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.

Thursday, 21 June 2007

Week 20 : Los Gatos To Santa Clara

“So this is Silicon Valley”, I said to Amy, my soft-coated wheaten terrier, as we left Los Gatos on our way north to San Jose at the start of week twenty of our epic journey. “Why” said Amy. “Why, oh I see what you mean, why Silicon Valley?”, I replied in my best instructional voice. “Well”, I continued, “it was first given that name in the early 1970s when a number of the early computer firms moved to the area, and since then it has become a world centre for microprocessor-related industries”. “Why” said Amy. “Why Silicon?”, I ventured. “Because silicon is the principal component of most semiconductor devices, such as integrated circuits or microchips, and these are central to the working of any computer”. “Why”, Amy persisted. “Because silicon is a tetravalent metalloid which is less reactive than carbon and its native oxide is easily grown in a furnace and forms a better semiconductor/dielectric interface than almost all other material combinations”, I snapped back. I was getting a little cross by now, Amy was behaving like one of those annoying infants who ask “why” in response to everything you say to them. When she again asked why, I turned to her and gave her one of my famous looks. Then I realised that she hadn’t been asking why but whining as her lead had got itself wrapped around her back paw. Such are the perils of trying to hold a conversation with a dog.

Amy soon cheered up and we followed the Los Gatos Creek Trail for a while. This nine mile path provides “a riparian corridor for plants and wildlife” according to the
Santa Clara County Parks website. For a time it protected us from the challenges of life in an intense urban setting, but after a mile or two we had to take our lives in our hands and paws and try to cross over a road. If you think that sounds easy I challenge you to give it a try.

When I first had the idea for this silly challenge, I always envisaged that the rural areas would present the greatest challenges. “A paucity of on-line resources”, I would say to Amy as we sat in my room looking at the maps of the Rockies, Oregon or Minnesota. Amy, who always liked to join in such discussions, would stare at her paws knowingly. But one of the biggest surprises is that the greatest challenge facing the virtual traveller is the cities and the urban sprawl. In walking the twenty-odd miles from Reedsport to Florence in Oregon there is only one road you can take and there is a limited number of things to comment on. Life for the dog-walker is sedate and quite relaxing. Here, in the middle of Silicon Valley, approaching the largest city in California (San Francisco) via the third largest (San Jose), the life of the virtual dog-walker is frenetic, often frantic, and usually frenzied. Take, for example, the problem of crossing the road.

Take the intersection of Highways 87 and 280 just outside the centre of San Jose. How, on earth, is a solitary man and his faithful dog supposed to traverse such a man-made barrier. The answer is by meticulous planning. Each night we would pore over street maps trying to work out the safest routes. That is why our route this week looks as though it has been drawn by a demented chimp. Whilst the shortest route between two given points is a straight line, in urban California such a route it is not usually the safest option.

Given all this coming and going, it took us three days to reach down-town San Jose. But when we finally got there on Saturday evening Amy had a treat in store for me. The following day was my birthday and she had managed to book us into the San Jose Hilton Towers Hotel for a couple of nights. The next day there would be no walking (well limited “comfort-walking” only) and the promise of “The Hilton Serenity Bed & Amenity Collection, high-speed internet access, oversized comfortable chair, refrigerator, coffee maker including hot chocolate and assorted teas, voice mail, 2-line speakerphones with data port, smart desk, auto wake-up call service, error-free alarm clocks with AM/FM and MP3 capability, mirrored closet doors and large bathrooms and complimentary CNN, HBO and ESPN as well as on demand movies”. We just had the standard room, but that was the standard room.

On Sunday, my birthday, we walked in Quadalupe Park and, because it was my birthday, avoided visiting the
Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, the largest outdoor Monopoly board in the world, or the San Jose Centre for Performing Arts. Instead we went back to our hotel room, ate potato chips and watched re-runs of Frasier. As the header on the site declares : San Jose : Where The Fun Never Stops.

The following day we started our walking again, still following a twisting, highway-avoiding route, but generally heading in the direction of Santa Clara. From there I intended to make my way down (or was it up) Silicon Valley towards San Francisco.

San Jose is a big city. With a population of about 900,000 people it is the third largest city in California and the tenth largest in the USA. It is modern, affluent and … well it’s full of buildings. There are an awful lot of them. Street after street of them. As Amy and I walked down the streets we looked at them. They looked as though they were full of people doing very important and very technologically advanced jobs. It was very impressive. And yes, if the truth is told, just a little boring. We walked up North 1st Street, down West Hedding Street, up Chapman Street, and on Market Street and … well we yawned. And we half closed our eyes. And we imagined ourselves back walking the Big Sur coast.

Towards the end of the week our walk took us past the Monastery of the Carmelite Nuns of Santa Clara. Our interest was not a religious one however. Before it became a monastery, it was a ranch owned by Judge Marshall Bond who was a friend of the writer Jack London. The writer was a frequent visitor to the ranch and used it as the scene for the start of his book “The Call of the Wild” This was the home of Buck, the doggy hero of the tale. It was from here that he was stolen and sold into a life of slavery in the Yukon. The story seems to be a great favourite of Amy’s and she was very impressed that we had visited its’ starting point. She sniffed a lot as dogs tend to do. Whether she was sniffing out the scent of Buck or the scent of the nuns we will never know.

Next door to the monastery was an equally unexpected find – the ground of the
Santa Clara Cricket Club. The Club sports five teams and, according to its website, an equally active social programme. The last thing I expected to hear in Silicon Valley was the resonant sound of leather on willow. I stopped to watch what looked like a practice game and thought about home. Amy stopped to sniff and thought about the sad story of Buck. We walked north up Pierce Street until we found a McDonalds where we stopped thinking and started eating.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Week 19 : Glenwood Basin To Los Gatos

19 weeks out of Los Angeles and Amy, my wheaten terrier, and I got to hike over the Santa Cruz mountains on our journey north out of Santa Cruz itself towards San Jose. If this sounds manly (perhaps that should be dogly) and adventurous, it was not. For most of the route we walked alongside Highway 17, a concrete expressway which cuts through the redwood forests like a knife through beef dripping. I dare say that, had we wanted to, we could have found a more attractive passage, one which would have exposed us to chipmunks, raccoons, foxes, and bobcats instead of exhaust fumes. But as I told my travelling companion, there would be plenty of opportunity for raw nature at a later stage of our journey. Right now, Silicon Valley and San Francisco were calling me. Amy suggested that the rich and potent smell of foxes and chipmunks were calling her. However, I could pull on the lead slightly harder than she could, and so we stuck to the direct route.

On the second day out we crossed the County Line, leaving Santa Cruz County behind and entering Santa Clara County. Amy and I performed our now familiar ritual and re-tuned our radio to
KSCU, the radio station operated by Santa Clara University and put in a subscription to the San Jose Mercury News. Despite the excitement of a new County – well, I thought it was exciting – Amy was getting pretty fed up with the diet of concrete freeways, exhaust fumes and redwood trees. I consulted the map and told her that there was a city close by and we could visit it without too much of a diversion. “Yes, Holy City looks a pretty neat place”, I said to her with what I thought might be a beatific smile on my face.

When at last we arrived at Holy City we found but two buildings remaining. On a good day there might have been two city residents and Amy claimed she could detect a couple of dogs, but that was it. Once we had pitched our tent in the meadow behind the Art Glass shop (the one functioning building left in the city) we caught up with the extraordinary history of the place. Holy City is just as much archetypal California as the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hollywood sign.

The story starts at the end of the nineteenth century with an itinerant Californian snake-oil salesman and palm-reader called William E. Riker. Riker was a great believer in matrimony, to such an extent that he married two women at the same time. To escape bigamy charges he fled to Canada where he started his own religious cult, known as “The Perfect Christian Divine Way”. If you take a close look at the doctrine he preached, it was neither perfect, Christian or in any way divine and had a chilling streak of white supremacy running through it. Riker moved back to California, bought a parcel of land just off the old Santa Cruz Highway, and established Holy City. Proving once again that there is no shortage of gullible fools in the world, Riker soon gathered around him hundreds of devotees anxious to give their leader their money, their labour and – in some cases – their wives. During the 1930s, Holy City had more than 300 citizens, a weekly newspaper and its own radio station (which featured a popular half-hour show with a Swiss yodeller). Large signs on the old highway would advertise Riker as “the only man who could save California from going plum to hell”. Passers-by could pay their respects to the great spiritual leader by buying petrol from his service station, snacks from his restaurant or looking at the moon through his telescope (“just 10c a look”). Riker made several attempts to become governor of California – an office which has consistently attracted men of a somewhat bizarre nature – and was eventually arrested in 1943 for his open support for Adolph Hitler. At his trial, his lawyer argued that he was nothing more than a harmless crackpot and got him off the charges. Riker was so annoyed that he tried to sue his lawyer for defamation. Riker continued to live in the now deserted Holy City until the 1960s and towards the end of his life he converted to Catholicism. Somehow, the story says a lot about old California and it is worth reading the full story of William Riker and Holy City which can be found in an article by Andrea Perkins which is available on the
CoastNews website.

If Riker and Holy City are old California, what is happening just a few miles down the road towards Los Gatos is new California. The normally peaceful forests that surround the impressive Lexington Reservoir are seething with discontent.

The problem is a plan which has been put forward by the San Jose Water Company to cut down the redwood and Douglas Fir trees on some 1,000 acres of land it owns around Lexington Reservoir. The company claims that the logging will help prevent forest fires. This is a claim which is denied by the local action group “Neighbours Against Irresponsible Logging” (NAIL). The group also contend that the plans will spoil water quality, compromise local wildlife and even further tip the balance of climate change.
NAIL seems to be the kind of well organised, twenty-first century local action group one would expect of an area which forms the dormitory for Silicon Valley. They have managed to get the support of former Vice-President and campaigner against climate change, Al Gore. They have also made full use of the weapons of the modern era : visit their website and you can take a virtual Google Earth fly-over of the area under threat. This is a very impressive piece of campaigning and you can almost feel the temptation to go out and pick up a banner as you watch the red areas which identify the logging site fly by. It also shows how useful it is to have a Google Earth developer as part of your protest group. As we left the reservoir behind and headed into Los Gatos, Amy and I gave the protest group our full virtual support.

Los Gatos is like so many towns the world over that live in close proximity to large cities (in the case of Los Gatos the large city is San Jose) When no ribbon of wilderness divides such towns from their more populous neighbours, a kind of geographical osmosis drains them of part of their individuality, part of their soul. Even if you just visit the websites of the
Town Council or the Chamber of Commerce, you get the impression that you pass through Los Gatos on the way somewhere else. There is nothing wrong with the place, it is a perfectly splendid little community – or it would be if it was set amongst the hills somewhere else.

With such feelings in our minds, Amy and I found it difficult to work up too much enthusiasm. There were restaurants. But there would be bigger and better restaurants to come. There were shops, but nothing like the shops that awaited us around the next corner. However, there was a park and in the park there was a railway.

The Billy Jones Wildcat Railroad which runs through Oak Meadow and Vasona parks has been in operation on this site for over thirty-five years. Before that it was set-up on the Los Gatos ranch of the said Billy Jones, a lifelong railway engineer and enthusiast. On his death the narrow-gauge railway was bought by non-profit corporation funded by local businessmen and moved to the parks. I could find no prohibition of dogs riding on the train, but to be on the safe side, Amy once more took refuge inside one of my bulky pullovers.
Thus, as week 19 of our journey came to an end, we made use of public transport for the first time. The ride is less than a mile long, but was fun. But as Amy remarked, there is probably a bigger train around the next corner.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Week 18 : Rio Del Mar To Glenwood Basin

Amy and I left the concrete ship of Rio Del Mar behind and headed west, hugging the coast and savouring the exotic names of the bays and beaches. Luckily, the Director of the Capitola Historical Museum, Carolyn Swift, has written a very useful article which examines the origin of these names. New Brighton Beach takes its name from the now demolished New Brighton Hotel which once stood on the spot where the State Beach is now located. Thomas Fallon built the hotel and named it after the famous British resort in the hope that it would attract a better class of customer. It didn’t, in fact it didn’t attract many customers at all and after a few years it closed down. Some years later, John Sinclair – a relative of Fallon’s – built some cabins on the beach near by. Each of the cabins was fitted with a potbelly stove and the beach became known as Pot Belly Beach. “Isn’t this fascinating”, I said to Amy as we walked along. She didn’t even grace me with a reply, merely pulled on her lead with more force than usual and returned to sniffing out the next hamburger joint.

A little further along we passed what remains of the El Salto resort which, during the 1920s was a Mecca for the California rich and famous. “The film star Mary Pickford used to holiday here”, I told Amy. Again she ignored me and pulled me ever-westwards. Some gulls were flying overhead and making a terrible racket. I tried once again to engage my travelling companion in conversation. “Did you know, that in August 1961, thousands of birds invaded the coast here at Capitola? Fresh from a feast of anchovies, the crazed birds crashed into the walls of peoples’ houses, into street signs and into trees, falling to the ground dead or dazed” Amy continued to act like she was dumb. “Alfred Hitchcock read an
article about it in the local paper, and decided to use it as material for his new thriller. His classic film “The Birds” was released two years later”. Amy indicated that the only bird she was interested in would be char-grilled, and finger-licking good.

A little later we arrived in Capitola and her spirits seemed to improve. We ate at the
Bluewater Steakhouse (“where San Francisco upscale meets Capitola-by-the-Sea local style”) and afterwards walked on the nearby beach. Capitola Beach is another area which proudly proclaims its dog-friendliness. A wonderful organisation called C-Dog (it used to be Capitola Dog Owners Group and now it is the Coastal Dog Owner Group) is dedicated to keeping this bit of the coastline dog-friendly. They have an excellent website which contains loads of very interesting information. “Did you know”, I said to Amy as we watched the sun set over Monterey Bay, “the average American dog-owner spends $203 per year feeding their dog?” Amy just gave me one of her superior smiles. Thinking of the bill I had just paid for our dinner in the Steakhouse, I understood why. We had single-handedly just pushed that average up significantly.

For the next couple of days we headed through the outer suburbs of Santa Cruz, passing the surfing beaches and neighbourhood parks. You can get an impression of what things are like by taking a look at the live Surf Cam which is operated by the
Pleasure Point Inn. But there are only a limited number of sub-drenched beaches and sun-bronzed bodies you can stare at before you begin to crave a little cultural relief, and therefore Amy and I made a short detour to call in at the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History, a splendid little museum which has a style far in advance of its size. Currently they have an exhibition – “Illustrating Nature” - of student works from the Science Illustration Program of the University of California Extension which is well worth seeing. Even Amy enjoyed it and offered her services as a model.

When we reached the point where the San Lorenzo river spills out into the Bay we had a decision to make : to continue to follow the coast up to San Francisco or to cut inland, over the mountains, to San Jose and then to San Francisco via Silicon Valley. As someone who has had a powerful love affair with computers all my life, the choice was not a difficult one. Whistling “Do You Know The Way To San Jose”, we headed north up Buena Vista Avenue in the general direction of the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Leaving the city behind us we wound our way up tree-covered roads which twisted and turned up through the foothills. When Amy enquired where exactly were we heading for, I replied – rather enigmatically I thought, “it’s a mystery”. I could tell that Amy was beginning to fear I might be suffering from altitude sickness, but still I persisted. After carefully consulting the map I took a fork to the left, leaving the minor road behind and heading up and even more minor road. “Where the hell are we going?”. Amy was getting cross now. After a few more hundred yards she put her foot down. In fact she put all four feet down and dug them into the dirt track we were following. She refused to take another step. So picking her up – no mean feat – I carried her to the next corner and there in front of us was the sign for the Mystery Spot.

According to their
website, “The Mystery Spot is a gravitational anomaly … It is a circular area of effect around 150 feet or 46 meters in diameter. Within the Mystery Spot you will be stunned as your perceptions of the laws of physics and gravity are questioned”. As you progress through the attraction all sorts of strange things seems to be happening. When you think you are standing straight up, you appear to be leaning at an angle. Smaller things suddenly appear larger and larger things appear smaller. Poor Amy was totally freaked out by the whole experience, claiming that it reminded her of the day she managed to get her paws on an old bottle which still contained some of my prized single malt whisky.

The Mystery Spot website puts forward several explanations of the phenomenon. Perhaps it was that cones of metal were secretly brought here and buried by visitors from outer space as guidance systems for their spacecraft. Some think that it is in fact the spacecraft itself buried deep within the ground. Or maybe it is carbon dioxide permeating from the earth, a hole in the ozone layer, a magma vortex, the highest dielectric biocosmic radiation known anywhere in the world, or radiesthesia (whatever that might be). “Or maybe its because they have erected all the buildings at a funny angle so as to earn a dollar or two from passing idiots with more money than common sense”, sniffed Amy as we left the spot behind and headed north. “Cynic”, I shot back. “Fool”, she retorted.

We kept on like this as we scrambled through some thick brush, taking an unofficial shortcut back to the main highway. We didn’t make friends until we got to Scotts Valley where I bought Amy a double helping of chicken nuggets from the McDonalds there. I also stocked up at the shop and made sure we had enough food and drink for a few days. We were about to leave civilisation behind and head into the mountains. Taking a last look back at Monterey Bay, we headed north. Once again I bravely whistled “Do You Know The Way To San Jose”. Amy barked at the appropriate point.

Friday, 1 June 2007

Weel 17 : Moss Landing To Rio Del Mar

Amy and I left Moss Landing and headed north, soon crossing over a river which – as far as we could work out – must be the Pajaro. In an effort to be more precise we turned to the website of the Moss Landing Harbor District (“our mission is to provide a functional, visitor-friendly harbour for commercial and recreational use"). Unfortunately, their mission didn’t extend as far as telling me which river flowed through their wharfs, but before I could lodge a complaint I noticed that I should have had a $5 dog permit to walk Amy anywhere near the harbour. As Amy pointed out, you can buy a lot of chicken for $5, so we decided to leave town quick and head for the County Line.

County lines are one of my great discoveries of this walk. If you fly, county lines are meaningless, if you travel by train they are trivial. If your chosen method of transport is a fast car they fly by without troubling either the conscious or the subconscious. But if you walk, they take on a real significance. You look forward to new counties with a pleasing anticipation, you think back on old counties with satisfied nostalgia. And so – halfway between Moss Landing and Watsonville – it was goodbye to Monterey and hello to
Santa Cruz (“our beaches are just the beginning…”), the second-smallest County in California. By a tradition which stretches back to the beginning of February 2007, the crossing of a County Line means that Amy and I change our virtual environment. So for the next week or so we will be reading the Santa Cruz Sentinel and listening to the quite wonderful Free Radio Santa Cruz.

Our first chance to see what Santa Cruz County was really like was when we arrived at the City of Watsonville. “Watsonville is the strawberry capital of the world”, I explained to Amy as we walked towards the city-centre. “Each year they hold a famous
Strawberry Festival”, I continued with a creeping feeling of déjà vu, for didn’t we have the same conversation about Castroville and artichokes just last week. “And did you know”, I continued like someone in need of a life, “that just down the road is Salinas which is the lettuce capital of the world, whereas just over there is Gilroy which is the garlic capital of the world”. Amy feigned indifference, but I knew that she was mentally plotting a route to Gainesville, Georgia (before you dash off to look it up, it’s the chicken capital of the world).

Watsonville looks like a pretty cool place. It has a
speedway track, a famous high school soccer team, and …. and it’s for sale for just $4,000. Well, is for sale, and when you live in a virtual world it’s the same thing.

The walk from Watsonville to the coast at La Selva Beach takes you past field after field of strawberries. Every so often Amy and I would stop to sample the fare, thanking the powers that be that we were in Watsonville and not Castroville (the thought of chewing on a raw artichoke was too much for either of us). La Selva Beach is a sleepy little place. “What fun things are there to do here”, I asked myself. Then I checked the on-line
La Selva Beach Forum and discovered that someone else had posed the same question almost two years ago. They are still awaiting a reply. Not having that kind of time to spare, Amy and I headed north to Rob Roy Junction.

Now there’s a name to conjure with”, I said to Amy as we walked up San Andreas Road (which we later learnt was named after the fault which ran underneath it). Men in tartan kilts sweeping down from mist covered moors to the sound of bagpipes. When we eventually got there we were disappointed. The emphasis was very much on the “Junction” rather than the “Rob Roy”. Amy muttered something about the Trades Description Act as we climbed the concrete ramparts that kept the multiple lanes of traffic apart, but I reminded her that the same criticism was made of Sir Walter Scott’s book – in which the celebrated Rob Roy is only a minor character - some 190 years ago.

We walked the concrete highway to Aptos which, in native American, means “where the waters meet”. Amy stopped next to a fire hydrant to celebrate the fact. Not wanting to be left out of the litany of world famous Californian cities and not growing very many pomegranates or loganberries, Aptos styles itself as “the home of the World’s Shortest 4th July Parade”. It appears that the Aptos parade is just under half a mile long, which – I am reliably informed - is on the short side for such affairs. Nevertheless, half a mile is still quite a long way and therefore, the way is open for any other municipality to steal Aptos’ crown. Aptos is also famous for its French restaurant – the
Café Sparrow. As soon as I mentioned this to Amy she got quite excited and demanded that we stop there for lunch. She thoroughly enjoyed her sparrow burger and ate most of mine as well. Despite being assured that the sparrow in the burger was in fact a chicken, I couldn’t get the thought of a little hopping bird out of my mind.

Our week came to an end just down the road from Aptos at the seaside community of Rio Del Mar. Like many other American CDP’s (census designated places), there is a mass of statistical information about Rio Del Mar (median age - 44, median income - $87,000, median race – nine-tenths white with a dash of black, native American, Chinese, and what-have-you) but very little insight into its soul. We wandered through the streets in search the essence of the place, its defining characteristics, or – as those business types would say – its USP (Unique Selling Point). It wasn’t until we came to rest at Seacliff State Beach that we discovered it. It has a concrete ship!

The S.S Palo Alto was an oil tanker built during the First World War. Steel was expensive and someone had the bright idea that building a ship out of cement might give it better protection against German submarines. But the War came to an end, before the construction of the ship did, and by the early 1920 its owners discovered that they had got themselves a classic white elephant. In 1921 it made its first and only journey from Alameda, where it was built, across the San Francisco Bay. For a time it served as a static oil storage tanker and then, in 1930, it was bought by the Seacliff Amusement Corporation. They built a wooden pier to connect the ship to the beach and had great plans for converting it into a luxury Oceanside amusement centre. But then along came the depression and the great concrete ship slowly decayed and died. Strangely enough, the S.S. Palo Alto has now become a tourist attraction in its own right. You can walk the beach and gaze at the sunken concrete hulk. It’s not what the Seacliff Amusement Corporation had in mind, but it got there in the end.