January 18, 2010
The arrival of El Niño storms, various work obligations and injured hiking buddies have kept me away from the Marin Headlands since my last foray a couple weeks ago, but not to worry. California sorely needs the rain, so bring it on; and I know the land waits patiently for my next visit, which hopefully will be during a supposed break between the wet on Sunday, January 24. Until then: no death, no destruction (and alas, no pictures). Instead: some related musing of a different ilk, kinda.
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On January 18, 1988 I flew west from Ohio to California. I was, of course, much younger and much skinnier: with shoulder length, all brown hair and a lingering tan from a year spent working the tourist circuit on Saint Thomas and Cape Cod.
As the plane fell from the sky toward the runways of San Francisco International Airport I remember staring out the window, wondering with excitement what lay ahead and soon becoming quite concerned as I noticed the murky green water of San Francisco Bay getting closer and closer. Like many before me and many since I thought - with an escalating sense of alarm - that the captain had made some grave mistake, and that we were certainly about to touchdown in the middle of the Bay. But at the last minute the runway arrived under the wheels. We landed safely.
I had one duffel bag full of clothes and $200, which I think I borrowed, to my name.
My younger brother Steven and his weirdo friend David something-or-other met me at the airport. Together we drove into the city and made our way to Tai Chi on Polk Street for my first meal in San Francisco, then went to some sleazy, Polk Gulch gay bar called The Giraffe for a last and final.
I stayed for a month with John and Sarah Caine in their apartment on California Street at Hyde (they swear three months), quickly got a job waiting tables at Julie's Supper Club and soon - after a couple weeks with Lori and Holly - my own place: a studio apartment on Pine Street at Polk. My rent was $465 a month.
I remember hearing back then what others paid for studios and one bedrooms in, shall we say, tonier neighborhoods of the city and swearing to myself that no way would I ever pay that much for an apartment!
Well it's 22 years later, and I shell out a whole lot more in rent every four weeks. Still, I know I have a great deal; if I ever leave the landlord could probably double the price. And I still have that duffel bag, just in case you wondered, but now it's now buried beneath an unimaginable closet-full of clutter.
My, but what a difference a couple decades can make.
The question for today: Why am I still here? The answer for today: Read on.
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City and Wilderness, Side by Side
In fifteen minutes by car (and on Sundays by the #76 MUNI bus) I can immerse myself in the seaside vistas and beach and scrubby, coastal hills of the Marin Headlands (ah, yes: there's the link). So close, yet still a bit wild and untamed, it’s our outdoor, neighborhood playground of hiking and biking, of raptors and coyotes and deer and bobcats just across the Golden Gate. The Loop, or Hill 88, as we call it, is over there: a 2-hour, stair-master hike I tackle solo, or with friends, sometimes two or three times a month. A little further north is Tennessee Valley for more of the same. And in a quick half-hour the forested slopes of Mount Tamalpais State Park await, with miles and miles of secluded trails, with bay laurel and oak and moss and ferns, with lakes and gurgling streams and waterfalls and fantastic rock formations, and with the massive old-growth redwoods in Muir Woods. Beyond is Point Reyes National Seashore, but we’ll get to that later.
The Restaurant Biz
Julie’s Supper Club, Bizou, Kuleto’s, Boulevard, Farallon: I haven’t had many jobs in twenty-two years, but I have been fortunate to corral some really good gigs and to prove myself in pretty much the only profession I’ve ever known. Who knew, especially after my somewhat tumultuous and misguided teenage years, that I would turn out to have such a damn fine work ethic? I still very much enjoy the live theater of dinner service, and the unexpected travel opportunities associated with my position as Wine Director have led to some amazing wine-related trips: Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Germany, Italy, South Africa. I only hope that my feet hold out as I work the dining room floor beyond age 50.
Rarely too cold. Rarely too hot. The wind and the fog, although they can be a bit tedious at times, usually combine to create beautiful, moody, ethereal skies that are always in some animated state of flux. February and October are the Indian Summer out here and can be clear, blue and absolutely spectacular. If ever I miss the snow I can find it (a lot of it!) in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, just four hours away. Even the winter rains, which every year I dread before they arrive, can be dramatic and exciting and only end up painting the hills green again, stoking the waterfalls and streams that abound in the area. The four seasons may appear different and not as obviously clear cut as back east, but they’re here, and each one holds its own, unique charm.
The Mighty Pacific
It’s no surprise that people want to live by the ocean. The soothing, restorative, mesmerizing sight and sound of wave after wave crashing against the shore has for millennia attracted mankind, and I am no different. I love the varied faces of the ocean: violent or calm and dreamy, slate gray or deep blue or green, rippled with windy whitecaps or lulled into sluggish, molten swells. And now that I know what’s going on out there, in two decades seen for myself the plethora of wildlife that calls the productive coastal waters of Northern California home, I have a newfound respect and admiration for the big briny.
Gray whales, humpback whales, blue whales, fin whales, minke whales, the occasional killer whale, harbor porpoise, Pacific white-sided dolphin, Dall’s porpoise, Risso’s dolphin, harbor seals, California and Stellar sea lions, elephant seals: Lake Erie eat your heart out!
As I mentioned in the previous post, the annual parade of spring and summer wildflowers is always a sight to behold and always inspires in me a sense of rebirth and renewal. From the first tentative Footsteps of Spring in February to the pink and purple explosion of Farewell to Spring on the dry hills in July and August, the procession of color and size and shape never fails to delight. Lupine, Blue-eyed Grass, Ithuriel’s Spear, Indian Paintbrush, Trillium, California Poppy, Douglas Iris, Cow Parsnip, Queen Anne’s Lace, Checker Bloom, Man Root, Foxglove, Forget-Me-Not, Cala Lily, Chicks and Hens, Pussy’s Ears, Lilac, Sweet Pea: it makes for a riotous explosion of local fireworks.
Our Avian Friends
During the summer months the mere presence of the brown pelican is enough in my book to make living by the bay more of a joyous spectacle. I never tire of them. And every time I watch one glide into the Bay Area in late spring I remind myself what a miracle it is that, after the horrors of DDT and other assaults on their habitat forced them almost to extinction, they are still with us. Throw in the herons and egrets and terns and hummingbirds and hawks and falcons and grebes and geese and ducks and puffins and auklets and loons and cormorants and parrots and snowy plovers and owls and you’ve got a recipe for bird watchers heaven.
The Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary
Twice a year I venture out to the Farallon Islands, twenty-seven miles west of the Golden Gate. It’s no secret how much I adore these 8-hour, maritime excursions, and it’s no secret that not everyone shares my devotion to the Oceanic Society and their naturalist-led voyages (nor my iron stomach and sea legs). No matter what the trip brings it’s always a supreme adventure.
The Sierra Nevada
Lake Tahoe, Downieville, Sardine Lake, the Sierra Buttes, the North Fork of the Yuba River, Yosemite and Sequoia National Park. The hiking opportunities are simply endless; the stargazing superb. The mountain rivers are cold and sparkling clear; the summertime mosquitoes irksome. Totally different than the coast, and totally worth the drive.
I’ve enjoyed my share of spectacular sunsets throughout the world, and I usually stop to admire them and thank (insert your god) that I’ve made it through another day. There’s something though about watching the big fiery orb sink directly into the sea on the western edge of the continent. And its not only the impressive view to the ocean, but also the way the waning sun lights up the buildings and hillsides of San Francisco in a blaze of pink and orange as it dips toward the horizon. It’s hypnotic.
It’s still five hours away, but it’s only five hours away! You can leave at 9:00 AM and, with the time change, find yourself on a cream-colored sandy beach and in the turquoise water by 3:00 PM. Maui, Oahu, The Big Island, Kauai and the rest: a fantastic collision of fire, water and earth in the middle of the Pacific.
Duh. Considering my profession this one's a no-brainer. It just happens to be beautiful, to boot.
You want it; you got it! Mountains of tasty bread; world-class California wine; artisan cheeses from cow, goat and sheep; organic fruits and vegetables; and heritage breeds of beef, poultry and pig. French, Italian, Spanish, German, Mexican, Peruvian, Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai: a cornucopia of worldwide cuisine peppers the streets of San Francisco. And because it’s such a globally important market, the rest of the planet’s fine food and wine and other importable goods are found side by side with all the local stuff.
Okay, so I don’t take advantage of the scene as much as I should, but every time Cirque du Soleil rumbles into town and slaps up their iconic blue and yellow big top I remember how fortunate I am to live here. The best of mainstream and independent film, the Best of Broadway series, the comedies and dramas of ACT and the Curran theaters, MOMA, the de Young, the Palace of Fine Arts. One more resolution for the New Year: Note to self...get out there.
The city can be frustrating at times, and often I wish it was mandatory for everyone who makes the Bay Area home to learn some English, but there is no doubt that the melting pot of humanity in San Francisco only adds to its world-renowned flamboyance and appeal.
Along with all the creaks and groans and gray hair and expanding waistline comes the fact that my siblings back east, as they send their own kids off into adulthood, are finally able to sneak away and come visit me way out west. One by one they are starting to make the pilgrimage, and I get show them first hand all of the above, show them the wonders of Northern California and the City by the Bay.
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Until we meet again,
Peter J. Palmer