Thursday, June 17, 2010

California Day Four

California Day Four
Saturday, February 20, 2010

Waking early I serenely fell back to sleep until my late alarm at 8 a.m. Amazing that, because the hotel was filled with girls youth soccer teams. They were up early, boisterously so.

Next door there is a diner and the hotel offers, in lieu of free breakfast, a five dollar voucher. It was not nearly enough. This is not a diner, at least not East Coast style. Maybe all diners in California charge $4.75 for a glass of orange juice. And it was a regular size glass, nothing jumbo about it. Five dollars? Really? Don't they grow the freakin' fruit just down the road?

I got a short stack of pancakes, which was more than enough and a cup of coffee. That's it. My voucher still covered just half my breakfast expenditure.

Guess the Greeks haven't found California yet.

Last night I was perusing the hotel information booklet. A listing under “area attractions” caught my eye, a warbirds museum. This morning I arrived at Estrella Warbirds, walked in just behind a classic car club, one of whose members apparently was also a member of the museum. The delightfully sweet, older lady who took my 10 dollars, suggested I join the car club's tour as it was just getting started.

Notice how you always find old people at museums?

The guy leading the tour was a WWII pilot, met Pappy Boyington, in person. He gave a delightful tour. I ended up spending more time here than even Monterey Bay Aquarium. The old fellow had a story for every exhibit. He kept promising to speed up the tour, then drifted off into another story. We won't have these guys around for very much longer. Hopefully they will be replaced by other old guys who flew in Vietnam or Iraq.

It is the same at the New England Air Museum. If you go there on certain days, they have pilots who actually flew, in combat, the same type of plane you are viewing. Each pilot stands next to the kind of plane he flew and tells stories. What it really was like.

How amazing it must be for those who were there and came out alive. I am too old now to serve. But I always wonder how my life would have turned had I accepted a Marine Corps commission straight out of college. I would not have been a pilot. My eyes require correction.

I am not sure where, or how, I would have served. And that is a big factor that kept me out of the military. I was not afraid to go to some troubled land. It was that I was not so ready to surrender my destiny so completely. With my college and writing ability, I could well have ended up behind a desk. What good is joining the Marines if you don't get to blow something up?

“All man's achievements pale in comparison to war.” It was a tank commander who said that, a Californian named George Patton. And when you look at the millions of dollars of airborne death machines, now museum pieces, you glimpse only a sliver of what Patton said.

The museum encompassed most all of aviation. There was a not so good model of the Wright flyer. Some very interesting WWI artifacts, the war to end all wars.

All the WWII planes, except for a Douglass Bomber, were in hangers. They have some scout planes, small stuff and the big bomber.

Parked outside are a collection of fighter planes from various wars, starting with Korea. They have the Saber Jet, a plane I have always admired. It was the jet plane model I played with as a kid. Famous MiG killer. Compact, powerful and those menacing six, 50 caliber machine guns sticking out of the nose.

Also is the similarly built Douglass A6 Intruder. I have been fascinated with the plane since reading “Flight of the Intruder.” Like the Saber, the Intruder is a stubby plane. Pilot and bombardier sit side by side. Unlike the Sabre, Intruder carries no guns or missiles to defend itself. It relied instead upon its speed and radar jamming equipment.

My morning melted into the past.

When I suited up to go the sun was so bright I optimistically donned my fingerless gloves. I was hoping to come back from California with the telltale tanned patches on the back of my hands that only a fellow biker would recognize. After an exit or two on the Interstate, I got off to switch to winter gloves. It was warm enough, at least, that I did not need my heaviest set of insulated winter gloves.

Clouds were all around, hovering over the mountains again. Intrinsically I understand convection and precipitation. It is another thing to see it demonstrated so clearly. You don't get the same effect back East.

Here you are riding down Route 101 South on a pool table flat plain. On either side of you are what appear to be scrub covered hills. Except some of these rise up 1, 2, 3 thousand feet, some up to five, in a very short distance.

Our mountains are much more gradual. There are lots of trees disguising the rise in elevation. You can't get so close to Eastern mountains without first traveling through Piedmont and hills. In California you look across the plains and, zoom, the mountains leap up from the plain. Can you imagine getting here in an ox-drawn wagon? Knowing where the passes are would be critical.
Again today I had to squeeze through the mountains at the end of the valley. When I did, I got rained upon again. Not a lot. On the other side I was back skirting the Pacific Ocean. It's winds drove the clouds inland to the mountains. The air was cool still, too cool for what I had hoped from this trip. But at least today the sun shown most all my ride.

My target today was the Santa Barbara zoo. They have meerkats and I was hoping to get some good pictures, or at least see how they were exhibited. (Such are the sumer attraction at The Maritime Aquarium where I work.) Only when I approached the ticket booth the sign said the exhibit was closed today. I did not go in.

By now it was 3:00 and I was maybe an hour above L.A. I'm thinking I don't want to stay in L.A. I don't want to ride into L.A. anywhere near 5 p.m. And I am not sure I have enough time, or warmth, left in the day to cross the sprawling city for something better on the south side.

I backtracked through Santa Barbara and found a boutique hotel for tonight. It's a little pricey at $124, that was $20 off the regular rate, or so they told me.

Santa Barbara says it is “America's Riviera.” Funny, South Beach, Fla., says the same thing on the right coast.

Santa Barbara has more bums than South Beach. Here the bums are very scruffy looking. The ocean front is littered with them, gathered in clans, sleeping alone surrounded by their piles. The dodge is on and they all have their hands out, some with signs declaring their hunger.

I always wonder what these guys were like in high school. They had access to the same free education as us all. I wonder, did they waste it? Were they too young to see the value?

Well even Jesus said, “The poor will always be with us.” That's some cold hearted reality from Emmanuel, the God among us.

Santa Barbara offers a long jogging, walking, bicycling path sandwiched between the main road and beach.

I had time to go for a run along the beach on the path with the sound of waves and seagulls. Geeze, I gotta get back in shape. My hotel is at the northern end of the path. I never ran far enough to see the southern end.
Tonight I am eating out on a pier, overlooking the harbor, channel buoys blinking red and green outside the window; remember, red right return.

After dinner I now walked the long path back to my hotel, enjoying a good cigar picked up in Monterey yesterday. A chilly wind comes off the ocean. I zip my rain jacket all the way up my neck and fasten the snap to hold it close, push my free hand (one required to tend the cigar) down deep into the pocket. Shouldn't complain. It is February after all.

Just as I am finding my relaxation, I am nearly out of time. Tomorrow, Sunday, is predicted for rain. I haven't yet decided what to do. Riding all day in the rain is not my first choice.

Los Angeles is like a gulf, a dead zone of urbanization, that I must cross to get back to scenery. I have to MapQuest it out to see if I should try. The bike isn't due until Tuesday morning. But I have IMAX meetings at 6 and 7 pm on Monday. So I will turn the bike in Monday before Eagle Rider closes at 5. That means I really have one and a half days left of vacation.

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.