Daily Archives: May 13, 2016

Beth Wilbur

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Greta got to meet many of my old friends on this trip, but only one old girlfriend. Beth and Greta had actually met once before, when Beth was in Eugene on a business trip and came over to our house for dinner, but Greta had no memory of this, as she was at an age where she was still playing happily in the bath tub, as Beth recalled.

Beth and I met in Boston in 1980 (a prime support of Bill McGowan’s claim that he had introduced me to all of my girlfriends on the East Coast). We lived a few blocks from each other across the Beacon Street Cambridge-Somerville border, (in that district which used to supply incredibly cheap housing to broke graduate students and recent college grads), in a ground floor apartment with a constantly-changing cast of roommates, all of whom were smart, young, beautiful and charming.DSCF3615

Beth had grown up in Concord, attended Bowdoin, and in Boston was leading a life revolving around involvement in the arts – she played the flute, sang in choirs, and seemed to spend all of her waking hours drinking coffee and reading books. This interest in the arts led her through a series of jobs – on the staff at Boston’s classical radio station, and then as manager for a number of performing arts ensembles. In later years she directed programs at the humanities center at MIT, and then worked in the education department at the Museum of Fine Arts.

I was working in an architect’s office in Boston, and we spent our spare time doing what young professionals in that demographic do – hanging out, eating brunch, talking about the meaning of life. Beth’s ancient VW Beetle allowed us to take day trips to beaches,Other054

and she even taught me how to drive a stick shift in that car with the miserable clutch. I met Beth’s mother early one Saturday morning, when she dropped in to visit while Beth and I were eating breakfast; she never dropped in unannounced again. Despite that inauspicious meeting, and the time that I almost capsized her dad’s Dark Harbor 17 sailing in Maine, her family was always wonderful to me, and getting to know them was a very nice part of the package.

We had met just after I had applied to architecture graduate schools, and in the fall I moved to New York to attend Columbia. So Beth and I had a commuter relationship for more than a year, taking Greyhound buses back and forth a couple of times a month. The older and wiser version of myself wishes I could have informed my younger self that this almost never works (a viewpoint confirmed by over 25 years observing young adult architecture students in relationships). We were both determined to make our way in our widely-separated career paths, and so we split up, contentiously, but not irrevocably so.

We stayed intermittently in touch, and I was pleased to receive reports from our mutual friends on what they knew about the not completely prepossessing guys Beth was seeing. (You may not want old girlfriends who’ve dumped you to be miserable, but you don’t want them to be too happy either.) This changed when I began to hear rumors about this Brian Donoghue, who was well-known as a theater director in Boston and around the country. He sounded impressive, the relationship sounded serious, and I eventually got to meet Brian at their wedding in 1991, during the Summer When All of My Old Girlfriends Got Married. The ex-boyfriend doesn’t get to spend a lot of time with the groom at a wedding, but I liked what I saw.

Brian had taken a job as the director of the performing arts center in Carmel, and they moved out to Carmel Valley, along with Brian’s son, Ryan. It was a radical change of life for Beth – her first home outside of New England, removal from the arts world where she’d spent her whole career, and raising a son through a high-intensity adolescence. Beth switched gears professionally, and entered the world of textbook publishing, where she is now a VP and editor-in-chief for biological and environmental science at Pearson. (All of her old friends find this astounding for a music and English major, someone whom the College Board wanted to study, as the spread between her verbal and math SAT scores was amongst the highest they’d ever recorded.)

Brian retired about eight years ago, and Beth splits her time between working in the San Francisco office (and a small apartment in the Marina), and her home office in the backyard of their house in Carmel Valley. The house is spectacular – everything an iconic California house should be (even if the driveway did present the most extreme trailer-backing challenge of the trip, with an S-curve overlaid on two compound diagonal slopes with a gate in the middle).DSCF0824

It is built of concrete block, wood and glass, designed by Mark Mills, an employee of FL Wright’s who moved to Carmel to superintend the construction of the famous FLW house on the water, and then stayed on to start his own career. The detailing, materials, spaces, sequences and views out to the oak savannah hillside are amazing. Even more amazing is what Brian and Beth have done to restore it – when they bought it, there was wall-to-wall carpeting on the concrete slab floors, and three levels of window treatments obscuring the views. I am an incredible stickler when it comes to design decisions and workmanship in a project like this, but the work, which Brian has largely done himself, is sympathetic to the original design and impeccable. One bathroom, which Brian gut-remodeled with stone and a large skylight, beats out the campground in Apalachicola for our award for the most beautiful bathroom of the trip.

We had a wonderful time staying with Beth and Brian, in a beautiful environment where we felt at home and very comfortable, after months mainly spent in a tiny trailer. There were a few long, talk-filled dinners, including one where they had invited their lovely friends Kate and Richard, who had heard about our trip and wanted to meet us. It was great to see how good their life is, with a happy marriage and interesting careers, in a beautiful place surrounded by friends.

Brian didn’t know whether Greta had heard about our past history, so he was planning on being circumspect, until Beth told him it was okay. Beth and Brian now have two granddaughters, so they are well-attuned to teenage girls, and they and Greta hit it off instantly. As has happened before on this trip, I was pleased to see Greta make a good impression and acquire another surrogate aunt and uncle. For myself, it was wonderful to reconnect in a friendship with Beth that has lasted over half of our lives, and to spend enough time with Brian to figure out that we are now friends too.

The Promised Land

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After two months in the desert, it was hard to believe that this scene was real.

California is the mythic landscape of America. Before we are even conscious of it as a real place, its landscapes and views and cities are implanted in our brains through movies and television. It has been such a magical place in our mass culture for so long, and through so many different versions, that it’s sometimes hard to remember it is actual.

The first time I travelled to California was on the road trip with Norman and Dan after college. We drove down the Oregon coast and through Humboldt County (which is really Baja Oregon), then cut inland on 101 around the Lost Coast. At the first opportunity we got onto Highway 1, threaded our way through the coastal range (on what I can now reconfirm is indeed the twistiest highway in America), and returned to the Pacific Ocean, emerging from the hills and woods at this point:DSCF1837

I thought I was home. It was the most beautiful landscape I’d ever seen, even better than the imagery in the movies. Research in landscape preference has shown that for almost all people, no matter where they’re from, the two favorite landscape elements are water and savannah. Oregon had its awesome cliffs, but this landscape was more deeply appealing, a landscape where humans could imagine themselves dwelling, similar to the canyon oases in the desert. (Vancouver had a similar reaction to the landscape around Pt. Townsend on the Olympic Peninsula – the wild landscape seemed to embody the pastoral ideal, and was more welcoming than the alpine terrors of Desolation Sound.)

In later years, California maintained this magical aspect for me. I’d fly in from wintry New York on a business trip, and be met by friends in shirtsleeves who offered the options of wandering around San Francisco or driving up Mt. Tamalpais. When I moved to Oregon, suddenly California was just a day’s drive away, and I had some time to explore more of the vast landscape. Six years ago, Linda and Greta and I had spent two weeks of spring break driving around northern California, which was the best trip of my life, and the first time the then eight-year-old really got into travelling.

This landscape would be the penultimate destination on our trip this year – we had driven east until we ran into the Atlantic on Cape Cod, then south until we got to the Gulf of Mexico in southern Florida, then we were going to drive west until we hit the Pacific, at which point we’d turn north for home.

But first we had to get there. We didn’t finish our southwestern wanderings as we had originally anticipated, at Las Vegas – as we circled back and around, avoiding the wintry April weather on the Colorado Plateau, we’d ended up at Mesa Verde, 1000 miles from the Pacific. And while all our previous entries into California had been from an airport or from the north, this one meant driving across a succession of deserts almost all the way – a very different trajectory from which to approach California, but one that was probably closer to that of most historical visitors and migrants.

We plotted several routes, and had hoped to spend a little time in Death Valley, but the weather was already too hot in May, and with its proximity to the population centers of California, campgrounds had been booked solid way in advance. We also realized we had had enough desert for a while – we’d save Death Valley for a winter trip in a later year, when the ultimate desert experience could be better appreciated by soggy Oregonians. We tried to plot out an itinerary that would lead us by Sequoia and Yosemite, but the late winter conditions in the Sierras made that iffy, and the campground situation at Yosemite was even more ridiculous; our play-it-by-ear approach to this trip doesn’t mesh well with how most Americans plot out their vacations. So we chose a reasonably direct route west, one that would allow us to revisit some spots Greta had loved – the campground at Lake Powell with its jackrabbits, Oscar’s restaurant outside Zion – as well as some inevitable locations that are on no one’s bucket list, such as Bakersfield.

Things went well until we left Lake Mead to head into the Mojave Desert. We stopped for a bite in Primm, Nevada, which is really just a couple of casinos and an outlet mall located on the California border, a place so horrifying and soul-deadening that it makes you regret every decision you’ve made in your life that caused you to end up there.DSCF0589

Glad to be leaving this tawdry corner of Nevada, we slapped in the appropriate Joni Mitchell CD as we crossed the border, and entered the 36th state of our trip. We were in California, one of our favorite places, and there were giant solar collector farms on the side of the highway, harbingers of the progressive region where we belonged!

But once across the border, a different aspect of California emerged. We encountered the worst traffic jam of the whole trip, 100 miles of bumper-to-bumper driving across the Mojave, until Barstow, where the Angelenos turned south to go home. (When we eventually reached San Luis Obispo, Brian paled when he heard that we’d tried to drive west from Las Vegas on a Sunday afternoon.) We continued towards Bakersfield on Route 58, in a semi-industrialized desert landscape (mines and air bases) that rivaled the west Texas area around Pecos for Most Unpleasant Landscape of the trip. Then twelve miles west of Boron, we blew a tire on the truck (doubtless caused by the residual minimalist art juju from seeing Double Negative the day before). I changed the tire only to discover that the spare was too low on air to use, so we spent a couple of hours making phone calls, finally convincing some guys from a tire store to drive out and pump it up for us. We limped into Bakersfield quite late.

The next morning, I stepped out of the trailer right next to a rotting orange on the ground. I was surprised to see this garbage in what had seemed to be a rather well-groomed campground. Then as I walked to the bathroom, I spotted more oranges lying around. I looked up, and realized the campground was in an orange grove. In the dark we had crossed out of the Mojave and into the Central Valley, one of the places where human intention has had the most extreme effect upon the environment, turning an arid valley into the major food-producing region of the country. We knew that this was an artificial creation, and the Central Valley was on our checklist for the Climate Change Farewell Tour, as in the next century it will most likely be radically transformed by aquifer salinization, mega-drought and climate change. But at that moment, after two months in the arid Southwest, the orange grove looked pretty good.

We drove under I-5, and realized we’d hit the bail-out point – for the first time in eight months, if we wanted to head home, it was just one long day’s drive away.  We spent the morning driving through the agricultural area, vast orchards of almond trees, and some of the strangest buildings we’d seen. DSCF0600

The highway climbed out of the valley, passing through a low-level petro-landscape (another part of California we lose sight of). The only other vehicles we passed were white pickups driven by guys working for oil or utility companies.DSCF0602

Finally, in the distance we could see hills covered with grasslands,DSCF0603

and even some trees.DSCF0611

After the jagged slickrock canyons of the Southwest, this valley of gentle hills with grazing cattle was surreal – it looked like an illustration in a children’s book. Coming out of the desert, even this semi-arid landscape felt lush, a place where you could let down your guard and not worry that the environment had it in for you personally. We wondered about the feelings of the migrants coming into California this way, the Dust Bowl refugees spotting the first sign of the coast that lay ahead.DSCF0612

We crossed the hills into San Luis Obispo, and the next day Brian and Karen drove us to the Pacific. At Montaña de Oro State Park, we reached the ocean,105. San Luis Obispo002DSCF0622

and explored on a beach covered with small rocks which had had holes bored in them by piddocks , and which Greta realized would make excellent necklaces.DSCF0627

At Morro Bay, our first glimpse of the misty, overcast coast. It seemed so familiar to us, and we realized that coming home is a series of recognitions. We are so used to airplanes – where we travel great distances and pop out into a different world – that we think of returning as something that happens all at once. But when you travel great distances on land at a slower speed, there are incremental changes in the environment, each of which triggers a reaction, filling in pieces of the picture that you eventually recognize as home. Even though we were still 1100 miles from Eugene, this was the first place in eight months that fell within the outer circle of home, the first place that we felt was ours.105. San Luis Obispo003DSCF0632

After a few days we headed north, to the elephant seal beach at San Simeon. Sea mammals, another familiar piece – although there were a lot more of them and they were all much bigger than we are used to in the Northwest.106. Coast050DSCF0651

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Big Sur, on an overcast day, had a different quality than we’d experienced on previous trips, but still astounding. After the washboard dirt roads of the Southwest, seeing such a smooth asphalt highway built in such impossible terrain was incredible; this must be a very rich place, we thought. We had just spent so much time in spectacular southwestern desert landscapes that we had a heightened awareness of both the contrasts and similarities – the landforms, the scale, the water, the sky, the vegetation, the humidity, the road itself. We wondered what the Hopi teenager we had met would make of this.106. Coast052DSCF0655

And at the end of Big Sur, the beach at Carmel. With the absence of cliffs, we were able to recognize this place as the antithesis of the southwestern desert in every way. Our acclimatization for the past week had been gradual, but here it hit us with full force. This was the promised land at the end of the road. Greta and I just sat and stared, not quite able to process the reality, beauty and meaning of such a place. Rob Peña and I used to talk about whether you could ever feel truly at home in a landscape that was completely unlike that where you had grown up, whether certain landscapes were imprinted on your brain. As he had grown up in Los Alamos, he feels at home in the Southwest in a way we never can. Greta and I had loved the desert, but it could only ever be as a visitor – it would never feel like home to us. Although I had grown up in the Northeast, there were enough common elements here – ocean, sky, beach, trees – that it felt familiar, and for Greta it was even closer to her ideal (although perhaps a bit too sunny).DSCF0769

We luxuriated in this benign environment, where the local wildlife isn’t something that can kill you, but instead is happy to pose for a photo. There’s a reason why California is the fabled land of America, why it was irresistible to so many people in the past century; we were almost giddy with its attractiveness. We wondered why, if this place actually exists, people live in places like Phoenix instead of here. And then we looked around Carmel and said, Oh yeah, you can’t afford to live here.108. Carmel003DSCF0802