Posted by: Bob McMichael | March 8, 2011

Report on California

San Simeon State Park

San Simeon State Park

Just returned from a ten-day, 2,750 mile road trip from Boise to California. Where to begin…

First, we vowed never to take another winter road trip that required crossing a mountain range. Second, we vowed never to drive in Southern California again. Next to our wedding vows, these are probably the most serious ones my wife and I have made.

Despite the “never-ness” of the vows, it was a pretty good trip, although – as usual – dominated by excessive driving time.

The Eurovan

We had hoped to take the quickest route from Boise to the Bay Area, which takes you over Donner Pass on I-80. The forecast for that area predicted at least two feet of snow and 95-mph winds for our travel day. I knew they would close the road, and they did. Our only other option added over 200 miles to the first day, but we decided to leave extra early so we could meet our friends that evening for dinner and a concert in San Francisco.

We woke up to several inches of fresh snow in our driveway, but hit the road by 5:30 anyway. Thirteen tense hours and dozens of twisty mountain passes later, we’d managed about 600 miles, 118 miles shy of our goal. The Eurovan didn’t even blink at the conditions, which were among the worst I’ve experienced. Howling winds, blinding snow flurries, uneven packed ice, black ice, drifting snow, slush ruts and more.

Ice-caked EVC

Ice-caked EVC

I stopped to pee at one point before leaving the snowy roads and was amazed at the amount of ice caked and clinging on the van. I had chains with me, but never needed them. The Eurovan handled the roads better than my 4WD Tacoma would have. Still, with the frigid temperatures and our tattered nerves we wimped out and got a motel room and a 2-pound burrito in Williams, California. We missed our friends, a good meal and a great jazz gig but got a good, digestion-enhanced sleep in this cute town in the heart of California’s central valley.

The Bay Area

Angus on the Fire Trail

Berkeley's Fire Trail

I lived in Berkeley from 1982 to 2000. Leaving it was hard, and the way it showed itself to us made my wife ask me why I ever left this place. It couldn’t have been prettier. After stopping for caffeine at the original Peet’s Coffee store, we drove up into the hills and took Angus for a walk in the only place we found in California that allows dogs to run off-leash (more later on this). The “Fire Trail” high in the hills winds through dense stands of eucalyptus and pine, and offers breathtaking views of San Francisco. I ran on this trail with a good friend almost every day while writing my dissertation in 1996. Where does the time go?

We met up with some dear old friends for lunch at Zachary’s Pizza on College Avenue in Oakland, just across the Berkeley border, then headed to the North Face Outlet where I’ve gotten great deals on outdoor gear since my college days in the ’80s. Only tiny or huge sizes, and not so much gear anymore, so we saved our dough for dinner.

$100 Bill Jerk

$100 Bill Jerk

Crossing the Oakland Bay Bridge provided a shock since the toll was $5 instead of the $2 it’s been since 1982. We had a long time to take in the sights when the guy in front of us paid with a $100 bill; the attendant had to make some phone calls, get out his microscope to examine the fibers in the bill, and fingerprint the customer, who spent his waiting time picking broken glass out of his car and throwing it on the ground in front of us. This was our first glimpse of some of the downsides of civilization. Finally on our way again we saw the possible reason for the toll increase: the new bridge they’re building, a lower, gleaming, curvy thing that promises to last longer and not pancake when The Big One hits.

Marina Motel, San Francisco

Marina Motel

We had a reservation at the Marina Motel because it looked cool on the Internet and accepted dogs and because it wasn’t far from Fisherman’s Wharf where my 10K race was early the next morning. A relic from the stylish late 1930s, this motor-court  was nice but small. I wish I’d thought to take a photo of the Eurovan in one of the numerous one-car garages; not much of a margin, it fit like a bread loaf in its cellophane sack.

Golden Gate Bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

After settling in and recovering from the 15-minute parking job we headed over the Golden Gate Bridge to have dinner with another dear old friend in Mill Valley whom I hadn’t seen in almost 20 years. We had a great time catching up, reminiscing, and eating good food.

We live in a strange time: the pace and stress of contemporary life seems to separate us from friends when it’s not convenient – because of geography or time or both – but the plethora of technology – Facebook, texting, Skype, google – aims or claims to connect us. In pre-Internet days, I most likely would have lost track forever of most of the friends I saw on this trip, but with the help of these tools was able to find or be found and re-connect. This is the topic of another blog altogether, but it’s interesting to think about the forces that separate us and bring us together. The important thing is how we manage those forces and stay human in the face of them.

Embarcadero 10K

It's gotta be the shoes

Sunday morning I ran my first 10K in 15 years, and actually set a PR. I can only attribute this to living and training at 3,000 feet, and maybe the excitement of running through Fisherman’s Wharf and the Embarcadero. Or maybe it was my super-blowout-sale fluorescent orange Haile Gebrselassie model Adidas Adizero Adios shoes. It seemed odd to me that, coming from the silly town of Boise, Idaho, I would get so many comments on my flashy shoes in one of the most stylish cities on the planet. I think I might have been shamed into running as fast as I could.

After the race we met another “lost” friend for breakfast, then headed south along the coast and camped at San Simeon State Park just north of Cambria, near Hearst Castle.

Elephant seals

Elephant seals

On the way, we saw two spectacular sights: hordes of elephant seals basking in the setting sun, and a customized Mercedes-Benz Unimog from Germany on a trip around the globe. Each sight was equally striking and strange. Germans really seem to go for adventure travel; see my post about the Real Long Way Round.

The Unimog

The Unimog

The next morning we continued south along the central coast – to me, the only remaining livable place in California: it’s gorgeous, has a very temperate climate, and relatively few people. The reason it is that way is because of its lack of jobs and industry, and it’s far enough from the Bay Area and LA to stay desirably un-populated. Which reminds me of another vow my wife and I made: to start playing the Lottery.

 

SoCal

Welcome to LA

Welcome to LA

After a harrowing drive through LA at the beginning of rush hour, we got to my home town of Laguna Beach in time to run Angus at the local fenced-in dog park. Our little guy is a great traveler, never complains, and rolls with the punches, taking what limited off-leash time he can get, which – in California – was, with the exceptions of Laguna’s dog park and the Fire Trail in Berkeley, illegal. Yet another vow: if we lived in California we would not have a dog.

Junipero Serra with Indian Boy

Junipero Serra with Indian Boy

We visited the Mission San Juan Capistrano, which I hadn’t seen since grade school. I was surprised by the complete absence of any information at this important historical site of the horrendous treatment of Native Americans by the missionaries. Instead, the “historical” video they offer is a thinly-veiled plea for donations and a shameful puff-piece on early California history and the missions’ terrible role in it.

Watching people watch birds at the Newport Back Bay

Watching people watch birds at the Newport Back Bay

After the trip to the mission, we shifted to birding mode and went to Doheny State Beach to view the huge seagull congregation and then the Newport Back Bay, where my mom brought my brother and me to watch birds when we were little. We watched marbled godwits, black-necked stilts, cinnamon teal, coots, sandpipers, egrets (both snowy and great), American widgeon, grebes, and lots of other birds doing their things in the bay. This felt as much like being “home” as anything on the trip.

It was good to see my mom and step-dad, and to enjoy Laguna, even though I kept saying, “This isn’t the town I grew up in.” The difference? Money, money, money. Way too many cars parked on residential streets, no doubt because the postage-stamp sized lots have been filled to the edges with remodeled bungalows whose square footage is maxed out with living space. The $100K Mercedes can sit in the street.

Laguna Beach High School Track

LBHS Track

I wanted to run a track workout at my high school alma mater, Laguna Beach High School. When I attended (1976-1980), our mascot was a goateed artist holding a brush and palette (still the name of the school newpaper; Laguna Beach originated as an artist colony in the early 20th Century). A few years ago – perhaps in an attempt to protect the children from the homophobic taunts I received while competing at opposing schools when I was an “Artist” (Laguna Beach, historically, has has had a vibrant and large gay community, although I’m not sure if that still holds) – they changed the mascot to a wave, and now go by The Breakers. The track, which is now a state-of-the-art rubberized beauty surrounding an Astro-Turf football field, is recently closed to the public. There’s an ongoing debate over the track closure; apparently the new principal has convinced the school board that allowing the public to use the track is an invitation to child molesters, while justifiably annoyed locals who pay taxes supporting the public school can’t use it. I had a good run along the beach instead. The times they are still a-changin’.

Gamble House entry

Gamble House entry

Next was a lovely visit with my dad and step-mom in Long Beach. Angus got to meet Maggie (his aunt?) the Sheltie, who quickly became enamored of the little guy, who could not have seemed less interested. What can you do? My dad took us to my parents’ home town of Pasadena so Leslie could see for the first time the gorgeous grounds at the Huntington Library and the magnificent Gamble House, the premier Greene & Greene creation, where we got a tour of the home from a wonderful docent. It was nice to have a break from driving, and my dad took us past all three of his childhood homes in Pasadena, as well as my mom’s old house there where I spent lots of time as a kid visiting grandparents.

Faux Bois

Faux Bois

Faux Bois artist

Faux Bois artist

Oh, at the Huntington, we watched a masterful artist at work restoring the “faux bois” (fake wood, made of sculpted, steel-reinforced cement) arbors, and learned a lot about the nearly extinct craft from him. Fascinating stuff.

The Return

1350 miles down, and we began the trek home a week after leaving. Because of a miscommunication (Leslie and I each thought the other wanted to return along the Northern California coast, when we both actually wanted to take the shortest route home), we bit off nearly more than we could chew. Blasting through LA’s terrifying traffic, in which we very nearly died in a horrific fireball that was almost caused by a “totally agro” teenaged girl, was like nothing I’ve ever seen at 6:15 a.m. It was a jam-packed parking lot where everyone was going 80. California’s budget crisis is nowhere more apparent than its crumbling roads peppered with potholes big enough for an armoir. The dilapidated state of California’s massive network of freeways would embarrass any Third World country. It’s true for the whole state, but Southern California is particularly bad, and – since SoCal is most prominently defined by The Car – the pitifully dangerous shape of its arterial roadways is quite ironic.

Angus greeting mallard

Angus greeting mallard

Avenue of the Giants

Avenue of the Giants

We took the 405 to the 5 to the 580 to the 680 to the 780 to the 37 to the 29 to the 101 to the 1 and made it to McKerricher State Park just north of Ft. Bragg in about 13 hours. $35 to camp there, and the showers required numerous quarters. Spectacular scenery, though, if you can see past the deteriorating infrastructure of the state. Which, on that morning, was no problem. We got up and did it again, going up 101 except for a detour through the Avenue of the Giants, a gorgeous roadway (except for the horrendous condition of the asphalt) through massive redwoods lining the Eel River. We passed the Trees of Mystery, lots of Bigfoot souvenir stands, Humboldt State College, broke the law again at Trinidad by letting Angus run free on the beach, and made it to Bend, Oregon 13 hours later. We’d hoped to camp, but it was below freezing and I was wiped and – worst of all – Deschutes Brewery and Pub had a wait of over an hour for dinner – so we checked into another Motel 6.

Burns Hilanders

Burns Hilanders

Our final day of driving only took about 7 hours, bringing us back through Burns, Home of the Hilanders [sic]. You would think they could spend the extra money to spell it right, since it’s something you live with forever. The town’s namesake, Scotland’s most well-known poet Robert Burns, must constantly roll in his grave.

That’s it. A great trip with lots of incredible things, nothing terrible (except for the amount spent on gasoline – the Eurovan takes premium fuel). A few lessons learned, some vows made, and a couple of new mods coming for the EVC in advance of the real car-camping season that can’t get here soon enough.

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Responses

  1. […] Road trip to California […]

  2. We did about the same trip at about the same time–except we blasted straight down from Tacoma to Laguna to get there for Christmas. We took Tess on her first multi-night trip as an only dog, so we stopped a bit more frequently (which was nicer for us too–it is so much driving). On the way, we stopped the night in Ashland, and then in San Luis Obispo after detouring through Silicon Valley (which is actually nastier than driving through OC). Spent several days in Laguna at my parents’ house (they are in New Zealand until spring), and then returned up I-5 and then decided to go back through the Oregon coast so drove from Redding over to Eureka and then up to Bandon, OR. Then, as we usualy do, we decided to heck with it let’s just get home a day earlier, and so drove from Bandon to Tacoma. Lots of driving, but Tess did just great and it was strangely relaxing on the road.

    Totally agree about how the Cal economy is showing in the roads and parks. Also, Laguna is NOT at all like it was when we were in school, and yes it’s because of the money, money, money. It’s nice to visit, and the weather is great, but the town is boring and self-satisfied. There is less diversity and hardly any quirkiness left. Oh well, there’s a reason we moved away.

    • Thanks for reading and sharing, Evelyn. You get the award for best (and most) comments on my blog. I’m glad you made it home safely, and that Tess had a good trip!


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