Tuesday, August 29, 2006

We Spotted the Ocean, At the Head of the Trail

This past weekend, I was pleased to host my friend Arline, the latest in a great series of guests I've had out here. Like many of my visitors, this was her first trip to the Bay Area. Impressively enough, it was also her first trip to California, the West Coast, and in fact anywhere west of the Rockies. Don't get me wrong, she's far more well-traveled than I am, but her focus has been more easterly.

We did my standard pre-trip interview, which tends to be easier for people who haven't visited before because they have a better idea of what they want out of California. In this case, the big priorities were seeing a giant Redwood, visiting San Francisco, and going to the Pacific Ocean.

Her flight came in Thursday night. Due to the recent security increases, an anticipated 7:30 flight finally rolled in about three hours later - technically half an hour past my bedtime, but I'm always wired when I have people around, and this time was no exception. We zipped back home, chatted a bit, and planned out the next day. I had to go in to work, but she had brought a copy of "Let's Go San Francisco" and was plotting an excursion into the city. I gave her some tips on trains, agreed with her decision to skip Fisherman's Wharf, and we tentatively planned to meet near the BART station the next day.

I managed to cut out of work a bit early the next day - easy to justify after a series of even-longer-than-usual work days that week. I then had what might be my first-ever experience of driving up the penninsula during rush-hour traffic. 280 wasn't too bad, but 101 really crawls in some spots. I bet it's even worse southbound, though I wasn't paying too much traffic in the other direction. Chris H tells me that traffic is noticeably better on Friday than the rest of the week, possibly because people are gone on vacation, but I think I was hitting the wave of people leaving work early on Friday for the same reason.

Regardless, I did eventually make it to Millbrae, though I used up the entire buffer of time I'd given myself. I luckily walked down the stairs shortly before the train pulled out, and found a comfortable perch, while I lamented San Jose voters' short-sightedness in not voting to bring BART to San Jose. I still have hope for this, and the sooner it comes the happier I will be.

I had figured out during the day that the Powell Street station wasn't the most conducive place to rendezvous, and in any case wasn't sure if our cells would work in there, so the updated plan was for us to meet at Union Square - technically a tourist area, but definitely one of the nicer ones. We met up, and while walking up to Chinatown talked about her day. She had ended up entirely winging it and not following her plan, and had a great day from the sound of it, including an unexpected excursion into Golden Gate Park. She had even navigated the bus system, which is pretty impressive for someone without a map. (Though perhaps her tour book had one; I neglected to ask.)

Arline has had great experiences with Let's Go dining recommendations, and we found one of the restaurants it had granted a thumbs up, Chef Jia. It was a pretty small place, with perhaps nine tables and just one other couple eating when we came in around 6:30. It looks like a husband and wife run it, and they were very gracious hosts, which was nice; Chinatown has a reputation for brusque service. The food was phenomenal, much lighter and fresher than I'm used to eating. I had the Chicken with Black Bean Sauce while Arline had the Spicy String Beans with Yams. We passed more time than expected, then spent over five minutes attempting to get someone to bring us the check, which was actually quite comical for a place that small. (A large group of six that came in was taking most of their attention.)

Ordinarily we wouldn't have cared, but in this case we had to book it back to Market Street by 8 to make it to Al Franken's "Stand Up 4 Change." I had spotted the event before, and Arline was game; I'm a big (although occasionally frustrated) fan of Al's, and Arline had liked her limited exposure to him, so it seemed like a nice way to spend an evening in the city.

One of the things I love about events like this is the sort of people it attracts: we arrived at the Warfield Theater on time, and found it filled with enthusiastic, die-hard liberals. I mean, I guess it's less impressive than when I saw Al in Kansas City, because then it felt like people were coming out of the woodwork; still, it was very invigorating to be in such a charged-up crowd.

There weren't a lot of frills to the show. The stage was deserted except for a chair, a microphone, and a banner reading MIDWEST VALUES PAC. (Tickets to the show were considered political donations, and I'd had to declare my profession and employer when purchasing them online.) There was no opening act or anything, although in a nice surprice, former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown introduced Al. The crowd went wild as the Grateful Dead track played and Al walked on stage.

I'd been kind of curious what the show would be like. I'd last seen Al back in 2003, soon after the publication of "Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them." That was technically a booksigning, but it was held in a theater similar to the Warfield and basically ran as a comedy routine on politics (with special attention given to the Administration and Fox News, of course), and ending with a serious plea on behalf of Wellstone Action, the fund set up in memory of Al's favorite senator and one of the major forces in his increasing politicization (assuming that's a word).

Anyways: in the time since then, Al had started Air America Radio, done several more USO tours in Iraq, watched Bush get re-elected in 2004, and helped found a new PAC. Throughout all this, rumors continue to swirl about a possible Senate bid in 2008 to reclaim Wellstone's old seat. Because of all this, I was curious where the politics/humor ratio would land.

Al has never been very subtle, and he seems to be getting sharper and more critical as the years go on. I think he's as funny as ever, but it's noteable that he received more applause than laughter. People laughed at his jokes, but seemed to enjoy hearing his statements at least as much.

Some of his best bits included an explanation for the title of his first book ("Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot"), an audience survey establishing the frequency of hunting accidents, and his description of encounters with Mel Gibson and Sylvester Stallone at a Hollywood party. He also repeated or improved on some older jokes of his, including the great fantasy about a Pakistani cabdriver advising the administration on the proper use of terminology in the war on terror("Operation Infinite Justice? Oh, no. Only Allah can dispense infinite justice.") and the way the administration needed to pretend that "evildoer" was a real word after Bush used it.

There were stretches, though, which were entirely serious. This showed up most when he was talking about the purpose of his organization, and his anger at the GOP over the way it has claimed ownership of values and the flag. Al's politics are interesting to me, he is one of the most extreme moderates I know, a man who unabashedly claims the word "liberal" while idolizing moderates like Clinton and having strong friendships with people across the political spectrum. He is incredibly intelligent, and while that doesn't come out in a show like this quite as well as in a debate or an interview, my respect for him continues to grow.

He closed the evening with a very lengthy, occasionally raucous question and answer period. On the question of the best candidate on 08 he demurred, saying there were many strong candidates; intriguingly, the only three he mentioned by name were Hilary Clinton, Al Gore, and Barak Obama, two of which are extremely unlikely to run. Someone asked if he would run for the presidency; he said that this country does not have a tradition of electing comedians to its highest office. However, he would run if he could have Bill Clinton run in the VP slot, in which case he would resign immediately after being sworn into office. ("Why Not Me?" is a lesser-known Franken book which memorably has Al winning the 2000 election on a platform of getting rid of ATM fees, and installing an all-Jewish cabinet once in office.) Someone asked about the Minnesota election, and he joked that, while the country won't elect a comedian president, it certainly can elect a comedian senator. He has moved to Minnesota and will be making a decision next year. Several "questions" were actually statements, including continued outrage over Bush's silence after the James Byrd dragging death in Texas (Al: "In Bush's defense, he had to execute people that day.") and anger at the DLC (Al understands the frustration, but says there are a lot of good people in the organization, and the Democratic party can't afford the sorts of purges Republicans have begun).

The questions continued, and Al also gently quarrelled with the house over the lighting, and at one point called an audience member an "asshole." (In Al's defense, he was.) I enjoyed this period more than the actual performance, just because it was looser and allowed Franken to show off his impressively quick intellect.

The show ended a bit after 10, after which we walked out onto Market street and decided to call it a night. We did the Powell/BART/Car thing back to my apartment, then did California white wines and cheese while, ironically, playing gin. I haven't stayed up that late in a long time, but it was a really fun end to a very full day - I'd been up over 20 hours by the time I got to bed.

If Friday was The City Day, Saturday was The Nature Day. We didn't sleep in too late, and before too late were headed for breakfast at Southern Kitchen, which regular readers will know is just about my favorite place to go. It's always interesting on the rare occasions I go on a day other than Thursday, because there are different servers who may not know me, plus the character is often a bit different. On this Saturday morning it was much more crowded than usual - we waited about 20 minutes before getting seats at the counter - and seemed more businesslike. There was also a special weekend-only list of specials, which both of us took advantage of: I had the Santa Fe Scrambled Eggs, while Arline tried the Buckwheat Pancakes. As always, the quantity and quality of the food were overwhelming, although for the record, the weekend specials don't come with the typical sides of hash browns and muffin. After a leisurely meal, we headed back for the car, and then south into the mountains.

One of the great joys of having company is it always provides an excuse for me to do something new. In this case, given Arline's stated interest in seeing redwoods, I decided the time had come to give Big Basin Redwood State Park a visit. It's a bit further away than my other parks and so I'd been postponing it, but this seemed like the perfect opportunity to go there. Furthermore, I decided to try Google's route, which covered winding roads I hadn't been on before, rather than the recommended approach of Highway 9, which I've taken several times before.

The drive was extremely pleasant. The clouds had left by now, and the day beautifully illumined the forest and hills we drove through. If I have the time I think I'll follow this path in the future; it's slower than the highway, but was far less crowded on this Saturday morning, and felt even more serene and remote (which I wouldn't have thought possible). We pulled into Big Basin, spent a bit of time, and then headed out on our hikes.

The first trip was a short loop trail that ran past some of the most significant trees in the park. Guided by an interpretive booklet we bought at the store (25 cents! Totally worth it!), we followed this loop and both learned a lot about this magnificent trees and other plants in the forest. The highlights of the loop were the Father of the Forest, which is thought to be the oldest tree at about 2000 years old, and the Mother of the Forest, the tallest in the park at 329 feet. This was a really refreshing change from my typical Type A hike: we sort of ambled, stopped to look at trees or point out animals, and took the time to read everythng referenced in the guide.

So that was fun. Once it was done, we moved on to a "real" hike. This fun jaunt took us past some rustic campsites, out to a little waterfall, up a very rocky scramble, then up and down some heavily forested ravines and back to headquarters. It was a good variety of terrain with plenty more impressive objects to look at.

It was midafternoon by the time we returned. We spent some time in the museum and visitor's center, which actually were really informative and interesting. I think it's hard to strike a balance between being accessible for kids and being useful for adults, and they nailed it with colorful, clear, complete explanations of everything in the forest, from geology to climate to flora and fauna. We spent close to an hour in the two places and could have doubled it, but decided to head for the beach and maximize our time there.

I had planned another new alternate drive to get from Big Basin to the coast; it proved to be even longer and more scenic than I had planned. I somehow missed the first turn I was supposed to make, and just winged it the rest of the time, going from Highway 9 to Bonny Doon Flats to Empire Grade all the way down to Santa Cruz, Bay Road and Mission Street. Then we went west. It was a delay, but again: we were in no particular rush, and we had interesting ground to drive over.

No particular destination was in mind, but the first few pulloffs out of Santa Cruz were fairly crowded with cars, and as we continued west I decided I'd try the great beach Mom and Dad found on their visit here. I hoped I'd be able to identify the parking spot while flying down the highway at 60 MPH, and sure enough, when the moment I came I recognized the turnoff. I also realized with some chagrin that if I'd followed my original route, I would have been dumped onto Highway 1 exactly opposite the parking area. Ah, well. Notes for next time.

And there will be a next time - this beach never fails to impress. The ocean is always cold so you never get much swimming, but this spot is just incredibly cool: sheer cliffs, fascinating rock formations, tons of open space and a green ridge. Perhaps best of all, it appears to be off most people's radar and doesn't show up on most maps; there's always someone else there, but it never feels crowded. Actually, if you've played Final Fantasy X before, think of the opening beach in that game; this is kind of similar, just a bit more rocky.

Incidentally, there's a difference between having little company and having good company. Arline and I realized after we'd been there a few minutes that there was a nudist on the beach. He was just hanging out behind a really big rock. So that was kind of embarassing. I felt kind of sorry for the guy, too... it was getting pretty chilly, and I don't think his socks were helping him very much.

Naked men aside, we had a good time. Arline got to touch the ocean, we wandered around the beach for a while, then we sat on top of a rock and stared out into the water. After a while we wandered up to the headlands to check out the crops that were growing there. We walked out to the edge of the cliff, where we crossed paths with a group of six people. I smiled at them. One guy said, "Did you enjoy your Chinese food last night?" We sort of froze. It turned out that they were the other group of people at Chef Jia the previous night. Talk about a coincidence! We were now about 70 miles away from Chinatown, and just happened to run into the same group of strangers on one particular, almost deserted beach? Whoa. Perhaps because of the strangeness, we didn't socialize too much... just exchanged some surface pleasantries (talking about where we were from), then went our separate ways.

We stood at the edge for a little while. While the beach had been cool, I think this area might be even more impressive, because you could see the entire awesome sweep of the ocean and not just a piece of it. We soaked in the splendor, then ambled back to the car and headed home.

A Southern Kitchen breakfast can last most of the day, so it's little surprise that we had subsisted into the evening with nothing but a few of my leftover homemade cookies to munch on. Arline had earlier offered to cook curry that nice, which I gratefully accepted. I rarely eat curry so it's always a nice treat. We swung by Whole Foods to pick up some supplies.

In some ways, this was the most awkward stage of her visit. Have you had the experience where you go for a long time without seeing an old friend, and then you finally meet again? On the one hand you're happy to see them again and have fun getting caught up and reminiscing about old times. As time goes on, though, you realize more and more about how your friend has changed... it isn't a bad thing, but can be a little startling, and sometimes you're caught between interacting like you did in "the old days" and like they were someone new you'd recently met.

Anyways, we went through a bit of that. Both of us had imagined the other person frozen in time, to a certain degree; this was probably most obvious in terms of diet. The last Arline had seen of me, I eschewed all vegetables, ate very simple meals, and drank nothing but Sprite and beer. (Not at the same time, of course.) Of course, this really isn't the case any more, but I didn't feel like contradicting her when she made offhand comments like "well, you won't want string beans." I think we had it more or less sorted out by the time we left Whole Foods, though.

The curry was delicious. Looked like a relatively simple dish to make, too, so I may add it to my repertoire; so far I'm still a pretty meat-centric eater, even though I know intellectually that I should be making meat a smaller part of my diet. We ate it with fresh corn on the cob and some pinot grigio. Dessert was still more leftover cookies - I have learned that every cookie I've made so far freezes well, and can be beautifully restored by heating inside my toaster oven - 300 degrees for 2 minutes.

In what I have every intention of turning into a ritual for all my guests, after dinner I introduced Arline to the wonder of Guitar Hero. This game is just so perfect. Even though nobody has done anything close to it before, after they hit the tutorial they can always beat at least I Love Rock & Roll after one or two tries, and usually are chomping at the bit to take on the harder songs. For those who have rocked: I salute you.

Arline had expressed interest in going out to a pub that night. In retrospect, I should have just taken her to LGBC or another of the establishments I have frequented with folks from work. She had mentioned she was interested in live music, though, so I hit up the Internet and scouted out what was available. I ended up deciding on Gordon Biersch, a nearby restaurant/brewery which has been on my radar since shortly after moving here. They have live jazz and blues every Saturday night, so we headed for downtown, had the typical fun finding a free parking space, and walked a block or so to Gordon Biersch.

It was nice. A little too nice. I felt a bit underdressed, and they only had tables set up outside; I'd imagined standing around with a beer, not sitting down staring at a menu. I always feel a little defensive when I feel like I'm in a situation where I'm expected to order a meal but am not hungry. We did some drinks and, eventually, an order of tapas. Our waiter was nice, though we had to yell a bit since we were immediately adjacent to the stage. The music sounded really good - a bit smooth for my taste, but very accomplished.

Eventually we winded down and decided to call it a night. The tab was surprisingly low - I'll need to keep this place in mind for next time, I'll just plan accordingly. The drunken horde was present on the street, including one (college?) kid who was declaiming, "... is the best! For when you're drunk! And you want to eat lots of tacos for very little money!" I turned to Arline and said, "He is absolutely correct."

After some late-night political discussion, we crashed. The next day was another fairly early opener; we used up the last of Friday's pancake batter for breakfast, then I showed off Katamari Damacy. Apparently she's played it before, but neither of us can think of when that might have been. We decided to try to squeeze in one more hike before her flight left, and piled into the car for a mini-excursion.

Sadly, we were thwarted. The parking lot by Lexington Reservoir was full up, and the gravel section on the dam had been freshly marked up with "NO PARKING" signs. After circling a little more, I decided to head for Villa Montalvo for a shorter hike. We penetrated most of the way inside before being stopped by someone who informed us that the park was "closed," due to a "concert" that they had coming. Dejected, I drove back towards home. We eventually decided to just crash in Campbell Park and enjoy the cool Bay Area weather for a few hours.

So, that was that. I was disappointed for a while, but it was nice to end the visit on such a relaxing note instead of worrying about making it to the airport on time. Besides, the first rule of hosting is, "Always leave them wanting more." Well, maybe not, but it IS a good way to help insure repeat visits.

Overall, it was a great time. It's been too long since I've seen Arline, and she's pretty different from the other company I've had. I enjoy fulfilling the preferences of guests, and it was a real kick to spend so much time outside being active. (Not that that's better than just hanging out and soaking in California sweetness; just a nice change.) She had to start classes the next day, and I hope that her time out here will give her just a little more serenity in the year ahead.

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