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.
Blooms on Arctostaphylos densiflora (‘Howard McMinn’ Manzanita).
Lamiaceae Salvia leucophylla (San Luis Sage)
Sisyrinchium bellum (blue eyed grass)
Heuchera (‘Fireworks’ Coral Bells)
And now that the windows are open at night, spring is real and summer looming fast.
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.
A Multiplane Camera, which simultaneously shoots several levels of cells and backgrounds to give depth to Disney films.
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.
Looking down on the Saturn Street Steps.
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.
The view from Corona Heights Park.
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.
At the start of the New Year, we resurrected plans to act like tourists when we could in any place that wasn’t more than about an hour’s drive away. With long-accumulated lists of points of interest and plenty of restaurants bookmarked in Yelp, it would be easy to head out with only a moment’s notice. From our home, depending on the direction, a one-hour drive can put us in San Francisco, Sacramento, the Sacramento River Delta, the wine country of Napa and Sonoma counties, stands of redwoods or on miles of coastline. This day, Karen and I found ourselves high over the city by the bay soaking in a 215-degree view stretching from the Presido to Diamond Heights.
Cooler weather is a certainty on any January Saturday in San Francisco, a reminder of the bay’s power over local weather. But winters in Northern California offer many sunny days in between storms, enough to remind one that spring and summer will return. Winter daytime highs can be in the 50-65°F range. Lower temperatures are relatively rare. The weather this winter was supposed to be impacted by the climate phenomena known as El Niño. While this implies that California will receive more rainfall, it’s generally not until February or March that we see big storms. That’s why, in January, a forecast of proper sunshine prompted a day trip to visit two of the “hidden” stairways in San Francisco.
Making the most of any trip, whether long or short, always revolves around food we can’t get near home. This means no chain restaurants and usually an establishment that’s unique or notable. This morning it meant following cops to doughnuts. Literally.
As the biggest fan of bacon I know, Karen was keen on visiting Dynamo Donut+Coffee to sample the Maple Glazed Bacon Apple doughnut. Hearing that lines form early, we arrived before sunup. In the Mission District along the 2700 block of 24th Street, Dynamo Donut+Coffee sits in an urban canyon of buildings. Sunlight’s different here, and dawn is slow in coming.
Arriving in relative darkness and in need of cash, we missed the Dynamo sign, for obvious reasons explained below. We pulled into the first parking spot that appeared, a rarity in any city and more so in San Francisco. (Only downtown San Mateo seems to be more lacking in on-street parking.) We parked, made a quick run to an ATM and walked in what we thought was the right direction. I joked that we should follow the SFPD Ford Explorer driving parallel to us. Then we saw it.
Apparently, we’d arrived too early. The Dynamo Donut staff was only starting to open up for business when we walked up. Opening for business means pushing open a panel of wood that closes off a small coffee counter facing the sidwalk. We didn’t see the shop because, when closed, there’s nothing to see. Only on the awning are the words “Dynamo Donut + Coffee” in a stylized font too small and too difficult to read when driving by in the dark. The lack of a neon sign is strong evidence that this is a neighborhood joint – the kind of place we like.
Calling the Dynamo shop “minimalist” would be misuse of the word. The store is a simple affair, dominated by a midcentury color scheme of green and yellow, with exposed woods and small tables. There’s a hipster vibe just under the surface and an open kitchen on display. When first approached, it appears to be only a take-out counter stuck in a random wall. Dynamo is not selling atmosphere. It does, however, offer an edible adventure that starts with an unassuming doughnut that is flavored, dipped and coated with sweet or savory ingredients and sometimes both.
The Doughnut of Her Dreams
A conversation with the young guy at the counter reveals that we’ve arrived well before the line forms and that there is seating inside behind unassuming canvas drapes. With excuses – didn’t know if we’d be back, we’d be climbing multiple stairways that day – we ordered four doughnuts: Chocolate Rose, I’m Not a Gluten Chocolate with Raspberry Black Pepper Glaze, Maple Glazed Bacon Apple and Spiced Chocolate. Drinks were fresh-squeezed orange juice for me and jasmine tea for Karen.
The choice of the Chocolate Rose doughnut was in the spirit of adventure; the Spiced Chocolate doughnut just because. Both were good, but we agreed that if we returned to Dynamo, we wouldn’t order them again.
The “I’m Not a Gluten Chocolate with Raspberry Black Pepper Glaze” is a shining example of deftly balancing incongruity. By now we’ve all become blasé about chocolate and chili, so chocolate and pepper isn’t too much of a stretch. Throw in raspberry and wheat-free dough and it becomes interesting. Amazing isn’t too strong a word for this torus of gooey goodness.
We try to eat better nowadays but without outright deprivation. Yes, food is fuel most of the time. But now and then food is part of the experience, the adventure and the reason. Savoring every bite, tranquility overruns my mind as a wave of intense flavors pushes away distractions and muffles noises. There’s nothing but the sweet and the savory, my wife’s voice and the soft comfort of a day without deadlines.
Days like this are too few; when awareness of the now is stark and bright. A promising beginning to a splendid day.
Soon read about the real walking (winter walkabout, part two – finding secret places); coming April 4th.
It was a dark and stormy night…more accurately, a morning.
Remember a few weeks ago when California was drier than a cork leg? That ain’t so true anymore, though The Drought is not over by a long stretch.
My drive to work at 0545 yesterday was dark and slow, musically accompanied by pounding rain. Traffic moved at about 40 mph in a 65 mph stretch of highway. Lakes and ponds formed where none had existed for 10 or more years. Later, flooding closed my route home by early afternoon. Flooding also removed the option of a more northerly alternate route.
Arizmendi Bakery’s fruitcake, called the drunk uncle of fruitcakes. (Definitely made with a bounty of brandy.)
I instead decided to play chauffeur for the afternoon, heading to San Francisco to pick up Karen and meet our son. It took a bit longer than expected as half the signalized intersections along my route were dark, a result of storm-induced flooding. An underground PG&E substation at Post and Stockton streets exploded that morning as a result. Union Square and surrounding neighborhoods were without power well into the evening. Those dark signalized intersections offered abundant evidence that too many of today’s drivers don’t know how to react to a flashing red signal or in-operational traffic signals.
We snacked leisurely, watching waves of rain wash the streets. We also found the Christmas fruitcake I was looking for, then dropped the son at his place and picked up some casual carpoolers. These people had been waiting in the dark, in pouring rain, for 50 minutes. We picked ’em up thinking that it would make for a more rapid trip home in the HOV lane. Based on the lack of traffic — some folks had left work early and others didn’t go to work at all — it was unnecessary. Call it a mitzvah
This morning wasn’t bad except that Hwy 37 WB was closed and the detour through Novato added 20 minutes to my commute. The rain has let up so far today, but we clearly got enough rain to soak the ground and the temporary lakes and ponds are only slowly disappearing.
Through all this, my attention is on the weather radar, hoping to see snow accumulating in the Sierra Nevadas. It’s said we need at least five more storms of this magnitude to remove the specter of another drought year.
Though it’s a remote possibility that the proposal by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Tim Draper to divide California into six states would make it over the many required hurdles — from gathering signatures of 807,615 registered voters to put the measure on the ballot to final congressional approval — it presents a conundrum for a native Californian.
This is a big state, one of diversity. Every once and a while that diversity bubbles to the surface; one example is the Jefferson state movement that is revisited every decade or so. Boards of supervisors in Modoc and Siskiyou counties, which are near the Oregon border, approved measures in support of the Jefferson state declaration. Tehama County, one county south of Modoc and Siskiyou, has placed a similar measure on the ballot.
California is one of the few places where five major climate types can be in close proximity. From my home, it’s a four-hour drive to the high Sierras, the Humboldt redwoods or the southern coastline. The same goes with fishing: steelhead to the north, Striped bass to the east, trout to the northeast and southeast, saltwater fish to the west.
Setting aside all the pros and cons about and difficulties of creating smaller California state, it raises the possibility, just to fish for trout in place I enjoy, that I’d have to buy three separate licenses. Saltwater fishing could require a fourth. This may be an accepted part of living in smaller states, but not something I look forward to.
One upside might be the possibility that the proposed state I would live in, “North California,” could regain its water rights. I’m sure we’d set a fair price for all that water needed down south.
I do enjoy living in California. I love our many outdoor options. I live in a suburb of the Bay Area, in a balance of choice and means. But I have a love/hate relationship with our “big city,” San Francisco.
San Francisco was the seventh most visited city in the United States last year, for good reason — cool summers of fog-kissed sunshine, a history that lives on through landmarks such Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz Island, Coit Tower and Fisherman’s Wharf. Lending to its picturesque quality are steep rolling hills patrolled by cable cars and dotted by a mix of architecture styles such as Italianate, Mission, Queen Anne, Stick/Eastlake, Craftsman, Art Deco and Streamline Moderne. Parks are sprinkled about, including the Conservatory of Flowers, Japanese Tea Garden and the San Francisco Botanical Garden. Culture abounds with art museums and performing arts. The sciences are represented at the California Academy of Sciences, the Morrison Planetarium and Steinhart Aquarium.
Wandering through neighborhoods like North Beach, Chinatown, Telegraph Hill and SoMa on a sunny day rank among some of my favorite experiences in The City. Christmas can be made more special with a visit to Union Square and a walk by Macy’s holiday windows displaying SPCA cats and dogs looking for forever homes. Personally, I enjoy carspotting and rarely is there not a sighting of a Ferrari or Tesla or the occasional Aston Martin, Bentley, Rolls Royce or Pagini. (BMWs, Audis, Mercedes-Benzes and Porsches are too commonplace.)
San Francisco is also most densely inhabited large city in our state and the second-most densely populated major city in the United States; second only to New York City. High-rise office buildings blot out the sky and create dark canyons that can be 10 degrees cooler. Our visit last weekend was marked by warmish temperatures, which likely gave rise to the rather pungent odors one might expect during a rainless winter.
Some people wanted champagne and caviar when they should have had beer and hot dogs. – Dwight D. Eisenhower
But we will travel for food, which lured us once again across the Bay. Intellectually, I understand the need for and benefits of mass transit; but deep inside I harbor an irrational fear of missing a scheduled stop. (Yes, I know there will be another bus or train, but that means giving up control of my schedule.) However, I’ve become accustomed to the hour-long ferry ride and have recently adopted the mantra “walking is good.”
Walk we did. To get where we were going, we’d skirt the Tenderloin just above SoMa. The situational awareness I’ve been working on, unfortunately, meant I wouldn’t miss that guy relieving himself in the gutter on Turk Street. More than once we walked through a repellent cloud of “skunk” originating from green stuff, not the black and white animal.
In truth, it was more akin to hiking for food and beer, and lunch at Show Dogs Fine Sausages was the reward on the first leg. House-made hot dogs, sausages and condiments, and beer on tap. What’s not to love? And love it we did. Maximizing our opportunity to taste Show Dogs’ offerings, we split a House Maple Pork sausage and Fried Chicken Sandwich, a pint of 21st Amendment’s seasonal Fireside Chat — a nice, rich and semi-dark English-style ale tweaked with spices — and a side of fries. The maple pork sausage was an experience I’d gladly repeat, even without the sprinkling of bacon. The proportion of maple to pork was perfect. Think of that time at breakfast when your sausage rolled into a bit of syrup. The twist for me was the deliciousness of the fried chicken sandwich, it was outstanding. Sure, it’s fried, but the house-made lemon cayenne aioli, coleslaw, pickled ginger and well-matched bun make it something quite special. The fries weren’t as special, but were perked up by the house-made habanero ketchup.
We’d walk another mile or so to pick up something Karen had ordered, then it’d be another mile to Cellarmaker Brewing Co.’s taproom. But it was one o’clock, and the taproom wouldn’t open until two. So, without thinking, began to head to the Ferry Building.
A few blocks later Karen thought to check the ferry schedule. The next ferry wouldn’t leave until 3:45 p.m. Apparently, God wants us to have beer. And Cellarmaker delivered.
Cellarmaker is small, with a ten-barrel brewery and a twelve-tap tasting room inside a former garage in SoMa. It opened last October with four beers and has since expanded it lineup with a rotation of beers. We settled into the cozy taproom and upon learning that some taps were dry, ordered up five ounces of each available beer. It was nice to see that each glass was pre-wetted with chilled water before filling (I expect that it was distilled water).
We ended up with glasses of Coquette, Simcoe Galaxy IPA, Jagged Little Pale Ale, Coffee and Cigarettes and Kelly’s Blackout Stout. All were good enough to order again, but I fell in love with piney goodness of the Simcoe Galaxy. It reminded me of Skagway Brewing’s Spruce Tip Blonde, which is brewed with spruce tips. The Simcoe Galaxy is not, but the herbal, piney and almost earthy fragrance (of the Simcoe hops?) comes forward and lingers. This is an aroma-heavy beer with a light hazy yellow color and a surprising lightness. Karen was fonder of the easy-drinking Jagged Little Pale Ale, a clean almost-IPA. Coffee and Cigarettes stood out for its aggressive aroma of espresso and burnt malt backed up by a lingering smokiness.
I’m a fan of saisons/farmhouse ales, but Cellarmakers Saison Francisco wouldn’t be released for another week; however the Coquette, a grisette, was a good stand-in. This is in the style of a working-class beer: a light, slightly tart, low alcohol wheat saison about as pale as it comes. Envision sitting down and enjoy a pint after mowing that one-acre lawn on a hot summer day.
We ended up walking just over six miles this day. Nothing like enjoying good food and all that beer without gaining too much weight.