Monday, April 2, 2012

The US West Coast

We’ve arrived at Dave’s place in Mountain View, just south of San Francisco and I am taking a moment to collect impressions of our trip down the US north-west coast. We started on a lovely day for a drive down the Island, and as we drove it occurred to both of us that it was going to feel very different coming back to the Comox Valley after exploring the coast to the south. In part we expected to find out more about our more immediate neighbours, whose waters we now share. And we wondered if knowing that we now share the gloriousness of the coast would soften the sharp longing that each of us has felt for years when visiting water.

Lunch with Shiela and Anne was a perfect pre-amble to getting on the “Coho”, the BlackBall ferry that took us from the Victoria harbour, across the San Juan Straight to Pt. Angeles. Our lovely clear day disappeared half way across, and it was raining when we arrived in Washington. It took us a couple of minutes to get comfortable with the km/mile conversions because Cori's SAAB does not include this on the dashboard – it turns out that our GPS not only does this, but it “knows” local speed limits and will beep when one exceeds them, which entertained Cori and made me want to throw it out the window. We had a couple of hours drive to the motel that we’d reserved for the night, and thought there might be time to take a side trip to Pt. Townsend, but the rain made that unappealing. Pt. Angeles seemed to be a pretty un-reconstructed port town that felt more like a 1960s northern Alberta/BC town than anything that was related to Victoria. And the rest of that drive felt similar – like we were in a wild, remote backwater – sleepy, kind of forgotten, very different than anywhere on Vancouver Island south of Campbell River. (It’s a bit like the difference between northern New Hampshire and southern Quebec). We came across a first hint of the politics of the place when we passed a big sign that said “No more wilderness. Working forests = Working families”. We traveled along the Hood Canal, which is very beautiful – clusters of daffodils were out, along with the occasional flowering tree. We stayed at a motel that catered to divers in Hoodsport, and had dinner at the one place that was open. The “Model T” bar & family restaurant was a pretty basic affair that had half the tables kind of separated off for the restaurant part, and a pool table and bar stools at the counter in the other. It specialized in brazed chicken that was pretty good. We played a bit with folks at the next table who were celebrating St. Paddy’s day by putting green food dye in their (and other people’s) beer, and the guys ended up singing “happy birthday” to Cori.

The next day we drove through sleet, rain, snow, hail and beautiful clear weather. We cut across to the coast through McLeary, Elma, Satsop and Montesanto – McLeary in particular was one of the bleakest communities I’ve ever been through. There were perhaps fifty small houses, all the same, possibly built during or just after WWII, in rows with fences in some disrepair, no gardens, very little paint, all lived in currently. It really did feel like the forgotten edge of an empire, or the leading edge of an empire in decay.

Our day brightened as we got out to the coast, the rain/sleet/hail lifted and we started our trip down #101. We saw the water first just outside Raymond (a big oyster area), and we had our first stop of many at a place where we could take in the power of the waves, the wonder of the bluffs and the occasional off-shore rocks that are characteristic of this coast. We crossed the long bridge over the Columbia River into Astoria and Oregon and stopped again at Seaside to walk a bit on the beach. It’s accessible from Portland, and is a much more thriving vacation/beach town with several blocks of a beach wall and walk and beachfront accommodations. The de Wolff family had been here sometime in the early ‘60s (?) and while I could find little actual memory of that time, I had a very strong sense of my mother and her love of big expanses of sand and the ocean as we were walking around. Back on the road, off the coast for a bit through hills with a slight elevation, where it hailed on us for a bit, and we began to see trees down all along the side of the road. The coast had been recently hit with a bad storm, possibly the same one we had the Monday before we left, and many trees were badly damaged.

We stopped that afternoon in Newport, which turned out to be an inspired decision. After driving by several places we might stay, we went looking for the town core where we found the Sylvia Inn, a small 3 storey, maybe 24 room place right on the water. We were shown the Agatha Christie room (among a couple of others inspired by other authors), and were completely taken by it. It made this one of the Birthday events of the trip – the room had a balcony, a fireplace (with wood & kindling), a couch for reclining, more than enough Agatha Christie books to read in an evening, spiced wine in the evening and breakfast in the AM. No TV, no Wifi, and in the morning the completely engaging company of several urban greenspace planners from Portland who were regulars, and who were friends of Goodie, the owner, who had purchased and planned the place so that she would be surrounded by interesting people.

The first gallery visit of the trip was in Walport, where we found a spectacular collection of paintings, clay, glass and jewelry (we knew there would be many more galleries associated with Cori's pottery convention in Seattle). It was warmer that day, and clear, and we began to see azaleas, along with great patches of daffodils, and some of the pines that were the northern-most cousins of those in California. Cori had been imagining finding a place to eat crab, and we found an actual “Crab Shack” in Banden - a tiny place with a big steamer outside that served whole Dungeness crabs. It was a lovely long meander that day too, and we stopped at look-outs and took our time. Past Port Orford the road hugs the coast and it’s just not possible to travel at any speed, so we didn’t cover as much ground as we thought. We stayed the night just over the California border at Crescent City, right at the top of the redwood forests. We noticed that as soon as we crossed into California the fields were cultivated, with small green veggies quite visible in the fields. We found a place that was again on the water, where we could hear the surf all night and see the lighthouse, and that also provided us with a great hot tub!

It was raining the next day as we headed into the Redwoods, but it made little difference to our experience of their magnificence. Before we left the hotel one of the young men recommended that we take a scenic parkway that parallels the #101, and it was simply breathtaking. As we left these big beauties we began to drive through stands of eucalyptus, pines and great spikey junipers, and the sides of cliffs were in bloom with succulents and something that looks like lupin but isn’t. We could have driven to San Francisco that day, but just before the #1 splits off to go out to the coast we phoned Dave and said we were having such a good time that we were going to take another day to get to him.

And then we took THAT drive (the #1 coastal highway). I have never been on such a twisty road, and was never as close to being motion sick as a driver. We were in fog, in the trees, going over several “hills” for maybe 10 miles at no faster than 30 mph. What fun, really. And then we were out on the coast, which wasn’t much different except there were longer straight-ish sections between the twisty hairpin turn bits that navigate around each and every watershed and cove along the coast. The fog lifted enough so we could see how high we were, how sheer the cliffs were, and the vast unpopulated expanses of sand beach. We came across herds of cows and sheep, but very few people for the next several hours. We were completely surprised by how un-peopled that whole stretch of coast is, all the way to just north of San Francisco. Dave told us later that California has worked hard at restricting development right on the coast, and it certainly seems to have worked. With the cows and fog and fresh green rolling grass hills we felt like we’d landed in Scotland or Ireland - very beautiful. We stayed that night in Gualala, right at the north end of Sonoma county, in another delightful place right on the water, waves crashing all night, fireplace, big Jacuzzi tub. All of the towns on this part of the coast are really quite tiny, and we were lucky to be traveling off-season – if we had done this in-season we would have needed advance bookings because there are not that many places to stay.

Twice on this route, first in Oregon and then along the # 1 we saw people walking, both heading north. The first was a black American woman pushing a grocery cart of belongings who was at least 20 miles from the nearest very small town, and another 10 from the next one. The second was an older guy along the #1, in a long remote stretch, who looked like he had nothing and indeed was carrying almost nothing with him except a small pack on his back.

We had stopped a bit early in Gualala hoping that maybe the next morning there would be less fog. When we woke up it was thicker than the night before! So that morning we drove for a couple of hours in occasionally in very dense fog, but mostly in fog that would lift enough to see the ghosts of rocks & big long breakers. I loved driving it, but think in retrospect that I am thankful that it didn’t lift enough to know exactly how precipitous parts of the road actually were. Brunch was in a little place called Jenner that had a cluster of the first surfers we’d come across and a restaurant that you might come across on one of the BC Islands that had a wonderful crab (yet again) sandwich. And then the fog lifted, and we had clear crisp blue skies the rest of the glorious trip down the coast, inland for a wee bit and then over the Golden Gate Bridge into San Francisco. The city was beautiful as we drove over the bridge, white and tiled roofs all sparkly and Spanish. We missed the turn that Dave suggested and drove into the city further than we’d intended, and the way back to our route sent us up and over one of the more dramatic hills that is an important SF experience.

Half an hour later we were at Dave’s place in Mountain View, in the heart of Silicon Valley. (Google’s headquarters are there, for instance). He left 24 hours later, and in the interim we talked pretty constantly, getting to know each other and Dave introducing us to the highlights of the Bay area. He took us to two of the local restaurants, introduced us to his neighbours, and we interrogated him about his life. We left him at the airport on Thursday afternoon, on his way back to Calgary, and we headed into San Francisco for the rest of the day. We drove in along the harbour and scouted Fisherman’s Warf first from the car. Then we spent a couple of hours in North Beach, where we found the City Lights bookstore. I knew I wanted to drop in, but didn’t know how happy it would make me. I think that was because it was still clearly a progressive collection, and that it appeared to be thriving. Also, maybe because the last time I was there I remember being overwhelmed and didn’t know much of what I was looking at, but this time much of it looked familiar. I was there last with Janice, Vic and Fred in 1968.

Late afternoon Cori & I returned to Fisherman’s Warf to take up Dave’s suggestion that we have dinner at Scoma’s. What a great suggestion!! We arrived at 5:30, so walked right in and were seated at a window looking out at the boats and the city and eventually the sunset. It was a bit more expensive than we’re used to, but we quickly decided that this was going to be another “birthday” event. Tomato based fish stew, or chioppino, is a San Francisco specialty, so we indulged and it was completely delicious. In the process we learned that our waiter had worked there for 28 years, and was one of a many who had been there a long time. So we felt that it must be a place that treats its staff well (he said it was) as well as its customer’s stomachs. When we left we realized that we had entirely lucked out – we had to work our way through at least a hundred people who were prepared to wait as much as a couple of hours to get in! We felt that not only was it delicious, but also that we had stumbled into the middle of an important heartbeat of the city.

The next day we headed in the opposite direction, back out to the coast to Monteray. Dave’s neighbours had given us their members’ passes to the Aquarium, which is one of the largest on the continent. It was a magnificent day, about 15 degrees & clear. On the way we drove through fields of artichokes, as well as other veggies that were being tended by groups of farm workers. The Aquarium is located in Steinbeck’s Cannery Row, which has of course been gentrified. But the Aquarium is wonderful, and Monteray Bay was spectacular. On our walk from the car we saw a whole cluster of seals, including a day old pup, just below the Stanford Marine Research Station. A volunteer who was there with a viewing telescope got all excited because she’d just spotted dolphins in the Bay. It turned out that they decided to spend the afternoon with us, close enough in that we could see them splashing and playing – at one point we figured that we saw at least 20 on the surface of the water, which meant that there were a bunch of them out there. As we entered the Aquarium we caught feeding time with the otters who were in a large two storey tank, one a rescued pup and the other a surrogate mom, and we fell in love with them. We watched the pup for the longest time wiggle and twist and dive and hide with a buoyant toy that he just loved. There were three very large tanks, and a number of great exhibits, most notably one about seahorses (the two here are a sea dragon and a zebra seahorse), another about jelly fish, and another two storey tank that reproduced the kelp forest along the Bay’s shore. While we were visiting the latter a diver got in the water to feed the fish, including some smaller sharks, wearing a device that made it possible for him to talk to the audience. In his talk and throughout each exhibit there were very clear messages about the fragility of the ocean and the health of its creatures and what we could do about it.

This was a perfect end to a special week of travels along the coast. From here we will head back north, traveling inland via Interstate #5 through Portland to Seattle.

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