Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Family Fun

Some households are about food (ours). Some households are about work (no longer ours, for this year). Some households are about fun. And fun, especially kid fun, perfectly describes my brother’s place. Okay, work too. They work. And food. They have food, too. And Chair Monsters.

It’s been a while since Diane and I had the good fortune to visit Phil and Family – Liz, Owen, and Carolyn. But it was worth the wait. No sooner did we pull up when Phil, from his office, called home to tell Liz of a much-awaited and anticipated promotion. First came the whoops! from Liz. Then the hugs. And the rest.

A bit of background. Phil is a research scientist with the USGS at Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Forest. The promotion ups his professional ante, vaulting him into the top research slot up at Redwoods National Forest in Arcata, CA (also the stomping ground of Bigfoot!). It’s tantamount to landing a tenured professorship at a marquee university. (Phil: if I got the details wrong, please make the appropriate corrections in the comments of this post. All citations in ABA style, please.) This career path was his “Plan A” since he began grad school, so basically he’s an overnight success after fifteen years of hard work. We’re all very proud.

And we’re all very happy. Phil, Liz (herself a successful scientist, writer, local activist, and full-time mommy); and Owen, 5 (Bionacles and Scobby Doo); and Carolyn, 22 months (princess shoes and monster trucks), Diane (groovy road tripper) and I (humble narrator) basically goofed through a long Easter weekend at kid-speed. It was more than fun: wake-up time, coffee-time, play time, lunch time, movie time, cocktail time, dinner time, dance time, story time, and bed time. Plus the other usuals:

Hunting for Easter treasure;

Working on the bus;

And dancing at a riverside party.

We also painted a wall and installed a bathroom cabinet, sink, and plumbing. So that was fun, too. We didn’t take any pictures. But trust us, we did a beautiful job.

The four days went all too quickly. Phil and Liz have to prepare to sell their house, find a new one in Arcata, and attend to a million other details. And we have a long and winding road ahead of us. With any luck we’ll see them again at the end of our trip sometime this fall.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Black Birds

Ancient Egyptian lore has it that when a black-winged bird soars across the Nile at sunrise and returns at sunset with a snake in its talons, then the harvest will both be blessed as Osiris rising and as bountiful as Isis in all of her fertile ripeness. Or at least this is what I remember from the replica burial chamber installation at the Rosicrucian Egyptian Museum in San Jose, CA. Or maybe that was from inscriptions on the mummy sarcophagi. Or maybe I am just misreading the runes on the fiberglass replica of the Rosetta Stone.

Or maybe I’m confusing the info in the museum with our stop in Pinnacles National Monument (since this is California, you’re allowed to say it with a Mexican accent -- “Peanucles”). A singularly beautiful park and one of the few places in the world where the California Condor is released into the wild.

Or maybe I’m getting the details mixed up at the Egyptian museum with those of the Mission San Juan Bautista – a Spanish mission founded in 1799, and site location for the dramatic climax of Hitchcock’s classic Vertigo. I don’t know. All of these details are making me dizzy.

But I do know this. At Mission San Juan Bautista we sort of stepped back in time long enough to marvel at the daily toils and ingenuity of our predecessors. We also liked the modern day antiques stores in the town itself, which were (probably) once cowboy saloons and bawdy houses.

And I do know that at Peanucles we saw a lot of big black birds. And we’re pretty sure some were condors. Then again it had been a long day and we are by no means experts in the field of bird watching. We congratulated ourselves nonetheless on seeing some condors (though, if you saw a bird through a pair of binoculars, have you really seen it?), then headed south through the flower-carpeted hills of cow country and made the haul across the Central Valley to Three Rivers, CA, gateway to Sequoia National Park and the homestead of my brother Phil and his family.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

“May I help you out with some herb?”

The scraggly dude squatted down beside us, his eyes big and blue and trustworthy. He patiently adjusted his Raider’s cap against the bright, warm sunlight as we thought about it.

“No thanks.” We replied with a friendly wave. “We’re good.”

With an amiable shrug, he wandered back to blanket to and played with his pitbull and continued a conversation with his beer-drinking friend. From atop our little hill in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Diane and I and our helpful neighbor surveyed the scene around and below us.

In the distance, interlocked tantric lovers practiced their art, a self-made island of many pleasures on a vast emerald sea. Closer, a large circle of friends, old and new, sat with knees touching, deep in conversation. Along the sidewalk, a mob of hipster street hustlers–Army boots and duffel bags, menacing silver chains and black leather, big brown dogs and wide-headed drums—seethed in the chaos of social distortion. Beside us on the hill top, a clump of urban warriors sported the latest ninja moves, water pipes, and mullets—the Tenderloin Waterfall; the Lower Haight Corkscrew; the Mission and 18th Split Skunktail. And then there was me and Diane, soaking up the sun and playing our role as the Inner Sunset Homeowner.

All in all, it was a fine, if not typical, afternoon in the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood.

We left our seaside campground in Bodega Bay earlier in the morning. Our goal, such as we had, was to drive down Highway 1 until the sun went down into the ocean. And what a spectacular coastal drive it is. I could fill a vault of computer servers describing stretch of road, as it is one of the Most Scenic Drives in America.

But I'll spare us all the trouble. If you get a chance, drive it. Start someplace far north. Aim for somplace far south. Pick a warm and sunny day. Drive it slowly. Stop often. Eat funny food in funny neighborhoods. And talk to strangers. The weirdo you meet might just be you.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

California Cows

Diane says that in her next life she wants to come back as a California cow. Not just any old cow. But the cows that graze the verdant hills of rural Marin County. On a bright and balmy day just south of Bodega Bay, I want come back as her Cowboy.

Or her director.

Or maybe a Knight. That is if she wanted to come back to the Napa Valley, one of those rare places where a man’s castle is his home.

After leaving Sacramento, and prior to driving through Marin, we paused in Napa Valley for a day. We camped at the only state park in the valley (near Calistoga) and rode our bikes through vineyards blanketed with blooming mustard. It was rainy. It was chilly. It was beautiful. We loved it. As a bonus, we managed to escape before the Cork Dork invasion hit from the Bay Area. No matter the traffic or the prices or the snobbery, I can’t get enough of this place. Some people love Disney Land. I love Napa Valley.

Over the hills, we cruised westward to the town of Sebastopol to visit our friends Rod and Tasha. We met them in France in 2004. Back then, they were helping friends of theirs to renovate an old townhouse into a bed and breakfast. And they’ve got the chops to pull it off. Rod is a carpenter, architect, and recovering cowboy from the Colorado front range. Tasha is a can-do-it-all professional whose skill sets rival those of Martha Stewart.

After a weekend of late breakfasts, lingering lunches, and later dinners, it was time for Rod and Tasha to return to the grindstone and we the road.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Full Throttle in the Slow Lane

Americans do everything too fast. They drive too fast. They eat too fast. They work too fast. In a ’71 microbus life slows down. You don’t have a choice.

After winding through Bigfoot Country we came to a rolling stop in Palo Cedro, CA for a leisurely visit with Diane’s aunt Sally and uncle Mike. Always welcoming, incredibly hospitable, Mike and Sally made us feel right at home from the first night. No rush, no worries.

Mike and Sally have hosted the Durrett family Thanksgiving retreat/gathering/circus for as long as I’ve been hanging around this clan; and it was a great pleasure to see them in the off season. But we weren’t visiting just to be sociable. Or were we?

Every year in March, the Durrett Women gather for a few days in Sierra hills for a girls-only, no-boys-allowed cross-country ski trip. And this year was no different. Apparently many drinks were had and many more stories were told. Some skiing reportedly even took place.

Meanwhile, uncle Mike and I (and Diane’s brother, Carl) spring-cleaned the property in Palo Cedro. Many cans of beer were consumed and many more tall tales were told. Some work reportedly even took place.

Soon enough, Diane and I were reunited and we were on the road again. We chose to drive down I-5—the quickest, fastest route possible through the valley—to make a quick stop in Sacramento. We made quick work of the business we had to do there. We saw brother Carl and his family. We visited Diane’s mom.

We also marveled at just how many people live in the Capitol City. Too many cars going too fast in too many lanes. So we quickly plotted an escape westward to the Napa valley. No matter how yuppified it gets, Napa Valley will always be one of my favorite places. We heard tell that there was one (one!) state park campground in the entire valley. We decided that we must find it. No matter how many traffic jams, no matter how many wrong turns.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Twelve Hippies

If nothing else, this old bus of ours is a conversation piece. On the road, other drivers pass us with goofy smiles then flash the peace sign. At gas stations, attendants come up and ask questions. In parking lots, old hippies are transported back to another time and place—then go out of their way to tell us all about it. And today, in Arcadia, CA, The Dude was waiting for us.

Our first stop of the day was at Ray’s, a grocery store chain. Leaving the store with the essentials for our tried-and-true one-bowl roadside meals (on today’s board: clam chowder), The Dude leapt from the hood of his vintage Mercedes and intercepted us. His dark sunglasses glinting, salt-and-pepper beard wagging, The Dude was already in the zone. “Great bus! And I should know. I’ve had three!”

This is how it usually starts. So we stood around in the parking, all agreeing that yes, it is a great bus. Then we gave him the tour. The Dude peered into the bus, poked and prodded, hemmed and hawed, and declared it good all the while offering up microbus driving tips. Satisfied with the tour, he then proceeded to tell us exactly how he’d modify our already-modified bus.

First he’d rip out the sink and cabinets and get rid of our electric/propane fridge. He’d replace them both with simple ice chests. Then he’d toss out the bed and replace it with a fold-down bench seat, replace the slope-back topper with a full sized one and run planking across the rails to make a floating bed space.

A bit alarmed at his plans for tearing our bus apart, I wanted to know why we needed to do all of this. I tried to tell him that we had just started out on a year long road trip. That there were only two of us. That we liked the way it was. But he wasn’t in the mood to listen to questions. Swept up now in the fever of creation, he was in the mood to convert.

With these old buses the key, The Dude told us, is to maximize what little space you have. Not only had he owned three of these buses, but he had been a VW mechanic. He’d been to over 600 Grateful Dead shows (plus the European tours). As proof, he showed us his secret Grateful Dead tattoos that could very well have doubled as back stage passes.
Intrigued now, thinking that maybe he was on to something, I asked, “How many hippies can you fit into a microbus?” Because I said it with a straight face The Dude gave it to us straight up.

Three hippies can sit up front (a long plastic milkbox will fit perfectly between the front seats—who knew?—add some padding and you’ve got a jump seat); two will fit on the coolers behind the driver; one can sit on the cooler behind the passenger seat; four can occupy the back bench, one can fold up into the cargo hold over the engine; and one can lay on plank bed in the topper. So the answer is twelve. You can fit twelve hippies in a microbus for every day use. But, he assured us, “when you’re going through the gates into a show, you can fit about twenty.”

Seemed reasonable to us.

Unfortunately, all good things must come to an end. The Dude had to do some grocery shopping. We had Bigfoot Country to explore. So we bade each other a peace-love-and-magic sort of farewell, and set out on the path to our respective zen places.

So what about Bigfoot? Is the big beast legend or for real? Given that Humboldt County, CA is famous its Mercedes-driving hippie “growers” and the products they grow, perhaps the realities here of a less tangible variety. As such, Bigfoot can be anything you want him to be. He can be huggable...

... he can be larger than life...

... starting with those famed big feet...

... and he can be abominable.

Thus, we wandered through the high country of the Trinity Alps, eyes peeled. We didn’t see the Beast itself. But we did. As you can see, it is out there.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

The Redwood Forest

We found ourselves in one of those rare places that exceeds its billing. If you’ve been to the Redwood Forest, you know. If you haven’t, you need to visit.

We started the day by riding our mountain bikes through the of the Jedediah Smith National Forest to the “Stout Grove.” Purported to be the oldest of the redwood stands, Stout Grove is difficult to get to but well worth the trouble, especially by bike. Nothing but giant trees and ferns and quiet. I’m not the sort of person to use the word “magical” to describe anything, but if I was that sort of person, that’s the word I’d use.

Since it’s early in the season, we had the place entirely to ourselves. On the way out we did met a young guy, guitar in-hand, clearly on his way in to the grove to find his personal zen place. It was good to know that he’d have the place all to himself, too.

Back in the bus, we pressed southward along the coast, stopping to hike “Damnation Trail”— a two-mile singletrack that switchbacks 1,000 feet down through the big trees from the edge of Highway 101 to a wild and rocky ocean beach. Once the traffic noise recedes, it quickly becomes yet another zen place.

With a straight face, we can say we’ve seen the Redwood Forest. In the same way, we can say we’re seeing America on this road trip. But the truth is we saw only a sliver of this great forest, and most of this great country will elude us. We’re just glad the bus takes us where it does, wherever that where may be.