Country Scribe : Eric Bergeson's Weblog

January 31, 2004

California in the review mirror

It was quite a three weeks in California. I enjoyed it. Saw a lot of new territory. Lots of good visits.

One common denominator: Every conversation at some point wandered onto the topic of high real estate prices. The high prices are good for some people, bad for others, but disorienting for all, I sense. There are outcries for government intervention in what is called the "housing crisis." However, I can't imagine any government interference which would be anything but a confusing nightmare of regulation.

The fact is, there are so many people wanting to move to California that prices are climbing in response. It is a classic supply and demand market. Why interfere? People's property taxes are frozen at the level they were when they purchased their house, so nobody is being forced out of a house they have owned for years. If you stay put, the prices of houses around you won't affect you at all.

We are insulated from the effects of increased population in northern Minnesota. Our population peaked in 1915 and has been declining since, at least in Norman County. However, most of the country lives under the pressure created by population increase.

January 30, 2004

Hairy Drive

Took off this morning from Eugene, OR, aimed for the other side of the hill--Prineville, OR. Eugene is on the wet side of the Cascades, Prineville on the dry side.

It was wet in Eugene this morning--pouring rain. The lawns are beautiful green, as are the evergreens. Eugene is in pine forests.

The climb up the mountains is gradual, and follows the McKenzie River gorge. The river is flooded right now due to a wet winter. It is white water all the way. For some reason, the road is quite straight with gentle curves, unlike California's twisted coastal roads.

Driving was easy until the sleet started. Sleet turned to snow. Chains were required on trucks. In fact everybody was pulling over to put on chains. I had none.

The road became snow packed, and it started to snow so heavily that visibility was low. I am used to driving on ice at home, but not on mountain roads where you have a cliff off to one side and curves!

It got so bad that I was depending entirely upon the fifteen foot stakes on the side of the road which mark it for the snowplows. They were dayglow orange, and sometimes I was working my way stick to stick, going fifteen miles per hour. Four-wheel drive helped with the climb.

Four-wheel drive does nothing to slow you down once you get over the hill and start caterwauling down the other side, however. I realized I had to go slow or I would get going to fast to make the curves.

Once over the pass, it was only six more miles of snow and sleet before the road cleared off. Five more minutes and we were in sunshine. Twenty minutes more and I was in the high desert, with its long, sweeping roads.

January 29, 2004

Thoughts on California's scenery

I crossed from California into southern Oregon yesterday afternoon. I believe I was in CA for three quick weeks, moving from the southern tip to the northern border.

The scenic highlights: Number one is the redwoods. You have to see them to believe them. They are really the most amazing thing I have ever seen. If pictures don’t do them justice, which they don’t, how will words? Especially at the going rate of one thousand words per picture.

I investigated about five groves over the space of 130 miles, passing by dozens more. Each grove was different. Each had its own oohs and ahs. I got the feeling that the locals never get sick of the big trees either.

The groves are mystical places, even more so than the cathedrals of Europe. The thought that anybody ever saw fit to saw the huge old trees down (the timber industry fought for logging of the big trees as recently as 1968) makes my blood boil. What sort of neanderthals could think that way?

Some clarifications of Tom the storekeeper’s redwood lecture posted below: There are some animals in the redwoods, but only ones which come in from their fringes where there are food-bearing plants. Redwoods do not in fact require constant fog to survive, although it sure helps.

CA scenic highlight #2: Yosemite. Not only did I stay at a delightful place, the Yosemite Bug, but seeing the Yosemite Valley again was a treat.

CA scenic highlight #3: The Big Sur Highway. Although the coast north of San Francisco is every bit as spectacular as the Big Sur, you aren’t going to get much sunshine up north. I had a perfectly sunny day on the Big Sur, and it was a highlight.

CA scenic highlight #4: Seeing the ocean from a remote gravel road on a cliff with the shore straight down 500 feet below. Something about approaching the ocean far below while peering through the big trees in Redwood National Forest brought back childhood memories for me. I recall once looking through the trees to see and endless sea of water--I think I was 4 years old and I think the body of water was Lake Winnipeg. I have never forgotten it. When the little gravel road approached the ocean, that early memory came back full force.

Note: Redwoods don’t grow on the side of the range which faces the ocean because they don’t like the salt in the sea mist. Sitka spruce, who don’t mind the salt at all, predominate there, in addition to poplar, which seem to predominate all over the world.

CA scenic highlight #5: The Golden Gate Bridge. There are four huge bridges which cross the San Francisco Bay. Actually, the Golden Gate is the shortest of them, and not necessarily the grandest in scale, although it is certainly the most scenic.

Now, get this: Over 500 people have jumped to their deaths from the Golden Gate bridge since it opened some 75 years ago. That’s just people who somebody else saw or who were found. There are probably more. In that same time, according to a recent New Yorker magazine article on the Golden Gate bridge as a symbol, not a single person has jumped off any of the other three bridges. Go figure that one out.

CA scenic highlight #6: Whales. The whale boat tour is a once in a lifetime thing that only happens every so often, to quote Randy Moss. You probably won't do it again, but everybody should do it once--unlike the redwoods, which I think would bear up well under many repeat visits.

January 28, 2004

Leaving CA

Today I went through several more patches of redwoods. It stopped raining long enough for me to take a 1/2 mile trail. Every grove is different, all grand. I can't walk fast through them--I just keep looking up and would trip. Also took a one-lane gravel road out to the coast within the Redwood National Park. Whoa! The road hung to a cliff 500 feet above the ocean. At least 500 feet. I will try to describe it in more detail later, but right now I am using the hotel computer. Their phone lines don't support internet from the room (a frequent problem, but usually not for Holiday Inn Express). Tonight I am in Grant's Pass, OR. I decided I had enough wet coastal weather for the time being.

I hear it is -35 degrees at home. Ugh. I think I'll stay on the road for a while.

January 27, 2004

The Big Trees

Today I drove north on California Highway 1 from Fort Bragg on the California coast. The road twisted and turned for 30 miles until it rejoined US 101 and headed north a bit inland. Soon the highway started through the redwoods.

The road tunnels through large cypress. Unlike the redwoods, cypress form a complete canopy over the road. It never occurred to me that those trees needed trimming until I ran into a trimming crew with a 50 foot high cherrypicker sawing off huge limbs far above the road. The traffic was stopped between the sawing of each branch, so I struck up a conversation with the man holding the stop sign.

He was curious about Minnesota. When I said we only have road construction for about seven months per year, he said he should move there. When I told him that it was twenty below zero there today, he changed his mind and got back to giving me advice on the best road to take through the redwoods.

When I drove on to the road the man recommended, the Avenue of the Giants, I stopped in at a little general store, the Deerhorn Market. I stopped in part because in front of the store were four redwoods, four feet across at my chest, which had obviously been planted in a row.

I went in and asked the proprietor, a man in an apron named Tom, how long the trees had been there. He pulled out a picture of the same store which showed the trees as three-foot high seedlings. In the picture was a car which Tom identified as a 1933 Chrysler.

Tom peered over his glasses and gave me a lecture on the redwoods, which he said were his passion. They grow to 100 feet in their first 30 years. They grow all year whenever their is moisture available. They take most of their moisture through their foliage from the fog, a more efficient method of absorption than pushing the moisture up 300 feet from the roots.

A mature redwood takes up 400 gallons of water per day. That is why they only grow where moisture is plentiful. In fact, they must have frequent fog to survive.

Redwoods choke out all other life, plant and animal. They allow little undergrowth, mostly small ferns. They don’t provide food for animals, so the redwood groves are silent. No rodents, no birds and very, very few deer.

Redwoods have no lifespan. Something must kill them, be it wind, fire, lightning or chainsaws.

After his lecture, Tom leaned back with a smile and said, “they are a magnificent form of life.”

Then Tom took out a map and showed me a little road to his favorite grove where he said I would be able to enjoy 20 acres of 1,000 year old trees with little disruption.

I drove straight to Tom’s favorite grove, which is actually called Rockefeller Grove. Shafts of sun shone down through the narrow spaces enormous pillars. Rain dripped from the foliage 300 feet above. I tried to capture the trees with my camera, but of course I failed. The best picture was one which showed my pickup against an enormous tree, a picture which showed the size of the trunks by comparison with a familiar object.

I ended the day in Eureka, CA, a little harbor city. I still have more redwoods to see tomorrow. I hope it rains less. I couldn’t take a decent hike today because I would have gotten soaked. I am not complaining--it is the rain which brought the redwoods here.

Second growth redwoods

On the way from California’s interior to the North Coast, I drove through about twenty miles of redwoods on California Highway 128. These are “second growth” redwoods. You can see the giant stumps of the original old growth trees covered in moss. What is heartening is that around these stumps have arisen new trees, many of them already well over 150 feet tall.

It rains a lot on the North Coast. I was going to wait until the rain stopped to head north on the coast highway, but I see from the forecast that I would be waiting a long time.

I stopped in the coastal town of Fort Bragg where I have a hotel room overlooking the ocean. Rates are low in the winter months.

The sun has not risen yet this morning, but I can hear the ocean waves crashing, much louder than they were last evening. The tide must be in. I look forward to taking a walk this morning and seeing the surf.

The North Coast is an enchanted area. The beach is mostly rocks and cliffs. In the valleys stand the grand redwoods. The towns are filled with Victorian homes, many of which have been turned into bed and breakfasts. In the summer time, the area is inundated with tourists. In the winter, however, you almost have it to yourself.

Visiting the offices of the AVA

I stopped by the offices of the Anderson Valley Advertiser yesterday in Boonville. Boonville is in the boonies, sheltered from the crush of population by a thirty-mile-long road so winding that you can only pass in two places. Boonville has one main street. It is unpolished and scruffy.

I stopped in the general store to get directions to the AVA’s offices and was told they are at the home of the editor, the legendary and controversial Bruce Anderson. Anderson’s paper is a tell-it-like-it-is weekly which, I am happy to say, occasionally runs my column. He has something of a national following. Some of his investigative work has ended up on shows such as PBS’s Frontline.

Anderson writes and publishes prose which could blister paint. He makes fun of the aging hippies which populate Mendocino County. He investigates government corruption. He investigates murders. His paper claims to be left-wing, but the liberals catch just as much hell from Bruce as do the conservatives. More than anything, the paper is fearless. Bruce doesn’t hesitate to call wife-beaters wife-beaters and murderers murderers, even if they are still walking the street near his home.

I found the offices of the AVA in a fenced-in compound. The sign was barely visible. The door was open, but the office was deserted, until I poked around a little and found an inner office. Inside was Mark Scaramella, one of the AVA’s writers.

Mark to me back outside, past a room filled with stacks of thousands of yellowed AVAs, around a few corners, out to base of the stairs of Bruce’s office, which is sort of a tree house which rises above the rest of the buildings. Mark climbed the rickety stairs and knocked.

I didn’t know what to expect. Having read Bruce’s paper, I knew he didn’t suffer fools gladly. I wondered how he would respond to an interruption from a wondering columnist from Minnesota who hadn’t called ahead.

I needn’t have worried. Bruce emerged from his tiny office and bounced down the stairs, a giant of a man with a kind smile, dressed in a tie, a dapper hat and a sport coat. He took me inside the house where we chatted at the dining room table for over an hour.

Bruce was curious about Minnesota, and I heard about some of the present controversies at the AVA, as well as some of the past history. I went on my way equipped with travel information on the North Coast. I invited him to Minnesota, since all he has seen of the Midwest is a slice of southern Illinois.

Bruce echoed a theme I have heard elsewhere in California: “We are so spoiled.” He was referring to the weather here, but he could have been discussing the stunning scenery which changes so quickly from mile to mile, as well as the culture of San Francisco just down the road. The message: It's tough to get up the gumption to visit other parts of the country when there is so much right here.

When I got in my pickup to head up the coast, I thought to myself--now, just what would I show Bruce in northern MN? Fargo? The Polk County Fairgrounds? The pine in Itasca are nothing compared to the redwoods. The lakes are nothing compared to the ocean. And there are thousands of miles of non-descript prairie between here and there.

Plus, the people of rural Minnesota are darn solid (and relatively boring) compared to the dazzling array of eccentrics and loony-tunes here in California.

"Oh," Bruce said when I told about the people back home, "we could use a few more like that here."

January 26, 2004

Night out in Oakland

If you want a macabre movie, try Mystic River directed by Clint Eastwood. It is a murder mystery, but even darker than most. The movie shows off the talents of Sean Penn. I can’t really discuss it without giving away the plot, except to say I recommend it only if you are certain that a something gloomy isn’t going to send you over the edge. I was in a good mood going into the movie due to the fact that it was preceded by a 1/2 hour performance on the theater’s mighty Wurlitzer theater organ.

After the show, we walked across the street to The Alley, an institution in Oakland. It is a neighborhood bar. The decor? Tens-of-thousands of business cards from decades past. They are layered on the walls, the posts, everywhere.

Pianist Rob Dibble has played for five nights per week at The Alley for over thirty years. His piano is underneath a big table. There are several mikes, and you are free pull up and request a song. If Dibble knows it, he will play it and you can sing.

There were clearly a bunch of regulars. One was Dave, who was selling a CD he had recorded as well as singing with Mr. Dibble. He was 80, I suppose, and sang the standards with an overly-tremulant vibrato. Then there was a woman dressed up in 50s garb with a very glamorous looking drink, and a man across from her who looked for all the world like he was trying to be Rudy Valentino. He wore a 1920s suit with a huge kerchief sticking out of the pocket, a petit moustache, and greased back hair. Quite a scene.

Mr. Dibble wasn’t the greatest pianist and the singers were about two notches below what you would find at any given karaoke bar in rural Minnesota, where the Lutheran choral tradition predominates. But the singers were having a grand time, as was the 82-year old Mr. Dibble.

I asked if he knew any Willie Nelson. Dibble didn't. But Dibble did know Mona Lisa, so we struggled through that Nat King Cole classic together.

Busy by the Bay

This week's column is posted to the left. Friends I met on the baseball tour last summer have been giving me great tours of the Bay area. I have been having so much fun I haven't had time to post reports about it all. Tomorrow night, I plan to check into a small hotel in a small town in northern California where I will sit down and write up some more detailed updates.

Baseball makes for good friends! On Friday, Greg, who I met on the baseball tour, took a whole day to show me as much as we could see around the bay area. Rene has hosted me the entire weekend despite having a miserable cold. Last night we went to see a movie at a theater which has an old Wurlitzer theater organ. Today, the Hartmanns from San Mateo took me out to the coast for a meal of seafood and some sightseeing. Thanks, guys! What a great time.