Wednesday, June 16, 2010

California Day Three

California Day Three
Friday, February 19, 2010

Monterey Bay Aquarium was, is, awesome.

Everything is done well. Thoughtful touches are everywhere. Cement support columns are painted as pilings. Rocks crop up all in hallways and doorways as you walk through the galleries, always with patches of corals, fans or mussels attached. Sometimes the rocks simply break up open space on the floor. Other times they form great arches, decorated with undersea plants and barnacles, giving you the feeling of being underwater everywhere inside the Aquarium.

They use sounds to good effect. There are video screens, big ones, lots of them.

It is rare to find a tank with a single species. Typically there are shrimp or crabs or multiple fish, even when one animal is clearly the focus. Their schooling tank is an amazing circular dome, fish swirling above your head. Another schooling tank for mackerel is cleverly constructed so that you see only one straightaway on the fish racetrack. The impression is a never ending stream of fish going by you.

They have jellies, a whole gallery of them. Monterey grows moon jellies as big as dinner plates. They have brown nettles, big ones, tentacles tangled together in a mass. They have comb jellies, streaming cilia clearly flashing.

Their penguins share their water with fish. Bromeliads accent their rockwork. Underwater views are natural with rockwork sides and sandy bottoms.

Monterey's “jewel” tanks come in various shapes and sizes. Some are domes you can walk around, others are half circles mounted to the wall with bottoms that appear to fall away to infinity. There is much clever use of perspective and trope d'oeil.

Touch tanks abound. One is a very long, serpentine presentation. There is a wave crash exhibit, not all that big. The aviary also was small, but amazing. And in the aviary waters leopard sharks and rays patrolled with small bait fish accents.

I was unimpressed with their big Outer Bay tank. Much hyped, it seems to fall out of character with the rest of the exhibits. It is big. But all plain blue with a curving back. The bottom had sand and rocks. Yes, I know the open ocean lacks perspective. Somehow the effect is lacking. Instead it looks like a big tank of water, a cement swimming pool painted blue. Fish population in this tank seemed lacking. There were some big fish. Tuna are amazing to see up close. Unfortunately one tuna was very obviously damaged or sick with a scaly growth around its mouth.

Hammerhead sharks are always cool and unique. Perhaps the best entertainment was the ever swirling school of bait fish darting around the tank, flashing and changing direction. There was no ocean sunfish, as promised in their advertising. (I was glad to see I'm not the only one that gets jammed up like that.)

The otter exhibit is big and two stories tall. But there were only two otters which significantly dampened the drama.

Monterey's signature tank is the three story tall kelp forest. That exhibit did not disappoint. They really maximize the tank with views from various related galleries. I was lucky enough to catch an interview with a diver as he fed the fish and spoke via wireless mike with a docent standing outside the tank, relaying questions from the audience.

Outside balconies along the back of the Aquarium open up to water views of Monterey Bay and the Pacific Ocean. Decks offer broad spaces for relaxation and tie Aquarium to bay and sea.
As morning neared noon the experience became less enjoyable. Obstreperous school children grew in number and volume.

I was ready to go anyway. Rain was forecast for the evening. It was cold along the coast. Luckily I was lured inland to Salinas to see John Steinbeck's old stomping grounds and museum. It was a worthwhile trip.

As you come up through the hills from Monterey, quite suddenly you drop down into the tabletop flat Salinas River Valley. I also picked up a few degrees temperature and even, gasp, some breaks of sunshine.

This is perhaps the richest soil on earth, millions of years of rich topsoil drained from the mountains on either side of the valley. The hills are now scrubby, not much grows on the depleted and arid slopes after the good soil ran off to the valley. Hills are deeply cut, like most of the California I have seen so far. But the bottom land, black, deep soils, mounded high and covered with plastic for strawberries or neatly plied into rows of various construction according to their crop, broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce. Amazing vistas stretched on either side as I cut across the valley, east to Salinas.

On the way across, I got a pleasant surprise as I passed by Laguna Seca racetrack. I did not stop. There was too much travel left for today and I already spent half my tourism time on the Aquarium, the second half was promised to John Steinbeck.

The museum was well done and included an agricultural museum and art gallery. There were some Steinbeck artifacts and an interesting history of this amazing farmland, and the immigrant workers who continue to come here and do the very difficult stoop work and hand operations required to grow high value crops.

An interesting adjunct was that Japanese farmers who first came here could not legally own land. So they leased the land until their children, born here and therefore automatic citizens, became of legal age and “purchased” the land on their parents behalf. I am not sure such a multi-generational plan would work with most Americans.

There has been an international parade of farm workers. Interesting that the great Mexican immigration was actually encouraged by the Federal Government to replace Japanese workers locked up by the government in interment camps during WWII. After the Mexicans, workers streamed in from other countries so poor as to make look good such backbreaking, hot, stoop work as is required by large scale vegetable growing. I think the museum said Philippinos are now the latest group.

From Salinas I stayed inland, riding Route 101 south. Lush lands stretched out before me and I tooled along an arrow-straight highway.

I could see the weather moving in from the seaside horizon. Riding south the mountains to my right were dark; angry, flat and heavy clouds boiled up and over them from the sea. The mountains to my right still glowed in soft patches of sun as puffy clouds cruised above them.

For a while there I was thinking I could make it back to Pismo Beach and that cool hotel hanging on the cliffs. But it was getting darker. I finally pulled off and switched my glasses from darks to clears. Well at least things appeared lighter with the clear glasses, but not off to the west. Now I could actually see rain falling on the hills on my right.

What was also clear was that the valley was ending. The two mountain ranges seemed to be converging ahead of me. As I got closer, the road began turning to work its way up, switchbacking through the hills. It also started raining, lightly, but rain brought cold.

I was starting to think that I wasn't needing to push too far today. Certainly it would be wetter and colder on the coast. As Route 101 exits this valley, that's where it heads.

A couple of billboards for Black Oak Best Western in Paso Robles convinced me and quite at the last minute I dove off the exit. I figured it just right. I mean I was no sooner parking the bike at hotel registration than the big rain drops began falling. (The hotel even had dedicated bike parking spots for registration.)

It rained, steady, well into the night.

Just around the corner I enjoyed dinner at Big Bubba's Bad BBQ. Actually, it was pretty good.

From my hotel room's information booklet, I learned Estrella War Bird Museum is nearby. A bit of Googling convinced me it is the way to start my day tomorrow.

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