A California Mini-Tour – Part 2

The first day of my four day mini-tour had gone well, exploring both Pinnacles National Park and the Winchester Mystery House. My plan for the second day was to focus on exploring only one stop, Lassen Volcanic National Park. I got an early start from the San Jose Motel 6 and headed north.

I had already checked Lassen Volcanic off my national park bucket list, but the check mark had an asterisk next to it that I wanted to clear. In late May of 2006, I had visited Lassen as part of grand Californian road trip I had planned for my mother and her friend. However, the previous winter had been a very wet season, leaving a very heavy snow coverage at the higher elevations that extended deep into spring. The resulting road closures kept us from being able to circle the northern side of Crater Lake, to enter Yosemite over the scenic Tioga Pass and to only go two miles within the southern entrance of Lassen Volcanic. We were able to experience the steam vents of the Sulphur Works which had powered their way through the heavy snow drifts, but this was only like putting a foot within the door of the wonders of Lassen. To fully check Lassen off my bucket list, I felt I needed to revisit and explore deeper within the park.

I got to the southern park entrance shortly before noon and discovered a four year old visitor center just beyond the gate, which was sorely lacking during the 2006 grand tour. Unfortunately, because of the time of year, the main gift shop was not open during the week and the rest of the center was lightly staffed. I shot some landscape views from the rear viewing area, then I ate my packed lunch in a small open-air lecture arena next to the center. I could envision park rangers giving nature lectures to visitors in this arena during the busy summer months. After lunch, I drove north along the park road and made my first stop at the Sulphur Works, revisiting the only location I had explored on the first tour. It was interesting seeing the steam vents without the snow. Then, I drove on to discover the full experience of Lassen.

Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park

Bumpass Hell, Lassen Volcanic National Park

It didn’t take long before I caught my first sight of Lassen Peak, one of the largest plug volcanoes in the world and the high point of the caldera rim of an ancient composite volcano. Lassen is not dormant. It last erupted over a three year period from 1914 to 1917, prompting Congress to create a national park around it. I knew I did not have time to hike up to the 10,415 foot peak, but I did have time to hike from the Lake Helen parking area to one of Lassen’s most notable hydrothermal spots, Bumpass Hell. Even though it is 8,000 feet in altitude and wraps around a sharp drop-off into Little Hot Springs Valley, the Bumpass Hell Trail is even and easy to walk, providing magnificent vista views into the caldera, and the elevated walkways at Bumpass Hell allows park visitors a safe, close-up view of the scalding hot springs and bubbling mud pools. After exploring Bumpass Hell and hiking back to the car, I drove on to Summit Lake, the halfway point of the road through the park and my planned turnaround point. Enjoying the alpine lake with just a handful of fellow visitors was amazingly restful, but it was now time to turn this tour back toward home. I retraced my route south back out of the park, then turned east to the small mountain town of Chester, where I had my second night motel reservation at the local Best Western.

Traveling during the off-season has many advantages in being able to avoid crowds and traffic, but it does have the occasional drawback like my discovery that most of the cafes and restaurants in Chester were closed for the season. Still, the microwave in my motel room and a packaged burrito from the nearby food mart proved to be a very cost-saving dinner. It was two wonderful days down, with two more days to go.

To be continued…

A California Mini-Tour – Part 1

Back in July, I posted about my travels and my bucket lists for future traveling. One of the main bucket lists I had focused on was the opportunity to visit every designated national park in the US. I mentioned that the newest national park, elevated from national monument status, was practically in my backyard. A little over a week ago, I took my chance to visit this park, Pinnacles, as well as add a few more stops in a quick four day road trip in California. Taking advantage of the off-seasonal and cooler autumn period of late October allowed me to avoid crowds and make my off-the-cuff travel planning work. I jumped in the car early on a Wednesday morning with plans to be back home that Saturday evening. I was looking forward to a very exciting trip.

The key to making this trip work was to get an early start on Wednesday, so by 6 am, I was in my car and off to the first stop, Pinnacles National Park. There are two entrances into the park, but there is no road that transverses the park, so I decided to head to the eastern entrance as park maps seem to indicate more choices of trails to explore from this side. With my gas tank down to a quarter full, I made it to the east entrance by 10:30 am, noticing that the nearest city and gas services from this exit was 30 miles away in either direction. Entry fees are collected in the visitor center, although my annual park pass precluded me from having to pay anything. After gathering the informational brochure and seasonal park paper, I drove to the day use parking at the end of the east entrance road.

Bear Gulch Rock Wall, Pinnacles National Park

Bear Gulch Rock Wall, Pinnacles National Park

In some ways, our national parks can be grouped into the famous parks that are identified by an iconic image or environment, like Yosemite’s Half Dome, Yellowstone’s Old Faithful Geyser, the massive multi-striped gorge of the Grand Canyon or even the Everglades’ extensive sea of grasses; and the less iconic, but just as informational parks. Pinnacles fits into this second category. The rough hewn rocky peaks of the Pinnacles ridge line may not be recognized or immediately bring wonder to travelers around the world; however, they do have a major story to reveal about the San Andreas Fault that lies along it eastern foothills. This is a land of coastal uplift along the grinding of two major tectonic plates, and the boulders and rock columns I passed along the two trails I hiked revealed the amazing erosion patterns on the brittle volcanic walls. I hiked up to one of the cave trails in the park, created not by underground water cutting through rock, but rather by falling boulders that fell into the gulch and formed a rough tunnel over the gulch. Even though I could have hiked through the full length of this cave to another exit, I decided to just explore the one entry, then hike back to the day use area to eat my packed lunch. After lunch, I hiked up the Condor Gulch trail to an overlook on the trail, just below the high peaks ridge, which gave me an expansive view of a southeast panorama of ridges. Pinnacles is not a high mountain range as its highest peak is just a little over 3000 feet, which makes it a very accessible park to hike in. However, based on the information in my brochure, I chose the best time to enjoy the hiking trails as temperatures in the Pinnacles can reach over 100 degrees during the summer months. I say good planning on my part.

My day wasn’t over yet, as I quickly set out, stopping once for gas, to make it to San Jose in time to catch the final tour of the Winchester Mystery House. The house is well-known for stairways to nowhere and doors into walls, as the common history states that Mrs. Sarah Winchester kept the mansion under constant construction to confuse the spirits of the victims of the guns manufactured by her husband’s family business. However, Sarah never left any written evidence for her motives behind her construction plans as the tour guide was quick to start the hour long tour with a proclamation that her motives could have been psychic beliefs or poor architectural skills. Still, the séance room with three exits, but only one entrance, and the prolific integration of 13 within the design of the rooms gives high credence to the psychic belief explanation. What is known is that after the death of her baby girl and her husband, wealthy Sarah Winchester left New Haven, Connecticut and moved across the country into a small unfinished farmhouse in the Santa Clarita region of California, which she kept in a constant state of construction until she died 38 years later. The tour is interesting and amazing, but I’m not sure amazing enough for the $33 fee for the tour. What I find even more amazing is that this mansion, which was surrounded by acres of fruit groves and fields, is now engulfed within the bustling city of San Jose, which is probably doing a better job of scaring away the ghosts of the Winchester victims.

With reservations at a Motel 6 a few miles away, the day was over. It was planned as the longest day of the trip, and since it worked out perfectly, I was very confident in my plans for the next three days.

To be continued…

Bucket Lists and Road Trips

I love traveling, exploring the vast complexities of this little orb circling a massive globe of energy in a little section of infinity. I am fascinated by the artistry of this constantly changing natural world and the amazing interaction of our species within this world in such a short span of time. Constantly flowing currents of air and water carve rock, transform landscapes, fluctuate temperatures and transport life on this spinning globe. Amazingly, here I am with the ability to move faster around this earth than my ancestors and the technology of a camera to freeze and record these wondrous sights for the temporary span of my lifetime. However, I am a part of this eternal miracle and responsibility comes with the gift of my life within the tapestry.

For some, travel means finding another place different and exotic from the regular patterns and flows of their home turf, then returning to this place year after year to enjoy a different regular pattern and flow. For me, it means more to uncover a new pattern and perspective with each trip I take. Sometimes, this can be accomplished within my own home backyard by hiking a different trail or checking out a local community or historical site previously unvisited. However, to really expand my perspective, I need to look beyond and see how natural elements and cultures fill in the mosaic. The best way for me to do this is to examine the adventures of those before me and to create a plan of adventure for myself. The first step is to create a series of bucket lists to set out as goals. In my case, my bucket lists are more places to see and experience, rather than activities to accomplish.

My bucket lists begin with the main list of hoping to set foot on every continent. On this list, I can check off North America, Europe and, nominally, Africa. Branching off the main list, I have lists to visit every country in Europe and to explore listed wonders worldwide both natural and cultural, but my longest bucket lists are set within the United States. One reason is obviously the proximity and ability to explore more with less resources. There is a large area to investigate and admire without crossing international borders. I have created three bucket lists to explore this country – to visit every state, to visit every US national park, and to visit an ever-growing list of US cities and sites (currently 141 items). Officially, I can state that there are only three states I have never been in. However, there are five other states in which I was younger than 2 years old when my parents drove through them and two other states in which I changed planes at a major airport, so I only count 40 states as actually visited and experienced. Of those 40 states, I have marked 12 that need to be re-visited since I feel the experience to be more cursory on the first go-round. On the extraneous list of 141 cities and sites, I have checked off 72 items as having been visited and explored. Quite a feat, but still only halfway through the list.

I placed the US national parks in a separate list. It was America that first decided to separate, protect and maintain nature’s grand displays, allowing people from around the world to gain the perspective of the forces that nourished this earth. Other countries have followed America’s example and many of their parks are on my international lists. There are 59 officially designated national parks in the United States and its territories. The newest national park is Pinnacles National Park which was elevated from national monument status in January. I have checked off 32 of these parks from my list. I am not sure which will be the hardest to visit on this list, American Samoa National Park or the Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska, but I am going to do my best to visit them all.

Most of these parks I have visited and explored in the last ten years through the most American type of travel, the road trip. The advent of the automobile brought about a vast network of asphalt and concrete that turned months of harsh travel to go from ocean to ocean into days in air-conditioned comfort. Modern mapping technologies and Internet reservations allow one to plot a general route and organize reservations on a day-to-day basis in order to travel economically while maintaining flexibility in the overall schedule. It allowed me to plan a Rocky Mountain circuit, a grand Californian tour, an Arizona parks tour, a southwest Nevada to Colorado trip and an Eastern parks tour. An $80 annual entrance pass covers my vehicle entrance fees into the national parks along the way, and in the process, I gain a greater appreciation for the geologic forces that shape this planet from the volcanic geysers of Yellowstone and the sea of grasses in the Everglades to the uplifting forces that allowed the Colorado River to carve a Grand Canyon. This country hosts the tallest living things (Redwoods), the largest living things (Sequoias), the oldest living things (Bristlecone Pines), the longest cave system (Mammoth Caves) and the tallest land-based mountain (Mount McKinley, also known as Denali) in the world. Getting to experience these wonders hopefully prepares me to find a way to experience the rainforests of the Amazon, the great bio-diversity of the Great Rift Valley of Africa and the largest sandstone monolith known as Ayers Rock in the Australian desert. Some day…

Biking Along the Venice Beach Boardwalk – Part 2

In my previous posting, I had described my fairly regular bike ride to Venice Beach up to the central Windward Plaza. The trip continues…

Beyond the main plaza, the bike path wavers near the boardwalk north until it reaches a unique attraction, the Venice Beach Freakshow housed within an extended patio building. On weekends and in season, a loud speaker announces in barker fashion the various wonders visitors will see for a nominal admission price. Occasionally, I have seen a fire-eater performing on the patio to bring customers in to see the show. This freak show is currently the focus of a new AMC reality program, so it is attracting more tourists to the boardwalk. I must admit that as of this writing, I have not tuned in to see the series. Nor have I stopped on my bike rides to see the show itself.

At this point, the bike path snakes outward and around a series of grassy palm tree patches. Visitors and homeless alike gather on these knolls to view the waves coming in to the shore. My goal is reached when the bike path slides back to within a foot or two of the boardwalk, two short blocks away from the Santa Monica border. I get off my bike and walk it across the short sand strip to the red-stripped “no vendor” entry area on the boardwalk. Then I cross the pedestrian traffic to a small store called N’ice Cream on the north side of Thornton Court. The store sells gelatos and sorbets, made fresh every morning in their main shop on Abbott Kinney Boulevard, just blocks away. I choose one of the four fat-free sorbet flavors of the day and get two scoops in a cup. I enjoy the watermelon flavor when available and thought the champagne flavor during New Years was very creative. I take my cup and sit in one of their chairs to enjoy the broad variety of visitors walking along the boardwalk.

I mentioned the “red-stripped” no vendor area on the beach side of the walk. This provides an open entry area to the beach within the marked spots all along the beach side of the boardwalk where artists, musicians and small vendors can license a position to set up a canopy and pitch small souvenirs and artwork to visitors. At N’ice Cream, these spots are taken up by an artist selling colorful framed paintings, a small vendor selling marijuana design t-shirts, and Tom the photographer selling a small selection of 8×10 souvenir prints of Venice. It has only been a few cold and quiet weekdays when I have noticed their spots to be empty.

It is during this time of people watching that I realize just how famous worldwide this stretch of beach and storefronts truly is. I have heard just about every language and accent pass by me – German, Japanese, Spanish and more. Winter appears to be the season for European tourists, while summer is perfect for Aussie tourists. However, the bohemian flavor of Venice attracts a broader flavor of travelers, those seeking to explore the wilder side of human nature and enjoy the starving street performers populating the boardwalk. I was amused recently by one nattily dressed pedestrian who was walking his dog down the boardwalk. The dog was leashed per the law, but the man had trained the dog to carry the other end of the leash in his mouth, scolding the eager pup whenever the leash was dropped. A dog walking himself! I just had to shake my head.

Having finished my sorbet, I toss my cup into the ice cream cone-designed trash bin and walk my bike back over to the bike path. It’s time to head home by backtracking my trail and re-navigating the bike path with fellow bikers, Segway renters, skaters and seagulls. The bike path is posted as being for bikes only, no pedestrians, but many visitors find the concrete path to be a lovely walk on the beach without the sand or crowds. There would be no issue passing a group of walkers going single file along the right side, but many tend to bunch into conversation groups or pair up as couples holding hands in double wide formation. If they are called out for being on and blocking the bicycle lane, they have no problem glaring back or giving out a not-so-mild invective even as they stand on the large white bike icon painted regularly along the trail. All I can say is that it is just part of the challenge and experience of keeping fit and enjoying this world famous location.

Biking Along the Venice Beach Boardwalk – Part 1

I have been lucky to travel and see many amazing places in the US and Europe, but my recent unemployment has reminded me of an old truism – one often forgets to visit the wonders in one’s own backyard. Shortly after I had purchased my townhome on the westside of Los Angeles over a decade ago, I purchased a bike to enjoy an occasional ride to the beach, but I allowed my job to turn that occasion into an annual or biennial event on the Fourth of July or Labor Day weekend. When I was laid off over a year ago, I suddenly had extra time on my hands which I used to write and publish a novel as well as get myself into better shape by riding my bike two or three times a week down to Venice Beach. Just off the boardwalk, a concrete, two-way bike path snakes it way from Washington Boulevard to the Santa Monica pier and beyond towards Malibu. I found that I could head down Venice Boulevard straight to the bike path, turn and bike up to the northern end of the Venice boardwalk, take a pause and head back home all within an hour. Add an extra half hour and I could add the Santa Monica Pier to the round trip.

The boardwalk basically begins at Venice Boulevard North on the south side. The pedestrian strip does extend farther south to Washington Boulevard, but the adjoining buildings are all residential, out of sync with the eclectic vibe from the stores and sights to the north. A stark indication of this vibe is the first store at the Venice corner, a medical marijuana dispensary whose clerks come out into the boardwalk in green scrubs announcing, “The doctor is in.” The bike path at this location is separated from the boardwalk by a city parking lot. During mild weekdays in the winter, parking is a reasonable five dollars and readily available. Film and TV crews will often take up half the lot during these off season periods. During mild weekends in the winter, the parking rate doubles as traffic backs up on Venice. When the weather really warms up, the lot full sign pops up and the backup traffic is forced to turn around and find a way out of the jam. I wave to them as I navigate my bike through the traffic into the lot to the bike path entryway on the other side.

As I bike north on the path, I catch glimpses of the open-air gym of Muscle Beach, the handball and basketball courts, and the children’s playground grouped north of the parking lot. The bike path curves in just past the police station and then curves back north between Windward Plaza and the skateboard park. This is the busiest area of Venice Beach as Windward Plaza is the beach side’s extension of the open area plaza signifying the central entry point to Venice Beach and its boardwalk. Next to the skateboard park, a modern art sculpture of five iron bars stands vigil over two flat-top concrete cones and a couple of concrete walls painted over with graffiti art. Navigating through the pedestrian crosswalk and skateboarders can be tricky at this point even during light off-season days.

Past this point, the bike path curves in toward the boardwalk, turning back north to snake along in close proximity. Near this point in the boardwalk, there is an open air restaurant with a faded red-and-white canopy over the eating area that extends over the entry of a small independent bookstore, Small World Books. I pitched them to carry my book in their store as a local author, but the owner let me know that the store is too small to carry unknown books on consignment. One day, I hope to sell enough books to entice them to stock a few copies of Legacy Discovered on their shelves.

To be continued…

An Accent on Perspective

In September of 2007, I was selected as part of the support team sent to London to handle the publicity events promoting the launch of High School Musical 2 in Europe. The week of press events led up to a “blue carpet” premiere screening at the O2 Arena. During this event, I was stationed next to the stanchion and rope holding back the throng of British teens and tweens hoping to see Zac Efron and Vanessa Hudgens walk down the carpet. Just before the cast was scheduled to arrive, I was handed a stash of posters to hand out to the fans. I started to pass them out, occasionally waving a poster and calling out, “I have posters for you. Get a poster here!” Suddenly, I heard a plaintive admiring cry from the back of the crowd, “Oh! He’s American!” As if on cue, a young lass looked up at me and said with a sweet English inflection, “I just love your accent.” Maintaining my composure, I politely thanked the young woman for her compliment and continued to hand out posters. However, inside, I was floored.

I had grown up in Jacksonville, Florida, but my parents were from upstate New York and we lived in a suburb next to a naval air station, so my speech never picked up a distinctive Southern drawl. It blended to match closer to a Midwestern tone that later fit in perfectly with my fellow classmates at UCLA. I did not consider myself to be much of a speaker or conversationalist and felt my voice and speaking style was somewhat bland. The way I saw it, my voice did not carry the interesting proper tone of the British Isles, the romantic flair of Paris or the playful lilt of the Italian peninsula. It was just a straightforward work-a-day way of speaking. Yet here I was in front of a group of English teens who were enraptured by my American accent. What was it that enthralled them?

Perhaps the standard American accent presents an egalitarian confidence, presenting information in a uncomplicated classless manner. Of course, maybe this is how I expect the rest of the world to hear and admire the American accent. Perhaps the unique tones of my American accent conjured up images of a foreign land separated from these girls by a major ocean, but seen often on television and publications as a country sharing a common mother tongue and a connected history. It is possible my voice identified me as a person who has personally experienced the skyscrapers of New York, the beaches of Southern California or the ability to drive a car for days over a vast landscape without crossing an international border. These are wonderfully wild conjectures on my part, but there is one thing I now know for sure – everyone who speaks on this Earth has an accent that someone else in this world will find fascinating, if only the world gets small enough for them to meet.