Monday, October 28, 2013

Checkmate, SF?

(This article first appeared in the November issue of Tim Holt's North State Review newsletter. To subscribe to the newsletter, send $10 to The North State Review, P.O. Box, 214, Dunsmuir, CA 96025)

I suppose it was inevitable.

In early September, 2013, 57-year-old Marvin Boykins was evicted. Not from his apartment, because he doesn’t have one. He’s homeless, struggling to get along on the not-always-friendly streets of San Francisco’s troubled Tenderloin district. No, he was evicted from the one daily pleasure he had: playing chess.

Officers from the San Francisco Police Department had moved onto the wide, brick-paved sidewalk near the corner of Fifth and Market Streets, near the famous Cable Car roundtable, and quietly shut down a San Francisco tradition that stretched back more than 30 years. They removed the folding tables and chairs, placemat chess boards, chess pieces and timers. The game, evidently, had gone on long enough.

“I’ve been playing since I was seven or eight years old,” said Boykins told the San Francisco Chronicle. “Chess is a true San Francisco tradition.”

“It’s turned into a big public nuisance,” Captain Michael Redmond told the paper. He cited complaints from nearby businesses, and an increase in arrests for sale and possession of drugs. “I think maybe [the chess games are a] disguise for some other things that are going on.”

Other chess players thought differently. Hector Torres, who noted that the street chess games had cured him of his gambling addiction, said, “I think it’s a scapegoat.”

Market Street, along with the city that surrounds it, is changing more rapidly and dramatically than in any other time in its relatively short history, save for the years after the Gold Rush itself. Between 1848 and the end of 1850, for example, the town went from about 1,000 residents to more than 20,000 Argonauts, their enablers and the just plain desperate flooded in. At one point, the city’s population was doubling every few months. 

San Francisco is a cyclical city of boom and bust

San Francisco is a cyclical city of boom and bust. Of that there can be no doubt. The current boom is different in some ways from the Gold Rush, similar in others. The booms of the gold and silver rushes centered on pulling wealth—minerals, water, land rights, capital—from other places within its sphere of influence, by any means necessary, no matter how ethically questionable or destructive to the health of the ecosystem. This wealth was often increased by land speculation in the city and its immediate surroundings.

 Today’s tech boom differs in that the miners are converging on the city not to mine metals, but to mine minds. It’s what the tech-boosters like to call the “knowledge economy.” Pack enough smart, tech-savvy people in one seven-by-seven mile square, the reasoning goes, and they’ll be able to pick one another’s brains to create new products and services that will “transform” the world and its economy—and make themselves extremely rich. The result? Twitter,, Instagram, LinkedIn, Zynga and a host of other online products, services and advertising-fueled entertainments that make people go gaga while lining entre-preneurial pockets. No one can say that it isn’t working.

But, like the gold and silver rushes, this boom despoils as well. But this time, it’s despoiling—or, if you prefer, dramatically transforming—the city. Another favorite buzz-phrase for this, one that was a favorite of failed presidential candidate Mitt Romney, is “creative destruction.”

This new model—bringing big tech to the inner big city—turns the Silicon Valley paradigm on its head. In that paradigm, companies cloister their employees on “campuses” and provide them with subsidized meals, on-site gyms, volleyball and basketball courts, and a host of other resort-like amenities. Some Silicon Valley companies like Apple and Facebook are sticking with it, building enormous new campuses and even their own housing complexes. Seems nice—at first—but the young hanker for the excitement of the city, its culture and its nightlife. 

San Francisco’s government, spurred on by expansionist Mayor Ed Lee, is actively pursuing—even subsidizing—big tech in the big city. The largest recipient of city largesse so far is Twitter, which moved into its new digs in the old, splendidly Art Deco-style Furniture Mart on the corner of Market and 10th streets—to the tune of $22 million in tax breaks.

Market Street construction and speculation fever is running on a high that hasn’t been seen since the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed the city’s core. Last year, at a session of the Golden Gate Breakfast Club, I listened to a presentation by a prominent San Francisco developer. At the height (or, rather, low) of the Great Recession in 2009, he noted, there was but one moribund construction crane left aloft because it was more expensive to take down than it was to leave standing. Three years later, there were some 14 cranes operating feverishly throughout the city, many of them on Market Street.

Today there are even more of those cranes, throwing up massive glass-and-steel condos, apartments, and office buildings like giant erector sets to meet the need for high-tech elbow room. There are so many that San Francisco Chronicle columnist Leah Garchik quipped that the crane should replace the phoenix as San Francisco’s official bird. (I’m no architecture critic, but most of these new buildings look like Legos to me.)

In addition, the mayor plans to re-imagine the beleaguered mid-Market area, roughly between 5th and 7th streets, into a new arts district, one that complements the Yerba Buena Gardens and Center for the Arts a few blocks away. This is not an entirely bad thing, as that area has been blighted for years. Unless, of course, you like to play street chess.

Despite the housing boom, rents have skyrocketed beyond all reason. A 700-square-foot, one-bedroom apartment, was listed at $3,995 a month, reported the local-interest website Haighter Nation. The apartment in question is located in the Lower Haight, long considered a relatively affordable neighbor-hood, at least by San Francisco standards.

Note I said, “listed at.” There’s the rub. Often, East Coast and square-states transplants just coming out of college, and offered high tech jobs starting at six-figure salaries, will offer several hundred dollars more for these apartments, sight unseen, instantly under-cutting other qualified buyers. Out-of-state condo buyers routinely offer tens of thousands of dollars more than the asking price, without ever having set foot through the door.

Ellis Act evictions, too, are on the rise. Between March 1, 2012 and Feb. 28, 2013, reported Mission Local, “the number of eviction notices filed with the San Francisco Rent Board jumped 26 percent compared to the previous year.” Long-time residents of rent-controlled apartments are being forced to move out as owners, realizing the enhanced price potential of their properties in the new boom, are cashing in on condo conversions.

Long-time residents of rent-controlled apartments are being forced to move as owners cash in on the new boom

One North Beach couple, who had paid their rent on time for 30 years, is being given the boot so that the new owners could sell the building’s small flats for a brisk $439,000 a pop, reported the San Francisco Examiner.

All this creative destruction is taking a cultural toll as well. The sudden influx of the new rich—many of whom do not know even the most basic facts about San Francisco’s eccentric history or culture—bring with them new attitudes and, to locals, an unpalatable sense of entitlement. A friend of mine related the following story on his blog that nicely illustrates the new divide:  

“You’re on the bus and watch a 20-something guy reluctantly give up his seat to an elderly woman, and then say loudly to his friends, ‘I don’t know why old people ride Muni. If I were old I’d just take Über.’”

Muni is our subway and streetcar system, which costs $2. Über is a car service that you order from an app on your $500 iPhone or similar device that brings a Lincoln Town Car to wherever you are. It costs about twice as much as a taxi and requires a credit card.

You get the picture.

Long-time residents of a certain age call this sort of loathsome behavior “douchbaggery.”

Long-time residents of a certain age call this sort of loathsome behavior “douchbaggery.” And it, too, is on the rise. It’s becoming increasingly difficult, for example, to walk into a locally owned coffee house, sit down to a cup and read the newspaper (on, you know, paper) without a couple of d-bags at the table next to you loudly banging on about their latest business model in opaque Web jargon, or some budding exec yammering into his cell phone about why the project’s late.

It’s not just San Francisco’s endangered middle class and Bohemia who are put out. Old money, capital “S” Society, has its complaints as well. “They bore the hell out of me,” sniffed society aristo Denise Hale, in a recent Vanity Fair piece. “They’re one-dimensional and can only talk about one thing. I’m used to brilliant men in my life who leave their work, and they have many other interests. These new people eventually will learn how to live. When they learn how to live, I would love to meet them.”
In other words, grow some manners, punks.

And it’s gone, as the techies say, “viral.” The U.K. newspaper, The Independent, recently ran a story with the following headline: “The dawn of the ‘start-up douchebag:’ San Francisco locals disturbed as Google, Facebook, Apple and eBay professionals move in.”

The article features a Google engineer who lives in the Mission and rides to and from the company headquarters in Mountain View, 40 miles south of the city, aboard a private, air-conditioned luxury coach, complete with WiFi.

The same article quotes Tim Redmond, former editor of the weekly newspaper, The San Francisco Bay Guardian. “For more than a century San Francisco has been a mecca for young people who were different in some way, who wanted to start again. Most young people arrived here poor, with enough to rent a place then get a job. We moved here and built a life from what we had and could find,” Redmond told The Independent. That story mirrors my own.

“The people who move in now are the same age,” Redmond continued, “but they’re already stinking rich.”

It’s a conundrum. How does a city retain its distinctive personality and flair and still allow, indeed encourage, change and economic growth? How do you keep those hell-bent on pursuing the almighty dollar from driving out those folks who contribute to the city’s artistic and cultural life, or those who come here to develop their creative aspirations to their fullest? In a constant battle between art for art’s sake and money for money’s sake, money—for God’s sake—always seems to have the upper hand.

I don’t claim to know the answers. What I do know is that the San Francisco of Emperor Norton, of Gellett Burgess and the Lark, Frank Norris, the beats, the hippies, the punk rockers, Enrico Banducci, Armistead Maupin, Herb Caen and even Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is all but gone.

As in the Gold Rush, the money men, mountebanks and charlatans who play real-estate chess with other people’s money and property, remain. As do the homeless.

I don’t mean to paint too grim a picture. With new wealth comes new benefits. Over the last several years, the influx of fresh capital has brought many civic improvements that will last a long, long time: the most beautiful ballpark in America, a revived waterfront accessible to all, new parks and open space where only parking lots and slums stood before, and revitalized neighborhoods, to name a few.

   But I wonder how many of the young and culture-hungry will come to San Francisco and say, as Oscar Wilde said as he stood under the skylight in the studio of painter Jules Tavernier in 1882, “This is where I belong! This is my atmosphere! I didn’t know such a place existed in the whole U.S.”

Friday, April 27, 2012

The Ghost Diaries: Volume I

Editor's Note: For many years my grandmother, Mrs. Kathryn Montenyohl-Mattis, lived in what she always claimed was the "oldest house in Santa Rosa," California. I don't know if that is true. Situated on an oddly-shaped triangular piece of property across the street from the cemetery, the ramshackle little clapboard house -- which still stands -- has no foundation but sports four rather two-big-for-its-britches Doric columns out front (though family always entered from porch at the rear). It's a strange house. The second story, where she often boarded foreign students, is accessed by a little doorway next to the fireplace, which forces you to bend down to get through. Even in summer, it was always cool, if not cold. It's on a slope; you can place a marble at one end and it will roll down to the other. The tree next to the house, she once told me, was once a hanging tree, where crooks were executed. I don’t know if that is true, either. But I always loved it. She always hinted that something mysterious was going on in the house, but never explained. “You’ll find out one day,” she said. After she passed, in her effects was found a set of handwritten notes on yellow legal paper, dating from the 1970s through the early 1990s. I have finally decided to publish them here. Below you will find the first few entries, with her spelling and grammar intact. At first they describe merely odd noises but grow increasingly strange as she entered the final stages of her long life. I make no claim to the paranormal but merely provide them as a chronicle of one woman’s experience. I will continue to transcribe and post these diaries as time permits.

16 April, 1974

The time has come for me to make a record of what I choose to call “The Unexplained Noises in the Nite.”

I have lived here at [address] since July 5, 1969, in this very old house, which has had considerable remodeling in its existence. There is nothing unusual about it though – just a charming setting of trees and plants surrounding a small, old home.

But for the past three years, more or less, there have been occurring strange noises (to me), rappings for which I find no logical reasons. Certainly in a house as old as this there will be creakings and settling, possibly mice or other nite-time visitations; the wind blowing in the branches, stray dogs, even a prowler or two. None of these can account for what I hear.

[In the margin here is written “1971”]

To describe these sounds will tax my ability to find the right words and even this will not be entirely accurate because they are different from any sounds I’ve ever heard. But I’ll make the good old try anyway.

About three years ago was the first time. I was sleeping soundly and dreamlessly when I was startled awake by what I thought was someone knocking at the front door – three loud knocks. I lay there, waiting for further knocking, thinking, “If someone wants me, they will knock again.” There being no further sound, I got up and, turning on the lites, I went out, opened the door, looked over the porch and yard. Seeing no-one – nor any animal either – went back to bed. It had startled me so – such a loud noise – that I was uneasy for a while but went back to sleep. The next morning I had forgotten about it until later in the day – then searched the porch and yard again. Maybe a branch? No. Nothing.

I said nothing to anyone – it wasn’t even notable and I quickly forgot the whole thing.

About a month later – again I was in a deep, quiet sleep – when I was suddenly awakened by the three loud knocks on the front of the house. The sounds were the same as before but the placement was different. This time the noise was “inside” the house – more into the room. The raps were strong, sharp, masculine, but not exactly the sound of knuckles on wood. (See it is hard for me to get it correct!) Again, I listened for further activity. Nothing happened. I thought about it for a while but didn’t get up. I was not particularly frightened (as for instance of an unwanted prowler), but I had just a sense of wondering, “What the hell is going on?” Again, I said nothing to anyone.

Read more »

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Virginia City, Bodie and the Sonora Pass

In which we drive East to get out West

The story of how Virginia City, Nevada, got its name is one eccentrically typical of the American West and the mining camps and towns that sprung up after the Gold Rush of 1849. Legend has it the original discoverer of the Comstock Lode, a one James Finney (a.k.a. James Fenimore; a.k.a. James “Old Virginy” Finney) was walking along drunk one night with some friends when he slipped and fell, breaking the bottle of rot-gut whiskey he held on a rock. Without missing a beat, Old Virginy exclaimed, “I hereby christen this ground Virginia!”

Once home to 15,000 souls, 42 saloons, and a gold haul reputed to be worth $400 million at the time (about $6.9 trillion in 2011 currency), Virginia City today is a kind of living ghost town, a tourist destination with all that that implies. In its heyday as an up-jumped mining camp, Virginia City was a place of legend and character. Samuel Longhorne Clemens first took the pen name Mark Twain as a “reporter” for the Territorial Enterprise here---though what he reported was mostly fiction. Twain got the idea for his pen name from his experience on riverboats on the Mississippi, where the bar pilots would call the sounding of the depth, “mark twain,” meaning that the water was two fathoms deep. Later, at the infamous Bucket of Blood Saloon on C-Street (Virginia City’s main drag), Clemens, who like most regular customers at the time ran a tab, would say “mark twain” to the barkeep, meaning “mark me down for two drinks.” He must have liked the sound of it.

An abandoned mine near the Gold Hill Hotel

We lit out for Virginia City and other points East Saturday morning for the long Independence Day weekend. It was to be our first stop on a lengthy road trip through the Old West that would take us more than 700 miles all tolled. (And, frankly, it turned out to be a bit much.)

After struggling up Highway 50 in heavy holiday traffic, we finally arrived at the Gold Hill Hotel in Gold Hill, a mile outside of Virginia City, at about 4 p.m. Adjacent to the Yellow Jacket Mine, where 37 miners perished in 1873, the Gold Hill Hotel is the oldest hotel in Nevada and boasts at least two known ghosts, William and Rosie.

Our view from the balcony at the Gold Hill Hotel

Sadly, we did not experience any ghostly visitations during our one night stay. I did wake up in the middle of the night to see an eerie light shining in the mirrored closet door that seemed to resolve itself into a grinning face, but this turned out to be a trick of the light. Probably. It is a delightful little hotel, and we highly recommend it.

The land around Gold Hill and Virginia City is pocked and scared from all the mining. Still, it has a kind of beauty that is at once natural and industrial. There is romance in these ruins. You can feel history living here, even without the actors who stage mock shoot-outs for the delectation of us tourists.

Old No. 6 at the Gold Hill Depot

C Street, Virginia City

Virginia City mansion

Amy with Mark Twain

Lucius Beebe's house, Virginia City

From Virginia City, we ambled down I-395 toward Bodie and Mono Lake. Of all the highways that I have travelled in the U.S., I think I-395 is my favorite. You can see the land and how it formed and the landscape itself is ever changing: pine forest, lake, river-bottom, mountains, gulch, high desert, alluvial plain. The Sierras, which rise gradually from the Western side, on the Eastern side jut skyward like the edge of a gigantic saw blade. Geology laid bare.

After lunching at---naturally---the oldest inn in Bridgeport, we took a left on the road to the ghost town of Bodie. After 19 miles of bad road, the last five miles gravel and dirt, we arrived at the Bodie State Historic Park gates, paid our fee and got out to amble around.

"Downtown" Bodie

Gold was discovered here in 1859 by a man named Waterman S. Bodie (a.k.a. William S. Bodey), for whom the place was named. (The difference in spelling apparently had to do with a less-than-literate sign painter.) By 1879, Bodie, at an elevation of nearly 8,500 feet, was home to 10,000 people (and 65 saloons, a China Town, a baseball league and a red light district) who routinely suffered summer temperatures above 100 and winter temps well below freezing. (The day we were there a sign announced that the day’s high was 80F and the night-time low, 20F.) The State of California has held Bodie in what it calls a “state arrested decay” since 1962. The 170-odd structures that still stand are a sight to behold and well worth the bumpy trip up the mountain. You can peer into the windows of the buildings and see how the people lived. Many dwellings appear to have been simply abandoned smack in the middle of a meal, or while the occupants were getting dressed in the morning. It’s eerie. And very, very cool. In one building, a former saloon---the Sam Leon Bar & Barbershop---a roulette table sits as if waiting for the miners to return and take a chance.

The leaning shack of Bodie

I want that flag

A sherpherd on the road from Bodie

Back down the dirt track and Southward along 395 again, we passed through Lee Vining, which is unremarkable other than the fact that I like the name, and took a short hiatus at Mono Lake. Mono is the caldera of an ancient volcano that exploded, if geologists are to be believed, with many times the force of the Mt. St. Helens eruption in Washington in 1980.

Mono Lake

We spent Saturday night in Bishop, which was a good deal farther South than I remembered. On the way we were pulled over for doing 85 in a 65 zone, but the Highway Patrol officer gave us a break because, the Gopher thought, he liked the red, white and blue ribbon I had pinned to my shirt for the holiday. I find a pinch of patriotism now and then to be quite efficacious.

Leavitt Falls

Next day we decided to change our plans. Originally we had reckoned on returning over the Sierras through Yosemite. But, this being the 4th of July, we realized that John Muir’s magnificent valley would more likely resemble a parking lot with pine trees than a National Park. So we opted for the Sonora Pass. We motored back up the 395 to the 108 and hung a left. We were not disappointed.

Our first stop was the Leavitt Falls Vista Point. We took our time picking our way over the sometimes white-knuckle pass, stopping here and there when the mood struck us to take in the view or stroll around among the trees and peaks.

Once on the Western slope it was decidedly time for lunch. We stopped in at Twain Harte, a small town I had never heard of, this being my first time over the Sonora pass. The hamlet’s Independence Day festivities were in full swing, however, and there was nowhere to stop. Curious about the town’s name, I later looked up Twain Harte in the spider tubes. Of course, it’s well known that these were the stomping grounds of the afore-mentioned Mark Twain, and Bret Harte wrote about the Gold Country often. (The Mark Twain – Bret Harte trail meanders the Sierra foothills in a roughly North-South attitude near here.) I thought maybe the person who had named the town was making a pun on the two great writers’ names, “twain heart,” perhaps having once suffered a broken heart. Maybe the name owed its genesis to a story as colorful as that of Virginia City. But I wax too poetic for my own good. Turns out that real estate developer Keturah C. Wood bought the tract that would later become the town in 1924 and named it Twain Harte because he knew the famous names would draw attention---and help promote sales. A fine example of early marketing and “SEO.”

Sonora and Angels camp both seemed deserted with most of the shops and restaurants closed for the holiday (which surprised us). So we doubled back to Murphy’s, enjoying a delightful lunch, doing a little shopping and some wine tasting.

In all, far too much driving and too little relaxing. But we saw and learned.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

If You Can’t Save It, Plaque It

In which we wax nostalgic

Fire, flood, famine, pestilence and urban renewal.

These are just some of the forces that preservationists fight as they fight to preserve historical places from the forces of nature and “progress.”

In downtown San Francisco, this has been no easy slog, for the area itself is landfill, built on sunken ships and the hopes of those sailors who hoped to find gold in them thar hills. And much of what was built after that was burnt. And much to what survived that (or was rebuilt) was bulldozed to make way for the Manhattanization of San Francisco, aimed at turning dockside warehouses and maritime "slums" into the premier financial powerhouse of the Pacific Rim. Guess it worked. For the most part.

But that’s San Francisco, a city that’s never finished. C’est la Frisco.

In my walks around the Financial District and its surroundings, I’ve noticed many plaques and small monuments adorning edifices new and old which speak of times gone by. Here’s just a handful that I photographed recently. Sorry if these are not my usual photographic masterpieces. They’re just plaques, after all.

The Old Ship Saloon

The Old Ship's bona fides are questionable. In theory, the bar and the building above it rest on the bones of the Arkansas, a three-master shipwrecked here in 1849. If there's anything left of the old ship itself I haven't seen it. The building and the bar itself have gone through many iterations. But then we Clampers never let the truth get in the way of the good story.

What Cheer House
At the corner of Sacramento and an alley called Leidesdorff (formerly called Pauper Alley), is a dreary modern granite-faced building. But the corner boasts a cheery plaque for the "What Cheer House." Founded by R.B. Woodward of Woodward's Gardens fame, the What Cheer House was a hotel for respectable fellows from the sea -- no ladies and no liquor allowed but one of the first free lending libraries in San Francisco. (That's one part cheer, two parts drear in my book, but I quibble.)

William Leidesdorff
Right across from the What Cheer House plaque is another plaque commemorating William Leidesdorff, after whom the alley is named. Leidesdorff was one of the first black citizens of early California and one of its most successful early businessmen -- founding the town's first hotel, launching its first steamboat, and establishing its first shipping warehouse, among many other notable successes.

The Waterfront
Front Street is famously where San Francisco's first landfill began into Yerba Buena Cove. But the shoreline was never a straight line. As it ran north and south, it meandered east and west, the way shorelines do. This monument rests at the corner of Clay and Battery, next to the fairly new Club Quarters Hotel. The red line is meant to indicate the original shoreline; the brass curves ripples in the water. The post is meant represent an early, rope-bound piling.

Bummer and Lazarus
In the little garden at the foot of the Transamerica Pyramid is an ECV plaque to Bummer and Lazarus, San Francisco's First Dogs. Bummer and Lazarus were two strays who adopted Norton I, Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico a local madman-come-savant, following His Imperial Majesty in his wanderings throughout the nascent city.

Hotaling's Whiskey
Across from the Transamerica Pyramid is Hotaling Place, a tiny, one-block alley now home to Villa Taverna, a private Italian American dining club. But it's also famed for being the home of the warehouse of A.P Hotaling which before the Great Earthquake and Fire was the largest liquor repository on the West Coast. During the fire, the U.S. Navy laid a mile-long fire hose to save the warehouse area in which Hotaling's building was located. The whiskey was saved. The fact that the whiskey was saved, rather than more wholesome goods, prompted clergymen to take umbrage (as is their wont). This, in turn, prompted one wag by the name of Field to pen the verse:

If, as they say, God spanked the town
For being over frisky,
Why did He burn the churches down
And save Hotaling’s whiskey?

The saved liquor was later sold under the name, Old Kirk. (Kirk is Scots for "Church." Get it?)

The Family Club
At the corner of Montgomery and Sacramento is another nondescript building which bears the plaque below. It says that "The Family" is "one of San Francisco's oldest and most distinctive social clubs." True enough, but it doesn't give you the back story. The Family is an offshoot of the Bohemian Club. Its members split from the Bohemian because the Bohemians had lost their, well, bohemian roots---the Bohemians originally being made up of journalists and writers, not money-men, bankers and grasping politicos. The current Family clubhouse is on Bush at Powell. Today it's not exactly what you would call bohemian in the strictest sense.

"Keep young."

More to come...

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Jack London's Ranch & Post Costa

In which we ramble through California history
The House that Jack Built

The author, activist, socialist and Bohemian Club honorary member, Jack London (1876-1916) has held a fascination for me ever since I read Call of the Wild when I was a kid. So Monday last, we motored up to Glen Ellen and Jack London State Historic Park, which stands on London’s experimental farm, the Beauty Ranch, in Sonoma County.

London was, to put it mildly, a barrel of contradictions. He came up from nothing – San Francisco Bay oyster pirate, Cannery Row worker, Pacific seal-hunter, Yukon gold seeker, etc. – to become one of the most famed novelists and essayists of his day. An avowed socialist, he became a rich man, albeit one who always struggled with money. A champion of the poor, he could be what we would now call racist and subscribed to bizarre beliefs in the primacy of the Anglo-Saxon “race” and social Darwinism, though he was nevertheless beloved of the Hawaiian royal family and often wrote kindly of the native peoples he encountered in his Pacific and Asian travels. He was a bohemian who became a haute bohemian, and the San Francisco journalistic and artistic club to which he was made an honorary member, the Bohemian Club, today boasts nearly every power-broker and “weaving spider” in the United States among its membership. A champion of temperance, even prohibition, he was an alcoholic who often started off his day with more than a wee dram. He lived a life of high adventure, yet suffered greatly from depression and anxiety. An evangelist of truth, he was not above telling a whopper when it suited his narrative. (For example, in John Barleycorn, he tells of falling off his boat, drunk, in San Francisco Bay in the middle of the night and being content to float along with the tide for hours. But, as any Coastie will tell you, the Bay averages about 53 degrees F year round. He would have succumbed to hypothermia and drowned within an hour had this actually happened.) He loved the strenuous life, as Theodore Roosevelt called it, yet died at the age of 40.

Window at the Jack London Lodge Saloon in Glenn Ellen

Well, never mind. “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” as Emerson said. And London has left us not only with a redoubtable literary legacy but, in Jack London State Historic Park, a physical one as well.

Approach to the house that Jack built. Sadly, it was closed that day, so we ventured along the park's trails.

Here you can visit the cottage where he wrote his 1,000 words per day, planned out his experimental farming operation with no less an expert than Luther Burbank, lived and loved with his devoted wife, Charmian, and established his reputation for future generations.

You can bend a knee at Jack and Charmian’s graves, and visit the remains of the stone manse they were building and which burned down before it was complete. You can roam the house that Charmian built after Jack’s death, the House of the Happy Walls, dedicated to his memory. (It is now a museum chock full of memorabilia from the Londons’ travels aboard Jack's yacht, the Snark, in the South Pacific.)

And you can roam around the trails of the property, up to the little lake that Jack built, which is what we did. Here are a few snaps.

One of Jack's barns

View across a vineyard to Jack's silos
View from the hill behind Jack's house

Biggest damn mushroom I ever saw

More fungi

Thick moss -- it grows on trees you know

A white heron and a green one share a puddle in a meadow near Glen Ellen

Port Costa

Port Costa is a tiny hamlet on the shore of the Carquinez Strait buried at the end of a deep canyon not far from Crockett. In the late 1800’s it was a bustling place, a way station for goods and people traveling down the delta from Sacramento to San Francisco. Oscar Wilde even stopped there on his journey to “the occidental uttermost of American civilization.”

Today Port Costa is one of the last truly bohemian enclaves the in the San Francisco Bay Area, the haunt of recluses, artists, eccentrics, ne’er-do-wells and bikers. Its main attraction is the Warehouse Café and Bar, made out of an actual warehouse built in 1880 -- the first “fireproof structure in Northern California” and home to a breathtakingly large stuffed polar bear and lots of other bric-a-brac. On the weekends for the price of a drink you can enjoy complimentary soup or chili.

Not cutesy – no antique stores, jewelry shops or gift boutiques – but worth a visit to the truly curious road-tripper.

Part of the main drag -- the only drag -- in Port Costa

The Warehouse Café and Bar cat looks down on everyone from the oval window on the top floor


In which we go hippy (and a little dippy)

In addition to motoring trough Fort Ross, Thanksgiving weekend we stayed in the old coastal town of Mendocino. Situated on a rugged, windblown bluff above the Pacific just North of Big River, Mendocino was established as a logging and fishing community in the 1850s. Many New England loggers and Portuguese fishermen settled there. Today it is a vibrant artist colony where local artists and craftspeople ply their wares to the weekend tourists who pass through and stay there on their getaways from the City.

Rainbow view from the deck of the Navarro Winery on Highway 129, not far inland from Mendocino

Mendocino is also famed for its many water towers. Though only three of these are still active, dozens have been converted into housing and B&B lodgings. In the 1970s and ’80s, rapacious developers had planned major hotels and other infill within the town’s borders, but this was thankfully blocked by the local citizenry. At just five blocks wide and 10 blocks long, Mendocino today is one of the most picturesque villages on the California coast.

View from our room at the Stanford Inn by the Sea

One of the Stanford Inn's two pet llamas

The old farmhouse on the grounds of the Stanford Inn

One of Mendocino's famed water towers, or "pump houses," converted into housing
A naked yet picturesque water tower

The interior of Crown Hall, where Mendocino's Portuguese community used to gather (and sometimes still do), often used for a craft fair on the weekends

A view of Main Street from the cliffs

Amy getting wind-blown just before we got soaked in a downpour

Amy explores an alley in Mendocino decorated in driftwood

Christmas angels (and a seagull) adorn the steeple on an old church, now, I believe, a bank

Lovely old red house with a Gothic window

Another charming house in the village

A couple whimsical weather vanes

Outrigger canoeing on the Big River

We made a little pal at the Stanford Inn