Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas, Then and Now

15401 Macauley Avenue
Cleveland, Ohio
December 24, 1969

The Palmer family Christmas tree - carried from the frozen parking lot of Saint Jerome’s Elementary School by my father George and some of my siblings a few hours earlier - stands in our cramped purple living room, fragrantly unfurling in the warmth of the house as it silently awaits our attention.  It is some years not the most handsome of trees, but by Christmas Eve there is no longer that big a selection left.  It is, however, chosen carefully and unhurriedly by those in attendance, and my father is no doubt his usual patient self as we race up and down the remaining aisles in search of just the right one.

We start with strands of lights: the large, standard, conical bulbs widely available at the time, of course, but also thin, colored glass tubes filled with some sort of liquid that bubble once they are plugged in.  This takes time, the stringing of the lights, as dad is not one for slapdash work of any kind; they must weave into the branches just so and completely circle the tree, lest someone caught in the tiny sliver of space between it and the wall not see some illumination.  No glaring bare spots allowed.

Next comes the box of ornaments.  A few extravagantly plumed, dove-like birds appear and are clipped into the green recesses of the spruce or fir or whatever we finally choose.  They remind me of something women in the 1940's might have worn on their hats; something my mom’s wacky Aunt Theda would have liked and perhaps bought at Higbee's, the fancy department store downtown on Public Square.  Large, clear glass orbs with our favorite Walt Disney cartoon characters trapped within are carefully unwrapped and strategically placed on the sturdier branches, as they are fragile and probably an expensive purchase at the time.  Gaudy Styrofoam balls covered in shiny fabric - ornately adorned with pushpins, sequins and other gewgaws - fill the big gaps in the boughs, and snowmen and angels of baked salt dough, probably painted by Brownies and Cub Scouts after they harden for a day, are placed here and there.  These look a bit crude compared with some of the spiffier ornaments collected throughout the years, but in mom’s eyes they are as coveted as any other family creation in the house.  Then one by one we each add our own shiny, mirrored red orb - hand-painted with our name and our birth year by dad’s sister, our Aunt Mary Helen - followed by long garlands of cranberries and freshly popped popcorn that we strung together earlier.

Outside the wind chill is howling off Lake Erie, and Jack Frost soon etches the night windows with a fractured, snowflake, fantasy landscape.  Inside Mitch Miller and the Gang is on the record player, loudly chanting a cappella versions of Deck the Halls and Jingle Bells and I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus, followed by Andy Williams crooning his silken, baritone Little Drummer Boy.

By the time the tinsel makes its appearance we are surely tired of the decorating ceremony, no doubt anxious to dig into all the holiday goodies on the dining room table.  We throw the tinsel in handfuls at the tree, hoping no one will notice, only to take it off again and add it single strand by strand as my father likes and - amid our complaints and eye rolling - demands.

At last the angel is eased on top of the tree.  At last some neighborhood friends and cousins arrive.  Finally we are free to eat dad's New England fish chowder, jumbo shrimp with cocktail sauce or a slimy oyster should we dare, and taste the traditional holiday treats from mom's side of the family: clove-scented, powdered sugar-dusted kourabiéthes and Greek walnut cake.

Speaking of mom, before long someone will have to rush her to the hospital with an acute asthma attack, brought on perhaps by the shrimp, perhaps by the unseen organisms lugged home with the tree, perhaps by the sheer stress of it all.  And later, even though we try to be diligent and make sure he doesn't ingest it, Perky the Siamese cat will calmly saunter through the living room with long, shiny strands of tinsel extruding from his back end.

Early the next morning we will wake our parents at 5:00, then again every half-hour until 7:00, at which time we finally coerce them from the snug confines of their bedroom.  As we gather in an excited mass of seven Palmer kids at the top of the stairs (AG, Thea, Molly, Peter, Anne, Susan, Stephen), mom will tiptoe down to light up the tree.  From above we will listen as she rustles about, listen as she emits little “oohs” and “ahs” at all the surprise stuff Santa has left behind, which to our young and eager ears is excruciating.  If she didn't the night before, at this point she will probably take a small bite of the cookie and a quick sip of the milk that we placed beneath the chimney before going to bed on Christmas Eve.

*  *  *  *  *

3225 Octavia Street - Apartment #2
San Francisco, California
December 24, 2010

I don't own a cat, and I don't leave cookies out for Santa anymore, but I will be opening a bottle of bubbly early on Christmas Eve, toasting my friends and loving family alike: happy I can celebrate with the former and wishing I could be with the latter.  Given a little bit of luck my version of dad's New England fish chowder will be finished and warming on the stove, just like in Cleveland, Ohio three hours earlier on the day.  Just like it has for many, many years.  Join me in spirit if you will and raise a glass or two.  Even if our families are far away let’s celebrate as such.  Let’s clink some glasses and sing some carols and eat some holiday treats and throw up the tree.  I am not as concerned with the placement of the lights as my father once was, but I do love me some good, old-fashioned tradition.

I no longer sit at the top of the stairs anymore, either - anxiously waiting for mom to finally invite us all down to the living room with the purple walls.  To a tree surrounded by gifts from our parents, from our family Kris Kringles and from Santa; to a breakfast of dad's favorite candied fruit roll; to the carefree, sepia-tinged, Super-8 images of those Christmas mornings long ago.

My sister Thea with dad's fave: the Christmas Roll

I do, however, try to rediscover the magic of Christmas each and every December 25th.  Try to reconnect with the wide-eyed child in us all.  These days a quick cup of coffee, a bagel and a nice long hike are usually on the holiday radar, and usually do the trick.  It's a tradition I cherish: a rejuvenating romp beneath the sometimes piercingly blue winter skies of Northern California.  A communion with the wonders of Mother Earth.  Given the early rains this year I've got my sights set on Cataract Falls in Marin County (details and photos perhaps coming your way via The Headlands Report 2011).  Given the monumental, life-changing events this year - the lofty, encouraging peaks and the immobilizing, mind-numbing depths - it may be hard to celebrate, but I will try.

For Susan.

For Aunt Mary Helen and for Aunt Peash.  For Stephen.  For my mother: may she somehow continue to find the strength she needs.  For Ed and Peter and Matthew: may recovery and healing happen.

Hell, even for Peace on Earth: a bandied about phrase and a futile wish if they're ever was one.  Too bad, all that, because just imagine what we humans might accomplish if it actually came to pass.  Imagine the time, the resources, the money, the creativity and the freedom such an milestone might unleash!  Okay, never mind.  Don't waste your time.  It's been over 2000 years, for god's sake (uh oh...that may be one of the problems).

Yikes!  That certainly spiraled downward quickly.

Okay then: how's this?  I will celebrate for the promise of the New Year.

*  *  *  *  *

Look to this Day!
For it is Life, the very Life of Life.
In its brief course lie all the
Verities and Realities of your Existence:
The Glory of Action,
The Bliss of Growth,
The Splendor of Beauty.

For Yesterday is but a Dream and
Tomorrow only a Vision;
But Today well lived makes Every
Yesterday a dream of Happiness,
And Every Tomorrow a vision of Hope.
Look well, therefore, to this Day!

- Kālidāsa, a Sanskrit writer and poet

*  *  *  *  *

Past and Present: a polar bear made by my sister Molly
and mom's Santa from the 1960's

Palmer Family Treats
Above: Anne's kourabiéthes, Mom's anise-scented pizzelles
Below: Molly's rum cake, Thea's raspberry ribbons

Santa: aka Ginger and George

*  *  *  *  *

All righty, then!  Time to clean the apartment.  Time to break out the box of decorations and hang my childhood Christmas stocking (45 years old and still stuffable).  Time to make a shopping list for the fish chowder and Greek walnut cake and whatever else I can muster up.  Time to do this holiday thing, lest the holiday thing pass me by!

Happy Kwanzaa, cyber-hood.
Happy Hanukkah.
And have a very Merry Christmas.

Peter J. Palmer

Monday, December 6, 2010

I Know What You Did, Fella!, or The Headlands Report Goes to Yosemite in a Snowstorm

Over twenty-two years of frolicking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains - camping, hiking, swimming, lazing, eating, drinking, worrying about bears, avoiding bears, then one day actually going out to look for bears, exploring, bike riding, watching the sunset, star gazing - yet I had never experienced Yosemite Valley under the cloak of winter. Had seen all those gorgeous, iconic, black and white Ansel Adams photographs, but had never witnessed the snowy splendor in person.

Well, I can now check that one off The Bucket List. Even better: I somehow made it out alive. All right, so that may be a wee bit overdramatic; but I did make it out in one piece, which, believe me, is not.

*  *  *  *  *

"Jeez Palmer...just take a deep breath and relax. The worst thing happens we get stuck, call AAA and get towed out."

Meet Ryan: my accomplice in the harebrained escapade.

I shot him a sideways glance and hoped one of our cellphones would get reception when rescue time arrived. Let me rephrase that: I hoped his Droid would, because I had my iPhone and pretty much knew it would be worthless in the midst of the surrounding wilderness. How's this for your new slogan, AT&T?: No bars, just when you need them!

We were 5,000 feet above sea level in the Sierra Nevada, slowly and painstakingly and nervously fishtailing Highway 41 on our way to Yosemite Valley in Ryan's red Toyota truck. We were in the wrong lane of a narrow, two-lane mountain road, and it was snowing. Hard. Had another car eased around the bend we would either find ourselves in a head-on collision (granted a minor one, because pretty much everyone was driving 15 miles an hour) or be forced to stop. And if we stopped, we would never get going again. We would indeed be stuck.

Contrary to Ryan's assurance of the worst that could happen, that was not the worst, and I knew it. The worst would be to slowly slide off the road and down a cliff, which every so often was possible as the wall of mountain out my passenger-side window gave way to a lovely scenic drop-off. Briefly I thought about unbuckling my seat belt, just in case I needed to leap from the truck as it slipped over the edge and tumbled into the abyss.

Which was why we were in the wrong lane, the inside lane. You see there was fresh snow over there; it hadn't been plowed recently, and Ryan's truck seemed to get better traction in the snow, as opposed to the bare, slushy, frozen blacktop in the correct lane, the lane next to all that open free-fall. (Recently in this instance means within 10 or 15 minutes; with their orange hazard lights spinning, a fleet of snow plows muscled to and fro at regular intervals. It wasn't a blizzard, but it was coming down!)

A white SUV passed us at a death-taunting 20 miles per hour, and I saw the woman driving shoot a glance our way; read in her look "What the hell are those two lunatics doing over there in the wrong damn lane?!"

That, or "What the hell you boys think you're gonna do with those bikes?" Yup...For some obscure reason our mountain bikes were in the flatbed, an odd decision given the weather. What we should've stowed back there was another 400 pounds of sandbags or rocks; we certainly coulda' used the added weight for traction.

*  *  *  *  *

From the small-town, unincorporated "census designated place" of Oakhurst, CA. (formerly Fresno Flats), nestled in the foothills south of the park boundary at an elevation of 2400', the drive to Yosemite Valley proper on SR 41 zig-zags up to a 5,000' pass, dips back down to the settlement of Wawona, then climbs again to 6,000' at the junction with Glacier Point Road. In clement weather, even with all the ins and outs and ups and downs, the trip lasts less than an hour.

On Tuesday, November 23, 2010 it took us four.

From the very beginning it was obvious we had an adventure on our hands. Monday night we slept soundly at JoAnne and Joe's house (Ryan's mom and stepdad) in Oakhurst, and come Tuesday morning we set our sights north around 10 a.m. on blessedly bare asphalt. Yes!, I initially thought to myself. The weather was jibing perfectly with my master plan: a good storm had passed through the day before but cleared, and upon our arrival the previous evening a short hike to Lewis Creek and Conlieu Falls had immediately thrust us into a winter wonderland in the shadowy folds of the mountains, beyond the reach of the sun.

Within 10 minutes of leaving town and starting the climb, however, it started to snow, and soon we came upon a road block with a highway patrolman who informed us we needed chains to proceed. Well chains in winter in this part of the world are as easy to find as a flannel shirt or a gun rack, and within a half hour we had them bought and properly wrapped around the rear wheels. Problem was, even with the chains we couldn't get the truck off the miniscule incline where Ryan had parked on the side of the road. Yeah, that's correct; there was nowhere near enough weight over the back wheels, and we needed a push just to get going again, but a push we got (Good Samaritans in winter in this part of the world are as easy to find as chains, flannel shirts and gun racks, as most everyone needs a hand sooner or later).

We were off! Granted, our "off" was like a giant tortoise might be off in the Galapagos Islands when - should this ever actually happen in the Galapagos - the temperature plummets to bone-cracking 28-degrees Fahrenheit.

Woo-hoo! Ten, fifteen miles an hour! Sometimes five, I swear, as ace driver Ryan coaxed the truck higher and higher to snowier and snowier climes, then down again into Wawona, into the land of the big trees: the Giant Sequoias. The day before my master plan had included a stop to see the behemoths, the heftiest plants on Earth, but given the unfolding weather I quickly banished that idea from the itinerary. The valley, and the valley alone, was my goal; which was smart, because our 4-hour drive in and a 3-hour drive back out via the less drastic State Highway 140 (there was no freakin' way I was gonna let us chance the unknown conditions on SR 41), coupled with a 5 p.m. sunset, left us a brief two and a half hours to explore Yosemite on foot.

At that point in our journey, however, we didn't know it was gonna take four hours. Had we known, would I still have opted to continue? Probably. We were by then kinda egging each other on, both of us with our eyes on the prize come hell or high water (which in Yosemite has also been know to happen in a flash); caught up in one of those outings that, in retrospect, was probably better left undone, but that we were gonna do anyway.

I could already hear my mother Ginger, when I recapped the details of our trip, ask me like she has a few times in the past, I'm afraid to admit: "Where's the smart one in the group, Peter? The one who says 'Maybe this isn't such a good idea?'"

I've never really had a good answer for that question, and I certainly wouldn't have one if we made it back to the safety of Oakhurst. What was I gonna say? "C'mon, mom...Yosemite in the snow!?"

On the plus side, Ryan did indeed know his little red truck and had driven it in similar conditions before, so inch by inch, foot by foot, mile by mile, he somehow kept us moving. Other people, other vehicles, were about as well, which I found odd and comforting all at the same time. Yes, unbelievably there were like-minded fools who had the hankerin' for Yosemite in a snowstorm.

Every bend in the road revealed another dicey, icy incline, but somehow we successfully breached the first summit and cautiously made our way down to Wawona. As we passed the Wawona Hotel, a handsome establishment straight from a Hollywood Western, I found myself thinking back on "Yosemite Summer, 1996", when a gaggle of friends and I stayed nearby: twice in Cabin 2-B and once in Cabin #64. To this day I fondly remember the trips - one in late spring, one in high summer and one at the onset of autumn - and images from our adventures still bring a smile to my face: gasping for breath as we trudged to the top Yosemite Falls, legs and lungs burning (the view from the top and the sense of accomplishment made it all okay...when we were finished); exploring the high county and Tuoloumne Meadows; and finally, in September, my first trek to the bald, granite summit of Half Dome, an absolutely stunning but grueling 16 miles round trip, with a 4,800' elevation gain to boot.

I was snapped out of my pleasant, sunshine-filled reverie by the feel of the truck fishtailing - wheels spinning in vain as they searched for traction. Inhale and exhale, I told myself, and while you're at it unclench your fingers (they were digging holes into my thighs). Yup, we were on the climb again.

"Hey, Palmer.  Relax." Thanks, Ryan...I'll try.

Unbeknownst to us Yosemite Valley was another two and a half hours away, but the scenery, as I looked around, was already beautiful, like in the pictures. Like I imagined it would be! A foot and a half of fresh, powdery snow from the previous storm lined the road. The Douglas firs, the Ponderosa pines, the giant sequoias, the granite outcroppings, the newly invigorated streams: all were drooping with, laden with, lined with, a blanket of pearly, heavenly white. And more was falling. Large, wet, luscious, lacy, storybook snowflakes fell from the heavy and gray, overcast sky. The wind was minimal, so the flakes drifted straight down: silent, succulent snow that quickly covered any tracks and begged to be tasted.

I got the chance to do just that - to tilt my head backward like when we were kids, open my mouth and let the flakes softly alight upon my tongue - got the chance as we sat in an hour-long standstill, a string of 20 or so cars going nowhere fast. The road to Glacier Point (elevation 7,214') split off to the right, and was closed for the winter. We had made it to 6,000', the highest point in our journey, and then, well...we waited.

People hopped in and out of their cars and briefly exchanged theories on the nature of the hold-up. A few snowballs arced high in the air, found their appointed targets. Ahead of us the door of an SUV opened and an old woman with a walker, assisted by her family, tottered into a nearby building. I watched two teenagers, as teenagers are want to do, push each other into a four foot-high drift of snow.

"I'm bored," Ryan said forty-five minutes into the delay. "Tell me a story."

I was concerned that after all our time and effort we were about to be informed that the road ahead was impassable, so I told him the story of how I was gonna shove him into a snowbank if he didn't behave, if he didn't quit telling me to relax.

We had food, warm clothes and plenty of gas, and a restroom was open as we waited for the highway patrol to clear a supposed accident ahead of us on Highway 41, which, once we got going again, was mostly downhill into the valley at 4,000'.

Every vehicle had to pause and listen to instructions by a park official at the front of the line before proceeding: "Wait 'til the car ahead gets around the bend, and drive slow."

*  *  *  *  *

Ahhh...Yosemite Valley! Buttressed by 3,500 vertical feet of granite, by Half Dome, El Capitan, Glacier Point, Royal Arches and Cathedral Peaks; laced with Bridalveil, Yosemite, Vernal and Nevada Falls; graced with the mighty Merced River, the thick stands of trees and the broad, grassy meadows: You are truly a gift from the gods to mankind.

At the turn of the 20th Century the area had yet to be afforded National Park status, but luckily Galen Clark, John Muir, the early Sierra Club, President Theodore Roosevelt and like minded decision-makers preserved it for eternity in 1906 when the land was transferred from the State of California back to the federal government. In doing so they kept Yosemite from the fate of Hetch-Hetchy Valley in the northern part of the park: damned, and now underwater.

Early photographs, paintings and stories of the fabled land hit the mainstream, and once the infrastructure for mom and pop tourist was laid, people started coming: by car, by train, on horse and on foot. They still are, in droves. The 1950's saw attendance first reach 1,000,000 annual visitors, and nowadays the park can seem almost loved to death as a yearly parade of almost four million sightseers travel from all parts of the globe to marvel at the mind-blowing natural beauty. Most of them come for the 7-square miles of the valley floor itself, and most in spring, summer and autumn.

Which brings us back to our story, brings us back to the reason I had to see Yosemite in winter.

Besides the scenery - which was as peaceful and as lovely as I imagined it would be, and which included the sight of an eight-point buck hoofing the snow in search of food and a huge black bear in the woods - my most potent memory from the trip to the valley was not a visual one. It was the sound, or lack of sound I should say. All my previous experience with Yosemite had been in spring, summer or fall, when the valley is crawling with those aforementioned pesky tourists. I've never had a problem with "high season" because my friends and I stay with the masses but learned early on how to escape the crowds, and I love what those months offer the hiker, the swimmer, the star-gazer: sunny, T-shirt days next to clear, long-sleeve nights, piercingly blue skies next to afternoon thunderstorms.

Yosemite in winter is all about an improbable stillness and hush amid such grandeur. The scenery looms around and above you as in summer - the towering trees, the imposing granite cliffs, the unbelievable, incredible mass of it all - and still appears like it should be buzzing, humming, noisy: all that BIG, all that OPEN, all that POWER. But it isn't. The valley is remarkably silent, even when you're by the banks of the Merced River or dwarfed at the base of Yosemite Falls. It is utterly enchanting.

"Oh my god Ryan if you can slow down without an accident there's a huge black bear in the trees!" I said it so fast it came out as one long word, and Ryan did in fact ease off the gas. He couldn't really slam on the brakes, lest we go twirling off the road into a...hell, it coulda' been any number of things. He got a good peek, though: The biggest bear I've ever seen in the wild - a prime sighting - and it walked with that unmistakably confident, lumbering gait the males adopt when they're fully mature.

Alas, the hour was getting on toward 4:30 p.m. The sun had slipped behind the rim of the valley cliffs, and it was time to head out, head home. We had driven the loop road almost twice, walked to the base of Yosemite Falls, lingered on Swinging Bridge, stumbled upon a bear and a handsome buck, but very few people. We had not seen Half Dome or El Capitain, as they were enveloped in clouds, and it didn't seem like they were destined to appear anytime soon.

I was supremely content with the entire outing, but I realized as we drove toward the exit that I wished we were scheduled to stay the night. I wanted more.

*  *  *  *  *

The nighttime drive out of Yosemite on Highway 140 was in fact a whole lot less treacherous than our entrance during the day. On the odometer it's the long way back to Oakhurst but I didn't care, and I think Ryan was fine with our decision as well.

The adventure wasn't over, though, and neither was the drama.

Everything was swimming merrily along until we turned south on Highway 49; we were actually up to 40-mph on the descent into Mariposa town, and when an official sign on the side of the road claimed they were no longer needed we stopped to take off the chains. Alas, from Mariposa the road climbs anew; not as high as 41 but it climbs, and that's when things once again got a bit sketchy. Snow lined the road, ice reappeared and at times I could feel the wheels of the truck search for traction.

"Okay, I'm kinda over this now," one of us said. The other probably sighed or nodded in agreement. We weren't talking much any more.

Up and down, snow and no snow, ice and no ice, then (here's a new one) dense fog. Ryan slowed down to a gruesome but sane pace. We were getting there, but the trip was dragging on when all we wanted was to be back home with Joe and JoAnne.

From behind us a small sports car passed when the time was right, but zipped ahead at what I thought was too fast a clip. I think I shook my head in disbelief at the occupant's bravado (I'm a grandpa; if it was me driving that night we would still be making our way back). Lo and behold, not a minute later I watched the car fishtail, spin out of control, maybe do a couple 360's, launch itself up the embankment and into the side of a mountain.

"Holy shit!  Look out!" I yelled (maybe screamed). We were close behind but able to stop without or own accident.

I breathed a sigh of relief, then immediately to myself thought: 'Son of a bitch! Almost home and now because of this asshole we're gonna be dragged into a whole big lengthy rescue scenario!'

Not so Good Samaritan of me, I know. The Good Samaritan, the nice guy, was apparently behind us, and his name was Tyler: a young and strapping, handsome lad who came to the-idiot-in-the-sports-car's rescue.

Ryan and I were already out of the truck (I could feel the ice underfoot as soon as I stepped on the road) and were heading over to the scene when headlights appeared. I turned around and saw a hefty Dodge Ram Hemi coming our way, saw myself on one of those TV police shows where the people who stop to help get hit by a passing car, and had the gut-wrenching realization that we were about to become the victim. But the big truck eased to a stop and Tyler got out: all six foot-two of his dirty-blond, lanky self.

"Damn," he admitted, "My brakes locked up when I hit 'em and I started to skid. Thought I was gonna cause more trouble there for a moment."

The daredevil driver was okay, shaken up but not hurt. His car was a different story: both front tires were flat, the front end was a mess, and the windshield was one big-ass, complex spiderweb crack.

All-righty then, let's fix this mess! Ryan called the Highway Patrol; Tyler roped the small car to his truck and towed it to a turnout not far away, and I stood there watching Tyler...oops, watching Tyler and Ron (that was his name!) deal with the car, I mean. He climbs trees for a living, Tyler said when I asked him, and was on the way home, which thank goodness just happened to be in the direction Ron, said idiot, was going.

When the Sheriff arrived Ryan and I told him what had happened, and kinda assumed he would take things from there, help out the guy who's car was inoperable, take him somewhere warm and safe for the night. Nope. We looked back as we climbed into the truck and saw Mr. Sheriff drive off, leaving the car on the side of the road and Tyler as the sole escort.

"What the fuck!" Ryan exclaimed.  Did you see that? The cop left!"

I had, and I didn't quite understand, but I was happy we were once again on our way home; happy that someone else, the stalwart Tyler, was left dealing with Mr. Doofus McLeadFoot.

*  *  *  *  *

I didn't actually hear it for myself, but when we walked through the door in Oakhurst around 9 p.m., kicked off our shoes and shed our cold and wet outerwear - when we admitted that we had indeed made it all the way into the valley and back, Joe looked at Ryan and said: "I know what you did, fella!" What he meant with those words was that he understood exactly the sort of trip we must have had, given the weather. From the warmth of their house he and JoAnne had watched the snow fall all day long, and had expected us to return hours ago. When we didn't come fishtailing down the road they then thought a phone call would be imminent, a call saying we had decided to abandon the master plan, take in a movie and lunch instead.

"Where's the smart one in the group, Peter..."

To our delight the unknown had not stopped JoAnne from cooking up a feast. She baked a scrumptious chocolate-hazelnut tart during the day, which we happily sampled after a plate or two of grilled tri-tip steak and hearty roasted vegetables. The neighbors stopped over before dinner, and Ryan and I recounted the day's improbable adventure with a bottle of Bonaccorsi pinot noir in hand, happy that it was safely history. A glass of Macallan 10 year-old scotch and a round of the card/spelling game Quiddler followed dessert.

I slept like a large granite rock, like a big lumbering bear is apt to do come winter. The following morning, under blissfully blue skies and snowless roads, we loaded up our frozen bikes and hightailed it back to the San Francisco.

*  *  *  *  *

In what will soon be 23 years living in San Francisco I have tackled the lofty peak of Half Dome twice, Yosemite Falls once, the Mist Trail and Nevada Fall several times, and hiked countless other trails, both well-traveled and off the beaten track; spent time in the High Country and Tuoloumne Meadows, with a posse of friends searched out Dog Lake, May Lake, the tops of Dog Dome and Lembert Dome. I have found myself hugging trees with trunks 10 feet in diameter, trees that first sprouted to life 1,500 years ago. I have baked in the sub-alpine sun on smooth granite rocks 10 million years old and dunked my lily-white butt in water so damn cold it takes your breath away (and if you're a guy makes your testicles disappear). I have enjoyed surprisingly tasty pizza on the patio in Camp Curry with like-minded revelers from around the world; in isolation devoured a turkey sandwich and a frosty beer at the base of Illilouette Fall with two hiking buddies. And that's all just in Yosemite: throw in Downieville, Sierraville, the Lakes Basin, the north and south forks of the Yuba River, Sequoia National Park, Lake Tahoe and more, and the list of cherished memories gets even longer.

I consider myself blessed to have in the backyard of my adopted home the whole mountainous Sierra Nevada chain, and Yosemite Valley in particular: one of Planet Earth's most awe-inspiring natural attractions. And I am thrilled that I finally got to see it blanketed in freshly fallen snow.

It was worth the wait, and the trouble.

Peter J. Palmer

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

25 Hours

November's here. Rocktober is gone, as is Daylight Savings Time this weekend. The rain has started (although the past three days have been simply spectacular!). The whales are leaving, the blues and humpbacks and fin and minke beginning their long swim to warmer climes. The pelicans are following. Winter is nigh.

Boy-oh-boy, what a summer! What a freaking wild, intense, crazy mother-huncher of a summer. And fall...Hell, make that year. What a freaking wild, intense, crazy mother-huncher of a year!

*  *  *  *  *

Last Saturday I went to The Marine Mammal Center in the Headlands, then came home and watched the boys of October play some baseball (Congratulations, World Champion San Francisco Giants!). My friend Linda had a tour set up for us, a tour of the new multi-million dollar state of the art facility that replaced the old shacks and rickety, chain-link enclosures started in 1975, that was piece-mealed together through the ensuing decades. The facility that stands now, with the new construction complete last year, is the largest such marine mammal rescue and rehabilitation center in the world.

They don't take whales there. Would if they could, probably, but instead host mostly sick or injured sea lions and harbor seals and juvenile elephant seals (the adults are waaaaay too big). Every so often a fur seal, we learned; couple of sea otters; and once even a dolphin, I think.

Here's a link to the MMC website:

I told the woman who led our group around the various buildings, the courtyards and holding pens out back the following story - the condensed version. She was okay as a guide, not fabulous, but it was still a fun visit. Made me remember the incident from 12 years ago.

Read on.

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25 Hours


I drove up to Steep Ravine yesterday with Don and Heidi, Julie and Lori. Steep Ravine is a set of ten environmental cabins and campsites about forty minutes north of San Francisco, a part of Mount Tamalpais State Park. It's just off of and below Highway 1, perched on a tall cliff overlooking the mighty Pacific. Reservations for the site are taken six months in advance; you call for the combination to the gate at the turn-off when your dates arrive, and voila!, have at it. We usually reserve three times a year. So close to SF, but light-years away.

We stayed in cabin #4 this time, the Rocky Point Cabin: one main room plus two bedrooms; no electricity; wood burning stove inside, grill outside; five raised wooden planks for mattresses and sleeping bags; picnic table and benches; a big sliding glass window facing west, the surf pounding away within earshot; a wide, rock-strewn beach just down the path; a counter for meal prep; and when the fog ain't in a big fat-ass sun sinking directly into the ocean. Absolutely beautiful.

Arrived at 4pm as the fog was finally burning off. After unpacking we hiked down to the beach and climbed some rocks and explored. The hillsides are still in the midst of their annual explosion of wildflowers, grass and scraggly brush: sea fig, lupine, buttercups, daisies, calalillies, iris, manzanita, oak and bay, laurel, Indian paintbrush, morning glory. This year the El Nino rain has whipped it all up a notch.  Everywhere the air is scented: a mixture of roasting earth, perfume, herb, brine, decay. It's out of control.

We climbed back up and watched a spectacular sunset from a perch by the cabin, California chardonnay in hand. Watched the hills ignite, the tide come roiling in, pelicans and cormorants dive for food, sea lions patrol the water just offshore. Watched the sky burst into orange and blue and purple and pink. Then, as the sun dipped below the horizon the time was ripe for red wine. And time to fire up the grill. We mustered up a huge meal of roasted corn on the cob, campfire potatoes, sautéed mushrooms, and grilled flank steak. Ate like pigs. Washed it all down with 1996 Charles Joguet Chinon and Qupé Central Coast Syrah as the stars lit up the night sky.

When we finished dinner we stumbled back down to the beach and lay down amidst the rocks and listened to the waves thunder around us, watched outer space twinkle high above. Soon after it was back to the cabin and into our somewhat rustic beds. I don't remember ever sleeping so well.

The next day began with blue skies, a salty breeze and a breakfast of toasted bagels, shmear, tomato juice, campfire espresso and cappuccino (remember, we're in California). Then we suited up to go exploring again.

When the tide is low (actually you need a minus tide) it is possible to sneak around some rocks that are usually underwater at the far end of the beach, scale some more cliffs, poke though a sea cave or two (watching the surf at all times), and finally arrive at a spot where, just below the surface of the sand, hot sulfur-scented water bubbles to the surface. You dig deep, surround the hole with rocks to keep out the ocean, and you have a mineral bath. Strip down and soak. When high tide marches back in it is time to go back the way you came.

So this is how we spent the late morning, early afternoon. We didn't have to fight the tide, some other people came so we left the baths to them and clamored back around the point. Back at our beach we stripped down again and braved the nippy waters of the Pacific (it was actually hot and sunny by then). The short rocky beach gave way to a long, soft sand bar. Monstrous waves, ten-twelve feet high, were breaking just beyond the sand bar, but I didn't stray out that far (Don did, however). After a good twenty minute swim, we dried ourselves off and went back to the cabin for lunch, unaware that a drama had been unfolding just to our south.

As Heidi and Don and I were exploring the surf, Julie and Lori were hiking the bluffs in the other direction. They passed a fellow camper who told them he had seen an injured seal or sea lion down amongst some rocks. They returned to the cabin and called the Marine Mammal Center (cell phone: remember we're in California), explaining that the animal was just south of Steep Ravine, on the beach below the cliffs. So after lunch we set off in search of the spot. Sure enough, there he/she was. Looking through our binoculars you could see it was obviously injured with a gory wound on the left front flipper (bone was visible, muscle and blubber were torn away, stuff was oozing out), stranded just up from the surf. Thinking we had done our part by alerting someone, we turned around to head back. Two young women (they looked 20 years old, max) were approaching us.Yes, they were volunteers from the center.

Well, my first thought was that they needed a whole lot more help. Not us, but some trained help. We could further injure the animal if we tried to tangle with it; hell, we could injure ourselves! But it became obvious after some chat that they could not rescue it alone, and that no one else was coming.

To make a long story short, we all climbed down; one woman threw a big green net over the animal (it was too weak to really try to escape), then a big towel to calm it down and make handling easier. We picked it up (avoiding the razor sharp teeth as it snapped back) and backed it into the cage, hoisted the cage back up the vertical cliff (it took four of us), carried it over the coastal trail back to their truck, and waved goodbye as they drove off to get some medical attention.

We helped save a California sea lion.

Then we packed up and drove back over the Golden Gate Bridge to our lives in the City. Lives where this kind of stuff happens.

Ahhh, California!

June 1998

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At the Marine Mammal Center the sea lion was named Tommy, in honor of the gentleman who first saw it and sounded the alarm (a custom they still practice over there). I thought it should have been Rocky, 'cause it was found injured and stranded on Rocky Point, but whatever. We kept tabs on Tommy's recovery for a bit, and before long learned the center had released him back into the sea. Who knows...Perhaps he's out there now.

To creatures great and small.
To recovery, to healing, to rebirth.
To winter, which means that spring and baseball are just around the corner.
Peter J. Palmer

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Rocktober Sky

Hill 88, aka The Loop
Marin Headlands
Saturday October 9, 2010

Rodeo Beach, the start of The Loop

Up, up and more up

Looking north to Tennessee Valley, Muir Beach
and Duxbury Point

WWII Army installation

Tennessee Valley trails to the beach
and to Pirate's Cove

Looking south to Rodeo Beach and San Francisco

The Big Briny

Looking north to Mount Tamalpais

Junction with the Wolf Ridge Trail

Looking back at the Wolf Ridge Trail
and Hill 88

Down the Miwok
Up the Miwok

Rodeo Lagoon

Thanks Linda for another spectacular hike.
And thank goodness for October in Northern California.

Peace out...time for a bike ride.