Monday, 24 September 2007

Week 28 : Olema To Tomales Bay

Heading north from Olema, Amy and I stride out in the direction of Point Reyes Station. I am driven by the prospect of discovering more about this delightful corner of California, Amy is driven by the hope that where there is a Station a train cannot be far behind. If you look at a map of California, Point Reyes Peninsular looks like one of those annoying cuts you get on your finger, where the skin is partly lifted off leaving a painful gash deep into the flesh. Point Reyes Station sits at the very end of the gash. Thus when you get to the town you have a decision to make : you can head up the west side of Tomales Bay and thrill to the scenic splendour of Point Reyes National Seashore or keep to the east and the familiar security of Route 1. I wanted to go west (it was supposed to be more beautiful), Amy wanted go east (it was shorter and didn't necessitate swimming across the Bay at the northern end of the peninsular). We couldn't agree so we spent some time investigating the town of Point Reyes Station.

It gets its name from the narrow gauge North Pacific Coast Railroad which was built in the 1870s to carry redwood lumber, local dairy and agricultural products, and passengers from the north of Marin County to a pier at Sausalito (which connected the line via ferry to San Francisco). The line was eventually closed down in the 1930s and now lives on in the name of Point Reyes Station and in the predominant architectural style of main street. The trains may be long gone but if you close your eyes and breath in heavily through your nose you can occasionally catch the unmistakable whiff of steam and engine grease.

This part of California has constant reminders of that infamous day in April 1906 when the earth began to move leaving behind death, devastation and the the legend of the great San Francisco Earthquake. The epicentre of the quake was in the Point Reyes peninsular but most of the devastation was further south. But the quake did have a dramatic impact on the railroad. A contemporary account takes up the story. "At Point Reyes Station at the head of Tomales Bay the 5:15 train for San Francisco was just ready. The conductor had just swung himself on when the train gave a great lurch to the east, followed by another to the west, which threw the whole train on its side. The astonished conductor dropped off as it went over, and at sight of the falling chimneys and breaking windows of the station, he understood that it was the Temblor. The fireman turned to jump from the engine to the west when the return shock came. He then leaped to the east and borrowing a Kodak he took the picture of the train here presented.' (From 'The 1906 California Earthquake', David Starr Jordan, Editor, 1907, A.M. Robertson, San Francisco

The fear and destruction of 1906 put our argument into perspective, so Amy and I decided to settle our differences. We would take the road up the east side of Tomales Bay. In return, Amy agreed that we could spend the night at the Point Reyes Station Inn which advertises itself as a "newly built Inn with an old world character". She pointed out that the website said "well behaved pets welcome". A asked what significance that had for her. And so we fell out again.

While Amy sulked I read the local weekly newspaper. The Point Reyes Light is justifiably proud of its history. It is one of the few weekly newspapers to ever win a Pulitzer Prize. In 1979, when the paper's circulation was only 2,750, it received the Pulitzer Gold Medal for Meritorious Public Service as a result of a series of exposès and editorials about the Synanon cult. The cult was not only abusing its tax-exempt status, it had also turned to violence in an attempt to silence critics. The violence culminated in October 1978 when Synanon members tried to murder a lawyer by planting a 4.5-foot rattlesnake in his mailbox. The lawyer was bitten but survived, and The Light was the first to reveal that cult leaders had orchestrated the attack. I found no reference to what had happened to the snake so I quickly went and found Amy who was sniffing around in the hotel garden.

The following day we continued our journey north. The southern end of Tomales Bay is a marshland but as you head north the bay widens and becomes more attractive. With its calm blue waters and gentle hills, this is a popular weekend escape for the city-dwellers from the south. The walk up Highway 1 was a pleasant one I had to admit and this left Amy with a smug self-satisfied smile on her canine face.

Nevertheless, the grass is always greener on the other side of the Bay, so I gave Amy a running commentary of the places we were passing (or we would have been doing if we had been walking up the west side) : shell beach, pebble beach, shallow Beach, and even the delightfully named Hearts Desire. None of these seemed to bother Amy at all, but later I hit the jackpot when I pointed out Duck Beach - only a quarter of a mile swim away.

Half-way up the bay is the small community of Marshall which is a centre for the oyster and clam fishing industry. If you want to sample the local produce call in at the Marshall Store which claims to have "the best oysters on the planet". If you check out the conflicting claims for this title on the web you see it is a dead heat between Marshall and Wellfleet in Massachusetts.

Close by Marshall is the Marconi Conference Center which includes a 28 room hotel. Guglielmo Marconi, the father of wireless radio, built the first trans-Pacific receiving station here in 1913; the 28-room hotel was meant to house workers. RCA took over the site in 1920, followed decades later by the cultish drug-and-alcohol rehabilitation group Synanon (the subject of the Point Reyes Light expose which won it the Pulitzer Prize).

Amy and I ended the week camped on the shore of Tomales Bay. In the next field there were some highland cattle. Just beyond them the lush green hills swept up to meet the sky. We could have been back home in Yorkshire. We felt homesick.

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

Week 27 Rocky Point To Olema

We started our week at Rocky Point (as it turns out a very descriptive name) and we made our way via Steep Ravine Canyon (as it turns out an even more descriptive name) to join the Shoreline Highway. The Shoreline Highway is an old friend of ours and has been with us - in one persona or another - since the start of our journey. Sometimes it is State Route 1, sometimes Highway 101. Sometimes it is Pacific Coast Highway, sometimes it is Cabrillo Highway. It changes its name with the frequency of a petty fraudster, but today it is the Shoreline Highway and it is taking us north. One of the first places we came upon was Red Rock Beach which turns out to be the most popular nudest beach north of San Francisco. I tried to hurry Amy on and exchanged witty repartee with her in order to try and avert her attention from the lobster-pink bodies in the near distance. We stopped to read a copy of the Nudist Beach Etiquette Rules and I pointed out to Amy Rule 3 which states "If you're sunbathing nude in a secluded area, leave a bathing suit on a rock to let others know they are approaching an unclothed person. If you're uncomfortable having your suit out of reach, bring a spare". Amy found all this quite bizarre and wanted to know whether she should leave the Bow and Fur Leather Coat she bought at Diggidy Dog in Carmel lying around just in case. I told her not to be so silly and we hurried on.

Very soon we came to Stinson Beach. Here we found over three miles of sandy beach, a 51 acre park, 100s of picnic tables and a snack bar. To our surprise, we also found William Shakespeare. Each year, Stinson Beach gives itself over to the Shakespeare at Stinson Festival and our journey up the beach coincided with a production of the Taming of the Shrew. Amy - who considers herself to be a logical dog - could not understand why, earlier in the day, I had found the sight of a few naked sunbathers uncomfortable whilst, a few miles further north, I could walk passed a group of eccentrics dressed in 16th century costumes and shouting strange insults at one another without batting an eyelid. What she didn't realise was that I was rushing her onwards for, as far as I can remember, there wasn't a part for a dog in the play. One might be tempted to ask why Shakespeare at Stinson Beach? "Why not" those Bard-loving citizens of Northern California would reply.

Towards its norther extremity, Stinson Beach provides a natural bar which stretches out across Bolinas Lagoon. However, it is impossible to walk all the way to the small town of Bolinas without getting your feet very wet. Amy pointed out that in her case it would be her feet, her legs, her tummy and her head, so we turned back and followed the road which runs up the east side of the lagoon. There is some nice little beach houses here and for a few moments Amy and I dreamed. Despite our best efforts we couldn't dream up a way of affording the $4,000 a week rental and therefore we walked on.

Bolinas Lagoon is almost the last point at which you can see the distant towers of San Francisco. We were about to say goodbye to big-city life for the best part of a year. We turned our respective backs on city-scapes and bade a hearty welcome to gulch-country. As you follow Balinas Lagoon to the north there are an awful lot of gulches. Within just a few miles there's Wilkins Gulch, Pike County Gulch, Morses Gulch, McKinnan Gulch, Cronin Gulch, and Copper Mine Gulch to name just a few. Amy asked me what a gulch was, which under the circumstances was quite a reasonable question. I quoted her the standard dictionary definition - "A narrow rocky ravine with a fast-flowing stream running through it" - and she pointed out that none of the so-called gulches had any streams in them. At that very moment we were passing a sign pointing towards "Flying Pig Ranch". Not everything is what it says it is, I replied. She didn't reply. She was too busy looking up into the sky for a passing bacon sandwich.

Leaving Bolinas Lagoon behind, the Shoreline Highway, Amy and I cut up through the hills until we eventually reached the town of Olema. With a population of 55, Olema is now a sizeable town on our route and therefore worthy of full investigation.

The town takes its name from the Miwok Indian word for coyote. The town reached the zenith of its fame and fortune in the mid nineteenth century when it became a popular place for workers in the booming logging industry to relax. There were numerous saloons and establishments of even lesser repute. It would never grow bigger. As the logging industry faded so did the fortunes and notoriety of Olema. Today it is a sleepy little place with a handful of shops and houses. It is also the place where the Shoreline Highway meets up with Sir Francis Drake Boulevard. If Amy was surprised to see this archetypal English name out here in the hills of California she did not give it away. By contrast I was intrigued until I discovered that Drake is supposed to have landed on the beach just down the road with the crew of the Golden Hind during his voyage around the world. "It's a small world", I said to Amy. "Wuff", she replied.

We ended the week at the Olema Inn. Whilst genuinely old, the Inn has none of the dubious attributes of those earlier Olema saloons. In fact it is quite a refined place : "a gateway for simple indulgences and small luxuries where you can dream away your cares and escape your troubles". For her simple indulgence, Amy had a plate of chicken. For my small luxury I had a bottle of the 2002 Beckmen Vinyards Marsanne Santa Ynez Valley : a snip at just $31. Ah the simple pleasures of life.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Week 26 : San Francisco To Rocky Point

Returning from real travel to virtual travel is a bit of a culture shock. Your frame of reference is different and you move from a passive perspective (experiencing the real sights and sounds that surround you) to an active one (within certain constraints, determining what those sights and sounds will be). I explained all this to Amy, my Soft-Coated Wheaten Terrier, as we made our way across Golden Gate Bridge. She dismissed my philosophical musings, pointing out that whilst I might have been cruising up the Atlantic Coast of Europe for the last few weeks, she had been stuck in a kennel. For her, virtual travel meant that she could ride on trains, eat in the best restaurants, sip beer in seaside bars and chase walruses. Compared to a concrete floor and barking neighbours, virtual travel won hands down any day.

And so we entered Marin County ("our mission is excellent service") I reflected that we were now leaving the urban sprawl of Southern California behind and heading towards the near wilderness that is the northern part of the state. California is certainly a state of contrasts but this is not really surprising if one remembers the very scale of the place. As I was walking Amy the other day someone called out "where are you now". When I explained that I had just crossed the Golden Gate Bridge they replied with a note of surprise "still in California?". People shouldn't forget, I mumbled to Amy, that walking the Californian coast is equivalent to walking from London to Barcelona. She ignored me. She usually does.

Once we had left the famous bridge behind we entered the Marin Headlands which forms part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Amy and I soon found ourselves hiking up and down steep hills and finding deserted rocky bays, all within just a few miles of downtown San Francisco. Like the San Francisco Bay itself, the Marin Headlands are noted for their frequent fogs which roll in from the Pacific. But on the days we virtually walked the hills, the fogs stayed away (according to the Fog Forecast carried by the SFGate website) which meant we got a good view of Rodeo Lagoon as we approached from the east. On Google Earth the lagoon looks a poisonous green colour and this has prompted someone to ask whether it is a toxic lake. The answer appears to be, "it depends when you go". The lagoon is separated from the sea by a sand spit which is normally breached by high winter tides. Such breaches refresh the lagoon with fresh, blue, seawater. Between breaches it tends to get brackish and very salty. Amy had a quick taste and then demanded a beer to quench her thirst. Sad to say, we couldn't find a bar.

We were now back on the Pacific coast and we going to follow the coast north for the rest of the week. What roads there are tend to have an off-on affair with the coast, sometimes they will come close, sometimes they shun the sea as and hide in the twisting valleys. We followed paths across the bare hills, keeping close to the coast and knowing that would eventually take us to Muir Beach. Muir Beach is not a big place. With about 150 houses it is tiny compared to the great metropolis's we were passing through as we approached San Francisco. But this was the scale we would now need to get used to, and both Amy and I found the comparative loneliness of these hills and small towns quite refreshing.

And talking of refreshing, the reason we were so keen not to miss Muir Beach was the wonderful Pelican Inn. Our tongues had been hanging out ever since we had sampled the waters of Rodeo Lagoon (OK, since Amy had sampled them and told me about them). And here, in a remote spot in Marin County was an authentic English Inn. They served Yorkshire pudding and had Fuller’s London Pride Ale on draught. At $250 dollars per room per night it might be on the pricey side, but what the hell, this is the virtual world with, I assume, virtual money. The taste of that beer was anything but virtual.

The next day we were due to continue along the coast. Both of us had slept well and were convinced that this place was pretty close to paradise. We realised that we could abandon the great project and spend the rest of our virtual lives as house-guests at the Pelican Inn. There were all sorts of wild critters for Amy to chase and all sorts of beers and whiskeys for me to sample. We thought about it long and hard. While thinking about it Amy polished off a plate of bangers and mash and I flirted with a bottle of Theakston "Old Peculier". It was Amy who eventually got up and pulled me away. If she noticed the tear in my eye as we left the Inn behind us and headed towards Rocky Point, she was kind enough not to mention it.