We have no major travel planned until at least the late spring. Instead Steve and I have embarked on a different kind of journey in our own backyard.. We’ve decided to convert our swimming pool into a pond and water garden. This week the work began. To report on it, I’ve created a new blog. If you’re interested, check it out at pooltopond.wordpress.com
Here’s the biggest thing I’ve learned from this road trip. If you’ve grown tired of today’s world, if you’re drowning in the digital flood, twisting in the social-media tendrils, overcrowded and over stressed, you might be happy living in the far-northwestern stretches of California (where we spent the five days from Saturday to Tuesday). It felt like we got there in a time machine, rather than our aging Chrysler van. We passed through stretches in which we were more informationally isolated than we were in the Congo, earlier this year. No (T-Mobile) cell phone service; wi-fi that simply didn’t work, even though it was supposed to. We walked Dilly down sections of Highway 101 — the main road connecting the coastline to the rest of the world — when no cars passed us for minutes at a time. Town signs often reported populations in the hundreds; five-digit ones were rare. Buildings in the centers of these villages remind me of those from my childhood. Or maybe my grandparents’ childhood.The coastal vistas were as beautiful and empty as any I’ve seen anywhere.
“Why don’t more people live here?!” I asked Steve, several times. (I had trouble retaining his answer. It made sense but at the same time seemed incredible.) It’s hard to get to these parts, he pointed out. The rugged Klamath mountains cram right up to the coast. Carving roads through them (then maintaining them), looks to be a brutal task. Nor is it easy to make any kind of a living. Even pot-growing, once the economic engine in these parts, reportedly isn’t what it used to be since legalization. Tsunamis can strike at any time and wreck havoc. Then there’s the weather — gray, sodden, and dreary for much of the year. In the height of summer, we enjoyed some sunny spells, but the daytime highs rarely surpassed 60. Nights, the temperatures dipped into the 40s.
For all those reasons, I wouldn’t relocate here. But none of those factors dampened our pleasure in visiting. They in no way interfered with the great thrill accessible here: the chance to spend time with old-growth redwood trees.
Redwoods can be found all the way from Santa Cruz north to the southern reaches of Oregon. Many of them look stately, tall, impressive. But the vast majority — something like 95% —are relatively young specimens that reached for the sky only after the woodchoppers plundered their forebears. To the loggers who found their way to California in the wake of the Forty-Niners, the massive old redwoods were as good as any gold. Did those guys realize they were destroying arboreal gods that were already massive when the last Roman bastions fell? Did they reflect that what they sawed and chopped and floated out to sea to become house frames and fence posts was standing, shading, exhaling oxygen when Jesus was newborn?
I have no idea. But in California’s far northwest corner, in Redwoods National Park, the last few ancient redwoods still thrive. These are trees as tall as a football field is long; too wide in diameter to be spanned by a couple of adult humans. They’re the tallest trees on the planet, and while only half the age of the bristlecone pines, they still feel older than God.
We hiked at their feet, and I couldn’t stop exclaiming childishly, inarticulately: “Wow.” The forests are cool and shady. The ground underneath is springy and soft. The path ahead of us invariably looked shorter than the trees were tall. The scented air invigorated me, and the sculpted shapes surrounding us often stopped us in our tracks.It’s a landscape that competes with the most breathtaking anywhere, I think, and yet it rarely shows up on lists of the natural wonders of the world.
Steve and Dilly and I spent two nights in a cabin in Klamath, then three more in another isolated redwood grove in Mendocino. We didn’t exclusively hike in the redwoods. We found a path to a eerie solitary beach. We spent an afternoon exploring a canyon whose walls are coated with ferns. We got close to wild elk. Another morning we hiked up the mouth of the Big River.We resisted paying to drive through one of the touristic tree wonders.But we drove the Avenue of the Giants, where the huge trees crowd so close to the road people put reflectors on them as a warning.
Then Tuesday we headed south along Highway 1, skirting thrilling precipices (no shoulder! No guard rails!)……until we crossed the Golden Gate Bridge and were back in Civilization. We slept in Santa Cruz last night and will spend our final night on the road in Santa Barbara. All that will be anticlimactic. Those hikes through the otherworldly, timeless woods were the climax.
This summer marks my 30th anniversary as a home-exchanger. It was 30 years ago that Steve and I first traded our house in San Diego, that time for a spacious ground-floor apartment in a cool stone building in the most chic neighborhood in Paris. It had a private garden that opened onto a larger shared green space. After that we were hooked. Since then we’ve done almost 20 exchanges all over the planet.
When our sons no longer wanted to accompany us, we started traveling in places where home-exchanging didn’t work as well (e.g. much of South America and Africa). But I got interested again for part of our travels last fall in New Zealand. For this current road trip, I also looked for promising trading partners.
Over the years, I’ve developed a sense of when it’s worth gambling on a house trade. When I saw the listing for the place where we’re staying now, my sensors tingled. The photos on homeexchange.com suggested the house would be impressive, and it was located on what was described as a 75-acre ranch near Cottonwood, in the far northern section of the Sacramento River Valley. I corresponded with the owners, and we reached an agreement: They would stay in our house for a week, while we occupied their ranch house for five days.
Some house-trading partners are like me, compiling bulging guides to their homes and neighborhoods and cities. The ranch owners fell at the opposite end of that scale. I finally pressed the wife for a few crumbs of information, like, would they be wanting us to take care of any animals? She replied that if we would feed their two resident horses, she and her husband would appreciate that.
When I told friends about our upcoming trade, one or two warned that the temperatures in mid-July in this part of the state were certain to be blistering, and as we left Reno, I quailed a bit at the forecast: highs of more than 100 degrees every day.
The forecasts have proven accurate. When we reached the ranch gate around 5:30 Saturday afternoon and opened our van doors to key in the code, the heat smacked me with a brutal force.
Stepping outside every afternoon and early evening since then has felt like walking into a boiler room. Happily, thanks to two key strategies, this hasn’t dampened the intense pleasure we’ve experienced in being here.
The first has been to escape to some of the higher realms nearby. At Lassen Volcanic National Park (where we spent Saturday afternoon), it was warm but pleasant. We passed all of Monday near frosty Mt. Shasta and in the cool mists of the McCloud River and Burney waterfalls.
The second strategy has been to engage in most of our outdoor activities during the cool, pleasant mornings. Every day, Steve and Dilly and I have fed hay and a scoop full of pellets to Madonna and Bingo, the two horses.
Although she feeds herself on the property’s grass, she comes around for a scoop of pellets.
After doling out this breakfast, with the temperatures still in the 70s, we’ve hiked along the Jeep trails that lace through the property.It’s a magical place filled with oak trees…manzanita……and other native flora. Near the house, we can there’s a pond ringed with emerald grass.On the afternoons when we decided not to venture out, we’ve hung out in the sprawling, baronial manor house. A swamp cooler protects the interior from the heat. (To my surprise, this system works as well as any air-conditioning unit and apparently costs a fraction of the price to run.)
We’ve caught up on email; taken naps. I’ve written two blog posts.
I’ve reflected on the fact that never before in my life have I felt so removed from other people. Other ranches adjoin this property, but the house is situated far from any section of the perimeter. You have to walk for several minutes to reach the closest part. A gate and electrified fences guard the entire boundary of the property; I could take off all my clothes and hike the hillsides naked, feeling secure that I’d enjoy as much privacy as I do in my bedroom back at home. This thought shocks me.
We’re packing up now. In an hour or two we will drive off to the redwoods on California’s chilly northernmost coast. I couldn’t find a trading partner there, and if I had, it probably would not have been amazing. But over the years, several, like that first Paris apartment, have been. We’ve lived in a 300-year-old apartment in Venice just a short stroll from the Rialto Bridge. We’ve lived in a suburban American-style house in Tokyo just blocks from the insane electric crowds in Shibuya plaza. We’ve occupied a country house surrounded by its own stream and forest smack in the middle of Ireland. Our time on this sweltering ranch is totally different from any of them, but it will rank on that most delicious list.
Steve and I are now deep into what we have come to think of as our Mop-Up Tour of California. Cut off by corona-restrictions from doing any foreign travel, we’re using this three-week road trip as an opportunity to at last see some of the sights we’ve managed to miss over the last 46 years. For me this includes pretty much everything north of the Napa and Sonoma wine country; I’d never before laid eyes on about half my state.
As mentioned in my last post, we started with a five-day stay in Mammoth in a townhouse we exchanged for our home in San Diego. We had passed through the area years ago but never spent much time there. For this visit, the weather was perfect, and the cozy townhouse made a great base for some excellent day hikes, as well as our excursion to the ancient bristlecone pine forest.
We left Mammoth last Wednesday (July 8), and since then the touristic highlights have included the following.
— A visit to Bodie.
As ghost towns go, Bodie is more than respectable. In the late 1870s, it was a bustling gold-mining center, home to more than 10,000 fortune-seekers and the tradespeople who served them. It continued to be a functional mining center into the 1940s, when the feds shut it down (something about needing copper for the war effort.)
About 13 miles down empty, partly dirt roads off Highway 395 southeast of the town of Bridgeport, it appears beyond a bend in the road, a vision of the Wild Western past. Except that there’s an entrance booth manned by a state historic park ranger…
As in the bristlecone forest, the elevation softened the mid-summer heat, so it wasn’t unpleasant to stroll past the dozens of abandoned buildings. Even in non-pandemic times, visitors can enter only three or four of them. At the moment, they’re all closed, even the little gift shop. So a visit to Bodie is a strikingly non-commercial experience. All there is to do is wander the dirt byways and peer into various windows that reveal the dusty remains of a former world. Still, that’s not a bad way to spend an hour or two.
— Hiking to the monkey’s head above Lake Tahoe.
Our destination after Mammoth was Reno, home to our son Michael and his family (girlfriend Stephanie, her son Nicolas, and their standoffish corgi, Felina.) On Thursday, all of us (except Felina) drove to Lake Tahoe to hike. This wasn’t our first visit to Tahoe. But for me every visit feels new; I never seem to be able to remember that so much beauty can be concentrated into one location.
— Mt. Lassen Volcanic National Park.
Our next destination was another home-exchange in the far-northern reaches of the Sacramento Valley. On the way, we stopped at this national park, established in 1916 (shortly after the mountain last erupted.) The park headquarters building was coronavirally shuttered, but Steve was still able to get a sticker for our national park book in the little gift shop and a map from the temporarily outdoor ranger station.
Considering that we only had the afternoon, we saw and did a lot, including…
…and making the hour-long drive from the park’s north entrance to the southern one.
— Mt. Shasta and the headwaters of the Sacramento River.
You can see Mt. Shasta from where we’re staying (about 70 miles to the south of it). It towers over the landscape, so dramatic that a pilgrimage seems mandatory. Not that we had any interest in climbing it. Crampons and ice picks are recommended even in mid-summer.
Instead we drove to the town at its foot, where locals tout the Headwaters of the Sacramento River as one of their touristic highlights. I’m a sucker for riverine starting points, having previously visited those of the Mississippi River, the Colorado River, and (sort of) the Nile. We parked in the Mt. Shasta City Park and made our way to this spot:
A public sign shattered some of the romance, explaining that actually the Sacramento River has many sources, so others arguably share the Headwaters title. Still, we enjoyed gazing at this humble pond. The park also provides a time warp back to the Sixties, being filled (at least during our visit) with psychedelically painted buses and folks wearing vintage Hippie wear, most of whom appeared to be chemically altering their consciousness.
— Waterfall country.
If you love waterfalls, the section of roads southeast of Mt. Shasta should be on your bucket list. Steve and Dilly and I first stopped at a trail on the McCloud River that led us up past three beautiful cascades.
Beautiful as they are, Burney Falls outdoes them. Gushing out of the rock walls of this canyon, exuding cool mists, this is a place to linger in for more time than we gave it.
— The Sundial Bridge in the town of Redding.
The house where we’re staying is about a half hour outside the town of Redding. This morning we drove to Redding’s 16-year-old Sundial suspension bridge. Famed both for its construction materials (largely glass) and striking design, I can now report that as a sundial, it seems pretty useless. But it’s well worth strolling across.
Only, however, in the morning at this time of year. As I type this (in the late afternoon,) the thermometer outside our back door reads 102. The weather app on my phone claims the temperature will reach 109 tomorrow (our last day here). In my next post I hope to explain how we’ve been having a marvelous time here anyway.
I got to meet the oldest living things on Earth the other day. It exceeded my expectations.
Of all the millions of species on land and sea, the very oldest among them are a type of bristlecone pine known as Pinus longaeva. These trees live in a couple of places in the West, including one cluster in the White Mountains about 45 minutes east of Big Pine, California. Traveling up and down Highway 395 over the years, Steve and I have passed through Big Pine many times. But it was only late in 2018 that we driving through, once again too short of time to stop, that we resolved to make time to see these amazing plants as soon as possible.
That took us to this past May, when we were planning our itinerary for the road trip we started on last Friday. We figured we’d make a day trip to the bristlecones from the condo in Mammoth Lakes where we’d be staying for the first five nights (a trade for our house in San Diego). But once we settled into the condo, I began to harbor doubts about the side trip. We would have to backtrack down 395 to get to Big Pine from Mammoth. The condo turned out to be idyllic, overlooking a stream that adjoins a beautiful meadow and rugged, tree-dense mountains.
The weather was sublime, nippy in the morning but warming to the mid-70s in the afternoons. I began to dread the thought of leaving this paradise for a multi-hour drive that might end in some blistering hell-hole where we wouldn’t feel like leaving our air-conditioned van. Probably all the visitor’s centers would be closed, due to Covid-19. Maybe we should defer the outing yet again, I suggested.
But Steve’s heart was set on the adventure, so we set off a little after 9 Monday. Ominously, both the visitor’s centers that we stopped at in Bishop were shuttered. We continued south to Big Pine, where some informational posters suggested we would find a dedicated bristlecone pine visitor’s center at the Schulman Grove, about 24 miles off the highway. So we pressed on, driving along a two-lane road so empty it reinforced the fact we were entering a true wilderness. We climbed higher and higher, eventually passing a sign announcing the elevation to be 10,000 feet. As we ascended, the air grew cooler, and by the time we reached the large, well-maintained parking lot at the Schulman Grove, the weather was as pleasant as it had been in Mammoth.
A dozen or so cars were in the parking lot, and at the far end of it, the visitor’s center promised to be impressive. But sadly, it too was closed for the pandemic. Still a host of clear, informative outdoor signs told us a lot about the amazing trees. Some of the tall, straight ones near the visitor’s center looked not so different from ordinary pines, albeit ones with distinctive thick needles and resinous little cones that felt like pin-cushions.
From the signs, however, we learned that these particular specimens, living in relatively nutrient-rich soil, were markedly weaker and shorter-lived than their cousins just up the hill, rooted in a barren, inhospitable soil known as dolomite. Those were the ancient bristlecones; we wanted to get closer to those. Three hiking trails start near the visitor’s center. We chose the mile-long Discovery Trail. It led us to the section where in 1953 a dendrochronologist named Avery Schulman learned one night that he had just cut a core out of a tree whose rings indicated it was more than 4000 years old.
The wood of these ancient trees is incredibly dense and resinous — qualities that protect it from insects, fire, and other tree hazards. Over the millennia the bristlecone pine wood twists into weird sinuous forms, many of which are bare of vegetation. But green branches cluster low to the ground. They make it clear that, though the trees may look half dead, they’re still very much alive. When Nero was burning Rome, some of these very specimens were already more than two thousand years old.
We took our time, ogling and admiring them, though I forgot to wrap my arms around a section of one, something I now regret. The trail was only a mile long, but it took us up through a couple hundred more feet of altitude gain, so by the time we completed the loop, it was almost 2, too late to head down one of the other trails.
One of them is a four-mile loop that leads to the Methuselah Tree, the very oldest bristlecone known to exist. It’s thought to be more than 5000 years old. I’d like to return some day to visit it. It takes two to four hours to hike that loop. Maybe we’d come in a vehicle that could also safely take us the 12 miles further down a twisty dirt road to reach the Patriarch Grove, home to largest bristlecone pine on earth. I’m not sure I ever will make it back. But if I do, I won’t forget that tree hug.
The US/Mexico border has spawned a lot of anguished stories over the past few years, so I’m happy to report that something jolly took place at the very southwestern-most point of the continental United States the other day. Several hundred Americans and Mexicans gathered on the beach where the border meets the Pacific, and we practiced singing a song (the Beatles’s “A Little Help From My Friends”) together. The end result wasn’t the most polished choral effort in history. But surely it must rank among the most offbeat.
Back in early September, Steve and I had learned that ArtPower, the UCSD performing arts series, was sponsoring this special event featuring Choir! Choir! Choir! — a Toronto-based singing group run by two musicians who take the non-traditional approach of including anyone who wants to participate (usually for an admission fee, though the UCSD event was free). They often tour, teaching each audience an arrangement of a well-loved song. This time, however, they would be adding a twist: doing it with folks situated on both sides of the angsty international line.
We signed up immediately and heard the US crowd would be limited to 500; got word some registrants were put on a waiting list. A few weeks later, we learned of a change in plans: state park officials were suddenly demanding that ArtPower submit the names of all registrants in advance. They would not be able to drive into the park on their own but rather would need to be shuttled in from an outside location.
More directives trickled in: we would have to meet at Southwest High School, be checked in, and allow ourselves to be wristbanded. We could bring in no weapons; plastic replicas of weapons; knives of any size; explosives; fireworks; umbrellas; poles or sticks; laser lights or pointers; coolers; containers of any type (except for water bottles); aerosols; mace or pepper spray; camera tripods; sharp objects such as scissors or knitting needles; Leatherman or similar tools; bullhorns or similar “voice-enhancement devices;” noisemakers such as air horns, whistles, or drums; banners, signs, or placards; animals; or backpacks larger then 12x12x20.
Undeterred, Steve, our visiting friend Megan, and I headed for the high school around 1 pm Sunday (October 13). We checked in, sizing up our fellow singers, a range of ages but mostly white folks who all looked like NPR listeners. Before long, our bus set off southward, and it didn’t take long to reach the park. We disembarked, trying to scope out what the heck we would be doing. In January of 2018, Steve and I attended another cross-border performance. That one was a percussion concert that we watched from the Tijuana side. For it, some of the US musicians were allowed inside “Friendship Park,” that no-man’s-land created inside the double American fencing built in the late 90s and early 2000s. Nowadays it’s only opened for special occasions.
But the inner park was locked. Instead we were directed onto the beach, where we could see a small stage and a sound truck. Stern signs, police tape, and an intimidating roll of coiled razor wire prohibited us from approaching the barrier there. Beyond it, a sea of beach umbrellas and people were barely visible. I’m pretty sure there was beer on that side. And tacos. Probably music too.
We, on the other hand, were herded into a metal enclosure, where we waited for the program to begin. Up above us, armed guards, some with dogs, looked down, stony-faced. “This is kind of interesting,” commented the guy standing next to me. “I’ve been to the beach before. But never in a cage.”
If the setting on our side of the border had some grim elements, the activity, once it got started, included lots of laughs. Daveed Goldman, the Choir! Choir! Choir! director leading the American contingent, is quite a comedian (as well as a competent guitar-player). His cohort who was working the Mexican side, Nobu Adilman, seemed a bit stricter a task master. Both guys wore microphones, so we could hear everything said by each. The Mexican wannabe choraleers yelled and applauded when they were introduced, and of course we responded in turn. (There seemed to be a lot more of them.) We waved our sheets of lyrics at each other in the distance, and that made the fence and the distance between us feel a bit less dreary.
The actual song practice was more serious than I expected. We gringos sang the first lines —What would you think if I sang out of tune? — and the Mexicans sang back in Spanish: Levantarte y marcharte, quizás? (Would you stand up and walk out on me?). We practiced certain sections again and again. At first, the Mexicans’ voices sounded faint and distant, but over the course of the next hour we all grew louder and more confident. By the final run-throughs, I think everyone was singing more or less together. There were nice harmonic flourishes. The final cheers were robust.
From time to time throughout the experience Daveed chastised American participants for holding up their cell phones and recording what was going on. “We are recording all of this for Youtube — and we will do a better job!” he bellowed. “You should be living in the moment.” I’m not sure when the official Choir! Choir! Choir! video will be posted to the group’s Youtube site. When it is, I’ll add a link here. In the meantime, here’s a link to some video shot on the Mexican side of the border. I expect the final Choir! Choir! Choir! product will look more polished than it felt when we were singing it. But I bet it won’t feel as depressing and uplifting and fun as it did in person there.
I can’t say it has always been my dream to sleep in an Airstream, one of those iconic shiny aluminum travel trailers. Still, every time time I notice one out and about, the stylish design tickles me. So when the opportunity arose to experience one on a recent night in greater Los Angeles, I couldn’t resist.
We were going to LA to attend an 8 pm concert at the Hollywood Bowl, meeting our son and his family there. At the moment I am flush, if not with cash, with Guest Points acquired through one of the oldest and largest home-exchanging organizations (homeexchange.com). Looking for options on their site, I spotted the Airstream permanently parked in the Burbank backyard of a couple, Eva and Lars, and their four children. It “cost” only 150 Guest Points and looked charming, in the photos. And it appeared to be only a skip and a jump from the family’s quiet neighborhood to Hollywood. Steve was skeptical, but he acquiesced. I set up the exchange (of the points for the one-night stay), and last Saturday morning, we packed small bags and headed north.
First we stopped at the newly renovated Beverly Center mall in Beverly Hills, where I wanted to visit the large outpost of Uniqlo (the Japanese clothing maker whose casual wear several friends have raved about, but which I had never seen first-hand since the chain has no stores south of Orange County). The mall felt a bit like a spaceship, and the Uniqlo was very interesting. I bought a few $15 t-shirts made of a high-tech material that supposedly heats up any moisture you emit to keep you warmer. We’ll see how that works.
But then we had to hustle on to Burbank, which felt like it was about three times farther from Hollywood in reality than it had been in my head. Eva and Lars greeted us and showed us the trailer. If anything, it felt more attractive than it looked online, being surrounded by a nicely landscaped backyard and sitting area. Restored to pristine condition, the interior seemed roomy enough, and when we slept on it later that night, the queen-size bed was surprisingly comfortable. Still, I can now report that spending the night in a nice, clean Airstream felt pretty indistinguishable (to me) from spending the night in any nice, clean garden-variety trailer. I’ll probably continue to admire the zoomy exterior design whenever I see one, but I won’t be shopping for an Airstream of my own any time soon.
If that aspect of the weekend proved underwhelming, the other main elements exceeded expectation. To avoid the hellish traffic and parking nightmares around the Hollywood Bowl, we drove our van to the North Hollywood Metro station and parked on the street nearby. Then we rode the metro two stops to Hollywood and Highland, walked the mile or so to the Bowl, and dined on the picnic dinner we had packed and carried with us. The transit part all took more than an hour, but doing it by car would have taken at least as long and been much more stressful.
Furthermore the people-watching on the metro and the walk through Hollywood was unsurpassed, as it was inside the Bowl (which neither Steve nor I had ever seen, in all our years of living in Southern California.) Genial and head-spinningly multicultural, the huge crowd seemed to be in a great mood.
The program featured the music of “Game of Thrones,” performed by the show’s original orchestra and directed by composer Ramin Djawadi. Once the concert got underway, we were blown away both by the sound and beautiful setting. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get back for another concert, but (unlike the Airstream Experience), I would like to.
By the time we tumbled into bed (around midnight), it felt like we’d surveyed a broad swathe of LA Life. But the next morning we got more when we left Eva and Lars’ place and drove to MacArthur Park, hoping to participate in the “Heart of LA” CicLAvia event taking place from 9 to 4 pm Sunday. Inspired by a venerable bicycling event that began decades ago in Bogotá, Colombia, LA versions of it began 9 years ago and have since attracted more than a million and a half people. The idea is to close key streets in a given area and turn them over to pedestrians, bikers, and other folks on wheels (skates, boards, pedicabs, and more) for use as a public park throughout the better part of a day. I participated in one several years ago in San Clemente, but I’d never done one of the LA versions.
One problem was: we couldn’t bring our bikes (because we knew we would be transporting our son and his family and their luggage back to San Diego). But a savvy friend had alerted us to the Smart Metro Bike program that’s part of the LA metro system. I’ll confess Steve and I were skeptical we could find two of those bikes and get access to it. But after very few minor hassles, we succeeded!
We biked from the park down 7th Street to the heart of downtown, then turned onto Broadway, passing iconic gems like the Bradbury Building and Clifton’s Cafeteria and the LA Times Building as well as monstrous new public edifices such as the police department headquarters. We took the arm of the route that headed southeast, skirting Little Tokyo and crossing the marvelous 4th Street Bridge over the railway lines. Sadly, we ran out of time and had to turn back before making it to Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights. We missed altogether the arm that went to Chinatown.
If we’d had the whole day, we could have easily spent it stopping to view the art and architecture along the route, listening to music, eating at many dozens of options. We didn’t. But it makes me happy to know it’s not that far away. We can go back.
I saw my first total solar eclipse on a hilltop in Germany 18 years ago. It took place on Steve’s 50th birthday. Months earlier, when I had heard that the two events would coincide, I had worked to arrange a house (and car) trade with a family in Bavaria, and on the big day, Steve and Michael and Elliot (then 14 and 10) and I piled into the Bauer’s little Ford and headed out, seeking a viewing site. It was a stormy day, and we had a wild time, trying to find clearer skies and a well-situated town from which to witness the spectacle. We found a town but had a terrible time parking. Still, we managed to work our way to a spot within the throng that had gathered to watch the sun disappearing between the passing storm clouds. The clouds parted right before the astronomical climax, and my family’s shouts of amazement and gasps of pleasure joined in the general chorus.
It felt electrifying, and when it was over, I vowed to travel to every other total solar eclipse viewable on the planet in my lifetime. That impulse was sincere but impractical, and my resolve was short-lived. Total eclipses aren’t that infrequent, but they’re far-flung and expensive to get to. I hadn’t made it to a single additional one when I heard about the coast-to-coast extravaganza that would take place in the United States on August 21st this year. That fired me up again.
It occurred to me that if I used our frequent-flier miles to transport us home from Europe to Portland, instead of San Diego, we could snag inexpensive tickets home to San Diego the day after the eclipse. Also, I have a niece who lives in Portland, a city I’d never visited. So we set eclipse-viewing plans in motion.
We refined them a bit in the late spring and early summer. Our son Michael and his girlfriend Stephanie decided to fly in from Reno to join us. We also began to rethink my original plan for where to view the event. Portland was just outside the zone of totality, and I knew that clear skies on the Oregon coast were not a sure thing. At first I reasoned that, if necessary, we could get up early and drive over the mountains to the hot, dry side of the state. But in June we began to hear stories about the huge crowds that would be flooding in. Authorities warned about the need to stockpile food and fuel and even water. Envisioning the nightmare of being stuck in a massive traffic jam on a small road through the Cascades, we resigned ourselves to accepting whatever the weather gods delivered for Salem (well within the totality zone and only a 75-minute freeway drive from Shannon and Jimmy’s house). As Steve and I traveled in Europe over the past few weeks, I sneaked peeks now and then at the upcoming Salem weather; mostly I found jolly yellow balls predicting sun, but at other times, partial clouds were forecast. That was depressing; by the time we landed in Portland Saturday night, I had decided to just stop thinking about it.
Sunday the skies in Portland teased us — clear part of the day but obscured by light clouds and haze at other times. The prediction for Monday in Salem, however, continued to be a bright yellow ball. When we walked outside around 5 am on Monday morning, Venus, shone brightly, almost directly overhead.
We started driving south at 5:30 and hit patches of traffic. Despite it, we reached Salem under azure skies by 7:15 — three solid hours before Totality. While driving, we’d read online that a huge eclipse party would be taking place at the state fairgrounds — but the tickets were all sold out. Another recommended spot, however, was a park not far from the center of town. We headed there.
Now that I’ve experienced two total eclipses, I have a pretty clear idea of my dream viewing spot for any future ones. It’s on a hilltop crowded with festive fellow eclipse-watchers, some playing guitars and clapping as the color drains almost imperceptibly from the landscape. The sweeping view of the surrounding countryside offers the chance of sensing the shadow of the moon streaking toward one at 1800 miles an hour, in the last fraction of a second before the sky turns black.
Our park in Salem wasn’t quite like that. It was flat, encompassing a couple of huge grassy meadows, but signs warned visitors against walking out on them. Instead people strolled in and arranged folding chairs or picnic blankets along the edges of the open areas. They chatted quietly within their little groups, relaxed as holiday-goers soaking up rays on a beach. I whooped loudly when, a little after 9, my eclipse glasses revealed the first small bite out of the disk, but if anyone else cheered, I didn’t hear them.
Tension built only slowly. By 9:40, the four of us agreed that the light had shifted into some subtly otherworldly spectrum: colder, weaker. Stephanie noticed that the chirr of insects was growing louder. By 10, a portly older man dragged his wife up the embankment next to us to show her a patch of the pavement where sunlight was filtering through the leaves. He couldn’t resist coming up to us to ask if we too had noticed the splatter of crescent shapes: the shape of the sun’s image projected on the ground. We hadn’t and thanked him for sharing the insight.
More people around us rose to their feet; more voiced comments addressed at large. Anticipation coiled us tighter and tighter as the light grew more surreal with every passing second.
Then it happened. Better writers than me have commented that the difference between experiencing any partial eclipse and a total eclipse is like the difference between riding in an airplane and falling out of an airplane. Or like the difference between seeing a lightning bug and seeing lightning. At the instant that the moon obliterates the sun, people shout, cry out. Tears sprang into Stephanie’s eyes. I know I screamed. Steve, more level-headed, was trying to capture it on his phone. Here’s what he recorded starting just before totality:
It lasted only a bit over two minutes. Then we gathered our things and straggled out of the park and slogged through almost four hours of horrific traffic, back to Portland. But we talked about those two minutes, off and on, the rest of the day and evening.
There’s another total eclipse coming in 2023 and another one in South America the following year. I’m wiser now, I’ve already put them on my calendar.
Steve and I are mad at American Airlines. We’ve been frequent fliers with them for almost three decades, and our loyalty has enabled us to fly free to countless destinations, both domestic and abroad. But in recent years, it’s become harder and harder to use our miles to go where we want. The most recent example is my effort to use miles to get us to Europe for Paul-Louis’s wedding.
I started trying to find passage back in late December, but all I saw were flights that required us to fly through London’s Heathrow Airport. The problem with this routing is that Heathrow charges hundreds of dollars per passenger in taxes. In contrast, if we fly direct from a US airport to Paris, we pay only about $11 per person.
But the only choice the new (mean and stingy) American Airlines was offering me was to fly from San Diego to Dallas-Ft. Worth Airport one day, then continue on to Paris at 5:50 pm the next day. Repulsive as this choice was, I booked it.
I hoped that eventually better flights would become available (ones that wouldn’t require the Texas sleepover.) At one point, I was checking the AA website two or three times daily. But nothing opened up. Then one day it occurred to me that I had a good reason to spend a day in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area: Ft. Worth is one of the only zoos in the US that includes bonobos in its collection!
In recent years, I’ve become a fan of bonobos — our highly endangered primate cousins, so much more likable than chimpanzees. (We share more than 98 percent of our DNA with both.) Matriarchal in their social organization, bonobos are far more peaceful and sexy in their social interactions. This spring I wrote a cover story for the Reader about the colony at the San Diego Zoo — the first place bonobos were brought from Africa to the Western Hemisphere, and the place where the vast majority of groundbreaking research has occurred.
That reporting was a great experience, and it whetted my appetite to see the other bonobos in captivity in America. The Ft. Worth Zoo is one. So Friday after taking our flight to DFW, we rented an inexpensive car, slept at a cheap hotel, then set out Saturday morning for Ft. Worth (about 30 minutes west of the airport.)
It was instructive. Admission to the Ft. Worth institution only cost $24 for the two of us. (I think it’s close to $100 in San Diego.) Although the temperature was in the high 80s (and headed to the high 90s), the zoo was pleasant, shaded by mature trees.
It’s much smaller than the San Diego Zoo, and it seems much more fearless about promoting its ape collection. The great ape compound was highlighted at the entrance, where the Texans boasted that their primate center includes “all the great apes” — gorillas, orangutans, chimpanzees, and bonobos (who are mentioned by name. In contrast, for reasons that never were clear to me, the San Diego Zoo seems intent on almost hiding its bonobo collection.)
Despite the weird reticence of the San Diegans, I can now tell you this: if you want to have a close encounter with one of our closest animal relatives on the planet, the San Diego Zoo is a better place to do it than Ft. Worth. In San Diego, the bonobos enjoy a huge enclosure, and there are three or four windows into it that enable a lot of up close and personal interaction with these charming animals. We saw six bonobos at the Ft. Worth facility. Two were in an indoor enclosure, the size of which made me cringe. Steve had to remind me that the alternative for bonobos (living wild and free in the Congo) carries the constant risk of being killed and smoked by poachers.
In the Ft. Worth Zoo’s outdoor viewing area, we were able to catch a glimpse of four more bonobos (two females adults, one male, and a baby). Then, to my delight, the mother and baby moved right next to the only viewing window, near where we were standing.
The baby looked very young — less than a year? The mother settled into the corner near the glass, and the baby began nursing. We were inches away, albeit viewing all this through scratched, milky windows that made it hard to take good pictures. The baby sucked at one of its mother’s breasts. It moved to the other side and gazed at its mother adoringly, but also periodically focused its attention on Steve and me. We stared back. I tried to communicate some sense of solidarity with the pair, to project my respect and admiration.
I don’t think they got it. But I’m still glad we went.
If there had been blogs back in 1974, and if I had been writing about my travels back then, I would have rapturously recounted my first trip to Paris. Everything on that trip was new and thrilling. Every day introduced me to things that charmed me. Steve and I loved it all so much we’ve broken our travel rule for France; we haven’t been able to resist returning. We did our first-ever home-exchange in Paris in 1990, and we’ve gone back on many other occasions.
We’ve never been to the south of France however. We wanted to go there some day but never, ever in August — the month when hordes of French people leave behind Paris, despite the sky-high temperatures that are common in the south then. But we’re about to start such a journey. What changed our minds was an invitation to a wedding in Avignon. The groom is the son of one of our closest and longest-tenured friends. Olivia and I were pregnant at the same time, and Paul-Louis traveled from Paris to San Diego to spend a month with us when he was only 10. Both his (younger) sisters followed suit. This feels in many ways like a family wedding.
I’ve never been interested in blogging just to report my location. I like sharing interesting things I’m learning. Also recounting adventures. I think this trip may not be jam-packed with either of those experiences, so I’m going to be restrained in what I write about. But I also don’t expect to be completely off the radar.
(Our new Chase Sapphire Reserve credit cards give us free access to a number of airport lounges. We tried out two of them at DFW, where we had a five-hour wait before our plane to Paris boarded, The “Minute Suites” option was kind of interesting: a very small private room with a work desk, wifi, and space to stretch out and snooze. Much nicer than the public gates!)