Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Lost Weekend in San Francisco

At various moments over the past year, I have mentioned the odd, persistent, and troublesome relationships within Time that I experience on this trip.  One, we are experiencing this moment in the Caravan, now, on July 2, 2014, parked in the Sundance Campground in Coram, Montana, a few miles south of Glacier National Park.  It’s the timelag of the adult schedule versus the kid schedule. The adults rise and shine before the kids. We naturally wake earlier; we naturally have more we want to accomplish in a day.   I am at the kitchen table writing this blog post.  Knightsmama is sweeping the floor of the Caravan.  The boys are refusing to wake, but soon they will be up and wanting breakfast and complaining about another day of going to see things.  And the irony is that they will be doing something they want to do.  Yesterday, at Glacier, everyone decided that they would return to the park and rent some little motor boats and putt around on Lake McDonald.  The original plan was kayaking; that is, until the boys saw the motor boats.  Sometimes as much as Knightmama and I want to pretend we parent a cute hippie, environmental, REI family, our boys insist on returning us smack dab into the middle of middle America. Noise and machine power.   So be it. 
John Muir
            But back to timelags—the current one being demonstrated in the fact that I have the one and only table covered with the computer, screen, keyboard, and mouse, and the boys will not be able to sit at the table for their breakfast.  Usually, I would pack up the electronics and make way for them.  But today, I am committed to getting a blog post written while they head off to Glacier for family fun, and I don’t want to pack up, twiddle my thumbs, and then unpack and get started again.  Especially since Captain Crunch can turn breakfast into the longest meal of the day, reading whatever he is reading on his Kindle.  Don’t get me wrong.  I don’t mean to complain that I have children who read.  But, geez, he can pause eternities between spoons of Cheerios.
            But the real timelag I am confronting today is the gap between this day, in Montana, and four weeks ago is San Francisco.  I haven’t written about the four days between May 28 and June 1.  On the 27th of May we departed Yosemite and made our way to Pleasanton. Along the way, we stopped at the Oakdale Cheese Factory, on the recommendation of some very nice trailer neighbors at the campground in Groveland.   Pleasanton is actually a goodly distance from San Francisco—an hour or so, if memory serves, but campgrounds, like everything else in the Bay Area, are expensive. The further you get away, the better the price.  I think Knightsmama found us a dandy spot at the Alameda County FairGrounds.  Pleasanton also turns out to have a lovely, little downtown with a cute bookstore, a brewpub with a slightly upscale eatery attached, and a creperie, which we all enjoyed.  The town also has an extensive system of bike paths, which, to my regret, I did not exercise.  An added bonus was that the weekend we were camped there the fairgrounds sponsored a Goodguys Car Show, which gave Dr. J. hours of entertainment looking at automobiles and one day without parents watching the races.
            When we left San Francisco, I think we felt several layers of emotions.  First, I don’t think we felt we were finished with the city.  We recognized that there is much, much more to see and do.  I have felt the same way about Philadelphia and Boston.  But I think we were ready to leave and get on with the trip.  This last portion of the Caravan of Wonder, since we hit the road again at the end of March, has, emotionally, been primarily about National Parks and the landscape of the West.  Las Vegas (three nights), Los Angeles (six nights), San Francisco (five nights), and Portland (three nights) were the only significant cities on the itinerary.  Well, I guess we can include Victoria (one day) in this list.  I mean, we have stayed and will stay in or near many towns of some significant size—Missoula and Bozeman are coming up—but a real city is a complicated place, with congregations of many people, many peoples, of great traffic, and transit systems, museums and city parks..  Cities are places where the things to do and see are the province of institutions, places with cultural cache and thus places with cultural baggage.  I guess I am thinking of the difference between Culture and a culture. Coram, where we are bivouacked at the moment, definitely has a culture that is nothing like a town in Ohio or Vermont or Texas.  But with respect to local artisans, I am not here to look at art or to muse about the rise and decay and possible rebirth of American Culture.  All I am saying is that driving the road here in Montana provokes a very different set of reflections than driving the highway through Oakland  on the way to the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.  So I think when we left San Francisco, we were feeling that we wanted to return, see more, but to see it in its own context, not within some time warp between the magnificence of Yosemite and the glistening of Crater Lake. 
Skywalker Ranch
            But let’s go ahead and say it, the crazy conversation that is America today embodies this tension between stunning modern urban Cultural destinations, equally stunning natural resources, the calm but worried suburbs, and the sanguine Culturally forgotten backwater towns.   We have narrowed America to places where you have to live, because that’s where the jobs are or that’s where you can afford to buy a house with a decent local school; places where you have to visit because that is where the Cultural Institutions or Natural Protected Areas are;. and places where you might want to live, but can’t because there are no jobs or decent nearby schools.
            As you can see, I am rambling around again, exploring the various thoughts that wander their way into my brain as I drive or bike or sit drinking a local beer.  I want, desperately, at times to come to some meaningful conclusions about all that we have seen and done on this adventure.  Our few days in San Francisco illustrates the contradictory shockwaves of our mental and emotional stimulation.  What did we do the first day in the Bay area?  Refusing to release the comfort of Yosemite, we visited the John MuirNatural Historic Site in Martinez and the Muir Woods in Marin Country.  Even so, these two sites, in and of themselves, reflect the complicated reality that is this nation’s impure greatness.  John Muir, the Apostle of Wilderness, is most likely the most important thinker, intellectual, writer, activist, and interpreter of the Ethic of Conservation and the healing power of nature that this nation has known.  Yet he married into a wealthy family, and for many years becomes a gentleman farmer.  Because of his fruit farm and land holdings, he is a millionaire, back when having a million really meant something.  His complicated life is almost on the level of the Al Gore dilemma:  indulging in an electricity guzzling house while jetting around the world telling us the rest of us to reduce our carbon footprint.  In this way, Muir is similar also to his contemporary Samuel Clements, the homespun humorist who warned us of the Gilded Age while building the largest house in Hartford, Connecticut.  Similarly, William Kent, the man who purchased and protected the canyon of giant redwoods that is now named The Muir Woods, was the same man who spearheaded the dam building and destruction of John Muir’s beloved Hetch Hetchy Canyon to supply water to San Francisco. 
The Water Tower at Alcatraz
            And so my family visited both of these places on May 28, 2014.  We pull up in our Big Ass Truck burning diesel at 20 miles per gallon, 11 miles per gallon when we are pulling the trailer.  “Sons, I say, John Muir was a great man, a great environmentalist.  We can learn a lot from him.” I remind them that the film we saw at Yosemite noted that it was Muir’s camping trip with Theodore Roosevelt, the Captain’s namesake, that inspired the President to protect it. The boys frolic in the attic.  I yearn for Muir’s study, his “scribble room,” he called it. We admire the remaining groves of fruit trees, which if ripe we could have snacked on.  I stand under a redwood that looms over us, only a little more than a hundred years old, because Muir transplanted it here, and Knightsmama takes my picture.  His house, this National Historic Site, is right on the highway.  When we leave, first I visit the gas station across the street and fill up.  It is a complicated trip.
            We end up visiting Marin County three times.  This first, May 28th, in the Muir Woods and exploring Mt. Tam..  The second visit is two days later.  Francine Taylor Davis, our friend from Los Angeles, had arranged for her husband, Dane, to host us for a brief visit to Skywalker Ranch.  Skywalker was the brainchild of George Lucas, a beautiful place, more or less in the country, but close to both San Francisco and to the wine country.  Rolling hills, grape orchards, Tuscan inspired architecture, it is gorgeous.  Dane is an Academy Award winning sound editor, up at Skywalker on a project.  He arranged for us to tour the main building, its recording studios, its various labs in which graphics and sound are edited for “major motion pictures.”  I found the experience to be discombobulating and inspiring.  Everyone was so calm; everyone was so polite, so respectful of each other.  This is a world in which the most tedious minute detail is worried over again and again, where tight deadlines are always pressing, and where hundreds of millions dollars and, perhaps, one’s ability to get one’s next gig are at stake.  Yet never was there an inappropriate guffaw, an angry slashing tongue, the whine of a sensitive ego.  It was, simply, downright inspiring, and when I return to my job in six weeks, I hope to bring along a little bit the professionalism I witnessed there. 
The Dude at City Lights
            Our third day to visit Marin Country was our last day, June 1.  Because Skywalker Ranch was not previously on our must see list, we extended our stay one extra day.  We had been in the Bay Area four days and still had not made it to The Golden Gate Bridge.  So we forced ourselves to get a somewhat early start for us, headed into the big city and to the Bridge.  With apologies to whatever cynics exit out there, this bridge is as beautiful, graceful, structurally stunning as its reputation. It is a delight to approach and experience.  This isn’t to say that there aren’t many other wonderful bridges in this fair nation.  I am particularly fond of the George Washington Bridge in New York.  I like the Vicksburg Bridge over the Mississippi.  The old bridge crossing the mouth of the Columbia from Astoria to Washington State is pretty cool.  But there are structural wonders in these states that I think we all ought to see and experience:  The Empire State Building, the White House and Capitol Building, the Sears Building, The Gateway Arch, The Hoover Dam, and The Golden Gate Bridge.  Sure there are more, but these are among the standards, the undeniable wonders by which others are measured.  They are also reminders, when one gets down on one’s fellow humans, that we are not all always behaving like jerks.  We have, just to remain American, the plays of Tennessee Williams, the novels of Scott Fitzgerald  and Toni Morrison, the poetry of Emily Dickinson, the music of Charles Ives, Phillip Glass, John Coltrane, the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe and Winslow Homer  And we have these structures. Unlike a poem or novel, but similar to movies, they are the creation of a team and barrels of money.  The logistics are mindboggling, the cost staggering, and the original vision, startling. 
The Grants on Grant Avenue
            So we crossed The Golden Gate Bridge, all chilly, cloud encrusted and moody, and descend into Sausalito where we stroll sidewalks, sit on the banks of the bay watching the sail boats, and eat homemade sandwiches among the tourists and the homeless.  It is a sweet little town.  I am glad someone gets to live there.  Well, I feel the same about San Francisco.  I am glad someone can afford to live there.  But it ain’t me, babe.  Still, this last day, we made it back into the city, left the truck at the edge of Golden Gate Park, and hopped on our bicycles for a little exploring.  Eventually, we made it to the children’s playground where Captain Crunch got to run, climb, jump, and Knightsmama and I got to watch the parade of cultures.  I’ll tell you, if one were a White Supremacist, scenes like Golden Gate Park or Grand Canyon or the Statue of Liberty must make one itch with frustration.  So many non-Anglos enjoying life so much, so happily, so intelligently, so wealthy-ly. In our wonderful, little country.
            As you can see, our days in San Francisco were full, often with small pleasures.  Our last evening, we drove along the western shore and explored a little neighborhood away from the crowds and found a terrific Pho restaurant in a neighborhood I could imagine us living in, again, if I had $750,000 to purchase a fixer-upper.  On other days, we toured Alcatraz (Captain Crunch’s request), walked from Alcatraz to China Town (Dr. J.’s request), accidentally stumbled upon The Beat Museum and City Lights Bookstore (my request), drove by St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church (Knightsmama’s request). Knightsmama’s greatest disappointment was missing the special Friday service featuring the food pantry, as captured in the book Take This Bread: A Radical Conversion by Sara Miles. That was the day our visit to Skywalker inserted itself into the schedule.  We had a tasty meal at Brandy Ho, recommended to us by the cashier at City Lights:  “The only place around here I can afford. . . .”  While the boys shopped in China Town, I enjoyed myself thoroughly, sitting on the curb, listening to Chinese classical music (I assume) played by some mature street musicians.  The boys got to experience a Taxi raced through crowded streets by the very agreeable Thai driver. 
A Nice Bowl of Pho
 One day, we left Dr. J. at the campground to enjoy the car show. The rest of us drove into the city to visit the De Young Museum and its American Art Collection, after which we did some crazy driving around town, the fog lowering itself on the city, to knock off a couple of wishes from my lengthy list:  the grave of Eric Hoffer and the house where the poet Robert Duncan lived with his partner, the painter Jess.  I owe Knightsmama and Captain Crunch my gratitude for their patience that evening!
            Of course, the list of things we did not see is staggering.  No Giants or Athletics baseball, no homage to Willie Mays. No Haight-Ashbury, Howl, or Kerouac sites.  No Jack London and Mark Twain sites.  No to the history of the San Francisco fire.  No winding.Lombard Street.  We did not even hop a trolley.  No Top of the Marc.  No Ghirardelli Chocolate.  Isn’t there some ice cream store I was supposed to visit?   I missed the entire great rock and roll tradition there:  The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Big Brother and the Holding Company, It’s a Beautiful Day. Santana.   Does the Fillmore even exit?  Or like the Armadillo World Headquarters in Austin, is it razed? No drive by of Altamont.  No Anchor Steam Brewing.  Nada. 
            And with all that undone, still we were glad to leave and head back to Central California, to Sacramento, where we could ride our bikes and take a day trip for one last visit to the Sierra Nevada.  And now, here, with this timelag of a month, and the geographical distance from Montana looking back, the memory of San Francisco is all a little trippy.  How do we continue to do this, to needle ourselves with such a variety of stimuli, to process all that we ingest, and to leave our other unfulfilled dreams in the baggy for another day?  For experience junkies, for cultural gluttons, it is all a bit of a blurr.   A sort of Lost Weekend. 
            I have some thoughts I want to add here.  But I’ve reached a departure point.  If I don’t get to it soon, ask me about City Lights and the Beat Museum, about Robert Duncan and Eric Hoffer, and about Rod McKuen and Richard Brautigan.  There’s more to say, but we are moving on.

Soundtrack Double Feature.  The Animals:  "San Francisco Nights."
Scott MacKensie, "San Francisco."

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