Posts Tagged ‘California’

San Francisco, You Lucky Bastard

I am sure San Franciscans know it, but they have it really good. Sure, they have one of the highest cost of living in the whole country, and a pesky little thing called the San Andreas Fault, but beyond that, it’s a really great city. Lots to do, lots of good restaurants, great natural sites within a couple hours’ drive, and a fairly rich history for a city only about 150 years old. I even like the weather: a fun combination of sunshine, chill winds, and surrealistic fog.

In my opinion, its greatest features is a series of greenspaces and historic sites strung together to form the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. These sites – including Alcatraz, old forts and battlements, beaches, historic homes, and wooded trails — weave in and out of the city, from the Pacific to the Bay, and up and down the ridgelines stretching north and south of the city. And the best part? All of it fully accessible to the public (and some even to their pets) for their enjoyment and recreation.

I’ve been to the city several times. On my last trip, I made it a point to visit as many of the sites as I could. I only had a couple days, but I hit a good selection. And besides the interest and convenience of these places, what really impressed me was how much use these sites got. The locals use these sites. They are walking the beaches, throwing Frisbees in the parks, walking their dogs on the paths, playing softball in the fields. These folks use their greenspaces, and this is a good thing.

Historically, it was hard to keep greenspaces, especially waterfront greenspaces such as those in San Francisco. During the maritime age, seafront property was wanted for docks, wharfs, flophouses and canneries. During the Industrial Revolution, land was taken over for production, power generation, or transportation. In the 80’s right on through to today, overbuilding for commercial development, high-end housing, or tourism is the big problem. But there was a really strong movement to preserve all this greenspace in San Francisco and the surrounding area, big enough to override the moneyed interests moving in the opposite direction. The preservation movement won out, and today, I doubt there is a single resident of the city who’d like it any other way.

Nowadays, driving around the country, I see plenty of abandoned factories and overbuilt developments. At one time, long before the excavators went in, those lots were greenspaces, filled with trees, streams, or grasslands. Once you tear them up, pave them over, or build on them, they’re gone. And yes, gone forever. How many buildings have ever been torn down and replaced by trees, streams, and grassland? Virtually none by comparison. Building is permanent and will not be undone, it’s just the fact of the matter. Zoning boards, planning boards, developers, and taxpayers need to understand this. Once you build, what you’ve built on is gone. Better be damned sure what you’re building is necessary and appropriate, and won’t simply be another foreclosed or abandoned property in 10 years.

Green is forever … until we tear it up. Spread the word. And go to San Francisco at least once. Spend a week, there’s plenty to see and do.

[Pics are mine and thusly copyrighted.]



Golden Gate National Recreation Area

San Francisco Parks Trust

EPA’s Greenscaping page

21st Amendment Brewery

Google map for San Francisco


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The Good Life

A little while ago, in my post on Edgar Allan Poe, I talked about a creative genius whose life would suffer through poverty and hardship and end in tragedy and mystery.

Today, I’m posting about another great literary figure whose life progressed quite differently: Nobel- and Pulitzer-prize winning playright, Eugene O’Neill.

I am, admittedly, not “well read”. I’ve only read one or two of the classics, and only because certain college courses demanded it. I also don’t attend a lot of theater, although I will attend plays by Shakespeare whenever our local playhouses present one. So I really don’t know that much about O’Neill or his plays, other than a forced reading of “The Hairy Ape” for that three-credit “art domain” course at the state university. But there is no denying the man is one of the giants in American literature, having penned renowned plays such as “Morning Becomes Electra” and “The Iceman Cometh”.

Porch © 2009 America In ContextWhen you visit his home in the hills of Contra Costa County, California, it becomes abundantly clear that he, unlike Poe, enjoyed the fruits of his labors. It’s a beautiful Spanish Colonial house, set on a wonderfully landscaped lot, overlooking the valley below, and backed by the rocky, wooded hills of the Las Trampas Regional Wilderness. It’s a truly elegant setting, fit for a man clearly loved for his dramatic creations. The only tragedy here is his wife, Carlotta, was extremely light-sensitive and kept the windows covered by thick wood blinds and shades. Such tremendous views wasted, although I don’t fault her. I suffer slightly from light sensitivity, I can empathize with her dilemma.

I’m not quite sure what else to say about Eugene O’Neill, except for this: I never begrudge artists, whether authors or playwrights or actors or musicians, from living well off their talents. Artists are special, and art advances us as a species like nothing else can. Art is more influential than technology or governance or business or medicine in that regard. Art is the gateway to the spirit of mankind, and it is that spirit that advances us.

I know this sounds trite and packaged. Aren’t we all supposed to say “art is the gateway to the spirit of mankind” or some such crud? Sounds like it’s right from the mouth of a guest star on Oprah. But I’m convinced it’s true. There’s something personal and unique about an encounter with art. You see it, or read it, or listen to it, or watch it, and your initial reaction is unique to you and you alone. Art tends to cut through all those social filters that muddy up our society and sends a message straight to the individual (instead of the huddled masses).

Friends © 2009 America In ContextNow, that message might be: “Hi. I’m really, really ugly. Please take note.” And that’s fine, because the next guy, totally independently, can receive a message: “Hi. I’m you. You really need to take a hard look at this, and change your life before it’s too late,” and that can be a really powerful message.

Famous and beloved artists tend to touch more people, send out those messages that give them hope, or give them insight, or give them motivation to change. Technology can’t do that, it only provides a vehicle to get things done. Politicians can’t do that, all they can do is further enslave us into dependency on government. Theocrats can’t do that, all they can do is entrap us deeper into the constraints of dogma. Only artists can do that. Or maybe a real, good friend.

Folks like O’Neill, Bob Dylan, George Carlin, Steven Spielberg, Robert Plant, Stephen King, and a host of others, all manage to reach out and touch lots and lots of people, and I have no problem when these folks living well. In fact, I hope they do so.

Now Brittany Spears, well, that’s an entirely different topic …

Front View © 2009 America In Context

On a side note, I do want to mention one key difference between Poe’s and O’Neill’s NPS sites. In my prior post, I remarked how the Poe site’s neighbors seemed to like having Poe in the neighborhood. They do readings for local kids, and no one has ever defaced that wonderful mural of the author, even though it doesn’t seem like a pleasant neighborhood. It’s sad to say so, but it certainly appears that O’Neill’s neighbors aren’t particularly interested in having his site in their neighborhood. It’s a very upscale, expensive neighborhood, and you have to be bused in from a commuter parking lot (no tourist cars are allowed), and there doesn’t seem to be the connection between the neighborhood and the site or the man. In all fairness, the winding roads and limited parking are not conducive to lots of tourists, but you definitely get the feeling folks int he area don’t care too much for having a National Park unit in their vicinity. It’s sad, and in my view, it doesn’t speak well to their character.

I hope someone from the area can post here contradicting me. It was just an observation, drawn from a particular moment in time and seen through my jaded eyes. Hopefully reality is different. If you have direct experience with this site and its neighborhoods, and you think I’m full of crap, please post & tell me (just keep it civil 😉 ).

[Photos on this post are mine and copyrighted thusly. See other photos of Eugene O’Neill’s home on my Photobucket page.]



Eugene O’Neill National Historic Site

Eugene O’Neill Archives

Google map to E.O. NHS

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A Spot of Preservation, Please

Devil’s Postpile is a tiny little National Park System spot, especially when compared to nearby juggernauts like Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Death Valley National Parks. It only covers about 800 acres, even Valley Forge NHS is bigger than that. It’s just there to save a singular geologic feature: a volcanic extrusion cooled in hexagonal basalt columns. Yeah, not too exciting, but hey, it’s not something you see every day. It’s just a tiny little spot of interest, preserved.

Postpile © 2009America In Context

Which sort of brings up a point. How big of a deal is it for someone to look at something and say “hey, that’s pretty neat, we should save that.” Well, apparently, it’s a pretty big deal. Postpile took a bit of effort to save. Long hidden in the high-altitude mazework of the eastern Sierra Nevada, people didn’t even know it existed until the late 1800s. Of course, it wasn’t too long until water interests showed up wanting to blow these extruded columns straight to hell to build their dams. As usual, the happy ending here was a group of concerned citizens & environmental groups raising awareness leading to the salvation of this unique pile of rocks.

San Joaquin River © 2009 America In ContextYeah, I know, here we go again. Those naïve environmental whackos, sacrificing the public good and economic growth for worthless blind cave fish or piles of grey rocks. Why should we preserve all these unimportant things when people can’t put food on the table or get a drop to drink? Fair questions, I suppose. Fair questions, that is, until you realize that so many times this destruction is either for naught, or is ill-placed, or the fruits of that destruction is itself wasted, or, even worse, it’s realized after the fact that all this destruction has doomed us all.

Looking specifically at the economic collapse we find ourselves in, which seemingly marks the end of our nation’s economic prosperity, I have to ask myself: was it really worth destroying portions of our nation’s environment for “economic expansion”, when our own greed-driven stupidity has halted that very economic expansion and set us all down the road to ruin? Our wealth has evaporated, our jobs have moved overseas, our education and health care systems have collapsed, and all we have to show for it is a scarred landscape. There are parts of Texas that are forever ruined thanks to sloppy oil drilling. There are parts of West Virginia forever despoiled thanks to mountaintop removal mining. Long Island Sound will likely never recover from the damage caused first by New England mill towns and later from over-fertilized suburban lawns.

Rainbow Falls © 2009 America In ContextI know there’s a delicate balance between environmental preservation and economic expansion. I know NIMBY-ism prevents good projects, like robust electrical grids, light rail, and hydroelectric & geothermal power (two truly renewable energy sources), from getting completed. And there have been some very helpful projects like Hoover Dam and the TVA that have been done and resulted in vast improvements in the quality of life for millions. But what bothers me is the environmental damage we have wrought for absolutely no reason other than building over-large, unsustainable houses no one can afford to live, and mega-mall shopping complexes where no one can afford to shop. We’ve ruined our landscape and have nothing to show for it but a nation in economic collapse.

I’m just suggesting that anytime zoning boards or developers or the Dept. of the Interior or Congress considers destroying a chunk of our natural world for some special project, they need to seriously consider “is it worth it over the long term,” or is it simply some get-rich-quick scheme for some special interest group that won’t provide a lick of true economic growth for the nation. I suspect that as long as these groups can be easily bought off or deluded, we’ll never make those intelligent decisions.

Fallen Columns © 2009 America In Context

At least we have places like Devil’s Postpile and other national, state, and municipal parklands. Well, for now that is, until some shyster convinces us that paving them over will lead to “economic prosperity”.

[Pics on this post are mine and copyrighted thusly. See my other Postpile pics here.]


Eagle © 2009 America In ContextLinks:

Devil’s Postpile National Monument

Environmental Valuation Blog

CIA World Factbook: Environment (yeah, I know it’s not directly related to the content of this blog post, but I stumbled across it and found it neat)

Google map to Devil’s Postpile

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Getta Move On!

So many of the National Park Service’s historic sites are static. Event X happened at Location Y so we put up a visitor’s center! Come on down!

Not so the National Trails. The trails are sites-in-motion, and collectively record the most significant event in American history: the great east-west migration.  The nation has never been static, we’re marked more by moving around than we are by staying put.  From the first time the settlers crossed the Appalachians to Lewis & Clark to Manifest Destiny to underage girls sneaking away to Hollywood, we’re a nation on the move. This is true today: according to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 10% of the population moves from one state to another every five years. I wonder how many people live in a state other than their birth state? Quite a lot, I’d wager.

Blogging about these trails is gonna be tough. They aren’t single, compartmentalized sites, they’re a chain of locations connected by a common purpose. In the case of the California Trail, it’s a collection of sites important to the Gold Rush of the mid-to-late 1800’s. In the fall of 2007, during my trip to Yosemite, I took a little trip down (er, actually, up) the California Trail.

Sutter’s Fort — © 2008 America In ContextI started in Sacramento. What a cool little city! I had never been before, and I was really impressed with the downtown. It’s nice, clean, easily walkable, with a lot of great hotels, shops, restaurants, and (of course), brewpubs (I stopped in the Rubicon, a fine establishment 🙂 ). Went to Sutter’s Fort, an official stop on the California Trail. It’s a rebuild: all new construction meant to look like the old construction (hence the entrance fee). It’s nice enough, but it is fake. Good enough for the kiddies, I suppose, one young lad was having a grand old time playing cowboy amongst the barrels & things.

I then headed up Highway 50 to Lake Tahoe which was, and I’ve gotta be honest here, a real dump. Yeah, it was off-season, but still, I can’t see the appeal. I’m sure the lake is great for boating, and of course the skiing is renowned, but the town itself is a lame tourist trap. To see even worse, cross the border into Nevada for the casinos. “Craptastic” is a good word to describe these joints, all of which have a highly dubious clientele. Not gangster-dubious, but punk-kid dubious. Late teens & early twenty-somethings with attitudes bigger than the balls to back them up. “I’m a big time Texas Hold ‘Em player, look how cool I am!” Yeah, coolness — don’t stay up too late, I’m sure you have the morning McMuffin shift. I know some really good Hold ‘Em players, and all of them are nice guys with no attitudes and real jobs that punk-rats like you would drool over. I’m sure there’ll be a government bail-out program for jerkwads like you who blow all your minimum wage cash at tables way above your skill level. Anyway, I digress …

Sierra View — © 2008 America In ContextThe absolute best part of this little spur on the California Trail are these Northern Sierra mountain roads! I rented a Nissan Altima (well, that’s the car they gave me), and it was a blast taking it up and down those roads! Thanks to the time zones, I found myself awake at 5 AM on a Sunday morning. After breakfast, I hit the roads about 6 AM, right before dawn was breaking. Had the roads all to myself, what a ball!! Just like a car commercial, definitely a better time than breathing in Tahoe second-hand smoke.

At the bottom of Rte. 207 lies the Minden/Gardnerville area of Nevada. What a beautiful little valley! Small towns, great scenery, seemingly nice folks. A lot of bikers touring around, taking in the views. A great, quiet place, probably a great place to raise a family, and a place where I could see myself retiring (except I love New England so damn much). In the nearby town of Genoa sits Mormon Station State Park, another stop on the California Trail.  I got there too early (again, damned time zones), but it’s clearly another reconstructed site, and I just didn’t have the interest. So I hopped back into the rented Altima and took to the road again.

Quiet Hamlet — © 2008 America In Context

This time, the road was the famed Highway 395 that runs parallel to the back side of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Another great stretch of road with some great vistas. I would have made great time, but I found myself stopping for pictures far too often. Eventually, the road would lead to my real destination: Yosemite National Park.

But that’ll have to wait for another post. And with that, I’ve just pissed off Ellie again (you know who you are 😉 )!

Cloud Wrap — © 2008 America In Context

[Pics on this post are mine. Sadly, due to poor photo management, I lost many others, those that are left (mostly of Sutter’s Fort), are here.]


California National Historic Trail

Sutter’s Fort State Park

Mormon Station State Park

Highway 395 Road Trip

Rubicon Brewing Company

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Spanish Influence? Who’da Thunk It!

East Coasters, even those who don’t study history, know of Britain’s role in American history, for it’s glaringly obvious. We also have an idea of France’s role in the Revolution, the settling of New Orleans, and the Lousiana Purchase. We also know a lot about European immigrants, and, of course, the impressment of Africans in the days of the colonies.

Statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo courtesy of WikipediaWe never think about Spain. Well, maybe Floridians do, but the rest of us are clueless.

Californians, on the other hand, know full well about Spain’s role. Their whole countryside is full of it, from  the El Dorado National Forest down to the Cabrillo National Monument near San Diego. Spain had a huge role in the exploration and settling of the west coast of the continent, and, when you consider Mexico, Spain had a role in American history from the missions of San Antonio all the way to the the founding of San Francisco.

Cabrillo was the first west coast NPS site I visited, and the first one to plant the idea of Spanish influence in America in me. I happened to be in San Diego for a conference, and took the opportunity to stop by Cabrillo. It’s located on the Point Loma peninsula just past the naval reservation. The site honors Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo, a 16th century Spanish explorer who led one of the first expeditions up the western coast of North America. Sadly, he died during his explorations, but his trip did lead to further trips by other explorers, eventually leading to the settlement of the coastline by conquistadors and clergy (for good or for evil, you decide — my own opinions on the matter will get their due in a later post).

Cabrillo is a small site. There’s a small museum at the visitor’s center; the Old Point Loma Lighthouse; remnants of World War II coastal defenses; and a statue of Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo. The highlight of the site, by far, are the excellent views of the Pacific Ocean, the bay, and San Diego itself. I hear you can see whales migrating past the monument in January, and I know you can watch the seals have a conversation with a foghorn (you’ve gotta be there to know what I’m talking about).

On a side note, I have to give props to San Diego. I was only there for about a week, most of the time in conferences, but I liked what I saw. The historic district has some great restaurants, and the San Diego Zoo is an absolute must see. I don’t particularly like zoos, they’re usually like “animal abuse on display”, most disturbing. But the SDZ does a good job. The animals look healthy & happy, and the staff truly seems to care about them. Forget the pandas, the line’s too long. Check out the rain forest aviary & the wild cats. 8)

Keep your eye out for conventions in San Diego, and convince your boss you absolutely have to attend one. 🙂

Cabrillo Tidal Pool courtesy of Wikipedia

[Sorry, I didn’t own a digital camera when I visited Cabrillo. Photos shamelessly glommed from Wikipedia. However, here’s a great blog entry on Cabrillo with some fantastic photos. Sites like this make me want to work on my photography skills all the harder.]


Cabrillo National Monument

San Diego Zoo

Rock Bottom Brewery (I normally don’t care for chain brewpubs, but Rock Bottom has really good beer & food. The San Diego Rock Bottom is the first one I ever went to, hence the link here).

Google map to Cabrillo

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[Alcatraz is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area.]

Missed Opportunity – Sort Of

I actually didn’t make it to Alcatraz Island itself during my recent trip to San Francisco. If you go, don’t make the same, dumbass mistake I did. Call ahead and get your tickets in advance! Don’t assume visiting off-season will help you …

An Alcatraz tour an impossibility, I had to settle for second- (or perhaps third- or fourth-) best: a craptastic bay cruise put on by some local outfit. (I’d also add in “expensive”, but everything in San Fran’s expensive, so why bother mentioning it). The boat was a pit, the crew uninspired, and they had this annoying tape of some drunken lout reading a horrible script over lousy speakers. I had to block out these fabulous accommodations, and just zone in the bay itself.

San Francisco is really beautiful, and a great place to take a quick cruise. The bay is frothy and windy and cold, but the views are terrific! You’ve got the city itself, the tony suburbs of Sausalito and Tiberon, the park on Angel Island, and, of course, the magnificent Golden Gate Bridge. The greater Bay Area is truly beautiful.

Well, until you get to Alcatraz Island, that is.

Seals and Alcatraz — © 2008 America In Context

In my travels from sea to shining sea, I’ve never seen a place so truly ugly, so exuding of evil from its very pores, as Alcatraz. Yeah, I’ve seen a lot of miserable slums and decrepitude, but nothing like this. Its ugliness lies in such stark contrast to the beauty of the Bay, it’s shocking. It’s simply … vile. I’m not sure I want to set foot on the island now. Yeah, it might be fascinating, but it’s a morbid fascination: a fascination with criminals and punishment, two things that don’t particularly interest me.

It’s Gotta Be a Sickness

I don’t find crime interesting in the least. I find it repugnant. On top of that, I find it repugnant that people are fascinated by crime. Well, let me be more specific, here. I can see how investigating crimes, tracking perpetrators, and interpreting the criminal mind can be fascinating. I’m a big fan of CSI, for example, and not just because I’ve had a crush on the lovely Marg Helgenberger since China Beach. There’s a whole science to criminal investigation that is incredibly fascinating.

Pit of Hell — © 2008 America In ContextWhat I do find repugnant are those folks who dwell on criminals and criminal acts themselves. I’m talking about those who follow cases that have nothing whatsoever to do with them or anyone they know, just for the sheer sick pleasure of doing so. I’m talking about those who follow the lives of criminals, or the suffering of the victims, with a morbid, twisted pleasure at a level much, much worse than traffic-accident rubbernecking or attraction to snuff/torture films like Saw or Hostel. I’m talking about folks like Nancy Grace and other media scumbags who will dwell on the horrors of individual crimes solely for ratings, couching it under terms like “news”, gratuitously amplifying stories to ludicrous extremes that a term like “exploitation” doesn’t seem to do it justice. And yes, I’m talking about folks who watch those shows, too. Jon Benet Ramsay, Nicole Brown Simpson, Ronald Goldman, Laci Peterson: these were all victims, folks! Their deaths are tragedies, not entertainment! Show a little bit of respect for the victims and their families, and leave them alone! And don’t give the media weasels the gratification of high ratings, turn the channel to something more wholesome, like South Park or WWE Wrestling or something.

Crime? Or Punishment?

I’m sure there are a lot of visitors to Alcatraz who have this morbid fascination with crime and the criminal underworld. But there are also others who simply want to see “The Rock” out of curiosity, and that’s fine. The stories of Al Capone and Machine Gun Kelley are interesting, and there are the Alcatraz ghost stories, and the story of the American Indian occupation in 1969. So there is a lot of cool stuff about the island.

But, me being me, I see Alcatraz and have to think, not about crime, but about punishment.

Indians Welcome — © 2008 America In ContextCrime, unfortunately, is a reality in America. It’s a price to pay for living in a free society (ironically, the most “crime free” nations throughout history were really harsh dictatorships). So how is a free, advanced society supposed to handle crime? I look at how we do it here in America, and I have to think “there must be a better way.” But I can’t figure out what that way is. We seem to focus an awful lot on punishment, but not a lot on rehabilitation. But rehabilitation itself seems a farce, look at recidivism rates. Yet we can’t just keep punishing, for those who chronically punish are themselves lessened by the act (to see more views on what I mean by that, see my Andersonville post). And if punishment is bad, what about the death penalty? But contrast execution of criminals with lifetime imprisonment at public expense, and something doesn’t quite compute there either. It seems like the right answer is to stop creating environments where criminality develops, but until we take seriously the problems of inner city poverty and development, and find a real resolution to the drug problem, that’s a complete pipe dream. Of course, a lot of criminals have nothing to do with inner cities or drugs (John Wayne Gacy, Timothy McVeigh, Charles Manson, etc.)….

I don’t know what the right answer is. Clearly, with about 2.5 million prisoners nationwide, and a recidivism rate of about 50%, America hasn’t figured it out, either.

Bleagh, what a wretched topic. I’m gonna go watch South Park now.

The Rock and the Bay — © 2008 America In Context

See my other photos of Alcatraz Island here.


Alcatraz Island (part of Golden Gate National Recreation Area)

Alcatraz History

Alcatraz is Not an Island

Bureau of Justice Statistics

Google map to Alcatraz Island

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