Thursday, November 29, 2007
Tuesday, November 20, 2007
While I like taking pictures, I've never fancied myself a photographer. I took the pic below at during a recent business trip to Las Vegas.
A friend of mine in the music business liked it so much that she asked to use it for an album cover. The group is called Stargarden and the album is called Music for Modern Listening. The style could be described as "ambient" -- nice music for winding down after a long night's dancing. You should buy it.
It's a nice birthday present. Thanks, Shannon!
Thursday, November 15, 2007
Sunset over the Strip
Sunday, November 11, 2007
Travels Wests Heads Nor'east
It all started innocently with the idea of seeing the USS Constitution and the fall foliage colors in the Northeast. You know, large old white houses overlooking a colorful valley. Covered bridges. Industrious farmers. Maple syrup. Grandma Moses country.
So, after making air, car rental and hotel reservations away we go, my sister and I. We’re just a pair of upper-middle-aged Californians who mean to play tourist around Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine – natives call it the Northern Kingdom.
A cramped five-hour flight on United through Chicago into Logan Airport, a short shuttle to the car rental agency and off we go, maps firmly in hand. (Only later do I learn that it’s been a long time since Mary had her eyes checked and can just barely make out the street signs. And I can’t hear worth a damn so driver-navigator communications are going to be dicey.) We wind our way up Route 1A to Salem. After some minor backtracking we arrive at Hawthorne Hotel – a marvelous large old structure right in the middle of "Witchcraft Center." The room has a pair of queen sized beds and separate baths – convenient when sharing a room with a sister. Very nicely fitted out. And there’s a posh restaurant and a comfortable tavern off the lobby. But it’s late and they’re closed and we need some nourishment. No problem. I had noticed a fast food place on the way into town and can chase down some grub. Get to Bill and Bob’s for a pair of their terrific beef sandwiches. Took me an hour to find my way back to the hotel -- and it couldn’t have been more than a mile. This was the start of what would become a very nasty trend.
I guess a brief note about the city of Salem need be inserted here. It is said that Boston’s streets were laid out by cows. Maybe so. M.C. Escher must have designed Salem. Being an old city (b. 1626) many narrow single-lane streets run every which way, crowded up against their Cape Cod-style buildings, seemingly without a square corner anywhere. And what is this about no signs on the street you're are on? And, a street can be named one thing and then abruptly change at a cross street. I think the Salem witches come out each night and change the street names. End of rant.
After a hearty breakfast we set out – the first turn out of the parking lot is wrong, as are the next few. (She: "What’s that sign read?" He: "Speak up, I can’t hear you." It’s like that for the next six days.) It’s as though my inner compass has been reset by demons in the night.
We backtracked down Route 1A to tour the USS Constitution – Old Ironsides – the oldest warship afloat. (HMS Victory in Portsmouth, England, is older but is not "afloat.") It’s a dark, blustery day with gray clouds scudding across the bay. But, for nautical buffs, this tour is a must. The wooden-hulled, three-masted frigate, launched in 1797, was built of 2,000 live oak trees cut and milled in Georgia; her planks are 7 inches thick. The ship’s design was also unique for its time because of a diagonal cross-bracing of the skeleton which contributed to the ship’s strength. Paul Revere forged the copper spikes and bolts that hold the planks in place and the copper sheathing that protect the hull.
We take the guided tour which takes us below decks – from where the carronades can hurl a 32-pund iron ball more than 500 yards. The museum nearby also offers a lot of information with illustrations, a couple of hands-on displays and a model demonstrating the hull construction.
Back in Salem, we do a walk-about to visit with Michael Wall, proprietor of the American Marine Model Gallery, specializing in buying, selling, researching and refitting model ships. (I met Michael more than 30 years ago when he had a shop in Tiburon, Calif., at which time I wrote a feature story on his work for The Sacramento Bee. He also did some repairs on model ships built by my grandfather and now owned by my sister and me.) Michael has a beautiful and complete showroom and work room, offering some of the finest ship models built by craftsmen of the past and present.
Salem is 381 years old. But the events of a single summer have caused an unbalanced commercialism into witchcraft and the occult. Everywhere you look in the old part of town shops cater to witches, witchcraft, aromas, candles, potions and the like. It’s like Hallowe’en 365 days a year. Pity! The city’s first resident Roger Conant would not have been happy. We do not visit any of the shops or "haunted" houses.
A Little History Lesson
From June through September of 1692, nineteen men and women, all having been convicted of witchcraft, were carted to Gallows Hill, a barren slope near Salem Village, for hanging. Another man of over 80 years was pressed to death under heavy stones for refusing to submit to a trial on witchcraft charges. Hundreds of others faced accusations of witchcraft. Dozens languished in jail for months without trials. Then, almost as soon as it had begun, the hysteria that swept through Puritan Massachusetts ended. (Click here for more of that crap.)
The following day, we take the catamaran-style ferry from Salem to Boston. The weather was rainy and the seas lightly choppy but it’s a rather pleasant 40-minute ride and offers a good view of the city. There you can follow the Freedom Trail – a 2.5-mile red brick and cobblestone path that leads to 16 of the city’s historic sites.
We take the subway to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Oops, wrong line, so we backtrack and start over. The museum, currently undergoing expansion, is a delight. Mary heads for the Impressionists while I stick with the arts and crafts of the 19th and 20th centuries. Marvelous silverware by Revere, Shreve and Tiffany; furniture (arts and crafts by Stickley and Greene & Greene) and contemporary (Sam Maloof, Charles Eames and Wendell Castle); pottery (Rookwood, Grueby, Chelsea Keramic Art Works); pewter (Edmund Dolbeare and Raymond Gibson); glass and copper by Roycroft; oils by Winslow Homer and John Sargent, and a display of cyanotypes by Arthur Wesley Dow.
Back to the subway and then the commuter train back to Salem. No sweat. But wait! We left the rental at the Salem Ferry slip and the commuter train leaves us off on the other side of town. Through the rain we quickly find a taxi to haul us back to the Hyundai.
The next day, we head to St. Johnsbury, Vt., to visit an antique-collecting friend and her husband. Straight up Highway 93. Very nice and colorful drive. Did I mention the highway rest stops? They’re complete with visitor information center, vending machines and the ever-present souvenir gifts. We meet Paul and Steve at her shop in Lyndonville, and then trail them to her home which, she says, is "not far." Forty-five minutes later we arrive at her place where she serves a hearty meal of shepherd’s pie and we visit with her, Steve and her father, a career Army officer.
Our reservations are for the night at the Broadview Farms Bed & Breakfast in Danville. Paula and Steve decide to show us the way. By now, it’s pitch black and off we go following their SUV. Over hill and dale, round and round until I am completely befuddled and sure that we are being led up some haunted path. (Didn’t we just pass the Bates Motel?) But it turns out the B&B, run by Molly Newell, is a grand 100-year-old house nestled on a ridge overlooking a valley. The building is chock full of three generations of antiques – enough to make an entrepreneur as myself drool. (In a soft voice, Mary asks how I like all the antiques. I reply that my suitcase isn’t big enough. She breaks up.) We have a wonderful Northern Vermont visit. The talk turns to weather and comments are made like "you’re likely to see snow in the morning." We nestled down in those big old beds with the soft comforters and that’s that for the night. Morning: No snow.
After breakfast of pancakes with homemade maple syrup, we’re off again, headed back to Concord and Lexington to visit the trail made famous by Paul Revere. It’s a marvelous bit of country with the fall colors just past their peak but still a wonder. We headed down Interstate 91, which runs along the Connecticut River that forms the boundary between New Hampshire and Vermont. Highway 91 is the newer route and quite fast, but take the older State Highway 5 if you wish an up-close look at the countryside. A brief side trip takes us to Quechee Gorge, the "Grand Canyon of Vermont," a deep cut through the mountain, through which flows the Ottauquechee River.
We stop for lunch at a rustic-appearing place, surrounded by hundreds of huge pumpkins and colorful gourds, that advertises "everything organic." Wonderful wheat bread sandwiches with a lush green salad right out of the garden. A brief talk with the owner reveals that he and his wife work the farm and café from May through October and then spend the winter in Florida where they have a similar set-up. Very clever, those Vermonters.
Pretty much a straight shot down 91 to Lexington, Mass. We finally locate the visitors information building (hidden behind one of the largest hickory trees I’ve seen) to get our bearings. Instead, get a parking ticket. Lovely.
The historic Battle Road to Concord begins with the Minute Man statue at the intersection of Routes A and 4/225, just up the road from the Munroe Tavern, headquarters of the British; the Buckman Tavern, where the Lexington militia gathered and the Lexington Green where the militia confronted 800 British Regulars on April 19, 1775. The trail – mostly within the Minute Man Historical Park and Battle Field Trail – continues through Fiske Hill, the spot where Revere was captured, into Concord and finally to the North Bridge, where Colonial militia first fired upon British regulars. Rain was falling heavily on our short hike to the bridge. Mary recites from memory the "The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" by H.W. Longfellow I’m impressed. To me, this is hallowed territory where, after years of trying to pull away from England, the American Revolution really begins.
Back on the highway now – and getting a bit jaded about the scenery – make a stop at Walden Pond, which I find to be a lot larger than I had imagined. But the park and surroundings are beautiful, with the colorful fall foliage reflected on a the dark water.
On to Springfield for the night at Hartness House, an imposing three-story structure overlooking the bustling city. We thought we were headed to a room in the main building, but got relegated to the annex with its own entry (no hobnobbing with the hoi-polloi from here). The room could have been a Best Western anywhere. Mary was not pleased.
Monday back to Salem and a final night at the Hawthorne. Same room. Same bathroom with clogged drain. Same mix-up with the streets. Will I never get this right? Our final night, we splurge with a lobster dinner. Capt.’s Waterfront Grill and Club (spelled correctly) offers a variety of lighter fare. Very pleasant. Dinner of lobster and risotto is tasty but the chunk of lobster is no bigger than my thumb. Did I order the child’s plate?
Our return through Logan, via United Airlines with its cramped seating, to Denver and Sacramento is without incident. Didn’t get lost once.
Saturday, November 03, 2007
Ghosts, Wind & Fire
It all started so innocently. On Saturday we took off for the Mojave and other points North in search of ghost towns. We planned to drive in a broad arch, first up to the abandoned silver mining towns of Keyesville and Havilah and then back to the still living ghost towns of Randsburg and Jo'Burg and lastly across to Barstow and Calico, the former mining town that's now a county park. From there we planned to head back south down the 15 and up into the mountains to Wrightwood, where I know an intimate little steak house where we could cap our long day with a nice dinner.
Always wanting to take the roads less traveled, we headed up Vineland Avenue through Sunland and up into Big Tujunga Canyon, the steep, stony, dramatic valley that brings the wilderness so close to the city. Passing over the Tujunga Wash we turned left onto the Angeles National Forest Highway, which winds through Singing Springs and at last to Highway 14.
The wind that would lash Southern California all weekend and into the next started (for us at least) with a great gust just as we crested the pass into the Antelope Valley. Up in the Angeles Forest, the Autumnal air had been crystalline. Now we could see dust in great clouds stretching over the vast, tawny-colored desert. Not the weather I hoping for -- indeed, weather that in the coming days would shatter the hopes of thousands. But of course we were innocent of this and motored cheerfully on. Above the town of Mojave a great wet cloud squatted, glowering, over the aircraft graveyard.
Here we tried to turn off for Keyesville but found the road barred to us. The wind, apparently, was already too strong and the road had been closed. It was a just as well because, as we realized later, we had read the map wrong and that road would have taken us to Bakersfield, and no one wants to end up there.
So we headed out toward Randsburg through California City, an ill-conceived development of shabby houses on dusty lots in the middle of nowhere, a real blight on the desert. Somehow, we must have misread the map again and found ourselves headed out into the desert on a long, straight dirt road that seemed to go on forever. But it's hard to really get lost in that part of the desert, surrounded as it is by landmark mountains. I recognized the mountain that Randsburg lies at the foot of (Red Mountain) and we headed that way. The Mojave is far from uninhabited, especially on the weekends, when it's overrun of off-roaders and hunters. We stopped a couple times and talked to some boys on dirt bikes to confirm we were headed the right way, and after a few wrong turns and backtracks, found ourselves winding up into Randsburg's main drag, Butte Avenue.
We stopped in the old-time General Store and enjoyed a chocolate ice cream phosphate from the ancient soda fountain, then headed over to the White House Saloon, a real old-time saloon, for a quick shot. Out back of the saloon, Nora discovered on her way to the loo, the names of some of Randsburg's famed courtesans are inscribed. These include Cal City Kitty and Gold Nugget Nell. We wandered around the main street a while, looking in at the little curio shops and then up to The Joint bar for a chat with 96-year-old Olga, the owner/bartendress. She carded me. I'm 42.
Next we headed south along the pylon-lined 395 to Four Corners and then East on Highway 58 to Barstow. Here the winds were whipping something fierce. At Barstow we turned north again for a few miles, bound for Calico. We were not at all prepared for what we found when we got there. I'd only read a little about it beforehand. I knew, for example, that the remains of the town were now a county park and there might be a few shops open as well as the occasional staged shoot-out or re-enactment. Fine: I like that sort of thing.
In fact, Calico Ghost Town is a full-on tourist trap. After paying the hefty gate fee, we proceeded past lines of Winnebagos and up the hill to Main Street, where about a thousand kids in Halloween costumes were running around shrieking about whatever it is that kids in Halloween costumes shriek about. Apparently, this was Calico's annual Haunted Weekend, when children from all of the worst places in Southern California gather to show off their fangs and howl.
Main Street itself has a kind of an Old-Westy desert feel, plus places to play video games, buy fake Indian Jewelry and get pizza, just in case you get hungry. Halfway up the street, just within earshot of a street performer in Renaissance Faire garb playing a mandolin and singing sea chanties (huh?) to no one, we came across a large fake stone marker emblazoned with a plaque announcing that we owed all this good clean historical fun to Mr. Knott of Knott's Berry Farm infamy, who had rebuilt the old "ghost town," making it safe for the American Family back in the 1950s. Silently giving thanks to Mr. Knott in heaven, we moved on.
Well, when in a tourist trap, do tourist trappy things, right? So we hoofed it up to the mine train ride, which consisted of a few small open cars pulled by a little diesel locomotive tarted-up to look like a narrow-gauge steam engine. This 3-buck, 10-minute ride was actually worth the price. Over a scratchy PA system, an automated voice recording helped point out the various points of interest as we chugged past the 1/2 -scale miners' cabins, perfectly piled tools and other Disneyesque doodads. And there actually are points of interest. The geological area surrounding the town is quite striking, with its mix of barren high desert badlands, steep hills and colorful mine tailings and leach pads. The entrance to the Silver Queen Mine, from which was dug tens of millions of dollars (that's tens of billions in 2007 dollars), worth of silver and borax from 1880 until it petered out in 1906 is visible near the top of one of the nearby hills.
Sadly, there's not much to see of the old boomtown's once-infamous Chinese district, said to be a wretched hive of scum and villainy chock full of joss houses and opium dens, although you can get a picture of yourself in the giant, cauldron-shaped Chinese bath. The glory that was Main Street, too, has dimmed, despite its current preponderance of lively pretzel and churro carts. Not a single one of the town's many whorehouses, gambling casinos and saloons still stands. Calico is, sadly, a dry town in more ways than one. In fact the whole shebang burnt down in 2002 and was rebuilt -- Now New and Improved! About the only original structures left are an adobe wall and some rubble visible from the railway. Take me back to Randsburg, please.
It was time for dinner, so we pressed on southward.
The wind whistled through the Cajon Pass, wooshing over the summit and down along the San Andreas Fault like a runaway freight train. We took a right at Cajon Junction onto US 138 and proceeded up into the Mormon Hills, the streaked sandstone glowing in the evening light. At the Angeles Crest Highway we turned off and headed up country to Wrightwood, the lovely, rustic and blessedly unspoiled little mountain resort town that lies in a glen about 5000 feet up in the San Bernardinos. By this time we were mighty hungry and looking forward to a square meal. We stopped at the Blue Ridge Inn, the cozy little steak and chop house in the center of town.
During our long, chatty meal we decided that driving back down the hill would be… contrary to our continued pleasure and desire to enjoy what the Irish call "a right session." So we booked a room at the Pines Motel across the way and went out for a night on the town. In the local bar, hilarity ensued and the locals were a big part of it. They're a colorful lot and not given to, shall we say, putting on airs.
A Mighty Wind a' Blowin' You and Me
Next morning we again decided to delay our return to Flatlanderville and instead motored up to Lake Arrowhead, high in the San Gabriels, the next range to the East. On the way we went down through the magnificent Lone Pine Valley that looks down into the lower Cajon Pass. Here we noted a pall of dust or smoke gathering, creeping up from the south. Then, up on Highway 18 near Running Springs -- the "Rim of the World Highway" -- we were struck by winds so fierce the car actually started to slide sideways, inching us toward the rim of the Rim of the World.
"The wind shows us how close to the edge we are," Joan Didion wrote of the Santa Anas. The winds are one of the banes of existence in Southern California, sometimes reaching hurricane strength, more than 100 miles per hour. They can make you feel dried out and headachy and irritable. They electrify the air so that every doorknob delivers a crackling shock. And they can stoke fires like the Devil's own bellows. The Santa Anas begin as cold northern air that flows southward over the desert from high pressure to low. As it streams over the desert it heats up and loses moisture and flows faster and faster. Then, when it hits the sharp rise of the San Bernadinos and San Gabriels, it's like the Bernoulli effect. Just as air flows faster over the sharply curved top of a wing, the Santa Anas pick up speed until they are positively screaming over the top of the mountains. Then, once on the other side, they fall, picking up even more speed from their own weight. The winds rush into the valley below and stream out to sea.
On Sunday morning, we were on top of the wing.
The Rim looks down over the broad sweep of the San Gabriel Valley. On a clear day, it is one of the most spectacular views, reaching from downtown L.A. eastward all the way to Mt. San Jacinto, towering above Palm Springs. But view or no, the San Gabriel Valley itself is my idea of (suburban) hell on any day. Today, it was doubly so. The wind had stirred up just about every spec of dust and sand so that enormous clouds and whirlwinds rose high above the relentless grid of streets and gigantic warehouses. Talk about looking down into Mordor.
We arrived home safe enough, if rather thunderstruck by what was going on; still delighting in the memory of our trip, yet anxious about the tragedy unfolding on our TV screen.
The next morning dawned red. The forest around Lake Arrowhead called Grass Valley plus Green Valley Lake, and Running Springs, had caught fire and the smoke was streaming over the San Fernando Valley and the L.A. basin. Over the next day or so, much of the alpine wilderness we had driven through Sunday would be incinerated. In Running Springs 272 houses were destroyed. In Grass Valley, 178.