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One of the best things about traveling is putting places into perspective. I love maps and can decipher them easily, but even with that visual understanding, it isn’t until you go to a place that you finally understand the lay of the land. This trip to California has finally given me a real sense of where places are in the Sunshine State and how they are related to each other.
I came up from LA to the Bay Area for a number of reasons. One was to visit Wolf’s son, Tomás, and meet his wife Gretchen and his children Julian and Olivia. I last saw Tomás in St. Louis Missouri back in 2003 when Wolf received the Conservation Action Prize for his life time of work protecting the Monteverde forest.
Tomás remarried and moved to California in the late 90s and with Gretchen they’ve had two beautiful children to add to the Guindon clan. It was wonderful to spend a couple of days with them. They gave me a great tour of the area and treated me to some delicious pizza from The Cheeseboard in Berkeley – where they only make one kind of pizza a day but it is always delicious – and some great Mexican from the Cactus Taqueria near them in Oakland. Was delicious Mexican food – apparently they use local fresh ingredients – and their spicing was a stretch beyond the norm. How happy am I to be in the land of fine eateries.
They live in the Oakland Hills where Gretchen grew up. She had great stories of the place including her memories of the Oakland Firestorm of 1991 that destroyed 4000 homes and killed 25 people. Some of her extended family’s homes survived – they now live in one of these. Rebuilding the city brought in new architecture and just around the corner there is a simple yet unique house built by Bernard Maybeck. I was impressed with its design and also the fact it is only 1400 square feet though it has the presence of a mansion.
We went over to the Bay Area Discovery Museum near the north end of the Golden Gate Bridge. In my short time in the Bay Area, I managed to see the bridge from half a dozen different angles – it is a real sentinel in the bay. I will be returning to San Francisco in a few days and will drive back and forth over that bridge. If I have seen no other iconic landmark on this trip, I’ll have seen the Golden Gate Bridge plenty.
At the Discovery Museum, we went to a kiddies’ concert by a very enjoyable songwriter and performer named Francis England. With her band, she was lively for the children, the songs were rockin’ and the lyrics were soft and sweet and smart.
I really enjoyed this concert – the audience of mostly under 6′s (and their parents) was as enthusiastic as the Brazilians at the Caetano Veloso concert in LA last week. I’m good with all kinds of music and tend to pick up on the excitement of others and thus enjoy new music even more – which was easy to do with these kids (and their folks) all singing and shouting and dancing along.
Gretchen told me that Olivia is known for taking serious looking photos, but I managed to get a few great shots of her laughing. I always bond quickly with dogs and cats, but kids can be tricky. Some are reticent to be friends too fast – if they are in their ‘making strange’ phase – but by the time I left, little Olivia was letting me spend time alone with her, for a few minutes anyway, lower lip quivering but no actual tears.
Her big brother Julian had so much fun in the children’s playground at the museum that he had a real hard time leaving – but don’t we all know that sooner or later, no matter how much fun we are having, we usually have to leave and go home. This was a great playground of wooden pirate ships and musical instruments and sea creatures floating in shallow waterways so it was a lot of magic for one little guy to have to resist.
The other reason I came to the Bay area was to begin the official Walking with Wolf takes the West Coast tour. The whole family went with me on Sunday to the Strawberry Creek Friends meeting. Held in a rented room at an academy close to downtown Berkeley, it is a fairly large meeting and apparently one popular with activists. It was suggested by my friend Roberta Llewellyn that I arrange to talk at this meeting as the Friends here would be very interested in the work done in Monteverde. Thanks to Roberta’s contacts and promotion, I had a wonderful time presenting the story, sold a number of books and met a nice bunch of people, many with their own stories about Monteverde and Wolf. If I haven’t said this enough times in this blog so far, the side benefit of the book is the opportunity to go out and meet people, particularly Friends. They give me hope for the future. I can only imagine how many tales of wisdom and activism were represented there that day. Thank you Roberta and Strawberry Creek Meeting for that warm reception (and Dick Strong who provided the projector).
Sunday afternoon I hooked up with Laurie Hollis-Walker who came down from Grimsby, Ontario to join me in a roadtrip through the redwoods to northern California. This is a dream come true. I’ve wanted to know these beautiful large sisters of the forest forever, linger in their shadow, spread my arms wide to embrace them. Laurie is working on her PhD in Psychology, interviewing the activists from the late 80s and 90s, delving deeply into what makes activists commit their lives to the well-being of the earth and how they survive the traumas that come with active participation in the process. It is an honour to meet these passionate souls who barricaded and blockaded, supported and spread the word, lived in trees and held out against the corporation that wanted to come in and liquidate the forest.
Laurie managed to find the time to come to California at the same time as I was going to be here to conduct her own work and we are headed north to the Lost Coast and Arcata and Smith River as well as a number of other hot spots in the story of the Redwoods. She will take me to visit some of the colourful individuals she has been working with, as well as to meet as many of her “friends”, the tall trees, as possible. For my part, I’m keeping track of how far north the palm trees go.
We had a day to pass in the city first though, as Laurie had to meet with an associate while in Berkeley. I went by BART (rapid transit) into the downtown core of San Francisco to visit a couple of thrift stores, needing more warm clothes then I had with me for the occasion. And I wanted a funky thing or two as a souvenir of San Francisco. The Goodwill store on Geary near Hyde satisfied my cravings.
I headed out by city bus to the western shore of the city to see Punta Lobos. The windblown trees, the eroding cliffs, the blustery sea and the Golden Gate Bridge, once again in the background, were a sharp contrast to the rolling hills, street people, and big ol’ buildings in the downtown of the city. It was my first taste of being around big trees, though here they were windswept like the trees in the elfin cloud forest above Monteverde.
I did get a sense of how big San Francisco is, for it has mostly finite borders, at least on three sides, and I took a bus across its width, east to west. I also got to stand back in Oakland, Berkeley and on the north shore of the bay and look at it some more. It is truly a geographically diverse area of ocean, mountain, forest and beach. Just as LA seemed smaller to me than I had imagined it would, San Francisco seemed bigger. Hmmm, perceptions shift when faced with the reality.
Laurie and I stayed in Berkeley in a comfy little studio house that she rented through the VRBO site – Vacation Rentals by Owner. It is a good way to have a home away from home, though not the cheapest for this dirt-floor-sleeper from the jungle. However I’m getting ideas of what I can do with my house in the Hammer. Laurie’s also an incredible packer, having included all sorts of extras in her bags to make sure we have whatever our hearts desire.
I can understand why this area has attracted the movers and shakers in so many social movements. There is an energy in the Bay Area that makes me think of the Monteverde clouds. Several layers of intense movement, each strata having their purpose, heading in deliberate directions, collecting their forces to create storms that stir up the earth.
It has taken a lifetime of curiosity about it before I could see it, but I’ve finally come to California. One of the things I realized on my first day in Los Angeles was that I am already familiar with almost every street, neighbourhood, beach and road name in the city. I just wasn’t paying enough attention to realize that all these places – Venice Beach, Santa Monica, Ventura Highway – are all part of this great big shiny white city called Los Angeles. And true to most movies, books, songs, and TV shows, excess reigns (at least in the neighbourhoods I was in).
The billboards are as ubiquitous as the howling monkeys back in Costa Rica. In their not-so-subtle way they roar out their demands.
They add a silent soundtrack to the city – as it would happen, this new movie coming out seemed to be speaking to the millions running around LA , and I rarely turned a corner that I wasn’t reminded to kick ass! The signs added to the feeling that this is a playground for dreamers and over-achievers.
I stayed with my friend Terry in the Sawtelle neighbourhood near Santa Monica. She is my friend from Toronto, recently moved here to live with her mother. Although Terry is new as a resident, she has been a visitor to LA for decades and was a great guide and gracious hostess. She took me out each day in that constant warm sun to visit different areas of the city from the Venice Canals to Runyon Canyon to the Santa Monica Pier.
And we did see excess everywhere we went. Many of the streets were lined with tall palm trees (I would always think of Roberto in Cahuita telling me that you don’t want to plant coconut palms close by as they get too tall and fall over – I guess these are a different variety and that the roots have much deeper soil to cling to). The high end shiny cars were also everywhere and came in all sizes…I thought of my sister when I took this picture, as Maggie had an Austin Mini when we were teenagers – it was a car that a teen could afford back in the 70s but I think you probably have to be a student at Beverly Hills HS to afford one now.
The first day we moseyed down Venice Beach amidst the botox-lips and the medical marijuana hawkers, past the hippie artists, rasta musicians and Hispanic jewellery makers, the young and old, the crazy and maybe not-so-crazy. Spent awhile watching the skateboarders playing in their cement jungle then headed to the Venice Canals.
The canals were originally dug in 1904 when Abbot Kinney decided he wanted to make an American Venice. Started in the horse and buggy era, they became obsolete in the car world, impractical for the new addiction, and by 1929 were filled in. Beatniks and artists took over the older houses (including Jim Morrison of the Doors – LA woman Sunday afternoon ringing through my head). Eventually the canals were re-dug and the houses refurbished and now it is an upscale neighbourhood with front yard duck-wading moats and backyard car alleys to accommodate the four-wheeled family pet.
Walking up and down the canals was a garden and architecture tour. I was amazed at the wide array of plants that grow here from pines and cypress to cactus and succulents. I have to do some work on my yard when I get home and have decided that I will redo my little postage stamp front yard in the Hammer as a California succulent garden, albeit that I have a much more limited variety of sedums to choose from.
There was every kind of outdoor space, patio, veranda and deck imaginable. I was amazed at how exposed many of these yards were. Of course I’m not a true city person and I like my bushy privacy, so the idea of having a cocktail party on a deck in the hot sun facing a walkway of tourists isn’t my idea of luxury. With all the money involved in these houses, you would think people would put that one-way glass so people couldn’t look into their homes and use construction or plant materials to screen themselves…
…but in LA, one may just want to “be seen”. I became enamored by the shady, dark spaces that many had created in their tiny yards, where one could retreat from the sun and from being the show. This building kinda sums it up – there wasn’t a single sign on these two spectacular structures near Venice Beach – but as a friend said to me, if you need to ask what these buildings are, you wouldn’t be invited to the party anyway – and you weren’t meant to be seen.
And there were wolves in Venice…
And Walking with Wolf went to Hollywood!
We hiked the second day up the Runyon Canyon near Hollywood. This super dry canyon got me thinking about how much water this huge city must consume – a thought that continued to cross my mind always, especially when I left LA in a bus headed north to Oakland and went through miles and miles of dry high plains that had large irrigated orchards and vineyards. No wonder there is a water crisis looming.
In Runyon, there were lots of walkers and runners and bitches (of the canine variety of course). This wild space was right in the middle of the city with views over top of mansions on all sides – I’m sure I looked down on homes belonging to celebrities I would recognize but I don’t have an interest in Star Tours (though the maps were everywhere and I do like maps) – I have no interest in seeing just how decadently the beautiful people live. I will look at buildings as interesting architecture and yards as intriguing gardens but prefer not to dwell on the excessive lifestyles that consume much more than their share in this world.
The next day my friend Melody, Wolf’s step-granddaughter, drove up from San Diego to take me shopping on Melrose Avenue. It was a far cry from the dusty roads of Monteverde where I last saw her to the palm-lined roads of Santa Monica and Hollywood! We spent a night wandering the Santa Monica Boulevard with Terry and then went to have some dinner with friends of hers.
It was great food at Monsoons on the 3rd Street Promenade – I finally got some sushi to satisfy my little seal soul – but kinda devolved into a debate about healthcare. I have come to realize that this is an extremely touchy subject here in the US right now – as a Canadian who has lived my life with a right to medical attention when I need it without having to mortgage my home or work for a corporation that provides insurance, to have survived two years of cancer treatments without my parents having lost their savings – well, it is a no-brainer to me. My question remains (this is the one that broke up the swell evening I must admit) – in a country that considers themselves the most generous and benevolent on earth, sending their army and foreign aid throughout the world, how can there be such an issue about providing well-being and good care to their own people?
So once that nice dinner broke up, we wandered down to the Santa Monica Pier where the ferris wheel’s lightshow kept us hypnotized. As did this one-man-band, who was musician, comedian and wannabe “America’s Got Talent” contestant (I don’t think he made it, but I was impressed with him).
The city coastline loomed to one side, the quiet ocean to the other, it was an enchanting night and once the political discussion faded from memory, we enjoyed the glory in the land of the angels.
The next day we spent on Melrose Avenue, shopping in retro stores and cheapo clothing shops, seeing LA fashion, and constantly on the lookout for cowboy boots for my pal Lori back in the Hammer – I saw a lot of great leather but nothing that I was sure enough of that was under about $1000 – tho I knew she would love those ones. Flowers, palm trees, skulls, “peace and love” – all sorts of great boot-art on these high end nose-pickers. I enjoyed the search – and as I head to northern California, I’m still searching.
My last night in LA was spectacular. We went to see Caetano Veloso – often called the Dylan of Brazil, recently referred to as a combination of Dylan, Bowie and Lou Reed when he is actually the father of Tropicalismo and an elder of bossa nova. And has the voice of an angel with wings of steel. He played at the Greek Theatre in Griffith Park, outside on a joyous night, to a crowd of excited Brazileños and at least one very happy Canadian. The stage was minimalist and eye-soothing, the music moved through various rhythms, Caetano’s graceful arm movements and dance steps were enticing and we got up to move along with him. The lyrics were in Portuguese so I didn’t catch most of them but I could tell from the energy of the crowd (and from what I know about his music) that they touched people’s souls and moved their minds. He did a beautiful cover of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean – ending the song with a line from the Beatles…”all the lonely people, where do they all belong?” Perfect for LA.
And it was at this concert that I had my only celebrity moment. I had my eyes out all week for a famous face and I’m sure that I passed a hundred of them without recognizing them – this is Hollywood after all. But Terry’s friend is Brian George and he came to the concert with us. As soon as he walked up, I knew his face. As I’m sure any Seinfeld watchers would – as well as many others, as he has been on many shows and in movies. But on Seinfeld he was Babu Bhatt, the Pakistani cafe owner. He laughed when I said he was my one celebrity-sighting. “You haven’t done well if I’m “it””, he said. But I’d say that I made up for star-power with quality of experience – we enjoyed the concert together, talked about music, and then I got this great picture with him. And I expect he is as recognizable as anyone due to those few episodes he did on Seinfeld. So thank you, Babu Brian. Nice man.
I must thank Terry and her mother for their warm hospitality. Evelyn turned me on to a new show – the Pawnshop Boys or something like that – when I’m around cable I’ll have to watch it and remember TV in LA. She has a lovely home and garden with a sparkling white kitchen. I came away from LA thinking that this is a very white city – not as in race, but as in clothes and buildings and general color. All cities present themselves to me as a color or texture, and LA is white and shiny! I had a small world moment when the new next door neighbour came over and introduced herself. Turns out she is from the Monteverde area in Costa Rica – her sister is married to a man I know in Santa Elena!
My favourite food find in LA? Two things – a babaganoush made by Sabra – the best commercial baba I’ve ever had, in fact one of the very few that I even like (if it ain’t homemade…). And a new favourite fruit, the lowly loquat! Known as nisperos in Costa Rica, I’ve seen a smaller version there though I’m not sure I’ve eaten it. I think of nispero a great lumber for building. In Evelyn’s backyard, there was a tree just bursting with these juicy little ripe golden nuggets and each day I went up the ladder and brought some down. I ate them morning, noon and night and took a bag on the bus as well. Apparently people don’t really get excited about these fruits around here yet they are abundant. Eat local! I have some seeds with me, hoping to get them back to Costa Rica and see if they will grow, though I think it is too wet in Cahuita for them.
Terry took me to the bus terminal to catch the Greyhound north to Oakland and the next part of my adventure in California. We walked around the industrial end of LA and I got to see some of the lowlier side of the city, where the palm trees hold their own against the concrete buildings and the street people shout out their greetings.
I take away great memories of LA. Yes, it was hazy, yes it was huge, but it was also much more pleasant than I imagined it would be. Every corner was a lyric in a song by Sheryl Crow or the Doors or America or….well, it seems that everyone sang a song about the land of the angels.
Of course it is a place that you could return to over and over and never see it all. But I got a taste and I can now picture all these places that I hadn’t even realized were part of this big city. When the water wars begin, I’m sure LA will be a battlefield – in the meantime, I’m headed north to commence the Walking with Wolf takes the West Coast book tour in Berkeley and to visit the land of big trees and do some serious tree-hugging.
I’m sitting in my hotel room in Houston. Thanks to my dear friend Professor Caroline Crimm of Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, I have just spent four days being treated like a queen here. I also have to thank Dean Jamie Hebert of the Department of Biology who provided comfortable lodgings and generous treatment in return for my coming to talk about Walking with Wolf with the biology students. I did my talk to a very small crowd, but thanks to the warm Texas hospitality, I leave with fond memories.
I am at the beginning of several weeks of book gigs, visiting friends and road-tripping through the west. Tomorrow I will fly on to Los Angeles, California, and spend a few days with my friend Terry who has recently moved there…and then start making my way north up the west coast, back to Canada.
It is bluebonnet and azalea season here – everyone tells me that I have come to Texas at the best time of the year. The weather is warm but not stinking hot as they say it can get. The flowers are beautiful – Lady Bird Johnson’s program from years ago of letting the roadsides fill with wildflowers is still evident. There are purple fields of bluebonnets (of the lupine family no doubt); undulating hedges of pink, purple and white azaleas; gardens of candy-colored gerberas and snapdragons….well, I may miss the tulips and daffodils in Ontario, but am being treated to all this floral beauty, Texas-style.
Caroline picked me up, introduced me as the “famous author” everywhere, made sure I was always comfortable, and took me out to restaurants that satisfied whatever craving I had. I have to speak up about a wonderful server we had in the Woodlands, just north of Houston – her name is Britney and she works at the Saltgrass Steakhouse. I love Costa Rica but wouldn’t say that restaurant service is always professional. The first night here in Texas brought me back to great service and this gal was truly a gifted server – friendly, informative, personal and appreciative – and after Caroline’s introduction – “famous author” – she was standing even tippier on her toes.
Besides my book thing, I followed Caroline around and saw how busy this award-winning professor, author, community-member, historian and human being is! She lectured, she moderated a Academic Challenge for area high school students, she participated in an interesting event called Poster Day – where faculty created posters about their research and displayed them in a conference room and then were present to discuss their areas of expertise with others. Caroline’s is about her most recent work in Monteverde, where she is doing research to write a history of pre-Quaker life on the green mountain, so I was her visiting poster-child, and we both talked about that community that we love so.
Caroline was the driver behind the reconstruction of a log building that is now a visitor center in the town square of Huntsville. She teaches courses that bring her students into the community to do service and to celebrate history. Her courses are hands-on, with students expected to dig in and get dirty – it was her and her students who rebuilt the log cabin. She has a room full of period costumes to use in local festivals, and a wall full of plaques in her office that express the appreciation of local communities for her enthusiastic involvement. Meeting Caroline has been one of the greatest pleasures of my last year. And now I’ve experienced her five star hospitality in the lone star state.
I arrived in Texas with a craving for red meat. A vegetarian for years, I no longer am, much of that due to the realities of traveling and living with people, and also sometimes my body craves it. As my time to go to Texas arrived, the cravings arrived. Caroline made sure I had some of that good Texas meat – and one of the highlights was the barbeque, a southern staple. In Huntsville, the big one is McKenzie’s, where the ribs were divine. We also picked up some ribs at what the locals affectionately call “The Church of the Holy Rib”, a funky family-run affair connected to the New Zion Church next door. I have to say the ribs may have been holy but not as divine, but the atmosphere was tops and the folks real nice.
The other thing that Huntsville is known for is its fine hospitality for prisoners. There are several prisons in the area. I think one of the oldest is the Huntsville State Prison, established in 1848 and still serving convicts all these years later, just up the road from Sam Houston University where Criminal Justice is their speciality. Locally known as “The Walls”, it was just next door to my hotel and hard to miss, though taking a miss on the inside tour is probably best. In my few days in Huntsville, I saw a lot of evidence of the prison system – the university had recruiting seminars going on in lobbies of buildings, anti-death penalty groups had events planned (because they still give a hang – is that a dang - in Texas) and I saw more species of police cars than you could imagine. But even the guard in the watchtower of “The Walls” smiled and waved as I took his picture – oh, those friendly Texans.
I’m not a shopper, but nevertheless went to a bunch of flea markets, antique stores and second-hand clothing shops, looking for used cowboy boots for my friend Lori back in Canada and myself. If you must go shopping while traveling, I think that visiting these kinds of stores is much more interesting than malls or chain stores whose merchandise is about the same everywhere you go. At least the used places give you a taste of what is, or was, local – they are like visiting small museums. So I’ve seen a lot of Texas charm, young and old.
The last day we went into Houston to the Live Oak Friends Meeting. As I said while introducing myself to the Quaker group, when I travel I’m not much interested in tourist attractions and souvenir shops. Instead I want to be immersed in the natural beauty of a place and meet the community. And I think visiting Friends meetings, where you always find wisdom, compassion, interesting conversation, and the existence of hope, is a much more valuable experience than any suggestion a tourism guide would give you.
I met some great people, sold a few books, and had a chance to sit in their beautiful meeting house, reflecting on my time in Texas, thinking about those I’ve left behind in Costa Rica, and those I’m headed to see on the west coast. I’ve a great appreciation for the warmth of the Texans, the beauty of the Texan springtime, and the generosity and friendship of Ms Caroline Crimm. Only sorry I didn’t get to go two-steppin’ – pero hay siempre la proxima. Girlfriend, may we meet again soon.