California

CALIFORNIA

To you, California is just that big place on the near side of the USA where the aircraft lands after you’ve just endured 13 hours in a cramped economy seat next to a fat man who snores.  Maybe you know it because images of Disneyland, Hollywood and all those cable cars dominate the posters at your travel agent’s office.

To me, California is a good deal more than that because it’s where I was raised.  Along its 1000-miles of coastline I discovered so much of what makes the various stages of growing up interesting, like squishy things in rockpools, the art of frisbee throwing and how neat is was to lie on soft white sand and kiss a new girlfriend.   In its mountains I learned to take photos blessed by the clear light of an icy dawn, watched bald eagles hunting for fish in secluded lakes, and found that an all-day walk through a towering forest of redwoods and Douglas fir trees is a pretty good antidote to the wretched poison of teenage loneliness. 

After living in Australia for 17 years, I went back to California not long ago to have a new look at the old place.  In a largely successful effort to become an Australian, I had given away my old citizenship but had never lost my California accent.  Not my memories, either. 

If you’re the sort of traveller who flies into LA, does the Universal Studios thing, whips down to Anaheim for a Disney-soaked day then bundles off somewhere else, quit reading this article right now.  As a reader, you’re not my type.

This story is different.  It’s all about the special places beyond the theme parks and the rides, beyond the tourist coach stops and the hordes ordered about by fuhrers with loud hailers.  This is about seven magical places in my memory ranging from the Trinity Mountains in the rugged north to the Spanish charm of Santa Barbara in the dry south.  Each possesses a powerful and arresting quality and each is somewhere I’d happily send my friends to experience for themselves.

Pacific Grove

John Denver died in a plane crash just offshore from the Monterey Peninsula, near Pacific Grove, the ABC newsreader said.   That’s probably the first time I’ve heard an Australian mention the town that for 14 years I called home. 

Monterey

It’s strange how you can grow up somewhere and not realise that in the world scheme of things, it’s actually pretty special.  Didn’t every place boast a photogenic coastline where seals and otters relax in the late September sun   (the only time of year there when you can be  reasonably sure of getting some rays)?  Doesn’t every American community have an adobe mission dating back to 1755 and a house where Robert Louis Stevenson sat up by candlelight and wrote Treasure Island?

Monterey

It was only when I left the Peninsula at age 20 and encountered some less-than-enthralling American towns like Amarillo and Peoria and Newark that I realised just how much we kids had taken for granted on this protrusion of land thrust out into an icy Pacific Ocean 120 miles south of San Francisco.   When you come to Monterey you’ll discover with fresh eyes the stimulating pleasures we 1960s teenagers thought were rather ho-hum.  Wander through the towering dunes and pretty little rocky coves of Asilomar State Beach; indulge in the childlike fun of booing the villain at a melodrama staged at First Theatre, an adobe where such fare has been acted since 1847; gape at the grandiose homes of the very rich (and their no-so-exclusive sea views) by motoring along 17 Mile Drive in very exclusive Pebble Beach.  Then get to the really good stuff.

Point Lobos

There are few pleasures on earth to equal a walk through Point Lobos State Reserve, the place Robert Louis Stevenson called  “…….the most perfect meeting of land and water in the world.”   Here sleek otters cavort in massive kelp beds that rise and fall with the ocean’s swell, while just around that bend is a grove of gnarled and weathered cypress trees capturing wisps of fog.  If a hobbit were to leap out onto the track in front of you, it would all seem quite normal.

Point Lobos

Time your Peninsula visit for late October when Pacific Grove’s pine forests are teeming with millions of migrating monarch butterflies.  When I was ten, I was forced to dress up as one of these black and orange insects and parade through Pacific Grove’s main street as part of the annual butterfly festival.  Utterly humiliated in front of the older kids, the next year I signed up for the marching band.  You’ll have a more benign view of the proceedings. 

Young Steve as a butterfly

Other must-dos here include a walking tour of adobe government buildings dating from the mid-18th century when Monterey was capital of Spanish California; a morning spent taking in the sights and smells of Fisherman’s Wharf as the day’s catch is unloaded by the grandsons of Portuguese immigrants; a visit (along with a zillion other tourists) to the world-class Monterey Aquarium, its tanks twice daily refreshed by the bay’s powerful tides; a stroll through the leafy streets of Carmel, where Clint Eastwood once served as mayor and where it’s illegal to cut down a tree, even if you own it; and, if you can afford it,  a round of golf at Pebble Beach, where if you hook your tee shot ever so slightly, you too can land in the rocks and take a nine on a par three, just like Arnold Palmer once did at the Bing Crosby Pro-Am. 

Bixby Creek Bridge – Big Sur

You’ve seen the place a dozen times in TV shows and ‘70s movies, you just don’t know where it is.   The place is Big Sur, the road is Highway One, and that graceful arched bridge that the hero is always crossing on his motorcycle is Bixby Creek Bridge.  If you experience only one coastal locale in all of California, please make it this one.

Big Sur

Big Sur is south of the Monterey Peninsula.  The only way to get there is by driving out of Carmel along a narrow and winding road which in deep fog can be sheer hell.  Drive it on a sunny day, though, and you’ll be consulting the thesaurus for superlatives.

Parallels between Highway One (or simply Coast Road to the locals) and Australia’s own Great Ocean Road abound.  Both were Depression-era projects that opened up new vistas of tourism but were woefully costly in human life.   At their most scenic, both roads cling to cliffsides and drop steeply off to churning surf and massive rocks below. 

Big Sur

Unlike the Great Ocean Road, the villages along Highway One are tiny and often bereft of services like food and lodging. A notable exception is Nepenthe, an inviting-looking restaurant once owned by Orson Welles, with a huge open fire and sweeping ocean vistas equalled only rarely on this planet.

If the splendour of this wild coast finally gets a bit overwhelming, follow any of the little creekside roads that work their way back inland.  Here you’ll discover patches of wet redwood forest and small farms where aging hippies dropped out years ago and stayed that way.  You might see folksinger Joan Baez on her bicycle or catch a glimpse of a couple from the famed Esalen Institute practicing what they’ve just learned about inner discovery and sexual freedom.   

Near the end of the road is San Simeon, where publishing baron William Randolph Hearst built his entirely over-the-top castle.  It’s worth the hefty fee to take a tour, if for no other reason than to experience the precise opposite of Big Sur’s basic philosophy, a simple back to nature ethos that rings, in equal parts, of Thoreau’s Walden and an egalitarian counter-culture  heaven. 

My most vivid memory of walking through Golden Gate Park in San Francisco was a gloriously sunny afternoon in August of 1967, the Summer of Love.  The legendary Haight-Ashbury hippie district is just a few blocks away, and even though it was already in terminal decline, or perhaps because of it, there was an added sense of carefree abandon amongst the multi-hued counter-culture people of The City (one always refers to San Francisco as The City – those who dare use the F-word, Frisco, are given directions to Oakland and wished a speedy journey). 

Anyway, here was hippiedom at its peak, full of couples writhing in pleasure on the thick lawns, lads with pimples and long greasy hair strumming Dylan songs even more out of tune than the composer, and pretty blonde girls in mini-skirts (fresh off the bus from Dayton, Ohio) wafting about in an LSD-induced haze.  Although none of us knew it at the time, this was a snapshot of a vivid moment in social history very soon to fade away.

San Fransisco

A walk through Golden Gate Park these days means encountering a slice of humanity far more prosaic.     Executives jogging off their over-calorific North Beach Italian lunches,  elderly folk walking impressive-sized dogs, cartwheeling kids in 49ers tee shirts, all form a human river along the pathways through this green expanse that was once barren sand dunes. 

But people-watching isn’t the main reason to come to Golden Gate Park, not even the huge groves of familiar-smelling eucalypts or the vivid beds of golden poppies (pick one and it’s a $500 fine).  No, the big lure here is food and culture.   Lunch at the Japanese Tea Gardens is one of The City’s more sublime pleasures, teriyaki or yakitori enjoyed next to a little waterfall under the torii arch.  Then it’s off the the De Young Museum and Gallery to marvel at one of the world’s premier collections of paintings by the old masters.   The park in general and the De Young in particular represent the sort of elegance and old-world stateliness that California’s inferior cities can only dream about   (I’m not mentioning any names here, but the initials are LA). 

For such a nice place, Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco, gets a pretty rough rap from the rest of the USA.  If something is terminally trendy, it’ll be really big in Marin, the critics scoff.  Okay, so that’s where hot tubs, massage-based religions and even pet rocks found their most fervent adherants.  But Marin is still worth a few days of your holiday simply for its charm, its diversity and even, in parts, its solitude.

Sausilito

Tired after making the long drive south from Oregon, I was in no mood to seek out a cheap motel so I opted instead for a night at the grand old Sausalito Hotel, right on the bay and smack in the middle of the artists’ colony of Sausalito.  

Sausilito

That evening I indulged in a grilled swordfish fillet, shopped in a dozen excellent crafts shops just up from the bay, then caught a set from a fine San Francisco jazz trio.    And as long as you’re not too self-conscious about such things, the main street of Sausalito is ideal for viewing the Beautiful People of the Bay Area.

Muir Woods

The next morning I set off for Muir Woods, home of the tallest and most majestic trees of them all.  Forests of California giant redwoods once extended throughout the Pacific Northwest – today only 4% remain in miniscule protected pockets.  Muir Woods is among the best and most convenient.

Muir Woods

Evening was set aside for a place that I’d first visited at the age of 17 with my  cute blonde girlfriend Lori, from nearby Novato.  Inverness, like its Scottish namesake, was  wild, windy and fog-bound that late autumn afternoon in 1969, hadn’t improved by 1995 and will probably be just the same when you call in, too.

When the phone rings at four in the morning, it’s usually a call you’d rather not receive.  But not this time.  In 1975 I was a TV reporter for a station in California’s far north and the man ringing me at this ungodly hour was Bill Pierce, the chief park ranger for the Trinity.

“Sorry to wake you but we just got word that there’s a flock of bald eagles hanging out at one of the remote lakes, “Bill said.  “Want to drive up with me and get some film of them?” 

Two hours driving up one rutted forest track after another and finally we were there, on the shore of a very isolated mountain lake ringed by Douglas fir trees.  On the high branches of a few dead trees perched a dozen bald eagles, the American national symbol but in those days a critically endanged species thanks to habitat clearing, illegal shooting and the ravages of DDT use.

“Put on a long lens, focus on that eagle over there and just wait,” Bill advised with the authority of one who knew his raptor stuff.  Sure enough, a few minutes later the eagle spotted movement in the lake, spread his impressive wings, gracefully dove from the snag and as he skimmed the water, reached in with his talons to extract a fish.  His catch securely held, the eagle regained altitude and crossed with his prey to land on the other side of the lake.  The sequence was a cameraman’s dream and, thanks to the ranger’s tip,  I’d got it all on film. 

Just like Ned Kelly goes with Glenrowan so the name of Ansel Adams is inextricably linked with Yosemite National Park, high in the Sierra Nevada mountains.

Yosemite National Park

Shooting professionally in the last century  Adams was perhaps America’s premier landscape photographer and by far his favourite locale was Yosemite.  Adams was entranced by the mountain grandeur, the constantly changing light and clouds, the towering waterfalls and the rock walls.

I first came to Yosemite at 19 as part of a geology class field trip.   We were taken there in February, when Yosemite is blanketed in snow and the crush of visitors is far less frenetic than in summer, when weekend traffic jams turn the  main road into a giant immobile car park.  In winter, relatively few people wanted to run the risk  of being snowed in, so even the park’s most glorious accommodation, the rustic Ahwanee Lodge, was only half full and we were free to cross-country ski all around the valley, gazing upwards at ridges lined with deep green fir trees set against the deep blue of the sky.

So, that’s my California. What’ll yours be?