Monthly Archives: May 2016

The end of the road

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After 8 1/2 months, 20,859 miles and 36 states, we are back where we started.  It has been one of the best years of my life;  Greta concurs, adding that it was right up there with kindergarten.

There is so much to be grateful for with this trip.  A little trailer that was our home.  An old truck that never let us down (except for blowing a tire in the middle of the Mojave).   Damn good weather most of the time.  Good food, beautiful landscapes and interesting cities (but perhaps a little too much architecture for Greta).  Strangers who became friends and with whom we’d like to stay in touch.

But the best part of the trip for us was the family and old friends who welcomed us into their homes and lives, and kept us from becoming homesick.  I hadn’t seen many of these friends in 10, 20, 30, or even 40 years, and in every case, we just sat down and started talking as if we had never left off;  this seems to be the case with all true friends.  Our deepest thanks to all of you, and now that we’ve been to your homes, you have to come visit us.

None of this would have happened without Linda’s full support.  This trip was a crazy idea, but she was behind it from the start, as she knew it was the right thing at this point for me and for Greta.  She has had a busy and trying year, and our being gone just made it harder for her.  She never complained (well, she complained about school), even though she was hard at work while we were gallivanting around the country.  As is her wont, she cared about what was best for all of us, not just herself, and it’s one of the many reasons we love her.  (We did bring her a lot of nice presents, and we’ll probably have to cook dinner for the next couple of years.)

But mostly I’m grateful for the past year spent with Greta.  I knew she was a great kid before we left, but it’s been proved over and over on this trip.  She never complained, she charged right ahead into every adventure, she navigated us flawlessly through complex metropolitan areas, and she grew up in front of my eyes.  Not many people have the chance to spend this much time with their teenager, but I wish everyone did.  On hearing what we were up to, many people we met looked at Greta and said, do you know how cool this is?  Do you know how great it is that your dad is doing this for you?  Greta always said yes, and I always added that it was just as cool for me: first of all, Greta was my excuse for taking the trip, and second, I wouldn’t have lasted two months on my own.

This trip was a great leap of faith for her.  A few months into the trip, someone asked her if she had been positive about taking the trip when I first proposed it.  She said, yes, but only because she had no expectation that it would actually happen.  She figured, it’s another one of dad’s crazy ideas, why burst his bubble right away?  As we drove through Springfield on the first day, she looked at me and exclaimed, Holy crap, we’re really doing this!

Greta made friends everywhere we went, including quite a few surrogate aunts and uncles, and it was really gratifying for me to see how immediately all my friends took to her, and vice versa.  I’ve always been happy traveling by myself, but Greta was the best companion I could ever have had.  I’m already feeling sad that we won’t be spending every waking moment together from now on (although I’m sure she’s feeling somewhat differently).

The trip may be over, but the blog goes ever on.  As you may have noticed, we still have about a two-month backlog.  We tried to catch up a few times, but everywhere we went, it was more important to live in the moment, to see and experience what we could and to talk to the cool people we were visiting.  But now that we’re back in Eugene with time on our hands, we will get back to work on the writing, including some summary comments and greatest hits lists.

And for those of you who have been faithful followers of the blog, we have an invitation.  Next Monday evening, Memorial Day, we will be putting our newfound barbecue insights to the test, since we haven’t had any good barbecue since Texas.  You are all invited to the celebration of our return, which happens to coincide with my 60th birthday.  We’ll have lots of pulled pork, cole slaw and cocktails, but if you’d like to bring more to eat or drink, feel free.  Please just let us know you’re coming, so we can make sure to have enough.

it will be great to see some of you, and it’s nice to be home.

Cascadia

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We had entered the gravitational field of home two weeks earlier, as soon as we left the Mojave. We had hoped for a last week of dislocation, travelling along the Sierras and hiking in Yosemite, but given the weather and pre-registered crowds, that was not to be. So we travelled up the North Coast, with an ever-deepening sense of familiarity, as the landscape, buildings, vegetation, and weather made it clear that the alien environments of the past year were behind us.

We wound our way through the last miles of Highway 1 to Leggett, where we joined Route 101, and were suddenly in the redwoods. Most of the land through which you travel is private timberland, but there are big stretches of state and local parks and reserves. 101 runs about 75 miles along the Eel River, all the way to Humboldt Bay. Near Phillipsville we abandoned 101 for the Avenue of the Giants. This was the original alignment of Route 101 until 1960, when the newer and straighter highway was built, usually on the other bank of the river; the two routes intertwine and switch sides a few times. It is a great road, with many quiet waysides and short hikes, away from the speeding trucks and heavier traffic of the highway. But we would have taken it anyway, just for the name – after a year on the road, we are suckers for all such grandiose touristic nomenclature (although we did manage to avoid the Trees of Mystery further north).

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We bypassed the fabulous town of Ferndale, and quickly cruised through Eureka and Arcata, all of which we had explored in greater detail a few years ago. We knew we would probably visit this area soon again, and the gravitational attraction of home was increasing exponentially. Humboldt County is a funny in-between place for us – travelling through the last time, I realized it is not so much Northern California as it is Baja Oregon. It is certainly part of Cascadia, the rainy, temperate region where the salmon spawn. Coming from Oregon it feels different, but coming from the south at the end of a long trip, it felt so much like home that we thought we might as well just go home.

We drove into Redwood National and State Parks, a unusual designation I’d never understood, but we learned that there had been state parks here originally, which had then been encapsulated inside the National Park, which increased their area and gave them a higher degree of protection. Our campground was at Elk Prairie, where we had selected a site in the redwoods rather than on the prairie, as Greta did not want to mess with elk while heading to the bathroom in the middle of the night. It was a chilly and misty evening, especially compared to the sunny days of central California, and we ate our last trailer-cooked dinner, left over from the Mendocino Cafe.

Greta and I are not normally early risers, but we both awoke at first light around 6:00. We stared across the trailer at each other, with looks that clearly said, Wow, this it, the last day. We wolfed down some breakfast and went out for our last hike in a National Park, before anyone else was about. First we went to the prairie, where there indeed was a small herd of elk, moseying along while eating, and then heading into the forest.

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We found a beautiful trail from our campground, which wound along a creek and through the redwoods, with many close-up views of nursery logs, and closed-in vistas, rather than big landscape perspectives.

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In some ways it felt familiar – a dense, enclosing, coniferous forest, with ferns and a low understory, much like the park at the end of our block. But we then we realized that things felt familiar, except for the gnawing sense that something was slightly off, in one important way. The trees were enormous compared to ours, maybe twice as tall, but many times bigger in girth. To a Northwesterner, the redwoods are dreamlike, trees out of myths. Our second night out on this trip, we had made it to Craters of the Moon National Monument, which Greta had likened to Camping in Mordor. So it seemed appropriate that we spent our last night in Lothlorien.

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We packed up the trailer, and once again were able to avoid 101, driving on the Newton B. Drury Scenic Highway, most of the way to Klamath. There were many waysides and areas of interest, but one in particular grabbed our attention – a trail to the Big Tree. We wondered, what would it take to be called The Big Tree in this forest? Hiking along, we kept wondering, Is that the Big Tree? That one? Then up ahead of us, we glimpsed something strange through the brush.

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It was clearly The Big….Tree. We had never seen anything quite like it, although Sleeping Ute Mountain, and Face Rock at Canyon de Chelly came to mind. We marvelled at the Park Service’s circumspection.p1100105No matter what it was called, Greta had no interest in getting any closer, so we continued on with our intermittent hiking and driving.dscf1880

We reached Crescent City in time for a Second Breakfast, and decided to explore. No one ever goes to Crescent City, as it is one of those in-between places, which you pass when you’re always in a hurry to get somewhere else. After a closer examination, we can state that there really is nothing to see there. It is a bedraggled place, which reminded me of Aberdeen, Washington – another depressed coastal town showing the changes in the timber industry in the past decades. It seems that now the major industry in town is the Pelican Bay State Prison, the only super-maximum security facility in California.

However, I have since learned that there is a more immediate explanation for its bereft appearance – it was hit hard by the tsunami from the 1964 Alaska earthquake, which wiped out 300 buildings. Apparently the configuration of the shoreline and the ocean floor focusses tsunamis here, and it has felt lesser effects from more recent earthquakes across the Pacific. It’s a treacherous coastline, but also a vivid one: 115-north-coast014dscf1884

At Crescent City we turned inland onto Highway 199, heading towards Cave Junction, Oregon. It’s a beautiful road in the Smith River valley through the mountains.115-north-coast015dscf1890

We crossed the border, and took the obligatory shot:115-north-coast016dscf1893

We noticed the stickers attached to the bottom of the sign, which seemed to reflect the major pre-occupations of the local populace: the secessionist State of Jefferson movement, and the marijuana culture which had sprung up in our absence, as recreational use was legalized on October 1, 2015.dscf1891

We drove a few miles more into the town of O’Brien, where we passed, in rapid succession, a white guy with dreadlocks and a tie-dye t-shirt riding a too-small mountain bike, an alternative medicine clinic, a Frisbee golf course and a cannabis store. Greta looked at me and said, Dad, I think we’re home.

On to Grant’s Pass, with a large amount of traffic confusion for a small city . We ditched our small-road predilection and joined the great river of I-5, for the first time on our trip, anxious to move on. We had forgotten the propensity of Oregonians for staying in the left-hand lane at all times, even when driving a tractor-trailer up a hill at 25 mph, and we longed for the speed we had left behind in the south. But as we left the mountains and neared the Willamette Valley, the speed picked up, and the afternoon rushed by.

About 40 miles south of Eugene I said to Greta, I think this is the point where we’re supposed to have a heart-to-heart conversation about the trip, what it’s meant to us, and how we feel about it now that it’s coming to an end. There was a long silence as she stared at me.

Or, I said, we could just put on the Clash.

Definitely the Clash, she replied.

So we put in London Calling, which had become our go-to album for the whole trip. Everything around us became very familiar, as we glimpsed our hill from I-5 as we came around the big bend in Glenwood, got off the highway onto Franklin Boulevard, went past our grocery store and turned up the hill to our house. We pulled into the driveway just as the last chords of Death or Glory crashed down.

I had warned Greta over the past weeks  that I thought we should disrupt her no-displays-of-affection protocol, and that one hug at the end of the trip would not be too much for her to handle.  So I stood by the front door, and said, Hug.  Greta walked over and hugged me, then we went inside.

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He drew a deep breath.  ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.

 

 

Glass Beach

P1100066 We discovered by the end of our trip that sometimes the really cool stuff is badly advertised, or hard to find information on. Glass Beach is a prime example of this. If I hadn’t heard about it in a National Geographic Kids magazine several years previously, we would have driven right by on our way north from Mendicino. Fort Bragg, CA used the beach, at that time as plain and ordinary as beaches come, as a dump from the forties all the way until 1967 when the state water control board closed the it for this purpose. Several cleanup efforts were made, removing the largest pieces of garbage, like broken-down cars and kitchen appliances, but they couldn’t get everything. The tides eventually broke down what was left, until the beach itself was made up of weathered glass and tumbled scraps of metal.

There are two beaches open to the public, on state park property. One is labeled easy to get to, the other difficult. It isn’t so hard really, if you can manage a flight of stairs without a handrail you should be fine. The harder to acsess beach is much more isolated from people and the full force of the Pacific Ocean, and so is much more impressive. Mostly made up of white, brown, and green glass, scattered with the occasional blue, the rare red, pieces of pottery, and scraps of metal, it’s best visited when the tide is low. Though its shine is somewhat muted by the milky exterior and sanded texture, the glass within a few inches of the shore that is wetted by each small wave will glitter in the sun. They tell you not to take any glass, for fear of depleting the beach, but I wasn’t arrested for keeping a small handful. P1100057

The North Coast

The last days of our trip were spent on the California North Coast. We’d hoped to cruise through Sacramento and up into the Sierras, but given the lingering snow in May and the impossibility of a campground in Yosemite, we were forced to once again drive up the coast – which may be our favorite landscape in the world. Before we reached the Bay Area we had covered a bit of the coast we’d never actually done before – the 40 miles or so from Santa Cruz to San Gregorio, from where we took 84 through La Honda and in to Palo Alto. This is a breathtaking stretch, with gentle river valleys coming out to the coast – which reminded us of the Olympic Peninsula – and some big headlands. It is astounding how few people there are here, right over the mountains from the Bay Area.dscf0963

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A week later we began our final leg, crossing the Golden Gate and following Highway 1. The variety of landscapes on this section is unlike other parts of the coast. In Big Sur you are always on the side of the mountains, looking down into the ocean, and it is unrelievedly spectacular. But here the highway weaves in and out, with beautiful farmland near Pt. Reyes Station,115-north-coast002dscf1703

just before you run along Tomales Bay, which is essentially a fjord, with the ocean hidden just over the hills to the west.dscf1707

At the north end of the bay we cut inland again, driving along Keyes Creek,115-north-coast003dscf1711

where you can see how the California Coastal Commission regulations require that even the cattle must be picturesque.dscf1714

On this inland jog we entered Sonoma County, and then back to the sea, where a wider plain appears between the mountains and the ocean.dscf1716

All of this variation – farmland, fjord, estuary, coastal plain, ocean – occurs within one hour of driving. We were overwhelmed with the density of beauty, how every minute there was some new and different prospect. It was similar to the experiences we had in some parts of the Southwest – Zion, Canyon de Chelly – but with more water.

We entered the part of the drive that does more cliff-hugging, and I stopped taking photos – too many sharp switchbacks with steep elevation changes for someone driving a truck with a trailer to ever have enough warning to contemplate pulling over onto a tiny gravel shoulder – but the scenery continued to amaze us. We had driven this stretch six years ago, and we wondered why we didn’t have a stronger memory of it – perhaps that had been on an overcast day, when the stupendously elemental qualities of ocean, sun, sky and cliff were just not as vivid. The Sonoma coast was one of the most arresting landscapes we saw on this whole trip.

We drove past Sea Ranch, the famous Halprin/MLTW/etc. resort development, but didn’t stop. I’ve learned from prior trips that visiting Sea Ranch without an in or connection is a frustrating experience, as you really can’t see the buildings and views you want. Perhaps we’ll catch it on the next trip, renting a place to stay..

At the end of the day we made it to Mendocino, the 19th-century New England whaling village perched on a bluff sticking out into the ocean. It can be a little too quaint and precious (and expensive), and as Isadore once said, Mendocino seems to be the Spanish word for gift shop. But every time I’ve been here I’ve been blown away, for many reasons. There are very few places in this country that have a setting anything like this – a headland with steep cliffs on three sides,115-north-coast005dscf1754

where the view down every street ends in the ocean.dscf1729

Some of the houses have been spiffed up pretty extensively, such as this one, which was used as the stand-in for Maine in the Murder She Wrote TV series,dscf1788

but much of the town retains its vernacular character, with old houses and water towers.dscf1721

There is a range of styles, from the simple cottages to the more elaborate Queen Anne, Italianate, etc.dscf1768

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I think I spent a night sleeping in this house over 20 years ago, when it was owned by the family of one of our students. I was awakened the next morning by the sound of sea lions barking at the base of the cliff.dscf1732

About half of the headland is preserved open space, with walks through fields of wildflowers to the ocean views.dscf1764

Greta and I walked out onto the bluff trail, where we saw the first weasel we had ever seen in the wild, and which was too fast to be photographed.dscf1740

Then there is the light, which changes rapidly and dramatically, as clouds break and fog rolls in. We have been there on sunny days and rainy days, and it is notable how your impression of such a small, simple place can also change so drastically.dscf1719

Mendocino was like many historic towns we visited on the East Coast, where it is obvious that the seeming simplicity and casual quality is maintained by unrelenting diligence and at great expense. But I can’t help being bowled over by these places, even if they represent Disneyfication by the Upper Classes. There are so few corners of this country that have not been overwhelmed by the crap of the past 60 years, that I’m completely able to suspend disbelief, and just enjoy the care and art that has gone into the creation of this environment. My appreciation for Mendocino is probably heightened by our experience in the past decade in the town of Coupeville, on Whidbey Island, which has both a historical building stock and amazing landscape that rival Mendocino’s. However, over the years Coupeville has made some astoundingly bad decisions about zoning and development, which have rendered much of the town indistinguishable from any other postwar suburb. Mendocino happens to be situated in a region that attracted a wealthy and sophisticated populace, which seems to be the solution nationwide for preserving this type of coastal town with any degree of integrity.115-north-coast006dscf1775

North of Mendocino we stayed in Ft. Bragg, a more normal small city which had a fishing and lumber-based economy. It could adopt the informal motto of Astoria – We Ain’t Quaint – but some of the remnants of that period are remarkable. There is the Glass Beach, which Greta has blogged about,dscf1816

the views of the coastline,115-north-coast008dscf1817

and the fabulous Pudding Creek Trestle, where a railroad spur ran right along the ocean.115-north-coast010dscf1826

A day out from Oregon, we were feeling the loom of home, and while the landscape felt increasingly familiar, there were still signs that California is different. In the town of Inglenook we came across this allee of trees, but they were eucalyptus, not the firs or madrones which would have been normal for us.115-north-coast011dscf1831

The highway continued this weaving in and out of farmland, forests, hills and coastal plain. The jogs in the road when we came to a creek were always amusing. We’d be driving along with a panoramic view of the ocean, then there would be a sharp right turn,dscf1834

and we’d be heading up the creek into the hills.dscf1835

A hairpin turn at the head of the creek, and we’d head back out to the ocean view. This shift in perspective repeated often, and each cycle took just a minute or two.dscf1836

Finally, Highway 1 leaves the Pacific for good at Hardy. The Lost Coast, 100 miles of fairly inaccessible coastline, lay between us and Eureka. We followed the last 15 miles of Highway 1, which after many trips I’m convinced is the twistiest highway in the country. The trees closed in around us, and our weeks in the sunny Promised Land of California came to an end.dscf1837

Dan Rabin

As I’ve tried to pass on my hard-won wisdom to Greta over the past decade, certain insights and aphorisms have appeared repeatedly. Be aware of what is happening around you all the time. Always have three points of contact with the boat. How can this be explained by natural selection? Never put pineapple on pizza. But near the top of the list has been the warning, Be careful to whom you talk the first day of college, as you might be stuck with them for the rest of your life.

Dan, Bob and Mike

Dan, Bob and Mike

Dan Rabin is our prime example of this. Dan lived in a single next door to our suite in Hurlbut Hall freshman year. He was slight, youngish-seeming (he did turn out to be a year younger, having skipped a grade), from Silver Spring, MD. As I looked around his almost-bare room, two things jumped out at me. There was a rug on the floor which had a leaping tiger cub and said Daniel Eli, and there was a huge black and white city map on the wall. I didn’t recognize the city, so I looked more closely, and noticed that the map had been pieced together from many 14×17 sheets. It was a very detailed map, with blocks and streets clearly represented, and then I noticed it was hand-drawn in pencil. Dan explained that it was a city he had made up. I later found out that he hadn’t just doodled a map and it kept growing. He had recapitulated the process of metropolitan growth in the process of drawing the map. He started with the small colonial settlement on the natural harbor, which then expanded. In the 19th century, the railroad line came in, which shifted where the growth occurred, and various grids appeared, as new plats were added to the city, and outlying villages were subsumed. Finally, there was development of the 20th century street network, and the interstates came to the city, bringing the postwar suburban growth pattern with them.

This map is a good illustration of how Dan’s mind works – any seemingly casual remark is always backed-up by an incredible amount of research, knowledge and thought (as any reader of this blog knows from seeing Dan’s comments about my posts on Facebook, where he adds a lot of background and corrections to posts I’ve just tossed off.) For decades I’ve relied upon him to know more, and remember more, about a wide range of subjects – cities, music, science fiction, food, transit systems, science in general, computers, geography, politics, etc. – where I have gaps. In a dorm full of what I’ve characterized as “misfits and savants”, Dan was out there at the nerdy end of the spectrum. This was a semi-derisive term when we were young, but I’ve found that Greta and her friends are proud of this label, as it signifies people who have deeper concerns than whatever subjects are currently popular.

Dan arrived at college with an advanced background in science and math, especially computer science. He had been working as a summer intern at the National Bureau of Standards for years, getting an exposure to computers before it was on most people’s radar. Dan started as a physics major, but then like most of my friends, switched over to engineering. However, he took advantage of the range of subjects available, studying folklore and mythology, literature, etc. We talked about Tolkien in those early years (Dan was the only person I knew who actually wrote in Elvish), and he was part of our core group which became exposed to and then dove into the Grateful Dead freshman year. For physical activity, we walked around the Boston area looking at places, and he threw a mean Frisbee. This was when Dan began to really develop his obsession with strange rock music. A Beatles and Dylan fanatic when he was young, before long he was pulling out obscure Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart albums to educate me. Eventually in the 80s he ran out of offbeat rock music to collect (at one point he remarked that he had twelve Gentle Giant albums, and he didn’t really like Gentle Giant), and he switched over to collecting strange jazz, of which there is a limitless supply.

After college Dan, Norman and I drove cross country together, our first exposure to the West.redwood021

We returned to Boston, where Dan went to grad school at MIT for a couple of years in operations research. Living near each other in Somerville, we hung out a lot, and along with Jon Ehrman and John Wenzel, we taught ourselves to cook the new styles of Chinese food that had swept the country in the 70s. Dan stayed on in Boston after I moved to New York, working in the computer industry, and then moved to San Diego to be part of a research group at the university, doing what we now think of as artificial intelligence. After years of gloom and post-collegiate funk in Boston, Dan discovered life in the Promised Land (sunshine and great food!), and has spent most of his life there since. We would get together when business trips or family gatherings brought us cross-country.

Bob, Dan and me

Bob, Dan and me

One day, while Dan was working at Xerox PARC, it occurred to him that maybe he should take a computer class, which he’d never done. So he moved to New Haven to work on his PhD. I remember him gleefully contacting me the first day of fall term, after he had just taught a section of a large intro computer course, to tell me that he was teaching computer science at Yale, before he had actually ever taken a computer course himself..

I spent a year working in Norwalk in 1995, so once again Dan and I could hang out, eating New Haven pizza and taking excursions into the City and around southern New England (Dan was especially fond of the post-19th-century-industrial landscape of places like Taunton). But missing California while succumbing to the widespread loathing of New Haven, he headed back to the Bay Area, where he finished his dissertation and remained. Dan’s timing for graduate school was bad, as there were no academic positions in his specialty for a few years, so he continued working in the industry, with stints at Apple, Adobe and Google. (Dan has noted that unlike most of his colleagues in the industry, he procured a PhD; instead, they procured houses.)

Living on the West Coast, we’ve been able to see more of Dan in recent years, and an important part of this has been his friendship with Greta. (I think their bond was cemented six years ago, when in the middle of a conversation, Dan lapsed into a Monty Python reference – “No, try again ” – and Greta correctly replied “Australia?”) Dan is on her very short list of favorite grown-ups, probably because he exhibits so little of the conventional behavior and opinions you expect from most grown-ups, and he’s always treated her as a peer, not dismissed her as a little kid. He understands the types of ideas and places Greta will find interesting, and our ramblings now skew in that direction, as on this visit in 2010.IMG_2098

Dan has been gainfully unemployed in recent years, devoting his time to biking, photography, and bird-watching (usually combining these three), music, and restaurant-exploration with friends. Those of you who are Facebook friends with me undoubtedly have seen Dan’s many insightful and funny comments on my posts (indeed, not a few of you have mentioned that getting to read Dan’s comments is the main reason you’re friends with me). I think these comments take a significant amount of work, and I’m hoping that his Facebook oeuvre is being archived somewhere for future generations (but perhaps with a pun-filter.)

Greta and I were pretty burned out with trip planning by the time we got to the Bay Area, so we let Dan determine our agenda. He took us to some of his favorite places (such as the Lick Observatory), and a wide range of fabulous Asian restaurants around the Peninsula. I did my normal digression into chicken-walk photography around notable architecture, which works much better with Dan along – when he and Greta get tired of the architecture, they can sit and talk to each other about other things.DSCF1054

Just as Leon Krier often included a small sketch of James Stirling as part of the entourage in his renderings, I’ve noticed that in many of my architectural and city photos over the years, Dan appears in a corner of the picture,DSCF1660

as we have spent much of our time together in the past four decades wandering around looking at places and talking. The partnership works well, as our interests overlap quite a bit, but Dan brings a different perspective and knowledge far beyond mine on many aspects. (For examples, Dan has ridden every mile of the New York City subway system, but he has never lived in New York. Another time, he spent weeks of vacation visiting and analyzing the structure of Central Valley towns, after which he sent me a report.)

When we began this trip, I mentioned to Greta that I intended to track down a lot of my old friends, and she said cool, she wanted to meet more of them, as the ones she knew well (Dan, Bob and Mike, pictured at the top), were really interesting and entertaining. And as we neared California on this trip, trying to decide what parts of that vast state we had time to visit, Greta said she had only two absolute requirements: revisiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and seeing Dan. So it turns out that not only might you get stuck with the people you meet the first day in college, but your kids might also.

Cajun in California

After actually spending some time in New Orleans, it was interesting to go to Angeline’s in Berkeley, CA, a New Orleans restaurant. When the beignets were delivered, it felt just like being back at Morning Call Coffee. Fluffy, fried dough drenched in enough powdered sugar to make it seem like it snowed in California for the first time.

The hushpuppies, though more of a southern than a New Orleans thing, were served with herbed butter like at Leon’s, but, although good, lacked that spice that made them over the top fantastic.

I may be biased by having tried some of the best gumbo in human/Cajun history, but I think Angeline’s has fallen a bit short. It was kind of bland, a little thin, and there was no potato salad on the menu to pour it over.

While we were in New Orleans, I never ended up getting Jambalaya (too full of beignets, king cake, and gumbo), so I have nothing to compare this to. It seemed a little heavy on the rice, with little sausage or vegetables mixed in. However, it did make great breakfast the next day.

All in all, Angeline’s probably has the best and most authentic Cajun/Creole food in California, and if they stepped up their gumbo game, she could probably even hold her own in the Big Easy.

The East Bay

On most trips to northern California we spend our urban-wandering time in San Francisco itself, which always offers a combination of seeing cool new things and visiting old favorite neighborhoods and places. But in the last weeks of our trip, we realized that we had no real ambition to tackle the big city in our usual manner. As Jonathan Franzen had just written in an article in the New Yorker, about a trip to Antarctica: “As in the Magic Mountain, the early days of the expedition were long and memorable, the later ones more of an accelerating blur.”

Just as we did in a few other places on this trip (such as New York), we shortchanged familiar places to which we could return fairly easily, and focussed on less accessible places to which we’d probably not return for a while. So we spent a few days in the city for specific reasons – seeing friends and a couple of museums, but no wandering up Russian Hill or cable car rides. But as we planned our last days before returning to Eugene, we decided we should stockpile a few more urban experiences. Incredibly, I realized that I probably hadn’t been to Oakland or Berkeley in 20 years, and so we headed off to the East Bay with Dan as our guide one Sunday morning.

Oakland was a shock. I remember heading to meetings at the DOE offices in downtown Oakland in the mid-80s, and all of us wondering why they had been stuck in the backwater of Oakland. In the mid-90s I spent time looking at housing and neighborhoods there, but the downtown still seemed deserted and bereft. Now, it is bustling, even on a weekend. Like many other good cities which had a late 20th century period of disinvestment and decline, there wasn’t much economic impetus to destroy the older buildings (once the mania of urban renewal had passed), and so the great old stock remains, ready for renovation and reuse in the urban revival of the 21st century.dscf1578

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We saw evidence that at least part of this renaissance came from people and hipsters getting pushed out of San Francisco by the expense:dscf1568

I recognize my complete ignorance of the forces at play here – in a city where issues of gentrification and displacement are especially acute – and I apologize to my many friends in the area who could say more insightful things about what is going on. (One of the joys of blogging about a place like Biloxi is that no one else I know has ever been there, and so no one argues with me.) But just from the perspective of the built fabric, it was a pleasure to see a fine old city on the rebound, and a city which feels more like a normal mid-sized American city, in contrast to the sometimes precious and overly-touristed parts of San Francisco.

We moved on to Berkeley, which doesn’t seem to have physically changed much at all. I had forgotten that it too is a real city, not just a big college town, with a thriving commercial center as well as beautiful residential areas,dscf1586

and some strange remnants of bygone eras.dscf1611

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Greta’s favorite part of the city (besides the beignets at Angeline’s) was the Daiso store, a Japanese discount store (which Dan couldn’t believe we were wasting time on) where she acquired a pile of good notebooks (at $1.50 per), and lots of excellent and cheap plastic trinkets. We have since learned that these stores also exist in Seattle, so we’re planning our next trip there.

On the edge of the campus is the new home of BAMPFA, the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archives, a renovation/addition to the 1930s printing plant, by Diller Scofidio Renfro. It is tres hip, but after seeing their art building at Stamford, we were fatigued with swoopy, gestural, probably dysfunctional buildings, so we skipped it.dscf1591

We wandered around the campus for a while, which I found less engaging than I had in the past. Probably because it was overcast and a Sunday, it all seemed rather drab and dead. In some ways the buildings reminded us of UT Austin – there was less uniformity in building style, but not much change in scale or materials – at some point they must have mandated that all new buildings should be of light masonry or concrete.dscf1595

The campus planning was too much to comprehend in a short visit – the original plans, by Olmsted and John Galen Howard, were later compromised by the typical slew of terrible 60s buildings, but recent campus planning has been sensitively done. But I was dragging a tired kid around, and I sensed she was nearing her limit on architecture for the year.  dscf1597

We had a true Berkeley moment in the student union, where a Filipino student association event was going on. The bathrooms around the corner had these temporary signs posted, which confused the hell out of everyone who read them. People hesitated, then picked a door, in a post-heteronormative version of The Lady or the Tiger. Men who walked into one room mainly full of women immediately backed out and went into the next room. Women who walked into a room to find men standing at urinals exited quickly, and many of them were so nonplussed that they gave up on going to the bathroom altogether.dscf1600

We went by Maybeck’s great Christian Science Church, but didn’t time it right to go inside.114-east-bay-002dscf1621

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However, we made it into Julia Morgan’s Berkeley Women’s City Club, a not very big building which still manages to be grand.dscf1653

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We took advantage of having Dan as our guide, and drove up the winding streets into the hills, seeing both intimate lanes and panoramic views.114-east-bay-004dscf1664

We wound past the fabulous Claremont Hotel,114-east-bay-005dscf1678

and drove through the area rebuilt after the 1991 firestorm, which destroyed almost 3000 houses and killed 25 people. It has not been rebuilt with any great architectural style, and beyond the human suffering, it’s sad that everything is now so uniform.dscf1687

On a different day we had driven with Dan to one of his favorite places, the Lick Observatory on top of Mt. Hamilton, built in the 1880s east of San Jose. There are a few giant telescopes here from different eras,113-san-jose003dscf1390

and we were able to see the original refracting telescope, the largest in the world when it was erected.113-san-jose002dscf1381

The drive itself was spectacular, with a narrow road crossing many ridges and ascending on switchbacks.113-san-jose004dscf1410

This knocking around in East Bay focussed us on the character of the region, rather than just on San Francisco. The interface between suburbia and open space in the Bay Area has always seemed extraordinary to me. You can be in a quite dense city or suburb, and within minutes you’re out in the landscape; this applies equally on the Peninsula, East Bay, and Marin County. I remember looking down on the region flying out one night – a huge, dark empty space in the middle (the Bay), surrounded on all sides by brightly lit cities, which abruptly come to end, surrounded by another dark zone (the hills and mountains).img_6321

The physical geography is interesting enough, but when you add in that there are four really different, big cities on the Bay, plus many diverse smaller ones, you realize that there isn’t another metropolitan area remotely like it anywhere else in the country; there’s a density of different and interesting places here that is unmatched.

Most American cities and regions feel finite to me – with a little time, you can pretty much get to see all there is. While there are many metro regions which are so big that you probably will never literally get to see all of them, you just don’t want to – they’re big, but there’s not much variety (Phoenix, Atlanta, Houston, etc.) Then there are the smaller, interesting places that are comprehensible (Portland, Pittsburgh, Albuquerque, etc.). New York always felt infinite to me – I knew that no matter how long I lived there, I could never truly say that I knew all of it. The Bay Area is another one of those. The diversity of the landscape, the cities, the people, the food – it’s complex and beautiful, and it’s obvious why everyone wants to live here, despite its obvious shortcomings of insane traffic and high cost. Samuel Johnson’s quote about London applies to the Bay Area too.