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(If you’re late to the party, no worries.
Here’s where you can find the posts on the Southbound leg,
and the Northbound legs Part 1 and Part 2.)

At this point, if I as a newly-minted sixty-something had learned anything, it was . . . well . . . that I was sixty-something.

In my early years, I could hop in the car and drive for days. Thousands of miles. Little to no sleep. Who needs motels? Just pull over, push the seat back, and catch a few winks. Dead simple. I once traveled 3,000 miles in six days on a whirlwind tour of the American Southwest, looping from San Francisco to LA to Phoenix to Canyon de Chelly to the Grand Canyon to Zion National Park to Las Vegas to Death Valley to Yosemite and back home, all in a two-cylinder Honda car with a dodgy clutch. Easy peasy. No sweat. (Okay, there was a lot of sweat—it was the desert—but you get my drift.)

But after our day of rest and exploration in San Francisco, as we were packing up for the next northbound leg, I had a revelation: I don’t like road trips as much anymore, at least not the kind where you drive all day, bed down for the night, get up, and do it all again. I’m much more into quality these days, not quantity. I don’t want to see as much as I can; I want to see what I see as fully as I can.

And that’s a big difference.

It’s not that I wasn’t enjoying the trip—I was enjoying it a lot—it’s just that I felt rushed, pushed, even cheated by our own itinerary. I was seeing so much, but didn’t have the time for that “deep dive” into the place, the people, the culture, the habits, the smells, sounds, and tastes of wherever we were when the car came to rest for the night.

However, lessons learned notwithstanding, today we were on a schedule, and our next stop was a fair ways up the coast.

What’s That Name Again?

Gualala.

Say it with me. Gualala. Gwah-LAH-lah. Fun, right? Well, after twelve hundred miles, we were a bit road-punchy, and we thought it was hilarious. Anyway . . .

Gualala is a little town—technically, not even a town, but an “unincorporated community”—on the Mendocino Coast. Back in high school, when my friend and I used to ride our bicycles up from San Rafael to the cabin his family had in Anchor Bay, Gualala was the town we called “Almost There.” It’s a tiny burg of two thousand souls situated at the mouth of the Gualala River (from the Pomo phrase for “coming down water place”). There’s not much to it: a couple of markets, a gas station, a hotel, a land office or two, some B&Bs, and dozens of homes perched over (or at least in view of) the magnificent rocky coast. Essentially, it’s either a retreat, or a place to pass through.

Or, in our case, to stop for the night.

History Revisited

Thirty-six years ago, on our honeymoon, my wife and I spent a week at that same cabin my friend had up in Anchor Bay, and as we passed through Gualala, my bride (through her Dramamine-induced torpor) pointed out her window and said, “Wha tha?” I looked at where she was sort-of pointing, and saw an unusual building. I had ridden by it many times on my cycling trips but, as it was Gualala and we were “Almost There,” I’d never given it much attention. (In my defense, after a 100-mile bicycle ride, one begins to lose interest in the scenery.) This time, though, being in a car and not on a fifteen-speed touring cycle, I slowed down and looked more closely.

Built of dark, sun-scorched, unfinished wood, with turrets and onion-dome cupolas, it was a hotel/restaurant called St. Orres. While it was unique, beautiful, and rather interesting, this was my honeymoon and I had other things on my mind than inquiring further, so I tucked it away in my brain for future reference.

For our first anniversary, I remembered St. Orres and inquired. They had rooms with shared baths, and cottages for a more private getaway. I rented the best we could afford, which was two nights in their cheapest private cottage. It was wonderful and quirky and very 1980s California, with a small sitting room, a loft bed, bats chirping in the eaves, and an outdoor shower overlooking the coast.

With that as prologue, you can imagine that when I was planning this road trip (I’m the detail-guy, when it comes to itineraries), the realization that we’d be going back past St. Orres set off alerts in my brain. Were they still there? The interwebs answered: they were, and not only that, they had expanded a bit, too. How could we not go back? Having gotten into the “almost top drawer” groove, we opted for the room they called Black Chanterelle. When we checked in, I mentioned to the host that our last stay had been in The Wildflower cottage. “You’re going from the doghouse to the penthouse, then!” she told us, and she was right.

Unlike The Wildflower cottage of our previous stay, which was a simple one-gable affair, this place was built along the same designs as the main buildings: onion dome cupola, hand-fitted tongue-and-groove panels, massive redwood beams, airy, bright, and clean. It was sumptuous, but in a very Arts and Crafts style manner, where all the quality and expense was in the workmanship and raw materials, not in gold and filigree.

Sadly, the restaurant (which we remembered fondly for its stupendous food) was closed on Mondays, and this was a Monday. Since Gualala isn’t known as a foodie mecca, once again we opted for a bread, cheese, and wine dinner. We fired up the wood-burning stove, opened the doors to let in the birdsong, and enjoyed the serenity. In retrospect, seeing as we only had one night in that wonderful place, I’m glad the restaurant was closed.

In the morning, I was up at dawn and decided to give my wife another hour of sleep while I went to explore the local beach. A short walk down to the road and a block along the highway brought me to the stairs and the trail down to a cove called Cooks Beach. It’s a small, sandy beach about the size of a football field, ringed by cliffs on which rest the aeries of the well-to-do. A creek tumbles down along the northern edge, and the place is littered with driftwood waiting to be stacked, and bracketed by rocky outcrops that await a beachcomber’s interest. It is a secluded and peaceful spot, where you will only find one or two other folks who have come down for a quiet moment by the ocean.

I’d be hard pressed to pick a favorite, between the quirky Art Deco motel in San Francisco and the masterful craft of St Orres, so I won’t. They’re too different—one urban, one rustic—and too wonderful, each in its own way.

We left, wishing for more, and vowing that it would not be another thirty-five years before we returned.

And the last two legs of our trip were going to be much more demanding, of time, and of stamina.

More later.

k

While the first section of our road trip north was one of discovery, the second section was focused on re-discovery.

My wife spent most of her youth in San Luis Obispo, down near where we started our northbound trek, but I grew up near San Francisco, as a fourth-generation resident of Marin County. I was born in San Rafael (the heart of “I Want It All Now” country), and received most of my education in Marin and San Francisco. My wife and I met in Marin, backstage at the ballet company where we both danced, and I courted her on from sides of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Since our wedding, though, we hadn’t spent any time in San Francisco, other than to pass through en route to see family. Thus, as part of this just-for-us quasi-top-drawer road trip, a few days spent in our old stomping grounds was a must. It was in scheduling this stay that I learned that my wife had never taken a ride on a cable car. You know how it is; you never do the touristy things in your own town, right? Well, now we were the tourists, and I was going to make damned sure she got her cable car ride. Continue Reading »

Driving the California coast on Highway 1 comes with challenges.

For most of its length, CA-1 is a narrow, undivided, two-lane road that climbs and descends as the topography demands (sometimes rapidly), hugging the often precipitous coastline with switchbacks, hairpins, and a gazillion good old twists and turns. Negotiating these requires a fair bit of concentration, especially when you’ve already put hours of them behind you, and still have hours of them to go. As hard as it is on the driver, though, it’s even harder on the passengers, as they end up as little more than ballast, tossed from side to side like Kirk and Spock on the bridge of the Enterprise during a Klingon attack. While I spent about 80% of my brain power trying to achieve the optimum balance between minimizing the turn-induced, stomach-sloshing G-forces and maximizing our velocity so that we might get to the hotel by the end of check-in time, my wife, whose superpower is the ability to sleep in damned near any moving conveyance, spent several nausea-limned hours regretting our decision to take this route.

Fortunately, the California coast provides ample excuses to pull over, give one’s innards a rest,  and enjoy the scenery. We found the first excuse fairly quickly. Continue Reading »

The last time my wife and I took a really-for-real out-of-state vacation was about eight years ago, so when she said she wanted to visit her brother down on the coast of California, we decided to turn it into a road trip. We’d skedaddle down I-5 to Morro Bay, her brother’s town, and then toodle back up along the coast.

Now, I-5 isn’t the most scintillating of avenues; basically, it follows the path of least resistance from Tijuana, Mexico to Vancouver, Canada, and is about as picturesque as as that description would lead you to believe. But it is an extremely efficient pathway for north-south travel, making up for what it lacks in overall beauty with unfettered miles, wide lanes, frequent rest areas, convenient off-on access, and plentiful refueling options of both food and petrol.

The coastal path, following California Highway 1 and then US 101, is the exact opposite. This is a narrow, twisted, gnarled mare’s nest of usually two-lane undivided roadway beset by rockfalls and landslides. Towns are small, strewn hither and yon like lost beads from a broken necklace, and often accompanied by signs saying “NO SERVICES NEXT 45 MILES.” But it is a gorgeous trip, taking you through micro-climates of desert and rain forest, alongside sandy beaches and sundered, rocky cliffs that, quite literally, take your breath.

But before we could get to the pretty part, we had to pass through the gantlet of I-5.

Seasonal Fast Forward

Traveling south from Seattle along I-5 in April was like a time-travel jaunt through the seasons. At home, my lawn was just waking up and the trees were still in flower and bud, but even as we hit central Washington things began to change. It wasn’t long until it seemed like we were in May, then June. The grasses on the hills were a patchwork of acid- and DayGlo-green. Trees were almost in full leaf, and the summertime wildflowers painted the roadside slopes with swaths of orange poppies, yellow buttercups, and purple bush lupines. My eyes, which for the past month had been swollen and painfully dry from dust storms of tree pollen, began to feel once more like part of my body rather than sand-encrusted stones.

The temperatures rose as well. Even as we climbed into the Siskiyous, the mountains that separate Oregon and California, the temps rose up into the 80s (25–30°C), and then as we descended the southern slopes, it got even hotter, into the 90s. What the hell? This is April! It finally hit 98°F (37°C) when we dropped down from the pass and into the high chaparral of northern California.

With temps like that, it was surprising to see Mount Shasta covered with snow, and Lake Shasta (a major reservoir) full nearly to the brim. In all the trips I’ve taken past that lake, it has never been as full as it was this time, and a good thing, too, as it means the poor folks of NoCal might have an easier time this year with wildfires.

And it was right after that, right after we’d passed Shasta (mountain and lake) that the terrain went from deep summer to hellish.

The countryside was scarred by the remnants of the massive wildfires that ravaged the landscape and razed entire towns last fall. California burns every year, but 2018 was brutal. Entire mountains were denuded of green, and square miles had been burnt down to the bare earth. The ridgelines, normally blanketed with thick coniferous forests, had nothing but charred treetrunks that looked like scorched toothpicks on an overdone roast. And road crews were at work everywhere, staking down straw-filled burlap tubes along hillsides to act as bulwarks against the erosion that was sure to come, and laying crushed rock to stabilize the oven-baked slopes that had already started to slip.

Travels Without Charlie

Past the devastation of the fires, we dropped down out of the mountains and hit the central valleys of California, a long slog through flat croplands filled with orchards, dust, heat, and pain. The temps were still unbearably hot for our well-watered Seattle constitutions, but our little car’s A/C kept us refrigerated. We had to say goodbye to I-5 and head to the section of US 101 that would lead us through the Salinas Valley—Steinbeck country—but before we could do that we had to jockey through I-505 and I-680, a nerve-wracking series of meandering, narrow-laned roadways where the trailer-tractors outnumbered cars ten-to-one, where car wrecks and construction zones popped up around every blind curve, and where the faster, far left lanes were owned by “FasTrak,” which protected them with dire warnings of punishments bordering on disintegration should any mortal dare to enter into them without first setting your FasTrak Flex toll tag to position (2) or (3+). Insofar as we did not know what a FasTrak Flex toll tag was (much less have one), we stayed in our plebeian lanes, surrounded by monstrous eighteen-wheeled cargo carriers, until we finally connected with southbound US 101 near San Jose.

The air outside was now 100°F, and we dared not open the windows for fear of incineration. And yet, as we passed through the valley, banked on either side by coastal mountains, filled from one edge to the other with cropland, we saw men and women out there, working, backs bent, skin and clothes the color of dust, hoodies pulled up as protection from the sun that blazed down from what, in any normal place, would be called high summer, but which here was only the early spring of late April in California. We passed buses filled with migrant workers and towing trailers with porta-potties, the better to get more work with less down-time. Towns, low-slung and tired, poked their gabled heads up over highway embankments, hoping for some commerce, even if it was only that we stop for gas and a Coke. Everything seemed broken, age-old, built from cast-off and re-purposed parts, and I envied nothing in that entire valley.

At the bottom, where the mountains encroached, narrowing the vale, the crop changed from vegetable- to petroleum-based. Here the flatland was ruled by the wide, squat cylinders of storage tanks, hubs of arterial webs of pipes, valves, and railroad spurs, all set amidst forests of pumpjacks, those drinking-bird styled machines that bring crude up from the depths.

A right turn at Atascadero led us into a narrow ravine, which became a defile, which dropped down to follow an old creekbed through bends and hairpins, where the knee-high grasses leaned out over the tarmacadam and lichenous oaks waved ghostly scarves of Spanish moss above our heads. Within a mile, the temperature dropped twenty degrees. Within three miles, it had dropped another ten. Lush, green, moist, it was a hidden Eden betwixt Hell and the Pacific Coast. The track debouched without warning or omen onto the Coast Highway, and we had arrived at Morro Bay, a town named for a rock that looked to the Spaniards like a nose (morro, Sp. “nose”).

Tired, buzzing from the rumble of the road, the southbound portion of our trip—the hard part, we hoped—was done, and now we could begin to enjoy the journey.

More on that, later.

k

In the moment, I watched, transfixed, gut-punched, as flames colored the smoky nimbus with an infernal glow. The incandescent spire bent, toppled over, and fell, a spear of fire hurled into the breaking heart of Paris. My mind burned with the revelation:

This is how immortals die.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris had always been there, a fixture of wonderment, awesome, a masterpiece of stone and lead, wood and glass. She was eternal, a legend shrouded in the mists of a different age, a goddess standing tall in the world of men. It had never occurred to me that she could be harmed, that she could die.

But the sight before me said otherwise. As timbers collapsed, as The Forest of attic timbers, each as old as memory, burned hot and bright, as the conflagration spread down transept and nave, I could only think:

She is gone.

In the aftermath, we learned that not all was lost, that the stone vaults beneath the timbered roof had only failed where the spire had pierced them. The limestone of walls, columns, buttresses, and arches, though crumbling at the edges, had stood firm. Even most of the window glass had survived the heat.

I was a reluctant Roman Catholic as a child, converted to Judaism in my youth, spent decades in agnostic dilemma, and now live a religiously unfettered life as a staunch atheist, and yet . . .

And yet, the cathedral means something to me. She is more than just an icon, a symbol of Catholicism, a relic of a darker age. She is a thing of unutterable beauty. She is the embodiment of the human capacity for aspiration and genius, discipline and devotion, a reflection of the divine within us all. Though it will be decades before she is restored, we will some day be able to once more walk the cruciform aisles beneath her soaring stone.

She is immortal still.

My father was an analog man.

Etched Limestone Lithography Block

The grandson of a charcoal burner (yes, that was a thing), the son of a cement truck driver, my father was an artist by passion and a lithographer by trade, back in the day when his trade was not far removed from actual litho-graphy, i.e., etching graphics on hunks of limestone (like the one I still have, pictured, right).

As his life progressed, the world moved from Ford’s Model T to Tesla’s Model 3, from The Great Depression to The Great Recession, from flying across the Atlantic to flying to the Moon and Mars, and from the wireless and talkies to smart phones and streaming video. Yet through it all, he managed to never use a computer, even when his industry embraced the technology of digital scanning, imagery, and on-demand printing. The closest he got to the digital world was a DVD player (which he rarely employed, preferring broadcast television) and his little clamshell phone (which he used only in emergencies, and often not even then). Continue Reading »

There and Back

I am a child of the Space Race.

The heroes of my early youth (aside from Walt Disney and JFK) were the astronauts of the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions. Without fail, I would sit down in front of our little black-and-white television to watch every launch, every splashdown. It never got old, especially during the “seven minutes of terror” during re-entry. I read every article I could find about the programs. I assembled scale models of the boosters and capsules. I used words like “gantry” and “gimbal,” and could instruct adults on the meanings of pitch, roll, yaw, and skew.

As the decade progressed, the space race gave me something to focus on, something other than missile crises, assassinations, Cold War saber-rattling, and duck-and-cover exercises. I cheered with each liftoff and exulted at each return.

Then came Apollo 11.

Apollo 11 was different. Apollo 11 was much more than a liftoff and return. It was a culmination of years of rapt attention. The prospect of a lunar landing would have been enough, but a man on the moon? A man walking on that virginal orb, that silvery fingernail lunette, that icon of the feminine, ever-constant yet ever-changing, both young and ancient at the same time? It filled me with wonder, amazement, anxiety, and the absolute knowledge that, if it happened, if tragedy stayed its hand and we succeeded, the world would never be the same.

Then, on July 21, 1969, Neil and Buzz stepped out on the grey dust of the Sea of Tranquility, and the world looked up in awe.

That year, for my birthday I was given the Revell 1/96 scale Apollo 11 Columbia and Eagle kit, which came with a bit of gold-colored foil to wrap around the base of the LEM, and it was the coolest thing ever. I did not approach this build with my usual pubescent fervor. Oh, no. This kit I assembled like a surgeon, removing parts from their runners with X-Acto precision, shaving flash and sprue from the delicate pieces, applying glue with a sparing hand, and affixing the fragile decals of flag and “UNITED STATES” with a steadiness acquired during years of model-building.

The Columbia and the Eagle hung from my bedroom ceiling, a place of honor where, at night, the LEM’s gold foil glinted in the light from the moon their namesakes had visited. Over time, they were joined by the Orion and Moebius (2001: A Space Odyssey), the Hawk (Space: 1999), X-Wings and TIE fighters (do I really need to tell you where they’re from?) until, dusty and cobwebbed, I finally gave them to my kid brothers to enjoy.

With this as prologue, you can imagine my squee-ful reaction when I learned that I could actually own a piece of Apollo history. It took a nanosecond to make the decision.

The item is not impressive. It’s not a moon rock or a dial or a vintage mission patch. But it is special to me.

Pictured above, encased in a Lucite box, it is a tiny square of the kapton thermal protection blanket that covered Columbia, the Apollo 11 command module. This little square has been to the moon and back. Half a million miles. Pretty damned amazing.

And it makes me very, very happy.

k

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