Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

January 24, 2004

Bay Tour

Yesterday, Greg, another friend from the baseball tour last summer and a lifelong resident of the Bay area, took me on a tour.

The first stop, of course, was the Pac Bell ballpark, home of the San Francisco Giants, which is no longer Pac Bell due to a buyout by some other company which will now have its name on the stadium. Whatever the name, the stadium is one of the most beautiful in the major leagues.

Whatever Park, as we will call it here, sits right on the bay. When Barry Bonds really hits one, it lands in the water where a flotilla of boats awaits to fight for the rare prize. The inlet is called McCovey Cove in honor of one of the greatest, and most underrated, players in baseball history, Willie McCovey.

We took a walk around the outside of the stadium. There are several places where one can look in and see the field. It was good to see the green grass of a ballfield. Spring training is just around the corner!

We ate at a restaurant across from the ballpark. The food was very good, but business was slow. The ballpark is a few blocks too far from downtown San Francisco for the area to attract much business when there isn’t a game. Although dozens of buildings sprang up in the ballpark area in the past few years, the downturn in the dot com industry brought things to a screeching halt.

FROM THE Whatever Ballpark, Greg drove through Chinatown and out towards the Golden Gate Bridge. The bridge is as beautiful as all the pictures, although up close it shows some wear.

The span of water spanned by the Golden Gate bridge is turbulent. Through that small opening come the tides which fill the entire Bay. Tidal waters roll inland as far as Sacramento through the Golden Gate. A few hours later, they roll out again. Small boats can do nothing to fight the tides.

At the north end of the Bridge is Golden Gate State Park, which used to be an Army base. Remains of the concrete pillboxes which guarded the bay are everywhere. As we went around the hill, we saw many old WW I barracks which were beautifully kept up. They seemed so authentic that I could imagine the doughboys marching around the grounds.

Thanks to the state park, one can find peace, quiet and relative solitude only five or ten minutes past the Golden Gate bridge, perhaps 15 minutes away from some of the busiest urban streets in the world.

From Golden Gate Park we went north through Sausalito, a ritzy town with a Main Street on the waterfront of the bay. Finally, we drove across the very long Richmond Bridge and ended up in Berkeley. More later!


January 23, 2004

Third Places

One of my objections to small town life is the lack of a place to go besides home and work to hang out. Well, there is the local cafe, but for some reason that doesn’t cut it for me. A person couldn’t be comfortable reading or writing in a small town cafe, I wouldn’t think. For whatever reason, I am always a little eager to get out of there.

And I prefer to hang out in the evenings. I would like someplace to go where I could sip on some tea and read a book--just to get out of the house in the winter so things don’t get so stale.

Yesterday, I ran across a book entitled Third Places by Ray Oldenberg, which gives that name to the places where people hang out, like the pubs in England, or coffee shops, or gas stations, or any place that is not home and is not work but is a place where people gather. Like Cheers.

Oldenberg has written extensively about such places. According to him, there aren’t many of them left anywhere. The small town cafe is about as good as any of them. All such places are suffering intense competition from other diversions. People are staying in their houses watching TV, or playing games, or surfing the Internet.

Wherever my uncle Rolly moves, he takes care to find a breakfast cafe where the local guys gather. Backhoe drivers, farmers, electricians, factory workers, whatever. He enjoys their company. When I visit, I meet them all, too.

However, Rolly gets more out of the cafe support group than company. He and aunt Jean have just built a house, and the cafe support group is where Rolly figured out which electrician to get (he ended up doing the wiring himself with “consulting” help from one of the coffee crowd), which dry-waller, which brick-layer, and so on.

Groups based on a meeting place are idealized in shows such as Cheers or Friends. But I think far more people sit at home and watch the shows about such places than actually participate in such a cozy group of friends.


Barnes and Noble pigeons

Oakland’s wharf area includes one of the larger Barnes and Noble bookstores I have seen. It isn’t large enough to have its own weather, but there were a couple of pigeons nibbling crumbs in the coffee shop. Nobody seemed to pay them any mind. I wonder how one would go about getting rid of pigeons in your bookstore?


January 22, 2004

Expensive dinner in Oakland

Came into Oakland, CA last night. I am staying with a buddy from my ballpark tour last summer.

We started off by going out to dinner at a Thai restaurant. However, when we went to the parking lot afterwards, Rene’s Lexus was gone. It had been towed, or so we hoped. Apparently that lot was for bank customers only, even though the bank was closed and the parking lot was mostly empty.

“Welcome to California,” Rene said.

We walked 1/2 mile back to his house and he called the police. Yes, they knew about it, but it was a private parking lot and a private towing company, so you had to call the company.

The cost to get the car out of the impound lot? Three-hundred eighty-two dollars, plus an additional $80 if you actually wanted it right away, which was, after all, after hours.

We waited until this morning. I drove Rene down to the lot, he paid his bill, and then we had to drive another several miles to pick up his car.

Otherwise, Oakland is beautiful. It is hilly and the streets are curvy, just like San Francisco across the bay. I am going to explore the wharf area today. It is easy to find your way around, despite the curves, since downhill is towards the bay and uphill is towards the residential areas.

Today, it is quite cool. Perhaps 55-60 degrees, with a possibility of 70 by this afternoon. Nonetheless, I heard an advertisement on the radio this morning which said: “Old man winter has arrived!”


January 20, 2004

Mars pitchers

Each night I am able to view statistics from this weblog. One of the most interesting lists are the Yahoo and Google searches which brought people to view this site. For example, some people typed my name into Google and got this website. Others typed in "fertile abduction" and were led to the site due to my discussions of the abductions in December. One baseball fan who wanted info on the same Tim Russert interview I wrote about a couple of weeks ago typed in "berra carter fisk bench russert" and was led to this site.

Now this: No fewer than three people have been led to this site after typing in "mars rover pitchers." I assume they meant "pictures," but hey--if you want discussion of both space and baseball on the same website, this is probably the place to go!


Iowa caucuses

Our strange political system has ordained that a few cranky Iowans have inordinate power in choosing our next president. This year, the Iowans came through again, defying the predictions and breathing life into the struggling campaigns of Kerry and Edwards.

Neither Howard Dean’s supposed commanding lead in the polls nor Dick Gephardt’s status as a next door neighbor swayed the Iowans. They knocked out Gephardt and elevated the dignified southerner Edwards to legitimacy. In the process, they threw the whole race into a tizzy. At least it is a tizzy to the pundits who got it all wrong.

I am rooting for no candidate. In fact, I root only for anarchy and confusion. It looks like we’ll have plenty to spare this time around.

My dream is to have a national party convention where dozens upon dozens of ballots are needed before they nominate a candidate.


Churchill's parrot

Found out today that Winston Churchill had a pet parrot which he trained to swear like a sailor.
**** Hitler! and **** the Nazis! were two of its favorite epithets. Churchill loved the shocked look on the faces of his genteel generals and admirals when his pet let loose a stream of profanity.

Upon Churchill’s death in 1965, the parrot was given to a pet shop. However, the owner couldn’t curb the parrot’s propensity to swear loudly at Hitler, especially in the presence of children, so it was given to a private party.

According to the English newspaper The Daily Mirror, the parrot is still alive and still cursing the Nazis. It is well over 100 years of age. What I wouldn’t give to hear that parrot swear!


Hostel living

The three days spent at Yosemite Bug hostel have been a delight. No television, no cell phone reception and internet service so expensive that it prohibits inordinate use. An oak fire roars in the lodge. The cat likes to sit on my lap. The coffee is on in the morning, and the Guiness flows at night.

The hostel was started 6 years ago by Doug and Caroline. Caroline immigrated from Ireland 13 years ago and worked as a waitress in San Francisco, saving her money with the intent of starting a business. Doug used to manage hotels in the Bay area.

They function as the Ma and Pa of the hostel, although they are not a couple. The employees are a funky bunch of bohemians who float in and out for weeks, months or years at a time, many of whom live in tents on the side of the hill. For such a scruffy bunch, they work with good discipline, which I attribute to Doug’s somewhat irritable insistence that things be done right.

The Bug hosts students, typical tourists, people at loose ends, and the occasional retreat. This weekend, several dozen Boy Scouts inhabited the dorms. Many international visitors to Yosemite Park were also guests, as well as skiers, both cross-country and downhill, hikers and tourists, most of them from the Bay area.

I envisioned taking over a cozy corner by the wood stove in the lodge and writing on my computer. However, I soon got to know a few of the people, and once I did, my desire to sit and write evaporated, replaced by the fun of sitting around by the fire, singing, talking, sipping Guinness.

The lodge doubles as a reasonably priced but very good cafe which draws many of the locals in the evenings. The chef spent 18 years at the foofie Ahwahnee Lodge mentioned below. My brother worked under him at the Bug last year and learned many tricks of the trade, including how you get a salmon filet done real fast if you drop the other one on the floor just before the plate goes out.

The atmosphere is more than informal. Diners compete for tables with students playing Scrabble and drinking beer. Guitar players of varying ability take their turn plucking their tunes. The old dog Ying Yang owns one end of the old sofa. Tables of yuppies down bottle after bottle of good wine.

Each guest room features a guide book to the area prepared by Bug staff. Area trails and attractions are rated, with colorful commentary. “At the end of the trail you may avail yourself of the opportunity to urinate in the San Francisco drinking water supply,” reads one entry. Another admits that the memory of a particular trail was obscured (and perhaps enhanced) by the fact that the writer was “totally blitzed” when they took the walk.


Yosemite Park

Yosemite is a large park at a high elevation in the High Sierra mountain range. In very small portion of the park, glaciers carved out the grand Yosemite Valley, which is about 1/2 mile across and 1/2 mile deep.

The famous landmarks of the valley are Yosemite Falls, which drops 2452 feet, Bridalveil Falls, known for its photogenic elegance, the Half Dome, with its 2500 foot sheer face, and El Capitan, an enormous rock face one-half mile in height.

Lesser known are the giant trees on the floor of the valley. Redwoods and various pine grow to over 200 feet tall. Cedar form undergrowth, and knarled live oak grow near the streams.

The valley is a celebration of vertical lines: the tall trees frequently form a perfect frame for the impossibly high cliffs. However, only Ansel Adams and other professionals seem capable of capturing the place with a camera. Try as I might, I could not fit the scenery into the viewfinder of my little Nikon digital.

Brother Joe and I drove 30 miles from the hostel up into the Yosemite Valley, rising above the clouds in the process. Admission is $20 per car. The parking lots were ice covered and banks of snow flanked the road.

I have been to Yosemite once before. It was cloudy and misty that day. Today was sunny. The valley is equally charming under each circumstance.

The falls were in fine form. Last trip it was so windy that very little water actually made it all the way to the bottom without being blown away as mist. Today was windless, and the water cascaded in sheets and folds all the way down the huge cliff.

Traveling with Brother Joe was fun. We walked slow, took plenty of time for coffee, and talked a lot. We share a familial sense of when enough is enough, which is usually quite early. The eyes can only take in so much.

We ate at the famous Ahwahnee Lodge. The great room of the lodge is something to behold. It was built from huge timbers before sawing large trees down was forbidden. The posts are three-foot thick pine, and the ceiling, which rises to fifty feet in the middle and spans seventy feet, is an intricate web of smaller timbers.

The far end of the room features huge beveled glass windows, rising to the peak. The only thing missing was an enormous pipe organ. However, a nine-foot Steinway occupies the center of the room.

The grand room houses the famous Ahwahnee Lodge restaurant, long known for its very good, if expensive, food. We waited for a table in the lobby, by a blazing fireplace so huge it would be best fed by a forklift.

Joe and I lucked out. The lodge is hosting a chef’s convention this weekend. My hamburger was the best I have ever eaten. The loaf of bread was perfect. Our waiter Adrian was from Transylvania (in modern Romania), home of Dracula. He looked the part.

The sun was low by the time we trundled down the valley to the hostel. Joe put a Bach organ disc into the CD player, which seemed appropriate. Grand music, grand scenery. Joe hears different things in Bach than I do, so we had good discussions, interrupted by me slamming on the brakes when a good view popped up.


January 19, 2004

Hiatus

I am at the Yosemite Bug hostel. Went into Yosemite today, and will have a full report when I get to back down to a decent internet connection, probably sometime Tuesday evening. Right now I am at one of those machines which charges you by the minute and has a wierd keyboard which I find impossible to use.


January 18, 2004

Yosemite Bug

I knew of this hostel because my brother Joe lived and worked there for parts of the past two years. It consists of a lodge surrounded by dozens of cabins and permanent tents, scattered up the side of the mountain. You can get a real room with a bathroom, or a real room with shared bathrooms, or you can sleep in a dorm, or you can sleep in a tent. Depends upon your budget. It will freeze hard tonight--no tent for me.

They had no rooms open until they found out I was Joe’s brother at which time they gambled on one party not showing up and put me in a room which has no number but is simply entitled “Bear.” It is on the corner of the main lodge, on stilts over the ravine. For the first time this trip, I don’t have to close the curtains.

Upstairs is a restaurant, which also functions as the lounge where the student types from all over the world who stay in the dorms hang out, read books, play Scrabble (one pair tonight was playing in both French and English at once--the game went quicker that way, they said), drink wine, play guitar and tap on their laptops. A big cat and a lazy dog rule the roost.

There is a mountain edge to the air tonight--I suspect I will sleep very well. No car noise. No sirens. No television. No phone line, so no internet. I think I am having media withdrawal symptoms.


Salinas to Midpines

I headed across the state of California Saturday, from the farming town of Salinas, a dozen miles off the coast about 100 miles south of San Fransico, to the tiny mountain village of Midpines, near Yosemite Park, where I am staying in the Yosemite Bug, a hostel with a conglomerate of cabins and lodges tucked in a cozy ravine beside a mountain stream.

The route wasn’t as spectacularly scenic as Friday’s trip up the Big Sur Highway, but it is still one of my favorites. I have traveled the road before while visiting my Uncle Rolly and Aunt Jean.

The rounded, grassy California mountains are painted a lush, mossy green in January. They look like bright green velvet pillows, with dark green live oak trees scattered like buttons in the folds. There are deciduous oak trees as well, scattered about, with their bare gray branches covered in Spanish moss.

After crossing the coastal range, one drops into a farming district. The town of Gilroy is the garlic capital of the world, surrounded by nearby hills. Near Gilroy, as the morning sun broke through the mist and fog, you could see up to six layers of hills in the distance, each made a different shade of green by the increased distance.

I say hills, but they are tall enough to be mountains. The word “hills” seems a more accurate description of their gentle roundness. Most are dotted with cattle.

Going over the next range after Gilroy and the town of Hollister, one encounters the San Luis reservoir, one of a string of reservoirs which helps transfer water from northern California, where it is plentiful, to southern California, where it is scarce.

The blue waters are especially striking when set against the green hills. Reservoirs and the enormous dams which create them stir a different awe in me than do the ocean waves crashing against the beach. It amazes me that man could make a lake so large as to make its creators look like ants. Very busy, industrious ants.

I stopped at an info center which overlooked the dam. The only word I can use to describe such vast but utterly (once completed, at least) lonely public works projects is eerie. Dams evoke the same feeling in me as seeing the abandoned battleship Midway in the San Diego harbor did last week.

From the reservoir, the highway descends into California’s rich and enormous Central Valley where orchards and vineyards alternate with open fields, most of them now empty or seeded in bright green rye which will be used for plowdown.

Two lane highways lead from farm town to farm town. John Deere dealerships make me feel like home, as does the utterly flat terrain, similar to the Red River Valley. In fact, I saw a field of what looked like sugar beets today, although I suspect it was something else. It’s illegal to grow sugar beets anywhere but back home, isn’t it?

After the town of Merced, I headed up Highway 140 towards Yosemite. The land becomes rolling, like western North Dakota, with vivid green pastures.

With surprising suddeness, the road climbed, and caused my not-so-mighty V-6 engine to roar. Pastures gave way to brush covered hills, which were soon replaced by pine mixed with a blue-leafed manzanita. The town of Maricopa, only 36 miles from the flat farming town of Merced, is a quaint mountain village.

Seven more miles of climging, curvy road brought me to Midpines, CA, a town of 900, a gateway to Yosemite. All I saw of the town as I passed through was a post office--most of the residences are tucked away in the nooks and crannies.

Another day of varied scenery. I have seen more spectacular variety in the past two days than one would in 2000 miles of driving on the plains. Today was easier, however, since most of the driving was on wide roads.

The past several days have been bliss. San Diego and LA were hell, despite the beautiful weather. Northern and Southern California are two different countries.



Mitzy's Diner

In Salinas, CA last night, I walked from my hotel to the nearest restaurant, a diner. I was shocked at the prices: Ten dollars for a burger. The service seemed a bit funny, and I was ready to walk out when a waitress finally agreed to take my order.

When my food came, I realized why they charge so much. The burger was absolutely huge--almost a joke. On it was a huge pile of mushrooms. Off to the side were onions, tomatoes, and about a half-a-head of lettuce. Thrown over it all was a mound of fries. It was a meal for two.

I was seated at the counter and watched other plates go out. A chef’s salad looked like a meal for four. It was topped with an entire cluster of grapes. One woman sent her food back to have it reduced. It was piled so high that if she had pulled one thing out, the whole stack might have tipped over and killed her.

The menu was quirky. One dish was so spicy that “you’ll curse us out tomorrow.” Another quote: “We’re not Burger King. We do it our way. If you don’t like it, tough.”

When I checked out, the hostess, who hadn’t waited on me, said, “You did a pretty good job with that burger!” as if she was surprised, and somewhat chagrined, that I had finished the whole thing.

I shouldn’t have, needless to say. There’s no reason to maintain membership in the Clean Plate Club at this age.