Tag Archives: california

Golden Land

19 Jul

This is the second in a two-part series on my recent trip to California. Here is part I.

The main attractions of my recent trips to California were its mountains and shorelines and deserts, but I devoted half of my adventure last week to the more populated portions of the Golden State. The jarring riches and contradictions of its natural environment match those of its people, who luxuriate in opulence or live in massive tent cities on its streets, extremes that a Midwesterner accustomed to a semblance of order needs some time to process. But all halfway decent chroniclers of travel revel in the dualities and contradictions they see, witnesses to the rich vastness of human experience. We can dive into urban chaos and venture off the grid and chew on it over time, slow thought exemplified after the mad rush in the moment.

I’m not very good at travel at leisurely paces, and in San Francisco, I have the perfect guide to facilitate a rush to drink in everything this city has to offer. My cousin Rob, an artist at his craft, gives my fellow Lost Coast hikers and I the grand tour. This is my third time in San Francisco in four years, and despite the inauspicious theft of all my camping gear on the first visit, it continues to deliver thanks to Rob’s curation. My first visit featured an unexpected visit to Pride Weekend and an escape to wine country, while the second was a moped-powered kickoff to another great adventure. San Francisco is a temperate city populated by extremes, stunning beauty and endless fog banks, mind-boggling wealth and its trappings twinned with the extreme poverty of tent cities where my old Eureka may yet live on. It starts with a Women’s World Cup watch party, meanders through botanical gardens and the cable car museum, and crosses that famous Art Deco bridge a couple of times, all before dumping me back at the airport all too quickly for everything but my wallet.

San Francisco’s true greatness comes through the things one consumes while in the city, and this is where Rob’s expertise is most useful. The crowning meal is the seafood feast at Bar Crudo on our full day in San Francisco after the Lost Coast hike, octopus and wine and crudo and oysters. But we also enjoy a decadent brunch at Brenda’s French Soul Food, with beignets and shrimp and grits, and a Greek fast casual rush to salads after four days of freeze-dried delicacies. For drinks, it’s an even wider-ranging tour: a mezcal bar, a cocktail bar on Russian Hill, a couple of neighborhood establishments, and a failed visit to the Hilton’s 43rd story, shrouded in fog. At its most ridiculous, there’s the Tonga Room: a former pool in the basement of a luxurious Fairmont hotel that now has a band on a moving boat in the pool, which enjoys periodic rain showers with thunder and lightning. A full pirate ship sprawls across the bar as a dance floor (complete with real reclaimed masts), there are tiki huts and real dugout canoes scattered about, and we have the privilege of tasting $17 mediocre mai tais. After bidding our older companions farewell on the final night, Rob and I wrap up with a nightcap at a beer bar from a group headquartered in Copenhagen. I’ve drunk it all in, all too literally.

Our trip to the Lost Coast involves a three-and-a-half hour meander up the 101, a highway that runs down the coastal spine of California. It’s a somewhat confused highway, ranging from six lanes to two on its trek northward based on what the topography will allow. It starts in ritzy Marin County, wanders up through Sonoma, and eventually arrives on the north coast. The road trip brings two familiar stops, the Russian River brewery on the way north and the Locals wine cooperative on the way south; I fly home with a few bottles stuffed inside my sleeping bag. Rob and I drive separately of the rest, freeing us to talk of baseball and music and for him to share the sad tale of Pete Buttigieg’s iMac. (Fresh off his Rhodes Scholarship, the future mayor gifted it to a teacher at his high school, who in turn passed it on to the sort of kid who might make use of it, a future Bay Area engineer; alas, it fell victim to a recent purge of the attic storage area by his parents.) The south end of redwood country is both as a dramatic and as kitschy as we’d hoped for, and we’re easily distracted by an endless array of entertaining sights. We spontaneously divert to drive through the Drive Thru Tree, a 2,400-year-old Redwood that some enterprising entrepreneur cut a car-sized hole through in some less environmentally sensitive era.

Big tree tourism aside, the economy of northern California is sustained principally by mind-altering substances. Somewhere in Mendocino County, the vineyards of wine country give way to businesses making puns about the herbal substances grown in greenhouses up in the hills. Over dinner in Garberville on the night before our hike, we share a cantina—the last place open in town, and still open only because they can make some money off of us—with a herd of Mexicans in stoner garb who populate the neighboring table. Connor, our Lost Coast Adventure Tours shuttle driver, regales us with tales of the marijuana industry and points out greenhouses not-so-secretly tucked away in the woods off the miserable washed out roads of this backcountry. He had teachers in high school growing plants on the side, he explains, and those smashed-in cars that litter the roadside here and there are the product of a land that doesn’t want many intruders. Connor speaks of Brazilian and Bulgarian incursions, all in pursuit of this ideal pot-growing climate, and laments the one-sided portrait of Humboldt County that came out of HBO’s Murder Mountain, a series that points out the region’s nation-leading disappearance rate and the places where the authorities will not go. Tales of rural Mexico come back to me, and not for the first time, I think the borders between our countries are sometimes far more arbitrary than many Americans would like to believe. Whatever one’s take on actual use of the drug, my two-hour meander through the hills only fuels my weirded-out feeling by the marijuana industry, both for its insufferable lazy stoner culture and the dark side of its industrial-scale cultivation that will likely go on whether pot itself is illegal or legal but regulated.

At its core, California is a state of escapes. It was the end of the line for Manifest Destiny, the Promised Land beyond the frontier. Its cities have always been some of America’s most alluring, even as they descend into crisis; one friend calls San Francisco utopia gone wrong, and Los Angeles dystopia gone right. And while we’ve tamed nearly every corner of it now save for a few Lost Coasts, that push to the brink is a constant, whether in Sacramento’s gold rush yesterday or the Bay Area’s tech industry today, or in the form of kids who try to pursue illusory dreams of stardom in LA. For all of California’s cool pretense, it is as neurotic a state as one can find, and if worldly glory isn’t there for the taking, it offers direct escapes to wine or IPAs or weed. California lives in the future, and that is not altogether a reassuring thought. The myth was long ago obvious to Joan Didion, and like anything built on a mythical future it neglects realities of history that formed it. Its myth was the American myth taken to its logical extreme, and its myth, like America’s, is coming due. At times I’m repulsed by the whole spectacle, but I can’t stop coming back for more hits.

Sacramento, my first destination on this trip and the last I’ll write about in my account, stands at some remove from this edge while still imbibing some of it, which may be why I liked the place. Sacramento is one of the thirty largest metropolitan areas in the country by any measure, larger than more culturally prominent peers like Pittsburgh or Vegas. Culturally, however, it’s dwarfed by the Bay Area and Los Angeles in its own state, and even San Diego in many ways. It is a seat of government with little in the way of major private industry, the rare California metro whose brushes with national attention, like John Sutter and the Folsom prison, are relics of the past. Its culture, my hosts explained, is a mash-up of Central Valley agriculture, Bay Area spillover, and a more rugged foothill culture stemming from the nearby Sierras. It’s also an ethnic melting pot, by some measures among the most integrated cities in the U.S., with large white and black and Asian and Hispanic populations. Syncretic places that don’t try too hard to be different have something going for them.

Compared to the chaos of San Francisco, Sacramento is a breath of fresh, if very hot, air. Its streets sit on a clear, leafy, clean grid. This is California, so it’s not cheap by any stretch, but it is still far more livable than the larger metros. It’s a flat city, with large swaths lower than the nearby Sacramento River, kept out of the city by levees. My host for the weekend recommends I drive up via a road along the levees of the Sacramento, and my journey feels like a warp into Southern bayou country with some citrus groves thrown in along the side, my rental car yelling at me every time I drift too far to the side in the narrow lanes atop the embankment. Rural agricultural poverty collides with riverfront vacation homes here, though the defining feature for most of Sacramento’s population is not one of these extremes but instead the identical suburban tracts in which I temporarily lose myself in Elk Grove on my drive in, and a heap of other cities I pass through the next day on I-80 on the way up to some breweries in the foothills. The extremes tell only part of the story.

My two hosts in Sacramento live different California dreams. My Georgetown friend Ben and his wife Etienne, plus 2-year-old Ella and baby Bo, host me both nights. Ben is the rare Hoya who settled down right away with a girl from back home, and while they have solid professional jobs and live in a pleasant East Sacramento neighborhood, their lives have a steady rhythm, child-rearing and delicious cooking and walks or bike rides around the pleasant grid. With them, I can lose myself playing with Ella, any uptight worries gone, back to the cradle, an instinct my inner cynic will always doubt but which my cyclical life will always turn back to contentment when I do my final accounting of pleasures and frustrations. Their deliberate domestic life, the California Dream of generations before, feels more and more like a bold or even radical choice, an attempt to restore the lingering wisdom of an old order that may or may not still be welcome here.

Meanwhile, Parker, a fellow University of Minnesota-trained urban planner, took the same prodigal son’s path and I did and found his way back to his hometown for a job in affordable housing development. If there is any dream of rescuing semi-affordable housing in California, it’s probably here, and in him I could see the same zeal that other non-locals ascribe to me when I gush about Duluth. He lives the urban single life in trendy Midtown, cultivates his status as a music connoisseur, and is my guide to quality Midtown bars and some breweries up in Auburn and Rocklin that meet with Rob’s approval as some of California’s best. They take different paths, but Ben and Parker are both exceptionally well-read, reflective people who are finding their purpose as they go. My people.

On a trip that featured a stunning hike and a dive straight in to one of the world’s great cities, some of my favorite moments came when we settled into Ben and Etienne’s porch, the kids in bed and the four of us free to debate this city and this state and what it means to find our ways in the world, the breeze pouring up the delta keeping us cool as we work through a few beers. I may not know who I am but I know where I am from, and that place, whether Duluth or Sacramento or Georgetown or Madison or Phoenix or a beach in Puerto Escondido, has nights like this at its soul.

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Paradise Lost

16 Jul

This post is the first in a series of two on my recent trip to California.

As far as hiking trails go, the Lost Coast Trail doesn’t appear overly challenging. Totaling just 24.5 miles over four days, this is a placid pace by my standards, and there’s little in the way of elevation to contend with. It’s a hike along a beach wedged between the Pacific and the King Range in Humboldt County, the longest undeveloped stretch of Pacific coastline in the lower 48. Its greatest challenges are three zones totaling just over eight miles in length that are impassable at high tide, so hikers must bring tide tables and pick and choose their start and stop times. Informal campsites sit at the mouths of creeks that feed into the ocean at regular intervals along the trail. The Lost Coast isn’t totally lost, as my party encounters plenty of fellow trekkers, but all but a handful follow favorable breezes from north to south, and long stretches are just my five companions and I working our way through the fog on a narrow band of land separating jagged peaks and unfathomable depths.

Hiking the Lost Coast is unlike a jaunt on a more traditional trail. One can’t just stare at one’s feet, or gaze off at the mountains or the sea for too long. Lost Coast hikers have to pick their lines, much like Alpine skiers, finding the best route over this avenue of choppy rocks and boulders and sand and incoming waves. Back sides of ridges, when wide enough, tend to be most stable, as do depressions behind them where the sand stays wet and thus more firm. Without obstacles, wet sand close to the surf is the best highway forward, though it bears the not insignificant risk of wet feet or frantic rushes inward at every rogue wave. Rarely is it a technically demanding trail, but it is often a slog over terrain that shifts beneath every footstep.

For this trip, I’m a new addition to a group that has, plus or minus a couple of members, taken a backpacking trip once a year for the past decade. The organizer is my uncle Bob, and our number includes my cousin Rob, Bob’s sister Betsy, her friend Amy, and family friend Ed, a divergent group of personalities with homes ranging from Louisville to San Francisco, united by a fondness for meandering down paths in the wilderness. Uncle Bob promises me an adventure, and after an hour of wrangling over food choices at a San Francisco, their two additional stops within twenty miles of a lunch stop in Santa Rosa, and a laborious gear distribution affair at a hotel in Garberville the night before our hike, I’m starting to doubt my wisdom in joining this trip. But they are entertaining company, and by the time we hit the trail, I’m reassured that I’m in the company of five committed adventurers.

We leave our cars at the south end and pick up a shuttle in Shelter Cove, a resort town that offers a fascinating mash-up of sprawling vacation homes and rural California country folk, a people forgotten in most conceptions of the state who wouldn’t be too far out of place in the rural Midwest. (Our shuttle driver, a Humboldt County lifer about my age named Connor, laments the annual Fourth of July homemade firework displays as “Armageddon” and a miserable undertaking for himself and his fellow members of the volunteer fire brigade.) After a two-hour drive through the mountains to take us 25 miles as the cormorant flies to the trailhead, we’re ready to set out.

At first, the beach hiking is novel, and we make good time. A couple miles in we round Punta Gorda, one of the westernmost points in the continental United States, and come to the abandoned Punta Gorda lighthouse, a lonely outpost here along the coast that lit the way for lost fishing boats for a few decades. The structure is open, and a climb up a rusting spiral staircase takes one to a deck with excellent views and even stronger winds. Down below, a gaggle of sea lions flops about in the sand and in the tidal shallows, singing with characteristic inelegance. At Sea Lion Gulch the trail meanders inward before it slips down to the creek, where we cross it twice in quick succession, little hops along rocks to find a passable course past this gouge in the coastline, the sea lion grunts echoing in the background. These turns inward to solid ground are blessed relief, though I don’t like them to last for too long: we are here for the beach hike, after all.

Our first camp comes at Cooskie Creek, a 6.5-mile excursion from the starting point at the mouth of the Mattole River and midway through a four-mile stretch of trail impassable at high tide. We are all sunburned, the cool, perfect walking temperatures and early morning fog lulling us into a false sense of safety, but otherwise no worse for the wear. We take a site on the south bank of the creek, while a large party occupies the opposite bank. They are quiet and we rarely interact, though we do marvel at their ingenious game of bocce using rocks on the beach. The wind barrels in from the ocean, and tent setup requires up to four people and a lot of rocks just to keep things upright. At sundown, we climb a small promontory and gaze out on the Pacific, west to Japan and south to Antarctica, with no bodies of land in between. The sun doesn’t set cleanly but instead fades away into the marine layer out over the ocean, lost in the eternal fog.

The wind dies in the night. No wind, no sun, West Coast resident Rob tells us, and sure enough, we are ensconced in clouds and fog as we head out. A dead seal on the beach attracts a crowd of birds, and Amy compares the beachscape to the final scene from Planet of the Apes. The waves rise as we go, and a crossing at Randall Creek requires an ambitious leap. Past the creek I pick out a trail up on to a flat, and now we’re rewarded with an easy stroll along a ridge, past a stream crossing with an unexpected bamboo grove and another where the discovery of a snake in the trail holds up the party for a spell. The crossing at Oat Creek features a stable log amid a small grove of trees, and a group of younger women has stopped here for lunch.

We cross Kinsey Creek and a rock field to the mouth of Big Creek, which we edge over on a log. Rob and I like the look of the site, an open stretch aside a large wash where other campers have set up driftwood lean-tos and tables, but the rest of the party is ready to push on another two miles to Big Flat Creek. These two miles are among the most tiring slogs of the trip, endless rock fields that turn ankles and require constant leaps, but in time I veer off and pick a way up a sandy slope to a much smoother trail atop Big Flat. The rest of the party joins me, and before long it’s as if we’ve left the ocean behind and are strolling through a large meadow. A number of private landowning holdouts dot the entire trail, most no more than a windblown wooden shack, but the one on Big Flat is flat-out surreal, a retreat of sorts that hosts a large group doing tai chi down by the beach. This part of the Lost Coast feels far too found.

Just past the retreat center is Big Flat Creek, our destination for the night, but it proves the most complicated stream crossing of the trip. The creek is wide and rushing, and Ed and I venture upstream with no luck in search of an easy ford. Most of the party settles for a shaky-looking log crossing, while Amy and I jump it at the mouth, where these streams are usually at their narrowest. The campsite, situated beneath a grove of low trees, already has a crowd, but there are enough sandy tent pads for us to carve out our own space. Night comes quickly on this day, with little time to linger on the beach, though we do admire the deer in the clearing next to us, and after dark a number of bats flit overhead. In the night, a chorus of coyotes wakes us all, the pack leaders howling away while the yips of their smaller brethren surround them.

I don’t sleep particularly well on Big Flat, but our long hike yesterday cues us up for a tame day of just 3.3 miles to our next site on Buck Creek. I sip some tea over breakfast and take a dump in a sandy hole in the ground, and we join a large procession of hikers out from Big Flat and down the coast. The fog is thickest on this morning, and it cakes the beach and leaves what we can see of the fire-scarred hills above us looming. After a placid stroll along the flat, it narrows down to nothing, and a rock slide diverts us down a jagged slope to a narrow beach. Each step brings new conditions, most dramatically at the bottom of a large landslide, where giant trees come to rest on the beach. The crossing at Shipman Creek offers a nice running start for the long jump across, and we press on and pass a few of the groups we’ve been leapfrogging with over the course of the day.

Buck Creek comes as a surprise, and we quickly decide the campsite, which perches on a bank with direct views of both the sea and the cascading creek, will more than do. The fog lifts with surprising speed as we set up our tents, and we then discover the site’s great drawback: a healthy crop of poison oak on all sides that leaves Amy and Betsy frantically detoxing after they tossed some gear and staked out a line for their tent in the shrubbery. Lunch follows the cleansing session on rocks along the creek, though my phone’s camera renders me an uninspired photographer for the rest of the trip after it falls out of my pocket and its lens cracks on a rock. The shots feature some fascinating new filters, if nothing else.

With some gas left in the tank, Bob, Rob, and I set out to climb the Buck Creek Trail, which rises from the camp and heads straight up into the hills. Straight up is no exaggeration: there is no such thing as a flat or downward step for a mile-and-a-half long, 2,000-foot climb. Thankfully, the sun gives way to pine forest just above the site, and while we’re still stepping gingerly around the poison oak, we can drag upward at a manageable pace. Finally, near the top, we come to a couple of clean vistas down the coast toward our parked cars at Shelter Cove five and a half miles away, and after a relatively flat half-mile past a junction with a little-used ridgetop trail in the King Range backcountry, we turn around and abuse our joints for a few miles back down. We burst back out of the forest and have a clean view of the rushing creek, the sun-splashed waves on the ocean; Amy and Ed are down on the beach watching the tide come in, while Betsy naps on her air mattress in the open atop the highest-lofted tent pad, the tents collecting heat for the night in the sun below. It’s a paradisal scene, one that fully loses me in this wilderness and makes me wish we could set up camp here for a week.

Our legs burning from the hike, Rob and I watch the tide roll in, larger and larger waves slowly creeping over the rock pile that cuts off Buck Creek from the ocean at low tide. Soon there will be no way in or out of this site along the coast trail, and we’ll have our site to ourselves tonight. After some poison oak preventative cleansing in the creek, I settle into the hammock along its banks to catch up on notes and zone out in bliss. I’m rousted for happy hour by an offer of Ed’s tequila, and as we sit along a log on the beach and gaze out at the sparkling waves, my mind goes back to an out-of-body sensation I had in a hammock in Puerto Escondido nine years ago, a simultaneous blend of exhaustion and tequila and revelation at the beauty around me. I idly wrote a story of two lovers at the end of an affair, at once alive to the possibility of utopia and aware it can never last.

We break out of our trance to eat before we lose all daylight. Our dinners, always collections of freeze-dried packets we pass around, is best on this night, and we polish off the bourbon and turn our attention toward the darkening sea. Three boats dot the horizon, one of which suddenly seems to be flickering, as if alight; we later learn that it’s likely a fishing boat looking to lure in its prey. The half-moon lights up night well enough to cast shadows, and the marine layer stays just low enough to allow for superb star-watching. First Jupiter and the dippers, then Scorpius and Cygnus and Hercules, and Saturn for a hot second before the fog consumes it. I’m reluctant to turn in, yet I enjoy my best ever night of sleep in a tent.

The morning is wet, the marine layer dousing my tent fly, but the sun comes out quickly and keeps up warm for the last 5.5 miles up the beach. The choppy rocks continue for the first half of the hike, but after that it settles into a plodding but predictable march up the aptly named Black Sands Beach. I set my course along the shoreline, running in when the higher waves come and making sure to drink in the slopes to my left and the endless crashing waves to my right. The steepest climb on the hike comes up a road to the parking lot, where we collect ourselves ahead of food truck burritos and a beer at a Shelter Cove bar populated by grizzled local women. We are found again, headed back for a stop in wine country and the glitz of San Francisco to round out our adventures.

The trail has a particular allure for someone drawn to the notion of isolated inspiration, the egotist who never needed anyone to tell him that he could do great things if he put his mind to it. Thankfully, wilderness also has a habit of humbling these chasers as well. A year after an epic but largely solitary trek across this state, the jumble of people on this one enlivened it. It provided new short story inspiration, and a meander through a book on Wallace Stegner and Edward Abbey, two very different champions of the West who, unlike some of the San Francisco cosmopolitans I brush up against upon my return to the city, understood a sense of place. “I may not know who I am but I know where I am from,” wrote Stegner, words that forever reassure a wanderer in search of grounding. On the Lost Coast Trail, I’ve found it yet again.

Part 2 is here.

WRTII, Part 1: Riding the Waves

14 May

The next three posts will tell the tale of my recent West Coast adventure, as detailed in this introductory post.

My wanderlust is calling, and I’m ready to answer. I spend my Friday at work chomping at the bit. I was supposed to have a meeting halfway between Duluth and Minneapolis today and bought plane tickets accordingly, but alas, the meeting was canceled, so I’m stuck in the office, watching the clock. I drive down to Minneapolis late in the afternoon, and meet a big group of old friends for dinner and games. After a leisurely Saturday morning, I head for the airport and make the four-hour journey to San Francisco, where I will spend a weekend in the company of my cousin. I visited him on my road trip two summers ago, and this will be my only repeat destination on this trip, but as it’s a city that no brief weekend jaunt can do justice, it’s a welcome return.

My cousin collects me from the airport and we jump right in with a swift tour of a few sites around the city that one won’t find in a guidebook. First, a tree swing with a stellar view of Billy Goat Hill; alas, this time around, the guerrilla swing-hangers lost their war with the Parks Department, and it has been cut down, spoiling the fun. Next, a concrete slide in a vacant lot on a hillside, complete with cardboard to scoot down the slope, the brainchild of a neighborhood kid some decades before. Finally, a labyrinth at Lands End laid out in stones in the model of the one in the Chartres cathedral, which we meander through in full. San Francisco is a complete adult playground; even, we lament, as the city prices out most young families.

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Sticking with the playground theme, our mode of transportation for much of the weekend will be the most San Francisco thing imaginable: a moped app named Scoot. Much like bikeshares, Scoot allows users to unlock mopeds stashed around the city (either in scattered garages or on the streets, where past users have left them), put on a helmet from an otherwise locked compartment, and Scoot to their desired destinations. I take a little while to get used to it, as the proximity of the brake and the throttle make for a few awkward lurches, but before long I’m Scooting with confidence. It’s also entirely practical for San Francisco, where traffic is never too fast, and where hills make a traditional bikeshare much more of an ordeal for the causal peddler. A twenty-minute series of introductory videos coaches users on the mechanics of mopeds and basic safety, and thanks me for being part of a movement to change the world. Such pretention is one of the reason the tech world drives me insane. Isn’t it ever enough just to be a good, fun idea for a particular city?

This being San Francisco, though, Scoot is only the tip of the iceberg. The current craze (or infestation, depending on whom one asks) involves electric scooters, which zip along on streets (where they are supposed to be) and sidewalks (where they are not) and get dumped in all sorts of odd places around the city. Somehow, these aren’t even the most preposterous transportation options in the city. That award goes to the GoCars, the yellow three-wheeled two-seaters that putter about a couple of inches off the ground. It all feels awfully gratuitous, but all these options get us where we need to go in the end.

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After a delicious dinner in the Sunset District, Saturday night features a beer tasting with a few familiar faces from my previous visit to the Bay Area. The conversation turns to local politics as we down stouts and nibble at smelly cheese. San Francisco’s impending mayoral election will follow familiar plot lines to the 2016 Democratic Party primary, as an establishment figure tries to break the city’s glass ceiling while some rebels nip at her heels. Beyond that, the Yes in My Backyard (YIMBY) movement tries desperately to break through the cynicism of well-heeled Bay Area liberals who reject greater density and development so as to preserve their perfect little neighborhoods, thereby driving some of the city’s absurd property values. I can’t help but be sympathetic to the cause, though my inner contrarian raises a few objections. Are we really right to pack more and more people into San Francisco, an earthquake-prone metropolis in a state that has its water issues? And this country already has a problem with concentration of wealth in too few major cities; might not the pricing out of San Francisco be a natural corrective that forces the tech engine of the American economy to spread the wealth and talent elsewhere? Duluth would be happy to have the services of a few refugees looking for a foggy, hilly city with much more reasonable real estate. I suppose I can dream.

Speaking of dreams, it crosses my mind several stouts in that my cousin and his friends are living a sort of millennial dream. They enjoy comfortable (if somewhat crowded) urban living, delicious food and drink, weekends at Tahoe, and travel around the world for both work and play. College, work, and church provide networks that form little communities within a larger city. We even got some avocado toast as an appetizer without a hint of irony. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that living it for a few days stirs up a little desire to start searching the job listings, as that magnetic Fear of Missing Out, so ubiquitous in an age of social media, rears its head again. A cursory look suggests I could double my salary, and while much of that gain would get swallowed up by rent, Bay Area money would still go awfully far, especially in travels or some eventual move elsewhere. Tempting, isn’t it?

There are a lot of reasons why that won’t happen, from family to temperament to some conviction over what I’m doing and why I’m doing it. But the allure tugs at my ambitious side, and only a week after my return, after a run around Congdon on a Perfect Duluth Day, do I fully remember why I don’t want to go down that road. I have my own little world to tend to here.

The delicious San Francisco life continues the next morning with a delectable brunch at Zazie in Cole Valley. (A pleasant West Coast offering: thanks to time zone differences, one can go to the bar next door and watch East Coast baseball while enduring one’s hour and a half wait for a brunch table.) The wait is worth it. And then, after further Scooting, we settle in at an authentic San Francisco crawfish boil, as one of my cousin’s friends has imported a stash of crustaceans and cooked them all up in a park with a view of the Golden Gate.

Sated, we Scoot over to Washington Square, see the old Italian neighborhood, and marvel at the public notice signage necessary to announce the planting of trees in San Francisco. I shake my head at my profession as we clamber up Telegraph Hill to Coit Tower. The urban planners here probably have as much power as anywhere, and use it for all the wrong purposes. The panoramic views from Telegraph Hill blot out that annoyance, though, as they show us the bay to the north and east, a glistening city in the sun to the west, and the Financial District, complete with the remarkably phallic new Salesforce Tower, to the south. (This seems fitting in so many ways for the city’s contemporary aesthetic.) The streets that descend down from Coit to the various numbered piers are nothing more than stairways, with cozy but luxurious homes tucked behind their gardens. We board a ferry for Alcatraz and head over for an evening tour.

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The prison at Alcatraz has been closed for over 60 years, but its symbolic power remains, thanks to both its high-profile prisoners and its unique geography. An audio tour recounts the experiences of guards, prisoners, and the families that grew up on The Rock. I did not know, however, about the subsequent Native American occupation of Alcatraz, an attention-grabbing move in the 1960s still in evidence today in the graffiti they left behind. The occupation played a role in ending assimilation policies at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and freeing these groups to pursue greater self-determination.

The landscape, however, provides the greatest surprise of this visit: Alcatraz is a beautiful place. Sure, I expected a good view of the city and the Golden Gate, but Alcatraz itself has well-manicured gardens, graceful walks with stellar views, a few picturesque ruins, and offers up a sanctuary for thousands of birds. If not for the background noise in the audio tour, it would be impossible to remember that this place was once what it was. It is somehow heartening to see such an institution restored to the placid state of a seaside estate.

Following the tour, Alcatraz’s rangers offer a series of programs in various places around the island, recounting tales of famed prisoners or demonstrating the operation of the cell doors. The most memorable one, though, comes from a ranger who tells the tale of two inmates who dreamed of freedom. One, an escape artist whose attempts were foiled, figured out that he could brew beer in the milk bottles using the basic ingredients in the prison kitchen, where he toiled and found his escapes in hooch for years. The second, who came along after the guards had caught on to the milk bottle method, came up with an even more ingenious solution: beer fermentation in the prison’s fire extinguishers. Freedom, the ranger explains, is always possible with a change in perspective.

My cousin and I take the ferry back to the mainland and grab a late-night meal at El Farolito in the Mission. The street, filled with storefronts covered by garage doors, feels more Mexican than American, and save for the avocados on our burritos, the taquería itself has that vibe, too. We sit beneath a large painting of the Basilica of Guadalupe, and a lone mariachi minstrel makes his way up and down the length of the narrow restaurant. We devour our burritos and enjoy El Farolito’s excellent people-watching: young revelers on a Sunday night, complete families looking for an evening meal, gay couples, bougie white kids like us looking for an authentic bite. I’m at home here. Life is like the surf, so give yourself away like the sea.

I bid my cousin farewell early Monday morning and take a BART train down to the airport. (How can such a wealthy metro have such a dismal train system?) I collect my chariot for the week, a white Jeep Renegade, from the cheery staff of Fox Rental, and begin my road trip. My first leg will give me my fill of ocean, as I swing south along the California coast. I head out on The 101 (highways come with articles in the West), intent upon seeing Silicon Valley and the Stanford campus with my own eyes. My enthusiasm for a window into the seat of technological power wanes amid thick traffic, however, so I pull my first audible of the trip and make a turn straight for the coast. I encounter The 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, at Half Moon Bay, and head south from there. I don’t regret my choice for a second.

At first The 1 runs somewhat inland, and I’m going through green cow pastures instead of beaches. Then, however, it rolls over a ridge, and the shoreline explodes before me, with ranks of perfect breakers making their way into shore as far as the eye can see. I make my first pit stop at Bean Hollow Beach, and while there’s not much to separate it from the beaches I’ve passed before or the ones that will follow, it seems an appropriate place to stop and admire some tide pools. I pass through Santa Cruz, and stock up on some camping gear at the REI in Marina. A late lunch comes at a cute café in Carmel-by-the-Sea, a stucco-spattered town that preserves its original character about as remarkably as any American city. Here one will find no parking meters, no street addresses, no stones out of place: just rows of cute houses, art galleries, and wine tasting rooms. Life must be rough here.

South of Carmel is Big Sur, that beautiful and sparsely populated streak of coast where mountains and sea collide. The 1 weaves along clifftops and drops down to beaches, and offers a stunning view at every turn. Most of my fellow travelers are tourists, though locals with surfboards head for a few well-chosen spots. The driving pace is leisurely, with frequent turn-outs, and while it is hard to tire of this scenery, I just go until I’ve had enough, and then work my way steadily back north toward my accommodations for the night on the Monterey Peninsula.

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I have the audiobook of Jack Kerouac’s Big Sur for my listening pleasure on this stage of the journey. This is later-stage Kerouac, when his protagonist has become world-weary and tires of beatnik kids hunting him down for autographs. He drowns his sorrows in boozy binges. His solitary trip to Big Sur to clear his mind only leaves him lonelier, and sends him crawling back for more parties in San Francisco. All of his old friends from On the Road have aged, too. Cody Pomeray (Dean Moriarty in On the Road, and Neal Cassady in reality) has gone from the carefree epitome of cool to a family man trying to get out of the shadow of a stupid prison sentence for marijuana possession and live a decent life. Repeated later journeys down to the Big Sur cabin with various hangers-on always start out seeming like good ideas but are a mess by the end. While plenty of uncertainties afflicted Kerouac and friends in their early adventures, it came along with fevered searching and a sense of destiny. Now, the quest just ends in hangovers, and manipulation of words no longer does the trick, or at least not until the book ends in a deluge of stream-of-consciousness.

Big Sur, wrote Lillian Ross, is not a place at all, but a state of mind. Kerouac’s Jack Duluoz clearly did not inhabit that state of mind; he wasn’t able to shift his perspective, as the beer-brewing prisoners of Alcatraz had. Another semi-jaded aging writer traveling solo across Big Sur, however, can still pull it off, as he stops at Garrapata Beach and meander along the surf for a spell. Beauty alone may not bring enlightenment, but it is a powerful force in the moment.

I return to the Monterey Peninsula, stock up on food for my week of travel, and check in to my cottage in Pacific Grove. It’s a quaint, well-appointed place, and I throw open the windows to invite in a sea breeze. Next, I meander down Pacific Grove’s placid streets and start a two-mile hike to downtown Monterey along a beachfront path. Waves roll in to my left, Victorian homes watch over me to my right, and a man proposes to a woman along the path. I pass the Monterey aquarium, which is closing up shop at this time of day, and head down Cannery Row. Steinbeck’s old manufacturing district is now a collection of expensive shops and restaurants, though at least there’s still a bust of the author and a fountain honoring the canners midway down the street. I consume overpriced fish at a place that advertises itself as a brewery but just serves other people’s beer. With little else to do, I return to my cottage along inland streets, and Pacific Grove feels almost unnaturally placid. It’s a lovely place, but highly sanitized, its business district almost too quiet. Sure, it’s a Monday night, but the telltale vacation rental licenses hang prominently on the corner of many houses. I wonder if Duluth, another waterfront town of a similar size and distance from a wealthier metro, might someday lurch toward a similar fate. It could be worse, but it isn’t exactly abuzz with life, either.

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On this first of five nights of solitary travel, I reflect on my choice while drinking in some wine and sea breeze in my cabin. This is what I signed up for: a chance to take on everything between here and Zion by myself. I can either conquer it, or watch it go by. If I come back to these seaside towns I’ve seen today, I doubt it will be alone. But I have my solitary side, and a periodic need to prove myself in the wilderness, if only to myself. And when I come back, all will be well.

I arise early the next morning, and check out before anyone in the neighboring cottages stirs to life. I head down to the ocean one last time. Large bodies of water always pull me in, even though I’m a mediocre swimmer whose weak stomach is easily upset by bobbing on waves. Endless expanses of water impose themselves on people who live by them, and make clear our place in a grander scheme of things. I’ll miss the sea, and will welcome back vast expanses of water when I return home to Duluth in a week. For now, though, I turn inland, and look for inspiration away from the comfort of watery vastness. Freedom requires different perspectives.

Western Road Trip 2.0

27 Apr

Despite some deceptively warm weather of late, it is still spring in Duluth. Oil refineries in Superior are on fire. Yeah, I’m about ready for an escape.

Two summers ago, I took a road trip across the West, and it planted something of a bug. It taught me that I enjoy long-distance driving, and that I have a lot of national parks I need to see. It tempted me to return to San Francisco before long, and also left me wanting a little more ocean and desert in my life. So, over the course of a week, I plan to check all of those boxes.

The first few days, will feature the usual fun of living well and consuming tasty beverages in the Bay Area. I’ll be blessedly car-free there after a debacle on the last road trip, and will collect a rental car after two nights in the gentrification capital of America. My next night is in a cottage down the coast in Pacific Grove, where I’ll fill my surf and Steinbeck quotas, meander down to Big Sur, and stock up on provisions.

Over the next phase of my journey, I will travel armed with an America the Beautiful pass, which will get me into four national parks over the course of the trip. The first is Pinnacles, which I didn’t know existed until I started researching routes from the California coast to the Sierras, but will offer some good, robust training hikes for what comes later. Next comes Sequoia, where I will spend a night in the foothills and make an all-too-brief visit to some big trees. After that, I’ll spend two nights at Joshua Tree, deep in the desert and beneath one of America’s clearest starry skies. It will all culminate with a conquest of vertigo (or so I hope) at Angel’s Landing, along with other adventures through Zion National Park in Utah.

The natural wonders may be the main highlights of this trip, but there should be some good sociological fun, too. The Bay Area, of course, is a fascinating mash-up of lefty radicalism and Silicon Valley technocracy. To the south, I’ll brush up against New Agers and coastal opulence, from Esalen to Pebble Beach. I’ll spend some time in California’s Central Valley, a relatively poor agricultural heartland where immigrant laborers cut their teeth. Later, I’ll see desert frontier towns and Mormon outposts. To wrap things up, I’ll swing through that monument to American kitsch, Las Vegas, on my way to catch a flight home. Nearly all of my driving will be on state and federal highways, which I much prefer to freeways: they provide a much more intimate window into the communities one passes through.

As always, planning the trip is half the journey, and deciding what I had to leave out was a chore. Yosemite and Kings Canyon will require return trips when I can immerse myself in them, and part of me wants to wander back to San Luis Obispo and its environs, the site of a high school adventure that deserves its own blog post at some point in the future. I could easily devote a full week to meandering up and down the California coast, or trudging through the Sierras, or basking in the desert, but settled for packing in all three.

My itinerary is full, and the range of geography along the route made it difficult to plan. There are no campground reservations high in the Sierras yet this time of year, as snow and cold remains a risk; Joshua Tree, meanwhile, is only a few weeks away from the summer heat that makes it unbearable. And while this trip will involve old friends and relatives on the two ends, the midweek portion will be a personal retreat of sorts, as I set up camp and run up mountains on my own. My partners in travel will include Jack Kerouac (Big Sur), Joan Didion (Blue Nights), Wallace Stegner (Crossing to Safety), and Edward Abbey (Desert Solitaire). As usual, I’m seeking out a little of everything amid my cycles from one extreme to another.

This is an ambitious trip in one other respect, too: I’m leaving my laptop at home. This may seem a minor decision for most travelers, especially in a day in age when cell phones allow us to do most of the same things that computers do. But for me, a week without a word processor is like a week without water.  The lack of a computer doesn’t mean I won’t be writing on my way, or blog extensively about it when I return. I just felt compelled to leave it behind and live without my daily dose of screen time. (That battery would have run down to nothing across five straight nights in a tent anyway.) And while the phone will be along so I can properly Instagram my adventures to death, I am also rather pleased that most of my campgrounds will likely be in lands where I can’t count on having any service. Sometimes one just needs to cut the cord and use some good, old-fashioned notebooks.

This is a very timely trip, and not just for the sake of some new weather. It comes as my work life heads into a transitional phase, and it will be healthy for me to attain some distance to understand my role. With any luck, it will jolt some closing thoughts for my current fictional project, and give me some idea of what I will tackle next. And, as always, this step out from my day-to-day life in Duluth will provide necessary perspective on matters large and small.

So, off I go. I look forward to aggressive hikes, camp stove meals, campground acquaintances, and nights under the stars. To beaches, to mountains, to canyons, to deserts. I will try not to hang out in a high-rise in San Francisco, get lost in Joshua Tree, or fall off of Angel’s Landing. I will put some miles on a rental vehicle and on my hiking boots, and go conquer the West once again. I’ll be back here to tell the tale when I return.

Good Journalism, 4/26/18

26 Apr

In the third week of this feature, here’s a somewhat shorter list of interesting things to read.

So, it turns out that social media does not lead one to sink into an echo chamber where one only gets information from one or two biased sources. However, receiving information passively online, the BBC explains in a summary of recent research, contributes to “motivated reasoning,” a process by which people become more and more sure of their opinions when they see basic talking points coming from prominent figures on the “other side.” In Amor Mundi, a weekly newsletter from the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College where I found this article, curator Roger Berkowitz uses Arendt to explain why this makes things worse:

While loneliness has always been a marginal phenomenon in human life, it has, Arendt argues, moved to the center of modern existence. Cut off from religion, tradition, and custom the modern individual confronts the pain of the world alone. This is what Arendt calls metaphysical loneliness. Without some coherent narrative that lends purpose to one’s life, the reality of human suffering can be unbearable. 

Such loneliness contributes to the deep human craving for coherent fictional narratives that lend meaning to otherwise meaningless existence. It is the human need for coherent fictions that, at least in part, prepares people today to be seduced by ideological movements that give meaning to their lives.

You can subscribe to Amor Mundi, which can fill your Sunday mornings with timely and depressing reading, here.

As long as I’m blasting tech-related stuff, here is an interview with Jaron Lanier, an early architect of the internet who now thinks things have gone horribly wrong, and are in need of reform.

On a semi-related note, and in a topic that has been on my mind given my upcoming travel itinerary, here is Ross Douthat talking about California, a state that the Democratic Party has come to dominate politically. For all that dominion, though, it has only become more unequal and polarized, sent a lot of conservative migrants to other states in a Grapes of Wrath reversal, and bred a lot of Trumpish intellectuals, such as they are. It’s a fascinating place, and yours truly will be able to cast some judgment over the next week and a half.

Farewell, Sam Cook: the dean of Duluth outdoors writers is paddling off into the sunset. Sam’s writing is one of my earliest memories of local journalism, and as I graduated from high school with his son, I had the good fortune to run into him at times over the years. He will, thankfully, continue a weekly column.

I’m glad to have pulled off this feature three weeks in a row, but it will go on hiatus for a week or two before, hopefully, resuming. My next post will explain why.