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Like all excuses, mine are more credible to me than anyone else. Our finite allocation of time has been consumed by classwork, the usual demands of full-time jobs, visitors from out of town, tending to the house and yard, emergency response training, dinners and events that keep friendships alive, and a purposeful exploration of local places previously ignored because “we’d get there someday.”
That was January, February and March. Three short months brimming with experiences, mostly good, some not so good.
Apart from spring break next week, the coming months will be just as full. We have one weekend day that remains unplanned. That won’t last long. There’s a shipment of Prager port to pick up.
Though the days are full, there’s a slowness – even if just a few minutes at time – encouraged by the bluebird skies of the last week. Brought to life by the accompanying warmth of the sun, our California native landscaping is putting on a show unforeseen.
Native landscaping in California requires acceptance that the bounty of spring gives way to dormancy during the summer. While manzanita, a huge island mallow, salvia and yarrow remain green all year, the vibrant green leaves of blue-eyed grass turn brown and whither. California poppies die off after scattering the seeds that will become their progeny.
But for now, the yard is playground of color visited by lizards, birds, bees and butterflies.
And now that the windows are open at night, spring is real and summer looming fast.
I’ve already put almost 300 miles behind me by the time the morning sun’s risen above Mt. Shasta. The gas tank’s just a bit less than half full, one of the four bottles of water is empty and the bag of jerky on the seat next to me beckons. It’s almost time for a stop.
This trip is rooted in the idea of brothers getting together at least once a year. It’s also about driving. Back when we were both underage, short impromptu road trips were about freedom, a small bit of excitement and creating memories. My ’71 Beetle was our magic carpet for many.
Longer trips came later. Our parents had moved to the Seattle area while I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area and, for a time, my brother lived in Southern California. The reason for our first 788-mile run to Washington has faded now but the thrill of the drive is alive and well. It took us 14½ hours. Stops were few. We ate in the car. While one was refueling the car the other would use the bathroom, then we’d switch places. There’s a lot more to that story, but that’s for another time.
Attempting this latest trip from Benicia, Calif., to Issaquah, Wash., would be an uneasy balance of reality and perception. And a promise to my wife that I’d exercise good judgement, stopping if there was even a remote possibility should it be necessary. The reality is that I’m not a spring chicken (or rooster?) anymore, but the idea I could do it myself – encouraged by the memory of that “banzai run” (my brother’s words) year ago – was enticing.
The plan was to visit the parents for a bit, then meet up with my brother for fishing, shooting, hiking and swimming; all activities of summer well suited for the last week of July. I would have no co-pilot, no flight attendant. Preparation was vital. The cooler would be loaded with two bottles of water, frozen the night before, aluminum bottle also filled with water, and two small pastrami sandwiches. (The old trick of lightly buttering the bread before slathering on condiments would prevent any sogginess.) Another aluminum water bottle sat in the cup holder. Everything would be within easy reach.
I woke up five minutes before the 4:30 a.m. alarm. It’s odd how that works – the body wakes up ready to go when the day doesn’t involve going to the office. I left the driveway a few minutes after the hoped-for 5 a.m. departure.
There was no competition for the fast lane. I don’t feel like I’ve made enough progress until familiar roadways are miles behind. The I-80/I-505 interchange is for me a demarcation between familiarity and mere acquaintance. Here begins long, lonely, two-lane stretches of highway that pass thirsty orchards and fields; towns that owe their existence to I-5 travelers; truck stops filled with Freightliners, Kenworths and Peterbilts (and these days Volvos); and rest areas roughly 40 miles apart. Endless power lines and aqueducts fade in and out of view.
Though “The Five” parallels the Pacific coastline, it is well inland and generally manages to skirt much of the best scenery in California, Oregon and Washington. But it’s fast; choosing I-5 is all about expediency. Much of the way, the posted speed limit is 70 mph. My first stop was 258 miles later in Weed, in the shadow of Mt. Shasta and deep in the State of Jefferson. After topping off the tank and visiting the bathroom and no lingering, the climb into the Siskyou Mountains began.
The 246-mile stretch of I-5 from Weed to Eugene, through Ashland and Grants Pass, offers a welcome change: green mountains. The downside is Oregon’s low opinion of citizens’ driving skills. Speed limits drop, generally to 65 mph but often lower for brief stretches. From Eugene to Portland it’s flat, but there’s just enough variety of terrain, vegetation and crops to make it not boring, and the rest stops are more updated, or at least cleaner. Unique to this part of I-5 is the smattering of Adult Shops (that’s the name of this chain of stores) strung along the highway, which contrasts with a fair number of religious billboards that pop up south of Salem.
Oregon goes by in a blink. It takes me about the same amount of time to drive through Oregon as it did to drive from home to the northern border of California. About midway through Oregon, one sandwich is gone, the jerky bag has been opened, and I’m down to one bottle of water. I’ve listened to nine podcasts. My pace is steady. The only stops are to fill up in Salem and at rest areas as needed.
You’d think crossing the Washington border would bring a feeling of relief, but it’s a reminder that I still have about three hours to go. It’s green but monotonous, with a patchwork of farmland giving way to retail centers and too many RV dealerships. While the “Uncle Sam billboard” near Chehalis celebrates free speech, over the years I’ve found the messages to range from mildly amusing to patently offensive. The billboard also marks the long slog through never-ending construction zones and constant traffic in Olympia, and to Tacoma.
Trusting that Google knew best, I slipped off I-5 to take State Route 900, a more interesting but generally slow alternative that cuts between Cougar Mountain and Squak Mountain on its way to Issaquah. By now, a road trip playlist has replaced podcasts. It’s clear I’m moving deeper into the Evergreen state. There’s little dead space, the open areas between buildings are filled with trees and overgrown bushes and vines. I wonder if underneath it all one might find broken down trucks, discarded 55-gallon drums and other castoff debris.
Soon I’m back in familiar territory. Decades ago I lived in Issaquah for about seven months and have visited often enough to know the route. It’s not so much about landmarks – things have changed a lot in and around town – but the curve of the road and that oddly angled intersection. I debate whether to top of the gas tank and decide it can wait; any stop would delay my arrival. Finally in town, I slow for traffic. Nearly where I need to be and Washington drivers’ tendency to abide by all speed limits becomes an annoyance.
A renewed energy arises within me as I take that last right turn. I park and open the door. Glancing at the clock, I brim with smugness. My driving time was just over 13½ hours.
Sure, it’s an irrational pride to have accomplished something that means so little. But for once, I felt that I was in control of my destiny, however illusionary that might be.
It was in the shade of a concrete canyon that we reminisced over breakfast about those last few days in San Diego. It was a visit without an itinerary but nonetheless full. Balboa Park. A working lunch and dinner. Coronado Island.
The trip last week was free of monetary worries; part of a package to celebrate my having worked 30 years with the company. Whether it was a perk or disruption, the rest of my co-workers would join us for a day at the office and the celebration that evening.
Karen and I were on the road early that Wednesday, weaving through the normal early-morning traffic. Highways 680, 24, 980 and 880 got us to Oakland International Airport in good time. My past airport experiences had been marked by apprehension and anxiety. For me, arriving 15 minutes early equates to being on time; on time is late. Airports bring too many unpredictable variables into play. I didn’t like it and constantly imagined missing a parking lot shuttle or flight.
We arrived at the airport more than two hours before our flight, allowing time for a leisurely breakfast. It made me feel like a real traveler. I was relaxed, in fact.
And my wife had a plan. Her mother was a stewardess back when that job title wasn’t outdated, but the knowledge she imparted still applies today. My wife would take a window seat, and I’d take the aisle seat. As long as the flight wasn’t completely full, this might, deviously, deter anyone from taking the seat between us. It worked. No more than 70% of the seats were occupied, allowing us to enjoy some elbow room.
The flight was comfortable. The first landing attempt waved off, the second attempt turbulent but successful. The weather was clear and San Diego almost seemed to sparkle.
I was originally under the impression that my boss, the company owner, would be our chauffer. But I was handed the keys. He’d be our navigator. Along the way we were regaled with tales of his family’s history in San Diego. The first relative arrived in the late 1800s. During his youth, he wasn’t allowed south of Broadway. Our hotel, Hotel Palomar San Diego, was just north of the old Woolworths, where he never had a sandwich.
San Diego is one of the more puzzling cities I’ve visited. Its waterfront is wide open, as most are. But a few blocks in, it’s a mashup of old and new, with older buildings’ blank walls facing a street for two or three blocks. Often, only a single door or parking garage entrance hints that there is something behind the featureless edifice. While development of the city’s Gaslamp Quarter does seem offer a mix of people living, working, shopping and dining, most areas don’t.
This isn’t helped by the many, multi-lane one-way streets. I read somewhere that one-way streets encourage greater car speeds and discourage pedestrian and bike traffic. This seemed to be the case in the one-thousand block of Fifth Avenue, our home base for three days.
If our stay is any indication, San Diego has some of the best weather anywhere in the country. After our quick tour and dropping the boss off at the office (farther up Fifth Avenue), we ended up in Balboa Park. We took a quick tour of an anemic display of California native plants, the headed toward the Spreckels Organ, lucky enough to quickly find a parking stall.
More people than you’d expect for a Wednesday walked up and down the sidewalks. Balboa Park’s landscaping isn’t easily described. From any single location one might see five or more different species of trees. Lawns lush by California standards give way to xeriscaping, planted with succulents from around the world. There was a remote familiarity to it. This is what I grew up with in the San Gabriel Valley.
Karen had suggested The Prado for lunch. (I silently mulled over feelings that any restaurant with a name that starts with “The” could quickly empty my wallet.) Located in the House of Hospitality, it’s at the center of Balboa Park and was built for the 1915-16 Panama-California Exposition. The building echoes the Spanish Colonial Revival style apparent throughout the park, though there is an argument that, being an architectural stylistic movement that arose in the United States during the early 20th century, it’s wrong to connect it with Panama.
We were seated immediately and our server was almost doting. Splitting the entrée, as we often do, limits the choices bit – it’s well known that Karen doesn’t eat cheese (I do) – but we agreed upon steak tacos.
Often it’s the entirety of a meal that makes it better than good and that was the case with this meal. The rice and beans were better than most, the steak cooked well but still tender, and the tortillas were more flavorful than their thinness would suggest.
It was a delicious start to a trip that would end up offering much good food, fantastic weather and a lesson in slowing down.
Fly fishing changes one’s brain. According to research, 20 or more specific brain centers of the unconscious brain may be called into action at a single time during an average person’s day.
Separate centers deal with the basics – metabolism (heart, lungs, circulatory system), sensory input (touch, temperature, pressure, pain) – as well as perception, memory, learning, thought and language. The brainstem gets into the act by correlating past memories and events with the present situation to suggest a possible plan of action. Each center analyzes incoming information to make changes to address external influences.
It’s all designed to reach a desired outcome. If that desired outcome is achieved, something called the “hypothalamic satiety center” will receive signals of satisfaction. Unfortunately, in today’s busy world, that satisfaction can be very short in duration.
This same research suggests that when fly fishing, less than 10 brain centers may be active. When one first takes up fly fishing, high expectations could bring a few more brain centers into action. However, over time, the combination of that anticipation as well as affirming memories of previous fly fishing successes, in theory, increases the duration of signals sent to the satiety center in the hypothalamus.
This could be why a few weeks ago my wife told me that I need (her emphasis) to go fishing. Maybe my brain centers have been too active.
There’s plenty of commentary about fly fishing as therapy. This gentle sport is integral to the well-known Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing and Casting for Recovery programs. It’s used in other, lesser-known therapy programs for drug addiction and depression.
Surely it’s a good form of self-therapy.
Water is a key part of this therapy. The sound of moving water is soothing. The sound as it tumbles over rocks, through vegetation or over a fall. Moving water lends freshness to the air, making it cool and moist. Animals lured to the water add to the chorus. Birdsong echoes off the water, the beat of insect wings hums in the background, frogs croak. If one’s lucky, a breeze will rustle the leaves and grasses.
This restful backdrop becomes part of the alertness, concentration and stealth required of fly fishing; a meditative state that directly increases the likelihood of hooking a fish. On the stream, waiting is necessary.
Fly fishing was mindfulness before it had a name.
Years ago in cities and towns far and wide Dad had a knack for finding a factory tour, usually free and with goodies. Often edible goodies. It was an inexpensive activity to keep us kids busy, though in the years after my siblings and I left home, it was clear that he himself enjoyed these tours. Nearly every vacation since, dad has dragged mom on tours of factories across the country.
Growing up we visited the Martinelli’s* operation in Watsonville, Calif.; the Blue Diamond Growers* plant in Sacramento; the Graber Olives packing operation in Ontario, Calif.; and the Boeing factory in Everett, Wash., to list just a few. Dad’s predilection became a tradition with me. A few of the tours my kids experienced included the Jelly Belly, Marin French Cheese, Anheuser-Busch, Tillamook and Liberty Orchards (Aplets and Cotlets) factories as well as local glass blowing studios. Now empty nesters, Karen and I have been on more than a few tours ourselves, including a recent visit to the Franz Bakery in Portland, Ore., as well as breweries and distilleries, like local favorite Anchor Brewing and the more distant Sierra Nevada Brewing. I still want to visit the Its-It factory and the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie and Boudin bakeries (San Francisco sourdough!).
It’s that penchant for factory tours that had us on nearby Mare Island during a bright and cool Saturday last February. During the years since naval operations ceased at Mare Island and its decommissioning on April 1, 1996, the city of Vallejo has tried to lure new business to the multitude of buildings on the island. Progress, albeit slow, has been made. Last year there were 105 businesses in operation on Mare Island, filling more than 3.6 million square feet of space and employing 2,400 people.
These businesses, popping up between decaying warehouses and office buildings, include a manufacturer of saw chain maintenance tools, a diving and salvage company, a label design and packaging service, a drawer maker, a dry dock and ship repair facility and a marine contractor. More recent additions include Mare Island Brewery and winemaker Vino Godfather. Other small business and federal agencies occupy many buildings. Mare Island was also home to BattleBots for its sixth season.
We were on the island to visit of the more prominent consumer businesses, Blu Homes. The underlying concept behind Blu Homes is to build homes in half the time of the traditional on-site method, relying on modular design while incorporating technology, energy efficiency and eco-friendly materials. Various Blu Homes models have been sent (via big rig) to over 30 states. The popularity of these homes has outstripped manufacturing capacity, forcing Blu Homes to restrict production during the next 18 months to California clients.
The factory is tucked into a former abandoned machine shop. Our tour followed the amazingly compact production line, passing raw materials area and assembly jigs to the final buildout area, where cabinets, appliances and sinks are installed – all high-quality with options for upgrades. Using steel-frame construction, with walls and floors attached by hinges, each module can be then folded up for shipment. After slapping on some industrial shrink wrap, a module is sent to the home site, set in place by crane and unfolded by the on-site crew.
A basic home takes less than a day to assemble on site but it takes three to six weeks of work before it can be occupied. Various floor plans are created by fitting modules together, with models priced from $150,000 on up.
Even though manufactured away from the home site, these are not mobile homes. The only time they are really mobile is during delivery. We were amazed at the quality of construction and the materials that go into these homes. Karen and I were like kids in a candy store filled with delights we couldn’t afford.
Since our tour I’ve been searching for a suitable site. I’d opt for the Cabana model; a comfortable tiny home just big enough to kick back after fishing.
*Sadly, tours are no longer offered.
The afternoon that late January Saturday was devoted to the Walt Disney story and pizza. We wended our way through traffic, stoplights and pedestrians, the three-and-a-half-mile drive from Corona Heights to The Walt Disney Family Museum dragging out to 30 minutes. Entered the shelter of the Presidio, former Army post but now a haven of history and nature and part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Found a parking spot nearly in front of the museum.
The stroll from the car to the museum offered views of the parade grounds and, because of the slight incline on this stretch of Montgomery Street, a perfect view past the barracks, the main Post Office, across Chrissy Field March and out to the Bay. Colors seemed more vivid thanks to the rain-cleansed sky. The grass was greener. The mortar between the red bricks of the buildings made more visible. The waves of San Francisco Bay glimmered atop that deep, dark blue only seen in brilliant sunlight.
The Walt Disney Family Museum occupies three historic buildings facing the Presidio parade grounds, filling 42,000 square feet. The Walt Disney Family Museum isn’t formally associated with The Walt Disney Company, and less than half of the exhibits are devoted to the entertainment empire built by Disney. It opened Oct. 1, 2009, as a non-profit established by Disney’s heirs to share the heritage and life experiences that molded Walt Disney, his ideas and ideals. Like any Disney entertainment, whether a film or ride, it tells a story.
Extensive galleries cover his early years in a fashion that is almost too leisurely. Extensive galleries cover his early years on the family farm in Marceline, Mo., and his time in the Midwest and France. The lobby alone contains 248 awards – some obscure – that Disney won during his career. While a gentleness pervades the museum, the detailed backstory may bring clarity to even the most cynical view of the man.
Unfortunately, without knowing the scope of the museum, we hadn’t set aside time enough. I was only halfway through the exhibits, about where Disneyland was becoming a reality, when it was time to leave.
I’d like to have stayed, but we were leaving for pizza. Tony’s Pizza Napoletana to be precise; owned by a guy who’s an 11-time World Pizza Champion. A guy who believes in having the right tool for the job, his restaurant has seven different ovens. Each is matched to a particular style of pizza: a wood-burning oven heating up to 900°F, a coal oven reaching a scorching 1000°F, and various gas and electric ovens that start at 520°F. The right-tool-for-the-job mantra extends to the use of the proper ingredients: imported 00-flour for Neapolitan crusts, Pendleton flour for American-style pies, different cheeses and tomato sauces for each of the dozen discrete styles of pizza offered.
A wait is inevitable at Tony’s; no reservations are accepted and there’s no guarantee that all menu items will be available all day. Instead of just cooling our heels, we walked around San Francisco’s North Beach neighborhood, with a stop at Mara’s Italian Pastry, a hole in the wall filled with sugary pleasures.
Finally seated at Tony’s Pizza Napoletana, nearly elbow to elbow with other guests, we unfolded a menu with three pages of pizza and another of pasta and Italian specialties. Two words stood out: Coal Fired. Below it was a pizza that sounded too good to pass up.
The New Yorker, touted as a gold medal winner at the 2013 International Pizza Challenge in Las Vegas. When it arrived at the table I could feel the heat still rising from it. Visually, no single topping – mozzarella, hand crushed tomato sauce, natural casing pepperoni, sliced Italian fennel sausage, Calabrese sausage, ricotta, chopped garlic, and oregano – overpowers the other. We let it cool before picking up a thin, droopy slice.
The almost fluffy crust gives way to a sweet red sauce and seasoning, generous pieces of sausage and globs of ricotta. The intense heat from the coal gave the crust a little char, offering an occasional bitterness. The pepperoni and sausages are counterbalanced by the sweetness and creaminess of the ricotta. It’s astounding and forces me to live in that moment, to savor every bite. It’s clear why owner Tony Gemignani was the first American and non-Neopolitan to win Best Pizza Margherita at the World Pizza Cup in Naples and so many other awards.
Mind and body satisfied, we ended our day. But while writing this I’m trying to figure out when we can get back, if only to try a different pizza.
The real streets of San Francisco are those devoid of tourists or commuters slogging through the city. They have names not widely known. Ord, Saturn, Douglass and Levant.
These are the streets laid down after the California Gold Rush of 1848-1855. Now lined by multi-million dollar homes, before the mid-1800s even downtown streets became so muddy that horses couldn’t be ridden from one end of the city to the other, much less up a hill. Often these hills were covered with the ramshackle homes of low-income workers. But after the particularly difficult winter of 1849-1850, a concerted effort began to grade streets and build planking, and many of the homes lining these narrow ribbons of asphalt were built in the 1890s.
Irish engineer Jasper O’Farrell was the stepfather of San Francisco’s street layout. He was given the task of implementing the grid designed by Swiss surveyor Jean-Jacques Vioget, who had proposed a simple north-south and east-west design. O’Farrell suggested terracing the hillside to allow for curved roads, but property owners demanded that existing property lines remain intact.
Some hills were so steep that building a road was unfeasible; hence stairways. It’s estimated that 300 stairways pepper the city, connecting streets and offering shortcuts. There are the better known stairways – the Filbert and Greenwich Street staircases leading to Coit Tower, the Lyon Street stairs stretching from Pacific Heights to the Palace of Fine Arts or the 16th Avenue Tiled Steps.
We were looking for Saturn Street Steps, a stairway normally used by locals and off the beaten track. Tucked next to a four-story hillside home is a small sign welcoming one to the stairway, with admonishments that decades before would have been common courtesy.
It was still chilly. Sunlight, only now beginning to seep through low-hanging clouds, filtered through tree branches and leaves. Dew coated the railings that separate the concrete stairways from lush plantings. The personality and preferences of the locals who maintain the green space become apparent upon closer inspection. Cacti are mixed among butterfly bushes. Redwoods shadow succulents. A petite multi-tier pagoda is hidden among palms.
The three flights of the Saturn Street Steps connect Saturn and Ord streets. A landing between each flight invites lingering. A dirt path offers an alternative path, leading to a rustic and uneven stairway constructed of four-by-fours. Trees, bushes, groundcover and flowers abound, some plants are so green it hurts the eyes. I’ve spent plenty of time in wild places but have never seen such a defiant explosion of plant life within an overwhelming urban setting.
I took to the stairs like a kid, pausing to wonder at plants I didn’t recognize. Karen was ahead of me, appeared to appreciate not only that we found this place but that it was more wonderful than imagined. A few locals passed by, one with a dog out for a walk. This was a regular jaunt for the dog; he stopped to lap up water from dog bowls placed just off the dirt path.
The Saturn Street Steps dumped us out on Ord Street, itself a short quarter mile road off the high end of Market Street. Gentrification has hit Ord Street. Scattered among Victorian homes built in the early 1900s are others that went up in the 1930s, showing an early art-deco influence. Many appear recently refreshed; we saw at least one that’s in the early stages of a total restoration, including excavation under the foundation for a garage. It’s a sleepy street, all the more quiet this early morning.
The Vulcan Steps are just half a block down Ord Street from the Saturn Street Stairs. While the openness of the Saturn Street Stairs offers a chance to meander and inspire lingering, the Vulcan Steps are bordered by an urban forest on one side, by bungalows and cottages with well-tended gardens and patios on the other. Flowers and leaves sparkled with droplets of recent rain. They fall when I brush against a plant.
Though not long, Vulcan Steps are secluded, secreted away from the usual neighborhood noise. The narrow stairs climb the steep hillside, squeezed between picket fences and mature trees before ending at Levant Street. Apparently nearly all of the homes here are accessible only by foot. The fact that all supplies must be carried in harken back to the pioneer spirit that built this city. The lushness of the plant life is surprising, trees, bushes, succulents and flowers sharing space, soil and sun. Resident caretakers have clearly been busy taming wild branches, tilling dirt.
We took our time climbing Vulcan Steps, then reversed course. I stopped to look, take photos, growing more aware of our surroundings with each close up.
I was more in the moment this day, maybe Karen was too. We both breathed in everything around us; the plants, the houses, the history. This awareness slowly spread, stretching to the city beyond and below Saturn Street Steps. That’s how we caught a glimpse of another set of stairs, just to the north.
What we had seen were the Corona Heights Park trails. It’s not much of a park and more of an ugly peak of dirt and rocks. We picked our way around puddles and up a hillside trail that wound the south side and ended up on the eastern slope. The recently washed air was clear. The eastern horizon, across the bay, was starkly outlined against wisps of clouds. Sutro Tower stood silently behind us. The Transamerica Pyramid rises out of downtown, only its shape distinct. It is now overshadowed by newer and taller high-rises.
But this is a park in the city. A hipster sits on a rock, the highest point, talking on his cell phone louder than necessary. Car noises fade in and out. But Corona Heights Park is about the nearly 360-degree view. It stretches from the Presido to the Marina District and Russian Hill, across downtown and Nob Hill, and south to the Mission and Noe Valley.
But I’m glad we’re here. Glad for the reminder that nature can be found everywhere, glad for this small piece of where we live.