This is not exactly your run-of-the-mill update on a week's events. Well, not for me, anyway.
I am writing from a room in Fresno, CA. I've been in California for almost a week now, and it appears I'll be here almost another week before heading home.
A while back Taylor, my youngest son, called with an incredible offer. He has been in California since May working, and the jobs he has been involved with here are winding down. He said he would be driving home to North Carolina around the end of October and wanted to fly me out to California to spend some time with him there. He wanted to show me his new favorite part of the country for a few days, then have me ride home with him across the US.
Hard thing to say no to, eh?
Some of the details of the trip have been changed along the way. By the time I arrived it appeared he would have to stay a bit longer for his job, and I would be flying back on my own. This would have been fine also. It led to us making some plans to do things out here we would not have had time to do before. Then things changed again, and now we will be driving home together. However we've already made reservations in Vegas, so I'm going to be even longer getting home than I thought. The original plan was 10 - 12 days but now it will be at least a full 2 weeks. Regardless, the fact is I'm here now, seeing the west coast for the first time, and having an experience that will always rank high on the list of all-time great moments.
This is indeed the first time I've ever been to California. It's actually the only time I've been west of the Mississippi River, except for the Alaskan cruise Cathy and I went on a few years ago. And that certainly did not involve seeing the west coast per se. Alaska is it's own unique environment, and when we flew in for the cruise we literally got off the plane in Seattle, boarded a shuttle bus, and went straight to the port dock a few miles away. Never set foot in the city.
So every single thing I see, everything we do, I am seeing and doing for the first time. This has become what life is mostly about for me. Experiences. There is no amount of things or stuff one can have or own that can replace experiences. Life is a journey, and stuff simply weighs you down. I'll trade every bit of stuff I have for a new and exciting experience. And this trip certainly qualifies as that.
I flew out here on Wednesday the 28th of October. If one needs an omen that this will be a wonderful experience, it came right away. I had a 1 1/2 hour layover at Dulles Airport in Washington, DC. Instead of spending it bored to tears I wandered into a bar where I met a young man who immediately took an interest in my story and I in his. We talked until I had to leave. Then I had the great fortune to end up on the 6-hour cross-country flight seated next to a woman who was absolutely fascinating. Instead of spending the whole trip trying to stay in our little space and avoid contact, we ended up chatting for hours.
Taylor picked me up at the airport in San Francisco. He had been working in the Fresno area, but knew I wanted to see San Francisco so he figured we would start our adventure there, then work our way south. Thursday morning we headed into town. We went out to Alcatraz Island first. This seems a bit touristy, something I always try to avoid, but it was actually a great time. This trip was even recommended by "Zenslinger", one my Joy of Sox friends who lives in San Francisco. The views from the island of the bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the city itself are hard to beat. The island is only a mile and a quarter from the shore so you can see the city clearly, and get some great photos, especially with the zoom. We did the self-guided audio tour of the cell block area, which worked out quite well. Taylor and I both are somewhat resistant to structured vacations, and this allowed us to stop the audio and wander off course when we wanted to. It was very informative and very entertaining as well, with stories of the breakout atempts and riots, complete with sound effects and all.
Upon arrival back at the docks we headed up the line of piers to Pier 41, a trendy shopping, dining, drinking spot. It turned out to be more or less a glorified mall on a dock, but was still fun. It naturally had quite a few places our malls wouldn't have, and had a huge variety of really nice dining establishments to choose from. We opted for a simple cabana style bar and some appetizer goodies and a few really big beers.
After a short time to recupe at the hotel, we hit the streets. Literally. We spent the better part of the rest of that day and all day Friday walking The San Francisco streets. Into Chinatown. Through the downown district. Around North Beach. Up and then down the famous Lombard Street hill. This is the one you see in movies and TV shows all the time that claims to be the curviest street in America. If you drive it you only go about two car lengths between the 180 degree switchbacks. That in itself was more exercise than I've had in months. Of course, practically every street in San Francisco goes up or down, and does so steeply, so I was getting the aerobic workout of my life the whole time.
At one point we wandered by a nondescript building and I just happened to notice a sign on the window about Allen Ginsberg that caught my eye. I stepped back and looked up and lo and behold, it was City Lights Bookstore! A virtual monument in beat generation/hippie culture. I just had to go in and soak it in a little. And, unlike a lot of such places, it seemed to still have it's aura of sincerity and honesty and almost reverance. I was so entranced that we actually returned there the next day. I decided that, even though I could probably get any book there at Borders, by ordering if nothing else, it just wasn't the same as having a book or two from the place itself. And I broke down and "bought the T-shirt" as well.
We had a beer at a bar in the heart of Chinatown, a fairly unique experience, and one which it appears was not real common for us non-orientals. That made it even better.
But most of our time was spent out on the sidewalks, just walking up and down, and up and down, and soaking in the feel of the city. That night we wandered around even more, hitting a couple of the local bars, and found a rowdy place to eat.
After spending most of the day Friday walking around again we finally got in Taylor's truck and took a drive. We went to The Haight, or Haight Ashbury as it was known in my day. I say that having never been anywhere near there, but it was considered almost sacred ground by the people from my generation, especially those just a bit older than me. The birthplace of the hippie movement, the hangout of Jerry and the Grateful Dead, Grace Slick, etc. etc. Whether it was actually the very beginning of all that is really irrelevant, it is and always will be associated with it. The walls of the buildings are covered in tye-dye motif paintings and colorful 60's style murals. Every other shop is a smoke shop, a pipe shop, or a 60's apparel and memorabilia shop. Oddly enough, the remainder of the shops were very high end botiques. I guess the marketing moguls will cash in on tourism wherever they find it. We had a couple beers at a great "punch-bowl bar", then went in the famous Amoeba Record Store. If we had not been on a been on a bit of a schedule, I could have spent hours in there. Rack after rack of vinyl, and thousands upon thousands of used CDs. Heaven on earth! I did wander around for a good 30 - 45 minutes and picked up a couple of Lou Reed albums which I would never find in Winston-Salem, and a couple of used CDs for good measure.
Once we reached the end of the shopping strip we found ourselves at the Golden Gate Park, which has come to be known by those of us who don't live here as Haight-Ashbury park. We went into the park for a while and even participated a bit in the age old traditions of the area ;>).
Enough about that.
Next we found our way back into the city to meet someone that I've spoken to a many a time on-line. Jeff, aka Zenslinger, is a regular participant on the Joy of Sox game threads and I had e-mailed him when I made arrangements to make the trip. He had given me the address of his favorite after work hangout, a place called Ace's, in the heart of town. We made it back around happy hour and he immediately spotted me and introduced himself. I guess I stand out on the west coast. We had a couple of beers, a couple of laughs, commiserated over the Sox' early exit from the playoffs, and took a couple of pictures. Then we had to hit the road.
We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge. We had hoped to get there before sunset so we could cross in the daylight and watch the sun go down from the far side. But the trip from the midtown bar was a little longer than we expected and it was already dark when we went over. Still, the view back across the bay at the lights of the city and the bridge all lit up was fabulous.
We spent that night in Vallejo, then headed for wine country Saturday morning. A friendly gal we met at the Voodoo Lounge, a bar near our hotel in San Francisco, had reccommended that we skip Napa and go to the Russian River region. She said Napa had become too trendy, the tastings were all expensive, and the people were snobs. She claimed that a lot of places in the Russian River area still didn't charge for tastings, and there were more small family vineyards. I don't know if all that is true about Napa, but it sounded plausible so we took her advice.
Taylor is not a wine drinker, so this day was for me. He did, however, take a liking to some of the varieties as the day wore on and he got to experience the differences in wine that even a small geographic change can make. There were some very good shiraz's, which he seemed to enjoy the most. I got to taste some great zinfandels, a variety I have never had a lot of respect for. Here I got to taste what a really good zin is like and found myself quite impressed. Of course, those good zins were the most expensive varieties they had, which is probably why I've never acquired much of a taste for it. I very rarely spend that kind of money for a bottle, and if I do, I'm not likely to experiment with a type I'm not familiar with. Now I know!
We did have to pay at most of the stops, but only a couple of them charged the 10 dollars that is apparently standard in Napa. A couple others were just 5, and a couple were indeed free. One of the places that did not charge was my favorite stop, and not just because it was free. This was a small family outfit called Unti, where we met the man who owned the vineyards, as well as the winery. He was very friendly, informative, and genuine. His wine was very limited edition, so also expensive, and I couldn't justify spending the money out of the trip budget. Yet he didn't seem to mind at all giving us the samples and explaining his process and philosophy. So I took a card and a brochure and have every intention of purchasing from him.
As the sun went down and the wineries started closing up we headed back to the southeast toward Yosemite Park.
We drove for about 3 hours to get to a small town just on the outskirts of the park itself. Here we could spend the night in a reasonably priced hotel, but still be close to our destination in the morning, a theme we repeated often on this trip.
In the morning we headed into Yosemite Park. This is a place like almost none other on this old world of ours. We were on the Northern end of the park when we entered, at a high elevation coming through a pass. As we descended we wound around the sides of the valley, getting awesome views of the mountain sides opposite of us. After a while the road hooked up with a pretty little stream which it followed beside all the way down to the valley floor, with the stream slowly growing to a small river. This turned out to be the river that flows right through the middle of the park area on the valley floor below. As we arrived at the park area itself, Taylor took a detour back up the other side of the valley toward the opposite entrance. He said there was something I should see before we settle into the park. After going back up for about 2 minutes we came upon a tunnel and pulled into an overlook area just before going into the tunnel. As we turned in the viewing area I turned back the direction we had come from and was greeted with one of the most awe-inspiring sights I have ever witnessed. The size of the parking area, the busses parked and unloading, and the fact that every car coming through the tunnel pulled in here said right away that was a famous viewpoint. And with good reason too. From here you could see for miles down the valley below. El Capitan, with it's majestic, intimidating wall, was immediately on your left. Past it you could see the valley spread out with high cliff walls on either side, all the way to a point where the valley and the river below turned to the right. You could see Half-Dome Rock on your right, and you could just make out Bridal Veil Falls. This was a scene right out of an Ansel Adams photograph, and indeed, many of his famous shots of the valley and of El Capitan were made from this very area.
After soaking in the splendor for a while we headed back down to the park itself. Taylor checked us in but it was a little early to get into our campsite so we parked the truck in a public area, "bear-proofed" our belongings in one of the bear boxes that are everywhere in the park, and set out on our big hike.
We hiked up to Vernal Falls and then on to Nevada Falls. The trail was so steep at the beginning, and I am so out of shape, that we had to stop on a regular basis to let my breathing catch up and my legs stop aching. We wound our way up a series of switchbacks mostly running on the other side of the mountain from the falls themselves. Every so often we would come around one of the bends and find ourselves rewarded with a view of our destination. But we never really got a full view of the falls until we got almost all the way up to the top. The trail was about 4 1/2 miles long, but the challenging factor was the over 2000 foot rise in elevation. The trail was steep almost the entire way, meaning very little relief for the legs. However it didn't take too long for me to acclimate myself, and the stops became less and less frequent as we went.
When we arrived at the top of Nevada Falls we were greeted by another one-of-kind vista. There is a huge fairly flat rock formation that the stream tumbles over to create the falls. You can get right to the edge of the precipice on these rocks and take some pretty damn awesome pictures. It also made for some great photo ops of Taylor and/or myself standing right on the "edge of the world" with just a few feet seperating us from a sheer drop of over a thousand feet and the small valley that is formed by the stream spreading out below. There is a bridge built across the stream right at the top of the falls. From here you look out on a completely unobstructed view of the stream going down through the trees and see all the way down almost to where you began your journey. It gives you an incredible sense of accomplishment and for a moment you are a part of the world that you have conquered. After what seemed like not enough time, we started back down. We took the "shortcut" back, a trail that runs on the other side of the stream from the one we followed up. This trail runs right alongside the falls and the stream the whole way down. It is about a mile shorter, but of course has to traverse the same elevation change, meaning it is much steeper. It is also less developed, and quite often you are picking your way over rocks and obstacles, all the while being acutely aware that you are never more than a few feet from a fall that you would probably not survive.
After an hour or so of steep descent we arrived back at the point we started from. Our journey had taken almost all day but it was a very rewarding day. I have bemoaned my poor state of physical conditioning for some time now, and it was empowering to "conquer" this task. We made our way back to the camp area and built a campfire, but w didn't pitch a tent. Taylor had rented one of the heated "cabin tents" for the night to actually sleep in. He was apparently concerned about the old man's ability to get a good night's sleep in the cold mountain air. We hung around the fire, enjoying each other's company, and he tried shooting some fancy silhouette shots of me in front of the fire. We heated up some food and had a few beers, then went to the heated tent. Thatt was indeed a good idea. The temperature dropped steeply in a hurry and even withe gas heater stove that was in the tent it was VERY cold. Still, sleep came easily after the strenuous activities of the day and the handful of beers. The next morning we took off again and hit some of the landmarks views, then took another hike, albeit a much shorter one. We went to the foot of Yosimite Falls and got some great pictures. I may even try to get myself technologically advanced enough to post some on this site.