About this time each year I make the 789-mile road trip to visit the folks and the brother and his family with anyone willing to spend what’s probably too much time with me. It’s a longish drive of about half a day plus two hours.
This year, while discussing this year’s plans with my sister, she was quick to chide me for not flying. She pointed out that flights to Seattle from San Francisco aren’t that expensive. I feebly argued that it cost less to drive, even if it meant a lot of time behind the wheel.
Now that there’s been time to think about it, I still favor driving to nearly any distant place.
It’s easy to fly these days; no more difficult than grabbing an Uber. Book a flight, arrive on time, wait in line, and a few hours later you’re where you want to be. There’s no adventure. At least not the kind of adventure I’d enjoy: delayed flights, crying babies and minuscule snacks. Admittedly, flying does minimize the “cost” of time, but packed into a big aluminum tube traveling at 575 mph, one becomes disassociated from the process of travel.
On the other hand, traveling on terra firma requires participation with the outside world*. The possibility of adventure is a constant companion: stopping to take in new snow on the hills at the California/Oregon border, comparing rest stop bathrooms, watching the sun rise over fields just south of Redding and set just north of Vancouver, Wash., all during the same day.
Sunrise somewhere along Hwy 5 in far Northern California.
It’s misadventures that create the strongest memories. Seventeen years ago, when it was just the boys and me, on the last day of school, we left in a worn out 1988 Honda Accord for Yosemite. The 12-year-old sedan squatted under the weight of camping supplies crammed into every available space. Of all the cars I’ve owned, it was my least favorite, a car purchases out of necessity with limited funds.
In retrospect, that day marked the beginning of one of the hottest summers that decade. The temperature had climbed to over 105 degrees by the time we passed through Manteca, in the center of the Central Valley. When Highway 120 hits Oakdale, the road begins a slow climb into the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Though not steep, during this climb the Accord lost power and the temperate gauge began its own ascent. There’s no clear recollection of how many times we pulled over to let the car cool down. Despite better judgement, we pushed on and enjoyed a fantastic week in Yosemite Valley. And the boys have always remembered this trip. We’d often drive the same route to the family cabin and Sean’s running joke would be to point out oak trees he remembered “watering.”
Travel by car isn’t the most convenient way to travel, and certainly has its limitations. Neither is it the fastest mode of conveyance. But it can be a good option for those interested in passing through, being part of, and experiencing the world.
* This is also a big plus of motorcycling, but that’s for another time.
South of Hot Creek as Hwy 395 skirts the eastern shore of Crowley Lake, the landscape shifts from the flat topography of the Long Valley Caldera to small hills dotted by decomposing granite boulders. This glacial till, an accumulation of unsorted glacial sediment, begins to dominate the scenery to the east. A few minutes later, a flat spot to the west marks Toms Place and shelter for the weekend, Tom’s Place Resort.
This is a place that sits apart from time. It must have been a sight welcomed by travelers when it was built in 1919. A small seven-room lodge, twelve cabins, and a requisite general store and café sit between the trees, rustic and worn, now blend into the surroundings. After many return visits, it’s home away from home.
Each of our two cabins will house six men of a certain age and prone to snoring. I arrive early to get my pick of a bed against an outside wall.
Fishmaster John – the organizer of this trip – is already there. Cabin 25 is open, guests in cabin 26 have yet to check out. I claim my bed, unload my gear. History hangs in the air and little has changed save for new vinyl flooring that replaced cabin’s old indoor/outdoor carpet. True to its rustic theme, the sagging subfloor was left in place and the new flooring follows its uneven contours. I sit down to lunch. John heads out to fish the Owens River.
I spend time listening to what I don’t hear. Though near to the highway, the periodic drone of a passing car quickly dissipates. Soon it’s overwhelmed by the whoosh of wind through tree boughs and the staccato songs of birds and insects. Theirs is the song of late summer, when direct sun can still be uncomfortably warm but the nights cool enough to make it clear fall is around the corner.
Early morning, looking upstream on Rock Creek.
Others of our group arrive over the next few hours. The first to arrive are Ron aka “Rags”, John K. (our wine steward), Richard, Dave, Gerry, Terry, and Wayne, accompanied by Mike, a veteran in the club’s Project Healing Waters Fly Fishing program. Kirby the Raffle Dude wanders in, Tenkara rod in hand. His long-time partners, Fred and Greg – the guests who had yet to check out –unlock cabin 26. It’s become a habit among those three to arrive a few days early, allowing time to fall into a well-established routine of eat-fish-nap-eat.
There’s supposed to be fifteen of us, eleven in the two cabins, two in the lodge, and one in another, smaller cabin. That’s when the unthinkable is mentioned. Where’s Brewmeister Ron? Concerned comments rise. He usually arrives during the early afternoon. Now it’s closer to evening than afternoon.
Ron and his home-brewed beer arrive well before dinner but long after pessimistic speculation that we might have to resort to mass-manufactured brews. The group complete, we settle into camping chairs to lie about the fish caught earlier in the day and our hopes for tomorrow. Gerry serves up two lasagnas, both of which disappear before pies and cheesecake materialize in their place.
It’s the little things –and folks who attend –that make this outing what it is. How a trip-long debate pitting the Davy Knot against the Clinch cumulates in a spontaneous experiment that involves Wayne tying both knots on a single strand of monofilament, then pulling both ends until one fails. (The Clinch Knot would fail about 90% of the time.) Or, the homemade food that tastes so much better with a side of the outdoors. The comradery that comes with a common interest and the fellowship found in failing to land that one trout that took too many casts to fool.
The Little Lakes Valley Trail after cresting the first rise. It continues into the far off mountains.
The long shadows of sunset merge to into the darkness of the night. When conversation wanes the quiet breath of nature can be heard around us. No one’s checking the clock, but almost in unison we begin to wrap up conversations and head to bed.
The morning is the same, in reverse. The first noise arises from a fumbling with an unfamiliar coffeemaker. It’s cold in the early sun. We’re wearing jackets that won’t be worn the rest of the day. Convenience rules the breakfast choices: mostly muffins and cereal. There’s envy rather than criticism of the two guys who choose cheesecake.
The only plan today is to fish. The night before Fishmaster John and I had discussed heading up to the Mosquito Flat Trailhead. He and I did the same the last time I was on this trip. The trailhead starts at 10,300 feet and goes up from there but we both appreciate stopping every once and a while as we make our way to Mack Lake. The lake is only about 200 feet higher but the trail, which parallels Rock Creek, climbs substantially higher before descending again. John veers off the trail to find the lake’s inlet, and I follow.
Small seasonal creeks still soak the ground that’d normally be dry this time of year. John heads for the inlet. I’m heading upstream.
It’s one of those bright days that can only be experienced at higher elevations. Made infinitely better by a lack of human influence. Little Lakes Valley rests between a range of peaks to the north and south. They’re still frosted with snow. High-Sierra granite dominates the landscape. Where it doesn’t, the land is green.
Looking down Rock Creek, toward the inlet to Mack Lake.
The creek here butts up against the bottom of the southern side of the valley. It’s almost impossible to pick one of the riffles, plunge pools, or tailouts that’ll christen my new Tenkara rod. (A Japanese fly rod, if you will, without a reel.) It takes some time to get accustomed to the casting. My left hand keeps reaching for the reel that’s not there. The fish are there. Fingerlings too small strike nearly every drift of my fly. I move upstream to a promising pocket and my educated guess is rewarded with a small but vibrant brook trout. This is a pattern repeated most of the morning as John and I leapfrog each other as we head upstream toward Marsh and Heart lakes.
As on most streams, creeks, or river, I find one stretch where I just know trout should be. Here it’s a long riffle that ends before a small plunge. The buffer, just in front of the rocks at the end of the run, is what catches my attention. I cast and drift the fly, starting near the bank in front of me and repeat, working towards the opposite bank.
Disappointment begins to eat at my confidence. Fly fishing isn’t for the pessimist. It requires work, even for the smallest of unseen fish. Knowledge is one thing but optimism drives us.
A prime example of a wild Rock Creek brook trout.
After too many casts and now almost inattentive, I make one more to a far seam. A splash at my fly and my optimism is replenished. It feels like a decent fish, perhaps a ten-plus inch brook trout. But hooking trout in moving water, even small streams, can be misleading. Without a reel, I have to step back, raise the rod high, then grab the line. In a creek well known for a vast population of brook trout, I’ve found Salmo trutta, a brown trout. It looks nicer than most of the brookies, which tend to always look hungry. This brown trout, in contrast, looks muscular and well fed.
It’s a nice stroll down hill when John and I leave. It’s late morning and the parking has filled to capacity as day hikers begin their ascent. We talk of exploring Deadman Creek east of the highway. The day before, I fished to the west of the highway, closer to its headwaters.
It’s the special regulations that piqued our interest in that section of Deadman Creek: limited take of two fish, each of which must be at least 18 inches in length, with gear restricted to artificial lures and flies with single, barbless hooks. Clearly there’d be no need for such regulations of big fish weren’t there.
We both made the short trip there and explored different sections. When I was able to squeeze through the brush lining the banks, I found a few small fish. It only dawned on me later that the special regulations were likely to protect spawning fish, since Deadman Creek is the main feeder stream of Upper Owens River, up which fish from Crowley Lake come to reproduce. It wasn’t time wasted; Forest Service roads look me along ridges separating sizable canyons, red, dry and dotted with pine trees and scrub. At the crest are views of the Long Valley Caldera.
The promise of cold beer and another good meal eventually calls all of us back to Toms Place. Appetites sharpened by a long day of hiking, fishing, and simply being outdoors, we dug into Wayne’s taco casserole, more pie and more cheesecake. Before, during, and after, the great knot debate rages on.
Tomorrow the fishing would on stillwater. Water that would be too still.
The Great Knot Debate. (Left to right: Fred, John K., Brewmeister Ron, Fishmaster John, and Ron R.)
Early morning, looking upstream on Rock Creek.
The Little Lakes Valley Trail after cresting the first rise. It continues into the far off mountains.
Fishmaster John ready to descend to the inlet to Mack Lake.
Looking down Rock Creek, toward the inlet to Mack Lake.
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.
I held it off as best I could, tried to put some of my favorite waters out of my mind. In the end it was hope, more than gasoline, that propelled me over Sonora Pass a couple of weeks ago.
Over the years I’ve spent many days walking the banks of babbling creeks in the Eastern Sierras. The first to give up wild trout – Molybdenite Creek and Little Walker River – top my list. This is where I landed by first sizable wild rainbow trout.
Moon Over the Little Walker River
I can’t think of these places and others like them without an intensifying need to return. These are familiar places become less so if not visited every year. Often it’s the memory that fades. Sometimes nature exerts its will on the landscape.
It was clear that this would be the first year in a while that runoff from more abundant – but still not plentiful – snowpack would make many rivers and streams unfishable. But a limited amount of vacation time, and hope, were enough of an excuse to make the trip.
Sonora Pass with more snow than last year. Still not enough.
I came in from the west across Sonora Pass, early enough that morning to be alone for the 20 miles between Kennedy Meadows and the Pickel Meadow Wildlife Area. It’s a serpentine road that demands attention, a ribbon of relatively new asphalt that twists and turns, rising through stands of pines to wind-scoured fields of granite before dropping into the starkness of the Eastern Sierra.
Six miles beyond the Sonora Pass summit but before my descent into Pickel Meadows, Hanging Valley Ridge comes into view. The morning sun is still low and the ridge still casts a shadow over much of the meadow. From my vista point, distance masked any audible anger, but the torrent of water working itself into a lather over Leavitt Falls offered a clue as to the difficulty to come.
The first glimpse of the West Walker River was both encouraging and discouraging. It was good to see high waters scouring the river bed and suggesting good summer fishing to come. It also hinted that there’d be little fishing and likely no catching in any of the Walker watershed’s moving waters.
See the path, right there?
This day there would be more hiking, exploring and simply being in the mountains. Contrary to the anger on display as water crashes against rocks, the sound is soothing. Delicate flowers sway in winds that predictably funnel through most mountain canyons.
It was a day without fishing, but not wasted.
Sonora Pass with more snow than last year. Still not enough.
Looking out to the West Walker River from the Leavitt Falls overlook.
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.
What would be the view from our room on the 18th floor of the Palomar.
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.
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.
The Blu Homes Factory
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.
The Blu Homes model home on Mare Island, quite nice.
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.
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.
It’s been raining here in California; something much appreciated after three years of so little. Watching the drops dance on our patio, admiring our revamped back yard, I know it’s not yet the habitat we’d like it to be but a huge improvement over water-thirsty lawns. About a year ago we decided to tear out our lawns, front and back, and being cheap decided to tackle the job ourselves.
Removing a lawn is one of those jobs for which the thinking about it is more intimidating than just jumping into the work. Jump in we did. Sprinkler heads were capped, a sod cutter rented to make quick work of cutting up the turf, which was then flipped, eventually turning the grass into compost. The bare dirt was shaped and graded with a shovel and rake and a lot of pondering during the process. Hummocks were formed and drip irrigation installed. With only an image of a favorite stream in my head, a faux creek bed was dug and rocks, stones and pebbles placed appropriately.
Although I find it a bit distressing to remove one living plant in favor of another, the over-arching motivation was curbing water used for landscaping. Any new plants, trees or bushes would have to be California drought-tolerant natives. Research led us to the Bay Native Nursery; where a bounty of native plants is inauspiciously tucked between a mix of industrial buildings, open space and recreational shoreline in San Francisco’s India Basin.
Faux creek bed and faux fish.
We spent more money than planned but headed home with a few varieties of salvia, a single California currant bush, a low-growing coyote brush, Ceanothus thyrsiflorus (aka white-flowered mountain lilac), soap grass, manzanita (shrub and groundcover), yarrow, checkerbloom and blue-eyed grass. The good part of a day was spent planning and planting. Another few days to spread bark. Neither yard looked like much then. (A big upside: We made money doing it ourselves since both the county and city offered turf removal rebates.)
During the first six months the currant grew from about a foot high to over five feet tall with a diameter nearly the same dimension. The salvias and blue-eyed grass blossomed. Since they were newly planted and the winter of 2015 was dry, the drip irrigation system was put to use, but only sparingly.
Like it does for many California natives, the heat of late summer left the blooms withered and leaves brown. Except the currant; that plant is a juggernaut. Much of the plants’ growth came to a standstill from October through February and a stillness settled on the yard.
Almost a year later, with enough rain to thoroughly soak the soil, the back yard is showing potential of becoming a habitat. The runners sent out by the salvias have emerged with stacks of gray-green leaves. Blue-eyed grass is blooming. Seedlings descended from the few poppies planted last spring have appeared. Their parents are forming flowers.
It’ll be some time before our all-California native drought-resistant landscaping is finished but, for now, they blossom with hope.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 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 pick up some lingerie.