Monday, June 15, 2009

San Francisco, Tahoe and a Late Night Visitor

Eviction notice in hand, we turned North out of Malibu and headed back up the Pacific Coast Highway. We spent a night deep in the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest, waking up above the clouds after a night so still that we barely heard a single leaf rustle as we slept under a blanket of stars with the roof of our tent open. From there we spent one night at a motel on the beach in Cayucos (where we could see gray whales from our room), and then back to Big Sur for a night which affirmed my burgeoning affection for that most inspiring stretch of coastline. From Big Sur, it was on to San Francisco.

I had been a little bit nervous at the trip's outset about spending time in large cities with so much of our material lives packed into the car. I have come to realize, however, that there is not a car alarm on the planet that can hold a candle to the AMC system that I had installed in my '99 Subaru before Sarah and I left Victoria. AMC, of course, stands for "All My Crap." Our car is so loaded down at the moment that I can't imagine any nighttime prowler wanting to take the time to sort through our mass of blankets, bikes and bagels to possibly find a stray dollar bill under the floor mats. It's like sifting through the twisted metal on a redneck's front yard in the hopes of finding a stray gold nugget. You'd be better off stealing lottery tickets. With that piece of mind, we drove into the Bay Area on Tuesday night, June 2nd.

Our time in San Francisco was great. We did the touristy thing but catered to our own tastes, meaning that while we went to the Japanese Tea Gardens, we also made sure to pay our respects at Jerry Garcia's old house in Haight Ashbury (indeed, 710 Ashbury Street was where all of the Grateful Dead lived for a couple of years in the mid-60s). The Golden Gate Bridge, Alcatraz, Chinatown - we really made the rounds (almost entirely on foot) and made sure to breathe in the colourful houses, hilly streets and salty air as we went. There are three enduring observations/recommendations I took from my time in San Francisco that I feel compelled to pass on:

1. If you are ever on a road trip, of limited financial means, and need a brake job in San Francisco, make sure to go see Garry at Emerald Auto and Brake, 645 Judah Street. He will take pity on you and stop charging labour as he finds more and more that needs fixing with your car before he can let you take it on the highway again in good conscience.

2. Alcatraz was cold and lonesome, but the most sadistic aspect of punishment on the Rock would have been to spend your days locked up being able to see and hear people frolicking in their sailboats on San Francisco Bay. I think I would rather do my time at the center of the earth.

3. If you meet a kind older man named Danny with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Grateful Dead and mountain biking and he sells you concert tickets, the concert will have been made up and you will have likely just donated twelve dollars to the local meth trade.

With a fixed car we pulled out of the Bay Area on Saturday morning and opted to go inland again to Lake Tahoe, located along the California/Nevada border. After camping in the middle of nowhere on Saturday night, we arrived at the lake on Sunday and first spent time in Lake Tahoe City, a rather modest town on the lake's Northwest edge with all of the charm and slow-going of a natural (read: non-Intrawest) mountain resort. It was great. We decided not to stay in Tahoe City, though, and instead drove further down the lake to South Lake Tahoe.

The drive to South Tahoe was beautiful, up and down ridges overlooking crystalline waters of the lake's outer bays to our left, with towering pines to our right. South Lake Tahoe itself is considerably bigger than Tahoe City, and boasts more than its share of retail and nightlife...uuhhh...culture(?). The town also straddles the California/Nevada state line, and lest anyone get confused as to where that line is, two massive hotel and casino complexes can be found on either side of the street about six inches on the Nevada side of the border. High roller that I am, I stopped off at a blackjack table and won ten dollars while wearing my bathing suit. I still don't know why they didn't comp us a room.

We camped just outside of South Lake Tahoe in a campground that had locking metal chests - also known as bear-proof food storage - at each site. We didn't think much of it, as we have camped at several such sites on the trip, so we safely stowed our food for the night and climbed into the tent to read a little bit before falling asleep.

It was around eleven o'clock and we had been in the tent for about twenty minutes when we had a visitor. He wasn't around long - just running through our campsite for a few seconds - but his proximity to our tent made for one of the most intense experiences we've had thus far. Despite the brevity of the visit, there was no question that it was a black bear that had just run through our site. Not just through our site, but within five feet of our tent, as we confirmed in the morning when we figured out where he would have had to run in order to get between the tent and the trees. He was so close that we could hear his every snorting breath and feel the pounding of his feet - like a thoroughbred wearing work boots - in the pits of our stomachs. Indeed, we saw this bear. Perhaps not with our eyes, but with other senses that remained on edge for the rest of the night.

Which isn't to say that I was scared. I know that the bear would want no part of us, and that he would smell us in the tent and not come knocking. But I was definitely on instinctual alert for the next little while, and every sound I heard come across the still night air was another one of Yogi's cousins. A distant airplane was a flying bear. A rustle of leaves was a bear climbing trees. South-of-the-border rumbling in my sleeping bag was a bear who should have stopped at one serving of chili before bed. I felt like the prairie dog on his hind legs who just smelled a predator in the distance, and while there was never imminent danger to us (possibly even because there was no real danger), I relished the fleeting sentiment of vulnerability in the presence of a creature so awesome.

Feeling hard core after our brush with the big fella (whom Sarah heard again an hour later as we were dozing off), we packed up from Tahoe and decided to take a random left turn and head toward Las Vegas and the Grand Canyon. We spent a month in Vegas last Thursday night and have been in Zion Canyon, Utah, for three days on our way to the Grand Canyon, but all of that will have to wait for another posting.

Until then, please stow your food safely.




Your mother said...


Re: your numbered points

1. A good mechanic when you're on a trip is a good find. (I found one last week.)

2. We saw the centre of the earth (well, not really the centre, but truly underground) last week at Luray Caverns in Virginia. It was spectacularly beautiful, but I wouldn't want to be incarcerated there.

3. Last week at the wedding, the groom and his groomsmen wore green Jerry Garcia ties. (No one told us there was a concert-real or imagined-but the groom was going to see Phish three days after his wedding.)

Pretty good for sharing experiences vicariously, don't you think?

Great posting!

Chris said...

Ouch on number 3...

Are you for hire next year to guide this trip?