Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Our road trip, Summer '10

We left for our semi-annual road trip north with what's become a ritual. This time, after a few hours on the freeway, we departed, found the back road that is strangely Highway One at its southerly stretch, and then after a dozen miles of calming farms we stopped. La Simpatica being closed for seismic repairs as was our second choice, El Tapatio, in the farmworker town of Guadalupe at La Fogata. That my family walked a half-mile (the Bataan death march for my teen sons) back to where I'd insisted I'd seen a yellow building and a sign promising homemade tortillas testifies to their appetites after a long stint in the car. My mahi-mahi lacked beans and the rice was blah, but the fish proved fine and the Negra Modelo refreshing. There was a drive-in lane outside but a truck parked in front of a sign made it look abandoned. I noted for all its "Dog Burger" option, but that was a frankfurter-enhanced patty, I admit.

Niall did not find, this a few days after doomed defeat of my non-hometown Celtics to my hometown Lakers, his size for the t-shirt celebrating those tiresome champs, but I noted at Masimoto market an elderly Japanese man shuffling back to the door next to said apparel on the sidewalk. I wondered if he was the owner, as a younger Asian man in this totally Latino town worked the counter. I figured odds were very good. I wondered how long the family had been there in this place, and what they'd seen from their spot on the main road over the decades where little seemed to change.

But it surely did. Central coastal California fills with those like us weary of L.A. Each visit, it seems there's a bit less farmland and yet more concrete.

More subdivisions sprout even in Guadalupe, let alone golf-linked Nipomo behind the eucalyptus at the right-angled turn, and each trip sprawl spreads along the 101 and the 5. The stores in the interior we pass this time, Camarillo, Oxnard, Ventura, Orcutt, Atascadero, Paso Robles, King City, Greenfield, Soledad, Salinas: they turn identical. Only the grocery stores shift to Safeway from Vons, the one regional quirk among the Applebee's, Starbucks, Taco Bells, Jamba Juices, Carl's Jrs., and the same gas stations that we must patronize, despite our mandated (largely by me by paternal dictate) dislike for chains and franchises.

When it comes to filling up tanks and carts, markets and oil companies seem to compel all but the few holdouts affluent enough and/or living outside the law, who ride bikes in the sylvan college towns, like Davis, Berkeley, or Santa Cruz. A few principled sorts can resist the Combine, saving their money for designer eco-gear, artisan eclairs, or raw-vegan organica. The rest of us suck up fossil fuels, push through aisles stocked with preservers on pallets, and return to less quirky, mostly less funky or even less hi-tech, jobs requiring often oddly more formal wear.

We stayed to give the kids a treat in San Luis Obispo at the pink-daubed faux-fairy tale fake-turreted Madonna Inn, but that edifice now adjoined a shopping mall on land the crafty owners had developed among the horse pastures and rolling landscape called Irish Hills. Now, as for most of the inland, sunbaked year, those slopes looked more like scorched muffins than gentle drumlins. In our themed room, as they all are but on hundreds of different motifs, we had a comfortable nook to unwind. Although I could hear 101's traffic, the site felt less kitschy and more endearing than I'd remembered. We noticed, or my wife did, Asian lesbians in the coffee shop; informants who know more than even she about such told us Cambria for fishing and Morro Bay for bikers attracts the sapphic set. Our Sky Room featured delicate clouds as stencils, and the Alpine washed blue blended well into the Gothic stone feel of the place. It reminded me of "The Sound of Music" meets La Grande Chartreuse, the motherhouse of Carthusians in that most strict of all monastic orders.

We, unlike at an ascetic hermitage, encountered a strong shower, a bidet, and heated toilet seat. I forgot to use the latter two, but my family surely did as I could hear their squeals behind the bathroom door. We elders had a loft forced to occupy as the kids insisted on the tv and king-size bed below. As the upstairs beam was poorly placed for those wayfarers over six feet tall (beware, booted and/or heeled lesbians) I kept slamming my head, as my wife dutifully chronicled in her own blog entry. Winded by the fourth blow, I lay down on the floor, but no bumps, oddly. Thus I celebrated my birthday, seven-squared so I figured it was luck, if inverted.

We made it north of Santa Cruz, hit the New Leaf with its high-priced fare, but I did find an ethical tea as advertised from Ceylon that I tried varieties of, Dilmah. I read William McGowan's harrowing account of Sri Lanka, "Only Man Is Vile," not too long ago. I wanted to support the resurgency-- not of Tamil Tigers or Sinhalese troops, but of the native tea industry devastated by civil war. I looked as is my want in strange markets for beers I'd never sipped. I bought a few.

To our friends Chris and Bob, we arrived, and my birthday dinner featured a special limited edition brew from (speaking of monks) an imitation Belgian-type Lost Abbey purveyor from San Marcos, CA (the same place as the great Stone brewers, which made me wonder about a shared plant). The most expensive bottle I'd ever had, but as I rationalized, the fanciest beer in the world can be bought at the price of a decent (for my tight budget) wine. It resembles Sam Adams bock in the blue bottles, that is, brandy. You'd never mistake it for beer if blindfolded. Complex concoction, but not really what you'd expect as ale. I bet it's more sipped than quaffed.

Leo and our hosts went off to hear Pavement on their reunion tour up at Berkeley, a long rush-hour drive. Niall and Layne and I hung out and relaxed. I kept eating cherries from the Prunedale market we'd bought on the way over; they were the best I'd ever tasted. Otherwise, I had no recollection of what we did that night. I pawed back issues of the New York Review of Books, played with the dogs, and wandered the net. Don't blame the brew for my vagueness as we all waited up for the other trio to return. For the record from the next day, the Eel River Tangerine wheat beer, three adults agreed, kept admirably a balance of fruit and tartness that often fails in blends, and I recommend it.

Around this time, I finished Martin Amis' "The Information" (1995). I found its remarks about the end of the novel appropriate even before the rise of this medium you and I share now. The narrator relates seasons to literary genres. He tells how the novel's weary of itself, reduced in its dotage to writing about writers. The tale veers from astronomical analogies to revenge thriller to satire of, yes, the publishing, promotional, and reviewing sides of bookselling. Hundreds of pages passed with you finding out nearly nothing of the protagonist's wife or the antagonist's prose style which in his superficial utopian story sent him into the literary stratosphere. Amis crams three novels into one. While it started off with the proverbial bang, it fizzled and sputtered long before its climax, when the sexual surprise revealed itself to be for me a damp squib rather than a payoff shot full of fireworks. But perhaps this was a metaphor for the whole narrative enterprise, which felt flaccid, lackluster, and bored of itself.

Next night, Niall got to stay home again, but the rest of us went to hear one of our favorite bands. For my money the most consistently talented and longest successful (not in acclaim or sales but in solid records) band of the era, Yo La Tengo. This indie rock trio from New Jersey played at Left Coast Live, a San Jose street fair very underadvertised. We got within three or four people of the front, and watched them as the moon rose behind the bassist. While my bad knee ached as the amps pounded into my legs that could not move much, and my ears rumbled as I never could take concert-level sound, I enjoyed seeing them, despite their recent forays into bossa-nova. That was a respite from their trademark folkie-jangle meets guitar feedback + pounding drums + steady bass delivery of extended riffs based on the Velvets or the Kinks or punk-pop that never get bored of themselves.

The next day we drove up to Sacramento. For the car, I borrowed Bob and Chris's copy of Cormac McCarthy's "The Road," which I'd fantasized resembled the decaying lane near their house, more below about that. The titular thoroughfare did not match the eroded byway as the interstates in the apocalyptic aftermath survived better at least in the short term of the horrific tale, but it did put my own worries into perspective as I'd angled after a notification e-mailed from my work threw me off my hard-earned relative balance. Unlike Amis, McCarthy relished telling his simpler story, and it stayed alive. Its prose-poetry stayed powerful, and the book left me curious how the movie did or did not live up to the harrowing saga McCarthy crafted.

As our pre-apocalyptic predicament, I watched the endless raw incursions of Contra Costa, the exurbs of the Bay Area, full of tall homes and sheared hills. Dublin looked as lackluster as Joseph O'Connor commemorated it in his excursion to all U.S. places named after his hometown, in "Sweet America." Pleasanton defies its name, a monument to ugly corporate buildings plonked as if by toddlers in lots among fields of stubble and brush. Danville, Martinez, Dixon, Vacaville, Fairfield, Roseville, Rocklin, Auburn may have enchanted emigrants making their way from the coast to the mines 150 years ago, but they all looked the same.

Did whatever the miners jerry-build look as out of place among hacked stumps and trashed meadows? All Californian stake a claim to the Gold Rush mentality, the eagerness to build a cabin, hammer a fence, cash it in. Forty million of us, and most of us still demand open space, a lush estate, a grand carriage. In a century, will we regard office parks and big-box stores as nostalgic? Lots erected as if yesterday, the same lack of context or culture that covers our colonized continent, outside of the shiny courthouse dome and the brave attempt at a preserved street in that last town where we left the interstate, a remnant of Gold Rush treasures.

The streets were empty and we saw the State Capitol's golden, yes, dome. We entered the city on a golden-painted bridge over the American River. We walked under searing heat in Sacramento's Old Town restored, peeked at the Wells Fargo Museum, marvelled at the artifacts, and ate a surprisingly solid meal (given a tourist-trap risk) at Fat City, on the site of the first market in the city, 1849, founded by one Samuel Brennan, undoubtedly an Hibernian emigre. That's how Levi Strauss got rich-- selling denim to the miners rather than chasing down another measly grubstake. The Fat family runs, the menu mentioned, half-a-dozen eateries around the capital, and my Old Thumper English Ale was excellent, wherever it came from up the delta to the hot valley.

A coupon for a free sample of candy lured us in to the mercantile emporium that may be for now as lucrative as was the stagecoach and Pony Express for earlier strollers there. I tried maple and rum taffy and a Mary Jane, which tasted sort of like my favored Bit o' Honey, which my wife bought for me along with other mysterious brands she then kept to herself. I never got any. I found wrappers in bed and in the washing machine.

Off to Grass Valley next, to see my wife's niece and her husband. The last time I'd been to this historic foothill town, their daughter was still a teen, and the weather was near a hundred. The temperature was the same now, but she's now engaged and living not far from us in L.A., where she works with the Upright Citizen's Brigade comedy improv ensemble at their theater. We stayed at a motel up Main Street and walked down a steep decline into the heart of its intact Gold Rush district.

Lola Montez, a captivating Irish-born (as Eliza Gilbert) companion to the nobility and long-reigning chanteuse, an formidably astute "actress-model-whatever" who'd now have her own reality show, lived down Mill Street 1852-55. Bruce Seymour, as my blog on the right lists this among my favorite reads, masterfully tells her saga. No relation to the Italian-Swiss innkeeper family, Madonna-- and Lady Gaga-- owe Lola shout-outs. She danced the "Black Widow," and I wondered how erotic it was compared to a gal festooned with rosaries over lace bustiers, or another Italian American tarted up in gawky fashion disasters. I walked past the house where that earlier paragon of reinventing one's sexual persona as a vamping, knowing, voracious celebrity had kept a bear. The gate was slightly ajar.

Up the block, three brothels survived into at least the Depression to serve the miners; not to mention the "houses of joy" in the large Chinatown-- a feature of many small hamlets turned boomtowns, ten thousand or so in the pioneer heyday about the same as the numbers today. Now, commuters endure the three-hour drive each way to the Bay Area so as to be able to live in these handsome Victorians-- if somewhat I trust cheaper than the Painted Ladies in San Francisco. Silicon Valley money must infiltrate these counties, where we passed immense gated subdivisions nestled by lakes. For the rest of the folks, same as ever, it's tough to make a living in the hills. Even as I later found on this vacation, a relative of a host tried to grow pot in these mountains and live off the proceeds; like arriviste entrepreneurs then as now he forgot he lacked buds-as-customers to sell his stash to.

I wondered about this cash flow as we ate at three places in town. Another way to make it in a boom: sell food to those who follow you. Designated a charming town, tourists come. Recently fewer, I estimated. A boomlet-- fueled by Silicon Valley and Bay Area money in many cases-- in wineries courted trade, but the Holiday Inn on the site of the old Chinatown did little for me to arouse aesthetics or credit for blending in to the humbler facades around it. All the same, I welcomed the chance to enter 49'er-era buildings erected over a century before my own newly 49-year-old bones were assembled. Tofarelli's on the site of an 1859 market served good pasta, well flavored. My kids had half-touched bowls I wanted to finish.

But the beers, Sierra Nevada Summerfest and my wife's Alaska Summer Ale, or vice versa as the server did not bother to tell us the difference, tasted flat and lacked verve. A tiresome man boasted in a voice filling the mostly empty brick-lined room of his mechanical and financial exploits for what felt like hours. Two women of a certain age if not yet mine lingered at the bar and waited for what or whom I could not hear. An old couple came in as the distaff half squawked: "You never wait for me to sit down" even though he cradled a walker. There was a notice posted by its door by a businesswoman looking for legit, non-horizontal transactions: "in these economical hard times..." I did not read on.

At Diego's the next night, a short jaunt from the home of my wife's relatives, in turn a half-mile from the motel, it reminded me of what I had not experienced for many years, decades even: being able to navigate where you live to eat, shop, and work without needing a car or public transit. My wife's niece walks to work, a few blocks away. I wondered how my life would slow in such a town as I ate hearty Chilean-based cuisine; the Lagunitas IPA predictably's bold. Chris later gave me a Wilco Tango Foxtrot Stimulus Recovery Ale that true to the brand packed a wallop, as Lagunitas tends to deliver.

Evening three we passed a women's softball game at the park. We walked to the building across the street. It had been, our hosts told us, formerly the Duck Inn, a joint where pool tables rested on crooked wooden floors. Now it was spotless, airy, and spacious. We trooped upstairs. Spain-Portugal World Cup game flashed in silence. Even for a soccer fan like me, the only one at the table, a dull match. Our tattooed, lively, punkish waiter anticipated the Giants game but we informed him that (at least some of us) were Dodger loyalists, and he cringed. The game the previous night saw the boys in blue triumphant, as would this one. I recalled two years ago to nearly the day: we in the park in SF, magnificent view of the bay, as 40,000 screamed all around us "BEAT L.A.!" And that came to pass.

Well, at Goomba's: pizza emerged truly rustic, no weird imprint of the pan on the bottom of pre-fab dough. I liked Oregon's Deschutes Mirror Pond pale ale, reminding me of a Belgian Duvel almost in its red-brick depth. Made me wish for real Cascadian climates as the summer heat endured and the game ended, with revellers looking like firemen with great miner-era mustaches, requesting rounds of Coors or some swill.

Our residence was set near a field. It looked as if stakes for vines were being set up. A cross loomed over the back window from the Lutheran church. My sons saw a deer over the fence as we left; a novelty for us. Formerly Sierra Motor Inn from the key, now boosted into Sierra Mountain Inn, the place looked immaculate. Even if the proprietress had no conditioner for my children's demands, no bath gel, and only two forks and two knives to accompany the one bowl and plate that supplied our kitchen. The sheets were not changed, but towels were replaced. I could hear the neighbors coughing all night behind the thin wall. A third way you make money in a boom: sell rooms to those who show up looking for get-rich or back-to-nature quick fixes. My wife's niece told us this site was a homeless shelter before its conversion.

One night in our room, diversions being less than in Gold Rush days for us sober married types, we watched a show I'd never seen, it being the dregs for us of no cable: "To Catch a Predator." Some episodes took place in the city where I teach, and I reflected on how the males trapped could have been my students. The program capitalizes on men who after chatting online with girls who claim to be thirteen set up a rendezvous at "her house," complete with suburban hot tub. They enter, go around back, she as decoy retreats after brief greetings to "change." Then the blazered host-- with a lockjaw accent that I in my Angeleno ignorance imagine sounds like Tom Wolfe's Yale classmates, "Love Story," early Philip Roth or all of John Cheever-- comes on to recite didactically said suspect's incriminating sex-talk transcribed by our enforcers of law and order. The sting made me uneasy; I don't like entrapment, and it preyed on lonely men if for purportedly just ends. As my wife observed, you don't go after the whores but the johns to clean up the block, but I wondered if these men's actions really constituted "attempting a lewd act upon a minor." I leave this to more conniving, judicial or calculating minds than my own.

A few minutes from that motel, you can find Lotta Crabtree's house; she was the protege of Madonna as Lola, who lived on the same street. Lotta's first appearance as the Lady Gaga of the mid-19c supposedly was dancing on the anvil at Flippin's Blacksmith, in nearby Rough & Ready. She grew up to become her own famous performer, and I wondered in Gold Rush times how miners and mulers regarded their versions of "Toddlers in Tiaras," comely come-ons from minors.

Off camera, two cats rested outside, free of hot tub props or Internet trolls, under an umbrella against the foothill glare. Perhaps they were feline descendants of those who sidled around the ankles of Lola or Lotta, dashing away from a bear. Air conditioners whirred as Main Street hissed of tires that never stopped until the middle of the night. This on a byroad to the highway for Marysville, I could not figure out why so many cars and trucks took this route. Maybe they were commuters to the gated lakeside stucco mansions.

Our journey up into the Sierras and maybe nicer weather took us first through the Rough and Ready, a hamlet back in 1850 that briefly seceded from the Union over a miner's tax reminiscent of the Tea Party's reactions today. We passed those lakeside new mansions and more dismal construction. I glimpsed a sign for Ananda, the breakaway sect of the New Age SRF who occupies the hillside estate a mile from our house. Then on down a curving declivity to the 250-foot covered bridge over the Yuba River, where Layne took this blog's photo of me looking out as I rested in the cool interior. I gazed out over a vista nearly identical to that seen by Gold Rush riders, who paid Wells Fargo-equivalents of bullion for the steep crossing fare.

We saw French Corral, with its Wells Fargo ruin of an office. Did the Pony Express stop here in 1856? Equestrian countryside surrounded us. I then recalled a cyberfriend lived nearby; I wondered which horses might be his.

Slowly, we drove up the well-named Pleasant Valley Road back to Highway 49 at North San Juan, near the pot growers and Gary Snyder's own homestead, the Beat guru whom I blame or name for alerting hippies, dealers, and dot.commers about this region. I'd been up here once, to the Malakoff Diggings torn out of the mountains for gold, hearing the Anita Hill-Clarence Thomas proceedings on the radio back then, surreally. Back then, we got a flat tire on the rental car; three separate cars stopped to ask if we needed help. I hope people would be as friendly now twenty years on, or that I'd be to them.

Sierra County even at the end of June, high up around 8000 feet on its buttes showed some snow, and we followed the Yuba's fork for most of the drive. We passed a Sierra Shangri La so named that appealed to me, cabins by the creek, and then another Sierra something with a rope-bridge over the less-than-rapids. Chris later told me that this was the height of the water, which I did not expect, so I guess the Yuba does not get that turbulent. But from the still-standing snowplow markers, with their own height, I reckoned that snow gets pretty deep up here in a long winter. The weather that day, even under fifty-odd miles of trees roadside, stayed warm.

We dipped into Downieville's tidy bends, Sierra City's faintly Swiss echoes, and down Yuba Pass (6,600 feet) into Sierra Valley, the largest Alpine meadow on the continent, where Sierraville (get the drift?) languished despite a sign for pies I wistfully noted, and then to lunch in Loyalton, pop. 850 or so, where we looked in vain for a bathroom at City Park and Museum, but where we ate, without bathroom, at the only place open in this half-inviting, half-forlorn ranching stop founded by Swiss-Italians, Rhonda's Lil' Frosty.

The sun beat down. This felt more like the Old West than the Sierras. We had crossed the Pacific Crest and the divide between coast and mountain, interior and range, had given way to the other side before whatever the Gold Rush pioneers had come west to find. The desert neared on the harsher air and in the wide-open landscape.

Road workers lined up for burgers; kids wheeled by for drinks; men scarfed soft-serve; we waited nearly half an hour for what were indeed flavorful fries, and my cod basket no matter how far from the ocean proved worthy of my patience. We'd watched one dog chase another, led on a leash by her owner as she biked down the main street. Then, a few minutes later, that free dog ran back up the street, on his own. Loyalton's little children played, summer at last. They teased each other, two boys vs. two girls, and I reflected how in caretaker nanny L.A. that in many neighborhoods you'd sit a long time before seeing kids on bikes all alone anymore.

You'd see dogs and bikes and grown-ups, but kids? Not out "unsupervised" without their guardians, or strapped in seats in SUVs. Compare the death march of our two sons in Guadalupe. A half-mile, and I walked back alone to get the car to put it in the lot so as to pick them and their mother up before the meal even arrived!

We returned to Grass Valley, and the next day we left after we bought veggie pasties (it being a local specialty from the days of Cornish miners who may not have hankered for non-meat varieties) on our way back to Santa Cruz. We had to split our stay due to concerts and accommodation demands; but I liked the change in scenery and welcomed a return to cooler weather. It was easily twenty-five degrees less than Grass Valley. We got over the Bonny Doon hill from above SC and when shopping at the first-ever organic berry farm in the state, at Swanton, it was ten degrees lower, around the low 60s, the Pacific air blasting us like a giant fan. We got ready for a night out in another historic, if post-Gold Rush, downtown.

We walked through the Santa Cruz Boardwalk to the beach for a free showing of "The Lost Boys" on an inflatable screen alongside 8,500. We ate the pasties. Next to the screen we could see the Boardwalk's stately stretch in its neon glory, where that silly vampire flick was filmed circa '87. An odd juxtaposition of set with reality, stage with the real, however glamorized in that inimitable (I hope) mullet-haired, fey Goth, moussed and fussy Eighties style. Corey Feldman, one of the stars, sang with his band prior to the movie. The props on the platform with the musicians featured a girl in a hula hoop, a girl as a robot, a giant beach ball, and dry ice. They played their CD, "Technology Analogy" in its entirety. Suffice to say that it sounded like sub-Bowie meets prog the last and only time I'd been to the Boardwalk-- summer of 1976. Feldman explained: "This is a concept album. It has a beginning, middle, and end."

Still, the crowds cheered. It was so jammed I could barely walk along the promenade this time, much remodeled since the '89 quake, but still redolent of over a century now of energy and grease hawking this longest of American attractions, at least on the West Coast. Due belated thanks to its early mayor and astute promoter Swanton, named after which is where we'd bought a tart ollallaberry pie perches in the sea-pummelled wind the other side of Santa Cruz about twelve miles north. While deep-fried Twinkies remained the most noteworthy of current culinary delights on the strand, not that I tried them, we did have a fine picnic as darkness fell. I could barely smell the surf or the salt. Venus dipped below the scaffold where the band had blared. Then we remembered how uncomfortable the sand can be without a folding chair. I dug into the sand for a kind of seat, but nature allowed me only a few inches lowered tilted respite from my bony frame and my awkward pose.

We stayed at the cabin behind Chris and Bob's. We watched Wini be as bad as our Oprah in canine crime. The US lost to Ghana; Argentina lost to Germany. We sampled a dry, assertive Wandering Aengus cider named after Yeats's verse; the Mariposa-based owner had left us kindly a bottle of a mellow Butterfly Creek merlot '03. We liked as we did the Tangerine cousin Eel River's Acai Berry wheat beer which tasted neither like berries nor beer but a pleasant blend nonetheless. Definitely a brand to check out, and organic, a rarity for beer due to the difficulties in brewing. We read, we rested, we puttered. The cabin, as the guestbook told us, was around a century old; a great-granddaughter of the family who'd bought it in 1925 stayed there not long ago.

My favorite walk on the road that has been overtaken by the landslide I've written about before here. In 1968-69, a time of heavy rain, the subsiding hills around the quarry nearby advanced 4-6 inches at a time. As this was the main route in and out of what had been founded in 1907 as a Christian retreat center, the noise from quarry trucks drove those seeking peace among the forest into desperate pleas for divine intervention, or failing that, a road re-routed around Mt Hermon. Kay Gudnason's 1972 local history "Rings in the Redwoods" explains how this came to pass. Conference Road since that stormy winter comes to a halt, the sand and trees and soil covers up its middle. Another road, even more travelled I confess than Main Street, Grass Valley, takes a load of heavier traffic from Scotts Valley (talk about suburban strip mall blight) to Felton. You still hear it through the trees. At least it bypasses the Mount, which has its own desecration in erecting a "redwood canopy" attraction to account for at the lofty seat of its Creator.

The clamor of youngsters and oldsters who use pulleys to swing up and down these trees saddens me. They whoop and holler and I know for them it's like being on a ride on the Boardwalk. But, I wrote thoughtful letters years ago to the directors of the Mount Hermon Christian Center and never got any response to my concerns about the environmental and acoustic damage of this "attraction." It went in without permits, over objections of neighbors, and with disregard for the effect on the ecosystem. Profits matter more than principles to these stewards of what they call God's creation. Canopy rides bring in big bucks. Mount Hermon covets lucre.

So, I never turn towards the Christian camp anymore on my stroll. I move along the other direction of the stream, however short a distance. Dappled maple leaves shine brilliantly as day-glo under slants of sun speckling pools and rivulets rushing over fallen branches and raised rocks. I sit on slanted slate and let my mind rest.

I'm lucky to find a place relatively untouched, upstream if not always out of earshot from the yodeling youths. In that same year so momentous for our state and the Sierras and the trees, 1850, Bean Creek was settled by a family of that name a few miles nearer its source. We know nearly nothing of the Ohlone who foraged there; the difficulty of extracting felled timber from bottom of canyons preserved a few first growth redwoods despite fires nearly a century ago that devastated the Mount.

Later that day, I go with Leo, Layne, Bob and Chris to an art gallery. My attention focuses on "LA to San Berdoo" by Jim MacKenzie. He took shots of what he saw along the rail route that passes mainly industrial parks, warehouses (much of the 75% of truck-freighted items from China to the U.S. comes in via ships at Long Beach and then's loaded up the freeways to these vast distribution sites), and my lifelong pet rant, ticky-tacky little boxes as houses and malls and acedia. My favorite photo: "Gated Homes from 300k" bannered in front of a tagged, graffiti and trash-strewn end of a cul-de-sac with the San Gabriel Mountains behind it, barely visible. Fittingly, neither my wife nor I could afford the $395 or so displayed or the unframed $165 print of this image, but in our own recession-prone postures, we sympathized with this shot taken by a native of Mentone, near where Layne once lived, in the semi-rural (within our "living memory") Inland Empire that both she and I shared for many years, sometimes even overlapping if unknown then to each other across fifty-odd miles.

From that art exhibit Leo and I went next door to Streetlight record store on Santa Cruz's main drag, Pacific Avenue. I admired a Galaxie 500 DVD, as I've been listening to them a lot lately and got Leo interested in them too. I turned later to find it proffered, Bob's kind gift to me. I also turned to meet myself as the subject once of Chris's rapid photos. Leo and I wandered happily; Layne found some videos perfect for work. (Speaking of day-glo, I made a note to look up "The Perfumed Garden" CD set. 82 tracks of British psychedelia, '65-'72!)

We met up with friends of Bob and Chris at Hoffman's on the main drag of this quintessential college town enriching this now-upscale and progressive resort for intellectuals, surfers, trustafarians-- and bums. Jazz filled the restaurant. I had salmon accentuated by a bottle of Rautberger's sour but filling Dunkel beer. While I liked my meal, the waitress declining to serve a party of seven at a significantly priced dinner a second helping of bread gratis appeared churlish. As we left, the same woman came out to ask if we'd meant to take the remainder of the meat loaf; as it was Chris's friend who'd ordered it, he advised her that said male was in the bathroom to where she could deliver said leftovers.

We played Scattergories the last night together; I am notoriously ill-tempered when competition and timing are involved, a trait inherited by my eldest son as his ACT preparation has revealed to us. My overwrought performance might have diminished the ease of parting for Bob and Chris. But, next morning, we missed our hosts already.

Stuck in Fourth of July traffic near Salinas, we made it a long but uneventful trip back towards home. Amazingly, stocked with snacks in the car, nobody had to stop all the way down until a hundred miles from home at what's become a second ritual the past few trips (as it was not there before then) at Murray's Family Farm off the 5 at Copus Road near the Grapevine. First time there, I was angered by a couple who in a hundred degree heat had left their pooch in their SUV, no window opened even. I was about to go to the store to alert the owner when they came back, and I stared daggers at them, half-wishing I'd deflated a tire of the vehicle but knowing the dog would have suffered more. Next time there, I entered the Murray's bathroom and found a wallet left behind, which I took to the clerk, who found in it a South Carolina license and information he'd use to track down the owner, who'd left it a half-hour before, he estimated.

This time, I entered and while I was availing myself of the facilities, a woman opened the door. She told me, as I was immobilized, that the door had not been locked securely. No, not the waitress with the leftover meat loaf. Well, another odd encounter, and on the way out in the corridor I again apologized as did she, but we both handled it smoothly, I suppose!

That's about it for this journey. On the way back, I reflected on my reading the way down, Michael Downing's "Shoes Outside the Door: Desire, Devotion, and Excess at San Francisco's Zen Center." (2001, about the scandal in 1983 caused by the successor to Shunryu Suzuki, Richard Baker. See my review of David Chadwick's biography of Suzuki, "Crooked Cucumber.") In the turbulent wake of these immigrants, who sailed to Gold Mountain not for wealth but wisdom, and forged a cultural vanguard and retail juggernaut for Western Buddhism, Downing examines who pays for those who dream.

Mount Hermon filled in a lake to build a field for campers and increase the parking lots to draw in more paying guests. They damaged their share of the Bean Creek watershed to lure thrill seekers rather than spiritual seekers. Other Christians, at La Grand Chartreuse, solved their "economical hard times" by brewing liqueur. This also kept the austere recluses isolated from their tippling customers.

Tassajara wrestled with how to sustain its own community of dreamers. It lies at the bottom of a very remote canyon. But unlike the distantly situated Carthusians, they are not celibate. Men and women join, unlike traditional monasteries Buddhist or Catholic. They meet, they mate, they breed. They live 150 miles from San Francisco. So, who cares for this brood of believers? These questions never faced Buddhists before, ever. How do you start a monastery from scratch with little water in harsh wilderness in the '60s, full of The City's impecunious dreamers? You pay them stipends to sit doing "zazen," baking bread, boiling soup, feeling groovy in the search for enlightenment. But, sites must be bought; bills must be paid.

I've found myself intrigued by the challenges of running Tassajara as the first non-Asian, co-ed, non-celibate foundation of Buddhists in history. By the way, Gary Snyder appears. He and Allen Ginsberg bought that Nevada County site-- as a mooted alternative early on to Tassajara. The third point in this NorCal Zen triangle, Marin County's Green Gulch Farm across the hills and bay from Contra Costa, earns this pause early on from Downing: "maybe we all are at odds with where we live. Rich soil, clean water, and cool air nurture a landscape's wild and ramshackle nature." (xvi)

Back in the city, back at work, I cannot carry away the stream, the summit, or the breezes from more temperate or less peopled terrains with me. I've never visited a Buddhist shrine. I sidle away from the Christian campers. And I haven't tried Chartreuse. But I can try to incorporate Zen's lessons from nature, and how we can tame our own wills to more peacefully live within wherever we must toil, far from affluent Marin, arid Tassajara, or San Francisco's Painted Ladies. Or Victorians in Grass Valley, creeks in the Santa Cruz watershed. If nearer the asphalted and franchised horizons of half of California, for my weary eyes. Tastes stick with me, and smells, and textures.

So, I've been eating lots of cherries the past month. Tangerines fill winters, cherries and berries summer. Can't pass them up. Those Bings from Murray's filled me today along with my oatmeal; the blackberry flat's already recruited into my wife's cake. Spring passes, fruits ripen, and I grow older.


tamerlane said...

You drove right by my barn, tovarish. (But I was on Irish Beach at the time.) Stop in for a -- possibly fancy -- beer next time!

Fionnchú said...

I will, even if I can't ride a horse.