Michael and Dan in Northern California
Daniel Emberley, June 2017
We missed California. In the past we’ve driven the Coast Highway from San Diego to Hearst Castle, and separately from Klamath north through Oregon. The section north of San Francisco was calling us. We had family we could visit in the city, and a feeling that there is more to Sacramento than people acknowledge. We usually like to make our spring trip in April or May, but I’d been in a bunch of hospitals then for doctors to commemorate the 10th anniversary of my bypass surgery (eh, they found nothing). Plus, the delay gave Highway Patrol and Park Service opportunity to get roads re-opened after the snowy winter.
The short version? We love this state. Amazingly diverse geography and topography, a welcoming population, friends and family. Everything you eat is so fresh, or fantastically prepared, or both, that from burger stand to high end restaurant it’s memorable. This was our fifth foray into California, and we’ll probably be back for Tahoe and Yosemite.
Thursday, June 15
Virgin America took us uneventfully from National to SFO. Nice view of the Bay from the window. We grabbed a cab to the Holiday Inn San Francisco Civic Center, just south of Market on a block that wants to be up-and-coming, but is still seedy Tenderloin.
Friday, June 16
We were last in San Francisco was 1999. Then the tech money was happening, but had not yet transformed what was still a city with a mixed economy and a variety of industries. It’s an entirely different place, an urban theme park for people who work outside the city, but want the funky vibe that is impossible to get in Silicon Valley or the other tech suburbs. It has the same privileged D.C.-behavior of people viciously competing to be the first to try each restaurant, overlaid on one of the most beautiful and impractical cities. I mean, putting a Euclidean street grid on a peninsula of hills, planting it with exotics from around the world, and siting it on the peninsula, instead of the sunnier and easier-to-reach-any-way-but-by-ship East Bay? Insane, and lovely. We were surprised by how the terrain still forces much of the population to own cars, despite multiple overlapping transit entities set up to move us by bus, ferry, or rail.
We took a walk through the Civic Center, one of America’s best Beaux Arts complexes, anchored by Arthur Brown’s gorgeous City Hall. You see it on the mall and assume it’s a state capitol. What had been a farmers’ market in 1999 has devolved into trashy tourist and import stands. We were on a quest for the Ballet’s headquarters, designed in 1983 by our friend Bev Willis. Still looks coolly modern, unlike a lot of the lesser buildings that fill out the Center. In a city where residential space is so precious, the width of the streets and empty plazas here was puzzling, but perhaps appropriately signals the value San Francisco’s citizens place on their public sphere.
The former public library has been recreated by Gae Aulenti as the Asian Art Museum. Aulenti is the woman who transformed a Paris train station into the Musee D’Orsay, and we’d seen her Museum of Catalan Art in Barcelona. Fantastic, the Asian handles contemporary museum and visitor needs while respecting the original library structure. The collection is outstanding, especially the Middle Eastern and Chinese. Japanese was good, but not as extensive. We kept seeing the name Avery Brundage on donor tags, he was a Chicago builder and Olympics administrator. He also collected Asian art; his donation to the city of San Francisco forms the heart, and still a major part, of its holdings. My former boss’s wife, Betty Alberts, was instrumental in moving the museum to this building, it was fun to find her name on exhibits. We walked Market Street up to The Hall, a halfway house for food trucks that want to become real restaurants. We got a Baltimore-style Italian sub (?) and a pork banh mi. Very good, and not terribly expensive.
Michael’s brother Ellas, his wife Mary, their son Zach, and Michael’s other brother’s daughter Belinda flew into San Francisco that morning to join us. We met them at the Holiday Inn, and split up. Michael took the Setos on the F trolley (a line that preserves street cars from around the world) to Powell Street to ride the cable car. They rode to the end at Fishermen’s Wharf to watch seals and eat fish chowder in a bread bowl.
I took the bus east on Market to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Last time we were here the Mario Botta building was new and exciting. The collection has so grown in size and quality that they recently doubled their space with an addition by Snohetta. A comprehensive collection of art since World War II, hung beautifully, with many rooms devoted to the work of a single artist or school (Noguchi, German photographers, Larry Sultan, Chuck Close, Andy Warhol, Agnes Martin). Huge shop, and a nice living wall of greens in the sculpture garden. Sadly, though, navigating the galleries is confusing. Sadder, they did not recognize any of my museum association reciprocal memberships (first time I’ve ever had American Alliance of Museums rejected), and charged me the full $25.
I left via Yerba Buena Gardens. This is an oddly configured space of buildings, a shopping mall, and parks that run over and under each other, made more difficult due to construction. Fun, though, a nice place to stop for an ice cream and get my act together. The shopping included an outlet of Chronicle, publisher of funky and high-design books. I love their stuff, but seeing it together made me less, rather than more, excited about their imprint. Did pick up a nifty cable car paper model kit.
We all met up at the hotel. Belinda, Michael and I caught BART one stop south from Civic Center to 16th & Mission. Fun to walk through what had once been a barrio, and is now too trendy for anyone normal to live in. Walked by Mission Dolores (as seen in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”), stopped into bakery Tartine for éclair, a canelé, and hazelnut tart, then over to Dolores Park. My brother Tony had recommended the Park if we got to the Mission early, it was a brilliant suggestion. We found a spot on the lawn overlooking Mission High School and downtown, watching the scene of families, trendsetters, and gelato vendors colonize their corners of the park. Great playground.
Tony and his wife Susan met us at Mission Street Oyster Bar. This was our first chance to meet Susan, as we’d missed their wedding and visits to the ‘rents in Waltham. Great to connect with them over pasta, shrimp, crab, and cioppino. I got an orange wine from Paso Robles, in honor of friends Neal and Amy who have a vineyard there.
Saturday, June 17
We joined Tony & Susan for breakfast at Brenda’s, just north of Civic Center: eggs benedict, fried green tomatoes, and an andouille omelet with fantastic biscuits. They drove us over to see their apartment, a small space in a great location near the Bay Bridge and Mozilla headquarters (the former Hills Brothers/Yuban Coffee building). A fun walk together north along the bay to the Ferry Building, where we split up, Tony and Susan to buy groceries, and us to check out the cool retail. The Ferry Building anchors the Bay end of Market Street, its clock tower a signature image of San Francisco. Ferries depart from here to Sausalito and around the Bay. More important to us, the Ellis-Island-like interior is lined with vendors selling food to eat, gourmet groceries, and kitchenware. We checked out Heath Ceramics; Edith Heath created distinctive modern dishes in Marin after World War II that were picked up as the house style at Chez Panisse in Berkeley. Way cool. Also a vendor of amazing drinking glasses, but at $400 for a set of eight, outside our price range. We met up with the Setos, checked out the farmers outside, and bought picnic supplies for lunch.
The Presidio was one of the oldest army bases in America. Our military took it over from the Mexicans, who inherited it from the Spanish. It was a major base during World War II, decommissioned in 1994. It is a choice piece of real estate, dominating the northwest corner of the city south of the Golden Gate Bridge (that was kind of the point, the Spanish put their army overlooking the straights). San Francisco jumped at the opportunity to transform the base into a park. Former barracks are now residences, restaurants, artist studios and a hotel; the park and forest remain, landing strip Chrissy Field is a wetlands and beach, and the old Letterman Hospital is George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. This was a great place to bring the family, with something cool for all of us. There is a free PresidiGo shuttle weekends from the Hyatt a short walk from the Ferry Building. The bus ride itself is fun, running up and down hills through Chinatown and across Pacific Heights and the Marina. There is a good visitors center where the bus drops you; we checked out the exhibits and parked ourselves on the porch for lunch overlooking a kite festival on the parade grounds. Across the parade is the Walt Disney Family Museum. The holdings are extensive, telling the story of Walt and Roy from childhood through animation and the development of Disneyland and Disney World. Being family focused, it stops before the Michael Eisner “Little Mermaid”/“Beauty and the Beast”/“Aladdin” years. Great documentation of the history of the Disney company, how the 1941 strike affected Walt, one of the 3D cameras that were first used for “Bambi” and changed what was possible for animation to show, and a model of the Magic Kingdom. Learned about Mary Blair, the animator/artist who was pivotal to the look of “Cinderella” and “Alice in Wonderland”, and created the style of the “Small World” ride. More than we could take in.
At the transit center we caught one of the circulator buses. The Presidio is so large that there are two routes, we caught the one that took us west past the cemetery, around Fort Winfield Scott, under the entry plaza of the Golden Gate Bridge, along Chrissy Field, and by the Palace of the Fine Arts. Back at the transit center we walked to the Yoda Fountain outside Industrial Light and Magic, and, since the Setos were interested, to the Palace of the Fine Arts. This is all that is left of Bernard Maybeck’s buildings for the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition. It is one of my favorite places in the city, it was great sharing it with the family. Lots of concrete and terra cotta angels and Beaux Arts deliciousness.
I was impressed that the Setos were keeping up with the Dan Emberley Death March. Thanks guys! We caught Ubers back to the hotel, cleaned up, and Michael and I walked over to Hayes Valley to pick up a ZipCar van.
Most of Mom Seto’s brothers and sisters live around the East Bay; Michael’s Aunt Linda had organized a family reunion and dinner at Joyful House in San Leandro. We picked up the Setos, drove across the Bay Bridge and south on Interstate 80. Uncle Johnny and Aunt Linda Mui live in a very cool Eichler home, you enter into a pavilion then through a garden framed by two bedroom wings and the main living areas. Sweet. We visited, then convoyed over to the Chinese feast. The Mui reunion effectively took the place over, and it was a blast. At least a hundred of Mom’s siblings, their kids and partners, and their kids. They don’t often have the opportunity to get together, so it was like one of my family’s barbecues at Aunt Mary’s, with the extended cousins getting a chance to hang out. By end of the night we were extending invitations to everyone to visit us in Houston and D.C. Just not all at once - smile.
The drive back into town was easy. We dropped Ellas’ family off, returned the car, and Belinda hung out with us on the walk back. It’s easy to think of our niece as a kid when we’re apart, it was great to have the chance to interact with her as the adult that she has become. Plus she has a killer wit that made even the bums of the Tenderloin entertaining. We got to show City Hall off to Belinda; it was lit up like a magic vision.
Sunday, June 18
Breakfast with Belinda at a diner on Market Street, then Ellas and Michael picked up our rental cars. We checked out and drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to the Marin Headlands. I’d heard of these for years, but wasn’t sure what to expect. From a nature perspective, they’re a continuation of the Presidio: wetlands and forested hills across the straights of the Golden Gate. An entirely different human history, however: military installations up to the Cold War, Portuguese dairy ranchers, preservation as park lands by the affluent commuter residents of Marin County. Beautiful drives and hikes from the visitors’ center.
We crossed the hills east into Sausalito. This is surprisingly small, a couple of commercial streets at water’s edge serving homes on the hills above. We parked at the ferry terminal, shopped along the strip, and looked for a restaurant that could take eight people, arriving at different times, in a popular tourist destination, without reservations. On Father’s Day. Taste of Roma was an easy walk for Tony and Susan, who took the ferry over to join us for pizza and salads.
After lunch the junior Emberleys returned to the city, the junior Setos crossed the parking lot for the bus to Muir Woods, and Michael and I drove up to Santa Rosa for the Charles M. Schulz Museum. The creator of “Peanuts” retired here from Minnesota and built a hockey rink for the town. The museum sits on one side, the gift shop on the other, for a combo community center and tourist attraction. The museum is fun (how can a place about Snoopy and Charlie Brown not be?), but is text heavy: you spend a lot of time reading comic strips on the walls. And not just in galleries: a Japanese artist turned hundreds of Peanuts strips into tiles, and used those to create giant mosaics of Lucy and Charlie Brown. Outside there’s a maze in the shape of Snoopy’s head. Further from Sausalito than we planned, but a nice detour from a Sonoma County wine trek, if you’re into that.
A witty Brooklyn transplant checked us into our Holiday Inn Express in Mill Valley, just north of Sausalito. We dropped our bags, looked out the window, and saw Belinda and Zach in the pool with a nature preserve beyond them. Turns out the Muir Woods bus never showed, so they checked in early and had been chilling at the hotel. We got burgers at In-N-Out, taking them to the hotel terrace to eat. Thanks, Belinda, for getting French fries animal style! There’s a small Target in Mill Valley, we got a cooler, water, and snacks for the trip ahead of us. The hotel loans bikes to people who want to explore Bothin Marsh Preserve, but we walked it instead. It’s a salt marsh maintained by Marin County, with flats below surrounded by hills with small developments of homes peeking through the trees. This was one of the great moments of the trip, walking in nature with the family. Reeds, cranes, sandpipers, crabs, wild fennel. Zach pointed out the signs for Sensitive Wildlife, and wanted to know why, if they were so sensitive, the County didn’t just hire a therapist or motivational speaker to help them out. I suspect that was an option considered at the Marin government meetings.
Monday, Jun 19
We said goodbye to the Setos at breakfast; they had another week to explore the Bay area. We drove to San Rafael for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Marin County Civic Center. Wright designed this government center as two wings with a circular building at the join, all on a ridge overlooking the county. It’s been well maintained, still used for its original purpose as county offices. We’d seen the exterior before, but this time we drove under the building per Wright’s plan and took the escalators to the office levels. Its a little like a shopping mall, arched skylit corridors lined with 1950’s Mad Men style offices. A cool small gallery in the employee cafeteria tells the story of the building. We could not find access to the rotunda room, we think this is a library that had not yet opened for the day.
Across the mountains back to the Pacific and Point Reyes National Seashore. This triangle of land is separated from the mainland by the San Andreas fault. Sometimes the fault is a valley between mountain ridges, but the northern half has let the ocean in as Tomales Bay. A good visitor center introduced us to the beaches, forests, and ranches, shore birds, horses, cattle, deer, and sheep we would see. The Point has been used for dairy farming and ranching since the 1850’s; as you leave the visitor center the ranches start at letter A and run out to Z. We followed the main drag, Sir Francis Drake Boulevard, up Tomales Bay, across the ridge and south along the beach to the southern point of the triangle. We took the left, to Chimney Rock, and ate picnic subs at the overlook watching elephant seals. Then to the other side of that peninsula to the lighthouse, but decided we were not up for the hike down and back uphill again to the lighthouse proper. Amazing vistas up the coast of woods and dunes.
Out of the park we drove north on California 1. This was the twistiest part of the Coast Highway we’d ever been on. Amazing views when you get them, but most of the time the road hugs cliffs and the ocean can only be seen between trees. We pulled over at Marshall Gulch, north of Bodega Bay, for a cliff top view. It was starting to look like the beaches in southern Oregon, but either the landscape did not allow California road engineers to get close to the beach, or they chose not to spend their Depression reconstruction funds here. Either way, it’s hard to get to the beach proper, involving a steep hike down and back. Up through Russian River, and by late afternoon we checked in to Sea Ranch.
Sea Ranch is a big deal. You may never have heard of it, but it influenced the style and placement of most beach cottages you’ve ever rented. In the early 1960’s Castle & Cooke, the pineapple people, bought a former cattle ranch here as an investment. They hired landscape architect Lawrence Halprin (D.C.’s FDR Memorial) and architects including Charles Moore and Joseph Esherick to create a new way of living on the ocean. The siting of each home ensures everyone gets multiple beach views; the buildings are simple wood structures elegantly designed in California Modern. Lots of plate glass, unpainted wood, steep one-angled roofs. Home locations ensure protection of tide pools, unspoiled beaches, and woodlands. Ranch lands were kept, or allowed to grow back to scrub in a managed, seemingly natural way. The result is absolutely gorgeous, pristine, and relaxing.
I’d originally thought we’d pull in, park illegally, and take a walk around the neighborhood. Dumb idea, Sea Ranch extends for miles along Highway 1; I had no idea it was so large. My brother Tony had kindly booked us into the Sea Ranch Lodge, the only hotel for miles and an integral part of selling the property (you can still buy lots; please do, we promise to visit). Our room was a short walk through the property. It looked like something my father or brother Tom, the best carpenters I know, would have built if they had been guided by Stephen Holl, a master of designing buildings for light. The wood outside has aged to silver grey, the room numbers are marked by giant red supergraphics, and the interiors are the original warm orange wood. Our unit had huge windows, unexpected skylights, and a renovated bath.
It also came with complimentary wine. We dumped our luggage, made sure my insulin was safe, and repaired to the lobby to get drinks and explore. They let us take the glasses out, so we hiked around the Lodge building as we drank. It was like walking around a 1972 issue of Sunset Magazine. Plants, butterflies, and birds we’d never seen before. Either the wine or the setting started to work their magic, but we slowed down, and took a more leisurely walk down to the cliffs and through old ranch buildings. Dinner in the Lodge dining room was excellent; an ocean view, salad with Green Goddess dressing, shrimp, scallops, schnitzel. We watched the sun set and the fog come in from our room; matching built-in window seats gave us complimentary views while we lay touching our toes. Even the light through the skylights spread magically along the walls as the sun moved.
Tuesday, June 20
Our friend Eleanor woke us up the next morning on the phone. She was not aware that we’d already arrived in California and were on Pacific Time. More suspiciously, I described the deer playing outside our window as the Pacific crashed and the fog rolled, and she demanded to know who had replaced Dan with a chill pod person. She may have been right, was that an entire day’s report extolling nature?
Michael napped while I went for breakfast in the Lodge restaurant. An amazing huevos rancheros Napoleon. The Sea Ranch Chapel dates from 1985, but seems at least ten years older. Designed by San Diego craftsman James Hubbell, it grows from the site like Bilbo Baggins’ house. Stained glass, carved wood, wrought iron and crafted stone accent the building and create an ideal California Crafts environment. Since we had the car parked there, we took advantage and walked around some of the adjacent cul de sacs. Sea Ranch is remarkably consistent, considering that it has been developing over five decades. Again, great siting, simple wooden homes, giant windows with ocean prospects. We gave up on walking and drove around a few more neighborhoods before turning north on California 1.
The road continued to twist and turn, accented now by landslides. The winter had brought in so much water, after years of drought, that many sections of the Coast Highway further south had been closed entirely. We ran into stops where the California Highway Patrol bunched us into conveys so we could one-way through work zones as they struggled to restore the road. Fortunately, although these were frequent, they were also efficient, and we lost little time.
Mendocino was as charming as expected. Not really a New England town, as promised, more like California’s idea of what an Eastern fishing village would be. But with parking. Lots of homes with attached water towers, as if NYC buildings had given birth to cottages. These “tank houses” are a California thing; before they had electricity to bring water up from deep pumps, they used windmills on the side of the houses to bring water up to be stored in tanks for household use. Very green, an idea worth a comeback.
Lots of craft and art galleries, decent restaurants. The visitor center commemorated both Tippi Hedren and Angela Lansbury. If “Murder She Wrote” really took place here they’d have had to kill off the whole town twice to keep Jessica in scripts. Lunch at Good Life Café, a Cubano sandwich, decent salads, and a green soup. Stocked up at Mendocino Chocolate Company, now that we had a cooler to keep things from melting in the hot car. Up the coast, in Fort Bragg, stopped at the Glass Fire Gallery, where they sold work they made in a garage in back. Amazing light fixtures: all the crafts we saw in this region were of high quality and low price.
North of here the Highway Department finally gave up hugging the coast, and the route goes inland as California 101. This took us into Redwood Country. It’s technically a highway, but the road is frequently one lane in each direction, and the towns on the map are just hamlets. Sometimes with a gas station. A twenty-mile detour off 101 feeds Humboldt Redwoods State Park as the Avenue of the Giants. We’d been told that our Oregon trip last year, ending in Redwoods National Park, had stopped too soon, and the real redwoods were here, further south. They looked similar to us: grand, tall, and impressive. And cluttered with the same tourist trap drive-through trees, artificial attractions, and Bigfoot gift shops. We skipped the latter and enjoyed the trees.
Eureka is one of the last lumber towns on the coast. This section of California had once been lined by lumber company ports to take old growth forest out by ship. Connections between the towns by land only happened in the 1950’s. When the lumber industry declined, most business of the area consolidated into Eureka and Arcata, just across Humboldt Bay. So, this is where the Holiday Inn Express was, also one of the last remaining lumber company facilities, Samoa Cookhouse. On Samoa Island in the Bay, Michael thought sure I was leading him on one of my wild goose chases. But no, across the bridges, onto the island, through dead lumber yards and industrial parks, Samoa Cookhouse has survived as a tourist attraction commemorating the lumber industry. A massive warehouse, sections preserve old logging and camp equipment, but the main room serves all you can eat American meals that have not changed from the 1950’s. The night we were there they served vegetable beef soup, salad and bread, roast beef and pork ribs, and peach cake for dessert. Bland, but satisfying. Our friend Catie ate here as a kid, she said it sounds the same.
Wednesday, June 21
Our friend Kari Minnick, the glass artist, learned her craft at Humboldt State University in Arcata. It’s a cool Spanish Colonial Revival campus. Going inland on California 299 we passed through Six Rivers and Shasta Trinity National Forests from foggy coastal rain forest to drier pine forest. The road was mountainous, but less serpentine than along the Coast. Even more landslides; the construction delays helped us appreciate how much had been washed out.
The city of Redding sits in the Klamath Mountain foothills at the top of the Central Valley, surrounded by cool towns and natural wonders. The first one we hit was Weaverville. This town had more to offer than we’d anticipated, craft galleries, small restaurants, and historic houses. The draw for us was Weaverville Joss House State Park. Chinese miners had built a temple here in the 19th Century. It had been lost, but was rebuilt by succeeding generations of Chinese Californians. Closed on Wednesday, but we know what a Chinese temple looks like inside, we just wanted to see one in this setting. Got an iridescent blown glass vase at an amazing price at one of the galleries. The town is small enough that most businesses do double duty; lunch was at Mama Llama, which is both an excellent café and a gift shop.
Whiskeytown National Recreation Area is more about water skiing, fishing, and climbing than anything we are up for, but they do have four waterfalls. We hiked to the easiest one, Crystal Creek Falls. As in, so easy it is paved, and ADA compliant. Pretty, but overshadowed in our memories by the next day’s adventures.
Being so close to where the Klamath and Sierra Nevada Mountains drain into the Central Valley, many rivers are dammed here to create electricity, control navigation, and most importantly store water for agriculture and Los Angeles. Shasta Dam is the biggest deal. Finished in the 1940’s, it is late Art Deco in style, impressive, and beautiful. The view of Mt. Shasta across the Lake is amazing. More surprising to us was that we were able to walk right on to the dam. I mean, hello, 9/11? Anyone? I suspect we were on camera, and there were guards for the few people visiting, I guess they could have sniffed out any nefarious behavior. Just seemed odd after living in D.C.
We drove through the affluent neighborhoods of Redding in search of Pilgrim Congregational Church. This was Frank Lloyd Wright’s last church design; so late in his career that instead of sending one of his staff to supervise, he allowed the congregation to build it on their own. An interesting, almost vernacular look at how a Wright building could be constructed. Lots of impressive stones in a concrete matrix, the roof held up by large exterior steel trusses. Great view of Mt. Shasta through the avenue of the trusses. Tried the front door and found it unlocked. We walked in, checked it out, did a “hello!” to see if we could rustle up a minister, and were so freaked out when no one came that we turned around and walked right out again. Perhaps we should have stolen a chair, but I suspect the Congregational God, and worse, Frank, would not have been happy with us.
We found our Holiday Inn and took a nap. Dinner at locally-based chain Black Bear Diner, massive portions of chicken fried steak (the house specialty) and a chicken avocado sandwich, served as full meals with salad and sides. Great service, in a kitschy but fun environment of fake National Park lodge with lots of fabric and acrylic bear sculptures.
Redding hired Santiago Calatrava to design their Sundial Bridge, a cable-stayed span typical of his work, connecting parking to the Turtle Bay Museum. We were too late for the museum (local wildlife and ecology), but appreciated walking around the bridge and gardens. After a breezy damp 60 degrees on the Coast, we had descended to the dry and high 90 degrees in the Valley. Back to the hotel to sleep it off.
Thursday, June 22
McArthur-Burney Falls Memorial State Park is an hour northeast of Redding. The falls here run all year, powered by water that flows between two soil layers. Given this year’s snows, they were even more full, multiple cascades swirling over and around each other at multiple levels. There is not a lot of information about this park, it deserves more billing. There is a steep descent from the parking area down to the viewing terrace, and I was worried about having to hike it back up. I am not the first old guy to go there, though; we took a loop trail down river, over a bridge, and snaking back up behind and around to a second bridge to the car. Amazing vistas of the falls from different angles, the rapids, and the forest.
In Old Station we got lunch at J.J.’s Café: a local Oroville beef burger and massive chef’s salad. Not a lot of options in this part of the forest, but the one we found was excellent. We headed to the northern, Manzanita Lake entrance of Lassen Volcanic National Park. I am still not sure if this was an error. Normally one would enter here, drive up over Lassen Peak, and out through the southern entrance via volcanic mud pots. Snows too heavy and Park Service underfunded, they are still shoveling the snow off the main road. We were able to drive as far as the Devastated Area, then forced to turn around and backtrack out the way we came.
What we saw was amazing. Lassen is all about volcanoes. There are apparently four different types of volcanoes, and Lassen is the only place on Earth where you can see all of them. Cool walks through forests that have grown out of fields of giant boulders tossed out in ancient eruptions. Pull outs to see boulders bigger than a bus that were thrown out in the 1660’s. I found that if I looked up all I saw was a forest, but if I looked into the middle distance, beneath the branches, I was looking over acres of volcanic rocks. Crazy cedar scent followed you everywhere.
We could have circled around the mountains and come into Lassen again from the south, but that would have been a two-hour detour. There is a lot of Lassen worth seeing that you need to circle outside the Park to have access to; in that way, it’s like Great Smoky Mountain National Park, a place that would need a week of camping to see properly. We’d seen it improperly, and that was good enough. We went out on California 44, on crazy empty mountain village roads competing with loaded lumber trucks, as we descended to the agriculture of the Central Valley. California 59 took us down the east side of the Valley, first though fields used for dairy farming, since they were still scattered with boulders from the volcanoes and could not be plowed. Those yielded to orchards of almonds, walnuts, peaches, and plums. We stopped at a farm stand for the most amazing nectarines and cantaloupe we had ever eaten.
As the snows in the Sierra melted this spring, there was a week when Oroville Dam was in the news. Lake Oroville had filled, and for the first time they were using a spillway that they were not sure was going to stand. Our Holiday Inn Express was four miles downstream from the dam. So is all of Oroville, one of many towns that would have been wiped out if they had not been able to use the spillway to lower the lake. All is safe now, but when we tried to drive up to the dam the roads were closed a few miles out. Hotel staff explained that all seems fine, and the Corps of Engineers is working, but the closure keeps out looky-loos. Like us. They suggested a back drive they knew would get us close, but we decided to let the engineers do what our taxes pay them to do.
LOTS of Oroville looks like it was just built in the last year. I bet, after the influx of reporters they saw, it was. Just across from the hotel was a brand spanking new Panda Express where we had dinner. Yes, this is a chain, but it is based in Glendale, so we’re still counting it as local cuisine. For our first time ever we saw Chinese people cooking in a Panda Express. Odd that there are enough Asians in California that they still work in Asian restaurants, even chain ones.
As I was typing this report, Oroville was back in the news. The lush greenery and golden fields we saw fueled wild fires: a seasonal problem, but feeling more immediate now that we’d seen the communities that were burning.
Friday, June 23
Oroville offers more than a Panda Café and the Dam. We tore ourselves away from the eight museums along the Feather River (the Lantrip Ashtray Collection!) and headed south and up into the Sierra for Marshall Gold Discovery State Historic Park. This is like a California Jamestown: most of the town is recreated, but none of it was ever very fancy in the first place. They’ve rebuilt the mill Mr. Sutter was having built on the American River when his employee John Marshall found the first gold bits, and built trails to the possible site on the river where it happened. Two original buildings, both stone sheds, are set up as once used by Chinese traders. Good interpretation on how gold was mined, or rather, blown out of the mud, in methods that were ecologically catastrophic, and the people it brought to California soon after we took it from Mexico. Argonaut Tavern is very good and organic, we got delicious tuna and turkey sandwiches and a perry to wash it down.
There are many places to see the Gold Rush in the mountains east of Sacramento. Some real but abandoned mines, ghost towns, fake ghost towns, water rafting on the American River. We blew past them through orchards and dairies to the capital and then south into the Sacramento River Delta. Like the Mississippi Delta, this is not on the ocean. Think about the Golden Gate in San Francisco: a coastal mountain range has the gap between to let the Sierra’s rivers drain. Backed up behind that is San Francisco Bay. Backed up behind that is the twisting, mudflat-strewn Sacramento River forming the Delta. Much of this has been drained for agriculture, and a lot of that work was done by Chinese and Japanese immigrants.
About 30 miles south of Sacramento in the Delta is the town of Locke. In 1915 a pear orchard landlord allowed his Chinese American laborers to build here, but not to own the land. Most of them worked in his pear cannery, some worked in the orchards. Locke is the last example of a rural American Chinatown. It’s the abandoned cannery on the river, a commercial street, and two rows of residences uphill and behind, connected by cool alleys. Locke is trying to build a tourist/heritage industry, with the preserved Dai Loy Gambling Hall, antique shops, and Al the Wop’s Steakhouse. The Sacramento police did not look at Locke too closely, so it became a center of gambling, drinking, and prostitution. Al’s was established in a former bordello to serve this population, and has hung on as a restaurant. Sadly, it was too late for lunch and too early for dinner, so we missed steak, but went to the Locke Museum. Mid-day on a Friday most businesses were closed, but we were pleasantly surprised by the Museum, in the town’s last working agricultural boarding house. Good exhibits on the Chinese in California, fruit canning, and local life. The friendly Chinese American guide let us see the exhibits, grilled Michael on his immigrant bona fides, and gave us a chatty fifteen minutes about the area. I usually resist this interaction, but she added greatly to our experience, and we were pleased to follow her advice and walk the grid of the town. Fun and informative.
We blew past Folsom on the interstate. There is a museum at the prison, but online it looked small and informal, and we passed on the Johnny Cash experience in favor of UC Davis. This is one of America’s great agricultural colleges. It is also where affluent educated Sacramento lives. A beautiful campus spreads into a compact, walkable, pleasant downtown. Next to the Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science is their new Manetti Shrem Museum of Art. I’d forgotten that Davis is where a lot of the great California artists taught after World War II; pieces by former staff Wayne Thiebaud and Manuel Neri supplement well curated temporary shows. SO-IL Architects gave Davis a box for the collection, with a sweeping dramatic overhang that creates a perfect California indoor-outdoor space.
Visitors to Davis would normally see their acclaimed Arboretum, and the C.N. Gorman Museum of anthropology. We headed into downtown, however, for Artery, a brilliant collective of craft artisans. After a comfy walk through town we went to Davis’ Black Bear Diner for dinner, getting the meatloaf, chicken pot pie, and huckleberry ice cream we’d considered in Redding. Then back to the freeway, into Sacramento and north to our Holiday Inn Express for the night.
Saturday, June 24
Sacramento stole D.C.’s street grid. Numbered streets start at the River on the west, and lettered streets go from A-Z north to south. No avenues, though. It’s very odd to go to the intersection of 15th and P Streets and find yourself in Fremont Park instead of Logan Circle.
The California State Capitol is surrounded by representative trees of the state. Michael made sure to hug a Sequoia and a redwood. The capitol proper dates to 1874, loosely modeled on the U.S. Capitol. It has an amazing Art Deco addition, with aluminum panels commemorating the state’s plants and history. The Capitol Museum is a suite of rooms restored to different years between 1890 and 1920. My favorite part was the rotunda lined with WPA murals. Each county gets its own showcase/diorama; it was fun to see what the counties we’d just traveled through chose to emphasize.
Seventeen blocks east of the Capitol is Sutter’s Fort. It’s mainly a re-creation, but since that dates to 1890, that is historic in itself. When we were at Sutter’s Mill we thought John Sutter was an idiot: when you discover gold on your property, you make sure you lock it up, not announce it to the world. The Fort helped us better understand Sutter. A German immigrant, he took big risks establishing a trading post here. It’s a prototypical adobe Western fort. He is not the person who started the Gold Rush; an employee named Sam Brannan formed a cartel to stock up supplies miners would need, and once he had them marched down San Francisco’s Market Street proclaiming “gold found on the American River”. Sutter lost everything when the 49’ers squatted on his land, ripped down his properties, and emulated a plague of locusts. Inauspicious beginnings for Americans in California.
For lunch we drove over to Tower Café. Tower Records started here, and although the music/book/media chain is gone, the restaurant continues. There was a line out the door, and even negotiating the parking lot was hell, so we abandoned it to explore Midtown. Sacramento’s Midtown is lovely, like the best parts of D.C.’s 14th Street, Brooklyn, and Houston’s Montrose. Had brunch at Magpie, an enormous salmon omelet and biscuits and gravy in a room of wanna-be-trendy Junior Leaguers. The streets are lined with almond and orange trees, amazing. Walked up to Ginger Elizabeth Chocolates, a most-excellent confectionary, then drove to the Blue Diamond Almonds retail store. Every American almond has gone through this cooperative’s warehouse gates. The store is large, with discounts on products you haven’t yet seen on your grocery store shelves, and a friendly staff who are excited you are there.
The Crocker Art Museum was the first art museum founded west of the Mississippi. Their specialty is the art of California, with some Spanish colonial, and pieces from the 1800’s more important for the history they document than their artistic quality. Brilliant galleries of Modern artists from 1900 forward. Did not know there had been a school of California Impressionists, and their work is competitive with similar work we’ve seen in England and Denmark. All of this housed in the former Crocker family mansion, a Victorian tour de force, with a good contemporary addition by Gwathmey Siegel. Their Asian and European collections are mediocre, but the temporary show of work from the magazine Hi-Fructose both well curated and troubling: the house style of cute and grotesque is not really where I want to see art going.
Tonight’s hotel was the Delta King riverboat. In 1927 the King and her sister ship, the Delta Queen, were launched in service between San Francisco and Sacramento. Illegal drinking, gambling, and jazz were features of the voyage. The ships did war transport duty in the Bay, and post-War the King was cannibalized for parts, including its engine, to make the Queen useful for the Mississippi River. In 1984 the King was dredged out of the Sacramento River, towed to shore, and renovated into a hotel/restaurant. It is now a feature of Old Sacramento.
It’s a pretty cool hotel. Their valet met us on Front Street to help with bags and store the car; he was kind enough to move the baby praying mantis on our windshield to safety. The dock takes you to reception mid-ship, our room was one floor up. Limited elevator service, but the ceilings are not high, so stairs easy. Our room was surprisingly wide, they had merged most of the original berths to create one room out of two. Simple, and not fancy, like a 1990’s bed and breakfast, but cool to be staying on a boat. Great views of the river and Tower Bridge from the decks.
Old Sacramento is a tired tourist attraction. Lots of t-shirt and candy shops and burger joints. A couple of decent restaurants amongst the tawdry; we were very happy with the elegant ambience, calamari, avocado-citrus salad, salmon spread, and wines at Ten 22. There was an antique auto show on the street, we checked out the cars and the visitors on our walk back to the King. Settled ourselves on deck seats to read and enjoy the sunset on the river.
Sunday, June 25
Per its original purpose, the lower two decks of the Delta King are theaters and restaurants. Breakfast came with the room; unexceptional cuisine, but relaxing and satisfying with a view of the city. We liked Sacramento a lot, and were surprised we had already ticked off all the tourist things we’d planned to do here. We discussed options: we could get a jump start on Monterey. We could go to Pinnacles National Park, and see rock outcrops. Or, we could see Filoli, a National Trust mansion with extensive gardens south of San Francisco. Guesses, anyone? Anyone? Do you even know us? The drive to Filoli took us across the Valley, through Oakland, and down the east side of the Bay. Just as Manhattan dumps much of its port and industry in Newark, San Francisco does the same with East Bay. Was cool to see the marshes amidst the industry, like the Meadowlands. We crossed the San Mateo Bridge, which neither of us had been on before. There was a bike race taking place on the only road up to Filoli, which slowed us a little but was fun to watch.
We got lunch in the café, the usual museum food, but in California, so superior quality everything. Filoli was designed by Willis Polk for the Bourn family, whose wealth came from the Empire Gold Mine (now run by the state as one of the Gold Country sites we had skipped). It is one of several estates developed down the peninsula from San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake and fire: why live amongst the messy rebuilding when you could have an English country house in a Mediterranean climate? Outbuildings are by Arthur Brown, architect of City Hall, and better than the house. The Bourns sold it in 1936 to the Roth’s, owners of the Matson shipping line that dominated travel to Hawaii before air service. Mrs. Roth donated the estate to the Trust in 1975.
The house is grand, but simple. The furnishings are not original; a mish-mash of European, American, and Asian antiques from a variety of donors. On the West Coast this counts as old money, but despite the scale the quality is only a little above what you expect to see in a big home in Chevy Chase. What’s important are the gardens. The Bourns hired Art Nouveau painter Bruce Porter to design grounds to integrate with the home: gardens open out as rooms for living outside. A predecessor to the 1950’s idea of a home’s inside and outside working together, what was to become a key contribution of California to American architecture. The gardens reminded us of Dumbarton Oaks, but level. Without the need for Dumbarton’s terraces, high hedges, flower-covered fences, and brick walls provide definition. Absolutely brilliant, rooms of hydrangeas, a sunken garden that leads to the swimming pool, a yew allee dividing the daffodil meadow from the rose and knot gardens. I expect it always looks good, but late June gave us lots of plants in flower. Most gardens we photograph have us keep the camera in landscape mode, but the gates, trees, and allees had us turning vertical regularly.
South to San Jose. WHAT a disappointment: thirty years of Silicon Valley money have turned what were ticky-tacky 1970’s suburbs into expensive suburbs with the same but now aged houses. The office buildings are unexceptional. It reminded us of Fort Worth without the culture or beauty. Yes, the beauty of Fort Worth. On Steve Wozniak Way near their Children’s Discovery Museum is the World’s Largest Monopoly Game. We could not park; the Convention Center across the street was hosting what looked like a Jon Benet Ramsey competition. Michael circled the block, I jumped out and took photos of the unimpressive concrete game board, and we continued south. The freeways were lined by gorgeous flowering white and fuchsia trees: azaleas? Drove through Gilroy, the garlic capital of America, and Castroville, ditto for artichokes.
The Holiday Inn Express at Monterey Bay is in Seaside. One of the nicer HIE’s we’ve stayed in. A short walk up the freeway is Googie Grill, a diner that has been restored to its 1960’s glory but with a chef upgrade. Amazing roasted artichokes, sautéed mushrooms, linguini with clams, and calamari flattened into a steak and grilled. Across the highway was a bike/walking trail up the dunes and over to the Pacific. Beautiful marshes and tide pools, lots of lizards and shore birds. A giant Shell gas station conveniently guided us back to the hotel. Not a pedestrian world, but one we were still comfortable exploring.
Monday, June 26
Twenty years ago we stood outside Monterey Bay Aquarium, decided the $35 admission was too high, and drove off to see missions instead. This morning we joined the families who descended on the Aquarium and paid $50 each for the same privilege. It was completely worth it. Giant tanks of sardines, tiger sharks, jelly fish, octopus. Otters and shore birds. A history of the Monterey cannery, and John Steinbeck, and marine biologist Edward Ricketts. A corridor that lets you experience what it’s like when a wave crashes over you. An outside “marine theater” to demonstrate diving and the life of Monterey Bay. If you’ve seen “Finding Dory”, this seems to be the facility they based that movie on. I think my favorite part was the sardine feeding, when a group of tiger sharks muscled in and started eating one of the other exhibits: “It’s all about the Circle of Life, kids!”. Brilliantly done.
We ducked out to the Carl’s Jr. a few blocks uphill from the Aquarium for lunch, finished off the exhibits, then walked around Cannery Row. Eh, another stretch of tourist stands, the buildings looked better closed than they did displaying their wares. Headed up the coast to Del Monte Center, a Simon mall, like Pentagon City or the Houston Galleria, but happily outside in the California sunshine. Made our mandatory See’s Chocolate stop for a custom pound to take home, then north to the airport. Shopped at a Gilroy farm stand for dried fruit and garlic (not sure why strawberries, cherries, and garlic are grown together, but they must be complimentary in the fields, if not in cooking). Pulled into the Holiday Inn Express San Francisco-Airport South, in Burlingame, emptied the car, and began packing.
Burlingame is beautiful. Not sure why San Francisco’s main airport was put next to one of their most expensive suburbs; maybe when planes were smaller and flying more expensive it made sense. The airport hotels are confined to an area between the freeway and the Bay, and “nice” Burlingame is on the other side. We drove in for dinner, not sure what we’d find, and were delighted. It’s a little like downtown Takoma crossed with Chevy Chase: lots of Asian and French restaurants, old school candy and ice cream shops, drug stores that are not chains. The houses are bungalows downhill, but get larger and become mansions as you climb. We tried Sesame, a Korean place. Everything was delicious, and there was much more than we could eat. Michael returned the car, and we signed up for an early shuttle to the airport.
Tuesday, June 27
Virgin America got us back to National with no fuss. We had reserved the only row with two seats, and were pleased to discover that for the first time ever we were in the emergency exit row. Embarrassingly, the steward had to show us what to do in case of an emergency, and how to get our tray tables and display screens to appear. Tons of leg room and easy ability for either of us to get up and stretch. No view, just a porthole through the door over the wing, but we can understand why people pay extra for this row.