Archive for July, 2013|Monthly archive page

Eastward Across the Prairie

In Travels With Myself on July 31, 2013 at 1:15 am

There is one other large road sign in Wyoming that I forgot to mention in my last post. About a mile before the start of any road work on the highway, one can see a very large sign that says: Road Work/PAY ATTENTION/or Pay the Price. Aside from the threatening tone of the sign, which seems unduly preemptive in its focus on dire consequences, the extremely low volume of traffic along these roads, plus the way in which said traffic is channeled into very narrow, slow corridors well before and well after any place actual work is being done makes me wonder how a problem developed of such magnitude that these enormous signs were seen as necessary.
In any case, I have seen the last of them. This morning I got off of I 25 and followed US 20 into Nebraska. US 20 is, with only the exception of a few somewhat bumpy stretches, a long, flat, fairly straight road, two-lanes and generous shoulders that takes its own sweet time showing me the scenery of Eastern Wyoming and Northern Nebraska. There are remarkably few towns and few services along the road, especially in Wyoming. Towns such as Shawnee and Keeline barely exist at all, having only a few closed and boarded buildings along the highway and town line markers that mention only the elevation and no population. On the other hand, the town of Lost Springs posts only a population of 4, but has a small town center and a big welcome sign positioned so as to be visible both to the road and to the railroad that runs parallel to it for most of the way. (It was fascinating to see a train nearly three-quarters of a mile long running east with hoppers filled with coal; then see another just as long running west with the hoppers empty.)
Once in Nebraska, the road becomes wider and generally better maintained. The towns are still few and far between, but each has at least a small town center and some businesses. I am staying the night in a self-service RV park that has only one bathroom and no shower, but full hook-ups. A short walk away there is a gas station, two convenience stores/groceries, ad a Main Street on which the only apparently open businesses in the afternoon are the insurance office, the Farm Bureau and the Farmer’s Co-op, with its truck scale and grain elevator. The one bar opens in the evening, and the one restaurant opens only for breakfast, stays open until noon then closes until dinner time. The specialty of the house is an all-you-can-eat buffet. There is also small town green and a park with a very pretty gazebo; and next to the RV park is a well maintained, and completely empty, picnic area ad the town swimming pool which was very busy on this bright 80 degree day.
The one big surprise along the road today, was just before I came into Crawford, where Fort Robinson State Park maintains a very nice historical facility with its own campground, a riding stable and several buildings dating back to the 1800’s. As I have said, US 20 is a flat, wide road, but I was aware that the elevation dropped about 2000 feet from Casper, Wyoming, to Chadron, Nebraska. This didn’t concern me much because that’s a distance of about 200 miles, and I could sense that, even with the occasional hills to climb, I was generally losing altitude. So imagine my surprise when I came around a bend at the base of a hill ad discovered that the road was beginning a long, winding, steep descent that went on for what seemed like several miles. At the end of it the road flattened out and straightened again into a broad valley encircled by the cliffs and mesas and buttes that stretched across the horizon in every direction.
This is wild and beautiful and surprising country. It is also a country to get lost in. I can only imagine what must have gone through the minds of the first Eastern settlers trying to cross these plains to get to California, or the cowboys who drove their herds along the Texas trail on the way to Wyoming and Montana. It must have seemed as though the journey would never end, the mountains never reached or crossed. Even knowing that I had plenty of gas and plenty of time to travel, there were times when I marveled at the isolation in this great sea of the prairie. There were times when mine was the only vehicle on the road for ten miles or more with no stopping places, no towns, ad no indication that there was anything up ahead except the names on my road map and the small dots along the red line of the road.
Two days ago, I crossed from Pacific time to mountain time. Tomorrow I will cross into the central zone, which cuts Nebraska in half. I like the feeling of getting back into my proper time. When I see that it is now an hour later than it just was, I feel as though I can go a little later before stopping for the night, and that makes me feel as though I am making more progress. I can say to myself that the clock may say 4:00 o’clock, but it’s really only 3:00; then immediately forget that and tell myself that I have done well, today, because I have kept going an hour longer than yesterday.

Just Down the Road in Wyoming

In Travels With Myself on July 30, 2013 at 1:17 am

I 90 runs down from Montana to Buffalo, Wyoming, then I 25 picks up the north-south traffic and continues on down to Colorado. I followed them down only as far as Casper, however, ad will be glad tomorrow to get a last off of the interstates for a while. Not that they aren’t good roads. On the contrary, I would highly recommend that anyone thinking to make a trip west consider taking I 90 across the northern plains and through the mountains of Montana and Idaho; and I 25 is really the only reasonable way to travel from Billings to Cheyenne, the alternatives either being less-well-tended roads that either simply run alongside the highway or meander through the hills without adding anything of real importance to the trip. You can break up some of the highway monotony by taking every advantage of a “business loop” through one of the small cities along the way, or by getting off at a way-station of sorts and visiting some small place, such as the little Mennonite-run general store and restaurant (dinner only by reservation) that I discovered in Gold City, Montana. The store had a fine deli counter and shelves of bulk goods, including some of the best cold chocolate milk mix and hot chocolate cappuccino mix I’ve ever had.
And there is a certain degree of monotony. By the time I got into Wyoming, I was beginning to find myself simply rolling along with the highway as it bobbed and ducked and wove its way through the hills of Eastern Wyoming, only to be occasionally startled back into awareness by coming around a corner or over a hill to see an enormous fortress of a butte jutting up from the plains to one side or the other of the road, only to disappear behind me just as quickly. Fortunately, the winds are not so intense in Wyoming and I could set my own pace. There is very little traffic to speak of, only a few cars and the ubiquitous double trailers that go by and toss ne momentarily in their wakes. The usual speed limit (which is actually rarely posted) is 75 mph; but nobody minds that I take a much more leisurely pace in the right-hand lane.
Wyoming has remarkably little signage on its highways, in fact. They do, however, have occasional railway-crossing-style gates that allow them to completely shut down long sections of the highway, presumably to cope with severe weather conditions, such as drifting snow. Alongside these are warnings that going around them can lead to fines and other penalties. A side note, though, to the people who put up city welcome signs along the highway. It is not possible for people traveling 75 miles-per-hour (or even those like myself driving a great deal more slowly) to read long lists in too-small lettering describing all the many wonders awaiting them at the next exit. Better to put up several signs like Burma Shave, so that passers-by will become intrigued as they learn each new bit of local information. Yes, I’m talking to you, Kaycee, Wyoming; especially since it is so easy to keep going on down to Casper. And you really do have a nice little Main Street that warrants a visit.
I am, however, done with highways for a while. Tomorrow I will get off onto US 20 to take me through Nebraska and all the way to Sturbridge, Massachusetts. That’s right. I am now just down the road from Sturbridge; only a little matter of seven states, a couple of time zones, and a major river between me and home.


In Travels With Myself on July 29, 2013 at 1:18 am

Some things I have noted about Montana. Open range means that many of the exit ramps have cattle gates at the ends of them. These are open grates that cattle won’t cross, and therefore won’t wander up the ramps onto the highway. Montana doesn’t seem to care about things like littering or drunk driving or the usual road hazards. There are very few road signs at all, except where they want trucks to put on or take of chains in the winter, and announcements of “Heritage Sights” and historic points. I stopped at one of these historic points today. Two brown signs pointed toward the other side of the road, so I pulled off into a rough stone parking area. There was absolutely no further indication of what the historic point was or why it was historic.
They have a lot of festivals up here in the summer. I was here in time to catch some of Evel Knieval days in Butte, but passed on it. I was too late for the Testicle Festival at Rock Creek, but could plan ahead if I wished as the dates are set through the end of the decade at least. The sign announcing one’s imminent arrival in Rock Creek is a picture of a longhorn bull looking backward, presumably at his own testicles, which hang nearly halfway to the ground.
In most states outside of the Northeast, I have observed that it is possible to buy beer, wine and liquor at gas station convenience stores. In Nevada, and on the reservation lands of California and Oregon, it is possible to play the slots. In Montana, I stopped at a highway stop where it was also possible to buy an extensive array of firearms, also.
They call Montana the “Big Sky” state; and I have to say that I cannot disagree. I crossed into Montana from Idaho over Lookout Pass, then followed I 90 down through the Coeur D’Alene and Bitterroot ranges to Missoula; but even as I made my way through the smaller passes and between mountains with names like Eagle, and Cherry, and Little Joe, the sky always fought for my attention. It cast a blue mantle around the peaks spread like an inverted ocean above the valleys. It had the effect of a painting in which the viewer has a hard time distinguishing the foreground and the negative space around it. Sometimes the mountains stood out against the sky; other times they shrunk back as the sky came forward.
It is interesting to note that some of the locals here don’t consider these first ranges to be the Rocky Mountains. I 90 doesn’t cross the continental divide until Homestake Pass, about ten miles past Butte, Which is already 230 miles from the Idaho line, and I was told by a fellow at rest stop between Missoula and Butte, that that would be where I would go through the Rockies.
Some of this may have to do with another observation of mine. In the Colorado Rockies, the mountains always seemed close, even while they were still a hundred or more miles away. In Montana, they always seem far away, even when they are just on the other side of several acres of prairie, until I find myself actually driving along a cliff face or through a low pass. The scenery is dominated by that enormous sky and the wide, rolling plains of these high valleys. I forget that I am driving constantly at elevations above three or four thousand feet. To either side of the road, the open range lays out, now gold, flecked with sage, now green and growing; here a small herd of cattle, there some horses; and always the possibility of deer or elk. I had to come almost to a full stop coming down from Lookout Pass so that a doe and a young buck could make up their minds not to cross the road, but to retreat back into the hills.
I got on the road out of Butte early this morning because I had hoped to make it to Billings by midday. The forecast had been for the possibility for strong storms with gusty winds in the afternoon. At one point, I was actually driving along parallel to a heavy shower that I could see just off to the north, literally no more than a few hundred yards. I kept thinking that I would have to find somewhere to pull off the road if it came across in front of me. But it stalled, then seemed to move away. In the end, the storms never materialized, but the winds did. As the day stretched into early afternoon, a strong, steady wind came across the prairie and cut across the unprotected highway, with occasionally heavier gusts that rocked Taliesin and caused me to grip the wheel until I was white-knuckled with the effort.
In spite of that, I made good time over all today. I 90 is a very good road. The interstates out here aren’t the eight-lane superhighways of the east. They are generally four lanes with a divider and generous breakdown lanes. The speed limits tend to be high, around 75 mph or so, with truck speeds often set 10 mph lower. I stick to the lower speeds generally, but when the wind is blowing I slow down even more. I also slow down coming down from the high passes. But most of the trip across Montana has been easy going, and I am now looking at Wyoming for tomorrow as I make my way south toward US 20 and my final turn to the east.

Washington State and into Idaho

In Travels With Myself on July 27, 2013 at 2:23 am

As soon as I have turned east on Route 14 out of Vancouver, Washington, I am struck by the one inescapable feature of the skyline. Mount Hood, that nearly iconic façade of rock and ice stands like a sentinel above the lesser hills beneath it. I could easily imagine the mountain following me all the way through the Columbia Gorge. But by the time I had gotten past Camas and Washougal, no more than twenty or twenty-five miles along the way, Mt. Hood had disappeared from sight as the road began its track through the gorge.
I had sort of thought that a highway through a gorge along a major river, would be along the bottom of the gorge. Route 14, however, spent as much time clinging to the wall of the gorge as it did running along the river at the bottom. The views of the river and the cliffs defining the Oregon side of the Gorge were spectacular. From Camas to White Salmon, the Columbia is a wide, fast-moving river, kicking up whitecaps on its way to the Pacific. The area is a Mecca for sailboarders and kayakers who fill up the riverside parks with their trucks and RVs.
Between the highway and the river on the Washington side of the gorge is the railroad. I have not mentioned the railroads before, but they are a constant feature west of the Mississippi. Three and four engines pull long, long strings of freight: hopper cars of grain and feed in the heartland, tanker cars in the Rockies, and everywhere the container cars of who knows what. What surprised me was that the railroad runs almost exclusively along the floor of the gorge, climbing only occasionally up the walls. I wondered why the highway couldn’t do the same. The view from the cliff-side was spectacular, but so much of y attention had to be on the road, and there were so few viewpoints and turnouts, that I could only glance to my right once in a while to get the flavor of the view.
For the child in me, there is something irresistibly exciting about tunnels, however sort or long, that cut through a section of mountain. I love the feeling of momentarily being inside the mountain itself, then rushing out into the sun again. I find it magical. Route 14 between Carson and White Salmon offers six tunnels. In one of them I passed through the on the road as a train passed through a second tunnel to my right. I actually shouted: “Wow! That is so cool!” Another one was a little longer than the others, with a kind of natural window halfway through it throwing a little light across the tunnel floor.
As I emerged from the gorge, the landscape changed dramatically. The steep dark walls of the gorge turned into low rolling hills covered in pastureland, spotted low green shrubbery and sage; endless prairie that a few cattle shared with wind turbines and high tension wires; a river of energy as wide and powerful as the Columbia rushing seaward below it. This land stayed with me as I turned northward on I 82 toward Spokane, until it morphed into actual amber fields of grain, occasionally broken up by vineyards and pastureland.
Above Kennewick, where Route 395 takes over on the way to Spokane, the land changes again. 395 is a wide, straight, smooth highway that begins a climb up toward the mountains that is so gradual that it was hard to tell that I was gaining altitude at all. I knew, however, that Spokane sits at about 2000 feet above sea-level and I was well below 1000 feet when I left the river. But I was surprise as I left Pasco, how quickly the evergreens began to appear, first a few little groves then whole hilltops. Not long afterwards, I began to see the faint outline of the distant mountains peeking above the horizon. In Colorado, the Rockies had jumped out of the morning haze, majestic and beautiful. Here they crept slowly into view, just a soft swelling of the horizon, until I turned east again past Spokane and headed into Idaho.
Now the mountains stood in front of me. But they seemed less stark than the southern ranges, more welcoming, somehow. Some of this I attribute to I 90. As the interstate starts into the first passes and short valleys of the Idaho panhandle and the Coeur D’Alene National Forest, it remains wide and fast, sliding gently between the peaks. Some is because these peaks aren’t as imposing as the Colorado peaks, and the passes are not as high. Still, there are lakes and valleys and slopes that roll into view around each bend, and I look forward to the passage east.

A Good Road Inland and Urban Hiking in Portland

In Travels With Myself on July 25, 2013 at 1:43 am

Leaving the Pacific behind, I drove in yesterday morning along Oregon Rte. 18. I had been looking for a good road in through the Coast Ranges and Rte. 18 looked fairly straight and direct on the map. Turns out it was a good choice. As it was described by the slow-talking, but amusing manager at the motel in Lincoln City, Rte. 18 is “subtle.” There are about 10 miles of slightly winding, slightly rising and falling, mostly two lane, well maintained road, but it is otherwise a good easily traveled route in from the sea. The one disconcerting sign was the one that warned of the possibility that the road might be closed by snow. I guessed that this would not apply in late July, however, and kept on.
I spent yesterday afternoon in Tigard, Oregon, a suburb of Portland. I had stopped to have Taliesin’s tires rotated and the brakes inspected and the front end aligned. This ended up taking nearly four hours, which I spent wandering through a Fred Myer store, where one can buy just about anything, but where I found only a need for a new stylus for my cell phone and a cup of coffee. It was good to have Taliesin in certifiably good shape before starting east toward the mountains.
This morning I got up early and walked around the southwest quadrant of Portland. This is one terrific city for urban hiking. It’s thoughtfully laid out, so that traffic is busy, but not congested. Trolleys, three or four cars long, move easily along tracks in the roadways, but never seem to get in the way. And there is plenty to see when you get out of the car and hoof it.
First, the city is lined with trees and filled with parks. The South Park Blocks is a long park area intercut with quiet cross streets that runs from Salmon Street in the center of the SW Quadrant six short blocks and two long all the way to Portland State University at the southern end of the city. There’s another Park Blocks in the northwest quadrant and the Westside Riverwalk follows the riverbank all the way from Steelbridge in the NW quadrant to Clay Street at the at the southern end. In a downtown section that is no more than two miles long by a mile wide, I counted no fewer than a dozen parks and squares.
And all the parks and squares, as well as the sidewalks throughout the city, are filled with sculptures; and not just statues of famous people (though there are a few of those), but an eclectic mix of modern, non-representational sculpture and more traditional forms, including water-filled concrete tubs with bronze beavers and ducks and seals and bears and all manner of creatures climbing around them. The parks are shady and well-designed for a leisurely lunch or a morning run. In the middle of the Riverwalk, there is a wading fountain (in which I, of course, waded, and an old upright piano with a sign that says “play me.” So, after listening to some excellent jazz being played, at the same time that a couple of other people (one with a guitar and the other with a harmonica) played some blues on the other side of the fountain, I decided that I should play the piano, too. I can’t say I gathered any cheering crowds, but nobody booed, either.
They city fascinates in other ways, also. I started my walk about 7:00 am, and there were people out washing the sidewalks, and the bricks in the courtyard square. It was a bright day, and fairly warm, but a gentle breeze moved through the city constantly, like city-wide air conditioning to keep it from getting too hot. There are water bubblers on the sidewalks: they each have four separate bubblers, so they look like thick bronze flowers growing everywhere. The city is a bicyclists’ city and there are bicycle lanes everywhere; the Portland Art Museum even has an exhibit right now of designer bicycles. The Oregon Historical Society Museum has a tour guide in a wheelchair (which may someday not be notable, but I haven’t seen one before). Oregon loves its coffee; there are lots of independent coffee roasters and coffee shops all over the city, and you can only get decaf if you take a decaf Americano. (Actually, this is true everywhere I have been in Oregon. Every little town has several small drive-thru coffee huts in parking areas or strip malls. Some of you may remember the photo developing drop-off places where you could drive up; that’s what these are like, only coffee, not film.)
Perhaps Portland’s most fascinating feature, however, is the food cart. There are parking areas that abut the sidewalks, and these are lined with “gypsy” wagons offering almost every imaginable cuisine. In just one of the smaller cart parks, I saw Mexican food, Thai, Iraqui, Korean (which offered tacos filled with Korean fillings), Indian, something called “Egyptian and New Yorker” that also offered Halal and Kosher foods, Hawaiian, Vietnamese, and burgers all sitting cheek-by-jowl along the sidewalk. Apparently these carts are the go-to for lunch in the city. People flood the streets at noon, queuing up to order, then sitting in the parks to eat.
I left the city about 2:00 in the afternoon, drove across the river to Vancouver, Washington, and started east along Rte. 14, following the Columbia River Gorge, but that will be a subject for my next entry.

Reflections Along the Oregon Coast

In Travels With Myself on July 23, 2013 at 2:22 am

Every state I have visited on my trip thus far has had its own character, and I can feel it almost as soon as I cross the state line. I am amazed at how true this has been. I would think that the central plains would be the plains, the Rockies would be the Rockies, and the Pacific coast would not respect man-made boundaries; although I would not be as surprised to see that each state has its own response, its own attitude, to what nature has provided; but both seem to change all at once.
The Northern California coast is wild and open. The beaches stop going on forever and begin to nestle into rocky coves and little bays, but the sand remains flat and soft, sloping gently out to sea. As soon as I got into Oregon, the beaches became rugged and stormy. Wide dunes and incredible sand hills stumble toward the Pacific from the coastal mountains wherever the mountains themselves do not plunge right into the ocean. From the dunes, a hard, dark sand, glittering with mica flakes sits in great tidal plains. And the wind suddenly comes roaring onto the shore, 35 to 50 miles-an-hour. Even when the road cuts back behind the dunes and hills and sections of forest, the wind gets through and rocks Taliesin as I drive along. Walking on the beach feels like flying, especially when the morning clouds still cling to the rocks and sand. Nobody seems to swim here, they wade and splash in the shallow tides, and sit huddled on logs along the beach.
Along the back of the beach, in the dunes or pushed up against the hills, are seemingly endless tangles of grey and white driftwood; from twigs to great stumps, a testament to the power of the sea and the wind. At the tops of the hills the trees all lean inland, their hair permanently blown back. A redwood slab cut from a tree brought down in the 1990s, and displayed at a state park visitor center shows an oval shape, with the seaside rings crushed together and the inland rings spreading out as the tree grew against the wind.
The Oregon coast inspires something of the romantic in me. I could walk these beaches for hours, stopping to look at the sea birds, scanning the outer rocks for seals (which never came in while I was there), letting the waves roll in from a great distance to lap across my bare feet. I could dance across beach floor, stopping only to draw hearts in the sand, and sit a long, long time on driftwood logs thinking of my love. If I were an artist, I would paint these shores as Maxwell Parrish fantasies, but put real people on them, wading in the waters, playing catch with their children, calling to their ecstatic dogs, eating their cold lunches, laughing and playing. If I were a poet, I would write free verse, as free as the wind and waves and sand; I would write metaphors that dipped and soared like the sea birds or stood majestic like the cliffs; they would seem solid and unyielding until the reader could see that they, too, are changed inevitably by the wind and the sea.
But I am an actor, so I see the character of the coast, and as I walk the streets of the coastal towns, now teeming with the itinerants of summer (myself included), I think I can see that character in the shop owners, the people who live here and are part of the scenery, as natural in these hills and coastal plains as the elk and the seals and the sea eagles. They are bemused by the people passing through, but separate from them.
The change in character is shown, also, by man-made objects, such as road signs and the ways that people and places present themselves. In California, I was asked by a blue sign every ten miles or so to report drunk drivers; shortly after I crossed into Oregon, one white sign politely asked me to please not drink and drive. In California, everything is famous; in Oregon, they are historic: historic views, historic beaches and coves and ports, historic landmarks. The Northern California coastal highway is tie-dye and bright colors and a public radio station in Redway that broadcasts the Cannabis Report every morning. The Oregon coast is solid and patient; it takes itself seriously, but with a quiet sense of humor about it all.
Tomorrow I turn inland toward Portland. I will miss the Pacific coast. I have stopped frequently to look, to walk, to rest, to be refreshed, and to wonder. I cannot imagine rushing up and down this coast without paying attention to it. Maybe that’s why the major north-south highway is at least 50 miles inland, away from the distractions, so people and commerce keep moving.
So far, I have passed through at least a little bit of fourteen states. I will pass through at least six more new ones as I head east again. I can’t wait to meet them all.

Days of Wine and Redwoods, and Down to the Sea Again

In Travels With Myself on July 21, 2013 at 2:32 am

As soon as I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, US 101 became the Redwood Highway, but it wasn’t until 155 miles up the road that I reached Willits, which calls itself the Gateway to the redwoods. And it was 63 miles further before I saw my first actual, identifiable, up-close-and-personal redwood trees. Along the way, the state seems to bunch certain things together by regions.
As I left Cloverdale yesterday morning, I was quickly into the northern wine country. There were vineyards and wine tastings every few miles. I immediately thought of two things. First, I thought about the movie “Sideways.” which tells the story of two guys trying to taste their way south through the state. While that certainly seemed suddenly a very plausible sort of plot, it also seemed as though it might have taken them a week just to get from Ukiah to Cloverdale. I also thought that it is fortunate that I am making this trip sober (I have had only one alcoholic beverage since leaving Connecticut), because if I were a drinking man I might not get to Oregon for another month. One thing that this does explain, I suppose, is why there are so many signs along the highway exhorting people to report drunk drivers by calling 911.
Once I got into redwood country, however, the theme changed. Now there were frequent signs indicating yet another drive-thru tree, or a house made out of a single, hollowed out redwood trunk. And every one of them is apparently the world famous one. There were also a lot of references to Bigfoot, who probably stays hidden these days because he, or she, is simply embarrassed, mortified even, by all the somewhat tawdry attention.
US 101 travels all along through some really beautiful country. The elevation never tops much above a thousand feet, but it feels much more mountainous, as the highway bobs and weaves and dodges its way through the Coastal Ranges of Northern California. In New England, the mountains are green. They have a lush coat of both evergreen and broadleaf trees. This is what makes them so especially beautiful in their October colors. Here, the trees are mostly evergreens, but they stand alone or in groves much of the time, with a gold-brown carpet of mountain grasses between them. This relative sparseness shows the line of the land more clearly, and accentuates the height.
I continue to be surprised, and often amused, by what I find in the small towns that offer a chance to get off the highway for a while. Cloverdale has the “Famous Owl Café.” Hopland is home to the Real Goods Solar Living Center. In Laytonville, which really seems nothing but a small area of shops along US 101, the Pour Girls Coffee shop serves up organic espresso, while across the street at the combination hardware store and supermarket, a fellow was collecting money to start a local non-profit radio station. On the way out of town, I passed a tie-dye shirt store, a Consciousness Center, and a place that calls itself “Area 101” and is festooned with crude paintings of UFOs and grey aliens. There seems to be nothing at all in Leggett except that drive-thru tree, which gets it a mention on the tourist map, and a single store.
I stopped last night in the Redwoods National Park. I got off the highway in Myers Flat and followed the Avenue of Giants for about ten miles of winding, narrow road among these enormous, fascinating trees; alongside wide, dry creek and river beds. I stopped at an RV park in Redcrest, which, with its campsites and cabins and gift shop, was pretty much all of Redcrest on the east side of the road. On the other side of the road was a post office, a little building housing the “Nesting Place,” which sells a lot of old, interesting junk, a shuttered gas station, and a restaurant and gift shop associated with an old twenty-square-foot one-room house carved a long time ago into the trunk of a living redwood tree. There was also what seemed to be one house set back from the road, which I only noticed because it had a TV antenna mounted on the roof. I mention this because if that house got television signals, then it was the only signal getting through. I discovered that I was completely cut off electronically: no cell reception, no 4G, and no WiFi.
My reaction to this sudden isolation from the outside world was two-fold. First, I was frustrated. I rely on my electronics to keep me connected to someone important in my life, who I knew would worry if she didn’t hear from me. All I could do was send a text that wouldn’t go out until I got back in range again in the morning. Knowing that I couldn’t reach her even to let her know I was all right made me realize how much I had come to count on our daily texts and occasional phone calls. I also realized that there were times along this trip when I could be cut off from even emergency communications. What if something happened and I needed help? How did we deal with these things before our modern electronics? How must it have been to know that someone you love would, by necessity of work or travel, be completely cut off from you for weeks or months? How would it feel to be exploring a country as big as this one when it meant being really, completely alone?
My second response was to recognize that it felt especially quiet. I loved being in those woods. I wasn’t actually alone, just among strangers who were friendly and helpful. I had all my basic necessities met, and I was comfortable. When I woke this morning, I realized that I had slept very well and awakened rested and eager to get back on the road. Of course the first thing I did was to listen for the sound of my cell phone, letting me know that I was back in touch with the rest of the world.
Back on my way this morning, I made my way down through the redwood hills. The landscape began to look more like home, like Western Massachusetts or Vermont or New Hampshire. The mountains were all green and lush, the road moved more lazily through the valleys and passes, only occasionally snaking scarily along the side of a cliff – or perhaps I am just getting used to it.
The day had started cool and hazy, and that remained when 101 turned to the shoreline; but the beaches of northern California were beautiful in spite of (and even because of) the weather. At Clam Beach, I walked across a quarter-mile of gently waving dunes to a wild beach untouched by commerce. There was, it’s true a somewhat run-down, small state beach with a few scruffy-looking campers and a chemical-toilet outhouse; but these disappeared from sight as soon as I crossed the first row of dunes, leaving the beach clean and unspoiled. Later, I pulled well off the highway, past a busy little state beach area and resort, down a slightly winding narrow road to College Cove, where I walked from the dirt parking area down a walking path through woods and across the top of the cliffs, then down a steep set of rustic, well-worn stairs to find one of the most breathtaking coves I have ever seen. I ate a light lunch on the beach, then stayed nearly an hour, walking along the beach, and sitting to watch the water roll up onto the sand and crash against the rocks. There is something about a wild, empty beach, especially one nestled among the cliffs and rock formations, that restores me and helps me reconnect to what is real in the world.
Then it was back into the hills and redwoods for a while as I made my way up the coast to Crescent City, where I am spending the night. Along the way I saw three female elk standing quietly be the side of the road. All in all, a good day.

Keeping it El Camino Real

In Travels With Myself on July 19, 2013 at 3:12 am

I took El Camino Real from Palo Alto to San Francisco. It is, in fact, one long, wide city street through a lot of small cities and suburbs which are surprising different from one another. Simply crossing the line from one to the next, the street would go from well-kept, clean, busy storefronts to fading paint and disrepair, and empty windows, then back to pretty.
I like driving these kinds of streets. Sometimes traffic can be a bit congested and slow, but as often as not, it moves along at a reasonable town and city pace, giving me time to look around a bit. Along the lead-up to San Francisco, I saw less and less of the Spanish influence, and more of typical small town America: simple storefronts, with signs that tell you what the place is without excess glitz or neon. I also began to see more of the Victorian: three or more floors with window bays from ground to roof, and the gingerbread moldings and multi-colored walls and trim. And there was shift into more Asian influences in the kinds of stores, and the mix of the pedestrians; something which had actually begun to happen at least as soon as I got past Santa Clara and into the San Francisco ex-urban area.
What occupied my thoughts, however, was a certain disinterest I have become aware of in myself to spending time in large cities this trip. I very much enjoyed Irvine, but skipped by L.A. along the shore. I had earlier stayed to the outskirts of Cincinnati, stopped only for a photo-op in Kansas City, stayed well south of Major cities like Chicago, Denver, and Salt Lake. And now I found myself driving straight through San Francisco. It was a good drive, but I didn’t feel the need to stop. El Camino turned into San Jose and then Laguna, and because Frisco is laid out in a grid, that took me all the way to the Golden Gate Bridge. I passed through residential areas, rich and poor, through business districts and past malls. I went up some of the famous hills and down the other side. Actually, I don’t know which was scarier, coming to stop signs at every cross of a steep incline, or coming to them on the way down. At least going south to north I didn’t have any moments when I was looking down a long hill with nothing but the bay below me.
I will interject here that nothing I have ever seen of pictures or read of descriptions of the Golden Gate Bridge prepared me for the first sight of it on the approach along US 101. It is magical. A rock face jutting up from the bay hid the southern end of the bridge, and the northern end was off in the distance, but the bridge itself hung across the sky, its towers still shrouded in low clouds and mist at ten-thirty in the morning. I don’t know what I expected in crossing it, but it’s so wide, with a separate sidewalk along the edge, that if it weren’t for the climb and descend of the span, it wouldn’t seem like being on a bridge at all; more like an interesting erector set tunnel of some kind. And at the far end, the road climbs through the hills as if the bridge has brought you to some fairy tale land where a castle awaits. Alas, there is no castle.
Finding parking for my nineteen-foot van can be problem on city streets, of course (parking spaces can be a premium item at any time), but I have been able to find enough standard spaces I could pull into so that stopping wasn’t impossible (parking garages are, of course, out of the question because of Taliesin’s height). Maneuvering through city traffic can also be tricky sometimes, but I’ve driven a van this size in Boston before, so that doesn’t really intimidate me. No, I think that it is simply not what I am looking for this trip. I will return to L.A. or San Francisco again someday, but on purpose when I want to spend a good long time there. For now I am more interested in the spaces between the cities.
On the other hand, I have very much enjoyed some small cities along the way. I took a break from the highway at Petaluma today. I bought walked around town, stopping at a music store and to mail a post card, ad had a light lunch of chilled blueberry soup and lemonade at a restaurant called the Wild Goat in a building called Petaluma Mills. I then stopped at a Visitor Information Center in Santa Rosa, where there are statues of Peanuts characters in the parks. I find that I spend more time than I intend in some of these towns and small cities. They are always warm and comfortable, without a lot of hustle (either the hurrying kind or the commercial kind). I smile at people and they smile back, clerks and wait staff seem genuinely happy to be there and to have me stop by. I know that I could find such people and such places in the larger cities, too, but I would have to look for them rather than find them on every corner.
I am learning, I think, that this trip is about going places, not being places. Cities want to hold you for a while, show you the sights, help you have a good time. Small towns are happy to have you just pass through or stay, whatever suits. They aren’t destinations so much as part of the journey.

North from the Coast and Inland

In Travels With Myself on July 17, 2013 at 4:19 am

Looking at a map of California, one could argue that I 5 is the transportation spine of the state, running as it does from the Mexican Border pretty much right up through the center of the state to Oregon. If so, then US 101 (and CA 1 where they overlap) is one of the major arteries running through the western part of the state delivering people and goods to the coastal areas and agricultural heartland. I am not knowledgeable enough about plants to know exactly what was growing, but 101 north of Santa Barbara passes through some of the most amazing farmland I have ever seen. And once you get above San Luis Obispo you are in wine country, and the locals will tell you that the wineries around Paso Robles rival the Napa in size, number and quality. Whether vegetables or grapes, the fields are green and lush, stretching from the edge of the highway to the edge of the hills in the distance; almost as far as my admittedly presbyopic eyes can see.
The beauty of this part of the country is only rivaled by the wind. There seems to be no place west of Colorado where the heat of the afternoon is not accompanied by winds which seem determined to blow directly across whatever road I am driving on. Now, those better versed in meteorology and related issues can correct me on this, but here’s what I think I have learned. Cooler ocean air on the Pacific coast comes ashore and forces the warm air up over the coastal ranges, where it cools and then rushes down the other side into the valleys. That rush of wind creates gusts that sweep across the center of California, forcing the air that has been warmed all morning to rise up over the next batch of mountains (the Cascades, perhaps, or the Sierra Nevada), cool, and rush down in its own turn into the next valleys. This process then continues up over the Rockies into the valleys and plains of Utah and Western Colorado. Because major routes like US 101, I 5 and I 15 run primarily north to south, the winds blow across them rather than following them. None of which makes it easier in the understanding to drive in it.
I have often been taken by the way communities choose to identify themselves. In Connecticut, for example, Willimantic calls itself “Thread City.” (I have never felt that “Romantic Willimantic” had any real chance of getting traction.) Along those lines, Los Alamos has a sign at the city limits proclaiming that it is the “Valley of the Cottonwoods,” while Buellton claims more mundanely to be the “Home of Split Pea Soup.” Also, it is impossible to drive more than a few miles without encountering a “San” or a “Santa” something. I had never imagined there were so many saints in the Catholic pantheon; from Antonio and Ardo to Barbara and Clarita, through Lucas and Maria to Monica and Paula; which doesn’t even include well-known ones like Diego and Luis Obispo and Juan Capistrano.
The preponderance of saints, however, also means an abundance of missions, which are as plentiful here as lighthouses in New England. I stopped today at Mission San Miguel Arcangel, just above Paso Robles. An artist friend, Eric Spencer, whom I had lunch with in Paso, had told me it was worth the visit. What I found was interesting for its odd mix of the worshipful, the historic, and the touristy. My first view of the Mission was a brick bell tower .around the compound, I discovered simple, but surprisingly beautiful cactus gardens, a cemetery where hundreds of Native Americans had been buried, but where the prominent gravestone was for a family named MacDonald. When I got around to the front of the Mission, it looked for all the world as if it had been plucked from old movies and television shows: Zorro, or the Cisco Kid.
The church itself, and the attached structures, which house the monastery buildings and the gift shop, were well preserved, the stucco walls patched with plaster, and the red tile roofs solid. The grounds were dry and dusty, but filled with interesting artifacts, like an old olive press and an abandoned well sealed with a large stone, and incongruously, a small cannon. A walk through the well-marked self-tour, showed me the tools of 18th century mission agriculture, the weapons of the Spaniards who once ruled here, and the miscellany of everyday life, tucked into small, dark rooms and curious alcoves and passageways. The outer wall of the courtyard was allowed to show the effects of time and wind and human conflict, the top broken in places, the gates dark with age and gapped between the boards.
But placed within these historic contexts there was something of the tourist and the theme park that caught my eye. A building that contained the rest rooms had been placed at one end of the compound such that it created behind it a gate to nowhere. And the structure had been designed with the illusion of bricks showing through crumpled stucco, large fake holes revealing fake bricks. The effect was, I admit, successful in a theatrical sort of way, but since the actual historical structure showed no such wear, I wondered why it was thought necessary to fake it on the bathrooms. In the gift shop, the usual selection of Christian religious symbols, rosaries and books about the mission were interspersed with oddities like plastic boxes of sharks’ teeth and small ocean shells, tee shirts, fake Spanish coins, and expensive bottles of Mission San Miguel olive oil.
The inside of the sanctuary, however, was spectacular. The church contains some of the last remaining original frescos of the period. It’s hard to describe adequately the soft blues of the pillars painted along the walls, the brilliant yellows and pinks of the space around the altar, the great starburst above the altar itself, with the all-seeing eye in a pyramid at its center, like the eye on the back of a dollar bill. To the right, a long narrow staircase, painted a brilliant blue leads to a pulpit that floats against the wall, while a blue “roof” seems to hang dangerously above it. (For those following my travels on Facebook, I will post photographs. Told of these things ahead of time, I had remembered to bring my camera.)
I left the mission feeling refreshed and heartened. As I head north, I am finding that California has more surprises for me. Every time I take a break from the highway, in the small towns, the little cutoffs or the scenic rest areas (and I get off the highway often to let go of the stress of driving against the winds), I discover small treasures, and not a few great inspirations.

North to Malibu

In Travels With Myself on July 15, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Five wonderful days visiting with my daughter, Suzanne, and Jonny Rose in Irvine, CA.  But now I am back on the road again and headed up the Pacific Coast Highway.  Spending the night north of Malibu at the Point Mugu State Park.  The Santa Monica Mountains are to the east, the Pacific to the west, and little more than CA 1 between them.

I had supposed that I wouldn’t get much to see that I haven’t already seen until I’d gotten north of the great sprawling mega city that is Los Angeles and its suburbs and surrounding towns.  Technically, I won’t be away from all that until tomorrow when I finally get to Oxnard, but even passing L.A., Route 1 is an adventure.

Let me say, first, that Irvine is a beautiful place.  I have never seen such wonderful parks and clean, well-kept, tree lined (especially cypresses and palms), well manage streets.  Six to eight lane roads, with center dividers, allow traffic to spread out, which makes the number of cars manageable.  L.A. may be a great big freeway, but Irvine is a great big mall, with islands of residences that seem to merge with the malls as much as separate them.  Still, even the sameness of the sand-colored architecture can’t keep the city from being laid back and pretty.  The campus of the University of California at Irvine is an enormous park; and there are bicycle lanes everywhere, to further simplify the issues of traffic and commuting.

And the ready availability of the beaches at Laguna and Newport, just to name two, makes it an easy place to want to stay awhile.  I am, however a New Englander by nature and nurture, so I am not entirely unhappy to put southern California behind me.

The drive up the PCH through Los Angeles County starts along the beaches.  I made a stop at Huntington Beach, which is exactly what I pictured California beaches to be.  Laguna was a fairly narrow beach between the mountains and the sea, but Huntington is wide open.  I walked across a parking lot that already seemed to go on forever, then across a flat sandy stretch that was grossly under-utilized on a Sunday morning in July.  Even with the generous paved path for bicycles and roller-blades, the volleyball courts, and the grandstand for surfing competitions, there seemed more than enough room for easily hundreds of thousands of beachgoers.  The water came in over a shallow beach, making room for waders and swimmers and boogie boarders alike.  At the north end of the beach, just past the great pier, however, oil platforms stood prominently above the horizon.

There were those sorts of contrasts all along the way.  There were long sections with vast beaches to the left and vast cliffs at the road’s edge to the right.  There were stretches where the shopping centers and strip malls seemed to go on forever.  And there were stretches where the beaches on the left competed with industry on the right, including what looked like oil wells, with their ridiculous-looking, yellow, bobbing duck pumps rocking up and down. Traffic was smooth and easy nearly all the way to Santa Monica, then congested and slow, with cars lined up on both sides until well past Malibu.

As I start up the coast, I feel as though I am still moving away, but as the mid-point of my trip draws nearer (somewhere around San Francisco), I am already feeling some homesickness.  Perhaps, this will pass for a while as I explore the little towns along this incomparable coast, but I know now that there are many kinds of barriers.  When I got to the Pacific, I could go no further west, and so I turned north.  But I also found that I had other barriers, the ones that aren’t dependent on mountains or oceans, but dwell within us.  Now that I will be leaving the mountains behind me and following the edge of the ocean that has stopped me, it’s those other barriers I need to cross before I turn toward the east, and home.

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