by Peg Whelley
A story about a driving trip taken through central California in 1994.
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San Francisco -- it is to some extent, a legend to people of my generation. It was here that the summer of love happened, and here that Ken Keesey got the bus together. I never really understood flower power until after I arrived in this city. Flowers were everywhere, and blooming alyssum filled the cracks in the sidewalks. California poppies and other flowers lit up vacant lots. Such a charmed place that has weeds that look like gardens!
We stayed at a pretty B&B, the Willows Inn, which was between the US Mint and the Castro district. It was a good location to be able to visit my friend. This area was convienat to bus and subway lines. "The Haight" was a strenuous hike over the hill on which we were located. It was explained to us when we made our reservations that the inn catered to gay people, not surprising in a city that has the highest percentage of gays in the US. It was charming, the staff was helpful and considerate and the breakfast, including the morning paper, was luscious, and served in bed. Even the price was good. What more could you need? I would have given anything for a healthy friend.
We bought a 3 day Metro pass, and explored the city for the next few days. Then we rented a car and headed down the coast on US 1, past the public beaches that formed the coast. They were beautiful, long stretches of unpopulated sand, but due to the Davis current, the water was frigid enough to be unswimmable as far south as we were going. My husband, Rick, wanted to visit his college roommates, now living near San Luis Obispo. Other than that, we didn't have any plans. At a McDonalds somewhere north of Santa Cruz, we decided to head for Mt. Madonna Park, and pitch our tent that we had taken with us. Normally, we plan a "big" vacation once a year. We get some plane tickets, and go to the general area we want to go to. This year we chose central California. We're experienced car campers, and usually bring our backpacking gear on our vacations. We have two army style duffel bags which our loaded packs are placed in for the flight. We also bring a well aired out backpacking stove. I have actually seen guards at airports take them apart and sniff them. They don't want fumes starting an explosion on board. We purchase fuel at our destination. We also bring a Styrofoam cooler. Sometimes we pack our dehydrated food into it at home before we leave, and use duct tape to secure the top on and for a handle. Even though the airlines haven't guaranteed it, they have always been undamaged. We figure we could always pick up a replacement at a discount store if something did happen. During our camping part of our trip, we try to get block ice for our cooler to keep milk and perishables cold. Block ice lasts longer, but usually we have to settle for cubes.
Mt. Madonna Park, and all the public parks we stayed at, did not have hot and cold running water at the common bathroom, just cold running water. Hot showers cost extra at the bathhouse, found at a central location. The campground was almost on top of a mountain, with a view that was unbeatable. We woke up to the sound of quails foraging in the bushes. This being Friday, we realized that we would have to get our next campsite early or we would have to go for more expensive or inconvenient accommodations. We asked some tips from our native Californian neighbor across the street in the campground, and left early in the morning.
We stopped to see the Mission of San Juan Bautista, the best preserved example of a working mission in California. Then planed to look for a campsite south of Monterey. Surprisingly, all the missions are owned by the Catholic Church, and are open to the public for a small fee that goes for upkeep. They were carefully restored, but not necessarily totally accurately, due to their present needs- they are working parishes. Most have a museum attached, and include a well-kept garden courtyard, sprinkled with a few religious statues, and sometimes with a few Franciscans or parishioners discretely buried there. They would be wonderful places of prayer and meditation if it weren't for the pilgrims and tourists who are in every nook and cranny. San Juan Bautista was restored in 1976 to about the 1820 era. It had some good antique statuary, and an intricate imported Mexican altar. The mission was built on the San Andreas fault, which is located at the bottom of the hill that forms one side of the plaza that the mission is on, so the church has had to be rebuilt a few times. The rest of the plaza is a state historical park, restored to what it would have been at the end of the mission era. Unfortunately we didn't have enough time to explore it.
We lit out across the Salinas Valley, Steinbeck country. John Steinbeck was such an excellent writer that the valley looked as he described it in East of Eden, still dusty, but carpeted with green lettuce, Each farmer's spread proudly displaying a sign with his name on it. Twenty minutes later we were past Monterey, and back on a two-laner winding through Carmel. Carmel Highlands is the last of civilization going south, into Big Sur. Big Sur was almost too spiritual, the cliffs just too big, diving too steeply into the ocean to be accessible to mortals. Suspended on a thin road between heaven and sea, we saw one spectacular vista after another. No one appears to live here, knowing that this spot really belongs to God. We got to Ventana Campground at about four. It was filled up, or so the sign said. One thing that touring has taught us is to ask, despite the signs. After talking to the attendant for a bit, we had a not-so-ideal overflow site, just big enough for our backpacking tent. It was located in one of the redwood groves that nestle in the deeper depressions in these chaparral-covered hills.
The next morning, we went back to Monterey. I always liked the sound of that city's name, a romantic Spanish name, but somehow still American. And like most of the tourists who visit here, we headed straight toward Cannery Row. I don't know what I expected, as I had known that this street had been undergoing urban renewal, but reading about it is not the same as being surrounded by it. The first thing that caught my eye as I turned onto the street was a banner strung across the road advertising new condos with a view. The cannery had closed in the forties after the great schools of pilchards disappeared into tin cans. The weeds are still in the cracks in the sidewalks on one end of the row, but the derelict sign on one of the abandoned buildings looked retouched for our benefit. The docks were all gone, but seashells were still being washed up on the beach, the only spot for good shelling we found on our California trip. We wandered off the street and along the shore and climbed back up on to the street. Cannery Row had been Yuppied. Nothing remained of the scruffy working harbor Steinbeck loved so deeply. I nearly missed the bronze bust of him because of the barriers for new construction.
Across the street, the site of Lee Chong's Grocery had been turned into a slightly eccentric looking souvenir shop. Rick just about pushed me in; I had already bought my Monterey sweat-shirt next door. As I walked in, I saw on my left the only books by Steinbeck I saw for sale in Cannery Row. Every book still in print in paperback of his was there. When I purchased Sweet Thursday, it was suggested by the cashier that I talk to Jan in the back room. I went back there and immediately saw the little room off to the side dedicated to Steinbeck. It was packed with stuff, pictures and yellowed clippings of his life, done with much more love than skill, with enough memorabilia to form kind of a three dimensional scrap book. They hadn't forgotten the man who made their store and the street famous, inadvertently changing derelict Cannery Row into a prime upscale tourist Mecca. His memorial was in the room farthest back; the middle room was filled with antiques. The great old glass case was the very one Lee Chong used; Jan stood behind his cash register that couldn't record anything over four dollars. She told me about all the characters of Cannery Row, most of them people who actually lived, forever frozen and presented to us in wonderful novels. As I was talking to her, I wondered if she was one of the grown-up children that Doc, the major character in Cannery Row, used to help along as they collected their sea shells under the docks of the cannery. There was something in how she talked that made me feel that she had known them all. Alicia, the owner, showed up just as we were about to leave. She showed off the flashy, exquisitely crafted antique jewelry she was wearing. I was glad to have met the person responsible for a tiny piece of Steinbeck's Monterey saved as The Cannery Row Shell Co. I hope they continue to keep the faith.
We decided not to go to the aquarium, not so much because Jan disliked it so, but mostly because now it was nearly noon and the line to get in stretched around the block. We stopped for some tacos and took the 17 mile scenic drive around the golf courses to see the wind-shaped Monterey Pines at Pebble Beach. It was odd to see such a rare ecological region in private hands, endangered species of trees in people's front yards. Some sea lions had taken over a large rock island, and were either fishing in the ocean or basking in the sun. I don't know if it was them or the failing septic systems that smelled to high heavens.
The Carmel Mission was next, the biggest construction project of Father Serra. Of them all, this was the best kept up, probably because it's the center of a very wealthy parish, and Father Serra's headquarters to boot. The historic displays were awesome, down to a typical drawing room of the padre. We took it slow driving back to the campsite, stopping at each beautiful vista, and taking pictures and even a hike down to the sea. Here in Big Sur, even the surf is bigger than reality. It's something that is actually dangerous to get too close to. We watched the sunset from high up on a point, the sun reflecting brightly in a pearly opalescence off the ocean far below, then turning yellow as it dove into the ocean, turning the air around it a warm pink.
The next day we broke camp and drove south down the coast, through coffee-table-book scenery. We almost got some type of sensory overload here, since there was a scale and rawness that was overwhelming. The mountains were big and rangy, with only chaparral covering their steep slopes, not softened in any way by trees. We were still stopping at every place to freeze in pictures the grandeur, the scent of the sea, or the distant sounds of the sea lions basking far below us, on some inaccessible beach. Going towards San Simeon, it gets progressively dryer, so that trees are no longer nestled in valleys, but scattered thinly over the dried grass. Close to San Simeon there developed a plain between the mountains and the sea, still with great cliffs, but now with occasional beaches. It was even drier here, with thin fogs. The mountains were more like huge rolling hills, and were softer. Now a savanna-like flora predominated, with deep green oaks, sprinkled over the dried straw landscape. This was all the Hearst cattle ranch. Essentially, from his castle up on a mountain at San Simeon, he owned all the eye could see. This was a very California place. His palace was massively gaudy, something only the terminally ostentatious would build in New England. But what did he care, he was rich enough to set taste, or to think he could. The whole thing felt a little unreal. It amazed me that only one person who controlled so much, built something that looked like a museum infected with Medieval cancer. Hearst was a great collector, not a great connoisseur, so he had everything. It just wasn't put together very tastefully. I was impressed with a lovely little medieval painting in one room, but in the next there another one, Gaud-awful, but still authentically medieval. These things were mixed up with antiques of all periods in a kind of exuberant jumble. He searched all through Europe for his stuff, with an emphasis on the Middle Age. Many things were imbedded throughout his house, including every door jam, window casing, and ceiling removed from some continental dwelling built, of course, before 1750. He had scoured every medieval ruin for his portals and doorjambs, and mixed them up with a kind of Hollywood version of grand lux. Personally, he wasn't nearly as bad as his reputation. He was a conscientious congressman and a responsible boss. Unfortunately, he invented the tabloids. He was famous for the weekends that he threw for the rich powerful, and for Hollywood stars.. He had to do this because he was too isolated from anybody to be more casual. As a home, it seamed too geared to one person's flamboyant taste for anyone else to want. The state now runs tours. For about ten dollars you get a bus ride up to the castle and a guided tour around it.
We drove on to Atascadero. Lining the highway, we saw the burnt remains of this year's forest fire, actually a brush fire. There were signs here and there thanking the fire fighters for saving peoples' homes. Brush fires can do as much damage as forest fires, especially since this part of California had a considerable build-up of fuel over the years. My husband's college roommate settled here, and we could see on the hill where the fire was stopped from his deck. He had a nice Californian family, all healthy and tanned, the kind of people who give you hope for the future. This area is the heart of central California, not very heavily populated. Along with a kind of western hipness, its a suburb without any city core. We looked at the mission at San Luis Obispo and the downtown around it. Although the area around the Mission looked old, it was built in the past forty years. The newness of California always jarred me. Almost everything is less than one generation old. Anything before the Civil War can qualify as a monument. We spent an afternoon at Moro Rock beach. This wide sandy beach, totally dominated by a rock the size of a mountain, still bordered cold ocean water, and had a thin fog which cooled the temperature from the nineties to the sixties on the beach. I wasn't comfortable when I took off my jacket. It was chilly.
After our visit here we went west, toward the Sierras, over the coastal mountains. I wanted to see the San Andreas fault, the place where two plates collide, so Rick took us to Parkfield, where they have regular earthquakes, spaced twenty years apart. One is due any moment. Great bluffs, half sheared off, bordered one side of the village. That was the big fault. The town seemed almost deserted except for a fellow tourist. We got into a conversation, and took his suggestion to take a back road across the mountains, which was as pretty as he described, and a bit of a shortcut to boot. Then we shot across the central valley, surprisingly flat, covered with miles and miles of vegetables. The mountains steadily grew closer, and shortly we found ourselves climbing up into Sequoia National Park.
When you enter Sequoia National Park, you're actually at the base of the Sierra mountains. The Sequoia trees start at higher elevations, where the additional rainfall up there allows them to survive. When this area used to be wetter, the redwoods thrived. Now they are actually dying out, because the mountain climate is becoming drier. The Sequoias are now restricted to groves, most of which are in a narrow band on the west slope extending north to Yosemite National Park. Sequoias are grandly immense. They don't get their characteristic red bark until they are as big as a fully mature tree on the East coast. From there they have a couple of millennia to go before they are toppled by a storm. Nothing attacks and kills them and they are almost fireproof. Once you get over your awe of them, it is amazing that something so old and so big can give you a feeling of comfort - the feeling that everything is all right. It's almost feels like those giants will protect you. After pitching our tent, we decided to go for a hike. There were plenty of interesting trails in this park, I wish we had more time hiking. So, we put on some suntan lotion, since we would be going through open woods, and hiked into a grove, then up to a lookout. It was a nice sunset in the wilderness, with only my husband for company.
We came back to find that some Germans had also decided to occupy our campsite. Since we were going to be here only a day, we didn't say anything. Actually, the amount of German we remembered wasn't enough to tell them much of anything, even though we tried to have a conversation. There were a lot of foreigners in this park, especially on the trails. One of the rangers told us that there isn't any wilderness left in Europe, and they crave it.
The next day, we drove up King's Canyon. This canyon is actually deeper than the Grand Canyon, but since there isn't a steep cliff drop off, it's less spectacular. A nice drive, with awesome views, but we'd wished we had spent our time hiking in the Sequoias instead.
Our visit here wouldn't have been complete without seeing the biggest living things on earth. So at sunset, we found ourselves looking up at trees so big and tall that their branches looked like added on decorations. Some of the Sequoias in that grove were over three-thousand years old, and markedly bigger than the other giants in the park. Along the pathways there were squirrels begging for food. People were feeding them despite the stern warnings all over the park that the small rodents could be carrying bubonic plague.
We were worried about the upcoming Labor Day weekend crush. It was Thursday, and we had heard so much about the popularity of Yosemite Park that we took the ranger's suggestion and got up early. He suggested to us to get to our next destination before noon in order to get a campsite. There wasn't any quick way over to Yosemite Park, although it wasn't very far by air. So, we descended into the central valley again, and cut through Fresno, where we stopped to get groceries. We got to the park entrance before noon. We found that we didn't have any reason to worry. The rangers at the entrance even offered us one night at the campground in the valley, the site that is impossible to get reservations for. We went instead to the area that allowed us to stay at the same campsite for three nights, and got a great site. Then we went off exploring the rim of the gorge. We hiked to the top of Sentinel Dome for our first glimpse of the valley, a spot which I would recommend to anyone. Yosemite's valley walls were the biggest drop-off I had ever seen. The rest of the day we spent exploring the side trails along the rim by car and foot, finally seeing the sunset from Glacier Point.
The next day, we went into Yosemite's valley. We were back in civilization, with thousands of people from all over the globe. Yosemite is a true wonder of the world, so it's natural that it should attract so many people. All the services and stores and the showers were there. I noticed a lot of people never get out of the valley. We however, being hardier types, decided to climb up to Nevada Falls the next day, first spending the rest of the day walking up the valley past Half Dome. Some of the falls on the walls, like Yosemite Falls, dry up in the summer, but Nevada Falls flows year round. It turned out to be a strenuous but pleasant climb. Usually, when you climb up, you don't get vistas all along the way, but there you had beautiful views of the valley walls all the way up. There was a really dramatic traverse just before reaching the falls, too. We still had a lot of energy left at the top, so we climbed into Little Yosemite Valley, and then up a bit higher on the trail that leads to the top of Half Dome. At this point we stopped. Our knees had been injured a few months ago, and this was the biggest climb we had done all summer. It would have been risky to go any further. The bare granite could have given our knees a real pounding. Rick imagined us crawling back down in the middle of the night.
We stopped and watched the climbers on the cables strung up for them on the back side of Half Dome. The hikers were all in a line, about one every ten feet or so. I had never seen people lined up to climb like this in my entire life. On our way down, we stopped to soak our feet in the Merced River. We were so quiet that a Merganser and her duckling almost floated by us. We got down OK, and really weren't that sore the next day.
Rick wanted to see Touloume Meadows in the center part of the park. The scenery on the way was lovely. The granite domes that Yosemite is famous for are all over the area we drove through, and your perspective is to look over at them, rather than up or down at them as we had been doing. The area was also much drier there, since you entered the lee of the Sierras. It was off-season for the meadows, so we pushed on to the northeast park entrance, where we watched a hawk catch a mouse. For one reason or another, Rick had never climbed above 10,000 feet. He wanted to stop at the park gate because it was at 9,950 feet. A trail behind the ranger station led up to the backcountry, and that would get us over 10,000 feet easily. When we got to that point it looked like we were near a ridge, so we continued to the top of it. Some people on the trail there said there was a nice tarn not too far, so we hiked a little farther. From there Gaylor Peak didn't look too much farther so we climbed up to its 11,006 foot summit. This used to be mining country, and one of the people we found at the top pointed out the old silver mines, tailings and shafts.
Our next destination took us past Mono Lake, the strangely beautiful lake that Los Angeles almost drained during the drought. It was strange seeing such a big lake without seeing trees on the hills surrounding it. The water level higher than the pictures I had seen of it, but the docks and beach houses were still far from the current shore. We went north through Nevada to Lake Tahoe, taking the required stop at the first casino at the border to gamble a few bucks. In the attempt to make up for some of the time spent on the hike to Gaylor Peak, Rick drove a bit too fast and was stopped by a cop. The officer was rather nice, and gave us directions that would allow us to by-pass most of the town of South Lake Tahoe. We aren't much for the flash of that type of place, and he saved us an hour or more of driving through bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Lake Tahoe itself was very beautiful, a nice deep blue, totally surrounded by steep piney hills. On the Nevada side, it was wall-to-wall casinos, with holiday traffic going at a crawl. The second after crossing the border, the casinos were replaced with a profusion of tee-shirt shops, motels and restaurants. Rick wanted to show me Emerald Bay a scenic point, a little out of town, and then we were supposed to go to Georgetown, where Rick had been a forest ranger. We got to a state park just before the overlook and I suggested that we check and see if there were any campsites left. We were pretty weary, and it was nearly nightfall. There was one spot available and we actually had a choice of campsites, because not all people who had reservations had claimed their site yet. We were so pooped that we didn't even think about the night life over in the town. The bear boxes, which are great steel food lockers, took care of the night life in the park.
The next day we drove around the lake a little, and then headed toward the Desolation Valley Wilderness, which was the aptly named area between us and Georgetown. We stopped at Placerville, the boomtown of the gold rush, for lunch. Then we went on to Columa, the site of Sutter's Mill, where the gold rush began. People were still standing in the stream, panning gold here, something that I have always wanted to do. We drove the half dozen or so miles to Georgetown. On the way there we saw occasional areas that were burned. Rick said that some part of Eldorado National Forest burns every year. When we got in Georgetown, we found it had been discovered a bit by tourists. It was more prosperous than when Rick had left. The best part of the trip was finding out that the librarian he remembered so fondly was also remembered by the townspeople, and the building which housed the library where she had worked so long had been named in her and her sister's honor. Her sister, in her nineties, was even still alive. We went to the forest service's district headquarters and while no one was left from Rick's days there, the rangers were informative about the changes in the area. The headquarters had grown considerably, and Rick had a good time looking around. However, we were dallying, and we had to get back to San Francisco by 6:00 p.m. to keep our hotel room. Everyone else in California, it seems, had the same idea- to get back to San Francisco-and what should have been a two-and-a-half hour drive took much longer.
We checked into the "Summer of Love" room at the Red Victorian B&B in Haight-Ashbury. This hotel is something of an institution in the area. A Victorian structure that survived the great earthquake, it was purchased in the late seventies by Sami Sunchild, an artist specializing in meditative art. She skillfully redecorated the hotel into theme rooms, using her imagination and a healthy dose of nostalgia from the sixties. I swear, I had lived in our rented room in the late sixties. It was authentic, from the Indian cotton bedspread, second hand furniture and to the Grateful Dead posters on the walls. The only difference is that the posters were framed, not stuck up by tacks We dined across the street in a Chinese restaurant, and turned in early. This was our last night of vacation; we were too pooped to do much of anything else.
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