August 14, 2009

(California, United States of American)—Apart from a brief incursion to Emerald Bay on the north side of Lake Tahoe, it has been a while since I visited California. In regard to scenery, it is a truly impressive and diverse state.
The Santa Barbara County Superior Court on Anacapa St. is a marvellous building, its architecture evoking Andalucia, its staircases spiralling and its staterooms, especially the Mural Room, a riot of art and colour. It must be truly depressing to spend your last days of freedom in such a beautiful setting. A mirador gives great views, and the city’s pier—amazingly not tacky in the least—Stearn’s Wharf is the perfect place for seafood. Try the Santa Barbara Shellfish Company (, which was only slightly spoiled by a drunk Mancunian at the next table commenting on how everything was bigger here than back home. Santa Barbara also has a gorgeous mission on its highest hill, and we saw several other missions during our travels. My favourite was the one near Jolon, up and off the Coastal Highway. The road to it, Nacimiento-Ferguson Rd., can be missed very easily, as the Pacific Ocean scenery the entire way from Los Angeles, but especially after San Luis Obispo, is one long photography-moment.
That road is a joy to drive, with little traffic and thick forest. It even went through a minute band of Redwood, but a little later, one needs to stop to present your documents to a policeman at the edge of Hunter Liggett army base. Army bases are undisturbed places for nature, but it is surreal to see Western bluebirds and Western meadowlarks flitting around tanks placed in serene (mostly!) meadows used occasionally for bombing practice. Finally, soldiers and barracks came into view, for it is on this camp where exists the Mission San Antonio de Padua (; see photo above), founded in 1771. There were no fees, no pamphlets, no tourism concession and no other visitors. The inner courtyard has the ramshackle unkemptness that I love in such places. I walked the last 400 metres to it, which was highly enjoyable. Oddly, there are several ship masts on display, brought by captains in the hope that their seafaring lives would be easy ones, but it certainly could not have been easy to get the things here in the wildness of 18th-century California. This all was owned by William Randolph Hearst at one time, as did all the land between here and the coast, a small kingdom.
What we first thought was the mission turned out to be his attractive summer cottage. We managed to catch two farmers’-market days, the first in tidy, enjoyable San Luis Obispo, which also coincided with a monthly mass cycle, hundreds upon hundreds of cyclists, some dressed up, who chatted, laughed and seemingly had a lovely time. This was not the Critical Mass political protests of some cities; there were even free bicycle storage areas with security. The other market was in the town of Sonoma, where the popcorn tent went up in flames. Big Sur is as beautiful as we heard it was going to be, and the waterfall that spills onto the beach (at least it did in June) metres from the ocean at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park ( should not be missed.
After enjoying San Francisco for three days, we headed through the John Muir Redwoods and the Sonoma and Napa wine valleys, stopping off at the Hess ( for a tasting and a gander at the art collection upstairs that contains a Francis Bacon painting, Man Talking, which probably is worth more than any amount of wine produced here. Priceless is Yosemite National Park. Jaws hitting floors is an apt reaction to what is seen here. On the way we stopped off at Chinese Camp, which is in the middle of the wide agricultural belt that divides California. It’s largely deserted now, but once it was home to 5,000 Chinese gold and rail workers, including 400 or so who apparently fled here from parts of Mexico controlled by Sancho Panza.
Back in Yosemite, every next waterfall brought larger gasps, as did such rock faces as El Capitan and Half Dome and the Mariposa Grove of gigantic Sequoia trees. The latter’s pride and joy is the truly immense Grizzly Giant Sequoia, where we sat in disbelief as one fat idiot tried but failed to prise off some bark while all the time pitifully trying to justify something by repeating aloud the word “amazing.” Finding an empty spot beside the Yosemite Creek while looking at the stunning scenery and a White-headed woodpecker was a happy memory. Driving out of the park along the Tioga Pass saw some snow on the ground and very chilly temperatures, and feeling the warmth of the rising sun on the pristine Tuolumne Meadows should not be missed, as should not the Tioga Pass Resort (, which has the nicest breakfast bar I can remember. At 2,939 metres above sea level, this is the perfect place of pancakes on a cold morning.
An hour later and we were baking, as should be the case in June, in the Sierra Nevada ghost town of Bodie, where Mountain bluebirds flitted around. Bodie ( is the world’s largest ghost town, once home to 10,000 people. Run by the National Park Service, it is kept in a state of “arrested decay,” so were told. The ranger also told us that there are a few remains of a Chinese camp here, on the other side of the hill we could see, and there were several gunfights between the whites. Banks, stores, schools and cars all sit as they have done for 100 years in the scrubby desert. The town is north of Mono Lake, which features tall carbonate formations called tufas. Our last major stop, after stocking up on jerky at Mahogany Smoked Meat ( in Bishop, was Death Valley, where we arrived just at sunset to enjoy the moon emerge over Stovepipe Wells’ sand dunes. Another beautiful spot was Salt Creek, but we were there at the wrong time of year to see its endemic Pupfish.
Considering the aridness, there is life here, including amazingly fast Black-tailed jackrabbits and pale-pink Say’s phoebes. I am not sure what it was, though, that had my eyes streaming through my stay there. It is a glorious place to come, although any tourists—ourselves included—do tend to follow exact itineraries, perhaps not such a bad idea in such a hostile environment. We did have to tell off two obnoxious tourists for repeatedly talking loudly at the Devil’s Golf Course, an area of absolute silence and nothingness. They gave us a look but did shut up.