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Living and Writing in the Natural World

Kayaking in an Alien Land

Point Reyes: the hitch hiking block of granite, currently 30 miles north of San Francisco

With time for (at least) one more adventure before the winter rains hit California, Al and I strapped the kayaks atop my Subaru and set off for Point Reyes on the coast, to paddle where Sir Francis Drake had careened his Golden Hind 400 years ago, visions of elephant seals, bat rays, and diving pelicans dancing in our heads, only mildly concerned that we’d be camping and kayaking right on top of the San Andreas Fault. After all, what were the odds?

Sitting around the campfire the first night, Al with his corncob pipe, me with a slim cigar and flask of Scotch, it sounded like a freight train approaching, initially, complete with the rumbling of the ground. Then the trees began to sway, as we stared wide-eyed about us.  Read More 

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Visiting Mt. Vernon and Monticello: different homes, different men

The home Jefferson designed and built atop his hill

With the Autumn Equinox approaching, I’m remembering the summer’s activities, particularly when Tammy and I visited the preserved homes of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson during a trip to the East coast. In some respects the homes are similar: owned and operated by private groups (the Mt. Vernon Ladies Association since the 1850s; the Thomas Jefferson Foundation since 1923), complemented by a museum, education center, and gift shop; and hundreds of thousands of visitors escorted through the homes every year. Beyond this, though, the visits were strikingly different experiences, which in some interesting ways reflect on the men they celebrate.

Mt. Vernon is only 16 miles from Washington, D.C. and everything is on a larger physical scale: number of visitors, size and sophistication of the museum and grounds, even the provision of a “Mt. Vernon Inn Restaurant” (the ballyhooed Peanut and Chestnut Soup was disappointing, but more than compensated by the fancy Colonial Hoecake laden with ham and crabmeat, and the plain but satisfying cornbread with honey butter, and side-order grits).  Read More 

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The Southwest 2: Georgia O'Keeffe's Land

The Georgia O'Keefe Cottage after overnight snow

After following the Chama River several miles, Al and I turned the rental car off Hwy 84 northwest of Santa Fe at dusk and drove into the canyon where Ghost Ranch is located. The ranch is now a 21,000-acre workshop center. Though not enrolled in a class, we had obtained lodging there, and were directed to one of a cluster of rooms not 50 yards from the “Georgia O’Keeffe cottage,” the principal bungalow where the artist spent the last 50 summers of her life. Some ten miles to the south the distinctive flat-topped mesa Cerro Pedernal loomed in the dying light, immortalized in so many of O’Keeffe’s paintings, as was the Chama River also.

The evening was cold, so we stumbled into the dining room across the dirt road and pirated cups of cocoa. It had been a long day, Read More 

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The Southwest 1: Three Peoples, One Land

View from a cliff-house in Bandelier Nat.l Monument

The Southwest was the theme of my recent February trip with Al, and it featured large doses of train travel, a passion for my friend ever since his frequent boyhood jaunts to the nearby San Jose train yard with his dad. We boarded the connecting bus in Chico just before 8 in the morning and after a relaxing train ride through the length of California’s San Joaquin Valley arrived in Los Angles by another connecting bus shortly after 7 that evening, sauntering out of the venerable (and newly polished) 1939 Union Station past Olvera Street a block to our hotel.

Turn-of-the-century Los Angeleno Charles Lummis claimed to have christened the New Mexico-Arizona-southern California area as “the Southwest,” so we visited his home, El Alisal, after huevos rancheros in Olvera Street the next morning.  Read More 

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The Big Island

Daughter Holly scouting the water as nocturnal tidepooling at Puako beckons--years ago

Nowhere else on the planet can you pause on your bicycle on the way back from a morning ocean swim and see five volcanoes arrayed around you. It was my first day on the Big Island of Hawaii, and I stopped at the crest of a small hill on the south Kohala coast, some quarter mile south of Hapuna Beach. Close over my left shoulder to the north was Kohala, the oldest of the island’s volcanoes, some 750,000 years old and long extinct. Straight left rose the bumpy peak of massive Mauna Kea, with some of the dozen or so observatories atop it barely visible. Also extinct, Mauna Kea is the world’s tallest mountain if you measure its rise not from sea level but from the ocean floor, which is fair enough.  Read More 

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Flow of Time and Tides

Sea arch in Russian Gulch bay south of Mendocino

My buddy Al and I kayaked the Mendocino coast in mid-September, leaving the day after his Saturday stint at the local Farmer’s market. Down the Sacramento Valley, turning west to traverse Clear Lake’s north shore, through Anderson Valley (formerly famous for its apple orchards, now brimming with vineyards) and arriving at Mendocino in the afternoon. Knowing my interest in things Chinese, Al had arranged for Lorraine Hee-Chorley (author of The Chinese in Mendocino County) to meet us on the porch of the newly restored Taoist Temple two streets back from the main drag.  Read More 

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High and Low: Mt. Whitney and Death Valley

A hiker under the Natural Bridge of a canyon in the Funeral Range (!) of Death Valley

After two spring trips to Monterey Bay and the coast, it was back to the hot continental interior in mid-June, Ash and Lou summiting 14,495-foot Mt. Whitney (highest place in the Lower 48) while I camped out in minus 150-foot Death Valley (lowest place in North America). I guess we’re a family of extremes.

Ash is doing the Pacific Crest Trail this summer, and missed her bro. So I drove Lou and his buddies Liam, Chris, and Alden to Kennedy Meadows where the southern Sierra foothills emerge from the Mojave desert, to meet her at a re-supply point.  Read More 

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Monterey Bay 2: Writers and Whales

The opportunity to tour the infrequently-opened Cannery Row home of Ed Ricketts, John Steinbeck’s barely-disguised inspiration for “Doc” in Cannery Row, proved irresistible, joining as it did the life and writing of Steinbeck with that of Joseph Campbell, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Robinson Jeffers—with up-close humpback whales thrown in the next day to boot.

So much fun was had kayaking off Monterey Bay with my buddy Al last month, that I persuaded my wife Tammy to join me on this return visit. The tour of Ed Ricketts’ home, which also housed his Pacific Biological Supply  Read More 

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Monterey Bay 1: Elkhorn Slough, Kayaks, and Muir

A pelican's view / Of Elkhorn Slough

“Whack!” I stopped paddling. Yes, there he was, not 20 feet away. A sea otter on his back in the water, having just whacked a clam against a rock on his belly. “What?” he seemed to ask as he stared back. “You never seen an otter use a rock?”

As a matter of fact, I hadn’t. My buddy Al and I had seen maybe 50 sea otters on our paddle into Elkhorn Slough off Monterey Bay, but the famous example of tool-use had eluded us—till now. I gazed slack-jawed at my furry friend, until he tired of my poor manners, took a last bite of clam, and flopped over and swam away.  Read More 

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A Tale of Three Gardens

A garden in Suzhou: shan and shui

The Huntington Library, Museum, and Gardens in Los Angeles now have a first-rate Chinese as well as a Japanese Garden. Tammy and I visited both several weeks ago, and they reminded us of pleasant times in Claude Monet’s Water-lily Garden in Giverny, France in 2008. All three are superb, but in dramatically different ways, that reflect much about the cultures that gave rise to them.  Read More 

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