a fall vacation, part two – early dinner and street life

Having found a burger joint on Yelp, Karen and I decided we could stroll from our hotel to a dinner spot. An earlier-than-expected arrival in San Pedro allowed time to get a few kinks out and unpack, and a walk would be welcome relief after six hours in the little CR-Z.

Clearly a port town.

Clearly a port town.

There’s no denying San Pedro’s connection to the sea. It’s on the south side of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, with two sides directly adjacent to Pacific Ocean. Now a working class community (it’s within the city of Los Angeles), it has roots in the fishing industry and from 1919 to 1940 was home to the United States Battle Fleet. The battleship USS Iowa (BB-61) remains in San Pedro as a museum ship.

Walking the streets of any city offers an upfront education of both the neighborhoods and the people who live there. The character of the local area was revealed as we walked the six blocks from our hotel to Bunz Gourmet Hamburgers. (Yes, “gourmet” is thrown around a lot in the culinary world and I’m always skeptical, but we do love our hamburgers.)

A couple of blocks away from the hotel, a strip shopping center partially revealed the character of this neighborhood. At one end, you could get some money at a check cashing store and with that cash you could step a door down to purchase vapes and/or medical marijuana, get a tattoo and, if inclined, buy lingerie (not the Victoria’s Secret kind). Buildings in the next block were occupied by a liquor store and a vacant car wash. Across the street were three national fast food chain restaurants. One more block down was another marijuana dispensary. This was the theme on this stretch of Gaffey Street.

Just down the street from the hotel, where one could cash their paycheck, pick up some vapes and medical marijuana, get a tattoo and some lingerie.

All what you need.

Bunz Gourmet Hamburgers is a about half a block off Gaffey, down Fifth Street, in a nondescript stucco building painted an adobe pink color. Tucked between apartment buildings and homes now used for commercial enterprises and medical offices, Bunz is one of two tenants in what appears to originally have been a dedicated retail building. While signs clearly point out the restaurant, the space occupying the other side of the building was devoid of any indicator as to its purpose. It was dominated by the type of plate glass windows that formerly displayed wares for sale but now obscured by curtains.

Bunz and the suspicious co-tenant.

Bunz and the suspicious co-tenant.

Bunz is decidedly a neighborhood joint, small and focused. The menu is easy to figure out, with plenty of options for building a burger. The easy-going atmosphere is aided by a fun music selection and friendly service. Our order placed, we took seats at a table outside, watching the world go by as we waited.

Karen could see the other side of the building. It seemed vacant. Until someone walked up to the door, went in, and walked out a few minutes later.

Then a young woman hopped out of her car with a dour look on her face. She took her young daughter into Bunz, where one of the wait staff gave the girl a drink while mom went next door. The woman emerged with a smile on her face. This pattern would repeat, every two to five minutes, the entire time we ate lunch. Thankfully there was a light breeze that allowed us to eat relatively odor free.

Then we got a whiff – urban skunk.

Thankfully, the wind had shifted by the time our burgers arrived. “The Paradise” for me, loaded with pineapple, bacon and teriyaki sauce, and it was pretty fantastic. For Karen it was a basic burger, the “control” by which she judges all burger makers. The burgers were good and the fries close to excellent.

The walk back to the hotel was interrupted by a stop at a local doughnut place, ‘cause doughnuts can be dessert. Racks displayed all varieties of doughnuts and related sweet pastries, but some lonely cronuts caught our eye. There was nothing but empty air behind the counter, and Karen called out quite a few times before an older woman appeared. We inquired about the cronuts only to be assaulted by the woman’s brutal honesty that they probably weren’t the best choice this late in the day. Intent on not leaving without sugared dough, we settled on half a dozen mini doughnuts that disappeared before we returned to the hotel.

Being that we were on vacation, we spend some time that evening at Jackson’s Place, a fun little lounge that offers beer, wine and table top games. Though only three blocks east of the old neighborhood surrounding Bunz, Jackson’s Place is closer to the port and on the edge of San Pedro’s historic downtown, which seems to be undergoing a revitalization effort. Buildings in the area show a mix of updated architecture designed to echo the history of the area and buildings clearly in need of repair, while established trees and new street lamps line the streets.

Being on vacation when others aren’t, particularly in a town that’s not a vacation destination, can be odd. Only a handful of people were scattered about Jackson’s, lending a low-key feeling to the place. That’s not to complain; we got more than a fair share of the bartender’s attention. After a few games of Uno, it was back to the room to sleep.

The next day our ship would sail.

a fall vacation, part one – finding where there are no Starbucks

a fall vacation, part one – finding where there are no Starbucks

The last Monday in September, Karen and I loaded up the two-seater and started our vacation by heading south. This trip would include stops in San Pedro and Avalon, Calif.; Ensenada, Mexico, and ultimately end back in Los Angeles.

To get to our first destination, we made our way out of the Bay Area to that soulless ribbon of road, Interstate 5. It’d be nice to say we left early, but oh-dark-thirty is the usual time we depart for work. Luckily, that means missing most commute traffic. Thankfully, Karen and I enjoy each other’s company and once and a while we can still hold a substantive conversation, a big plus when droning down I-5.

The last few years we’ve developed a rhythm when it comes to traveling. We outline plans, flesh out an itinerary, make reservations, and pack. (Inside and quietly, my 10-year-old boy still finds it hard to believe I am old enough to make and manage all of these arrangements.) While I still like to outline the stops along the route and the timing, I’ve come a long way in simply letting the journey play out as it will.

We generally make good time on any highway, even stopping when we want or need to, usually for fuel, for both us and the car. This stretch of the trip would total 402 miles and end at the Best Western Plus San Pedro. Running through California’s San Joaquin Valley (aka Central Valley), I-5 bisects some of the state’s richest agricultural areas and is the origin for about 10 percent of all U.S. agricultural production. Visible from the highway are fields of grapes and orchards of citrus and stone fruits, almonds and pistachios. On any given day, you can also find a bump crop of freight trucks on I-5.

This highway is the main corridor between northern and southern California. Over the years, I’ve driven it all hours of the day. The traffic is constant and never seems to thin out. Between the two of us, to put it politely, Karen is the speedier driver and three times we passed the same truck after quick stops. There’s not much to see in the 160 miles from Gustine to Grapevine, and we discovered that there is no Starbucks in the 60 miles from Kettleman City to Buttonwillow.

The view from our destination. The next day we'd be headed toward those cranes.

The view from our destination. The next day we’d be headed toward those cranes.

The weather was beautiful. The uncultivated terrain was dry. The grass was not “California gold” dry; it was an ugly, dead color. When not conversing, we had podcasts to listen to during the more desolate expanses.

A few landmarks can’t be missed. Harris Ranch is heralded by the stink of a nearly 800-acre feedlot and the cattle that inhabit it. Weathered, faded and grammatically incorrect homemade signs calling the Central Valley a “CONGRESS CREATED DUST BOWL” pop up once and a while. As if taunting, The California Aqueduct periodically snakes into and out of view. One can’t miss the iconic windmill towering over Pea Soup Andersons. (Once the sole eatery here, it now competes with no less than six chain restaurants.) The 77-foot tall windmill also marks the off-ramp for the San Joaquin Valley National Cemetery, home to California Korean War Veterans Memorial and the bronze 11th Airborne Memorial.

Soon we were climbing The Grapevine. (For those unfamiliar with California, The Grapevine is the section of highway – named either for a local creek or the vineyards that once dotted the area – that crosses the mountains of the Transverse Range and over the Tehachapi Mountains to peak at 4,144 feet.) With a 6 percent grade, The Grapevine rises about 1,500 feet over 5 miles. A collection of roller coasters at Six Flags Magic Mountain marks the far edge of urban sprawl.

After the long descent into the Los Angeles Basin one’s ability to navigate is tested by a collection of convoluted interchanges. Near the outskirts of San Fernando, it became difficult to resist the urge to refer to highways in the local vernacular: “the” 405, “the” 100. The lack of traffic was welcome, however, and we arrived at the Best Western Plus San Pedro earlier than expected.

There’s often a pregnant pause and disapproving look when you tell people familiar with the area that you’re staying in San Pedro. It didn’t seem that bad.

Just down the street from the hotel, where one could cash their paycheck, pick up some vapes and medical marijuana, get a tattoo and some lingerie.

Just down the street from the hotel, where one could cash their paycheck, pick up some vapes and medical marijuana, get a tattoo and pick up some lingerie.

steelhead weather, mountain trout, and a strong chance of no more opening days

It soon became clear that I had fooled myself.

My fly rod rested, unmoving; my head shook in disgust as discouragement took root.

Being a high-country angler at heart, solace is found in solitude. While this opening day morning was marked by lonely weather, with steel gray clouds and drizzling misery on all below, it was snowing above 5,000 feet. That prevented everyone who had hoped to cross Sonora Pass to fish the eastern Sierras – myself included – stuck to fishing limited waters on the west slope.

My early arrival allowed seclusion for only so long. And if trout had eyelids, I would have argued all but a few had shut their eyes to my flies. But it was nice. All sound was dampened by wet pine needles. Low-hanging clouds induced a preternatural calmness. Drops of rain filtered through the overhanging branches of dogwoods and cedars to finally gather together in larger drops before falling and pockmarking the stream with miniature geysers.

The crunch of tires on gravel sliced through the trees, tearing me from my musing. A first, second, then third vehicle pulled up. Camouflage-clad fishermen, with rods almost as long as the stream is wide, hauled out tackle boxes that could double as streamside seating, and each tipped their hat to me and lined up a few feet away. Hooks were buried into bright red salmon eggs and lines were cast.

I remained stationary. It’s not uncommon to see bait or hardware fisherman travel in packs, but this had caught me off guard. In this spot, however, I am usually alone with a rare visit by one other fisherman.

The small pools I knew were upstream were, despite the drought, rendered temporary inaccessible. Getting to those pools required clambering over a rocky outcropping, and the rainfall during the night – downpours woke me more than once – raised the stream just high enough to make it too dangerous for one who’s not so young anymore. Downstream was a canyon that wasn’t much safer for the same reason.

Snow dictated I head downslope, where there were few options.

Though opening day may nowadays be more routine than tradition, I was on a mission to shake off the rust of winter, to prove that I could still cast and was still fast enough to set a hook (and correspondingly adjust my hook set, whether it was my dry fly or nymph that fooled the fish). And so it was that I was committed to spending the day attempting to reassure myself that given the opportunity during the coming summer and fall, I wouldn’t look like an idiot swinging a stick on a river, creek, stream or lake.

There are a number of waters along Hwys 108 and 120. It would have been preferable to head away from the opening day crowds, likely as far as Goodwin Dam, where its 4-mile stretch of tailwater forms the Lower Stanislaus River. But that would require a steelhead report card that I didn’t think I’d need this year. I wasn’t driving something that could go off road, eliminating a large percentage of other waters. Other possibilities were still closed off by season gates.

There are never-ending debates about the differences between hatchery and wild trout, but wanting fish to fool meant wading into a put-and-take fishery.

By the time I arrived, sunlight was peeking through parting clouds. This is one of those west slope year-round creeks around which is created an oasis of vegetation despite the surrounding dry hills, on which this year the grass is already gold. It’s frequented by meat fishermen who I always hope paid their license fees just as I did.

Opening Day Trout, 2015

Opening Day Trout, 2015

Until the heat of summer, most folks fish the south side of this creek. Waders allow me to access the north side, dropping my flies into seams on the edges of pools and riffles. Fish were there and, hatchery-born or not, seemed to have an appetite for something that looked a bit natural. My catch rate vs. everyone – while not always the case, but often repeated – was about three to one. I have to admit a look of bemusement might cross my face now and again when other anglers scramble to try to duplicate my style or squint at my size 16 and 16 flies, which they likely can’t see from where they are.

More important to me than the numbers was the ratio of fish hooked and those landed. Better than most opening days, I hooked fish on about eighty percent of the takes I saw and of those landed most. A fellow across the way lamented that he didn’t bring his fly rod, but spin casting was the best way to keep his son engaged. That brought back memories in me and a gratefulness that I tried over the years to acquaint my kids with a sport that can bring a lifetime of good times.

This was the first opening day for me in quite a few years. Previous years I spent opening day weekend helping to teach aspiring fly fishers.

My thoughts now have shifted to thinking it would have been better to teach this year’s opening day weekend and instead of waiting for a single day each year, get off my duff and avail myself of the growing number of year-round moving trout waters in the Sierras, both on the west and east slopes.

Lesson learned.

karmic payoff (or, one degree of separation from the original physical fitness badass)

I stopped at Costco on the way home last Friday to pick up a few items, as if anyone can pick up just a few items and not walk out of Costco with a kayak or some such thing.

It was Good Friday. The line to the gas station was long, the parking lot nearly full and the crowd of shoppers thick. But I wasn’t in a hurry; it was one of those clear, sunny spring days with a blanket of astonishingly blue sky that can’t be appreciated if you don’t slow down and look around. The shopping list wasn’t long and soon I was loading more than expected into the car. And while it’s not unusual for other shoppers to wander by, an uncomfortably close, slow-moving shopping cart caught my eye.

Who is this?

Do you recognize this guy?
Circa 1950s, photo by Russ Warner.

Pushing it was an elderly gentleman, appropriately grizzly for his age but dressed in pressed khakis, a button-down shirt and sweater, as you might imagine would have been the standard about 50 years ago, when publicly wearing pajamas would attract attention and perhaps include a visit to the funny farm. He walked slowly but without shuffling, slowly looking left, then right. The corners of his green sweater flapped in the breeze while the set of his face showed he was expending more than a little effort on thinking.

There’s no telling whether it was my Boy Scout mindset or overly hopeful belief in karma, but I slipped out of the car. As I stepped toward the man, he eyed me through thick glasses with a level of caution that’s unfortunately appropriate these days. His posture relaxed after I asked if he might need some assistance.

His eyes were clear and sharp under tussled salt-and-pepper hair as he described a growing distrust of his memory, a worry reinforced today by his inability to find his car. His habit was to fill up at the Costco gas station and park near the gas station exit. Today, because he couldn’t find an open spot in that section, he cruised around the lot to find a spot.

Knowing cars a little bit more than the average person and figuring I might help, I asked what type of car he was driving. It was Honda, that he was sure of; but of the model he wasn’t. The color was gray, but maybe lighter. Perhaps silver. It had four doors and was more than five years old. Rubbing the whiskers on his chin, he told me that it was bigger than a Civic. The easiest solution, pressing a button on his key fob, wasn’t an option; the remote integrated with the key was held together by masking tape and hadn’t worked for years.

My offer of assistance accepted, I began walking the 15 or so aisles of the parking lot, scanning for a four-door, gray or silver, Honda sedan. I was hunting for an Accord, but didn’t dismiss the possibility it could be a Civic. As might be expected in any parking lot in America, there was no scarcity of matching vehicles. (Silver – the color of indecision – and gray, were two of the top five most popular car colors during the last decade.) Wandering the closest three aisles, I took cell phone photos of a few suspect cars and returned to my lost friend. No, the car didn’t have a sun roof. The color was more of a light gray. The tail lights were different.

I searched a few more aisles, then returned to find the gentleman in conversation with the gas station attendant. This Costco gas station attendant is a good ol’ boy, always wearing a cowboy hat and quick to tell seemingly deaf patrons to turn down their stereos. He told me that he knew the older gentlemen I was assisting. His name is Clay. The attendant radioed the store’s cart crew for help, but no one was available. I tried to get a better description of the car but only got confirmation that it was indeed silver and had four doors. Clay wondered out loud if his car was on the far side of the lot.

Knowing I could cover ground about three times faster, I walked the rest of the parking lot, ending up as far away as possible from my starting point. Clay, who had walked in a straight line rather than up and down each aisle, caught up with me.

Not wanting to leave Clay on his own, I again prodded him for any identifying features of his car. Was it dirty? Was anything hanging from the mirror? Did it have special wheels? A light seemed to flicker behind his eyes; yes, there was something. The number five and “UES” had come to mind, though Clay was uncertain why. Hoping the number suggested the beginning of a license place – sequential 5-series plates were issued in California about five to seven years ago, fitting the possible age of a vehicle that had so far eluded us.

I began scanning plates and less than ten steps away, there is was; on a silver CR-V. Not quite the sedan I was looking for. Clay’s key fit the front door. An offer to help load his groceries was declined, so I wished Clay good luck and we parted company.

I was a few steps away when Clay called out to offer fruit snacks and thanks. I declined, again began to walk away, Clay drew me back with another comment about how he appreciated the help. My acknowledgement ended with an observation that we’d both gotten in some exercise by walking, never a bad thing. Clay replied, “You know, that was part of my training.”

I’m sure that I cocked my head to one side, wondering what that might mean. Bewilderment got the best of me and I asked, “What do you mean?” His story began with being stationed at Naval Air Station Alameda as a young man. (A quick calculation told me that this was likely in the mid 1930s.)

Then Clay asked, “Have you ever heard of Jack LaLanne?”

A response that I did seemed to release a flood of memories. Clay hung out with Jack, performing feats of strength. Occasionally he stepped in to watch over Jack’s exercise studio in Oakland*. He and Jack would impress the “girls” with their muscles, and eventually shared a lifelong friendship.

The photo strip that Clay gave me.

The photo strip that Clay gave me.

Clay illustrated his story with a strip of glossy photo paper upon which were printed digitized photos showing Jack and Clay through the years. One photo shows Clay lying on the ground, with his hands skyward while Jack uses Clay’s hands as a foundation for a handstand. Others show Clay, Jack and their wives at dinner. In one photo they are celebrating Jack’s 90th birthday.

Clay shared that he had to take care of himself for at least five more years. Jack LaLanne died in 2011 at age 96, and Jack wouldn’t like it if Clay didn’t live to the same age or longer.

I only spent about an hour helping Clay. His memory may be fading, but I hope his enthusiasm for life and appreciation of his past allows him to reach that goal.

♫♫Oh, who are the people in your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
In your neighborhood?
Say, who are the people in your neighborhood?
The people that you meet each day.♫♫

*For those who don’t know, Bally Total Fitness grew out of licensing LaLanne’s European Health Spas, which numbered more than 200 by the 1980s.