27 January, 2009

Homeward Bound: lost in San Francisco

Sometimes all you need is sleep. Sleep moves up in your priority list, past seeing the redwoods or doing all the other things you'd hoped to. You wake up sweaty from strange dreams, and fall back into them.

This time, my borrowed bed was a futon in the converted barn/education building at Live Earth Farm. I finally awoke to the music of roosters greeting - oh my goodness - the sun! It broke over the hills southwest of Watsonville, filtering in brilliant shafts through the clouds. Taylor offered some eggs - pale pastel green ones from the Aracauna hens - and produce. We had quite the feast; the barn was equipped with a commercial kitchen and all the cookware one could want. What a great place to spend the night.

It was after eleven when i finally bade Ethan good luck in his travels, said goodbye to the rest, and hit the road. My plan was to drive up to Oakland and visit City Slicker Farms, an urban farm and garden project. Only catch - i'd barely made contact with them at Eco-Farm, and didn't know exactly which of about five sites they would be at - between ten and one. By the time i stopped for gas off Highway 1, chances of reaching Oakland in time were less than slim.

Reluctant to risk further disappointment, i took a minute, and reached a sort of decision: take time, head straight for San Francisco, and see as much as i could along the way. Redwoods after all? I turned off highway 17 following the brown state park signs. Maybe i'd make it up to Boulder Creek and Big Basin? Only problem was the lack of eyeglasses. Basically all i could see was this: brown sign, arrow.

I found myself in Felton, CA, a town which had the feel of being tucked high into the Colorado rockies, just a certain ethos about it. Brown signs led me to Henry Cowell Redwoods SP; i asked the gate attendant how much farther it was to Big Basin, how the two parks compared, and how long the trails here were. Twenty-six miles out of my way, Big Basin's grove was larger, he said, but also right next to a highway, and though the grove trail here was eight tenths of a mile, it was eight tenths he'd "never finished hiking".

After paying the park fee and meandering through that grove, i agree with him. I don't think i'll ever finish another hiking trail. We create such odd expectations of spectacle, and yet it really didn't matter how large the trees were compared to others of their kind. They were majestic in their own way.

Coast redwoods (
Sequoia sempervirens) once covered much of Santa Cruz county, according to Edgar, a park docent. Early in the twentieth century, they had been clearcut everywhere except this park - thanks to a landowner who loved his trees - and Big Basin, which lacked access to the railroad and thus to markets. These coast redwoods, which never grow more than forty miles inland, are not as large as the giant redwoods found farther north. Instead of girth, coast redwoods boast an adaptation found in no other conifer: the ability to grow from root sprouts creates almost pure stands. And they're not too shabby - the largest tree in Henry Cowell is 17 feet in diameter, and over 250 feet tall. Edgar said they often grow taller during wet periods, and die back in droughts. This particular tree had lost about fifty feet of top.

On the way out of Felton, i stopped in the small strip of local businesses to look for wifi. I found it at the White Raven, where the motto is "more than just a coffeeshop". The place lived up to it, and the almond mocha chai i sipped turned out to be a highlight of the trip. While i sat writing yesterday's post, i heard a worker sing a ditty she'd composed about chai; a patron with a bright red ukulele strummed at the counter. Hippie folk with patchwork pants and dreadlocks wandered through, and a man ordered his young son mint tea. The boy's name was Sequoia.

It was 4 in the afternoon when i pointed the Impala north on highway 17 through the Santa Cruz mountains. Without sliding into hyperbole, it's some of the most beautiful terrain i've ever seen. The topography is steep and folded; the highway winds, narrow, edged by giant conifers, and here and there hillside homes are surrounded by broadleaf evergreens and agaves, a landscape at once both lush and severe. I merged onto Highway 85, and then I-280; the hills grew gentler and grass-covered. Dusk was settling as i reached San Francisco.

I-280 somehow fades into Highway 1; it goes from elevated freeway to six crowded lanes laced with trolley tracks, winds its way through Golden Gate Park, and whoops! - thankfully, there was one final exit before the bridge! After a quick look, i headed east, and after a bewildered moment or two, found North Beach and Chinatown. Here's a view down Columbus Ave. at the Transamerica building - sometimes, getting the right shot demands lingering mid-crossing.

Just nextdoor to City Lights Books (founded by the poet Ferlinghetti; City Lights published Ginsberg's "Howl") I asked a man in a crosswalk where i could get good Chinese food. In a thick, broken English, he pointed me two blocks north to Yuet Lee Restaurant. The food - beef with Chinese broccoli, and sauteed vegetables - was good, but i could barely eat half. Boxed leftovers in hand, i found four men in a doorway just down the street. One of them had a radio, and he was singing loudly along with it: come together, right now, over me. I stopped and sang along. Then offered my leftovers - gotta catch a plane, and i can't take it with me. One man gladly accepted.

If there was a lesson for the day - beside how pleasant a journey can be once one gives up false expectations, or how it's the little places off the beaten path that are most rewarding - it was this: do not try to intuit your way from Chinatown back to I-280 without a map. It does not work. I watched the clock tick forward, stop sign after stop sign. I'd find a major thoroughfare, only to have it dead end against the back of Golden Gate Park. Left turn. Up a hill, and another, each one steeper than the next. I honestly don't know where i ended up, because i couldn't read the street names. It was definitely one of the highest points in the city; a glorious view i would have missed if i'd stayed on course.

Finally i stopped at a grocery for directions. Right at the next light, the proprietress said, and this goes straight to the freeway. Yes. I squinted at signs, merged, accelerated, panicked when i couldn't find the rental car drop. By the time i had dropped the car off, i had forty minutes to make it to the terminal. Thankfully, even SFO is slow on a Sunday night. With Huapango de Moncayo in the iPod, i sprinted through the airport. I didn't even tie my shoes after security. At least the backpack now officially passed muster as a carry-on. And when at last we were airborne, i watched the brightly lit city fall away - the mountains of South San Francisco. The freeway. Golden Gate Park. The bridges. What a day!

A dapper young man of Indian descent sat one seat away on the aisle. We passed most of the flight in silence - asleep. But on our descent to Newark at 3 AM, or rather, now 6 Eastern, we made conversation. His name was Raj, a PhD student from Clemson. His work was fascinating, combining marine biology and materials science. Marine invertebrates affix themselves to ship hulls, a process known as "fouling", and ships have been treated in various ways to prevent fouling. The chemicals formerly used to prevent fouling were highly toxic and accumulated in marine sediments, making their way up the food chain to bioaccumulate in marine mammals. Even the currently favored material,
copper oxide is not environmentally friendly, he explained, and it leaches from hull surfaces at a rate of 48 micrograms/cm2/day. Coatings similar to teflon have been used - the invertebrates don't stick as well as they would, and slough off when ships accelerate, but these coatings only work at speeds above thirty knots, and like teflon, once scratched, their efficacy is lost. Now Raj and others are working to solve the problem with biology. With funding from the Navy, they're developing coatings impregnated with signal molecules to confuse the invertebrates and prevent hull colonization.

Another great conversation with a stranger; another happy landing.