A California journal, Part IV: Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks — and home

Our campsite at Stony Creek Campground with Nebra stretched out reading a book.

August 26, Friday:  Stony Creek Campground, Sequoia National Forest.  It was a long, hot drive from Ventura to reach this forested spot high on the western slopes of the Sierra.  We poked along, 270 miles in 6 1/2 hours, arriving here at 6 o’clock.  When we left the coast it was 68 F. but 86 just 22 miles inland at Fillmore.  It reached 102 in midafternoon at Tulare in the San Joaquin Valley, where the crops suffer from drought.  We passed many acres of corn,  brown and withered.  It is hard to tell from the highway what effect the drought has had on the huge vineyards.  The large Kaweah Lake is filled to 35 percent capacity, I read.  We lucked out here at Stony Creek, nearly 7,000 feet elevation, getting the last campsite open for two nights.  All but one other of the 42 campsites were in use, and many campgrounds had “full” signs up along Generals Highway as we approached.  A small market and gas station is up the road about a half mile. The price of unleaded is $4.30. We  set up our small tent with pine forest on three sides.   A deer, a young doe, ambled by at dusk chased by a clutch of cautious warriors, grade schoolers with deadwood spears.  We saw three black bears earlier, near the Dorst campground, two cubs trudging uphill after a scrawny mama.  At 7, we walked over to the amphitheater for a lecture on bats, given by a nervous young female ranger intern from Seattle.  It was attended by about 30.  Nebra and I and an older couple from Oregon were the only ones from out of state.  Half were young children who knew much more about bats than did the adults and were very vocal.   There are 40 species of bats, we learned, and 30 species have set up home in California.  There is an ecological disaster going on right now in bat world.  It’s called white-nose syndrome, a fungal condition that has wiped out a million bats or more in the northeast U.S. and is spreading west.  California is on guard.    Back at camp, we boiled water on a newly purchased Coleman propane one-burner stove for our freeze-dried supper of lasagna with meat sauce, coffee and tea.  Later, we had little Merlot.  Nebra’s sister, Sue, said we are the only couple she knows that can drink wine without emptying the bottle.   I laid out on a large flat rock by the car and looked up at a brilliant night sky of stars you would never know existed back in the light dome of Phoenix.  It was 70 degrees at 8:30 and the light shower that had passed through about an hour before had dissipated.  A great night for sleep.  We’re here at Stony Creek another day before moving on to the lodge at Wuksachi for two nights, our last before heading back to the heated desert of Arizona.

Man and fires are the chief dangers to the giant sequoia. Here is a fire scar on the trunk of the General Grant Tree.

August 27, Saturday:  Stony Creek Campground.  Awoke about 9:30 to bright sunshine and 66 degrees.  Had our standard camp breakfast of oatmeal and fruit.  I had some freeze-dry coffee bought last night at the market in Stony Creek Village, a half-mile away.  It is the smallest of the four Villages spaced out along the parks’ major road, the Generals Highway.  Lodgepole, nearest the popular Giant Forest, is the largest, followed in size by Grant Grove and remote Cedar Grove, down near the entrance to Kings Canyon.  Lodgepole has a full-service post office, market, laundromat, public showers ($3 for 10 minutes), Visitors Center and up the road a piece, campsites for tents and trailers and a Nature Center.  You can buy unleaded gasoline at Stony Creek Village for $4.20 a gallon.  That’s about 40 cents more than you’d pay outside the parks.   Our campsite is only 50 steps from a restroom with a flush toilet and urinal, a wash-up area with two sinks, a mirror and shelf.  At noon, we steered north 13 miles to Grant Grove to shop for firewood and glean information from the Visitors Center on a hike into Kings Canyon.  Then we drove down another mile to see the Grant Tree, a giant sequoia that is said to be the third largest tree in the world.  It is 268 feet high and is about 1,700 years old.  President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed it “The Nation’s Christmas Tree” in 1926.  School started the previous week in California and the crowds are diminished.  That is a good thing.  Back at camp, I started a log fire inside the metal pit with kindling, old newspapers and, like Daniel Boone, with lighter fluid.  The six split logs cost us $6 in Grant Grove, a dollar cheaper than here at the campsite.  They burned for four hours.  We fell asleep laughing in our bedrolls, quoting passages from the books we’re reading:  Christopher Buckley’s Boomsday (Nebra) and Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (me). 

A hiker surveys the forest in Kings Canyon.

August 28, Sunday:   This is our day to hike Kings Canyon.  Awoke at 8:30 to a sunny morning and a nippy 58 degrees.   As I boil water, two Hispanic men in camoflauge outfits troop back to their campsite.  They carry bows and a full quiver of arrows.  It’s the midst of the deer hunting season for archers.  The two men do not look happy.  We must break camp by 11.  It takes only about 15 minutes to tear down our little dome tent, roll it up along with the rain shield and ground cover, fold up the poles, and pack everything into a stuff sack.  We’re staying the next two nights at the Wuksachi Lodge.  The weather has been great so far.  Every day sunny and cloudless, the temperatures reaching toward the 80s during the afternoons.  Kings Canyon rests at the remote northeast end of the Generals Highway.  It is an hour and a half and almost 50 miles of twisting two-lane pavement from our campsite to Road’s End and the start of the Paradise Valley Trail that leads into the Canyon along the whitewater South Fork of the Kings River.   At roughly 5,000 feet elevation at its beginning, the Canyon is almost 3,000 feet below Stony Creek.  After a quick lunch in Cedar Grove Village, we drove the remaining 6.4 miles to the trailhead.  We had intended to hike out to Mist Falls, which I’d read was a 4-mile round trip.  But I had not seen the correction label pasted in a far corner of the map, saying it was 4.6 miles one way.   Change of plan.  We would hike the trail along the north side of the river to the Bubbs Creek Bridge, two miles out, and return on the opposite side of the river via the Kanawyers Trail.  The Paradise Valley Trail, although meandering through a scattered pine forest at first, was hot.  The thermometer in the sun on my backpack showed 105 at one point before we descended through rock outcrops into a kind of bog with lots of ferns and segmented, reedy plants resembling bamboo.  We saw about 24 hikers on the way out. 

Looking south across the Bubbs Creek Bridge, our turn-around point. A man (right) s taking a soothing dip in the South Fork of the Kings River.

At the steel Bubbs Creek pedestrian bridge we crossed over to the south shore where two large-bellied young men with tattoos were taking dips in the cool river water while their female companions watched.  Very soothing, one of the men said, “down to the core.”  Where the trail on the north was notably warm, we found the more-shaded Kanawyers had its own form of misery.  If this trail was bereft of human existence, it was a Ventura Highway of flying insects, all buzzing around the face.  You lived dangerously to open your mouth.  I batted at the front of my face with a notebook for the entire distance of almost 3 miles, in 86 degrees.  But if you looked up to the towering gray cliffs, particularly on the south, or down below to the gushing stream, it was a piece of heaven.   August, the wrong time of the  year to be hiking in Kings Canyon, I decided. 

This is what lays at the end of the Generals Highway in Kings Canyon: A log bridge, a ranger's cabin and the trail into the Canyon.

It was after 6:30 p.m. when we finally ended the 60-mile drive to the Wuksachi Lodge and checked in.  The Prius’s gas consumption slumped to 49 mpg on the ascent to the Lodge from 52 at Road’s End.  It was great to get a warm shower after almost three days.

August 29, Monday:  The Wuksachi Lodge where we’re staying is really four lodges.  The Main Lodge is where you check-in.  Then there are three guest lodges up the hill 100 yards or so away — the Sequoia, Silliman and farthest off the Stewart where we stay.  In front, the Main Lodge has a small gift shop, a reception desk, a lobby which is the only place in the parks to have internet and cellphone service;  and in back, there is a large restaurant that serves a nice buffet breakfast, lunch and supper until 10 p.m., reservations advised.  This is our day to visit the park’s chief tourist attraction, the Giant Forest, where the star is the mammoth General Sherman Tree.  Largest tree in the world, they say.  First things first.  We have the buffet breakfast at the Lodge.  Nebra opts for the $7.50 Continental with cereals, pastries, rolls, bagels, fresh fruit, coffee, tea, milk and juices.  I go for the $12.95 hot breakfast which includes the Continental plus scrambled eggs, bacon, hash browns, pancakes and waffles.  After that we drive down two miles to Lodgepole to catch the free shuttle bus to the Giants Forest, another four miles away.  Other shuttles go to Dorst Campground, Morro Rock and, with a reservation, into the city of Visalia.  I have noticed many foreigners in the park, most of them German-speaking, but many Asians as well.  At Lodgepole, the post office clerk provided a clearer picture.   Mailings, he said, tell him Germans and French visitors lead the way followed in order by Italians, Brits and probably Asians.  At the Giant Forest we walked down the 8/10 mile paved thoroughfare to the Sherman Tree.  It was like a miniature theme park down there, visitors swarming, vying to get their very own special  photo of a  lifetime in front of the Sherman Tree sign and the trunk of the tree.  These sequoia are so large you can not photograph their entirety from up close.  Most elect to take a photo of the trunk, preferably with little Johnnie or Janie standing in the fore.  Most of the children find the photo ops annoying, but, really, it’s all for the parents who can someday show the photos to their adult children and say, “See what we did for you way back when.”  Wanting to leave the mob scene, we hiked along the Congress Trail, to other huge trees, many with names posted in front.  The  President Tree, The Lincoln Tree, the Senate Group, the House Group and so on.  We passed a man in a wheelchair with a map spread out on his lap.  “Can you confirm this is the Congress Trail?” he asks while the woman who is pushing him offered a friendly smile.   We did confirm, and he told Nebra somewhat bitterly, “We chopped down Congress.”  The joke made us laugh.   It soon occurred to me, a mere layman in the world of forestry, that once you’ve seen one giant sequoia, you’ve seen them all.  While I lacked the proper appreciation of their individual distinctions, I enjoyed their ambience, shafts of sunlight falling through shade on the side of a hill, and the silence and the feel of their spongy and furry trunks.   It was a beautiful day, and thankfully, it was not ruined by the click of cameras and papas and mamas yelling at their kids.  Very few visitors, it seemed, ventured beyond the mighty Sherman.    We got back to the Lodge before dark and had a nice supper at the restaurant, our entrees costing about $20 per.  Nebra had trout, thinking of her late father, and I had the pork chop sirloin which at first looked as large and intimidating as a sequoia trunk.  Tomorrow we begin the long trip back to Phoenix.

August 30, Tuesday:  This is Day 17 of our California adventure, and I had hoped for an early start on our return trip home.   I don’t know why other than it was a mystery but I had to see the lonely Booker T. Washington Tree in the southernmost area of the Giant Forest.  Washington was a famed educator and political leader.  I had read his most noted book, Up From Slavery, many years ago.  That this black man’s special tree was seemingly segregated from the rest of the Forest intrigued me.  What was that about?   Looking at the map, I thought it would be easy to locate the tree, then move on toward Phoenix.  But I was wrong.  It was difficult to find, if indeed I did find it.  (I’ll write more about the search for the Booker T in a separate blog).  And after taking two hours out of the middle of the day for the search and then further delaying our departure with a climb up Morro Rock for terrific vistas, it was obvious our goal of reaching Flagstaff, Arizona, for the night was out of the question.  Far out of the question.  But Morro Rock was worth it.   It’s a steep climb on concrete, including about 400 stair steps, barred only by steel-pipe railings and hip-high boulders from pitching over to your death thousands of feet below.  Up on the exposed summit, there is room only for a half-dozen at the very top, but the views of the high Sierra’s Divide to the east and the smoggy San Joaquin Valley to the west are spectacular.  I wondered what would happen if an earthquake struck while Nebra and I were up there.  Talk about the ultimate ride!  In any case we were running late, and it was 2 o’clock before we passed the turnoff again to the Lodge, driving north on the Generals Highway, in the opposite direction we wanted to go.  But there was too much road work and delays to the south.  We thought we could make better time, by turning west toward Fresno on U.S. 180 and taking a short-cut down to Visalia and beyond.   It was after 4 when we pulled in to the Fifties-themed Main Street Cafe in Visalia (that’s VIE-sale-ya, by the way) for sandwiches.   One of the great little eateries on our trip.  Then it was on to Bakersfield, over the Tehachapi Pass and on to Barstow for the night.   By then we’d traveled 285 miles from the Giant Forest, and it had taken us a good seven hours including stops.  None too impressive.  I found Barstow surprisingly comfortable.  After dark, a cool and soothing breeze came in, stirring the branches of the few trees around our motel.  And yet from way out here, I can almost smell the 116 degree heat that awaits us at the end of our journey.

August 31, Wednesday:  Day 18, the last of this trip.  Arrived home in Phoenix about 6:45 p.m., just in time to catch the Diamondbacks game with the Padres on TV.  I thought the trip would be boring, crossing the barren nothingness of the Mojave Desert between Barstow and Needles.  But as usual I seem to find entertainment in almost anything.   Roads that seem to lead to nowhere, old lava flows, dry lakes, mountain ranges, studying the maps, even noting the emergence of miniature Joshua trees near the tops of a few passes the farther east we traveled.   I had expected excessive heat in the Mojave but as we pulled into the John Wilkie Rest Stop at Fenner, our car thermometer showed only 104.  Three Navajo women sat in the shade of the toilets building, hawking their hand-crafted jewelry and at the same time chatting on cellphones.  Nebra asked one of them why they were selling their wares so far from their Arizona home.  The explanation?  The competition was too stiff back there.   It was only after we began descending South Pass into low-lying Needles on the Colorado River that the temperature ramped up to as high as 115.  We ate lunch on the river’s far side, in downtown Kingman, Arizona, at Dora’s Beale Street Deli.  I swear my cup of vegetable soup was the best I’ve had in many years.  The sandwiches were good too.   We turned onto to one of my favorite highways east of Kingman.  That’s U.S. 93.  It snakes through lonesome country where the only habitation of note in 108 miles is the tiny village of Wikieup.  And beyond that is the aptly named Nothing, Arizona.  We zipped by Nothing so fast that I failed to see if the old gas station was still in business.  It is a memorable drive if you’re into stark desert beauty as I am.   I’d forgotten what a large forest of Joshua trees line the road northwest of Wickenburg.  The highway is the quickest routed from Phoenix to Las Vegas but was surprisingly unbusy today.  Once I saw Vulture Peak in the distance I knew I was near home again. Nebra and I had climbed to the summit for a Thanksgiving Day picnic in 2001.  It was little more than two months after 9/11 and someone had placed a small American flag on the summit.  Very touching moment to see flag there.  I enjoyed our trip to California, but — and I didn’t think I would be able to say it —  it was good to be back home again.  We had missed more than half of the hottest month ever recorded in Phoenix.  The average high in August was 109 and the low 88.  California was a nice get-away, and now it is only another three or four weeks before the heat starts to go way here.  Nebra’s 2002 Toyota Prius deserves praise.  It held up faithfully the entire trip, over hill and dale, everywhere, for the 2,391 miles.  No flats, no breakdowns, no loose fender and under carriage woes as in the Civic when we had to delay our departure from Phoenix by a day.  And, as expected, the Prius provided few gas stops.  It averaged around 49 mpg.   Can’t ask for much more than that.

A California journal, Part III: Channel Islands National Park

(NOTE:  I’ll write a longer, more detailed account of our night on Santa Cruz Island later). 

August 23, Tuesday:  Ventura.  Checked out of the Seacrest in Pismo Beach before 11 after two nights.  It was an average motel with a bad shower and a great view of the ocean.  I’d go back, though, if for nothing else but the view, looking past tall palms to the sea.  We steered south on the 101, and after about 50 miles saw a billboard that said “Buellton/Home of Pea Soup.”  How could you pass that up?  So we edged into town for lunch at, where else but Pea Soup Andersen’s, a Danish-themed restaurant in the heart of Buellton.  That’s “Buell” as in “mule” we were told.   You can’t miss it.  There’s a large Pea Soup Andersen Inn to the east.  The eatery is in its 87th year, having swung into pea soup in 1924 when Anton Andersen, a Dane, and wife Juliette, from France, opened for business.  I had the excellent split-pea soup and a green salad.  For $9.95 you can have all the pea soup you want with bread kicked in.  Later, I strolled upstairs to catch an exhibit depicting in photos, maps and text a history of the region.  South of town we drove up over a pass and down to the ocean where the temps were in the lower 70s.  In Buellton it had been 93.   The first thing we did at Ventura was visit the Channel Islands National Park Visitors Center in the harbor, beyond the marina.  I purchased a map of Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channels and our destination tomorrow, and we took in a wonderfully-shot film of the islands, narrated by the actor Kevin Costner.  Nebra is stewing some over the trip.  I asked her what were the three biggest worries.  All three were the same:  “I’m going to be cold.”  We did some final shopping at a mall along Ventura’s East Main Street, ate a late supper at Carrows, then returning to the motel, went over our inventory of things we want to stuff our backpacks with.  I won’t be writing much until Friday.  It’s pretty basic out on the island.  No Wi-Fi, no services except for a water tap and pit toilets.  We’re to land at a place on Santa Cruz called Scorpion Bay, then hike up a half mile to the Lower Campground, set up our tent and take in this primitive area.  I read somewhere the Channels are the least visited of the National Parks.   That, to me, is a big plus for going there.

August 24, Wednesday:  We arrived at the dock of Island Packers at 11, an hour before the launch at noon.  There is a check-in procedure and then you must unload your gear.  You can take three stored items across to Santa Cruz Island, no single item of which can weigh more than 45 pounds.  I’m backpack with tent and sleeping bag weighed close to that.  On the dock, four young Hispanic men waited eagerly.  The tallest was carrying a fishing rod.  He was hoping for haddock, and his buddies were counting on him for their supper.  The boat, the Islander, at 12:03 for the one-hour crossing.  The seas were bumpy, but we arrived at the Scorpion Bay pier at 1:07.  Nebra and I hauled our gear in two separate trips to the campground 1/2 mile away, then set up our tent at campsite 20 at the far end, not far from a water tap and the two pit toilets.  Of the 22 campsites only 11 were in use.  The campground lays in a large grove eucalyptus.  The trees were planted in the 1880s by ranchers for shade and fuel.  Santa Cruz Island is the largest of the Channel Islands and is barren, the way southern California looked before the aqueducts, canals and dams brought water in.   The wind blows almost constantly here.  In late afternoon, we hiked the Cavern Point trail that loops northwest of the campground.  The trail up was straight up with no switchbacks and fairly strenuous.  But it was worth it for the view from high cliffs across a turquoise sea to the mainland and east, where another of the five Channel Islands, Anacapa, rose to point heights.  The wind blew harder up here, so I stayed away from the cliff’s edge.  I feel asleep in the tent in late afternoon while Nebra did more hiking.   The westerly breeze had change from cool to warm as I slept.  I walked down to the bay.  Kayaks are stored there for an outfit giving instructions to about two dozen young men and women who are staying in tents at the Upper Campground (for groups) beyond our tent in the Lower Campground.  I saw Nebra coming down a trail to my right, high up on a hill, and we waved.  For supper, we boiled hot water on a stove and cooked up a frozen pack of chili, noodles and beans.  It was difficult lighting the stove in the wind.  It was still warm as we prepared for bed.  I had stripped down to a pair of bluejeans shorts and a heavy shirt.  Quiet time at the campground begins at 10, but we were in the tent and ready to sleep long before that. 

August 25, Thursday:  Santa Cruz Island and Ventura.  We awoke about 8 to a blue sky and a light breeze.  It was about 68 degrees.  I heated up some hot water and had a few packs of freeze-dried coffee before Nebra emerged from the tent.  We both slep good.   For breakfast we had oatmeal laced with fruit.  The main weather condition you deal with out here on Santa Cruz Island is the wind.  It can blow hard and soft with short lulls in between.  It can be cool or warm.  We lazed around before breaking camp around 11.  The kayak instructors have a large camp of tents not far from ours but there are only three men staying there right now.  A young man and woman in campsite #22 had been on the island three days and were also leaving today.  About 12:30 Nebra and I toted our big backpacks down to the pier for the return trip and then took off on a short hike into the island’s interior on the Scorpion Canyon Loop trail.  Although the Santa Cruz is said receive an average annual rainfall of 19 inches, much of the plant life looks sere and dead.  Scrub trees, small bushes dot the landscape.  The trail starts as a road and ends as a footpath beyond the Upper Campground where the young kayakers lolled about in groups, a few sunning themselves.  About a mile out we stopped at a small pool lin the dry creek bed where black tadpoles flitted about.  From there we hiked up a very steep footpath to what I called “first vista,” a point that looks down on the campground and past the rangers’ houses to the sea and beyond north toward the Santa Barbara area on the mainland.  The Islander left 10 minutes early, at 3:50, for the return trip.  We sat on the upper deck this time, at the rear.   It was an enjoyable but crowded trip back with probably close to 50 passengers.  The boat made a direct line from the island of 45 degrees east of north all the way into Ventura Harbor.  We unloaded and checked in at the same motel along Harbor Boulevard for our last night in the area.  We had a nice hot shower and suppered at Brophy Brothers by the marina.  I had jumbo shrimp, fries, slaw and clam chowder, and Nebra had mahi mahi with rice piaf and a big green salad.  Then it was back to the motel for welcome night’s sleep.  Tomorrow we drive northeast to Sequoia National Park in the Sierras for three or four nights and then it’s back home to the Arizona heat again.

A California journal, Part II: Pismo Beach

The vandalized James Dean monument at Cholame with the missing “95” in the middle.

August 17, Wednesday:  Pismo Beach.  Reached our motel here high above the beach shortly before 5.  Although it is only 27 miles from our previous stop at Morro Bay, we had taken a meandering trip of 114 miles to get to Pismo via Cholame, an isolated dot on Highway 46 east of Paso Robles.  It was at a highway juncture a mile east of Cholame (pronounced Sha-LAMB) that the actor James Dean died in a car accident on September 30, 1955.  And it is at Cholame where a memorial to Dean was erected.  Back in smalltown Kansas, I had been a teenage fan of Dean’s, particularly after seeing his most notable film, “Rebel Without A Cause.”   My first and last visit to the site took place about 30 years ago.  I wanted to see it again, and to allow Nebra her first view.  She had grown up in Nebraska a decade or so after Dean’s death and knew little of the actor’s life and legend.  I told her how he had died, driving his new Porsche Spyder at excessive speeds, flying out of Bakersfield on those golden hills to the west, headed with his mechanic for a road race in Salinas, approaching the junction only to see too late a car pulling out in front of him from Highway 41.  And then for Dean it was the crash, and the end.  We eased past the juncture, stopped and took photos and then wheeled on west to Cholame.  This is desolate country, big treeless hills and little else, on the edge of the vast Hearst

Juncture of Highways 46 and 41 (on the right), the site of the tragic James Dean car crash in 1955.

Ranch.  There is only a small eatery, the Jack Ranch Cafe, and the shiny Dean memorial in the shade of a tree.  We ordered sandwiches at the cafe and looked around at the few Dean exhibits.  Photos on a wall, a cartoon drawing, some cheap books.  Not much.  The waitress, a middle-aged woman who reminded me of the actress Susan Sarandon, said contrary to my assumption that the Dean visitors had thinned out over the years, “No, we still have about 50 a day.”  It was 99 degrees and the sun was hot and we wanted to get on the road to Pismo.   But first, Nebra took a photo of me leaning on the Dean monument that in raised letters said “James Dean,” and listed the dates of his birth and death.  It’s hard to believe he would be 80 years old now.  As Nebra readied the camera, I noticed that someone had pried off two numerals, a 9 and a 5, from the death date, 1 95 5.   A selfish act.  Everyone it seems wants to own a physical piece of the man, even if it takes the joy away from others.   We left Cholame about 3:30 and headed through vineyard country to Paso Robles.   Dean was taken to the hospital here and pronounced dead.   Paso Robles was the dateline used by most of the newspapers above the death stories.  It is 65 miles from Cholame to Pismo Beach, and a drop of about 30 degrees in temperature.  In the evening we drove into San Luis Obispo, only 15 miles away, for a workout at the Y, and supper at the Firestone Grill, a sports bar whose patrons I assumed were mostly college students starting a new semester.   The city is known as SLO in the region.  Not by the individual letters but pronounced as a word, “Slow.”  At the Firestone I ordered the heralded Tri-Tip Steak Sandwich with pinto beans.  Heralded in the sense that the Tri-Tips was ecommended by the young attendant at the Y.  It was tasty but too much to finish.  Glad to get back to Pismo and the king bed.

Pismo Beach north of the pier. Our motel stands on a cliff in the distance.

August 18, Thursday:   Pismo Beach.  What a disgusting name, Pismo, for such a beautiful stretch of beach.  From the cliff-top of our motel you can see it arcing south, first past the pier in town, then for miles beyond.  Pismo, pronounced PIZ-mo, is a Chumash Indian name for blobs of tar, according to californiabeaches.com.  About 2 o’clock we strolled down the beach 3/4 of a mile to the bustling little town, also Pismo Beach, and the pier.  The temp was in the 60s, and a cool, west breeze blew in.  The dry sand was hot and we escaped to the wet part and felt the cold surf swish over bare feet.   Most of the beach-goers clustered around the pier.  At a bench, we met a stout woman, in her 50s, a local.  She’d moved here 18 years agi from Sacramento.  “It’s a great place to live,” she said of Pismo.   At Splash’s, we stood in a line for 20 minutes waiting to lap up some of the eatery’s acclaimed clam chowder.  “The best chowder this side of Maine,” a man told me.  “It’s made with real cream and butter.”   The chowder was as good as advertised.   Splash’s is a modest place, long and narrow, two dining areas separated by the kitchen and a hallway.  Some

Looking east from the pier toward the town of Pismo Beach.

customers stood after placing orders, waiting on one of the cheap plastic tables to open up.  Afterward, we walked along the wood-plank pier to the end.  A dozen anglers, men and women, had lines in the water, and lazy birds, mostly brown pelicans and western gulls, waited for morsels of fish that might be thrown their way.  In the evening, we traveled into downtown SLO for the weekly market on Higuera Street and battled the big crowd.    This street market was larger than the one we visited a few months ago in Palm Springs and had much more fruits and vegetables.  An orchestra was playing.  The air was brisk and clouds were sailing in, which might explain the market winding down an hour early, at 8 o’clock.  SLO is one of those rare American cities anymore with a vibrant downtown.   The two-story Barnes & Noble stays open until 11, and I bought sunglasses at Sports Authority after 8.   You won’t find this in downtown Phoenix, much less a book store or a sporting goods store.   We suppered at the California Pizza Kitchen inside a pleasant courtyard in the heart of town.  This is a college place.   Cal Poly begins its fall semester soon,

A brave juvenile brown pelican on the pier. The adult has more white on its head.

and a junior college has already started up.  Students are everywhere.  Dozens of bicycles stand moored outside the busy Apple Store.  It’s heartening to hear the noise and feel the energy in a downtown after dark.   Then it was back to quiet Pismo with only the sounds of traffic on the 101 entering our motel room.  This is the end of Day 5.  Time as usual moves swiftly.

August 19, Friday:  Pismo Beach.  Day 6.  Cool, cloudy until about noon.  We did a quick tour of the Pismo and the other cities that are all jammed together as one:  Grover City, Oceano, upscale Arroyo Grande and Halycon on the south of Pismo and Shell Beach on the north.   Had a sumptuous lunch at Margie’s Diner at the west end of SLO.   Huge servings, too much for one normal human being to eat in one sitting.  We thought we’d lost the car keys there but after a few panicky moments found them in a nook of Nebra’s purse.  Drove on into downtown SLO for a short visit to the old Spanish mission, San Luis Obispo de Tolosa.  Entrance to the modest museum is “free” (suggested donation is $3) and not worth it, unless you’re Catholic with a bent for history or interested in a few artifacts of the Chumash Indians.   We were quickly ushered out at the 5 o’clock closing.  It was hard to think spiritually with a loud rock band’s music shaking the building from a courtyard below along San Luis Obispo Creek.   Nearby, on Higuera Stree,  we took in the most disgusting “art work” known to man.  Bubblegum Alley, they call it.  Two walls along the dark, narrow lane are plastered with chewed gum arranged in names and odd designs.  No telling what horrible disease awaits a finger’s touch.  No “artists” did we see today but there were a half-dozen bemused visitors.  Down the street we stopped in at Kruezberg, a junky, pseudo-hippie joint that styles itself as “book bar and coffee lounge.”  It was busy and most of the seating filled up with a college-age crowd.   The unique menu is printed on a huge board at one side of the big downstairs room offered sandwiches, meals, desserts, beer and wine.  Each food item was given a famous author’s name.  Homer, Goethe, Sylvia Plath, Leo Tolstoy, even Tim Robbins.  I ordered a cup of espresso and sat down at a rickety table

Chewed gum as art form: Bubblegum Alley in downtown SLO.

to watch a bright-eyed young man write poetry in a tablet with two children crawling over him.  Maybe he was the “poet” who named some of the city streets, like Morro, Chorro and Toro.  We left for a workout at the Y a few miles away.  It was 6:10 p.m. and low-lying clouds swept in.  The temp was 64.

August 20, Saturday:   Pismo Beach.  I have yet to meet up with the famous Pismo clam.  It’s hard to do sitting in an Adirondack chair 40 feet above the beach and sunning as I regrettably did this afternoon at our motel.  Even on my well-tanned skin, the sun was unmerciful.  Our friend Lloyd back in Surprise, Arizona, wrote, “There used to be good clam-digging at Pismo Beach.”  I read that in 1949, an estimated 5,000 diggers per day harvested over 2 million clams at Pismo Beach in 2 1/2 months.  But those free and easy times are gone.  Now, you need a fishing license, and you can take only 10 legal-size Pismos a day, reburying anything under 4 1/2 inches in the wet ocean sand.  For me, maybe another time.   I call Nebra a thoroughbred.  She does not know how to relax.  Always on the go.  This morning she dashed off to see more of the nearby city of Arroyo Grande, and later spurred me to go with her to take in Avila Beach, the “quiet” beach town several miles to the north.  This was the town that Unocal reluctantly spent $70 million to clean up after years of oil seepage had ruined the beach and town.  Much of the place was razed and rebuilt into a bright, splashy tourist mecca whose architecture might be described as frou-frou.  And quiet it wasn’t.  It was a zoo.  Hardly a place to park and the streets were filled with googly-eyed visitors.  A rock band blared away on Front Street, and a marriage was taking place on the bustling beach.    The groom was decked out in traditional coat and tie, the bride wore a beautiful white gown — and all in the wedding party were barefooted.  Unocal’s money, to my mind, was wasted.  Couldn’t get out of there fast enough.  On the way we passed a locked gate that led to the controversial Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant.  They say it’s earthquake-proof though resting near two major faults, the San Andreas and Hosgri.  Quiet and sanity returned in SLO where we had a nice supper at Thai Classic downtown.    I carped a bit at the cool breeze but straightened up when reminded of the heat and dust storms back in Phoenix.

Anything but quiet along Front Street in Avila Beach.

August 21, Sunday:  Pismo Beach.  More like mundane than Sunday.  Move to a new motel, wash clothes and a gym workout at the Y in SLO.   Hardly the way to spend the most beautiful day of the trip.  Sunny, almost warm.  But there we were tooling into SLO from Pismo, chatting about, of all things, whatever happened to collective nouns.  And passing the local Rabobank and thinking it was an invitation to criminals.  Weird stuff like that.   Our minds had settled down some by the time we had lunch of fish salads at the busy Big Sky Cafe.  We found a large, clean laundromat on California Street, near the Cal Poly campus, called the Launderosa.  Think Ponderosa, the old TV series, I guess.  A chunky young woman, addled perhaps, kept asking me if I wanted help,  puzzled as I spent about 30 minutes restringing the cord that had come loose from my workout pants during the spin cycle.   More excitement came later after we checked in to the motel, this one with an ocean view, high on the same cliff as the other.   About 200 yards out at sea, I viewed through binoculars a large dark blob with thousands of small birds swirling over it, some even splashing into the water.  In the sky above this blob hovered dozens and dozens of brown pelicans.    When there was a break in the small bird action, the pelicans dove into the water as they always do, head first.  A small crowd from the motel gathered at a railing near the cliff to watch.  One Californian surmised the birds were feeding on a large school of sardines.  Otherwise it was an empty sea.  No ships on the horizon, no boats anywhere.  We had a late supper of Mexican food up the coast a mile or so, at Zorro’s Cafe and Cantina, in Shell Beach.  Average fare but plentiful with good salsa.   If you don’t eat along this coast by 9 p.m., your restaurant choices become very limited.  My mind is turning slowly, yes, as usual, but now toward the camping trip to Santa Cruz Island on Wednesday.

August 22, Monday:  Pismo Beach.  Cool west wind blew in all day.  We walked into town, three-quarters of a mile, for lunch at Chele’s Food & Spirits.  It’s across Pomeroy from Splash, where we’d stood in line a few days ago for great clam chowder.  Sat by a sunny window to thaw out.   Some places surprise you just looking at them.  I wasn’t  expecting much but the All-America was one of the best burgers I’ve had in a long time.   The waitress, a 50ish brunette, said she moved to Pismo here eight years ago from Oregon.  She camped out for a year and a half before she got a job.  Now she owns a house.  “This is paradise,” she said.   We walked back to the motel on the cliff along the shore where the wind blew harder and left us shivering.   Someone had built an impressive complex of small sand castles, doomed by high tide.  In the evening, we drove 45 miles north to Cambria for what we thought would be great meal at one of the region’s best and most expensive restaurants, Linn’s.  Everything went well for a while.  My mahi mahi with rice and baby carrots was very good, as was Nebra’s sirloin, a baseball-c.  ut they called it.  But then they didn’t have the wine I wanted, a merlot from the Hearst Ranch, Casa Robles, and suddenly we were all alone up on the second floor, nearby tables piled high with dirty dishes, no one busing tables.  Worse, our waitress had left us marooned.  The stairs below were blocked off with chairs.  Our waitress finally appeared and apologized.  “I forgot all about you,” she said.   We tipped her a small amount.  At least she was honest.  On the way on lonely Highway 1, we put on a tape, “The Best of Van Morrison,”  letting it play all the way back to Pismo.  The music had lifted away the busted evening at Linn’s.  “What supper?” I said to Nebra.  Tomorrow we go south to Ventura where we’ll catch a boat out to Santa Cruz Island at noon on Wednesday.

A California jounral, Part I: Morro Bay

August 13, Saturday:  Leaving from Phoenix by car in about an hour for California.  Goal is to reach Monrovia by nightfall.  Plan to spend time in Moro Bay, Pismo Beach and San Luis Obispo.  Also shooting for a visit to the Hearst Mansion and a one-night camp out on Santa Cruz Island, the largest of the Channel Islands south of Santa Barbara.  Hope to close out the 18-day trip hiking n Sequoia and King’s National Parks . . . . We departed at 1 o’clock but after 47 miles turned back at Wintersburg Road.   Car troubles.  The undercover shield in front of the 2006 Honda Civic began to disintegrate west of Avondale.  After a while the plastic shield scraped along the pavement making a terrible screeching noise.  Stopped three times to cut parts of it away with the knife on my Leatherman.  Finally, fearing the whole fender might break loose — even after trying to hold it together with duck tape, we did a U-turn and returned home.  We’ll reload into Nebra’s 2002 Prius and give it another go early tomorrow, driving straight through to Moro Bay.  Later at home watching the George Clooney film, “The American,” his character stopped alongside the road to kick at his Italian car when the cowling in front came loose.  It was not exactly the same as the Honda but close enough to make the scene seem eerie.

Morro Rock from the balcony of our motel room

August 14, Sunday:  Morro Bay.  Reached here a bit after 7 tonight.  Driving time was 9 hours but we stopped five times along the way.  That turned the length into almost 12 hours.  Our longest stop was in picturesque Fillmore, a farming community in the bustling Santa Clara Valley along California 126.  You would never guess a tragic flood swept through here in 1928 when the St. Francis Dam broke killing 450. The valley is wonderland of agriculture:  citrus and avocado groves, truck farming, nurseries.  All just west of Six Flags Magic Mountain theme park.  At Ventura, temps hit 68, a far cry from the 108 at Palm Springs a few hours earlier.  Later between Solvang and Santa Maria, another agricultural area emerged:  mile after mile of neatly layed out vineyards along the east side of 101 highway.  From our third-floor room in the motel at Morro Bay I can see only a glimpse of the ocean but there is a splendid view of Moro Rock along the bay.  Too tired to even eat supper.

August 15, Monday:  Morro Bay. Sunny and cool, high 61 F.  Drove north 30 miles in early afternoon to take a tour of the Hearst Castle, high on a mountain above kelp-clogged San Simeon Bay.   It was the large and ornate western home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, the Rupert Murdoch of the early 20th Century.  Hearst died in 1951, and the Castle is now operated by the state of California.  We took the sold-out tour of the Upstairs Suites, which included the library.  Disappointing.  After you’ve seen one bedroom,  you’ve seen them all, and the run-through of the large library was uninformative and too short.  A wasted $25 in my opinion.  This evening we suppered at Shawn’s on Main.  This is the birthday of Nebra’s father, Fred, who died in 1999, and we aimed to make a memorial of the meal.  He would’ve been 81 today.  A native of Omaha, Fred would’ve liked our idea of having steak and beer in his honor.  The best we could to do was “Beef Milanese,” and an ale, Golden Wheat, brewed in Santa Barbara.  The waitress shot a photo of us to officially memorialize the occasion.  We did a short walk through downtown streets in the dark afterward.   Morro Bay, to our surprise, is deadsville.  Just about everything shuts down at 9 o’clock.  We stopped at a liquor store to buy an LA Times.  I mentioned to the clerk how early the town turned to a graveyard.  “And this is California!” I exclaimed.  The clerk who’d worked at a liquor store in LA said simply, “This isn’t a part of California.”

August 16, Tuesday:  Morro Bay.   Cool all day, in the 60s.  That’s about 45 degrees less than in Phoenix today.   Clouds so low they shrouded the tops of the three 570-foot smokestacks at the Dynegy Power Plant on the north.  Awakened by the incessant squawking of a Western gull on the roof.  Birds are everywhere — terns, pelicans, gulls — but few people astir, even along the waterfront restaurants and boutiques on Embarcadero.  A merchant told Nebra, “This is the start of our quiet season.”   The school term began this week.   Morro Bay Boulevarde slopes gently down to the harbor where dozens of modest boats are docked.  I counted 70 others moored in the bay.  On the other side of the water are gray sand dunes and Morro Bay State Park, a spit of land and a bird-watcher paradise.  The Boulevarde itself would not be spectacular if not for the eucalyptus trees lining the street and lighting it up with their red, orange and pinkish flowers.  Not long ago, locals voted for what they thought was the city’s tree, and strangely it was not the red eucalyptus but the Monterey pine.   The street’s highlight for me was seeing the old-time theater marquee at the Bay lit up at night where “The Help” is showing.   Business must be good, even in this down economy, for almost every store has a tenant.  Just no customers at this point in the season.  In late afternoon, we hiked to the summit of Black Mountain.  The waitress at Shawn’s on Main wrote directions for us.  It’s only 665 feet above the sea but has stunning vistas of the town, she said.   You reach it by driving out on South Main and wiggling through the golf course until you reach a small parking lot on the side of the hill.  It looked to us like the clouds were breaking up at last, so we hastened up the mostly-dirt path, only a quarter mile to the top.  But our luck was bad, and the vista was obliterated by even more clouds moving in with a mist.  Another time.  We ate in tonight.  Nebra got a salad at Albertson’s, and I grabbed a footlong at Subway.  Tomorrow is moving day, to Pismo Beach, a short distance to the south.

August 17, Wednesday:  Morro Bay.  Cloudy, cool.  Checked out of the Ascot Suites before noon.  We leave having not seen sunlight since Monday.  But the cool air has been wonderful.

Lies, distortions and disappointments in a sinking America: No. 1

Distortions:  Rush Limbaugh, the far-right radio talk show host, said on August 11 that a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats voted for the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Limbaugh was correct up to a point.  The percentage of Republicans voting for the legislation was at least 16% greater than Democrats in the Senate and House.  What Limbaugh  failed to tell his audience was that the Republican Party of today bears little resemblance to the party in 1964.  The Civil Rights Act was passed on July 2 of that year, and in less than two months, the Democrats and LBJ faced revolt by their white-supremacist Southern wing during the nominating Convention in Atlantic City.  Southern whites defected to the Republican party  which welcomed them with open arms.  The “Southern strategy” has long been a big part of the GOP’s election plans and is no more than a thinly-veiled attempt to attract racists to the ballot box.  Limbaugh knows that but tried to paint Republicans as the best friend of all Americans, even blacks.  (8/11)

Disappointments.  Obama’s bland speech on Monday, August 8.  In an attempt to calm financial markets about the S&P downgrade of the government’s credit rating, he only increased the fears.  The Dow was at minus 400 when Obama began his speech and dropped almost 235 points after it.  The speech caused Joe Nocera of the NY Times to remark in an op-ed piece, “When did President Obama become such a lousy speech-maker?”  (8/9)

Not credible.  Standard & Poor’s down-graded U.S. credit rating.  The agency has a shady past of greed and protecting Wall Street interests as the financial crisis hit.  For example, subprime loans were given the agency’s highest AAA rating until disaster struck in 2008.  See Chapter 9 of the Gretchen Morgensen and Joshua Rosner book Reckless Endangerment for an objective and damning look at the rating agencies’ role in the debacle on Wall Street.  (8/9)

Lies.  arizonateaparty.com:  Headline on Standard & Poor’s downgrade of U.S. rating says, “S&P Executive:  It Could Take 18 Years to Repair Progressives’ Damage.”   No where in the article beneath does that executive, John Chambers, blame Progressives.  In fact, he blames the dysfunction of government, both Republicans and Democrats, for the agency’s downgrade. (8/8)

After the dust cleared

So far my strategy in the stock market has worked if you look at it in a certain light.   Worked so far anyway.    

As I explained in my July 26 blog, I set 40 percent of my stock investments on the sidelines, anticipating the fallout of  an unsatisfactory deficit reduction deal in Congress.   I figured I would cut my losses and yet keep several of my strongest bets:  Gold, General Electric and Exxon Mobil.  

The fallout happened with the August 4 blood-letting on Wall Street when the Dow plunged 514 points.   The result was this.  While I lost a substantial amount that day, my losses were nothing compared to those major market indexes. I am still in the black for the year, though less than 1 percent.   The Dow, Nasdaq and S&P 500 are in the red.

On July 22, the day that House Speaker John Boehner walked out on budget talks with President Obama, I was trailing my benchmark, S&P 500, by 2.8 percent for 2011.  Now I am 5.4 percent ahead.  That’s a turnaround of 8.2 percent in 10 trading days, all in my favor. 

 The trick of course is when to get back in the market.  If I wait too long the profits will pass me by and I will again play second fiddle to the S&P.  For now, I am in no hurry to get back in.  I may even draw back some more.  I don’t think this wild ride is over yet.  Too many uncertainties here and abroad.

Tom: Anatomy of an `elitist’ and an enemy of America

I met an elitist a few days ago.  You know.  One of those well-educated liberals the Tea Party claims to hate.  To the Tea Party base, almost anyone who is capable of critical thought and analysis is an elitist and not to be trusted.  Almost anyone who has an original idea is an enemy.  If you can’t touch it, actually feel the gun or the border fence, or it doesn’t come out of the mouth of Limbaugh, Hannity or Beck, it can’t be real, they say.  

I hadn’t met an elitist before, not one I knew was an elitist anyway.  But surely Tom is one.  He is a blunt-spoken man, a graduate of Georgia Tech with a degree in engineering.  He hates what the Tea Partiers have done on the debt-ceiling crisis.  He calls them “radicals,”  and grumbles about the Republicans and George W. Bush causing all the financial woes the nation is facing right now.   He must be an elitist, surely.  I will describe him the best I can so he can clearly be identified and possibly shot.   Remember, “Don’t retreat, reload” is the cry from the far right.

I was sitting in a buffet in north Phoenix when Tom hobbled over to a booth near me and sat down.  He was wearing blue jeans and a flannel shirt.  Wisps of uncombed gray hairs escaped from under an old  ballcap pulled up high on his forehead.  I hadn’t seen him for a while.  He walks now with the aid of a cane to support a short, slumping body.  He will be 90 years old on November 1.    Tom  tells me he grew up on a farm near Cairo, Illinois, near the juncture of the Ohio and Mississippi rivers.  It’s where the Ozarks end, he says.  Beautiful country. 

It was almost about nine months ago that Tom first told me about his life.   His mother was an immigrant from Scotland. Tom worked as an engineer for NASA and also Remington Rand and helped build the original UNIVAC, the first commercial computer made in the U.S.   Said he worked beside and was a friend of Admiral Grace Murray Hopper, who developed COBOL, one of the first programming languages.  Amazing Grace, they called her.   He gave me a list that day of other computer scientists with whom he was acquainted.  Konrad Zuse, the German inventor of the first programmable computer and John W Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert, developers of the ENIAC computer and Alan Turing, the cryptoanalyst. 

I assume he’s one of those leeches who takes Social Security.  Probably has the Medicare B too. 

Although Tom is retired more or less, he often arrives at the buffet carrying a study book which he pores over between bites.  Usually it’s physics or calculus. 

“Gotta keep up,”  Tom says.  He still uses a slide rule to make his calculations.  In fact, Tom says, he has a collection of slide rules at home.

So this is the enemy, the worst kind of American.   They are everywhere and must be smoked out, just like Communists in the hey-day of the John Birch Society.  You can even find these leftists posing as ordinary citizens in your local buffet.