31 March 2008

Dual Overhead Memories

I suppose I could have been a travel writer, but no doubt more like Anne Tyler’s “Accidental Tourist” than Paul Theroux or even Rick Steves. Travel does stimulate me in wonderful ways, most especially in drawing me out of the vast cavern that is my mind and into a world that has endless nooks and crannies to thrill the imagination.

I am in the midst of two adventures, coming so close to each other that writing about one was interrupted by the experience of the other. Back in California, I am traveling north along the PCH beyond Elephant Seal Beach into the most wild and dramatic coastline I have ever seen in person. In New York I am walking north along the West Side Highway on a cold bright and slightly sleep deprived morning.

In California the road is a wide two lane highway with plenty of shoulder. It begins to climb deceptively, by diving through hills so that when you come out the cut the ocean is suddenly down below and the mountain ahead dives down to it. I love the curves which are not too wild and so my Honda Civic does not have to slow down. A fellow can feel a bit like a daring driver because it is a mountain road but as I will discover in three days it can become genuinely harrowing.

I want to stop every mile and talk a photo, but the best are ones with foreground as well as background. A little beach below the highway allows me to catch the bridge from below as it leaps from hill to hill. A pull off leads to a secluded grove of red woods on a precipitous hillside. Others are here but I can only here their voices and the sound of feet on twigs.

In New York the sun still hides below the buildings though the sky is bright and blue. My hosts live in an actual loft building created back in the late 1970s when it was very much a dicey neighborhood.

(They came ten years later, with small daughters in hand, claimed a floor with its squat square pillars and fabulously large half round windows, and made it into a specimen of spare simplicity that relies on textures more than shapes. I love their unlevel floor and how they fitted walls and doors into the imperfect lines so that you do not notice them except by accident.)

The front door has been kept, a giant rusted metal industrial door that has been preserved exactly as found (minus graffiti) along with the corrugated loading dock of a deck. I feel enormously cool. Perhaps the only time I ever do.

The street is a patchwork of stone and asphalt, and like every movie glistens with water. There was no rain, but most merchants spray their front sidewalks every morning to remove dirt and trash and worse. Within a block I am accosted by the winds that channel through the downtown blocks. To my left the WTC site is a warren of construction, mostly on the perimeter. I turn north, walking amidst the runners and bikers, following a route that is now almost a ritual for me.

Up to 23rd street, passing the vanishing remains of 19th century New York from the two story brick merchant houses to the pretentious show of Edwardian and Dutch revival office blocks, vernacular warehouses, Frank Gehry’s out of place Hershey Kiss across from the piers, and more.

Equally striking are the piers, the ruined ones in particular, which consist now of merely pilings that stick out of the river like bristles of an immense brush, rectangular and stubbled. But the contrast between water and wood, vertical and horizontal, solid and liquid, and the sound of the loud sharp lapping against them in some pocked and peppering rhythm, rises above the whining and whirring din of cars and trucks tearing too fast down the highway.

30 March 2008

Yes, I am back. And except for the last leg, thanks to American Airlines and their fondness for MD80 aircraft, all went smoothly. As misfortune is more interesting than fortune, let me note that last part now. Saturday morning, meaning March 28, at 330 am to be precise, my phone rang. Rousing me from the first night I had expected to get more than five hours’ sleep I was not happy. And any phone call you get at 330, except for a wrong number, is not good news.

The computer voice told me my flight back home had been cancelled and that they had rebooked me for Sunday. No can do, as you understand, and so I stayed on the phone with an agent to find another way home. We cobbled a pair of flights into Detroit after which I called up American Express Travel Services to find a one way rental car from Detroit back to Grand Rapids. That took a while and had its own frustrations. Remember I am doing this in bed, in the dark, and a bit fog bound because I am both sleepy and unprepared.

At any rate, I eventually got back to sleep around 5, arouse at 615, took a long cold walk from 7-8, cleaned up and packed and after a short visit with friends in the boarding house where I was staying for my meeting, was on my way to the airport by 930. The distance from downtown Boston - right next door to the state house in fact - to the airport is not long, maybe a crow fly of 4 miles, and Saturday morning is not the busiest time on the streets, but somehow the two transit lines took the maximum time to get me there, almost an hour. My flight was at 1130.

At the gate, the agent heard my pleas (holy man, church, sermon, etc) and rebooked me onto a different airline from LaGuardia which is where my first flight was going. It went right to GR instead of Detroit, saving me the car pick up, drive and cost.

All’s well that ends well, and I did make it back last night. But spending five hours at an airport is not how anyone would choose to spend time. Even my local cousins, meaning they live barely 15 minutes from the airport, were busy and so it was read, walk, read, go to the men’s room, walk, avoid eating, etc. from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. I made real progress on Great Expectations, charged my new phone (a whole other story) and played a game on my pda.

I’ll tell you about this trip soon, but still have my California journey to finish and having unleashed a hard wind on Easter Sunday, that too is worth pondering. You can see what I said (hear it even) by going to the site
www.fountainstreet.org and look in the Library. I also have a collection of sermons edited for reading that I call "Searching The Soul Of A Nation," which you can read as well. If you do, tell me what you think.

Just wanted you to have this little story to let you know I was back in the literary saddle. More soon.

22 March 2008

Sorry for the long delay. Easter. And I am off to the other coast for a while as well. How cool is it that I will see both oceans inside one month? Anyway, I want to take up the next day of my pacific coast trip before making my next one.

The sun rose the next day, slowly and with some residual clouds and mist. I took a walk, which was hard as the available area were two strips on either side of the PCH, lined with hotels and beach style condos. Being on the far side of the country and the mountains it seemed the sun took days to poke above the horizon, but by 8 is was light if not clear.

Unlike the east coast, most of the west coast I have seen is not sandy except in pockets along the largely rocky edges. The land is gouged, slowly clawed down by the sea in great handfuls that take millennia to grab. Meadows come up to the edge of cliffs, I can only stand on high and look down, or very nearly, so that there is this stark difference between land and sea. Back east, the land slowly goes to sea, with sand and beach and grasses softening the transition.

My walk takes me up hill to the east, to the fence that marks the remaining Hearst Ranch. From the edge of a cliff I can see down into a valley where a house and stream lie below. They make a postcard of western homeliness. I walk back to my hotel, alongside a small orchard of eucalyptus. Damn it, an orchard of eucalyptus!

Having only 150 miles to travel in one day, I am in no hurry to leave. By the time I am ready the sun is making itself evident from behind clouds still clinging to the top of the coastal hills. I stop at the Hearst Castle visitor center to take a look up and see it. I took a picture, but it was too far away to be more than a blip on the screen. Even such a grand place as that estate is dwarfed by the land it pretends to own.

Scant miles north, in the pockets of sand and beach, the annual migration of elephant seals brings their blubbery tubes of flesh on shore. Males name the species, as their noses are long curls of flesh that amplify their barks and roars. I suppose this an evolutionary outcome, that females found the bassi profundi more appealing than those with mere tenors. As a tenor I am aware of the appeal of deep voices, those in my trade are said to possess a ‘stained glass’ voice. As I may have mentioned before, mine is a ‘broken-glass’ voice.

They sprawl in sleep, a few lolling about sleepily. Only gradually do I notice that a few, very few, are dead. Gulls are picking holes in their skins to eat their rich flesh. What seems very odd to me is that the living are indifferent to them, even sleeping alongside. Grotesque, I know, but then I thought, “this is more ‘natural’ than our ways of death.” Again and again the intensities of nature – size, color, shape – remind me of my minute reality. Far from making me feel weak though, I feel happily humble and at ease in these confines.

16 March 2008

Swimming With the Swells

As you could tell from those last pix, my first day traveling up the pacific coast was cloudy. That was the only day, and as this trip was one I had been planning for months the prospect of making it in the fog was a trifle dismaying.

They don’t call California the Golden State for nothing, though, as the rest of my journey was wonderfully bright. That day, though, had its rewards once stopped grumbling and started looking.

I arrived at my destination by mid-afternoon, San Simeon.

A little more than hundred and fifty years ago, the US wrested California from Mexico (along with places like Texas and Arizona and Utah) and large ranches changed hands. Among them San Simeon, which the Heart family acquired. Encompassing 250,000 acres along the central coast, today it is but 40,000 acres, including the famous ‘castle’ built by scion and magnate William Randolf Hearst.

Despite the fog, I decided to go and visit, not knowing whether tomorrow would be better and so had an unusual visit as the photo of the Neptune Pool indicates.

This indulgent fantasy of a home, actually four houses and more than 70,000 square feet of living space, sits it isolated splendor on a hilltop almost exactly halfway between LA and Los Angeles. When it was being built the region was even more remote than now, and even now the town below where I am staying is but a clot of motels and summer condos ten miles from anything resembling a town. Hearst did not build it to be seen by the neighbors, though it is the show-off of homes.

My tour was spent mostly in climbing and descending the very winding five mile road to the hilltop. The fog was so thick that even when we arrived only the nearest parts were visible, though the great house itself is patterned on a Spanish style cathedral at full scale. Still, when we did finally see it, the image was more cinematic than most people enjoy, as you can tell from this photo.

Without doubt, it is worth the time and effort, as it is a Rorschach blot of American longings a century ago. To see it is to see the omnivorous pleasure wealth can afford, its desperate longing to equal the aristocratic elegance of Europe, and how it overshoots that mark by assuming more and bigger must be better.

I was impressed and embarrassed, envious and offended. It is America.

11 March 2008

Upon Encountering Happy Cows

The day I left Montecito was the first and only cloudy day of my week. Contrast that with the 0% possible sunlight we had in West Michigan from Jan 29 – Feb 15. But being California, somehow it was just a different way of being alluring.

For example, about twenty miles beyond Santa Barbara, soon after Route 1 leaves the freeway, I found this bucolic vision.

Yep, those black dots are cows. This is cattle country, from here all the way up the coast. And they love standing on steep hillsides, just like those obnoxious commercials for California cheese.

This area, above Gaviotas on the way to Lompoc, looks like Munchkinland, with tall absurdly round green hills interrupted by tidy copses of trees . It’s almost like driving through a movie set.

Ten years ago, more now sadly, I made my first trip to Italy, and remember my first flight into Fiumicino airport outside Rome. As we approached I could see the land with its rows of cedars and golden fields and thought to myself, “this looks just like all those backgrounds in renaissance paintings” which I always thought were imaginary. No landscape looks like that, but here it was. That’s what California is like, realizing all your movies were filmed here and coming her is to inhabit the movies you have seen as surely as going to Italy is to walk into a Botticelli.

The roadway veers from the coast inland to avoid Vandenberg Air Force Base, and continues north through a wide flat agricultural valley just inland that is so Mexican in flavor (some towns have mostly Spanish signage in fact) that I suspect this is what Mexico itself looks like. The road follows the railway, or rather the road follows the railway which follows the old camino real, which is marked in a couple of places. This trail connected the missions, which was how Spain maintained ownership of this remote province.

I eventually reach San Luis Obispo, a largish town, where Route 1 heads back toward the coast. Just north of San Luis is a tidal bay named for the great hummock of a rock that dominates its entrance, Morro Rock. I pause here to stretch my legs and smell the air, and of course take a picture.

I’ll leave off here, but tell you that my day ended up in San Simeon, where the mist was almost impenetrable, but made for some very impressive shots of the famous Hearst Castle. Come back in a day or two.

09 March 2008

Above It All

Ok, so there I am in Montecito, where all the men are rich, the women are tanned and the children way way above average.

Our retreat center has lots of good food, and so in addition to going to the local Y every morning to put in a few miles (a small quaint place that looks like a retread elementary school alongside a creek so you have to walk a dear little bridge from the parking lot to the facility) I take our afternoon time to do even more. Even then, when I got home there were two more pounds on me. It is so easy to add and so hard to subtract.

The first afternoon I join five others to make a hike up into the hills. Now, remember that photo across the rooftops. These are serious hills. The route is six miles, six and half if you count the vertical climb and drop. The sun is bright and the path is steep from the outset. A mile into it two of them beg off so we became four.

At each pause we could look back and see more and more of the bay, with its rugged coast and channel islands. Toward the top, meaning the fire road alongside the high tension wires halfway up the mountain, the path requires us to all but climb with our hands as well as our feet. Each step is deliberate, looking for the secure footing in the brown rubble and dirt and rocks and roots. I can feel the sweat gathering between my shoulder blades, can sense that the sun is beginning to toast my shoulders and neck.

The summit is a bare spot with a large peace sign laid out in the dirt made from brick sized rocks. I arrive first and find some shade in behind the great boulder and snap out my cell phone to call home. From this spot I can see a coastline of fifty miles. The sun sparkles from the ocean, though it is about 3 miles distant. I have not made such a hike in a while and it feels great.

I did not take my camera, and am glad as I needed both hands. But two days later, I repeat part of the hike, the first mile or so, to take a few shots. The weather had gotten more hazy and the sun was more diffuse, but you can get the idea.

08 March 2008

Visiting Eden - With Money and Sunglasses

In all honesty, I rent the car just so I can drive through Point Mugu rock, that place you saw in the post two days ago. I did not know until this time that this formation was the most modest of those I would see. From there on up the coast the seascape gets ever more rugged and picturesque.

Get away from the shore, though, and Eden blossoms. In this age, Eden is a high rent district though. My retreat takes place at a former convent in the small city of Montecito, directly east of Santa Barbara. This suburb has a per capita income of $70,000 it 10,000 residents. Remember, that means if all the income is divided equally between all the residents (including non workers like children) each would have $70,000. And as so often happens in picturesque places, the income level coordinates with the altitude – higher up is higher up. More on that later, though. Being southern California, there are celebrities who live here m part-time at least. Here’s a list I found:

Oprah Winfrey, Carol Burnett , Jonathan Winters, Steve Martin, Eva Marie Saint, Tab Hunter, John Cleese, Rob Lowe, Jimmy Connors, Christopher Lloyd, Troy Aikman, Steven Spielberg, Kevin Costner, Kirk Douglas, Dennis Miller, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Ellen DeGeneres.

Did not see any of them, by the way. How would I? No one walks anywhere. My second day I took a long walk from the convent down to the 10 and back, exploring the two villages. Did not see another person on foot the whole time. Three bikers, two dog walkers in their yards, but dozens of Benzes, Audis, BMWs, and Lexu (Greek nouns that end in ‘us’ for their plural by dropping the ‘s’ as I recall).

It did seem odd to me that in this place of such verdance and beauty, so rich in nature that I half expected people to walk around naked like it was Eden, no one ever went outside except in their own yards or to shop in the chic villages. Cars were mandatory. And in each one was a blond woman with a tan, wearing sunglasses, cell phone to her ear. Walking along the road as cars whizzed by made me feel subversive, almost criminal. Would the police stop me and ask who I was and where I was going?

The former convent consists of a walled campus that has three dormitory buildings, two meeting buildings including the dining hall, a large chapel, and at some remove other houses. Here is a picture of the dorms.

It is not posh compared to the homes around us, but it is lush. Even Montecito has winter, but in their case it means a sort of diminished color only. The birds of paradise are not at their peak, as you can tell from the picture at the top of this post - awww. And the trees have only begun to flower. But for a fellow like me, whose winter is flat and gray and cold, this view from my front door is stunning.

07 March 2008

Up, Up, And Away

So let me tell you about California. It is a mythic place, you know. The name is comes from a Spanish tale of a fabled paradise explorers sought. As those Europeans who saw it first arrived by sea and saw the coast, I can see why they named it California.

If you come from the east you have to cross deserts and mountains and it is a long time before the paradisical parts come into view. I remember driving from Arizona and stopping at Needles – or was it Blythe? – just along the Colorado River. It was July. It was hot. The sun was a hammer on the eyes and a furnace on the face. A few young boys were down on the river, in the shade of the few trees that grew along it. A touch of cool moisture wafted up now and then as I gassed the car.

I have also crossed the border at the fabled Donner Pass which claimed more than their lives, as it is very near the route of the Transcontinental railroad which had to climb the mountain and then dig a tunnel to get through and down into the Nevada desert.

But along the coast you can see long sandy beaches punctuated by rocky spits, grasses grow in great tufts between shibui boulders, every shade of green from the dark waxy almost black live oak to the foamy pale brocade of mosses on rocks paints the hills that come so close to the water. Step ashore and the land gives under you like a pillow. Walk further and there are rivulets and streams that glisten with eager waters.

My journey began amid the raucous racket of LAX, where I arrived the night before. Palm trees are strategically planted at the entrance to the airport so you know this is LA. The warmth of the evening air, nearly 60 F, was a welcome contrast to the subfreezing gusts that shoved me into O’Hare bare hours earlier.

You should know that palm trees, at least those really tall ones that are so often part of movies set in LA, are not indigenous. Real estate developers imported them to make the area look more tropical. At least that’s what I remember reading. They made the place look warmer in photos, and it worked. People came like crazy.

After a short and fitful night’s sleep in a hotel (I am a brittle sleeper, remember, and all those time zones plus the nervous energy of traveling itself made it hard to settle down) I collected my bags and my rental car and headed west.

I avoid freeways in LA, and so started up State Road 1 right away, as it passes right by LAX. In the city it is Lincoln Blvd, and parallels the coast so that all I saw were names like Marina del Ray and Venice and Santa Monica. But I had been there before, and there are no through roads along the city beaches.

At the 10, as locals refer to their freeways, I swung west and after a few moments beheld the long wide beach and the sea itself. That was Monday, and every day for the next week, I would see the ocean. More on those days next time.

05 March 2008

"I Have Been To The Mountaintop..."

So, I’m back from my travels. Half work and half play, meaning four days of conference to “confer, converse and otherwise hobnob with my fellow wizards,” and three days of blessed solitude afterward capped with a day with my elder son.

What made it especially fine was that it all took place in coastal California which is enjoying a winter as exceptional as that in the Midwest, only theirs is exceptionally mild and fair. Of the eight days and one evening I was there only one was cloudy. They usually have a t least some rain, but even when they have that it compares favorably to the nonstop parade of snow storms separated by grim gray days that are the Iditerod of upper Midwest winter.

Unlike my previous visits to the place, my travels to and from were as pacific as the ocean toward which I flew ten days ago. In years past I have been delayed by weather in Chicago, either missing my connection or arriving so late that I was beside myself with nervous fatigue. This time, though, I even caught an earlier flight than planned. And my trip home, poignant for having to leave this earthly paradise, was delayed only by a few minutes.

For several years now I have wanted to drive the coastal route, State Road 1, the Pacific Coast Highway or PCH that is reputedly one of the great journeys of America. I could not go the whole route, which starts virtually at the Mexican border and almost re aches Oregon, as it exceeds 1000 miles. But I could go from my retreat in Santa Barbara (Montecito actually) to Sebastopol where my son lives. That was 500 hundred or so miles, and I could break that into shorter pieces so I would not have to go more than 175 a day.

And so I did. And it was worth every extra day, hour, penny, and gallon I spent. The only downside was that it came to an end.

As must this post. If you like I’ll recount it for you. I have lots of pictures too. Thes are of Point Mugu to the west of Malibu, to give you a hint of what lies ahead.