Thursday, August 23, 2007

Quintessential California

After Big Sur, we decided to head over to Pinnacles National Monument instead of heading home. It was fun being able to operate on the fly and improvise, rather than having to, say, show up for work the next day. We went to Pinnacles by way of Carmel Valley road, where this scene presented itself around sunset.

This is the type of scene that really defines California for me. More often than not, if you are driving a highway or a back road other than in the Sierras, this is the type of terrain on display--large, beautiful, isolated oak trees surrounded by perfectly yellow grassland. I believe this type of ecology is referred to as "Coast Chaparral" (you ecologists out there feel free to correct me if I am wrong). The trees are majestic and somehow very western, very Californian. Anyway, it is a beautiful sight.

The highlight of Pinnacles was getting there at 11:00 P.M. and setting up the tent. How can that be, you ask. Is the place really that bad? No, but we arrived just in time for the Perseid Meteor Shower. We enjoyed many shooting stars in an isolated, elevated spot far from any city lights. It was quite a treat, especially when a Great Horned Owl swooped over us in absolute silence, blotting the stars from view for a heart-stopping moment.

The next day at breakfast, we had the opportunity to observe the work of another bird, the Acorn Wood Pecker, whose job is to make oak trees look like the victims of a drive by shooting. I guess they hide acorns in those little holes, but who knows how they keep track of it.

Afterward, Kate and I took a hike (poor Kath had to tend Alden, who in typical fashion refused to walk). As you can see, Kate had a great time, notwithstanding the fact that August is probably the worst time of the year to visit this place.

So concluded our farewell trip in Cali. All in all, it was a fitting finish, and we had a great time.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

They Don't Call it Sur for Nothin'

Any place this dramatic deserves to be called 'Sir.' I don't know if words can ever describe it, really. They all come in a jumbled rush: amazing, awesome, spectacular, remarkable, special. Common words for an otherworldly place. What I do know is that watching a sunset from Big Sur can change your life. It is something that will never leave you. These pictures may not even do it justice, but if you look at the first one really close, near the bottom, you will see two tiny spots on the beach. Those are people, and give you a sense of the scale here. If you haven't been here, you should go.

Santa Cruz and Monterey

Last week, after our stay on the San Mateo Coast, we headed south to Santa Cruz and Monterey. We took to the board walk in Santa Cruz, where the girls rocked out to a live band doing a decent cover of the Beach Boys' "Help Me Rhonda" (who in their right mind would call themselves Papa Doo Run Run? --only in Santa Cruz . . .).

Of course, no one can go south from Santa Cruz without stopping at Gayle's Bakery in Capitola for a chocolate macaroon. Then it was off to the incomparable Monterey Acquarium.

The wildlife that so casually coexists with man in this place continually amazes me. While the aquarium had plenty going on outside its doors, I was sad to have missed two favorite spots on this trip: Point Lobos and Elkhorn Slough. We have fond memories of hiking out to the end of Point Lobos on another occasion, to find ourselves alone with a sea otter family fishing and floating away. We watched them for hours.

Elkhorn Slough remains our best wildlife viewing experience in all of California (with the probable exception of watching blue whales off the Channel Islands near Santa Barbara, but that is a story for another day). If you didn't know better, you would pass by the Slough without thinking twice. It empties into a harbor right next to a large PG&E power plant. The harbor is separated by from the ocean by a natural spit. You can drive right out onto the spit, and with binoculars see everything you would like in the Slough and harbor, as well as in the ocean on the other side of the spit. One evening, we pulled onto that spit just before sunset, and saw no less than 17 sea otters floating in the harbor, along with sea lions, dozens of Brown Pelicans, egrets and countless other shorebirds. After getting our fill of that grand spectacle, we turned to the ocean side only to see dolphins playing in the surf as the sun set on a fog free night. I will never forget that moment. We will miss Cali in a big way, no doubt about it.

Next up, Big Sur.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

San Mateo Coast Camping

We began our last trip in California at Costa Noa, a ridiculously expensive but uniquely situated "environmental campground" on the San Mateo Coast, just south of Pigeon Point Light house. We met the Jagers there, our good friends from Southern California. I have known Marilynn since Junior High, and Paul since college (and knew both of them before they knew each other). We spent time with them in LA while we lived down there, and it was great to see them and their family again. Here are pics of the crew and camp.

While Marin has plenty of coastal beauty, we are so enchanted by the San Mateo Coast, and have been ever since our first trip to Ano Nuevo to watch the elephant seals. The place feels (and is) remarkably wild, even though it is just over the hill from Silicon Valley and its burbs. The many beaches have an untouched feel, and it seems every time we go, there are almost no crowds. That despite sitting just an hour and a half from our house, with San Francisco in between. Really a special place, as I hope you can see from these pictures, taken on a beach trail just below the camp.

The midpoint of the trail brought a beautiful, deserted beach (it was a foggy day in the middle of the week) and tide pools for the kids (and kids at heart) to explore.

We finished our stay there with a quick trip to Pigeon Point Lighthouse. (It is great fun and inexpensive to stay in the family room of the hostel there, which we have done on other occasions.)

From there, we headed to Santa Cruz, Monterey and Big Sur. More to come on that.

Monday, August 13, 2007

Stanford or Bust

We have just returned from a wonderful 'Farewell to California' trip along our beloved San Mateo Coast, Monterey and Big Sur and ultimately over to Pinnacles National Monument. During the coastal portions we were with our good friends the Jagers, which made it all the more fun, and it will be the subject of several future posts. (A guy can't spend all of his time packing, can he?) For now, I wanted to post a quick one to let you know how the trip ended.

Several times over the past few days, Kate has mentioned how she really wants to come back to California in the future, because she will miss it so. Her mother, seeing opportunity in this, thought it might be a good time to stop at Stanford University on the way home, to talk about what a beautiful and special place it is, how fun it would be to live in California again while going to college there, what you need to be focused on to get to come back there, etc. -- you know, typical Kathleen kinds of things.

At least, that was the plan when mother and daughter left dad and two sleeping boys in the car. They were gone for a long time (or maybe it just seemed long because both boys woke up just after they left), which led me to believe Kate was really taking to the place.

I eagerly awaited Kathleen's report, and upon their return, asked "so how did it go?"

Kathleen: "Kate, why don't you tell your dad what you told me about our tour?"

Kate: " I told mom that it was too early to start bugging me about college decisions."

Dad: "Oh, and why is that?"

Kate: "Because there are so many other things to worry about."

Dad: "Like what?"

Kate: "Like second grade!"

At which point we both burst out laughing, subtly acknowledged our over eagerness with a lame "good point," and promptly drove away. (She did like the campus enough to take some of her own pictures, though).

Alden, meanwhile, was spared the Stanford tour but may just be persistent and clever enough to get in. We took several hikes over the last few days, each of which inevitably led to Alden standing in front of one or both of us, arms raised, saying "carry you" (which means, perversely, 'carry me') or "my shoulders" (which means, 'put me up on your shoulders'). "No" was not an acceptable answer to these requests, and would be met with "Aaaaaw, Pwease!!! Pwease!!!"

When this sorrowful plea was ignored, he would do any number fo things to achieve his goal: suggest it again with a smile and an affirmative nod of his head; block the way forward by shuffling back and forth across the trail as you tried to pass him; and ultimately, that good old standby, stomping his feet and crying.

Our hike up Condor Gulch in Pinnacles today was another such event. His mom tried everything to distract him into walking on his own, pointing out leaves to touch, talking about shape and texture, taking frequent rest stops, etc. After a couple of minutes of good walking, she thought she had succeeded in distracting him down the trail under his own power. Just moments later Alden gestured to a rock and said "Sit down here, mommy."

Touched by his apparent concern for mom (who was carrying Keegan) and thinking that he was liking these little rest moments where they studied nature, his mom happily complied. At which point, Alden immediately climbed the rest of the way up the rock and deftly leveraged himself on to her shoulders. (Yes, she gave in for a few minutes and just carried both kids!). My son is nothing if not persistent about getting his way. It is enough to make you mad, but he is just so darn cute. During the course of the same trip, he suddenly said "mom, dad, guess what?" To which came the rote reply, "what, Alden?" "I wuv you," he said.

Then there is Keegan, who at this point is simply planning to get into Stanford on his looks. We may be biased, but we're thinking that in his case, that plan might actually work.

Tuesday, August 7, 2007

The Mother of All Posts

We have been doing our best to ignore moving issues and have some fun since we quit work on July 20. (Easier said than done -- I'd estimate half our time has been devoted to buying a new house, choosing benefits, figuring out a new budget, closing the old house, etc., despite a concerted effort to keep such to a minimum.) Initially, we thought we would try and travel to various parts of Northern California, but have found that we truly enjoy just hanging in San Francisco, doing the simple tourist things that we have never had time to do. It is a world class city after all. Recent events include:

A wonderful evening out with dear friends at Plouf, followed by staying in a hotel in the City (without kids!) and shopping at the Westfield Center (without kids!) the next day.

A trip to SF Moma to see a Matisse exhibit, followed by dinner at Gary Danko (seriously great food -- I had the bison and it was spectacular, as was the seafood risotto). On a separate day we took the kids into the Yerba Buena Center, which has a playground with a great slide, and lots of falling water, making it Alden's very favorite place in San Francisco.

Visiting St. Patrick's Church, one of San Francisco's oldest, dating from 1853 and a survivor of the 1906 earthquake. It has a wonderful lunchtime concert series, absolutely free, which Kate and I enjoyed as she pilloried me with questions about all the Catholic Saints (she was very interested, among other things, that a number of them represented at St. Patrick's were women).

Frequenting Golden Gate Park--it has been a serious oversight on our part not to have spent more time in this beautiful place. (I guess we were dissuaded by the fact that it sees actual sunlight about twice a year, but hey, its a great place anyway.) One recent outing included paddling around Stowe Lake with Cyrus, Annie and kids.

Visiting our friends Craig and Karen in the east bay, where Kate took quite a liking to their oldest, Jack. As we went to leave, Kate grabbed Jack's hand, marched over to Karen, and asked if it was alright if Jack walked her out to the car. Karen, to her credit, kept a straight face while giving permission, and then noted that it was clear who wore the pants in that relationship. (The first photo is courtesy Kate. The second photo says it all -- welcome to being a man, Jack).