Lapping Up the Lake Country

I got an early start Monday morning, leaving Tahoe before breakfast so I'd have plenty of time to reach Mono Lake in northeastern California by early afternoon.  That way I'd be just in time to take a nice long walk in an area I knew from previous visits to be breathtakingly beautiful and delightfully unusual.

When I rounded the bend of southbound Highway 395 that yields the first sweeping view of Mono Lake in the distance, I spied a strategically located scenic pullout that proffered the chance to sit and savor the luxuriant landscape and so quickly pulled over.

After taking in the immense canvas of blues and grays and tans that stretched from edge to edge of the vast horizon, I eventually noticed that the 100+ yards of guardrail framing the picture postcard view had evolved into a do-it-yourself gallery of sorts, plastered densely with all sorts of individualized expressions, many of them exuding a distinctly alternative flavor (e.g., I saw stickers from at least 5 different Burning Man theme camps).  It rapidly became obvious that this would be a marvelous place to leave another one of my magnets, so I selected a spot right next to a bumper sticker for the Santa Cruz Mystery Spot (a classic roadside attraction), a destination made even sweeter by the Andre the Giant sticker affixed to the "O" in the word "Spot".  I enjoyed how my curmudgeonly little magnet had the audacity to exhort viewers to WORK amidst a flurry of handbills glorifying leisurely activities, in a locale frequented mostly by frolicking vacationers.

I departed the overlook aglow with the warm feeling of having left something I'm fond of in very good company and headed off to consult the state park oracles concerning a good place to hike in the area.  Which ended up being a good thing, because the trail I'd selected when consulting my map earlier in fact turned out to be closed due to snow.  The friendly gal at the desk instead advised me to take a drive along the spectacularly beautiful June Lake Loop just south of the town of Lee Vining.  From there, I'd be able to access a trail head that would lead me out to a beautiful alpine lake nestled in the foothills that rise from the shores of Mono Lake and march westward to become the Sierra mountains.

June Lake Loop turned out to be every bit as scenic as promised.  I turned off onto a long winding dirt road that cut a narrow swathe through a scraggly meadow and was soon delivered to the Parker Lake trail head.  I parked the car and bundled up since the weather was still unseasonably cold and blustery, though the sun did seem to be managing to stay in view a good bit more than it had for the last few days.  There were only two other cars in the parking lot and it was in fact a good long while before I laid eyes on any of my fellow hikers.

I ambled contentedly along the trail which led steadily upward through quiet groves of pine and aspen.  I soon heard the rush of moving water and didn't hike too much further before the trail merged with the bank of a small river I suspected emanated from Parker Lake.  Signs of recent flooding were in evidence, recent enough that a clump of uprooted trees I encountered hadn't yet lost the bulk of its upraised soil to the elements.  It was hard to imagine how the placid little rivulet that gurgled beside me had been capable of moving entire clusters of trees!  But being from Texas (home of merciless and frequent flash flooding) I knew to just go ahead and believe it, even if it seemed incredible.

I gained enough elevation on my walk that I began to encounter snow.  At first just a light dusting on the underexposed patches to either side of the path.  But not much further along, snow began to encroach on the trail itself and even lay in deep drifts in the undisturbed areas beside the trail.  The slanted afternoon light and cold mountain wind both flowed through the dark boughs high over my head, feeding my finely-dialed-in senses with a feast of light and shadow and sound.   When I emerged from the forest onto the shore of Parker Lake, I felt curiously exposed.  The scene before me was stunningly beautiful - a small valley dominated by the crystal clear water of a sparkling alpine lake, snow capped mountains for a backdrop - but strangely, the balance of intimacy had been thrown off all of a sudden.  I didn't linger long before looping back to seek the comfort of the forest and start my journey back to the car. 

As I walked along, I savored all the rich colors I saw repeated all across the mountain side: blinding white, earthy moss green,  rich red brown umber, and the occasional sooty black scar that some of the trees near the lake bore, signs of a fire that wasn't all that recent, but one that had left a lasting mark.

The colors of the aspen (below) are so delicious.  I'm also intrigued by the way the new branches seem to emerge from lurid scars on the trunk.  So very violent looking for such a placid seeming tree.

My best guess is that the rock pictured below is some sort of petrified wood.  The colors are exactly the same ones I encountered in my trip to the Petrified Forest.

From the trail looking north, Mono Lake in the distance:

After I returned to the car and rejoined the June Lake Loop, I was pleased and amazed to see that the road became even more scenic than before - definitely a road to detour for, one I feel sure I'll revisit.  I merged back onto Highway 395 with the notion of stopping for dinner in the quaint little town of Bishop.  I've had such interesting meals there in numerous visits I've made previously and this time turned out to be no different - I enjoyed freshly grilled Korean style ribs on a picnic table beside the highway.  Bulgoki was definitely not what I had expected to eat in Bishop!  I pushed on a few more miles southward to the tiny town of Lone Pine where I could easily access a road that looked like a good place to cross over into Nevada.  I found a well kept motor court motel in town with a friendly clerk who gave me what turned out to be a travel tip of solid gold.  Only I didn't know it at the time because what I really wanted was to settle in for the night and dream of trees.   


Tally ho Tahoe!

My plan as I headed out of San Francisco on Sunday was to stay to the north for a while, and as such, I needed to pick some route or other to take me over the Sierra Nevada mountain range.  Now that's a little more challenging than it sounds, because there aren't really that many roads that cross over the range, and a good number of them are routinely closed from October to June every year due to winter weather.  In the end I decided to take reliable old Interstate 80, a stretch I've travelled a good number of times since a portion of it connects the Bay Area with Burning Man.  I became inordinately fond of the route one winter when Dave the seasoned ice driving veteran from Vermont drove (or should I say tobogganed) Mark and I over the summit, steering the PT Cruiser along a 30 mile long ribbon of black ice.  I rode along in white-knuckled amazement at Dave's skill.  We'd had to stop and have chains installed on the tires before we were even allowed to access the road and it was a grueling journey.  The three of us climbed out of the car near the top of Donner Pass (of cannibalistic pioneer fame) to stretch our legs and naturally it wasn't any time at all before the interlude had devolved into a spirited snowball fight.

2002 snowball fight at Donner Pass (L to R: Shiree, Dave)

Those wintry crossings of the Sierras (both the Donner-Reed party and my own) had taken place in the cruel snowy season of January, but now here it was June and the still glistening drifts of roadside snow were just about as high as they'd been on my January visit!  I stopped in a state park near the top of the pass to try and take my daily walk, but soon turned around and headed back to the car because the snow on the "trail" was so deep I'd have needed cross country skis to traverse it.  It was consistent with the evidence I'd been seeing all around the Northwest area of a long, late and persistent winter exacerbated by an abundance of snowfall.  Dang - I'd been looking forward to a nice long walk in the silence of the snow, but I simply wasn't prepared to take on snow drifts.  No matter, in short order I'd be to the other side of the Sierras and heading down the western shore (California) of the incredibly beautiful Lake Tahoe and would have more than ample opportunity for scenic walks.

As I drove along, I was amazed by the huge number of compelling bike trails that ran along the lake, snaking through tall trees and connecting the tiny hamlets that dot the perimeter of the lake.  I made a mental note to some day haul my bike out to the area and spend a generous amount of time just riding around and exploring.

I marvelled at the scenery as I drove along, keeping my eyes peeled for a good spot to take a late afternoon walk.  I pulled over at Emerald Bay State Park after seeing a sign mentioning Viking blah blah 1920s mansion blah blah.  I parked and scrambled up to the well groomed overlook, a perfect perch for gazing over the tree tops of the forest marching down a slope to the sparkling blue waters of the lake beyond.  As my eyes took in the scene, I spotted an official looking sign nearby the size of a small refrigerator. It patiently explained in great detail that if you followed the trail, there was a cool old Viking style mansion from the 1920s at the bottom, but pay attention because the path descended 500 feet over the course of a mile and wasn't for no sissies.  Well, that's my paraphrasing of it, anyway.  Madame New Knees didn't hesitate a moment before crisply buttoning her coat and setting off down the steep slope, soon rounding a bend and disappearing into a thicket of evergreens arching gracefully over the trail.  The walk down was absolutely lovely.  Every so often I'd pass over a tiny waterfall crossing underneath the path and would pause to search for the inevitable lacework of ice that had formed on the foliage nearest the water's cone of spatter.  I enjoyed frequent encounters with precocious gorgeous blue Steller's jays and could hear the occasional distant cry of a bird of prey echoing through a region known for its eagles. 

At the bottom of the steep steep hill, in a clearing along the shore of Emerald Bay sits a 38 room mansion called Vikingsholm that was built in 1929 by a rich heiress with interests in preserving Scandinavian culture.  Seeing as how it was the winter season (!) there was no sign of life inside, so I merely wandered the grounds peering in dusty windows and gazing out over the lake when the view allowed. 

Charming though it was, I had soon had my fill of Vikingsholm and walked out to the boardwalk that curved along the shore of the bay to follow it a bit where I could enjoy the brightness of the blue sky, the soft green of the looming pines and feel the bite of the cold wind coming in off the water.  I passed another somber decree printed in king-sized font that warned of the temptations of overestimating one's swimming ability.  In fancy state park words, it basically advised that while the nearby island did indeed look nearby, it in fact wasn't - and more importantly the water in that wide wide gulf was WAY colder than you one would surmise and doubted the wisdom of the assessment not one little bit.  That there was killin' water.

As I began my ascent back up the hill, I felt grateful that I'd had the good sense to pick up a nifty walking stick that someone had thoughtfully left at the trail head before walking down.  It was of great service and I had the added pleasure of leaving it for someone else to use after I had departed.  I approached the climb as though it were a training exercise and was well pleased with the stamina I mustered as I powered up the incline.  I was especially tickled when I passed a family group being shepherded uphill by two 30 something parents, both panting like dogs.  Bwahaha! Eat my glitter, kids!

When I finally reached the parking lot, I wandered about in a shallow daze for several minutes, recovering from the long push uphill. It was there that I witnessed the wretchedly poignant scene shown below.  Bless their little hearts!

I had just returned to my car and was standing at the opened passenger door shedding layers of warmth into the back seat when the family I had passed on the hill grimly straggled up to their minivan just a few spaces over.  "Man!  Was that as hard for you as it was for us?" the girl inquired breathlessly.  "It was pretty damn challenging alright," I conceded, "and I'm in the habit of hiking at least an hour every day!"  That seemed to make her feel better, so I didn't bother to brag about the new knees.

I pulled back onto the absolutely beautiful stretch of road that passes along the southern tip of the lake leading toward the city of Tahoe.  I paused quite a few times to admire the postcard view and track the progress of a feisty little squall that was making its way along the eastern shore of the lake.     

I pulled into the intriguing city of Lake Tahoe with just enough afternoon left to make several long passes through the linear enclave - observing it from its intensely 50s flavored south side all the way north to its more distinctly highbrow hotels and casinos.  The variety of old motor court motels and roadhouse restaurants that lined the highway was fascinating.  I was finally seduced by an Italian restaurant that proclaimed on a large banner outside the building that their salad bar was enormous.  And while I wouldn't call it enormous, there were indeed a couple of vegetables in the assortment of round plastic bins wedged into the ubiquitous sea of crushed ice.  I managed to make a palatable dinner with only a modicum of effort and then it was off to the Motel 6 with me.  It was cold and I was worn out in a good way from my vigorous walk and more than ready to crawl in bed. 


That New Vehicle Smell

My destination on Thursday was the teeming metropolis of San Francisco (where I'd be spending the next couple of days) so I decided to go ahead and get my day's walk in first thing while I was still smack dab in the middle of the awesome redwood forests of northern California - pretty much a no brainer given how much I love that area and generally cherish any time spent there.

After leaving my beautiful room at the Curly Pine Lodge behind (slept like a log - sorry, just had to say it) and being diverted briefly for a breakfast of grossly inferior pie, I stopped at a state park visitor center to get some advice from seasoned professionals about what the best use of a one hour hike might be.  The enthusiastic woman that helped me suggested I visit Humboldt Redwoods State Park which sits right off the road called the Avenue of the Giants, which in my view forms the backbone of the quintessential redwood experience.  She told me the drive out to the park was well worth the trip alone, more than enough to convince me.

I soon found myself weaving back and forth through the redwoods at speeds averaging about 15 m.p.h., a far cry from the scene in the second Star Wars movie when they're riding those fancy floating motorbikes through the forest. And it is in fact the same exact forest, but I labored under an obvious handicap since the Cadillac hasn't yet been equipped with levitation.

As soon as I'd parked and set off down the trail, I noticed all sorts of interesting wildflowers springing up in random places.  Scads of pale lavender irises, green-petaled trillium and several others I'd never seen before, flourishing in what must have been their spring blooming season.  It was a pleasant enough walk, but it wasn't until I'd looped back around and was almost back to the trail head that I decided to veer off the gravel trail and go explore the nearby riverbed - the promise of which had been calling to me throughout the duration of my walk.  It was time to go down and see what I could find at the water's edge.

It wasn't long before I realized what I'd discovered was the perfect spot for a rock stack  A stately hollow log hovered several yards above a deep pocket in the stream bed, just begging for an embellishment.  It felt like the most logical thing in the world to peel off my socks and boots, roll up my pants and start hunting up some nice looking rocks.    The first time I waded into the stream, I just about leapt right out.  I'm guessing the water was snow melt, but it was cold as ice one way or another!  I found I could only stay in for a minute or so before my flesh would start aching and I'd have to wade out again.  That was okay, though - the discomfort helped me focus on my task and allow me to let go of the plan more quickly when something didn't go as I imagined (a frequent occurrence in rock stacking).

After gingerly coaxing the last pea sized stone onto the very top of the stack, I took a seat on the dry part of the stream bed where I could sit and admire my handiwork. I was well pleased.  Not only had I found the perfect location, but I'd managed to assemble a mighty handsome group of rocks to boot.  Some days, things just seem to take care of themselves with very little intervention on my behalf.  I really enjoy those luxurious times when I get to be the vehicle.

After enjoying my moment of perfect contentment for the day, I put my socks and boots back on, walked to my vehicle and drove to the city forthwith.

San Francisco sidewalk scenery: red eucalyptus pistils in white quartz gravel

San Francisco is a city I've spent a fair amount of time in, and yet I never seem to tire of returning there.  It helps that I'm lucky enough to have constant and willing hosts who maintain the impression that having me there is is no problem.

I was fortunate that while I was in town, Kurt, Marty, Rich and I were able to attend a really fun annual event called Maker Faire.  It's the high school prom of the geek world, and naturally we had to go and check out what all the other kids were doing.  I was really smitten with the spinning ring of LEDs that was programmed to display animation (e.g., the world - in the picture above) using persistence of vision technology.  I also really enjoyed a talk presented by Gever Tulley who's written a book called Fifty Dangerous Things (You Should Do With Your Kids).   In it, he encourages parents and mentors to do dangerous things with kids - have a picnic on the roof, for example - as a way of training them how to cope with real life, and do it safely.  It was really interesting to hear his take on our safety obsessed culture, although he was definitely preaching to the converted in me, at least.  That's why one day I will run "Aunt Shiree's Danger Camp" as once suggested by my wonderful pals Ray and Hazel.

And that flurry of cognitive activity my friends, is the essence of why I return to San Francisco time and again.  The very air of the place seems to serve as a catalyst for me - zinging as it does with novel ideas and crazy notions.  Not to mention it's a city populated with people just wacky enough to try some of the bizarre stuff that gets dreamed up so there's never a lack of things to see and do.

A mere three days in town yielded a high density of  entertainment, including a dinner made with exotic lion's mane mushrooms from the farmer's market (delicious with crab ravioli and red walnuts), a chance meeting at Dynamo Doughnuts with a wonderful family visiting from Canada (maple glazed apple and bacon doughnuts-yum!) and several excellent walks roving the hills north of the Mission district.  I planned to depart just after brunch on Sunday to begin my drive home, stopping in Vegas to pick up my friend Betsy who would ride  the rest of the way back to Texas with me.  I had several exciting stops planned along the way and looked forward to getting started.


Developing a healthy gut

When I woke Wednesday morning, I discovered to my delight that the rain and wind and cold were not only still with me, but had even had the courtesy to intensify overnight.  As I traipsed through the motel lobby on my way to the car, the television weather forecaster warned excitedly of tempestuous conditions for the day, including 65 mile per hour winds, spectacular surf and respectable wind chill. A perfect day to drive along the northern Pacific coast in my estimation!

However, before heading out on my day's adventures, I decided to take advantage of Newport's relative size to ferret out a gourmet breakfast.  I ended up at a place called La Maison that was a bit of a challenge to find, but not long after I'd parked the car and dashed through the drenching rain, I found myself happily ensconced at a cozy table next to the window with a steaming mug of rich dark coffee in my hand. The tattoo of raindrops hammering on the glass at my elbow rang out as I looked over the menu...oh what would I choose?!  In the end, I went with a classic - eggs Benedict - a dish I truly love when it's complicated formula is worked correctly.  This version featured slabs of fancy-schmancy ham and was built on top of a house baked English muffin.  I could tell the muffin was going to play a major role in the success of the dish after eyeing the mouthwatering pastries piled up on the glass shelves of the bakery case.

While anticipating my feast, I quietly sipped my wickedly good coffee and observed a steady stream of locals as they appeared at the door, besmirching the foul weather and then chatting amiably with the megafriendly owners, Cliff and Kate Brown.  It was clear from watching that everyone loved the gregarious couple that ran the place and they'd cemented a good many friendships with their customers.  One couple brought their toddler son with them, and in no time, Cliff had soon scooped the child up in his arms and stood sweetly dandling the boy stoveside, patiently sharing the secrets of making delicious soup while stirring a huge steaming pot.  As I sat idly by, immensely enjoying the scene in my movie where I have breakfast in Newport, my waitress arrived with an amuse bouche (say: ah-mooz boosh - or free appetizer for the unfrench) that knocked my socks off: a small bowl of freshly sliced bananas topped with a generous slathering of thick cream, lightly sprinkled with brown sugar and topped with toasted hazelnuts.  Incredible.  And a delible symbol of what's so special about La Maison - how simple, how generous and yet how perfect and elegant.  The eggs Benedict were exactly that, such that I mourned that I didn't have another two stomachs so I could eat every morsel.  The carrot yellow color of yard eggs emerged as the perfectly poached eggs trickled rivulets of gold down the sides of the sumptuous dish.  The muffin was even better than I had hoped for - toasted to perfection, crunchy on the outside, moist and buttery in the interior.  Every detail was perfect and it just couldn't have been more delicious.  Triumph!

I chatted with Cliff for a bit before selecting a brownie for later indulgence and settling up my bill.  I made sure he knew how much he'd impressed this jaded old foodie, a foodie who's actually pretty good at judging what's culinarily extraordinary.  I hope to find myself back in Newport one day so I can visit again.

For the second glorious day in a row, I found that I had no particular plan other than heading south on Highway 101 and stopping when it seemed worthwhile.  The weather was brutal and I loved it.  Every time the road carried me back to the sea, I could see the churning surf smashing in great showers of spray along the shoreline.  The highway wove back and forth between the rim of seaside cliffs to interior avenues carved through coastal groves several miles inland.  I began to pay special attention to the amazing bridges I was crossing as I entered some of the larger port towns, but more on that later.  I soon happened upon a sign for a tourist attraction that's been around for over 75 years - the Sea Lion Caves - also purportedly the World's Largest Sea Cave!    Strangely, I felt ambivalent about stopping but it gave me a rare and valuable opportunity to listen to my gut instead of my mind.  My gut told me turn the hell around and go see what this Sea Cave was all about, and so I did.

After I parked, I literally had trouble opening the car door the wind was blowing so hard.  On my way inside,  raindrops practically stung as they struck my skin with the full force of the wind.  The girl at the reception desk explained to me that I'd be descending to an observation deck below the gift store, where I'd walk a cliffside pathway to an elevator that would take me down to the sea cave.  All perfectly safe, even in hurricane force winds, she assured me.  The very moment I stepped out of the lee of the gift store stairwell and onto the path that would take me to the elevator I was assaulted by the wind, my hair blowing into a wild blonde and pink corona that danced madly around my head.  The jagged coastline, alive with pounding surf, loomed impossibly far below as I hugged the wide flat expanse of white concrete sloping down to the elevator door.  Through the mist, I could see the ultrascenic Heceta Light House perched on a nearby point in the northern distance, flashing it's bright white warning of proximity every minute or so.

When I reached the shiny stainless steel elevator doors, I noticed that there were only two call buttons indicated, T and B.  I love the simplicity of that.  I rode to "B" where the doors opened to reveal a large darkened chamber lit with dim path lights and outfitted with numerous informative sign boards.  A huge opening in the room's southern wall revealed the cave and its sea lion denizens.  There were what must have been hundreds of them milling about in their own little wild kingdom.  I had no idea there would be so many and in such a dramatic setting!  I sat for a good long while and watched as the lithe animals rode the rough tide into the cave and then somehow hoisted those enormous tender skinned bodies onto sharp outcroppings of rock to rest awhile or do a little courting.  I was really curious to see how they'd accomplish climbing rocks given what I thought was the limitation of flippers, but they didn't seem to be the least bit daunted and appeared in fact to compete with one another in regards to how exclusive and unobtainable their particular rock happened to be. 

I left feeling like I'd been treated to my own personal episode of Wild Kingdom and rode the elevator back up to "T" to brave the gauntlet of weather on the way back to my car.  I was soon on my way again, glowing with the pleasure of discovering something quite by accident that brings so much enjoyment.  Thank you, gut, thank you for insisting.

My gut soon had another chance to assert itself - this time convincing me that I needed to make a second crossing of the absolutely fabulous Coos Bay Bridge.  I mentioned earlier that I'd been admiring the bridges I'd been crossing as I drove south, but this one was a real show stopper.  I could tell it was something special miles before I reached Coos Bay, spying its two dramatic bridge spans dominating the immense bay as I approached the city.  As I drew nearer, I saw that this bridge was painted the same beautiful shade of state highway bridge green as the others I'd crossed, and had giant art deco obelisks at each entrance, just as the others had had.  This particular bridge, however, had the most unusual and amazing design of any I'd seen - one that mimicked the alluring lines of a Moorish spire or other vaguely arabesque motif combined with the rat-a-tat precision of rows and rows of rivets.  I was absolutely entranced as I drove over/through it, moaning aloud at the striking beauty of the crossed beams, the impressive economy of design that relied on subtlety and suggestion.  I exited the other side in a bit of a daze, so enamored of the bridge was I.  It took me a few ticks and a bit of wrestling with my reasonable self before I decided to turn the car around and do the entire crossing again!  How can you not do something you enjoy that much more than once, especially knowing you might never get to do it again?    

This time I had my camera ready to snap some pictures as I slowly crossed over, but judging by the results, I wasn't quite talented enough to multitask that complexly.  However, you can get at least a taste of the exquisite design of the Coos Bay bridge by clicking on the above image to enlarge it, if you like.

 I meandered on down the coast, enjoying the scenery, scouting a break in the intermittent rain in an attractive setting so I could take my afternoon walk.  I really can't tell you the name of the beach where I finally pulled over, but I can tell you I was compelled to stop by a beautiful crescent shaped boulder that sat placidly on the beach despite its tumultuous setting.  I again donned every single layer of warm clothing I had in the car and set off toward the beach for a stroll.

There were only a few other intrepid souls walking the beach, a surprising number considering the weather.   The beach had been scrubbed clean by the turbulent surf yielding little of interest along the water line, so I made a large circle and headed back toward the crescent shaped rock.  The rain that had been threatening started to come down in light showers but it still wasn't enough to deter my walk - I loved the setting and the extremity of the weather and I wasn't about to head back to the car.  I meandered back and forth across the flotsam bed, eventually spying a huge spherical shape, completely at odds with the other natural shapes of the shoreline.  When I went over to investigate, I found an inscrutable sphere of plant matter and I knew not what else.  "Curious," I thought to myself "What on earth could that thing be?"   It was vaguely ominous, probably due to its complete mystery, so I abandoned it and continued on, scouring the field of seashell stubble, sticks and rocks to gain clues about what it might be.  As I approached my moon shaped touchstone, the rain began to come down in earnest - definitely no longer suitable for strolling.  I made a beeline for a slanted crevice I had noticed at the edge of the rock that would make for perfect reclining out of the storm's reach.  I had to inch into the space gradually, and timed my regressions to coincide with progressions of encroaching rain.  The space was wonderfully comfortable and I was easily able to adopt a reclining position and watch the rain hammer down on the beach with the roaring surf as a backdrop.  Unsurprisingly, I completely surrendered to being present in the moment - it was out of the question to miss any little detail of this amazing moment.  As I sat in my perfect happiness, watching the fury of the sudden storm from a dry and comfortable seat, tiny pellets of ice began to fall from the sky.  At first they were no bigger than a seed bead, but soon the size of the ice balls had grown to that of an English pea, white as snow.  I turned the knob of my perfect moment up to 11 and beamed a wide grin to the relentless waves.  Thank you cosmos!     

Because it is curiously often the way it happens in these magical moments, I found that my camera battery was completely dead, prohibiting me in what would have been vain attempts to preserve the glorious lacunae where I had enjoyed the storm.  Ah well, that place will forever be etched in my mind anyway.

On my way back up to the car, I walked along the beach, searching for the mysterious hair ball of the ocean I'd seen earlier.  That's what I had decided it was after some consideration - an ocean tumbled ball of seaweed with assorted items that had been caught in it's intricate webbing as it rolled along.  I could hear it calling my name - "COME to me, Shirrrreeeeeeee....!" it commanded.  So convincing was the game that I began to feel anxious when I couldn't find it and experienced relief when I finally spotted its conspicuous round shape on the stretch of sand in front of me.  I scooped it up, introduced myself and carried it back to the car with me.  It got its own little box to sit in, since I wasn't quite sure what might crawl out.

I drove a short ways further, crossing the border into California just a little before dusk.  I'd decided to overnight in Crescent City, and so drove the length of the town to see what my lodging options were.  Right on the outskirts of town, pretty much the last building before you found yourself back on the highway headed south sat an old-school motor court motel that looked to be in great condition.  I pulled over and went into the lobby and knew right away I'd hit a home run.  Out of the ball park.  It was the Curly Redwood Lodge - opened in 1957 and still in the pristine shape, filled with original furnishings!  I was in Mid Century Modern heaven.  The motel was built from a single Curly Redwood which was cut down (18'2" in diameter!) and milled at nearby logging facilities.  As a result, the motel is a sea of beautiful burled redwood planks, incorporating all sorts of charming architectural flourishes typical of the early 60s.  I carefully placed the hairball of the sea on the coffee table in my room, ate Pud Thai from a styrofoam container, and led Mark on a Skype-enabled tour of the motel.  It had been a day so filled with the things that make life worth living that I couldn't wait to tell him all about it.     


Oysters->Corn Dog->Root Beer Float->Oysters

The first thing I encountered after leaving Aberdeen and heading south on 101 early Tuesday morning was a place I'd seen mentioned in some article or other as the epicenter of toilet tissue production for the U.S., a city with the intriguing name of Cosmopolis (Greek for "city of the world").  As I drove past acre after acre of fields barren but for a smattering of toddler-sized tree stumps, it began to sink in how weird and apropos it was that this place was called Cosmopolis.  The unofficial motto of Cosmopolis is "City of the Future!" which when said with fervor sounds deludedly optimistic in a Buck Rogers sort of way.  Especially considering this worldly city of the future is the epitome of rampant suburban sprawl and old growth forest devastation - powerful reminders that our consumption doesn't happen in a vacuum.  [She fashions a jerky mechanical wave of the hand while chirping in a robotic voice: "Happy motoring!"]

It wasn't much later and still pretty early in the morning when I pulled into the tiny seaside town of South Bend, Washington and was greeted by a large sign proclaiming "World Capital of Oysters" - WAHOO! - just in time for breakfast!  Some of the best breakfasts I've ever eaten have been had in just such a fashion - when the rare opportunity presents itself and is observed.  I pulled into the first seafood purveyor that looked appealing to see what local delicacy I might procure and opted (after learning they were completely out of pickled oysters - an item I'd loved to have tasted) for an oyster shooter which I would eat immediately and a quarter pound of freshly smoked oysters to go, perfect for a decadent picnic later.  I took the small plastic cup that was filled to the brim with about half a dozen freshly shucked oysters and sat down at an extremely red table outside the store where I could gaze out over the water from the safety of a plastic sheeting shelter while I savored the complex flavor of the ocean.  The oysters were small and plump, sweet even, full of seaside flavor but exceedingly light and clean tasting all at the same time.  The tang of the horseradish in the cocktail sauce and the salty flaky crisp of the saltine created the perfect framework for showcasing the magic of the oysters.  I closed my eyes to shut out competing stimuli and deeply savored the moment.  The sound of the howling wind and intermittent raindrops hitting the clear plastic cocoon I was nestled in, only added to the pleasure.  Talk about breakfast of champions!

I got back on the road and headed next toward an old resort town called Long Beach where I thought I'd stop to visit an over-the-top souvenir shop I'd read about called Marsh's Free Museum.  Along with the free museum, it turns out, are a wealth of godawful souvenirs for purchase - an age old gimmick that still works like a charm. The original owners started collecting curiosities in the early 1930s, and have managed to tuck a good bit of it in between rows and racks and islands of more modern day marvels like real-scorpion-in-Lucite key chains and racks of mini LCD license plates that flash your name.  The museum houses an impressive collection of old arcade games (most of them working, no less!), a two-headed calf and even a supermarket tabloid celebrity: a grinning black half man/half alligator mummy that goes by the name of Jake.  I thoroughly enjoyed poking around and took the opportunity to purchase a few state magnets I'd be needing for the side of my car - and what better place to buy them, I ask?

The city of Long Beach sits at the gateway of an extremely long drivable beach that runs along the Pacific and as such has long been a tourist destination. Marsh's Free Museum presides over a cluster of busy seaside attractions that offer a cavalcade of top notch tourist entertainment.  For example, all I had to do was walk out the front door of the museum to snag a made-from-scratch-while-I-watched corn dog and then walk across the street to see the world's largest frying pan!  I set the self-timer on the camera so I could pose with the pan, but it took me a few tries to get the logistics right.


Just a little further down the Oregon coastline I discovered the city of Tillamook, home to the familiar cheese maker of the same name.  I was thrilled when I drove past the cheese factory and spotted a sign mentioning factory tours.  The "tour" consisted mainly of access to a swanky glassed in observation deck which overlooks the busy packaging operation that's seething with activity on the floor below.  It was strangely beautiful and compelling to watch those gigantenormous yellow blocks march along the conveyor belts like ants on a mission, especially bathed as they were in the lurid yellow cheese-o-rama lighting lent by the industrial setting. 
The most popular stop on the factory tour, however, was the tasting area.  When I arrived, I found a long line of classically turned out tourists waiting anxiously for their turn at the trough of samples.  While I waited in line, I amused myself by observing the frenzy of feeding activity being generated by all those people pressed together, each working feverishly with a tiny flimsy toothpick, trying to spear pea sized bits of yellow cheddar variants - this was the biggest moment of the tour, after all!

I decided I was already pretty familiar with what inexpensive yellow cheddar cheese tasted like, no matter what shade of marigold you selected, and so instead chose to head over to the Tilamook ice cream parlour where for a mere $2.00 I procured the best root beer float I've had in a very long time.  Generous amounts of good hard vanilla ice cream bobbing in homemade root beer - yum.  What a culinary triumph the day had been!  Freshly shucked oysters for breakfast, a hand dipped corn dog for lunch and now the perfect ice cream float at tea time!  Yahooo!

After my brief dalliance with all things dairy, I hit the road again.  The weather had been wild and woolly all day: strong gusty winds, persistent intermittent rain and bitter cold (around 40, but bitter when you consider it was May, anyway).  I myself relished the weather, however, and it merely intensified my enjoyment as I drove along.

It was getting to be late in the afternoon and I hadn't had my walk yet, so I decided to play the Next Impressive Place game.  The point of the game is to stop at the very next place I encounter that piques my curiosity, for whatever reason.  Then the focus shifts to spending at least an hour walking about, finding out what's wonderful about the spot I chose, because there's always something - always.

So, driving south along 101, somewhere in the beautiful Siuslaw National Forest, the next thing I encountered was a sign for the blah-blah waterfall trail blah-blah which gave me immediate cause to turn off.  Hell, what's not to love about a waterfall?  The road to the trailhead wove gently through stands of ancient moss draped trees and a carpet of huge tree ferns.  After about 10 minutes of slow blind-faith driving along a washboard road that was pocked with rain filled potholes, I came upon the promised parking lot which was literally carved from the lush forest surrounding it.  Happily, if automobiles were any indication, I was the lone person in the vicinity.  As I prepared for my hike, I donned every single layer of jacket I had brought with me and soon set out snugly, warmly and happily to see what I could see of the blah-blah falls. (It's rare I don't remember the name of a place I visited and am not able to figure it out!)

I felt a bit like a dinosaur, weaving through the primeval forest alongside a fast running rivulet of pristine water, bathed in verdant solitude.  It wasn't long before I came to an official looking barricade which blocked further progress and bore a cautionary sign warning of 60 point red font DANGER of the direst sort - I'd turn back if I were you!  Well, I'd walked all that way and could just barely see the falls in the distance, and the terrain ahead certainly didn't look all that dangerous...add that to the fact that the warning sign was posted just above an obvious pathway that had been worn by scofflaws such as myself who simply walked around the ineffective boundary, and the choice was clear: take my safety into my own hands and ignore the damn sign. 

It didn't take long to see why they were reluctant to let you frolic in the area - fallen tree trunks borne by various episodes of excessive water flow littered the area and formed a network of obstacles that grandpa might have a bit of trouble circumnavigating.  For me and my new knees, though, it was a snap!  I scrabbled toward the falls until I decided I'd had my fill, plenty close enough now to get a nice view of the plunging river.  I took a delightful moment to just stand still and absorb the intense beauty and solitude of the scene before returning down the path I'd come in on.  Not long after I'd resumed my journey, just as I was moving to straddle a huge tree trunk, I was flabbergasted to see a young lad outfitted in motorcycle garb emerge from the undergrowth in front of me, obviously equally unimpressed by the cautionary barricade.
"It's awful pretty up there, and well worth a visit" I offered to signal my willing collusion.  "Oh I know," he returned eagerly, "my friends and I climb up there to the top all the time!"  He seemed eager to please in a boyish way and told me all about how he had just stopped by the falls on his way home from school that afternoon, but didn't have much time to spend because he had to get home and "take care of some business" with his dad.  He dashed off toward the falls intent on whatever goal he had set for himself and I continued  on my path back toward the car.  I mused along the way about how idyllic it sounded to have this gorgeous place as your distraction on the way home after school and it made me happy to think that there are still kids innocent enough to want to go off and explore waterfalls with their spare time.  He lapped me well before I reached the trail head and I could hear the buzz saw whine of his motor bike as he roared off into the distance.  Happy trails, little fella, happy trails!

After my lovely walk, I got back in the car and meandered on down 101 to Newport, a coastal town of largish size for that region.  As I pulled into town, I stopped at a store and procured a box of Ritz crackers and some Fanta Orange.  I knew just what I was going to have for dinner.  Surely a day begun with oysters is best finished with them if you're lucky enough to have the world so provide.  And I was way more than lucky, because those were by far the best smoked oysters, hell the best oysters I've ever eaten.  I put away the whole quarter pound without so much as a single pause, licking my fingers daintily afterward like a cat.  I was beginning to really like this Oregon place.  Like it very much.


A Visit to Mount Vernon Before Turning the Corner

Parrot tulips in Mount Vernon, Washington

I spent the next week visiting my mother Shiree and my brother Stuart in Mount Vernon, Washington about an hour north of Seattle.  Mark flew in from Austin mid-week to join us for a few days and I was really glad to see him since I'd been away from home for a little over three weeks already.  The four of us made all sorts of fun day trips - to a wonderful nursery to enjoy all the spring foliage and a fantastic estate sale (I got SO MUCH cool stuff!) to name just a few.  But we ended up spending most of our time just hanging out on the stoop, catching up and laughing while we watched my mom smoke cigarettes and putter around her garden happily.

We also had the pleasure of watching the large bony looking peony knobs on the bush in front of the house open into immense frilly blossoms of vivid magenta while I was there.  Peonies are just so glorious to me, but they simply can't tolerate the languid southern heat.  It was a real treat to watch all those blooms go from tightly clenched fists to big fluffy petticoats of deep pink petals.

The day before I left, I engaged in a lot of pitiful whining about how dirty my wretched car was, and Stuart and mom very sweetly worked to scrub the coating of insect cadavers from the exterior while I laboriously vacuumed up the flotsam and jetsam remaining from three weeks of road travel from the interior of the car.  It felt really nice to get the car all clean and shiny before I started packing it back up to leave on Monday.  Stuart was even nice enough to Rain-x my windows for me and it was a good thing, because I still had a lot of nasty weather to get through, even if I didn't know it yet.

On Monday morning, mom, Stuart and I relaxed together over a delicious breakfast in town before I hit the road.  It felt good to be resuming my journey.  As much as I'd enjoyed spending time with my family, it was simply time to get going again.  I departed Mount Vernon shortly after lunchtime and ended up racing along Whidby Island to try and make the 1:30 p.m. ferry across Puget Sound so I wouldn't have to kill an hour and a half at the remote and uninteresting ferry depot.  After some crazy driving that was remarked on scoldingly by an official looking guy at the gate, I pulled onto the ferry - the last car, at the last minute.  I remained in my car for the duration of the ride, enshrouded in a tiny cloud of petulant shame, all the way over to the Olympic Peninsula.

My mood soon lightened, however, as the Olympic Peninsula happens to be one of my very favorite areas of the U.S.  It's got a mountain range in the middle, which is surrounded by lush rain forests, which are ringed with dramatic beaches.  It's just SO gorgeous, and strange to boot.  I decided that since I'd be exiting off Highway 101 when I reached San Francisco to get to the home of my hosts, I'd just pick the selfsame road up at its inception near Port Townsend and follow it all the way down the coast.  Simple and elegant!  It would take me through a short stretch of Washington, all of Oregon and even a nice bit of northern California - all of it with the Pacific coastline on view just outside the passenger window of the car.

I stopped in Port Angeles so I could procure a supply of what I knew to be some especially good salmon jerky from a local smokehouse I'd discovered on a previous trip. I decided impulsively while sorting through the golden vacuum sealed packs of fishy candy that I'd walk to the delightful old-timey hardware store called Swain's across the street when I was done and see if I could scare up the supplies to help reverse a putrid curse that had commenced years earlier, just west of town.

My friend Nate and I had engaged in a hilarious and moving escapade in 2005 whereby we had planted three sequoia saplings in the middle of a dark and rainy night on a scenic pull out on Highway 101 along the shore of Crescent Lake.  I had visited the site a little over a year ago to find that all three trees had succumbed to a combination of extended drought and overly attentive State funded mowing.  The whole experience had left an appalling taste in my mouth and I was eager to eradicate the last bitter traces that remained.  I combed the aisles of the plant department looking for just the right plant and finally selected a large vigorous peony the same hypnotic magenta as the one at my mother's house.  This plant would be much better suited to the site than the sequoias and would have a far better chance of surviving, especially if I found a spot away from where the mowers regularly rolled.

When I reached the pull out, I spent some time scouting every little cranny of the tiny peninsula, searching for the best place to graft the peony bush into the lush landscape of the waterside madrone grove.  I rejected several sites right off when I discovered there was only a shallow covering of soil over the bedrock, but finally I found a lovely spot near the top of the tiny hillock that sits at the middle of the roadside oasis.  I carefully planted the peony and proclaimed aloud that I declared its name to be Love.  I figured that covered  pretty much everything and was much more to the point of what I was trying to convey all those years ago.   Mission completed - bad juju dispelled.  Excellent!       

I resumed my tour around the extreme northwestern tip of the continental United States, passing through a roster of gritty little towns that dot 101 as it curves through cross-cut timber country.  I chuckled as I passed through the formerly little known region of Forks which has recently become famous as the setting of the goofy teen fable "Twilight".  The town's shallow glamour and knot of vapid looking souvenir shops (which had each worked the word "Twilight" into their titles) was laughable.  I feel certain the local steakhouse probably has all sorts of thematically named dishes that would make me roll my eyes as well.    

I stopped to watch the sunset somewhere along the western coast, on my way to Aberdeen where I'd be spending the night.  It was the first nice color I'd seen in a sunset in a long while and it was even nicer that it was reflecting off the waves of the wide blue Pacific.