Perambulating thoughts on the Road to California.

September/October 2008.

 As we headed south from Bellingham on the Interstate 5, the weather grew steadily milder. At first I thought only that the grey sky had cleared and we were simply having a nice day, but by the time we were in Southern Oregon, it was unquestionably hot. Seriously hot. This wasn't just a break in the North West clouds; this was a change of climate.

Of all the states I've visited, California is the first I've encountered that feels like a foreign country. There is something very continental about California. It seems part Spanish, part French and part American. Sierras, Riviera and MacDonalds. I think I like California. Maybe it was the palm trees, or the sunshine, the impressionist painting light, the wine yards, the architecture, the pace, the faces, the fauna or the flora. Maybe it was just a breath of a different wind.

 I feel that California's sense of Americanism has been diluted by the sheer distances and history that stretch from the capital city DC to the Californian state line. I doubt they are even aware of it. It's one of those things only an outsider would notice. It could be that the lack of dour Nordic influence on Californian culture, combined with the close proximity to Mexico, has given the state a unique perspective on life in the USA. Californians seem more Mediterranean and less Germanic. They lean more towards siesta, and art than "Arbeite macht frei".

That's not to say that Californians don't work. I'm sure they do. I'm sure they have their problems too, but if average Californians worry, I bet they're not worried about the weather.


The Napa Valley wine industry seems to have some kind of a feudal system going on. The poor keep the rich vintners content and the rich keep the poor employed. Very symbiotic if not exactly legal. The valley appears sleepy below the early October sun. Wine Chateaus are dotted around the hills and roadsides. Row after row of vines, mile after mile of potential hangovers. Some fields seem to have been harvested by invisible hands but on many yellowing rows there still hang great bulging udders of purple grapes. The field workers are nowhere to be seen. The valley is hazy and silent. Perhaps the pickers are not yet ripe


As we leave the Napa Valley and head south west, eucalyptus trees are everywhere. They lend a sub tropical, savannah like landscape to this region of California. Apparently the Eucalyptus were introduced from Australia but turned out to be useless as building material. They proceeded to grow rampant across the Californian hillsides where though they're fine to look at, they are considered a fire hazard because of their oily bark. I guess that what I mistook for savannah, giraffe country was really Australian bush kangaroo country.


It's a strange thing when you go places and see iconic things with your own eyes. Preconceptions instantly evaporate. When reality and imagination clash, myths are often remolded. I remember the Mid West was nothing like I pictured it. Now, looking back, I'd say I preferred the winter over summer. My lasting impressions of Madison Wisconsin were not what I'd have imagined they would be. They consist of square grid country roads, frozen lakes, Quann Dog Park, mosquitoes, Old Milwaukee beer, and an abandoned railway line. I have a fond recollection of the hills to the west of Madison where my friend John Henry Cornellson had a patch of forest.

 I'd always pictured that the Great Lakes would be ringed by spectacular peaks. I thought the far shores would have been visible. But the Great Lakes were vast as oceans. There were no mountains I could see and the far shores were over the horizon.

The president's monument on Mount Rushmore in the Black Hills of South Dakota was very disappointing. It was tiny in comparison to my vision of it. I remember thinking, "Is that it? It looks like a postage stamp". I'm glad I didn't pay the entry fee. But I must say though that New York City was exactly as dizzying as I'd imagined it.


So we arrived in San Francisco from the North. All of a sudden there we were, merging with the traffic on the Golden Gate Bridge. It was spectacular enough but it wasn't golden at all. It was red. A rusty red. That revelation hadn't been on my radar. Nor did I expect the Bay Area to be a hodgepodge of a whole bunch of towns. I hadn't expected the bay to be so verdant and spacious either. There seemed to be walking trails everywhere.

Memories are so often made up of unexpected moments. A quiet afternoon sketching under a tree in the Napa valley or an inflatable space shuttle by a highway. A tram ride through San Francisco. Sea lions basking and barking on the pier. A wild mustang horse standing uninvited on your car and staring at you through the windshield. Travel destinations are vague expectations and impressions. We can stare at the moon all our lives or ponder maps and hear stories of distant places but each narrator's perspective tells only a part of the tale. Perhaps our sense of touch is enhanced by novelty.


And there was some music too, of a sort. A friend from away back was getting married under a tree. So we had driven to the Napa Valley to be there under that tree. It may have been an oak tree, but I can't be sure. It didn't look like one, but I overheard a conversation where it was referred to as, "The oak tree". From atop a hill of grapevines it overlooked the Napa Valley.

Under this tree, I met a cellist (Viola player?). Five minutes before the wedding began, we ran through some traditional folk tunes together. Obviously as we were total strangers to one another, we'd never played together before. As the ceremony ended, we played our new learned tunes as background music. Then we shook hands and introduced ourselves.

I am forever amazed by the power of music to unite strangers. The chances are that we will never meet again. But there ye go. Two strangers born, years and miles apart, meet upon a hill under a tree and play some music then continue on their own paths through life.


Heading back north, we followed the coast for some of the way. We visited the giant Redwoods. I guess they must be a few inches taller since last we met. I guess that makes me even less significant to them. But they are an inspiration to anyone who has the privilege to walk amongst them. The sheer mass of history that they have paid no heed to is almost overwhelming to ponder. They are as neutral as Switzerland. They voice no opinions and take no sides. They ask only for peace. There is surely some wisdom in that.