Category: f. TRAVEL

City of contrasts

It’s taken fifteen years to come back to San Francisco but on the shuttle bus to Petite Auberge up near Nob Hill it’s like we’d never left.

tricking the eyes
tricking the eyes

San Francisco is a one-off … a city all on its own – sparkling Harbour waters crossed by the dull-orange (International Orange paint) span of the Golden Gate Bridge;  its innovative architecture, much with cutting-edge safety designs … as you’d expect for a city poised over the San Andreas Fault and those two opposing plates in a constant ‘head-butt’. As they say, something’s gotta give.

Down by the water, the buildings’ foundations go down into reclaimed land, sand actually, and you know what happens to sand when it super-heats (i.e. by friction in an earthquake) – yes, it turns to molten glass. Ancient Chinese proverb? When earthquake hit, head for hills.

image 1

San Francisco is also a city of great contrasts – a middle-aged woman bedecked with bling (the non-fake kind), makeup and hairdo unable to disguise her age, and laden with parcels as she exits a designer clothes store, pauses at the traffic light.

Beside her stands a grey-haired, black man, his face deeply-lined; his dark suit too large for his shrunken frame as he braces against the rush of a passing bus. He holds out a paper cup and shakes it. “Change? Any change?” The woman studies the Don’t Walk sign across the road until the lights turn red, then she’s gone.

There are other more delightful contrasts though – lush city gardens, but across the Bay, the bare, brown and beautiful hills of Marin County; neat architecture of the older style San Francisco terrace houses back-dropped by glass and metal towers.

The Flower Sellers - Diego Rivera
The Flower Sellers - Diego Rivera

One of my favourite buildings is the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). Here I also have a task – to find another pair of perfect earrings.

If you know me well, you’ll recognise my earring addiction – not just any earrings though – I know what I like. Whenever Ross was working in California over the past twenty years he brought me back a pair (he has good taste in earrings, if not in clothes). Those from MOMA have outlasted, outdone all the others. They are designed and made by artists and it shows.

I find a perfect pair at a reasonable price, and as a bonus, in MOMA’s wonderful art collection I come across my favourite Diego Rivera painting. He was a Mexican artist of the early 20th C, a painter of the people for the people and once married to Frida Kahlo. The Flower Sellers – intense, colourful, solid shapes; stoic, patient faces of the couple as they go about their work.

By luck we decide to pay an extra $5 to see a photographic exhibition by an unknown (to us) American photographer, Richard Avedon.

the bee-keeper

Turns out he’s one of the most famous image-capturers of the 20th Century. I’ll let a couple of his pictures do the talking. Check out the link too.

The Bee-keeper

the snake-skinner
the snake-skinner

Highlights of San Francisco:

  • The Petite Auberge – B&B on Bush St (thank you with fireplace and the feel of the French countryside. All included h’orderves at 6pm, full breakfast with Edith Piaf singing in the background. We end up in the honeymoon suite because I’d asked for a quiet room – apparently all the rooms are quiet.
  • Must sees: The De Young Museum Art Gallery and the city’s Science Museum.
  • Les Joulins Jazz Bistro in Ellis St where Ross connects up with barman and fellow jazz sax player, Charles Unger.  The music grooves and so does the food.  charles unger

Of hummingbirds, redwood giants and a small, stone owl.

Travelling as tourists in foreign cities is fun, but having a friend there is much better – even more so when that friend lives in a most remarkable house.

In Santa Cruz, we stay with our friend, Helen. She lives in an apartment building called Piedmont Court, one of this small city’s Historical Trust Landmarks (the Court, not Helen). We stay in the Court’s special private guest room.

Built in 1912 by architect, William Bray as a hotel for the elite of Santa Cruz, it’s had a interesting history.

Piedmont Court - built 1921
Piedmont Court - built 1912

Piedmont Court was the finest apartment house in town in the 1920s – described as  “Moorish in design, with an elaborate interior court with fountain,” and Santa Cruzans sat up and took notice when they heard that a 50-room apartment house was to be built with steam heat, electricity, and hot and cold running water througout. This was in the days when homes were heated with wood fires and water pumped by hand.

Inside historic Piedmont Court
Inside historic Piedmont Court

In the red-carpeted entrance hall, with its white columns and staircase, the building still holds the presence of those long-gone. Let the imagination loose and that could be Ernest Hemingway puffing on a cigar in that velvet, upholstered armchair by the window.

The building has been home to an assortment of Californians – a plush, but comfortable hotel for years, and then in 1952 it was bought by the California Retired Teachers Association. They gave it the name “Calreta Court”.

When Helen moved in in the 1980s it was home to Quakers, Left-Wing, Humanists and other progressive people. Imagine the conversations between the ghosts of the past when this new lot moved in.

Nowadays, it’s one of Santa Cruz’s retirement condominiums. The only requirement to living here in a 1-bedroom apartment is to be over 55 and have around 295 thousand dollars US.  Each apartment has its own kitchen, living room, bedroom and bathroom – communal laundry and garage.

Oh, by the way, our friend, Helen is selling hers if you’re interested.

An added extra if you have a thing about owls … there’s one up in the Court’s rooftop turret – a stone-carved owl, designed by the architect to scare away nesting pigeons? Definitely designed to startle an unsuspecting human in the moonlight.

Piedmont Court's open courtyard - where I see my first humming-bird.
Piedmont Court's open, interior courtyard - where I see my first humming-bird.

More excellent things about Santa Cruz:

  • it’s a smaller city – lovely cosmopolitan malls with great shopping
  • excellent second-hand bookshop in main street
  • great clothes in the Goodwill store (el cheapo)
  • close to a forest full of redwood giants
  • beautiful coastline
  • best burritos shop ever – now, what was its name?
Amongst the 2000+ year-old Redwood giants.
Amongst the 2000+ year-old Redwood giants.


When the earth moves….

There’s a little known town in the middle of California called Parkfield. It straddles the San Andreas Fault – literally. One side of the town’s small, wooden bridge (with its out-of-kilter supports) is the Northern American Plate and the other, the Pacific Plate. It’s one of those special places – if you like feeling the earth shake.

Earthquake country
Earthquake country

It had a special claim to fame – during the 1980s Parkfield’s population of 18 swelled with visiting seismologists and geo-physicists … all there because of the earthquake research instruments in the area. The earth on either side of the fault slides in opposite directions – something’s gotta give.

Every 22 years so a magnitude 6 earthquake had occurred here and another one was predicted for 1988.

Some of the instruments were strainmetres designed and made at Queensland University and sunk deep into the ground by Ross and his workmates.

Ross reading the rocks
Ross reading the rocks

That’s why we follow the San Andreas Fault through California’s countryside in 2009 – a sentimental journey type of thing. But also because I’d heard so much about these special ‘hot’ places over the years, I caught the ‘plate tectonics’ bug’ from Ross. I had to see them for myself.

Be There When It Happens
Be There When It Happens

Parkfield’s a bit of a one-horse town – the Parkfield Inn, the Parkfield Elementary school with its enrolment of 11 and not much else. The locals called it the ‘The Earthquake Capitol of the World’ with the usual American panache and confidence, and a little tongue-in-cheek too. A slogan … Parkfield – Be There When it Happens was on tea-towels, tin mugs, keyrings and postcards they sold.

But that was back in the 80s – the predicted earthquake didn’t happen until 2004 and it was centred 20 miles further up the road.

Now, the Parkfield Inn is the place where city ‘cow-pokes’ (and cow-pokettes) come to experience a genuine cattle drive; and brides from the dry, dusty confines of Bakersfield enjoy country weddings in the Inn’s grounds. They’re a friendly mob here.

Standing on the fault line.
Standing on the fault line with Rich.

Special thanks to Rich – longtime American colleague of Ross, now retired field technician and fellow earthquake enthusiast who took us around the fault zone and shared his great knowledge of the secrets of the earth.

Another fascinating thing in Parkfield – several little kids in the school grounds with with ropes practicing their lassoing skills on a metal-shaped cow head. Priceless!

What an amazing story this earth could tell.
What an amazing story this earth could tell.

The town that took on McDonalds and won

Pain before pleasure? No pain, no gain? Light at the end of the tunnel? Well-worn clichés failed to distance me from the glare, heat and massive trucks on the freeway out of LA. We were on our way to Arizona at last.

At least we had ‘Betty’, our new GPS Tomtom (she of the pleasant, American voice); and best of all, no arguments over navigation.

Betty ... our faithful guide
Betty ... our faithful guide

800 kilometres on the AAA map  didn’t look all that far. To reach Red Rock Country, all we had to do was negotiate the intricate LA freeways, cross some desert and some high country, and along the way, check out one of the Australian-designed earthquake strain-metres at Pinon Flats that Ross installed ten years ago (sadly, it’d been left in a sad state of repair and was no longer working).

We were on our way to the Grand Canyon, like millions before us – but first, three days in Sedona awaited. Sedona is not as famous a landmark as its cousin ‘up the road’. But if you like mesas, buttes and mountains, this is the place to go.

I’ll jump over commenting on the amazing earthquake country we travelled through, made all the better with Ross’s knowledge of plate tectonics, fault zones and geology – that will be a later blog. And I’ll slip past the baked-dry desert country before by-passing Phoenix (with Glen Campbell echoing though my brain), and heading north to Sedona.

Even though I’d seen its famous images in books, our introduction to the magnificent, natural red rock sculptures is hard to describe – so I’ll let photos do it.

First sight of Sedona
First sight of Sedona

The formations have been created over 350 million years. They’ve been oceans and deserts, they’ve felt the force of volcanic eruptions and faulting, and that most insistent of weathering and erosion, wind and water.

The canyons and monoliths tell their history – like the layers in a story this area records its life within ten layers of sedimentary rock 5000 feet high – grayish limestones, brilliant and beautiful pale-pinks to reddish-brown sandstones and dark shales.

Room with a view
Room with a view

No wonder this part of the country was sacred to countless generations of the local tribes, the Havasupai, and to their descendants today.

But then there are the NEW AGErs who come to this place to worship at the altar of the VORTEX. Apparently, people stand in these places and feel a certain type of energy. We climb the Airport Vortex, close to our accommodation – it is a magnificent view across the mountains at that time of the day. Did I feel the vortex stirring up my energies? No, all I felt was an ant-bite. And serves me right, I had sat on it.

From the number of New Age shops, crystal shops, coffee shops, in peak-season this town must buzz with tourists and/or those seeking inner strength and energy, or communication with the earth spirits, and rip-off merchants. We are lucky, we visit in off-time.

Another amazing thing about Sedona – in an attempt to keep the colour and tones of this town matching the magnificent landscape that surrounds them, the people of this desert town took on the might and money of McDonald’s Fast Food all the way to the courts, and won. They forced McDonald’s to use teal-green arches not gold. My estimation of the ‘good burghers’ of Sedona goes up many notches.

The Green Arches

If we ever return to the US, Sedona’s landscapes will be on the list to visit again. But I’ve heard there are other places just as beautiful further south. Maybe it will be worthwhile venturing off-track next time.


Too busy travelling to write a travel blog

Even on holidays in the ‘good old US of A’ I can’t keep away from the computer – although not much writing happening on my manuscript.

There are so many things I could write – about the things we’ve seen and done in two weeks (with still four to go). So what I will do is try to capture some of the highlights.

Like in Los Angeles – crazy, noisy, hot and smoggy still from the fires that are burning in deep crevasses in the far hills; freeways like spaghetti (clover-leaf? – no, spag is more like it); friendly people; and an oasis – the Embassy Hotel in Arcadia.

And amongst all the things in this crazy city, with the ability to restore one’s senses – the Huntington Library in Pasadena … with its Art Collections and Botanical Gardens.

In 1919, wealthy, railroad magnate, and a man of vision, Henry Huntington and his wife Arabella began the process of transforming their massive collection of rare and valuable books, their significant art collection into a centre of research, education and beauty.

Huntington Library_ The Book of Hours

Now, for $15, anyone can see, study or just marvel at the collections. Which is what we did. But not all of the 6 million items.

Imagine an opened copy of one of the illustrated manuscripts, ‘The Book of Hours’; or the double-elephant folio edition of Audubon’s Birds of America or some early editions of Shakespeare’s works; or pages of Jack Kerouac’s working drafts with words scratched out. Then there’s the gallery filled with many of Thomas Gainsborough’s paintings with the Blue Boy up one end in the middle of the dim hall – capturing your attention as you enter the huge, parquetry-floored room.

Gainsborough's famous 'Blue Boy'
Gainsborough's famous 'Blue Boy'

And then, there’re the rooms filled with the the collections revolving around the history of Science,  Medicine and Biology and Physics – from Ptolemy, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein.

My brain and imagination still reels from the experience.My brain and imagination still reels from the experience.

A copy of his telescope when he first saw the surface of the moon - accompanied by his words of wonder at the sight.
A copy of his telescope when he first saw the surface of the moon - accompanied by his words of wonder at the sight.

Next highlight will be deep in mesa country … not as famous as its deeper cousin up the road, but a magical place of pure colour to thrill the senses. (i.e. when I can get an internet connection again)