The work of Mike Varley

The California Coast, July 2009

August 23rd, 2009 by admin

The California Coast, July 2009

These are recollections from a trip now three weeks by; a trip worth taking again in my mind and on paper. It started and ended with me wearing a suit, and in between I saw gratifying sights and breathed clean air. It was most wonderful for its lack of connection to the outside world. For once, the present moment belonged where it should.

San Francisco

I flew from JFK to San Francisco in my best suit on Friday, July 17th for the occasion of a wedding the following day. Dressing up for travel used to be so commonplace, but I’m not sure I saw a single suited man that day. People treat you different – like you’re important. They call you sir and offer you the in-flight wine list. Me? I just didn’t want to pay the extra money to carry on a garment bag.

My girlfriend Erin met me at the airport and we went right to sightseeing, taking a ferry over to Sausalito with Erin’s mother, who had been vacationing with Erin in S.F. For several days already. The fog in the Bay was smothering; Alcatraz disappeared, the Golden Gate Bridge played coy. The ferry docked and we walked the shoreline road, consisting largely of restaurants, high-end boutiques and art galleries. We ate dinner on the water and then walked to the park, where a free jazz festival was taking place. Folks were sitting out picnicked, and I believe Erin and I were the only two there in our twenties. The average age must have been 55+, with the sleek cars in the parking lot telling the rest of the story. Still it was a lovely scene, with the hills behind the stage cascading fog like some dry ice waterfall.

We took the ferry back and dropped Erin’s mom off at the airport, returning to our hotel in downtown San Francisco. We walked through Chinatown but didn’t do much else as I was tired from the trip.

Our hotel was a one block walk to City Lights Bookstore, the venue and publishing house that launched the Beat movement. It was a lovely store, and the pictures on the wall were very romantic for me, with shots of Ginsberg and Dylan. I bought a chapbook of “Howl and Other Poems,” the audio version of which I’ve long enjoyed.

The store was much more impressive than the Beat Museum across the street, which felt like a tourist trap. I enjoyed the photos they had there but knew most of the information already, and some of the exhibits were on foam board and pasted on like an 8th grade book report. The worst part though was the owner, who kept trying to push different DVD’s on us. It didn’t seem a very Beat behavior to me.

The Wedding

We drove three and a half hours south to San Lois Obispo on roads that were unspectacular but interesting to one unfamiliar with California’s terrain. The wedding was for Jenn Burningham, a former housemate of mine in college. She was to marry Nick Zopp, brother of Stephanie Zopp, another housemate from college. Erin and I were also housemates in college before we started dating. We at 25 South Street like our relationships dangerously close knit.

The wedding took place at one of San Lois Obispo’s many vineyards. About 75 people attended the wedding. When we arrived, we mingled briefly on the reception patio then decided to climb the small hill where the actual wedding was to take place. Set up on the hill were about 25 chairs, so four of us took seats: myself and Erin and our friends Justin and Angie. We felt confident that were were in the top third of important wedding guests.

Time passed and more people made their way up the hill. They began to congregate on the rise behind the seats. More people joined them – older, unknown people with less hair and an air of importance, an air of blood relation. No one sat down. We panicked. Who were we to think we were more important than these people with larger waistlines and better wedding gifts? We fled the seats.

It got closer to wedding time. No one fills the seats. Jenn and Nick are about to get married in front of twenty-five empty chairs and seventy-five awkward relations.

“I’m going back,” I tell the group.

“No!” Erin says, “I’m not going back there.”

“I’m going.”

“Maybe we should,” Angie says.

“I’m going. She can’t get married in front of empty chairs.”

I made a break for it and sat back down. Angie and Justin followed. As Jenn climbed the hill, Erin ran after us and sat down.

Jenn and Nick got married in front of 21 empty chairs, 71 awkward relations and four of the bravest, most courageous wedding guests you’ll ever see.

I guess it goes to show you how frightened we are of wedding etiquette. There are so many rules and no one wants to be the idiot that breaks one. Add to that the lack of ushers at Jenn’s wedding and non-traditional, pewless setting and it’s amazing how everyone assumes they’re the least important guest of this wedding, destined to roam the hills without a chair and eat the fish entree against their will.

Of course, I don’t think anyone even noticed the chair issue besides my cracked mind. The wedding was wonderful in all ways, though I surely drank too much red wine. We got back to the hotel and once I laid down it was bad news. I spent a half-hour trying to stare at a spot on the wall; I felt like a shoe caught in a dryer. I should have just thrown up, but I haven’t vomited in thirteen years, and that’s a streak I’d like to keep alive.

Hearst Castle

Wine overs are no fun. I ate half a banana to take some aspirin and then took a very long, very unsatisfying shower. We went out for breakfast and I ordered the blandest thing I could but only got through half a pancake. It was that kind of morning. (side note, the people of San Lois Obispo are all beautiful, bronzed gods.)

Things looked better by the afternoon. Erin and I said goodbye to everyone and went off in our rental car, a 2008 Hyundai Accent. It was worlds nicer than my normal car, and the XM radio that came standard entertained ceaselessly. We stuck to 3 channels: 60’s on 6, 70’s on 7 and 90’s on 9. I never realized the sheer quantity of crappy 80’s music till XM opened my eyes.

We started briefly up Highway 1 and visited Hearst Castle at midday. I’ve never visited a European Palace, but I imagine this is the American version. It’s a fifteen minute bus ride to get to the house, and all the while you’re looking for the stray zebras that escaped capture and still roam the hills. There are four tours and we took the basic, covering the prominent features of the main house, the “medium” sized guest house (8 bedrooms) and the two massive swimming pools, indoor and out. Most impressive to me was the movie theater, whose light fixtures seemed like props from “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”

Our tour guide must have been new, at least I hope she was. Her eyes kept moving as though she were reading an invisible tour script and she spoke with a flat soda affect. At the conclusion of the tour, the tremendous 2 million-tiled indoor pool, she described the tile as so:

“You may notice some of the tiles are gold. They are in fact gold leaf. Some even rest below your feet. And that’s where we like to leave you here at Hearst Castle Tours:

(guide slowly sweeps arm through the air)

“’walking on gold.’”

She was a real sweet lady, though. ‘Hope she gets better at tours.

Highway 1

As far as I’m concerned, Highway 1 lives up to the hype and then some. Around seemingly every turn was a breath-taking promontory or fog-swathed bay, with the mountains ever present to our right as we drove north. Just when I’d think it couldn’t top itself it’d prove me wrong with something new. We picked up the road at San Lois Obispo, used it to get to our camp site at Big Sur, then drove further north through Carmel and Monterey before getting off near Santa Cruz. I’d say it’s worth the trip out to California to drive it. My favorite road sign? Giant boar crossing.

The Fog/The Temperature

Before we get to Big Sur I want to mention the weather, which was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I’ve mentioned the marine fog already, which followed us all up the coast, alternately blanketing and retreating from the landscape every five miles or so. Also fascinating to me, and likely paired, were the drastic temperature changes. I found a stray newspaper at breakfast my first day in San Francisco. The weather forecast had the San Francisco high at 65 degrees, but in a 10 mile radius from the city’s center the temperature could fluctuate as much as thirty degrees. We found the same all up the coast and even within the parks we stayed at. We were constantly fiddling with the car’s A/C.

Big Sur

We rolled into Julia Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park late Sunday evening, our reservations set for tenting. We went out to eat at a roadside diner and quickly discovered Big Sur’s major turn-off: ridiculous prices. It was nearly thirty dollars for a cheeseburger and a veggie burger. Gas was $4.50 a gallon when twenty miles north it was $2.50. We price checked S’mores: $20 dollars for all the ingredients. We went to buy a deck of cards for Rummy. There were two decks: one for 7 dollars and one for $2.50. It wasn’t till I got back to the camp that I realized I had bought Mexican playing cards. Who even knew there were Mexican playing cards?! They just looked festive to me.

The best purchase we made was some mason jar granola from the Big Sur general store. That was some mighty fine granola.

Monday was our hiking day at Big Sur, about 10 miles total. We hiked all the open trails J.P. had to offer, the best one being Buzzard’s Roost, a strenuous five mile trail that wound its way up a mountain point where we could see the ocean. At the top we met a very irritating soccer mom on a hike with her son and their French exchange student. She said we had to visit Santa Cruz because “It’s a total hippie town.” When she left, Erin said “That probably means there’s an Urban Outfitters there.”

After conquering all the J.P. trails, we drove ten minutes to Andrew Molera State Park, which had access to the coast. Each one of the parks we visited had a different feel to it and this one was all about the ocean. The winds got more violent as we drew closer, as though a storm were coming without a cloud in the sky. The trail took us through savanna-like scenery, then fed us into a natural half-tunnel, six-foot dirt banks on either side blocking the wind as well as our view. We turn a corner and we’re upon it: The Pacific Ocean, captured in an inlet, its winds ripping and primordial. It was the only time Erin was glad she wore jeans that day; my exposed legs were sandblasted. I didn’t mind, though; it was worth seeing something I’d never seen before. Tiny live lobsters scattered the shore and it’s powerful waves marked the difference between it and my Atlantic. We stayed a short while and turned around.

At camp we made dinner among the Redwoods. I first met them when I was ten and my experience with them was the prime draw for my return to California. To fathom it: such tremendous things are actually alive and aged beyond our understanding. I’m more impressed with a redwood than the tallest building in any city.

We left Big Sur that Tuesday, driving north on 1. Monterey was too brief to mention save this: the Wharf had thirty different chowder joints, the aquarium was too expensive and John Steinbeck is their golden calf.

Rt. 9//Jct 236

Soon we were getting off Highway 1 and onto Rt. 9. While Hwy. 1 is the road with all the acclaim (and rightly so), Rt. 9//Jct. 236 was the most fun I’ve ever had driving a car, hands down. Picture driving a go-cart, giant redwoods on either side of the road, on roads where the longest straightaway is 200 ft., 8 miles up a mountain and 8 miles down. I’m sure it sounds terrifying to some, but to me it was incredible. I think two cars passed us the whole way – the road was ours. I might go back to California just to drive that road again.

Big Basin Redwood State Park

Before we made reservations for California, I did the tiniest bit of research on the best parks to visit in the state. I’m glad I did, because Big Basin was amazing. Julia Pfeiffer was very nice, but somewhat disappointing in size. You could spend two weeks hiking in Big Basin and not get through all the trails. Big Sur was clearly angled at tourists due to its name recognition, and its price gouging and sometimes crowded trails rubbed me the wrong way a little. The few people we did see at Big Basin were Californians, not tourists, and the nearby mountain town of Boulder Creek had everything we needed for super cheap. And the redwoods there made the Big Sur trees look like babies. In Big Sur, they had a cross-section of a log on display whose rings dated back to 1100 A.D. In Big Basin, their tree went back to 500 A.D. I like Big Sur very much, but I’m glad we followed it with Big Basin rather than vice-versa.

Wednesday night we had a simple dinner of produce from a local farmers market, then got comfortable in our new home: a tent cabin we had rented for three nights. It came with two full beds, a dinner table and a wood stove, which we should have used at night – it must have gotten down to the low fifties and it was the middle of July.

That night, we found an open expanse and stared up. It was pitch black, and I’ve never seen so many stars.

Thursday was the hiking day. We hiked fifteen miles in one giant loop, each trail with its own character and vegetation. There was the cool, dark valley of redwoods; the abandoned dirt logging road; a high, winding trail through hills thick with dead leaves; a sunny, scorching trail with a compete change in vegetation, similar to a deserted island; and an arid mountain trail set above limitless fields of redwoods, with slabs of exposed rock fit for mountain lions. It was a good hike.

Santa Cruz

So here we were, fifteen miles from Santa Cruz and about to take crazy soccer mom’s advice. Now typically I wouldn’t have gone there on principal, but I needed to run some errands before returning to the real world and Boulder Creek wasn’t going to cut it. We got to town and one of the first things we saw was an Urban Outfitters. In fact there were a lot of chain retail stores, but I was pleasantly surprised at the number of independent stores there, too. I liken it to a mini-Austin, perhaps because of the “Keep Santa Cruz Weird” bumper sticker I saw, a direct rip-off of Austin. But like Texas’ Capital it has lots of youth and liberal thinking, lots of independent business, lots of beggars, and both sit in an interesting place geographically. Santa Cruz, with its beautiful beaches and lovely climate, is just fifteen miles away from mountains and redwoods. I could see myself living off Rt. 9 somewhere with Santa Cruz as my nearby big city. Damn that soccer mom for being right.

The Fight Home

We left early Saturday and drove up to San Fran. I bother to mention our flight home only because of how amazingly annoying the girl sitting behind me was. Or maybe, how amazingly annoying the girl would have been had I not been able to let it go and laugh at it. The girl was probably four years old. Her mother looked like a helpless trophy wife and her father a gentle pushover. If I had a nickel for every time she kicked my seat or slammed her tray I’d own Big Basin right now. For fifteen minutes she was singing the same two lines to the Willa Wonka Oompa Loompa song before a flight attendant asked her to stop. At one point, she pulled out a whistle. A whistle on a plane for God’s sake and her parents did nothing. Fortunately, she got tired of it quickly.

She had this way of talking, simultaneously adorable and maddening. Picture the following with an Indian accent: “PaPA, are we flying now? PaPA, can we land on clouds? PaPA, we’re landing on clouds now! PaPA, blow my whistle, blow my whistle!!”

So ended a week of majestic silence.

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