Tag Archives: san francisco

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.

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.

20180428_164514

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.

20180428_201346

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.

20180429_200120

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.

20180430_153335

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.

20180430_183148

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.

Road Trip Journal II: Salt Lake to San Francisco

27 Jun

(Part I)

Day Three: Descent to the Bay

On paper, this is the longest driving day of the trip, as we head from Salt Lake to San Francisco. We’re out early and grab some pastries before plowing out westward. If Wyoming seemed like vast tracts of nothing, today will eclipse that entirely: western Utah and much of Nevada are as empty as an area around a major American highway can be. We first skirt the Great Salt Lake, striking in contrast with the brown hills rising around it, and then the land becomes white: salt flats, all in a line across the floor of the Great Basin. Signs warn us to stay alert, lest we fall asleep at the wheel and veer off into a salt mine. Here and there, drivers have done exactly that, intentionally: tire tracks head off the freeway and some ways out on to the flat, and a couple of cars sit out there doing whatever it is that people do on salt flats.

DSCF0105.JPG

We can see Nevada from nearly forty miles away, as mountains thrust their way upward right at the border. The contrast is immediate: a cluster of casinos scream their presence just across the state line, ready to welcome in some sinful Utahns. Even a dismal gas station some ways further along has a slot machine room. The road itself winds up and down brown, scrubby passes, and we glimpse the first of many peaks we pass on this day that still have some snow on their upper reaches. There are occasional hints of greenery along rivers, and little oasis towns interrupt the monotony. We cruise through Reno without stopping, and begin one last major climb up into the Sierras.

After we cross the border into California, the mountains are finally green again, and I-80 pitches upward. We’re stopped for an agricultural inspection, and then detour off the highway for a jaunt down to Lake Tahoe. It is, as expected, gorgeous. Its cool waters are bliss after a long day in the car. We wade out some ways after a late lunch. The road around the north shore of the lake is a delight to drive as it weaves through the resorts and quaint shops; we ditch the AC and throw the windows open. We stop for a quick jog up Eagle Rock, a rocky extrusion near the shore that offers commanding views of the lake and the mountains beyond. We could spend much more time here, but the ocean calls.

DSCF0123

The descent from the Sierras is probably the trip’s most extreme drop, as we sink from 7,000 feet at the Donner Pass—a site that brings back fond memories of a long internment on an Amtrak train here many years ago—to less than 1,000 feet in the Central Valley. Sacramento reveals some very California scenes: an eight-lane highway baking in late afternoon sun, the westbound lanes crawling while ours is crowded but motoring along. Signs everywhere alert of us the ongoing drought, and urge us to avoid watering our lawns.

We come to the Bay Area as the sun is sinking toward the horizon. A golden haze looms over the city and the bridges, the fog seemingly aglow and the Transamerica Pyramid thrusting its way out above the Financial District. Thanks to some unexpected good fortune, the traffic on the Bay Bridge is manageable, so we can plow straight into the heart of the city with minimal delay. It happens to be Pride Weekend here, too. We’re not exactly in Utah anymore.

DSCF0145

This is my first time in San Francisco, and my first glances leave me as awed as I’ve ever been by any place on earth. As a sucker for hills, large water features, wine, Mexican food, and Mediterranean climes, this is in many ways my ideal city. The hills and fog and water make it feel curiously familiar to a Duluthian, and it is incredibly easy to live well, and spend easily, here. The closest comparison that I’ve seen before is probably Barcelona, but even that is much more spread out than San Francisco, and this city is very much its own. Its crowds and its prices are drawbacks, along with that lingering threat of a tremor that could dump it all into the bay. But the color, the vibrancy, and the unmatched views put it among the greatest of American cities without even expending effort. (And oh, does San Francisco expend effort, even if it tries to play it down with that faux Bay Area cool.)

We’re relieved to find parking just off the freeway—too easy, as we’ll eventually learn—and meet my cousin at his place in Hayes Valley, in the center of the city just north of Market Street. He knows how to host an urban planner, and shares a long stream of details on the streets and neighborhoods we pass. He leads us on a walking tour up a hill toward dinner at a fantastic Mexican restaurant, and we stop by a couple of bars to wrap up our evening, one with an incredible variety of local beer, and one that’s an excellent little dive. It’s a solid introduction, and we have much to explore over our two full days along the bay.

Day Four: Shattered Glass

After three straight days of ten hours on the road, we finally had a day to settle back and enjoy a city. My cousin is our guide, and our tour of San Francisco begins with Twin Peaks and Grand View Park, which together offer commanding views of the entire city. Twin Peaks has the more dramatic approach, and its upper reaches have been covered over by a pink triangle (the symbol used by the Nazis to mark gay Jews, now reclaimed) for Pride weekend. Below it, The Castro is decked out for the festivities, and people are pouring in for the festival. Grand View, meanwhile, is more subtle: the neighborhood around it features staid single-family homes, and its approach involves narrow streets turned staircases covered in intricate tiles that blend into murals from the bottom. Between the two, we have a complete panorama of San Francisco.

We continue a drive across the city and pass through Golden Gate Park, a sea of greenery that descends from the center of the city down to the ocean. It’s bigger than Central Park, though its water features are on the low side due to the drought, and there’s no shortage of congestion here, either. We head for the beach, which has a magical discovery for us: CorgiCon 2016, a festival for the wonderfully cute dogs. They all prance about the beach, burrow in the sand, and befriend one another. Some are in costume (flags, t-shirts), and one wears a GoPro. This is San Francisco, after all. They join their human handlers in beach bliss, and some of the more daring ones sprint through the surf, but most everyone keeps to the beach.

2016-06-25 13.44.31

Next, we head a short ways up to Land’s End, the point that which the ocean meets the Golden Gate, the strait feeding into the bay. The scrub-covered slopes with their groves of cypresses evoke the Mediterranean, and breakers crash in on the rocks in aqua hues. The bridge stands proud across the strait, and trails meander along the cliff. We stop in at the Sutro Baths to admire these old ruins, and wrap around the park with steady views of the ocean and the bridge beyond. We complete the city tour with a drive through some of its more distinctive ethnic neighborhoods, and return to Hayes Valley to regroup before dinner.

DSCF0171

Everything gets thrown for a loop when we hike up the street toward a pre-dinner drink, and I notice that the back passenger side window of my friend’s car is wide open. It’s been smashed, and glass is strewn across the street and the back seat. We’d brought in most of our valuables, thankfully, and insurance should hopefully cover the window. Still, there are substantial losses: my tent, our sleeping bags and pillows, some my friend’s clothes, my Duluth East cap, a Georgetown sweatshirt, my camera battery charger, the beer I’d brought as gifts for hosts, and a bunch of audiobooks from the Minneapolis Public Library. Thankfully, the library will forgive our costs with a police report, and most of the camping gear was hand-me-downs. (Though the tent, the sweatshirt, and the East cap did have some real sentimental value.) We’d put the more valuable stuff in the trunk, but there was enough scattered objects of intrigue such as clothes and food across the back seat to make the car an inviting target.

DSCF0181

In a way, I’m lucky: I’m 26, and this is the first time I’ve been a victim of any sort of crime beyond the theft of a pencil. I try to be vigilant, but I also took car safety for granted in decent neighborhoods of major American cities. No more, apparently. For the rest of my stay, I find myself inspecting the tent camps of San Francisco’s homeless—of which there are many—in wishful hope for a glimpse purple and white Eureka tent. This city lacks the no-go zones of a Chicago or even Oakland across the bay, but it has an underbelly that looms on many corners. We rush the car into a repair place before it closes.

Dinner plans are further disrupted by a Pride week parade we were unaware of, which blocks our access to the pizza we’d hoped to have. (We later learn this is the lesbian parade, which apparently is its own show in addition to the better-known gay parade on Sunday.) A giant procession makes its way down from Dolores Park, and we have to jump through the crowd to negotiate our way to the other side of the street before walking parallel to a relentless drumline. Rainbow flags are everywhere, people lean out of second floor windows (some wearing nothing but duct tape covering teats), and others shower everyone in confetti. The placards are a mix of raunchy comments, expressions of solidarity for Orlando after the recent massacre, and broader leftist slogans. San Francisco, uninhibited and on full display.

DSCF0184

We grab burritos at a taquería on a corner and take our dinner back to Dolores Park, which teems with sunbathing revelers. Booze and pot abound, though somehow no one has a bottle opener, leaving us struggling to gain access to Coke bottles. The park, to my intrigue, earns its name from Miguel Hidalgo, the father of Mexican independence, whose statue lords over the hill; at its base sits a replica of the bell he rang to signal the start of the revolt in Dolores Hidalgo in 1810. Here, we meet an old Georgetown roommate of mine, and he joins the party as we meander over to another friend’s place for some beer tasting.

It’s been a night among the demographic emblematic of the Bay Area, late twenty-somethings with jobs in tech or research or some other start-up with boundless knowledge of food and beer. They’re all superb arbiters of taste, though also self-aware enough to know the complexity of their life here, and of the looming challenges on the horizon, as family obligations begin to arise. From this perspective, Silicon Valley seems less like some magical zone of invention and more like another place where people are trying to get ahead and get by. We’re all in the same boat, and for all of the Bay Area’s bells and whistles, they all seem fairly tame now. The tech culture’s facade comes down: everyone here displays an intimate knowledge of apps, and equal measures of frustration with how poorly they all function. The evening ends with a Nob Hill rooftop view of much of the city, including both the Bay and Golden Gate bridges and the Transamerica Pyramid. Fading, we retreat to bed afterward.

Day Five: Divine Wine

With the city swamped for the Pride parade on Sunday, two cousins and I escape to wine country north of the city. This is the heart of American viticulture, and a necessary journey for a wine lover. We take our time in starting out, and then head north through Napa, laughing at the traffic jams coming into the city as we cruise out. There’s no shortage of opulence along Napa Valley, as the wineries have all built their little villas and luxurious estates amid the grapevines, and display questionable command of Italian as they adopt or make up names to convey their prestige. Some are familiar names, while others look to break in, and all look to ride the cachet of the Napa name to greater recognition. Seeking some more exquisite experiences, we drive on past most of them.

The first stop is also the most absurd: Castello di Amorosa, a legitimate castle perched just above the north end of Napa Valley. The stonework is astonishing, and in among the turrets and battlements are a chapel, a great hall, a drawbridge, and some elaborate loggias. (A few extra dollars admit one to the torture chamber, among other special rooms.) The wine and service here are not especially remarkable, and it brings in crowds in a way that our later destinations don’t, but it’s still a winy wonderland. We’ve created a complete spectacle.

2016-06-26 12.03.26.jpg

Our next stop is the polar opposite experience. Locals, a wine cooperative in the miniature downtown of Geyserville, has no pretentions of an elaborate setting. It just delivers far better wine for no tasting fee, and reliably lures its visitors to purchase their favorites. Here, it’s easy to savor the different options and make informed comparisons, and make some effort to expand a mediocre vocabulary to describe the flavors we imbibe.

After a lunch stop in Healdsburg, we head into Sonoma, where we make two stops: first at Mazzocco, which specializes in Zinfandels, and then at Ridge, one of Sonoma’s gems. It’s a baking hot day in wine country, with temperatures in excess of 95 degrees, but we can linger inside while sipping at our glasses and still enjoy views of the vineyards marching out beyond us. I can’t resist a purchase from Ridge, though a looming trip through Canadian customs keeps me from going too crazy with the credit card.

2016-06-26 16.25.41

Now that we’ve had our fill of wine, we head back to Healdsburg, where a well-manicured central square makes the area appear even ritzier. We stop by its brewery, Bear Republic, best known for its Racer 5 IPA, though I elect for a delectable sour instead. As if we haven’t sampled enough satisfying beverages, we then head down the 101 to Santa Rosa, where we visit one of my cousin’s favorite breweries, Russian River. Their variety is so great and their ability to deliver on all of them so impressive that it would be a waste just to get a couple of beers, so we share a complete sampler with 18 different beers, from standard lagers to classic West Coast IPAs to Belgians to sours. With the help of some pizza, I’m feeling decidedly fat by the end of the tasting, but I manage to finish it all off.

The sun sinks toward the horizon as we head back south through Marin County. It’s down below the horizon by the time we reach the Golden Gate, but there’s still enough of a glow to make a detour up the coastal road worthwhile. I’m treated to panoramas over the Golden Gate Bridge, the city, and the ocean beyond. The wind howls and the fog begins to roll in; it’s a solid 40 degrees colder here than it was back up in Sonoma. Still, it’s worth taking a moment to drink it all in, one last sip at the vessel of Bay Area beauty before a final drive over San Francisco’s hills down into Hayes Valley. It’s been a rich weekend that has sapped my wallet in more ways than one, and I’m sure to return before long. For now, though, it’s time to hit the road again.

(Part III)