Friday, April 22, 2011

Vignette April 21

Paso Robles looks like a ranching town trying to re-brand itself as a wine region, with western wear stores and wine tasting shops. Downtown, trim shops ring a grassy square with the old public library building in the centre. A small newspaper box on the corner advertises for a Tea Party convention: "Our government is trying to redesign our society by redistributing our income."

Trying to redesign our society. This is indeed the prerogative of government. Redistributing our income. Indeed, this is why government exists. Perhaps the Tea Party members, alarmed by the change they see, imagine that they could never need government services, neither welfare nor emergency services nor medical treatment. Such a position surely springs from a belief that one is in control of one's life: in control of whether one gets fired, or ill, or lost. But life experience suggests this is not so true (although it's an obviously appealing idea). 

Buddhism suggests that the apparent coherence of the narrative of our lives is an illusion. It seems as though our lives unfold as a story; but in fact that's a trick of the mind. We seem to be in control, but there is no 'we.' We're good at interpreting the events of our lives as the fruit of cause and effect; we're not so good at exerting coherent control. 

Vignette April 20

It's Saturday morning at Morro Rock, and three birders are set up in the big dirt parking area under the east face of the Rock. They're looking at peregrine falcons; specifically at a female with a nest; and one of them assiduously takes me through the process of locating her on the vast face of the Rock, crowded as it is with gulls and cormorants, and towering some 200' above us. "See that cave with a gull in it;  now go left, across the green area, and there are three little holes: two conjoined and one separate. Now go up at 11 o'clock about ten feet and she's sitting on a little knob, and her nest is in is the hole beside her." And there she is indeed, small and brown, but with the distinctive cheek patches of a peregrine.

Morro Rock is signed  with "Ecological Reserve: do not climb," otherwise it would be covered with climbers. The crack systems and overhangs are textbook rock route stuff, and the rock, a dark grey matrix with phenocrysts in it's, looks hard, strong and clean. But the rock, the last of a series of intrusive volcanic plugs along the coast here (neatly arranged in descending size), is reserved for the many species of nesting birds. 

A surfing class for kids (it's Spring Break week here), is being held on the beach next to the base of the Rock. Ten small boys in red shirts are organized by four you g men and women in green shirts,

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Vignette April 18

M vignette 18 April

Bedrock swirls crazily in the cliffs along the beach, pitching this way and that, both white and brown. At low tide, thick sheets of rock are exposed with tide pools between them. some of these rocks are drilled with even round holes, some pencil-sized, some big enough to admit a finger. some contain shells, and in fact the holes are being made by these mussels, who excavate their own shelter in rock.  Once the mussel is gone, pebbles fill them: red, orange, brown, white and blue. some are like crystal, some like shell.

The sea is green offshore today, although if you look far enough it goes blue, and then, just before the horizon, an even deeper blue. along the coast to the right, to the north, is the land of Vandenberg Air Force Base, lush green hills today sloping down to the final cliffs that back the beach. It looks as though you could drop a ball at the top and it would roll down and shoot out over the sea, launched like from a ski jump.

The sky has been clear from dawn, except for the bank of fog out at sea, which had not moved since we arrived 18 hours ago. the wind died during the night, and began the morning as a steady breeze from the land. later it swings to the north but remains a mere wind rather than a gale. In the campground they have a starred and striped wind indicator, and it is standing out straight all day. The waves roll in steadily.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Vignette April 17

In Buellton at the Flying Flags RV Resort a calendar of Ronald Reagan hangs on the wall of the office. There's something odd in Buellton. The RV park itself is a little town within the town, with named streets and shady trees. People seem to be here to socialize, and a large outdoor table is spread with lunch for ten at one RV near us. At 7:00 a.m. Dog walkers are out, although the large field where we have parked (sold as "dry camping" because it lacks hookups) is mostly empty. The sun rises and you need your dark glasses immediately.

This is RV park taken to the corporate level. There is an 800 number answered by "reservations agents". Inside the office there are cashier stations. They take your name and address as you register, although mine is tossed out once its Canadian nature is discovered. The place feels conservative, although on this Sunday morning I can't quite put my finger on why.

Vignette April 9

M April 9

In Merced we stop at an enormous Home Depot by the highway to buy a pair of pliers to fix a sleeping bag zipper. actually, all Home Depots in California seem to be enormous, and this one was the same as all the others, so perhaps I should say 'at a Home Depot.' 

Inside, the cavernous building I hear a cashier saying to a customer, "¿Y el nĂºmero de telefono?" Spanish is ubiquitous in California, and so is bilingualism. In the grocery store in Lancaster the cashier deals in Spanish with the previous customer (who greets her with "Hola") and then in English with Kate. although she tells Kate the total is vente y ocho and then corrects herself to twenty-eight. 

Spanish is on the move here. It's not just migrant workers; it's the whole middle class. And the creative fertility of bilingualism is also everywhere. In a state park I hear a man in a pickup ask a ranger the way to the exit. "Right out that way," says the ranger, and then I hear the man in the pickup begin joking with his friend in Spanish: we are such chowderheads not be able to find our way out of here; didn't we drive past this firewood shack twice before; yeah, but it was your fault! At least that's what I think they were saying: my Spanish is pretty poor. If I lived here though I'd be working on it: it's where things are going.

Vignette april16

In the men's room at McGrath State Beach, the stall doors hang wrong on their hinges, so you have to lift the door with your foot to slide home the bolt, which Galen does handily. We have been told twice by different people that this campground will be closed at the end of this summer because of the state's budget crisis: no money to fix the ailing bathrooms. It seems ironic that bathrooms should dictate the demise of the facility, but that's how the decline of government services looks up close.

At Antelope Valley Poppy Reserve, the volunteers told me that budget crises are a way of life for California: that when she was young her father was emploed by the state and he would periodically say, "Yep, there's no money this week." And then the state rebounds. It's unclear if this will be the case again. But if so then McGrath campground will be revived in a couple years I would predict. As travelers here we are catching the wave of the moment, enjoying the facilities still open as the state slides into poverty.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Vignette 8 April 2011

A mile up Minturn Road from the freeway that runs the length of the San Joaquin Valley we come to the Buchanan Hollow Nut Company. We pull into a small yard with a warehouse on one side, an organic certification sign over its closed door. There is a store on the other, and row upon row of nut trees out the back.

Inside, a small round lady is bagging pisotacios into 1 lb bags, and bowls of free samples are set out for us: ordinary pistacios, garlic pistacios, hot chili pistacious, choclate covered almods, apricot bits, cashews and so on. A rakish fellow dressed in a hat that never comes off encourages us to interrupt him if we needed anything, and says we are welcome to wander the orchards if we wish.

Outside, the pistachio trees are just beginning to leaf out, barely a leaf showing, each tree only about 8 feet high. Jumping across an irrigatrion ditch I find the almonds are the trees fully in leaf, with small fuzzy pouches growing on them. Kate loads her arms with bags of cahsews and almonds and pistachios and finds that pistachios are only about $6 a pound.

The boys and I use the rest room, where two enormous stuffed heads of wild boar are mounted with weirdly taxidermic expressions on their faces. In the office, the man is excited to find we are from Canada: Canadian mining stocks are going to enable him to retire, he says.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Vignette 7 April 2011

The San Joaquin and Merced rivers are in flood, and as we arrive at the San Luis National Wildlife Refuge parking lot, just off the two-lane California highway 38, there are lakes and pools of water extending in every direction. The refuge seems closed, but closer reading of an informational sign reveals that it is open to foot traffic alone, So, donning binoculars and bird book, we lock the camper and set out. Great egrets beckon from the water, and clouds of swallows wheel overhead.

There are astonishing swarms of bugs on the dirt road, some of them so thick they seem to be single entities. Galen whips at them with his sweatshirt, but it soon becomes clear that this does nothing but fill his hood with bugs. He rants and raves that we shoudld head back, that the bugs are driving him crazy, but the bugs are hardly interested in us, and soon Will gets the hang up ignoring them, as Kate and I begin eagerly identifying the birds in sight: western Kingbirds sitting atop bushes and jumping up for flies; red tailed hawks soaring; song sparrows; coots swimming in the water; mockingbirds flying from high point to high point. In the distance we can hear Canada Geese. None of these are unusual or exotic species (except the egrets) but the palpable chatter of life around us in itself exciting.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Bodega Bay, April 2nd, 2010

On the north California Coast, picture an 'A' where one leg is on the main coast, and the other leg sticks out into the North Pacific. The top of the A points north, and a spit of sand closes off the mouth and crosses the A. But it's not an A with a pointy top: it's more of a nicely curved wishbone shape. In the middle is a calm expanse of water even when a hell of a north wind is blowing, as it was yesterday.

Near the top is the town of Bodega Bay itself, where we arrived from the north, windblown, hopeful of finding gas and propane for our little stove. We followed signs to a marina on the west side of the bay, and found to my surprise that the gas pumps were of a kind I thought gone for years: pumps without any kind of credit card reader where you always pump before you pay, where you remove the nozzle from the recess in the side of the pump, flip down the metal handle, the numbers reset, and you're ready to go. I told the guy inside how much I liked his pumps. "Ah, he said, "some things never change."

"Oh, wait," I said, as he rang me up. "I need to get some propane as well.

"Let's get some gas, dude!" he bellowed. And then, as if to explain himself,  he added, "As they used to say. I mean, since you've got the VW and all." He was a jolly bull-necked fellow, with a shaven head and a tattoo on his arm, and as he lay down on the pavement to get at the tiny propane tank under the vehicle, he swore and delivered a constant commentary about how it was going.

I remembered Gabriel the Romanian saying to me during my orientation to the camper, "When you refill the propane tank, you take it to a place that does propane and you let them do it. This is not a do-it-yourself thing." As I looked at the special coupler this guy was preparing to put on, the strange double hose, and the way he was grunting over some tiny valve out of sight up beneath the vehicle (I lay down on my stomach on the pavement to look and still couldn't see it) I had to agree.

"I can't budge this thing," he said, pulling out a pair of pliers. "Don't tell me it's..."

"Aw, no..."

"Come on..."

"Hmm, OK." Getting up and turning to the main pump, he said, "Now let's see if you're going to work today," and hit a switch. It hummed to life and propane began moving.

At 2.4 gallons on the meter it went KLUNK and shut off -- which jibed well with the 2.5 gallon tank Gabriel said we had. Our man disconnected the main hose, and again fiddled with the relief valve. As he got more distressed I got down again and I could see he had it munched in the jaws of his leatherman and was either grinding it or turning it. I can't tell if it's moving," he grunted. "This is not right," he said ominously. And then: "Aw, no!"

Lying on his back he explained to me that we were at an impasse. He was unable to close the relief valve, propane was leaking out, he was pretty sure an o-ring had blown and the system would be unusable. Soon it would be empty. The pliers were not working!  It was frozen: it was busted. And he was mystified why he had found plumbers tape on the base of the valve. "You would never put plumbers tape on one of these!" he said.

"And get me a pillow, will you?" he joked, since he'd been lying on the ground for so long.

For the next half hour I was on the phone to Gabriel, and, to his credit, our friendly gas attendant was on the phone to two RV repair places in Petaluma -- an hour's drive away. He was quite distressed that we had come all the way from BC and this had happened to us. But in the end Gabriel, mystified, could only suggest we buy ourselves a two-burner butane stove, which he would pay for. The gas man could find no one capable of repairing the valve on a Saturday. He bid us farewell and gave us two free postcards.

We drove away, bought some groceries while processing it all, and decided that repairing the stove was NOT our priority.  (*Not driving too much* was, that day, our greatest priority.) So we drove north out of Bodega Bay, a short distance to the first park beach, North Salmon Beach, (the wind increased dramatically as we left Bodega Bay), and ate our lunch inside our camper with the window just cracked, which made everything *just* the right temperature. The steady north wind blew away the gas smell hissing from below the camper. Then we donned wind shirts and went down the path (typical California path: a steep, eroding trench through the ice plant) and walked the beach.

As at Wright's Beach, there were elaborate driftwood constructions on North Salmon Beach, and lots of hardy Californians enjoying them as shelters. There were a number of little forts built by urban castaways (one was roofed over) and the driftwood beams and posts were fabulous. One family was draping their with fabric on the upwind side to protect the children. It was so windy that each time a wave broke up the beach, leaving a pile of foam at its furthest extent, the foam would detach itself from the wave and go tearing up the beach.

We headed back into Bodega Bay to solve our most pressing problem: where to camp on a Saturday night. Bodega Dune campground was full. We tried a county park over on the west side of the A called (fittingly) Westside Regional park, and there was a site sheltered by trees. It was a great relief to know we had somewhere to sleep for the night and would not have to go a-roving over creation looking for a campsite. We parked and decided we would drive no further that day.

I got down under the camper to check the gas leak and it was still going. I decided to see what this relief valve felt like with my own hands. I found a little knurled knob. I turned it and the hissing stopped.


Had I fixed it?

Gradually it became clear that I *had* fixed it, but not clear what had been the problem before. Once I had a pot of water on the boil to make tea and cocoa I called Gabriel and told him what had happened. He was very happy. "That is a great weight off my shoulders," He said in his endearing Romanian accent.

Off we went for a walk. There were snowy egrets in the trees by the roadside, looking at us suspiciously.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Vignette 1 April 2011

At the Simi winery, simply alongside the road from the north into the Sonoma County town of Healdsburg, there is a courtyard with a fountain: water, as always in California, making at once  the twin statements of wealth and hospitality. Steve stops into the office for a moment to tell them he is taking some special people through on a tour, and then leads us across a small bridge.

There is a railway line here, just outside the building, and we admire the two styles of stonework on the winery building: the left half constructed by Chinese railway workers and the right half constructed some years later by Italian immigrants.

Above that building on the hill are giant stainless steel tanks and crushing machines. ("You mean  the grapes are no longer crushed by feet?" says Kate. "Oh no!" laughs Steve: "Have I burst that bubble?") The fermentation vats are open-topped (although under rooves): the red wines fermenting at the ambient temperature, the wine wines fermenting at a chill. The grape skins and seeds for the white wines are collected and taken back to the vinyards to be spread as compost; the skins for the red wines kept int during fermentaiton.

Inside the building  are long rows of oak barrels imported from Franch in immaculate cool rooms that smell sweet with the wood scent. Each has a barcode on it for meticulous tracking.