March 25, 2016

Tall Trees and Ocean Drives

In California you can see the oldest, tallest and thickest trees in the world. Giant Sequoias are the biggest in terms of volume of wood in the trunk. They are found in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in the east of the state. The Coast Redwoods of the Pacific Northwest – from southern Oregon to Central California – are the tallest.

We had originally planned to see both. Our California tour originally included two nights in the foothills of the Sierras, where we would have seen 'General Sherman', the largest living thing on earth. It is 83.8 metres tall, with a girth near the ground of 31.3 metres. Its branches don't begin until 40 metres up. We didn't see this marvel. I had foolishly assumed that, with the California drought and a super El Niño, there would be little or no snow in the Sierras. Two weeks prior to departure I called the lodge where we were booked in. They had 5-7 feet of snow and weren't expecting it to disappear anytime soon. Avis in LA wouldn't allow us snow chains: we couldn't enter Sequoia National Park without them. End of story.

So it was all down to the Coast Redwoods for our big-tree experience. From San Francisco we drove south, eventually along slow, narrow, twisting roads, to Big Basin Redwoods State Park, whose address I love: 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek, Ca. You will recognise a familiar story when I tell you that Big Basin was the first State Park, founded in 1902 when it was realised that these magnificent trees had fast disappeared into 28 saw mills to meet the timber demands of the gold rush and urban development. This was the start of the conservation movement in California. Today, less than five per cent of a once-massive ancient forest remains: Big Basin's rare stand of Coast Redwoods includes trees ranging from 1000 to 2500 years old. Some are 100 metres tall and more than 15 metres in circumference.

The Redwood Loop Trail is short, and there are much longer ones, but your neck will ache after half an hour or so. You are compelled to look up all the time because these towering trees are almost unbelievable in their scale. And you'll try to spot the red-capped Acorn Woodpecker, who will soon make his presence felt by a noise resembling the soft thwacking of wood rather than a woodpecker's more familiar tapping. Thanks to my friend for this shot of what appears to be a woodpecker eating a chip.
Extremely tall trees are impossible to photograph adequately. I tried.
I quite liked group shots…
…and the texture of the bark.
The Coast Redwoods couldn't live to such a great age if they weren't extremely resilient. If their tops or limbs break off during a big wind or storm, a dormant bud will sprout, enabling the tree to continue its reach for the sky. The 'Mother of the Forest' at Big Basin lost her top in a storm, but she's expected to regain her former grandeur. The 'Father of the Forest' was less impressive.
The Redwoods have several survival techniques. Roots do not go deep but extend outwards nearly as far as the tree is tall, intertwining with those of neighbours to form a stabilising network. Leaves are able to extract moisture from famous fog that rolls in off the ocean. Bark is thick and protects the tree from fire damage: it contains little flammable resin but it does have a repellent against wood-boring insects and fungi. Clever trees. Survivors.

Which is more than be said for the original people of the region, the Ohlone. After the Spanish arrived, they were impacted by violence and disease, and forced into missions. Like the Indigenous tribes of the Australian continent, they had inhabited the Big Basin for thousands of years, forging a deep connection to the land. They hunted and nurtured and harvested plants, and practised cool burning. This all-too-familiar story of destructive European invasion struck several chords.

How do you measure the height of a Redwood? By climbing up it and dropping a tape measure. The tree is rigged for the safety of the climber and the tree. Scientists explore and measure many things as they ascend, but the search for the tallest tree is never-ending. Laser technology is also used to determine height. 

The road was almost as wiggly down the mountain as it had been up. Boulder Creek is an attractive little town where we stopped to fill up with petrol, creating time for a short walkabout. Laura, whom I passed by on a corner, introduced herself and shook my hand as she welcomed me to California. I noticed the tall trees were integral to the towns on the way down, homes fitting around them. Many cabins were in permanent deep shade and had internal lights on even though the sun was shining brightly.
Route 1 around Santa Cruz was traffic-clogged. We longed to reach Monterey. We were staying in Pebble Beach on the Monterey peninsula between Monterey town and Carmel-by-the-Sea. We decided to reach our house via 17-Mile Drive. This famous scenic route includes forest and dramatic coast and, unfortunately, several golf courses, which I tried hard to ignore. Why were the greens so vibrant in the middle of California's worst drought in hundreds of years, possibly longer? Because the golf clubs are rich enough to pay the penalties. They are not in the business of caring and sharing a precious resource. 

The gated homes of the peninsula reflect enormous wealth and privilege. The 'private property' signs, restrictions on where you can walk by the ocean, even high fences in places keeping you away from the spectacular shoreline – and completely ruining photographs – are not conducive to feeling relaxed and at home, however beautiful the views.
The Drive itself is gated: you pay a US$10 toll for the privilege. I was determined to do it again, but felt disappointed and uncomfortable with the selectivity of the place. It didn't feel wild and free, but manicured, slightly sanitized and corporate, which of course it is, most of it being managed by Pebble Beach Resorts. Motorcycles are prohibited; presumably so golfers won't be put off their stroke by loud revving engines. If you're staying in Pebble Beach, make sure you tell the person on the gate you'll be coming backwards and forwards. 

The wildlife was a good distraction, however. We saw whales offshore and sea otters in the shallows. The variety of shorebirds was impressive. And the iconic Monterey Cypress (top of page) adds drama to a stunning coastline. For your $10 you get a little brochure denoting highlights along the route: Point Joe; Bird Rock; the Ghost Tree; Fanshell Overlook. It is all extremely beautiful; but there was most definitely a but.
Monterey Bay and Santa Cruz mountains from Shepherd's Knoll
The Restless Sea
Bird Rock? (Western Gull)
Cormorants, but are they Brandt's?
Sea otter
Our lovely house was buried in the Del Monte Forest but we could see the ocean. The glass-walled room on the side I called the lap room. Or the inside-outside room. As in San Francisco, we wished we had more time there. The next day was a chillin' day in Carmel-by-the Sea.
All those years ago I stayed in a condo and carried groceries home in a tall brown paper bag. I felt thoroughly American and wanted to pause my life. Clint Eastwood was once the town's mayor. Yes, it's fairytale land. I remember Carmel's beach was gorgeous, and it still is, but the town was not quite as I recalled. It all looked rather twee and touristy rather than cool. But the shorebirds were great.
Marbled Godwits?
Synchronised Sanderlings
A different Gull
Here's my take on Carmel-by-the-Sea, which I loved despite the tweeness, and the lack of decent coffee shops for breakfast other than sticky buns, with the exception of La Bicyclette, whose eggs were in purgatory. We actually ate a damn good dinner at a golf club restaurant on a stormy night (the only bad weather in two and a half weeks, and under cover of darkness). At Porter's in the Forest the food – I remember artichokes and halibut – was excellent, and the service equally so since we were virtually the only people who had ventured out on such a wild Wednesday.
The ocean driving had only just begun, however. There was great excitement about California State Route 1 upon the morrow.

March 15, 2016

San Francisco Days

Day 2 of our California road trip was spent relaxing in San Francisco after a much-needed long night's sleep.

The previous day, Friday, we landed in Los Angeles at 06:30, five hours earlier than we'd left Brisbane, after a 13-hour flight and barely half-an-hour's rest in the previous 30+. Months earlier, we had stupidly made the decision to drive from Los Angeles to San Francisco on busy, flat and straight Route 5 through the fruit trees and more fruit trees of the San Joaquin Valley. We left LA in the morning rush-hour, and our arrival in SanFran coincided with the Friday-evening commute. It was most certainly a drive too far for people too long without sleep.
Crossing San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge 
Our house was on Grand View Avenue (and there was), on the border of Twin Peaks and Noe Valley. The following misty morning, we walked down for breakfast on 24th Street, at the French bakery. We fancied a decent croissant and proper coffee, having not yet acquired the taste for American. The fire brigade popped in for coffee, too, leaving their extremely long vehicle double-parked on the corner.
All around there was colour, blossom and the city's famous and delightfully distinctive houses. There was no end to the photographic possibilities. But how I cursed the strung-out power cables. Just like home. 
It was market day so Noe Valley was bustling. We wandered up and down 24th Street, several times. There was a phenomenal chocolate shop, where we spent a lot of time and not an inconsiderable amount of money.
San Francisco is a hilly city. Later, we walked up and down Castro Street to The Castro itself, where there was colour of a different variety. We caught a trolleybus back, however.
Our first night we ate tapas at Contigo kitchen and cava, on Castro Street in Noe Valley. It's Spanish and Catalan with a Michelin 'Bib Gourmand' and a philosophy driven by sustainability as well as a big love of Barcelona. We chose boquerones (white anchovies) and croqueta de jamón serrano, followed by pork, lamb and jamón albondigas (meatballs), coca (flatbread) of wild nettles, jamón and manchego, and wild mushroom and spinach canalones. We chatted to Andrew and Denise on the next table, locals who often dine at Contigo. We described the Australian Outback, which they have thought of visiting; and they suggested we would love the Alaskan wilderness. I'm sure we would. 

They assured us California was solidly Democrat, always had been, always would be, which was oddly comforting; normal service amidst the Trump trainwreck. There had been young and eager canvassers on 24th Street earlier. Like everyone we talked to in the city, they welcomed us to their state and were happy to chat even though we weren't potential voters. We stated our preference for their party in any case.

For us, there were two absolute must-dos in SanFran: the Golden Gate Bridge and a cable car ride. Back in Bris, I'm having a little trouble with vehicle terminology: street cars, trams, trolley buses, cable cars? I have many pictures, and very pretty they are, too. But which is which? 
Tram (streetcar, in American)
Different kind of tram
And another
Cable car
Trolley bus
We took the California Line cable car from one end of the line to the other. It climbed steeply, and quickly. Its speed was almost disconcerting at times, given that passengers hang off the sides, because that's what you do. We laughed about the fact that such a thing would never be allowed in Australia. Far too dangerous. In San Francisco, however, you can fall off beneath the wheels of a vehicle alongside and kill yourself; it's up to you, not the nanny state.
Spot the Golden Gate Bridge
First glimpses of the Bridge from afar were tantalisingly beautiful. Up close, it was quite remarkable.

Constructed between 1933 and 1937, the Golden Gate was the first really large suspension bridge in the world. Its span of 4200 feet ranked it the world's longest until 1959. It was designed by Irving Morrow to withstand wind speeds of up to 100 mph (swinging by as much as 27 feet in strong gusts), and has only been closed three times because of weather conditions.
View from Telegraph Hill
The Bridge needs to be able to move in response to an earthquake, too. Two retrofits have attempted to protect it: the structure has been strengthened in places to resist the force of a quake, and it has also been fitted with seismic isolators, which deform during a quake, softening the impact of tremors. Isolators were invented in New Zealand in the 1970s, and commonly take the form of a cylinder consisting of layers of steel and rubber bonded together. There may be a hole in the middle of the cylinder with a lead plug to facilitate the dissipation of energy.

You can drive across the Golden Gate Bridge, of course, but you won't be able to look at it properly in traffic. You can walk across, but this takes time. We only had three days to 'do' San Francisco, so we cycled, my friend and I on a tandem. I would recommend this if you're a gal and you fancy a bit of help up the long hill from sea level to Bridge height. We hired from Sports Basement in the Presidio and not far from the bottom of that hill. But be warned, there was a lengthy queue to register and be allocated a bike; and running repairs were required halfway up. There were five of us, on three bikes, and two of them had chain problems. You can hire for three hours or a full day. Avoid weekends.

There are places you can pull into on the Bridge, for a rest, take a photo of the beautiful coastline beyond, or to turn around. Another warning is necessary, about the ultra-serious cyclists who give no truck to the slow or less experienced. One wonders why they choose a route that is bound to be fraught with idiots or aimless wanderers.

There's a gift shop at both the Warming Hut Cafe at the bottom of the hill climb and at the Welcome Centre at the southern end of the Bridge. They have good stuff, such as books about the Bridge, waterproof pocket guides to the birds of California, stylish hoodies, realistic rivets, pens and notebooks, and this, which will long remain a souvenir favourite. We never got to see the Bridge looming out of mist, you see.
Our tram travels took us along Fisherman's Wharf, which was horribly crowded, and tacky. We didn't linger and walked quickly away from the waterfront to the 'Zig Zag Street', as we called it. This was a disappointment, too, being clogged with cars and impossible to photograph without silly tourists and vehicles. Lombard Street's tight curves – which have a speed limit of 5 mph – might be fun if you can get them to yourself in the early morning. There's certainly a good view from the top.
Looking to Telegraph Hill and Coit Tower
We walked up and down Lombard Street, and then up to Coit Tower, where the queue was too long and time too short. We decided the view from Telegraph Hill was good enough without an extra 210 feet of Tower; and then walked down to Washington Square, where we chilled in the stylish Park Tavern; I procured a black Guido Delgado Fedora from Goorin Bros; and we people-watched in the Park, while pretending not to notice black dudes in vintage convertibles or Hummers cruising round the Square to loud funky accompaniment.
San Francisco Bay from Telegraph Hill
Saints Peter and Paul Church, Washington Square
We returned to Fisherman's Wharf that evening to eat at Scoma's, which had been recommended by friends who'd visited recently. This seafood classic dates from 1965, and it was a real treat. They describe how, 'Each morning local fishermen bring their catch to Scoma's pier. Our chef then selects the very best for our pier to plate menu.' I chose Scoma's famous clam chowder to start, followed by wild salmon with black rice, accompanied by a California Viognier. I hadn't enjoyed fish food as much in a long time.

On our last evening in SanFran we ate at Foreign Cinema in Mission district. This is a super-cool joint combining 'food, wine, cocktails, film, and art gallery into one harmonious ambience'. It has featured in the San Francisco Chronicle's Top 100 Restaurants for 16 consecutive years. I kicked off with A Poet's Blood cocktail, before ordering a salmon and prawn starter, pork chop main, and salted caramel pud. I was intrigued by the chop's description on the menu – Heritage pork chop, Umbrian farro (wheat grain), nettle, hen-of-the-woods, poached tart cherries, balsamica. This was the first time I'd come across 'hen-of-the-woods', which is a mushroom that clusters at the base of trees, particularly oaks. You live and learn. 

Finally, I had to visit Haight Ashbury, for American comfort food at the unpretentious Pork Store Cafe, before we hit the road south. Originally a sausage butcher's established by Czech immigrants in 1916, Pork Store has become something of a breakfast institution in SF. Our waitress patiently explained 'grits' and 'biscuits', and suggested we share a large plate of hash browns in addition to our individual orders. 
It was a bit early for most of The Haight to be awake and functioning, although two members of our party were offered something 'to make your day better' twice during our short walkabout after breakfast.
San Francisco has had countless lyrics, poems, fictions and non-fictions written about its colourful history and equally enthralling present. A week later, in a bookshop in Sonoma, I was to pick up Season of the Witch, by David Talbot, an account of the city from 1967 until 1982. I can't wait to dive into an era of the city's past that left an indelible mark on my youth. Talbot's first para of his introduction describes the city in this way:
San Francisco was built on a dare. The city was tossed up overnight on the shimmying, heaving, mischievous crust of the Pacific rim. A gold rush city of fortune seekers, gamblers, desperadoes and the flesh-peddling circus that caters to such men, San Francisco defied the laws of nature. It was a wide-open town, its thighs splayed wantonly for every vice damned in the bible and more than a few that were left out. San Francisco was the Last Chance Saloon for outcasts from every corner of the globe.
San Francisco is still defying the laws of nature. It's way overdue for another serious earthquake, and yet it exerts an extraordinary power over visitors that makes them long to return. Many people I told of my plans said it was the city in which they would love to live. As we left, my friend suggested we should come back soon for longer, just to live in it, chill in it, and be San Franciscans for some brief moments of indulgence. I had to keep pinching myself while I was there; I most certainly did not want to leave; and I felt renewed for having been there. The city and its inhabitants were strangely liberating from life's tedious little annoyances; they outpoured refreshingly new as well as beautiful old.

We could only follow that with something of epic proportions, right?