There is a lot of grandeur in California’s nature. Mountains, oceans, cliffs, etc., and over the years I’ve tried to send you to some grand places. This month, though, I want to tell you about someplace that is not grand or majestically beautiful, but quaint and lovely. It’s called Putah Creek. It’s near, but not in, Napa Valley. It feeds into, but is not, Lake Berryessa. When I was there I sat on top of a big rock, of which there are quite a few to chose from, and watched otters. I had never seen an otter before, so for me this was an activity I was prepared to give lots of time to. The otters, it seemed, were also curious about me and so we sat and watched each other. The sky, the rocks and the water were gray and everything else was green. Except for me and the otters, and we were keeping an eye on each other.
Later a man showed up with his son and his dog, to do some fishing. As if it were 1950.
I could imagine there being more people there on a sunny day. There were chalk marks on some of the rocks, so I think people come to climb them. Maybe people swim in the creek and maybe this makes the otters hang out someplace else. But this is what’s nice about Putah Creek. It’s not a place to go witness magnificence and feel small, it’s a delicate little environment where you are just as important as the otters. I liked it there. Maybe you will too.
In the last month two different friends told me that there was an amazing new restaurant in San Francisco that I had to try. Both were so excited to bring me there, each said they had not been to any place quite like it. They both took me to the same place, La Oaxaquena, a miniscule little Mexican place on Mission Street. Since then I’ve taken two friends there, telling them the same things I was told. And now I’m telling you.
La Oaxaquena is an example, I think, of the way that San Francisco can sometimes get a thing exactly right. You have to sift through the clutter of clichés to get here perhaps; oil-less vegan enchiladas that crumble on your fork for $10 at one place, $6 fresh pressed organic ginger-carrot-beet juice that tastes like childhood punishment at the next, but every now and then you get to a gem like this one.
La Oaxaqena’s menu ranges from traditional Oaxacan fare, banana leaf chicken mole tamales being the most popular example, fried grasshoppers the most exotic; to wild hybrids like zucchini pesto mozzarella pupusas. You can get traditional Mexican hot chocolate, to which you can add soy milk or chili powder if you’d like. There are people on Yelp saying that it’s the most authentic mole they’ve eaten since they left Mexico, and others saying that the vegan tofu tamales with collard greens are the best they’ve ever found. Several cultures have melted in the pots in their kitchen and it is so worth the drive to San Francisco to taste the result.
One day, a few years ago, a San Francisco native took me to what he said was the real crooked-est road in the world. Having been taken to down Lombard Street a few times as a little girl, with its perpetual line of rental cars tiptoeing their way down, I was surprised to be shown a street that was at least equally curvaceous, but completely devoid of tourists. We screeched down at a speed he seemed to have been working up to since high school and, in addition to feeling thankful for the continuation of my life, I left wondering how it was possible for this street to stay hidden.
Last week I found another of these guide book gaps, the Glen Park Canyon. Golden Gate Park is, of course, a magical place. Ocean Beach, Baker Beach. San Francisco’s natural offerings are spectacular for sure, and I never thought that I was missing out on anything. But, still, this canyon deserves attention. At the very least because of how well it’s camouflaged.
Glen Park, on the south side of the city, is very hilly and almost entirely residential. Driving to San Francisco from this hotel, you pass through the pastel forest of its houses. Last week I discovered a little gap between two of those hills that has been left almost completely wild. There is a creek, there are huge rocks, the kind that people like to climb. There are a couple of paths. And there are many, many shades of green. Here, for the first time, I felt at peace with San Francisco’s gloomy climate. In the urban version of this city, its ever-present fog and perpetual cold breeze feel like a pointless assault on the senses. In the overgrown wilderness of this canyon, however, a person can really get the idea that a constant cloud cover makes things grow. And grow and grow and grow. If I ever truly make peace with San Francisco, this park will have played a role. Go see for yourself.
One of the understandings that I have with our beloved general manager is that I should try not to use this space to tell you things you’ve already heard a million times before. Fisherman’s Wharf, for example, is a perfectly nice place to be, especially if you like crowds, but we don’t feel a big need to take responsibility for you getting to it. Thousands of people find their way out there everyday without our help and you probably could too.
But I can’t help myself this time, I’m breaking the rule! I am speaking now to those of you who come here on business and have weekends off. Do you understand how very close you are to Yosemite when you’re here with us? Do you know that it’s more beautiful than any photo ever taken of it?
So often the most famous tourist attractions leave me humming Peggy Lee’s classic depressive ditty, “Is that all there is?” Maybe you can relate. Lots and lots of pretty cool things have been so diluted by crowds and merchandise and deep-fried edibles that the only possible experience one can have is generic tourism and the sense that there’s no wonder left in the world. Yosemite is so different! Yosemite is grand enough to swallow all its visitors, to let each individual guest revel in the magnitude and magnificence of its glacier-cut valley, to let every single person have a private experience of nature.
Forgive my exuberance. I’m just back from a week in that shocking valley, having not been in a couple of years. It’s better than anything I could write about it. Better than anything even John Muir could write about it. It’s better than any photo Ansel Adams ever took of it. You must go!
When I was in high school, sometime around my junior year, the school started offering yoga as a PE option. My Midwestern mother was horrified and forbade me to take it. There was no way, she said, that her daughter was going to turn into one of those “flaky Californians.” After yoga would come tofu, then astrology, and this was a slope she was not going to see me slip down. I laughed, signed up, and found myself being taught, from a book, by the same elderly woman who taught badminton and volleyball. I did not get the point of yoga from her classes, to my mother’s relief.
But this is California, after all, and I eventually found the real thing. Rusty Wells is his name. Tall and lanky, with a sleepy smile and a Southern drawl he teaches a difficult class that anyone, at any level, can be comfortable in. His classes are sweaty and hard and meditative and fun and all of this because of the strength of the guide. He creates an experience, makes the bliss of yoga accessible to anyone who is willing to show up and try. He’s a real San Francisco treasure, as evidenced by the classes that fill to capacity nearly every day of the week.
Now, I’m aware that I might be writing to a few experienced yogis and yoginis out there. I feel your skepticism and to it I say, just give him a try. You’re probably looking for a nice class to take when you’re here with us anyway, so what’s there to lose? Maybe it’ll be the good enough, though not quite authentically perfect, thing you wanted. I kind of think it’ll blow your mind, but who am I?
To everyone else, I say, this is a real California treat to give to yourself. It’s accessible and powerful, a strong experience to break up the dullness of business travel.
He teaches at different places in the city, the best thing to do is visit his website: rustywells.com. Maybe I’ll see you there!
Jack London, famous adventurer and author, invested enough of his life in the Bay Area to have a square named after him. Interestingly, the section of Oakland that bears the name of the man who wrote The Call of the Wild, is a place of respite in a city that is known as an urban wilderness. Is this irony? Maybe, but it’s certainly the bitter kind if it is. Oakland has been immortalized in recent years by rappers like Eazy-E and Tupac as a place of gang warfare and merciless violence, and there are statistics to support every word of it. Just this year, a New Year’s Eve shooting led to days and days of riots.
But Oakland is not a wasteland. There is a thriving arts community and quite a lot of natural beauty, and Oakland deserves visitors. Jack London square is a good place to start. It’s right on the water and so, although it’s kind of a haven for big chains, the very unique local scenery can assert itself loudly enough. From there, you’re a short walk to downtown Oakland, a bit longer walk from lovely Lake Anza, and practically already at Yoshi’s, which does not need my help getting known as a place for world class jazz and blues.
It’s taken me a lot of months of suggesting places to go in the Bay Area for me to tell you to go to Oakland. But the time has come. Go to Oakland, have lunch at Jack London Square, and then stay and look around a little bit.
Here is yet another in all the many ways to divide people into two groups: those who relax through activity and those who relax through inactivity. My boyfriend, for example, when he’s been working too much and feels depleted and stressed out, wants nothing more than to wake up at 4am and spend 12 hours climbing the nearest mountain he can find. My mother, by contrast, would spend that same day in bed watching re-runs of Law & Order. They both seem equally refreshed the following day. Having now accompanied both through several of each of these “rest days,” I notice one advantage that he has over her, namely, that he takes in views of spectacular, nearly untouched nature while she sits and watches one murder after another. But what’s a hard working lady to do if the only way she can get the rest she so deserves is by, well, resting?
The answer is Muir Woods! This park is home to a large stretch of California’s old growth redwood trees, some of which are up to 2500 year old. This type of tree is the tallest in the world and third on the longevity list and can only be found on the California coastline (well, and stretching up a little bit into Oregon, too, but the point remains). This, then, is a genuinely rare natural spectacle and I mention it here because of its accessibility. You just drive right in, park your car and the trees are there. There’s a well-maintained, flat path, clearly marked with small wooden fences and, just on the other side of those fences, are some of the oldest, tallest trees in the world. A motivated person could hike further in, it’s true, but there is no special prized attraction waiting for him at the end, it’s all right there at the very beginning. It’s not quite as easy as Law & Order, I know Mom, but, really, it’s not so very much harder either.
I once dated a male model. (What a great sentence! I think I only did it so that every now and then I could say that to someone.) It was very brief because, unfortunately, he was a little dumb. He was quitting modeling when I met him because he wanted to write a book. One day he showed me what he had written thus far. It was three months after I had finished my literature degree and perhaps I was a bit ungenerous and we never saw each other again.
But I digress, as they say. I only brought him up because, having spent my entire life in the Bay Area, before I met this guy I didn’t even know Bolinas existed. Not that this is entirely my fault. It is purposefully hidden. A New York Times article once called it “the Howard Hughes of towns.” Locals have torn down all the Highway 1 road signs that make reference to it and commonly tell inquirers that it is a burned out wasteland. The question is, how did a New York fashion model find his way to this reclusive hippie enclave?
The legend of Bolinas is that, in the early 70s, there was a big oil spill in the Bolinas Lagoon and a bunch of hippies came from San Francisco to clean it up, and then they stayed. The beach is beautiful, the mountains high and dramatic and the location made isolation easy. Today it’s full of artists, poets and other like-minded spirits. Lawrence Ferlenghetti’s son lives there, as does Huey Lewis’ mom. If I haven’t made this clear enough by now, this is not a place that encourages tourism, but this is why it’s a charming place to be a tourist. Go with caution and care, but go.
I am a terrible, blasphemous slanderer. I am sad and ashamed. Last month, in the very space that I am writing in now, I said cruel things about one of my childhood’s magical places: The Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk.
Notice that I did not use the word libel. It isn’t that I said anything untrue. It is dirty, loud, overcrowded and full of overpriced junk. But there I go again. There are always so many ways to describe a thing, so many different facts to give. Not to mention the power of changing the emotional frame of the same core statement, like a good political pollster. (How can so many people who don’t stand to inherit anything from anyone be so against estate taxes?)
Last month I wanted to tell you about the remarkable Natural Bridges state beach and somehow the way I found to get there involved, to borrow a great phrase from my brother, throwing my beloved Boardwalk under the bus. How unnecessary that was!
Now, I want to offer you another perspective: The Boardwalk is so full of people because it remains a great place to go. The rides are scary, especially the wooden artifact known as The Big Dipper, which is one of the world’s oldest roller coasters. This behemoth creaks and groans and drops you from 100 feet and feels miraculous every time. There is truly not a healthy morsel to be found on the premises, unless you count the apples buried underneath all that gooey caramel, but nor is there a McDonald’s or Subway or Starbucks to be seen. This is an amazing feat considering the seemingly unstoppable power of those names to find there way into, well, most every place that people go. It’s dirty because it’s the beach and beaches are not clean. The sunshine makes everything sparkle, but the cool Pacific takes the edge off the summer heat. Most of the people you see at the Boardwalk are smiling. I have been happy every single time I’ve been there and I’ve been going there my whole life. I sincerely hope that my dear Boardwalk can forgive me.
I hated the Natural Bridges State Park when I was a little girl. This was where my father always wanted to go when we headed out for a day at the beach and every time I was disappointed to not have a stronger voice in the matter. Going to Natural Bridges meant a tranquil day, with plenty of space away from people. It meant a picnic. At this time of year it meant walking through fields of wild flowers. The natural bridges themselves are rocks just pretty much right there on the beach, but apparently not quite close enough to let one’s little daughter try to get on top of them. And so I would sit there, digging listlessly in the sand, wishing my dad would be cooler, wishing I was at the beach, just a little way down the road, that had loud roller coasters and hordes of people. I wished I was eating a caramel apple and drinking an icy Coke instead of having to suffer down the stupid avocado and cheese sandwich he made on his stupid, coarse, homemade bread.
Yes, I am writing this now knowing that I was, actually, a lucky child. I understand what drew my father to the Natural Bridges. I get that he was trying to escape the crowds and noise and trashy food I was so enthralled by. The value of nature was, I think, more or less successfully installed in me. I even think that this is an excellent place to take a little girl on a sunny summer day. And you all are just visitors to the area, so your little girls won’t necessarily know that they’re having a day in nature in lieu of a day of spinning and sugar and trinket shops. I wouldn’t mention it. I know now that Natural Bridges remains a great place because all the many, many people head for the Boardwalk, but parents need to remember that it takes more than 10 years of living in the world of people to want to find ways to get away from them!