Thursday, 28 June 2007

Week 21 : Santa Clara to Palo Alto

Amy and I have got used to life in the city. Our zig-zag progress along Silicon Valley is as much a response to our search for urban parks as it is to the need to clamber under concrete expressways. We have also got rather blasé about the grand buildings we pass on the way. Airports, smart hotels, massive corporate headquarters drift by and we scarcely give them a second look. “That’s one of the largest unsupported structures in the western world”, I remarked to Amy at one point this week. She didn’t even bother to reply.

We started the week by heading north, drawn not by the smell of the sea, but by the unmistakable odour of salt. If you take a look at any aerial map of the south San Francisco Bay area you will find evidence of what appears to be the kind of bold colouring you would expect to see in a child’s colouring book. Vivid greens, bright yellows, mordant whites and even some quite frightening pinks sit side-by-side. These are – or in some cases were – the salt evaporation ponds of the San Francisco Bay. We were keen to see something of them as they are in the process of being returned to their natural wetland state as part of the ambitious
South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project.

An estimated 85 to 90% of the historic tidal marshes in the San Francisco Bay-Delta Estuary have been filled or significantly altered over the past two centuries, for urban development, agriculture, and salt production. Commercial salt production in the San Francisco Bay began in 1854. The entire South Bay salt pond complex is spread over an area of approximately 26,000 acres. These salt ponds produce salt for a variety of industrial purposes, including chlorine bleach and plastics manufacture. In 2003, the state and federal government entered one of the largest private land purchases in American history, paying about $200 million for 16,000 acres of salt ponds in the south bay. This land is now being returned to its natural wetland state, in order to provide better flood management and enhanced habitats for a variety of wetland species.

All the talk about salt ponds gave both Amy and I a hunger and a thirst of serious proportions, so we called in at Birks Restaurant which has, according to its website, “been quenching the appetites of the South Bay's movers and shakers since 1989”. I suspect that Amy wasn’t quite sure what a “mover and shaker” was, because she appeared to think it was necessary to fidget more than normal and scratch her ear with her back paw more than is fitting in polite company. This was a particular problem because, as far as I could see, dogs weren’t welcome in the restaurant and I was trying to keep her hidden under the table. Her twitching and squirming was so bad that I had to abandon plans to relax, after the meal, with a glass of Lagavoulin and a decent cigar, but as this saved me the best part of $30 I couldn’t complain.

Just across the road from the restaurant is the “Great America Amusement Park” and Amy and I decided to call in and see what it had to offer. What it had to offer included the Demon (a classic roller coaster), Top Gun (Northern California’s longest inverted roller coaster), Invertigo (North America’s first inverted face-to-face roller coaster); and the Vortex (Northern California’s first stand-up roller coaster. Even the names of these put the fear of God into me so I suggested to Amy that we should just sit back and watch everyone else enjoy themselves. She quite fancied the Psycho Mouse ride, but once I had explained that there wasn’t a real mouse to catch, she settled down on a park bench with me.

After leaving the park we continued our walk along silicon valley. The adopted name of the region has become such a fixture that it is easy to forget that you are walking through a series of cities, all of which merge together to form the conglomerate that is silicon valley. So far we had passed through San Jose and Santa Clara and we were currently in Sunnyvale. Ahead was Mountain View, Palo Alto and Stanford. That is six cities in a little over a week.

As you walk along these streets, even the casual observer quickly learns how the local people make a dollar or two. During the course of just a few days we walked past the headquarters of the Nvidia Corp (graphic cards); Foundary Networks (web traffic management), 3Com (network infrastructures), Yahoo, Google and the Silicon Graphics Corps.

But it was an earlier wave of technology which kept us enthralled as we visited the museum of the Moffett Field Historical Society, a few miles further up the valley. The museum is located in what used to be the Moffett Field Naval Air Station and is now Moffett Federal Airfield. In the 1930s the Air Station became the home of the US Navy’s massive helium-filled airship, the Macon. At 785 feet long, the Macon was approximately ten feet longer than the Graf Zeppelin and it contained accommodations for 100 officers and men, including sleeping berths, a large mess room, a galley, and observation platforms at the nose and tail.

To house the airship, a massive hanger was constructed at the Airfield, Hanger One, and, unlike the airship, Hanger One still survives in all its glory today. The hangar is constructed on a network of steel girders sheathed with galvanized steel. It rests upon a reinforced pad anchored to concrete pilings. The floor covers eight acres and can accommodate 10 football fields. The clam-shell doors were designed to reduce turbulence when the Macon moved in and out on windy days. Such a fine home was something of a waste. The Macon sunk off the Californian Big Sur coast in 1935 after completing just 50 flights.

The contrasts – and similarities - between technological generations is well illustrated in this part of Silicon Valley. Seventy years ago America was spending a fortune on projects such as the Macon and its hanger. The main purpose of the airship was not dropping flour bombs or shooting-up ground forces, but observation: finding out what was happening at ground level. The idea of having a big observation platform high in the sky was an attractive one : one worth a substantial amount of investment. Walk a few miles further along the valley and you get to the headquarters of one of the most innovative high-tech corporations in the world : Google. Other than their eponymous search engine, the company is perhaps best known for Google Earth. And what does Google Earth do? It allows you to see what is happening at ground level. It provides a big observation platform high in the sky. It needs neither tons of helium nor a cathedral-size hanger. It can be safely stored inside a tiny microchip.

Amy and I had e-mailed Google a few weeks before we were due to walk passed their Google Campus Headquarters. It seemed the polite thing to do. Here we were, undertaking the most ambitious virtual walk by a man and a dog in recorded history. We were using Google Earth to plan our daily expeditions. We were using the Google Search Engine to check up on all the sites and sounds that we virtually saw and heard. We had navigated a careful path to ensure that we would pass Google Campus : the least you might expect is that they would invite us in for a cup of tea and a dish of water. But we never got a reply to our e-mail – perhaps they were too busy dropping flour bombs on the Yahoo headquarters from their virtual dirigibles.

Amy and I continued west up the valley, fighting back a tear. Amy was keen to reach the city of Palo Alto before the end of the week. When I questioned her on the reason for such enthusiasm, she was unusually coy. Later I discovered her staring at a notice which proclaimed “Palo Alto – Tree City USA” and panting excitedly. I had to explain to her that, unlike Castroville and its intimate relationship with artichokes, Tree City was a general designation for local communities which had a tree or two along the main street.

However, we did manage to end the week in sight of a fair number of trees. We pitched our tent in the picturesque grounds of Stanford University. No doubt camping is forbidden on the plush lawns of the Stanford Oval. But in a virtual world you can get away with almost anything.

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