow.  Meanwhile the circling raven eyes me curiously.

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