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 Her mother was a stewardess back when that job title wasn’t outdated, but the knowledge she imparted still applies today.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.
Not that long ago, at the counter of a local drugstore, I caught myself reminiscing about the candy of my past. Specifically Bottle Caps. But not today’s version.
Those Bottle Caps found at the five and dime of my childhood were bigger. Back then they came in a flat package, neatly lined up, each one closely resembling a bottle cap and duplicating soda flavors: root beer, cola, cherry, grape and orange. It may be a faulty memory or wishful thinking, but I seem to recall another flavor akin to Dr. Pepper.
While Bottle Caps stick out in my mind as a favorite candy, their taste evokes memories not just of the candy itself but also of adventure. According to biological anthropologist John S. Allen, the author of The Omnivorous Mind, food is a powerful trigger of memories. That explains why many of the collective memories of my immediate and extended family revolve around food. Our family travels on its stomach, with a standing joke that one uncle journeys from restaurant to restaurant on vacation.
Perhaps my Bottle Caps experience isn’t that unusual. It’s not the candy itself that provokes strong feelings of nostalgia, it’s the associated adventures it signifies.
Once in a while, my brother, sister and I were allowed to ride our bikes the six-tenths of a mile to that five and dime. (Some quick but unverifiable research shows it may have been Les and Don’s Market, near the corner of W. Leslie Drive and N. San Marino Ave., but I don’t recall it being a big store. Perhaps my focus on candy led to tunnel vision.)
This was a time without cell phones, when we’d carry a dime for a pay phone. Not that it was expected that we’d have to use it, and I don’t think we ever did.
It was the greatest experience—our first taste of freedom…with candy. Crossing each driveway, each cross street required a new level of responsibility and awareness. We were now accountable for our own safety. We left the familiarity of our neighborhood behind to more intimately explore bordering lands. In our minds, those six-tenths of a mile could have been one hundred miles.
However, Bottle Caps candy was redesigned in 2009. Each piece became smaller. The underside was flattened, diminishing its approximation of a real bottle cap. There’s a rumor that Bottle Caps stacked in paper tube packages are the original size and shape, but I have yet to confirm this.
I went on to have other adventures, but the emotions and wonderment originally associated with Bottle Caps also no longer exist in their original form.
There are no instructions for life. It progresses into a series of memories. It’s those that you choose to carry and those you leave behind that form your expectations of adventures to come.
This isn’t a lamentation. Just ask my wife; a kid-like wonderment still exists within my soul. But those embers of wonder need to be stoked.
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.
You fail only if you stop writing.
— Ray Bradbury
…and I have failed now for almost a month.
This stuff just doesn’t write itself.
There’s also the small matter of math. My figuring says every week there’s less than 50 hours not dedicated to sleeping, work, commuting, eating, shopping, housekeeping, etc. A new project, a good thing (more on that later), will further diminish time available for personal projects.
Hopefully this will wind up what was started with the last post. After that, maybe a new schedule or new focus to get this blog thing back on track and minimize lapses of radio silence.
I’ve never lost sight of the truth that this is more of a diary or personal history than anything else, and I appreciate those who have stuck around or dropped in once and a while.
Now, where was I?…
It was a longish drive from mid California to the wet-side of Washington but not exhausting as predicted, thankfully so. Being one with an internal alarm clock that doesn’t easily reset, I was up before the sun. Which really isn’t too hard when there’s a nearly 10° or so northerly difference between the latitude of your origin and destination.
Not one to sit, or lay, too still for too long once awake, I was soon unloading the son’s stuff and playing Jenga with boxes, furniture pieces and miscellaneous asymmetrical items. With help from the wife and son, soon enough we had a relatively compact pile in a corner of the garage.
The agenda for the day meant a circuitous route to drop off the rental vehicle (which made the wife sad) at the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and abandon the son in Bellevue with a friend with whom he’d stay for a temporary but indeterminate period of time. Being a Sunday, traffic wasn’t bad.
This was a trip without a real itinerary, but we did have goals. So that afternoon we met the brother, his wife and the two nephews for lunch, followed by a long visit at his house. My wife will tell you that such visits are marked by silliness. The nephews are at that age. My brother and I never outgrew it.
It was a good time, with casual, wandering conversation, unconstrained by a specific time. Until dad called, asking if we’d be home for dinner. Guess some things never change.
With the exception of earning a salary, the wife and I have probably benefited more from the son’s job than he has. His employee discount has allowed us to spend a few nights in the type of boutique hotels we’d usually deem a bit out of our price range. We spent some of Monday out and about, but the night at the Alexis Hotel in downtown Seattle.
Pleasantly, we were upgraded to a suite; a suite nearly the size of our house. It was a bit extravagant–we were only planning to sleep there–but still amazing.
Without much of a plan and needing dinner, we started walking up 1st Street, winding our way toward Pike Place. It didn’t dawn on me for a while, but there’s an almost indiscernible difference between Seattle and San Francisco on a Monday evening. There were very few people on the streets that evening. In a later discussion it was decided that San Francisco is more of a year-round tourist destination; Seattle not so much.
After enjoying the manager’s wine hour, we hit the streets in search of food. A number of restaurants were closed, and perhaps we weren’t that hungry, but it was difficult to find an eatery that we found appealing. Our search took us all the way past Pike Place Market, by Gum Wall (more of Gum Alley), through Post Alley, and about three miles later, my wife grabbed my arm and told me where we were going to eat: Kastoori Grill.
Karen’s become a good sport at more adventurous eating, and Kastoori Grill is a good example. Kastoori Grill is in an unassuming space and easy to miss, or dismiss. The dated décor belied the attention to the food and service that night. Though we don’t always stick to the plan, this evening we planned to split a plate and ordered the aloo chaat appetizer (because fried mashed potatoes), the lamb biryani entrée, and, of course, naan. It’s hard to judge a cuisine which one hasn’t sampled in the country of origin but judging by my taste buds, it was all good. The aloo chaat was good but I liked its garbanzo bean “salsa” topping best. The lamb in the biryani was tender and the least lamby tasting lamb I’ve ever eaten. More than satiated, we walked out satisfied. We slept well that night.
As we ended the night before, so began the next day at Biscuit Bitch. She really isn’t tough, and the guys and gals who work there were welcoming and quick to offer advice to new patrons. It was already decided we’d split the Easy Bitch (biscuits and sausage gravy with two eggs over-easy topped with crumbled bacon). Wanting to better judge the biscuit itself, I also ordered a biscuit with blackberry jam. It was almost too much goodness. Almost. The Easy Bitch was rich and the fresh-cooked crumbled bacon pushed it over the top. The separate, butter-slathered biscuit revealed the namesake product’s flakiness. This is the kind of place that’s quickly labeled “cute,” with a slightly hippy vibe and limited seating requiring a willingness to cozy up with a stranger.
The morning was interrupted by a few phone calls and debate over how to best deal with the son’s need to retrieve items left only 20 miles away, but without a car and in a rural area, a lifetime away by public transit. Resolved, our morning was freed up for wandering through Pike Place Market and more than a few blocks up to the Starbucks Reserve Roastery & Tasting Room.
A more descriptive term for Starbucks’ first Reserve Roastery might be Willy Starbucks’ Coffee Factory. A lot of gleaming copper and stainless steel are contrasted with warm wood surfaces. Not a coffee drinker, it was something to see but much of the experience was probably lost on me.
Later we’d end up finding one of my beverages of choice, on a winding trip back to the bro in Monroe.
If you think you missed that New Year’s post in which I promise to start afresh — writing more, fishing more and worrying less — don’t bother looking for it because you won’t find it. Any intent to write was muddled by events that ensured there was no distinct end to last year or clear beginning of this year.
Our trip to Washington State wasn’t technically last minute but certainly hasty. A son accepted a position in Seattle and the cheapest option was to rent a second vehicle and haul him and all his worldly possessions up Hwy 5 in a single day. My parents graciously offered a bit of storage space in their garage. Plans were set in motion.
The day before our departure we expected to drop by the boy’s place and load up. His things would be packed, we were told. They were not. It took more than a few hours and 14,000 steps, according to my pedometer, to pack things in our two vehicles. It was a good thing we had upgraded to a rental vehicle one size larger.
Believing that I’m immune to the march of time, I still cling to the idea that the 800-mile drive from home to Seattle’s Eastside could be accomplished in a single day. All it takes a reliable vehicle, about 14 hours and a co-driver willing to quickly empty the bladder. My brother and I did just that some 20 years ago.
We were out the door that first Saturday of the new year as hoped, at 5 a.m. The three of us would rotate between the two vehicles, with more stops at Starbucks than gas stations. (I can’t help but think part of Starbucks’ marketing strategy is to offer clean bathrooms that lure travelers, who buy beverages, requiring a stop at the next Starbucks, where the cycle is repeated.)
An experienced traveler knows that the most boring sections of Hwy 5 are from Vacaville to Redding (California), Roseburg to Portland (Oregon), and Castle Rock nearly to Seattle (Washington). Traveling through at least one of those stretches during the dark early morning hours helps, and we didn’t see the sun rise until well past the puddle that is Shasta Lake. The miles droned by but, surprising, we all seemed none worse for the wear when we pulled into Eugene, with a longer-than-expected detour to Papa’s Soul Food Kitchen & BBQ.
As I have noted before, we will drive for food, and when travelling we will make time for food. (Rarely is a conversation among our family members not peppered with food references.) This is a place Karen and I had seen on Diners, Drive-In and Dives and thought to give it a try. We were met there before the 2:00 p.m. opening time by Karen’s friend Michelle and her husband Nik, who made the trip from Portland to join us.
I loved the Louisiana vibe of the place and friendliness of the staff. The food was good, but not worth-a-return great. The hushpuppies were the highlight. The red beans and rice were close to what I recall being served in the French Quarter. The brisket was tender, with a nice smoke ring, but relied on a sauce I found too sweet for flavor. The fried chicken was crispy but lacked zing. We lingered a bit longer than expected amid enjoyable conversation. Maybe it was the pint of Oakshire Brewing’s Original Amber Ale or simply not being on the road. Refreshed, we zipped through Portland with an unusual lack of traffic, even though it was midafternoon.
With the increasing latitude north, darkness came earlier, conflicting with our internal clocks. I’m not certain, but it seems that every trip north I end up stopping, in darkness, at the Toutle River Safety Rest Area 5 miles north of Castle Rock. As rest stops go, I think it’s one of the best and my earliest memory is from 1985. Dad and I were moving to Issaquah in the hope of finding jobs and stopped there, pleasantly surprised to find hot coffee and cocoa thanks to WSDOT’s Free Coffee Program.
Quickly calculating that we could skip the last planned stop for gas, I was soon in the familiar territory of Bellevue and Redmond, followed by the dark rural road that would take us across the Snoqualmie River and into Duvall. The short two-lane segment of N.E. Novelty Hill Road that descends toward the Snoqualmie River floodplain is slow. It twists almost back underneath itself along a steep grade, with no street lights. N.E. 124 Street crosses the river and in my mind Novelty Bridge marks the beginning of something a bit more wild. Perhaps it’s the wide expanses of undisturbed land. Or the seemingly uncontrollable volume of water flowing in nearby rivers. Or the smallness of Duvall’s downtown. It’s been a fleeting but persistent feeling during every visit.
But downtown Duvall was welcoming, with Christmas lights adorning street lamps and brightening our way. We pulled into the parents’ driveway a bit later than planned but not tired enough that we didn’t stay up and visit with Mom and Dad and my brother for at least an hour.
The next day we’d face the reality of
being strangers in strange land unpacking the son’s stuff and dropping off the rental vehicle, and then, finally, take time to relax. We’d also learn that flooding is apparently no way to measure the water-wealth of a state.
As if it hasn’t been a figuratively dry trout season for me, a long trip last weekend over three passes, along rivers and over two reservoirs showed that things are literally drying up…
This was my last and only second trip to the Sierras during the general trout season. It was happenstance that kept me off the water and only sheer determination — and a desperate desire for a break from every-day life — that crammed a 400-plus mile drive and not enough fishing into a single day.
Firsthand reports dashed any hope of great fishing. Small streams were trickles, meaning wild fish were off limits. State-stocked waters that normally received a few buckets of fish before the end of the season didn’t.
Optimism being the most overused tool in a fly fisherman’s arsenal, I still hit the road over Sonora Pass before sunup. If there were few fish to be had, at least a sunrise at 9,000 feet doesn’t disappoint. This late in the year, a sunrise seems to last longer.
There was unexpected company on the West Walker River, a couple planning to soak bait. They went their way, I went mine. I’d have pocket water all to myself, whitefish on the mind, and the sound of reveille arising (a bit too late in the morning this time?) from the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center.
Just like that “confidence fly” most fly fishermen keep tucked away, there are pieces of water one comes to expect to hold fish. My expectation held true this morning. It didn’t take long before a fish was fooled with my favorite red-butt zebra midge pattern. While not large, white tips on smooth fins suggested it was a more educated trout. Even if was a hatchery fish, it had spent enough time in the wild to learn a few things while it’s pectoral and caudal fins healed. There would be no whitefish this year and nothing big, but all of the trout I found were feisty.
This isn’t the time of year that these trout rise to dry flies, but the water level requires stealth, a dry-dropper setup, light casts to small seams and short drifts. It’s hard to disagree that this type of rig might be a reflection of my middle-of-the-road nature, mixing the oft-look’d-down-upon tactic of nymphing with the loftier technique of dry fly fishing. Deep down I hoped for a rise to the dry fly, but ice crunching underfoot suggested it was not to be.
My plans called for crossing Monitor Pass on the way to the East Carson River, then over Ebbetts Pass, and finally completing a twisting and oblong course over the man-made New Melones Lake. Unfamiliar with the route and wary of unpredictable delays, I was on the road again before noon.
Many times I’ve enjoyed driving — whether a car or motorcycle — over Tioga and Sonora passes many times, during the spring, summer and fall. Any threat of snow brings about closures, but during this trip Tioga and Sonora pass, as well as Ebbetts and Monitor pass had reopened after brief snow closures earlier in the week.
The landscape and vegetation of each pass is unique, with stark changes as one gains elevation. Over Monitor Pass, Highway 89 twists between and over numerous peaks, alternating between barren high desert to east and the fir and pine forests on the western slopes. Once over the summit, the road quickly descends to meet Highway 4, then crosses the East Carson River.
This was first visit to the East Carson River. The wild trout section was low and slow, and out of the shadows of the high canyon walls. Sunlight reflected off nearly every eddy, riffle and pool, and, as might be expected, the fishing was great but the catching not. It was suggested after the fact that I should have fished upstream, where a summer of stocking might mean a few
stupid willing fish would remain. I chalked this visit up to exploration. Since it wasn’t too far away, I drove to Markleeville. I had to drive through town a second time; I blinked and missed it the first time through.
The route over Ebbetts Pass is more adventurous than the comparatively high-speed Highway 108 over Sonora Pass and Highway 120, which winds through Yosemite and over Tioga Pass.
Driving over Ebbetts Pass is not for the faint of heart. Sandwiched between a full-width, two-lane state highway is a section reminiscent of the descriptions our parents and grandparents might offer of roads built only wide enough that two Model Ts could squeeze by each other. This middle section, from Lake Alpine to Silver Creek, is a barely two-lane road. There is no center line or fog lines. Shoulders are a rarity. Steep curvy portions, precipitous drop-offs and vistas of pristine landscapes are plentiful. If the narrowness of this road isn’t enough to reduce one’s speed, the beauty was. Lack of planning meant I couldn’t linger. Plans are already afoot to return with a greater abundance of time.
The rest of my drive was in relatively civilized areas. I’d pick up apple cider outside of Arnold, then wine and special spices in Murphys. I crossed New Melones Lake, which looked more a river at flood stage (it was formed by the damming of the Stanislaus River). Back in Twain Harte early, I cleaned up and planned to attend to a few items on the to-do list, figuring I’d walk to the local Ace store for a halogen bulb and any other necessary item. During the walk I began an exploration of a different variety. More on that next time my fingers are willing to dance on the keyboard…
All of the photos, and some more: