Michael and Dan in Southern California
Daniel Emberley, April 2015
We had a spring with no vacation plans. It looked like it was time for Palm Springs; we built a circular road trip out of LAX with the Coachella Valley as our ultimate goal. The timing worked out well: by going at end of April we got to see deserts in bloom, mountains with passes open, comfortable weather, and Palm Springs without Coachella Valley Music groupies or gay White Party crowds.
Saturday, April 18
The drive from LAX to Santa Barbara is a beautiful two hours on the Pacific Coast Highway. Marina del Rey, Venice, Santa Monica, and Malibu whizzed by in the expected mix of sun, palms, beach, and surfers. As we got out of town the road cut past and between ocean cliffs, with fields of flowers grown for their seeds opening up to the east. We took 101 through Montecito and skirted downtown Santa Barbara to the Mission. This was a lot further inland and uphill than I expected; I forgot that a lot of the missions were established away from the military presidios that became our downtowns. The “Queen of the Missions” has a cool Classical façade, original paintings on the chapel walls and ceilings, and a cloister/graveyard for the monks. My cousin Ruth Ann, who lives down the road in Thousand Oaks, met up with us and took us around the lush rose gardens. Downtown we had lunch at the Public Market: like D.C.’s Union Market, cutting edge restaurants and food suppliers in an historic market building. Santa Monica Seafood (yes, in the Santa Barbara Public Market) had excellent calamari, mahi mahi tacos, mussels, and shrimp panzanella. Picked up dessert at Enjoy; chocolate peanut butter mousse. Outstanding, but too messy to walk while eating. Fortunately there’s lots of seating inside and out.
Downtown Santa Barbara is as gorgeous as the hype; like a more successful and less-brand-named Palm Beach. The Art Museum had packed up most of their permanent collection to show European masterworks from the Glasgow Museums. We’d seen these at Kelvingrove and the Burrell Collection in Scotland, but it’s fun to see paintings reassembled into a new show. Santa Barbara has a series of shopping arcades off the main drag. The Paseo Nuevo is essentially a Simon mall (Pentagon City, the Houston Galleria) without a roof. Ruthie succumbed to a makeup come-on while we shopped. I bought an Italian straw hat that served me well for the rest of our trip.
We drove RuthAnn back to her car at the Mission, said goodbye, and headed north through San Marcos pass up the coast. Lots of vineyards, goats, and dried up reservoirs; rivers that only appeared as such on our GPS screen. The industrialized agriculture of Santa Ynez and Los Olivos reminded me of Joan Didion saying the real California exists in farms and ranches, not the cities or beaches. Through the San Rafael Mountains we ended at the Holiday Inn Express Grover Beach. Grover is the stepchild to Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo. The hotel attempts to be a vineyard-resort, with three buildings grouped on the side of a mountain. We got to stay in “Chablis”, in the fanciest HIE room we’ve ever seen: private porch, gas fireplace, and more room than we could use.
Dinner was up the coast in San Luis Obispo’s Madonna Inn. This hotel is famous for its themed guest rooms, with waterfall showers, stone walls, and silk flowers simulating Hawaii, or the Riviera, or a prehistoric cave. I’d tried to book us a room, but the entire hotel was full of people in for wine festivals and Senior Prom. Their steak house was a nice substitute, typical fare, but impeccably prepared and served under gilded cherubs, fake mountain walls, and Christmas lights descending into volcanoes. The men’s room has a urinal in the form of a waterfall; odd to see groups of guys escorting women in to see it.
Sunday, April 19
You can drive directly onto Grover Beach: the sand is compacted, and people line their SUV’s along the shore just like in a Gidget movie. Unwilling to pay the access fee for a few minutes on and off we did a U-turn out and headed back north along the Pacific. Got great ocean exposure at Pismo Beach’s cliffs and just south of San Simeon, where colored stones form the perfect image of a rocky beach.
Today’s big ticket was Hearst Castle. It is a production: multiple tours, giant gift shop, visitors’ center in a valley and property itself a 20-minute shuttle ride away. I was glad I’d looked at the tour options before, it made it easier to choose on arrival. If you’ve seen “Citizen Kane” you know the basics: George Hearst makes it big in silver mines, leaves the fortune to his wife and son, William parlays it into a bigger fortune through newspapers, magazines, and politics. Dad had bought the land as a ranch and lumber investment, but brought the family here for vacations. William had to wait until his mother passed before being allowed to build on the property, and hired Julia Morgan to design an estate incorporating European architectural antiques he’d been collecting since childhood. On completion Hearst ensconced his mistress Marion Davies at San Simeon while his wife remained in charge of their New York City mansion.
What that doesn’t prepare you for is the beauty of the site and the brilliance of Morgan’s design. The shuttle takes you up through working fields and forests to the peak of the hill. At the top, a pseudo-Spanish village of guest houses looks across a “plaza” at the “cathedral”, the main house. Outbuildings, tennis courts, gardens, and pools fill terraces in the intervening spaces. It’s not a pretty house, and the dark Iberian look is not to our taste. However, the architect’s integration of historic pieces, contemporary reproductions to fill out spaces, and modern technology is brilliant. It’s a bit like the Hispanic Society in New York, the same combination of mustiness, dark woodwork, great art, and too much money (but with better gossip). We took the Great Rooms tour, shuttled back to the visitors’ center for a mediocre barbecue lunch, then back up the hill for the Private Rooms tour. Especially liked the movie theater, copies of classical statuary on the grounds, and light from the tennis court skylights bouncing off gold mosaics in the Roman Pool. If we had to do it again we might schedule lunch first, then two tours with a garden walk between them to avoid the shuttle up and back and up and back.
We returned south on the Coast Highway, across the Coast Range on California 46 and 41 (the intersection where James Dean died) and through the Central Valley. Once you cross the Coast Range the landscape dries almost immediately, turning from green to tan, with the only growth patches of irrigated industrial agriculture. Vineyards, hawks, billboards protesting that Nancy Pelosi was causing the drought by not gifting free water to the Valley, fields of raisin-grapes as we approached Fresno. The river beds were all dry, but the California Aqueduct an odd, full, and seemingly dead expanse without plants or even migratory birds on its run. Water is not “natural” here, but a heavily managed and litigated resource.
Monday, April 20
East of Fresno are the joint Kings Canyon National Park, Sequoia National Forest, and Sequoia National Park. Individually each protects and opens up enough space for a vacation in themselves. Together, they provide a drive through mountains connecting forests of Giant Sequoias. I’d researched easy hikes in the parks, but we only had time for the most popular, the General Grant walk at the beginning. We drove south on the circuitous Generals Highway, then up the steep and even more twisty ascent of the Sierra Nevada. Almost as difficult as the High Road to Taos, and a lot longer. On a spring Monday the parks were almost empty, traffic was light, and our stops shared with a few French tourists. We ate a picnic lunch in our own meadow, blew past the General Sherman tree and took in the Giant Forest Museum instead. This is housed in a former concession motel/restaurant whose parking lot the Park Service realized was killing the very trees people were there to see. Good adaptive reuse. Sequoias are an interesting tree, growing in a mixed environment with pine forests, maturing over hundreds of years, in a very narrow band of elevation and water availability. Not sure how they’re going to survive the warming planet. We were having fun with the quickly changing climates of California; they alter with altitude, latitude, and rainfall. We’d seen two of those three affect areas before, but never all together. We woke up to a dry 80 degrees in Fresno, were in a damp 60 degrees in Sequoia, and by the time we descended back to a freeway were again at a dry 80. That tied to an elevation change from 2,000 feet above sea level to 7,000 in the parks. High enough to feel the thinness of the air in our hearts and lungs, but not severe enough to make us have to pause. As the Ranger Stations instruct, irritability, tiredness, and confusion are all signs of dehydration (you thought those were just signs of marriage <smile>). Drink lots of water.
There is no easy way to cross the Sierras south of Yosemite. We left the parks on California 198, drove south to Bakersfield, and circled the mountains using the Tehachapi Pass. A very cool set of railroad spirals, visible from the road, allows trains to use the Tehachapi. More of Big Agriculture around Bakersfield, including the Halo packing plant (for your easy-to-peel citrus), Kraft dairies, almonds, strawberries, and grapes. You drive through a wind farm at the Tehachapi, then pass immediately into the Mojave Desert. Another climate/vegetation shift, bushes disappear quickly and are replaced by fields of Joshua Trees.
We drove north up the Owens Valley. Remember the movie “Chinatown”, where John Huston plays William Mulholland? He’s stealing the water of Owens Valley using Los Angeles citizens’ money to pay for infrastructure that would transform land he owned in the San Fernando Valley. It all worked out (unless you count Jack Nicholson getting his nose slit by Roman Polanski), the San Fernando is now part of LA, and Owens Valley a desert. The roads lead directly across dry lake beds, along a Los Angeles Aqueduct flowing south to water a hundred golf courses.
Our hotel that night was in Ridgecrest, a town that surprised us. We knew that most of the settlements here are military supply bases. What we didn’t expect is that China Lake Naval Weapons Center is a hotbed of research. Like Los Alamos in New Mexico, it is home to scientists and upper level brass: military and smart. I liked it, Michael didn’t. Excellent non-chain Mexican dinner at La Corona.
Tuesday, April 21
Our friends Brett and Ira had recommended the town of Lone Pine, north of Ridgecrest. More people stop in Bishop, but Lone Pine is cooler and funkier, at the base of the Alabama Hills where lots of Hollywood Westerns are filmed. We skipped the movie museum but hit the InterAgency Visitors Center. We’ve seen these before, they’re funded/manned by joint Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and any other federal presence serving as custodians and interpreters of the local landscape. This center is particularly good, with displays on geology, the aqueduct, desert-forest-mountain wildlife and plants, and pioneer history. I enjoyed standing in a section of aqueduct, and Michael liked using the model of the mountains and valley to chart our recent and future drives. Lunch at a Carl’s Junior: there are lots of funky and quaint restaurants in Lone Pine, but Carl’s burgers are so good, they make you wonder how the chain can muck it up so badly when they translate into Hardee’s on the East Coast.
We’d stopped at the Center because I’d read that you needed to get maps here for Manzanar up the road. That made me think that Manzanar National Historic Site would be a few concrete pads in the desert. Instead we were pleased to find a well-functioning and -staffed National Park. Manzanar is one of the camps where we imprisoned American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II. The main displays are in the former auditorium, but they’ve also rebuilt a few barracks and a mess hall to help you understand life here. The Park Service does not sugar coat what we did; the mainly middle class Angelenos who were bused here from Santa Anita racetrack were forced to create a life in dust under armed guard. While their sons were fighting in heavily-decorated regiments in Europe. At the foot of a magnificent Mount Whitney, the highest point in the lower 48 States. Apparently people did not have to stay here, and could have relocated further into the interior of the U.S.: without their businesses, or the money they had frozen in banks, or any Japanese community to help them settle into strange communities while we were at war. With the Japanese. Bizarre conjunctions, I bought a “Manzanar Knights” baseball jersey as a reminder.
China Lake NWC is as big as Vermont; we drove east along its northern border and into Death Valley National Park. Lots of twisting drives through two mountain ranges we did not know were here, going from 90 degrees in the flats to 60 degrees at 5000-feet and back again. Michael enjoyed driving one 3000 foot descent without ever needing to touch the gas pedal.
Death Valley is an interesting park, one that would open up more to someone hiking than driving. Yeah, what place wouldn’t, but it applies even more so here. Lots of rocky scrub gravel, grey and beige accented with red, black, and light green (mineral, not plants). We drove through the dunes at Mesquite Flat and went to the Visitors Center in Furnace Creek (temperature a comfortable 100 degrees). The salt flats at Badwater Basin are amazing: acres of salt crust over dirt and mud that reforms smooth in wet years and breaks up into increasingly jagged grey crystals in the dry. Due to the drought we saw it at an exceedingly splintered moment, like we were ants on giant white sandpaper. It’s the lowest point in America, 400 feet below sea level, a few miles east of the tallest point at Mt. Whitney.
The biggest problem with Death Valley is its size and the lack of settlements outside it. We originally had reservations at the resort in Furnace Creek in the heart of the park, but that didn’t work with our driving schedule. You could stay in Lone Pine if you’re coming from the west, but from the east you should probably base yourself in Pahrump, or maybe Las Vegas. We drove though Death Valley Junction, home of Maria Martinez’s Amargosa Opera House. Martinez, a retired (now deceased) ballet dancer, had tried to turn the Junction into a happening town outside the park, but had not succeeded. It’s like a 1970’s ghost town. A shame, she painted a magnificent mural within the opera house which we were unable to see. I’d chosen a hotel in Primm, Nevada, on the California border. I’d thought that would save us a couple hours drive out of our way, but the way the roads work we ended up in the outskirts of Las Vegas anyway before another hour’s drive south to Primm. MGM Resorts had built a three-casino resort complex there in the 1980’s for Angelenos too impatient to drive to Vegas. The complex is now running down, we checked in for the least expensive night of our trip, $45 at the Buffalo Bill Resort, complete with Cher-headress-style neon sign. A little tawdry, but adequate.
Wednesday, April 22
The drive south took us past the Ivanpah Solar Power Facility, two fields of mirrors focused on towers that use solar heat to generate steam. The towers reflect so much light that you cannot stare directly at them. Pretty cool, I’d studied them, but didn’t anticipate seeing them. Into Mojave Desert National Preserve’s acres of mesquite, creosote, snakeweed, and Joshua Trees. We’d timed our visit well, many of the desert plants were in blooms of yellow, chartreuse, and gold. Lizards dart across the road. Giant white Jimson Weed blossoms grow along the highway; the plant is also known as the poisonous datura, local kids have learned to get a high (and flirt with death) making it into tea. Kelso was once an important rail stop, the Park Service has restored the station into their Visitors Center. The bunk rooms for Santa Fe workers upstairs were cool, as was the coffee shop (sadly an exhibit only, not serving meals). Exhibits are informative and engaging, and the staff friendly and helpful. Continuing into the Preserve we realized that the low range of white mountains we’d seen were the Kelso Dunes. You can hike up to them, but the four mile dirt access road doesn’t get you any closer visually than the vista from the highway.
We exited at I-40, and should probably have just driven south to the gas station at Amboy for sandwiches. Instead we detoured an hour west on the freeway to Ludlow for the world’s most underwhelming Dairy Queen, a complete waste of time. Backtracked via old Route 66 through more of the Mojave – the desert, just not in the Preserve. Salt pans showed why, they are being used for chloride mining. These showed us the classic view of clean white salt fields broken by cracks into what look like giant garden pavers.
The drive across long-dry “Bristol Lake” (green on the GPS, blue on paper maps, and beige in real life) was dry and cool. Into Twenty-Nine Palms, a town serving the Marine Base, on some of the worst roads we saw. Apparently San Bernadino County (yes, it extends this far to the east) and the Park Service each refuse responsibility for the roads. The Oasis Mara Joshua Tree National Park Visitors Center is currently being rebuilt, but the rangers in the temporary center were friendly, and the trails through the oasis were great. They gave us a chance to get up close and personal with lizards, birds, fan palms, creosote and mesquite bushes, and young Joshua Trees. All of our Mojave experience was more temperate than we’d expected, between 68-85 degrees; we were able to open our windows and do climbs in the mountains without AC reducing the strain on the engine of our little Corolla.
Checked into a Holiday Inn, dinner at the not-bad Chinese Bamboo Garden (excellent service, massive portions, get the soup), and a walk through Dollar General before turning in.
Thursday, April 23
Joshua Tree National Park has another visitors’ center on the north side, we checked that out in the morning. We’d planned on driving through the park en route to Palm Springs, but it didn’t look like there was anything there that we hadn’t seen already in Mojave to its north. There are several artists who have studios in the town of Joshua Tree, but we blitzed by and headed straight into Palm Springs instead.
The Coachella Valley greats you with fields of wind turbines as you cross the pass. In the next two days we saw tons of desert wildlife: hummingbirds, falcons, a roadrunner, lizards. We saw more wildlife in the city than in the Parks: maybe because we were walking around, so less of a threat to them.
Albert Frey’s iconic gas station, with soaring triangular roof cantilevered out over the pumps, has been turned into the Palm Springs Welcome Center. A decent collection of brochures and giftware, but only worth seeing for the building. To our surprise (shouldn’t have been, it was originally built as the “Tramway Gas Station”) it was adjacent to the Aerial Tram station, so we parked and took the tram. This was a 1950’s idea that has been rebuilt several times since, most recently with high-tech Swiss cabs that rotate as they climb Mount San Jacinto. You go through several climate zones on the ride, and can see the landscape change from desert to forest to tundra. We got snow flurries at the peak, after 80 degrees at the base. Nice views of the Coachella Valley. The stations are supposed to be landmarks of Mid-Century Modern architecture, but we had trouble seeing that through the layers of tourist signage, gift shops, and coffee shops they’ve crammed in. It was too early to have lunch in the peak restaurant, so we headed back down.
Palm Springs is famous for golf, dates, retired Hollywood stars, the Rat Pack. The draw for us was Mid-Century Modern. A lot of the architectural ideas that became a standard part of American life between 1950 and 1985 (car ports, decorative concrete block, aluminum building materials juxtaposed with stone walls, sliding glass doors, swimming pools in flagstone decks) were first tried in Palm Springs. The town of Palm Springs is a museum of these experiments – no one building is that sensational, and a lot of them remind you of your 1970’s dentist’s office building. Collectively, though, they are intriguing and exciting. We can see why people retire here for the climate, and to renovate these cool homes. Palm Springs is just the first town in the Valley. Further south and east are Cathedral City (working class), Rancho Mirage (1980’s golf communities), Palm Desert, La Quinta (Herndon to Rancho Mirage’s McLean), and Indio (date farms and music festivals). We spent most of our time in Palm Springs proper, but our hotel was in Cathedral City, and we got to drive pretty far down valley. The street grid is continuous across towns, and named after famous residents, so you can drive from the airport down Kirk Douglas to Dinah Shore or Bob Hope. We loved turning off Monty Hall to get onto Gerald Ford. Who knew you’d ever be able to put those words together?
Had lunch on Palm Canyon Drive on an outside deck at Kaiser Grill, one of several restaurants selling a variation of “California cuisine” that seem to be more about the experience than the food. Decent salads (we’d been craving vegetables), and a stop at See’s for a custom pound of chocolate and free samples.
Palm Springs Art Museum is in several different buildings. We started in their Architecture and Design Center, a former bank designed by E. Stewart Williams that looks like a low-budget Kennedy Center. On main drag South Palm Canyon Drive, this is a great adaptive reuse into exhibit space. They were showing one of our favorite artists, Andrea Zittel. Zittel lives in the town of Joshua Tree that we’d gone through earlier; she is famous for work that examines how we live, and how we could live more simply and efficiently. The show displayed two different groups of contemporary work, cardboard boxes plastered into sculptural storage containers and also hand woven textiles. It was unimpressive, but the Museum had included for context textiles from their collection which were great.
The Palm Springs Art Museum proper is also by E. Stewart Williams, a building he designed especially for the Museum in 1974 a few blocks north of downtown. Sort of a Louis Kahn-Mayan-concrete bunker in trapezoids. We’re not sure it is a great design statement, but it shows art well in a desert climate. Lots of rock walls for “texture”. A decent show of Chinese-American artist Hung Liu (collaged oil paintings of recent Chinese history), and Ai Wei Wei’s zodiac heads (shown in larger scale at the Hirshhorn last year, but here in gold). The standing collections of glass and Modern art are okay; good for a small museum, but not worth traveling to see.
Exhausted, we drove down valley to our Holiday Inn Express in Cathedral City. Happy to see we had a room with a classic Palm Springs view of our swimming pool and then up into the mountains. Drove back downtown for dinner, checking out the weekly Thursday night Village Fest. This is a combination farmers market, craft fair, and tourist trap, with lots of live performers and medium-level crowds. No art or craft that spoke to us, but we were able to stock up on locally-produced dates. Some of the design stores were open, we picked up a nifty set of Charley Harper drinking glasses we’d spotted that afternoon. None of the food vendors impressed us, so we sat down at Goryu Goryu, a Japanese restaurant we’d noted earlier that day. Excellent miso-salad-tempura set meal with sparkling sake (thanks to my sister-in-law Miho for introducing us to this), just okay macha tea ice cream (skip their dessert, go back to See’s).
Friday, April 24
Sunnylands was built by Walter and Leonore Annenberg as their California home. He was originally from Philadelphia (Philadelphia Inquirer, TV Guide, Seventeen magazine), she was from Hollywood (her father ran publicity for one of the studios). They were each other’s second marriages. He loved California’s informality, she loved the East’s formality. They compromised by maintaining homes on both Coasts. In addition to being publishing heavyweights they were major hosts to the circle of powerbrokers that gave us President Ronald Reagan. They hired A. Quincy Jones to design a private golf and tennis resort in then-agricultural Rancho Mirage. Knowing their guests (Shah of Iran, Queen Elizabeth, President Ford) would be worried about safety before they would be able to relax, they charged Jones to build high level but unobtrusive security into the complex. Lots of walls behind tamarisk trees, and security gates that slide seamlessly out of sight. But also a major 1970’s time capsule of funky aluminum-glass-stone design. Reagan began using the home as a “Western White House”, a place he could bring world leaders to hammer out issues away from the public eye. It has continued that role regardless of the party of the sitting President; Obama has had several important meetings here. The Annenbergs established a foundation to ensure the property is maintained and made available to the public.
I’d researched Sunnylands in my early planning for this trip, and was glad I did. They have tours of the estate, but you have to be online at 9AM PST two weeks before the date you want to tour. I had hunched over a client’s computer with my finger on the “Send” button (thank you, David Jones!) and gotten us tickets. The nice guide said our tour sold out in 90 seconds. There’s a very Modern visitors center in what had been a back entrance to the property designed by a successor firm to Quincy Jones; that’s all that most visitors get to see. Nice videos about the Annenbergs, the architecture, Palm Springs, and the educational, political, and environmental issues the Foundation supports. Also a sweet show of thank-you gifts to the Annenbergs from their guests. Our tour got into golf carts, since there are no paths at Sunnylands: the landscaping is designed to immerse you in the golf course, and went up to the main house. Most of this is a giant room built around a tropical garden, with spaces for dining, living, and library. The Annenberg’s collection of Impressionist paintings is now at New York’s Met, but nicely done (and fade resistant) digital prints show where the paintings had hung. William Haines had worked with the Annenbergs on the interiors, hiring Ted Graber to execute much of the work (including great needlepoint pillows). A perfect example of Hollywood-Versailles styling, with reproduction Louis XV chairs on flagstone patios, lots of mirrors, and Chinese antiques turned into table lamps. Oddly not gaudy, but comfortable and personable.
The house made you want to meet the Annenbergs, and predisposed you to like them. They carefully thought about their visitors and how to make them comfortable. All guests got single beds: not because their hosts were prudes, but because the Annenbergs knew most of them would be jet lagged, and this let couples get up at night without waking their partners. Likewise guests got inexpensive flashlights on their bedside tables to negotiate getting to their bathrooms. House staff would call ahead to find out what a guest was reading, and a copy of that book would be in their room marked to the last page read. A step-down bar had a cook on staff 24-7 so that food was always available, even if you were still on Tehran time. There was formal china from England, but also eminently breakable and replaceable casual dishes and glasses for bringing back to your room. At one point they had an employee whose only job was ensuring that the potato chip bowl was always full, and only of perfect, unbroken chips. Extreme, but wouldn’t you like to be coddled that way? Leonore was famous for her generosity in inviting people, and Walter for immediately calling them back with “three days, you’ve got to leave by Monday”. My kind of party givers!
We drove east to Indio, almost at the end of the Valley. The previous weekend had been the Coachella Music Festival, and this weekend was StageCoach, a country-music spinoff. We skipped both and went to Shield’s Date Farm for lunch. Martha Stewart wrote this up in a recent issue, it is a family-run operation with tours of the farm, a video “History of the Date”, farmstand, and outdoor café. The food was outstanding: shrimp salad sandwich, chicken-date-spinach salad, date shake. The last is their signature, a vanilla milk shake sweetened with dried date crystals. We toured the farm, surprised to discover the oversized concrete sculptures of the life of Christ throughout, saw the video, and shopped for more dates.
We drove back into town via Palm Desert, which heavily advertises its large public art collection. Most of this is on El Paseo, an elite shopping street, and is the kind of sculpture you’d expect to find outside Henri Bendel’s and Gucci. Art worthy of a median strip. We drove Fred Waring (bandleader, and also oddly the blender manufacturer) back into town. Took a scenic drive around the Canyon Country Club and Twin Palms neighborhoods. These were great places to see 1960’s single-family homes: few walls, lots of gay renovations, good xeriscaping, little traffic, and close to downtown. Parked in the Design District, just a few blocks up Palm Canyon Drive from where we’d been the previous night. Lots of good Modern-antique shops, architects, design retailers. Todd Oldham has discovered my distant cousin Ed Emberley, and is releasing Emberley’s 1960’s kid’s book illustrations as coasters, games, and placemats. Fun to see our name put into circulation that way. One store, “semihandmade”, is customizing standard IKEA kitchens, which is a great idea: you get the convenience of installing inexpensive but versatile off-the-rack cabinetry, then adding their high end door, drawer, and panel fronts. When I told the saleswoman I’d made my own hardware for our AKURUM kitchen we knew we’d found soulmates.
Back at the hotel we discovered that the cloud over the mountains was still there. I’d seen it that morning, and decided to postpone a photo until it had passed. It never did, that’s why Palm Springs is still a desert. Interesting. Dinner at El Gallito, an amazingly good cheap Cal-Mex place just around the corner from our Holiday Inn. Jane and Michael Stern had recommended it in “Road Food”, it’s totally worth it. Lots of chicken décor, which made Michael happy, and great burritos and fajita platters. Bring cash, they don’t take cards, and expect to wait (although ours was only 15 minutes).
Saturday, April 25
Two hours due west on Interstate 10 brings you to Los Angeles. We stopped in San Marino, just outside Pasadena, for the Huntington Library. I had last seen this in 1980 on a visit to my Aunt Santina. At that point it was the original mansion and botanic gardens. It has since grown into a complex of museums, libraries, and conservatories. We toured the original house and painting collections, mainly European oils with a heavy component of British painters, including more Joseph Wright of Derby than I thought we had in America. The Library has created galleries to show just their greatest hits, so you can see the Gutenberg Bible, Audubon portfolio, and Charles Bukowski poetry without interrupting the researchers. Better done than the Library of Congress; at least, at a scale one can easily manage. We met our friends Amy and Neil (Amy and I had gone to school together in Chicago) and got lunch in the café, then saw the collection of American art. I didn’t remember any American collection at all, now there’s an entire museum building full of it, lots of excellent canvases and also decorative arts that appear to have been collected since 2007. We toured the Chinese, Japanese, and desert gardens, but then the mist we’d been experiencing turned into real rain.
As welcome as the water was for Los Angeles, it cut short our walk, although it was cool to see cacti in a rainstorm. We got in our cars and Michael followed Amy down Colorado Avenue into downtown Pasadena. We had drinks and a snack at Yard Bar, then headed over the hills to their home in Encino. Was great to catch up with them and their son Jeremy, who is pondering his college options. We did our best to provide alternate perspectives; thank God that is not a choice we have to make for ourselves. Dinner in the Valley at Hummus Bar, an Israeli restaurant Neil and Amy had introduced us to a few years back that we were happy to return to. Brilliant mushroom hummus, fresh pita, kabobs, falafel, and salads. I am jealous of the freshness of the food every time we are in Los Angeles. We relaxed at their home after dinner over Kahlua-spiked hot cocoa and chocolate-covered dates from Indio.
Sunday, April 26
Amy made us pancakes for breakfast, then we were off to LACMA. Like the Huntington, I had not seen the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) since 1980, when it was an odd stand-alone Modern building. It is now a campus, running for blocks down Wilshire Boulevard, with gardens, cafes, and sculpture gardens connecting buildings by a slate of important contemporary architects. We started at Bruce Goff’s amazing Japanese Pavilion. We’d seen Goff’s work in Oklahoma, but most people who have seen a Goff have seen this one. Concrete umbrella roof suspended over a spiral of gallery spaces, originally designed for the Price family’s Japanese collection. The collection was away, but they had a good show of raku pottery. Lunch in the café was okay, eating in the outside space superior to the food itself. The Hammer Building showed a good Chinese and Korean collection, a hanging silk temple door by Do Ho Suh, and show of language art by Xu Bing. Also decent Egyptian, Greek, and Roman art, especially for a collection as young as LACMA’s. The Ahmanson Building had a show on German silent films, and decent European old-master paintings. Not on a par with Boston, New York, or Philadelphia, but again, significant for the few decades people have been collecting here. Art of the Americas building good, ditto the Resnick Pavilion, which we walked through just for the architecture (and the fact that its donor, Ms Pom Wonderful and Fiji Water, had been a client of one of my clients). After all the hype about it, what was shown in the Broad Collection was disappointing: a giant Richard Serra ribbon, and a show of Larry Sultan photographs that managed to make L.A. look boring. Los Angeles is many things, and boring is not one of them. Finally, Chris Burden’s “Metropolis” was the perfect piece to end our visit: a room-filling sculpture made of toys representing the city, with ramps of Matchbox cars careening through it. Most fun, and a much more uplifting take on Los Angeles.
Are you tired yet? We were, we stopped for a second lunch at Ray and Stark’s Bar. Cheese and charcuterie platters, pineapple cider, beers and coffee. There were celebrations of LACMA’s 50th anniversary going on all around us, most of which we’d ignored, but we enjoyed the complimentary chocolate cupcakes and tarts. Also the free admission, which, to our surprise, had not turned the museum into a zoo. It’s so big it was able to swallow the crowd.
We said goodbye to Neil and Amy, and walked through the free exhibits at LaBrea Tar Pits. Not sure I’d ever seen these, and if I had, they’ve been upgraded since. Cool to see archaeology going on within steps of LACMA. Walked back through Chris Burden’s “Urban Light” grid of street lamps that has become a symbol of the Museum. Drove up through Hollywood, turning left at Hollywood and Highland past Graumann’s Chinese. We figured we’d be on a freeway at that point, but the nice GPS sent us down La Cienaga Boulevard, so we got to see city streets on our way back to the Holiday Inn Express LAX. Got dinner at Del Taco (we’d missed it since our visit to Colorado), returned our trusty Toyota Corolla to Enterprise, and walked the three blocks back to the hotel. The face on the Enterprise agent was priceless; he tried to direct us to the shuttle bus for LAX, and could not believe we were walking to our hotel.
Monday, April 27
United Airlines got us out at 11AM next morning, and we were back in D.C. in time for dinner.
California totally lives up to its hype. We knew that San Francisco, Los Angeles, and San Diego are beautiful cities with vibrant economies that people pay extra to live in. We now know that the places outside the cities are just as worthwhile. The beaches are stunning and laid back, the mountains majestic, and the deserts awe-inspiring. All easily reached by car, and relatively inexpensive. We kept passing groups of tourists from other countries, and we could understand why. Southern California is a great microcosm of the beauties, life, and challenges of the United States. If you can take this trip, do it.