Archives for posts with tag: driving

As noted on their license plates, the State of Maine is known as Vacationland. And now I know why.

Rachel and I have driven up to Rockport for the weekend (we’re mixing Rachel’s business and our vacation) and have discovered that the Maine coast is just one big family resort. The woods and forests are pristine, the coastline long and scraggly, and the air is clear and fresh. There are also some good restaurants here (lobster, anyone?).

But, most of all, the climate is perfect. Here we are in the middle of August—the summer’s peak, really—and the midday temperature is in the mid-70s. That’s warm enough to wear shorts and a tee shirt with no worry of overheating. It might be as humid as it is at home (that would be due to the proximity of the ocean) but it’s so moderate in temperature that it feels comfortable.

In short, the weather is perfect for spending the entire day outdoors. Anything that can be done outside is at its best when done here: Hiking, boating, swimming, cycling…

…and gardening.

It turns out that there are many lush gardens in Maine. Most of the houses we’ve seen have a plot of vegetables or flowers—or both—in their yards. And a garden center near our hotel is one of the biggest I’ve seen anywhere, with an astonishingly diverse assortment of growing things. Who would have expected it?

Not me. I always thought that with its short growing season and cold, icy winters that Maine would not be ideal for gardening. The climate (I figured) might be suitable for evergreens and chrysanthemums but not tomatoes.

What I failed to consider is that although the growing season may be short, the growing day is long. Sixteen hours of sunlight per day, it appears, more than makes up for the loss of May and September.


When I was growing up in the Central Valley of California, I often eschewed the agricultural aspects of life there. My hometown of Davis is relatively large (if not the largest) compared to other towns in Yolo County and, more significantly, is host to a campus of the University of California, for which both of my parents worked. Yes, UCD is an ag school—it was originally known as the Farm—but for us it represented the intellectual side of life and it was in this direction that I was aligned.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to better appreciate the valley’s agricultural heritage. And since starting a backyard vegetable garden three years ago, my understanding of and appreciation for farming and the industry as a whole has been steadily increasing. So, while visiting my family this weekend (we were long overdue; see October 19, 2012; October 21, 2012; and October 24, 2012 for tales of our last trip), I decided to embrace my inner farm boy and take in a couple of the agrarian attractions that the valley has to offer.

Our first stop this morning—with my brother along—was the Heidrick Ag History Center in Woodland, the seat of Yolo County. Housed in two large warehouse buildings and connected by corridors at each end which create a central courtyard, the agricultural museum tells the story of farming in the valley through an expansive collection of farm equipment and associated lore.

The artifacts span more than a hundred years in age and include manual implements, horse- and mule-drawn plows and wagons as well as tractors and harvesters powered by steam or diesel engines. The steam-driven tractors are particularly impressive. One example has drive-wheels that are eight feet in diameter; its boiler is the size of a small shed and its chimney reaches almost to the ceiling. It must have been a wonder to behold when new.

The east building was chock-full of equipment, all impeccably restored and painted in bright colors. (The tractors would have been fun to climb on, had it been allowed.) The west building had previously housed a collection of antique trucks but its owners (who rented space from the History Center) recently moved it to another facility. Sadly (and inexplicably), I did not take any pictures.

Our second foray took us into the heart of the valley itself. The Yolo Bypass is a narrow but huge (hundreds of thousands of acres) strip of land running north-south between the cities of Davis and Sacramento. Parallel to the Sacramento River and surrounded by levees, the bypass acts as a detention pond for excess river flow that would otherwise flood the valley and its cities. After filling with water, the bypass slowly drains into the river downstream and thence into the delta.

Within the bypass is the Yolo Bypass Wildlife Area, almost 18,000 acres of protected wetlands which are home to a variety of aquatic and avian species. Wet is the operative word here because even during drought years (of which California is in its third straight), the bypass is periodically flooded, either to support the rice crops that are grown there or, in periodic fallow seasons, to support the wildlife.

In my memories of childhood, the bypass quickly filled and remained full—an inland sea, complete with waves and breakers—every winter. In more recent years (and, given the unreliability of my memory, probably most years), the water levels have been relatively low and the flooded areas distributed among the patchwork of rice fields that make up the bypass.

It rained all day yesterday (not great for visiting but a relief to everyone who lives here) and consequently, the ground was muddy and slippery. We could have parked the car and walked but, feeling lazy on a sunny Sunday morning, decided to drive the auto tour which winds its way along intermediate levees. It was dicey in spots and we could feel the car floating on a layer of muck. But had we chosen to walk, we would have sunk to our ankles, if not deeper.

It was calm and serene despite the fact that Interstate 80 crosses the north edge of the Wildlife Area on an elevated causeway. And lest we think that we were truly in the wilderness, the Sacramento skyline loomed to the east. Both the freeway and the city are good reminders of how California’s population is linked to the agriculture on which its success is largely based.

So, the melting has begun.  It is going slower than I expected, mainly because it remains very cold.  Even on a day as warm as today—with a high in the 50s expected—the snow only melts at the fringes of the still-covered areas, where solar radiation heats the pavement, or roof shingles, or exposed rocks, and the heat absorbed slowly conducts its way under the snow (snowpack melts mainly from its underside).  The few warms days we’ve been lucky enough to enjoy have been bracketed by nights with temperatures in the 10s and 20s.

As the drifts recede and the heaps shrink, the world is expanding again.  A month ago at the height (literally) of the season, we were hemmed in by a thick blanket of snow and the towering moraines left by snowplows and shovels.  Our narrow dirt road, constricted at the best of times, became truly one lane; passing a car in the other direction was tricky.  Simply walking around the house was impossible.  It was not necessarily an uncomfortable constraint—the minimized outdoor world was cozy in the way that a small room can be, or as cozy as snow can be, anyway—but it was very limiting.

Now the road is back to its normal width.  The stone walls that border it are again visible, as are the rocks that have fallen from them here or there.  Mileposts, “for sale” signs, political posters—most things shorter than four feet in height—have emerged from hiding even if they are somewhat the worse for wear, having been shoved around by unknowing snowplow drivers.  Indistinct white lumps in the lawn or on the patio have morphed back into landscaping boulders, chaise longues, and charcoal grills.  In the distance, the hills have lost their understory of white and the bare trees, once standing out in sharp contrast to the snow, have faded into a uniform brown background (we have few evergreen trees around here).

In short, the accessible environment is returning to its normal state.  Time to embrace the great outdoors again!

One of the must-see attractions on Maui is Haleakala National Park, the site of a dormant volcano at the center of the island.  A popular itinerary involves driving to the summit before dawn, catching the first rays of the rising sun (well before it reaches sea level, 10,000 feet below) and then cycling down the narrow, windy park road to a well-earned breakfast.

We wanted to see the park again this trip but even the idea of getting up in the dark held no appeal.  After consulting with our friends, we decided to go there for sunset instead.  This allowed them to spend the morning on the beach (while we were exploring the Dragon’s Teeth Labyrinth; see February 26, 2013) before we met in the early afternoon to drive up to the park.  On the way, we planned to stop by the Surfing Goat Dairy and the Alii Kula Lavender Farm.

To make part of a long story short (unusual for me, I know), the goat farm was less than exciting (to be fair, we did not take the tour) and the lavender farm was just closing when we arrived there at 4:00 pm.  But the weather was beautiful and because our friends had rented a convertible, we were able to enjoy the drive with the top down.  Getting there was at least half the fun.

It was late in the afternoon as we started up Highway 378 towards the park entrance.  As we climbed in elevation, the air grew cooler and, eventually, we had to put the top back up (convertibles work well for the driver and front-seat passenger; for those in the back seat, the effects of weather are amplified by the fast-moving air).  When we were still a few miles away, we entered the clouds that seem always to cling to the upper slopes of the mountain.

The entrance to the park is at about 7000 feet of elevation (for reference, this is the same as Donner Pass and Echo Summit, the two main highway crossings through the Sierra Nevada).  When we finally arrived, we were deep into the clouds; it was rainy and dark with passing squalls.  In this weather, sunset would not be visible and we weren’t sure we wanted to go on.  But the informational signage kindly provided by the National Park Service reminded us that conditions at the top are often different from those at lower elevations.  Encouraged, we paid our fee ($10) and proceeded.

We had forgotten two things from our previous visit to Haleakala (for sunrise) in 1989.  First, the summit is a long way from the park entrance:  about 10 miles of narrow, windy road and another 3000 feet of elevation.  Reaching the park entrance gave me the feeling of having arrived but we still had another half-hour of traveling ahead of us.  Getting there might turn out to be more than half the fun.

At about 9000 feet of elevation, we popped out of the clouds—like an airplane reaching cruising altitude after taking off on an overcast day—and into the sunshine.  It was an exhilarating experience.  The summit is above the tree line (in truth, not much else grows up here) and the terrain is otherworldly.  The rocky terrain and absence of vegetation makes me think of photos of Mars and being above the clouds adds to the sense of being in a place not exactly of the earth.  It felt more like being on the edge of an adjacent planet, looking down over the clouds at the ocean and low-lying lands of Earth below.

The second thing we had forgotten about the summit is that it is cold up there!  The ambient temperature was a brisk 40 degrees and with wind chill taken into account, the effective temperature was well below freezing.  It made taking photographs difficult.  None of us had brought appropriate gear and so, with an hour left until sunset, we opted to head back down the mountain and enjoy it from a lower—and warmer—elevation.

We were planning a trip to the city today but an unexpected consequence of Hurricane Sandy is that gasoline is in short supply.  Apparently, many of the stations in New York City and New Jersey are completely depleted and either cannot get deliveries or cannot pump the gas (due to power outages) if they do.  The stations here in town have been getting daily deliveries but shortly afterwards, long lines form and they quickly sell out.  We decided to take public transportation to the city (instead of driving) but went out to investigate the situation farther north.

We found gas in plentiful supply in the next town up.  After filling our tank (not an act of panic; it was less than half-full), we drove home along the river to see what was happening on a sunny fall Sunday.  We found another farmers’ market that had set up in the train station parking lot.  This market has a different set of vendors from our own Saturday-morning market (the baker was the only one who did both) and could come in handy as a back-up.

We also discovered a small park that we had never noticed before (its entrance is on the river-side of the railroad tracks).  It looks to be new and very contemporary in its design (it is not far from Dia:Beacon and shares a similar aesthetic).  The park houses a boathouse (serving a small boat basin) where kayaks are stored.  The structure must have been inundated during Hurricane Sandy.  Two paddlers were emptying the boats of water and debris as we walked by.

The park also includes a pier that juts into the river between the boat basin and what might be called a lagoon.  From there, a path extends south along the railroad tracks.  We didn’t have the energy to hike to its terminus but vowed to return again for another expedition.

It’s almost Halloween and we don’t have a Jack O’Lantern.  In fact, we don’t have any pumpkins at all.  Although the weather outside is less than inviting, a trip to a local pumpkin patch seemed in order.  We haven’t been to one in many years, having purchased pumpkins at the farmers’ market or supermarket the last few Halloweens, and remembered a place just a few miles north of us.  After checking Google Maps to remind ourselves where it is located, we set off in that direction.

Our destination was Fishkill Farms which is located, in what seems to me an unlikely spot, near the intersection of US Route 9 and Interstate Highway 84.  Well, the turnoff is located at this most unfarmlike location at the edge of a commercial and warehouse district typical of highway interchanges.  The farm itself is a few miles away, closer to the Taconic State Parkway.

The small road quickly wound its way up and away from the town, over a ridge and down into the next valley.  After a few turns, we found ourselves at the edge of a large clearing over which the fields and orchards are spread.  The farm is surrounded by subdivisions on three sides where suburbs meet rural farmland.  We parked the car and quickly walked through the farm store (quite busy and crowded only three days before Halloween) and towards the pumpkin patch.

The first thing that struck me about this patch is that it is long and narrow, the equivalent of three rows of trees wide by at least a quarter of a mile long.  The second thing that I noticed is that an incredible variety of winter squashes have been grown here.  They range in size from baby acorns through the traditional pumpkins used for Jack O’Lanterns and up to the humongous varieties that are often entered into contests for largest specimen.  I didn’t recognize half of them.  This late in the season, with the vines withered and dead, it looks like the squashes were scattered around what was otherwise an empty field.

The third thing that makes this pumpkin patch interesting—and another consequence of the late date—is the equally diverse variety of molds that have sprouted on many of the gourds.  The pumpkins have been sitting here for weeks in the rain and damp and many have started to rot.  They make a fertile medium for funguses and other icky growths.

We soon found our pumpkins—they spoke to us in the same way that Christmas trees do—and started back to the store to pay for them.  On the way, we passed a mobile chicken coop (similar to those we saw at Glynwood Farm) and then walked along a row of apple trees.  The fruit had already been picked and the fallen and discarded apples scattered on the ground had begun to ferment.  The sweet (and slightly sharp) aroma added another sensory element to the beautiful fall tableau.

With a bit of free time between visits with family—a beautiful picnic in the park with my brother yesterday, breakfast with my sisters this morning and dinner with Mom tonight—we decided to take a leisurely Sunday drive.  We’ve been renting cars from Hertz for many years and sometimes, they give us a free upgrade.  Usually, they offer us a larger car than we asked for, a full-size sedan, say, or an SUV.  And usually, we decline it.  We don’t like to drive large vehicles and they are harder to park.

But on this trip, when we arrived at the lot, we found a 2013 Ford Mustang waiting for us.  What a treat!  Zero to 70 in no time (it is powered by an eight-cylinder, 420-HP engine, my sister later informed me) with very responsive handling.  Attractive, too.  It is the only car I’ve ever driven which draws admiring stares from the people we pass (young men, mostly).  Of course, it is not very practical (with only two doors and no back-seat legroom, it does not accommodate a large family) and probably guzzles gas.  A nice car to rent but I wouldn’t want to own one.

We pointed the car in the direction of the coastal foothills between the Central and Napa valleys.  As we passed through the eastern edge of the vast alluvial plain that is the agricultural heart of California and began our ascent into the Vaca Mountains, the terrain became increasingly rugged and dry.  Farmsteads and croplands gave way to rolling slopes of buff-colored grasses (parched after a long, hot summer) dotted with scrub oak and sagebrush.  It is a landscape of austere beauty that only a native son (or daughter) could love.

It is not until several miles beyond Lake Berryessa that the woods thickened, the topography steepened and we got the feeling of being in the mountains.  The twists and turns of the narrow highway posed a test to my driving skills and the car’s handling.  The road felt more closed to the sky and sections extended beneath a canopy of outstretched tree branches, many of them draped with thick strands of Spanish moss (apparently, this was a good year for the bromeliad).

But this is wine country and wherever the road left a space between its shoulder and the foot of the adjacent slope, some enterprising winery had installed a vineyard.  I like the appearance of vineyards—especially the newer, strictly rectilinear variety with their regularly spaced rows of carefully pruned vines—and delight in finding vest-pocket versions in seemingly unlikely places.  Based on the prices of land in the valleys, however, it is not really surprising that some growers have chosen to invest sweat equity into small plots with difficult geography.

Apparently, our visit occurred shortly after harvest time as none of the vines we observed still bore any fruit.  In fact, the grapevines had started to turn color, replacing the deep red or luminous green of the grape clusters with bright yellow and red leaves.  If we had continued our drive into the Napa Valley, we would have found the air heavy with the yeasty aroma of primary fermentation.  From a sensory point of view, it is a good time to be here.

Deep in the woods and near the peak of the mountain pass, we found Nichelini Family Winery.  The property was homesteaded in the late 1800s and the winery was founded shortly thereafter.  It is still run by the family (currently on its sixth generation) and we enjoyed a tasting and history lesson from Phil Sunseri, a fourth-generation Nichelini.  We had the place to ourselves (one benefit of visiting early on a Sunday) and took a short tour of the property—wineglasses in hand—to see the original 12-foot by 12-foot homestead cabin.

We ended up buying three bottles of wine (how could we resist?) and when we got back into the car, decided to quit while we were ahead.  We turned the car around and headed back towards home wondering how on earth we were going to get our wine back to New York.

We’re visiting my family in California this weekend.  One of my sisters suggested a day trip to Santa Cruz (her daughter is considering a transfer to the University of California campus there) and we jumped at the chance.  Rachel lived there for five years while she got her PhD and I joined her for the last two of those years.  We have many fond—if somewhat fuzzy, after 25 years—memories of the town and campus.

We made an early start, setting off on the three-hour drive a little after 5:00 am (when we travel west, jet lag actually works in our favor).  The first two-thirds of the trip were on Interstate Highways 80 and 680, roads that have become so popular (if that’s the right word) that they are trafficky at any hour of the day.  Still, we made it to San Jose before the morning rush began in earnest and crossed over the Grapevine (California Highway 17) into Scott’s Valley and then Santa Cruz without much trouble (easy for me to say, of course, I was not driving).

We arrived at 8:00 am which was fortunate because that is when Harbor Café opens for breakfast.  We frequented this joint when Rachel lived here—it is just down the street from a former apartment—and we were relieved when a web-search confirmed that it is still in business.  The day before we left home, we spent an afternoon looking things up on the internet and there were some disappointments (our favorite Chinese and Italian restaurants, for instance, closed long ago).

After a hearty breakfast, we made our way up to campus.  It appears to be mostly unchanged—still beautiful and serene, nestled amongst the coast redwood and eucalyptus trees—but it is noticeably more crowded.  When Rachel was attending UCSC, College Eight consisted of one building; now, additional classroom buildings and dormitories have been built around it.  Two new colleges, imaginatively named “Nine” and “Ten”, have been constructed as well.

From there, we drove down the western edge of town—stopping by another former apartment—to Natural Bridges State Beach.  I’ve mentioned it before (see May 27, 2012) and have been thinking about it more since reading some of the recent posts from Late Bloomer (see, for example, “Monarchs and Milkweed—Episode 16”).  A eucalyptus grove adjacent to the beach is the winter destination of Monarch butterflies who migrate from the Rocky Mountains.  They start arriving in October and by late November, there will be thousands of them hanging from branches, clustered together for warmth.

When we first reached the end of the boardwalk which traverses into the heart of the grove, we did not see many butterflies.  There were only a dozen or so early-birds flitting between the limbs of the eucalyptus trees and the occasional laurel.  But as we stood and watched, our eyes adjusted to what we were seeing, not unlike when stepping into a dark room after being out in the sun.  Gradually, we could begin to make out the wings of Monarchs that had alit on the overhanging branches.

When resting, Monarchs fold their wings together so that only the undersides are visible.  The brightly-colored topsides are hidden and the muted undersides blend in with the pale, tan-colored eucalyptus leaves.  The effectiveness of this natural camouflage is increased by the dim lighting caused by dense coastal fog.  When the fog burns off in the afternoon—always a magical moment—the Monarchs should be easier to see.

It’s hard for me to say because my memory is vague (at best) but it seems like the boardwalk (the one on the Monarch trail, not the famous one on the main Santa Cruz beach) is farther from the butterflies than it used to be.  I can recall being practically within arm’s reach but now, the nearest branches are twenty feet away.  Of course, this is probably a good thing.  The Natural Preserve is visited by many people—including busloads of field-tripping school kids while we were there—who could still be a nuisance to the resting Monarchs, even when using their “butterfly voices”.

In spite of yesterday’s excitement, we made it safely to Seattle.  We decided to forgo renting a car this trip and instead have been using public transportation which is quite extensive.  Travelers here can choose between buses and light rail (among the more mundane modes of transit) or the monorail and ferries (of the more exotic varieties).  To keep payment simple, they have instituted a farecard system called ORCA (for One Regional Card for All) that works on most of them.  It is like a debit card that you load with money (electronically) and then tap against a reader as you board or exit a bus, train or ferry.  It also simplifies transfers within and between systems.

Photo by Rachel

So, after dinner at Revel (“urban-style Korean comfort food”) in the Fremont neighborhood, we planned on taking the bus back to our hotel downtown.  Service is frequent (more so than the last time we visited, several years ago) but even so, we had to wait a quarter hour for the next bus.  The bus stop was near a taco truck about a block from the restaurant and as we stood by, we watched as a young couple approached the truck from a side street.  They ordered a couple of tacos and proceeded to scarf them down.

When they had finished their snack, they walked away from the taco truck and down the main street; when they reached Revel (the restaurant in which we had just eaten), they disappeared inside.  What was up with this, we wondered?  Why eat a taco before going to dinner at what we knew to be a nice restaurant?  With time on our hands, we gave this some thought and discussion.

Photo by Rachel

My theory was that because the restaurant does not take reservations and because the couple arrived during the dinner rush (still on east coast time, we had eaten unfashionably early), they loaded up on calories to carry them through the wait, which they expected would be long.  By the time they were seated (the couple would have rationalized) they would be hungry again.  The food is worth waiting for but why suffer, right?

Rachel had a different take on the situation.  She hypothesized that the couple were meeting others at the restaurant—new acquaintances, perhaps—and either did not care for Korean food (which is boldly flavored and not for people with timid palates) or felt that the prices were too high to make a full meal economical.  With a cheap taco or two in their bellies, they could order minimally and pick at their food, all the while remaining sociable with their dining companions.

Photo by Rachel

Or maybe they were just a couple of gluttons.

We’ll never know.  After a few more minutes, our bus arrived and we focused our attention on getting home.

While eating breakfast at a nearby diner (a recent and welcome addition to our greater neighborhood), we noticed many RVs passing this way and that, most of them with cars, scooters or bikes on racks or in tow (one fully-equipped vehicle had all three!).  My first reaction was wonder that the denizens of this town are so mobile or perhaps, I mused, they just like to be prepared to make a quick getaway.

But then I remembered that the diner is near a freeway offramp and that most of the people in the RVs are probably on their way to or from somewhere else and, like us, only stopped here for breakfast.  To me, this stretch of highway is the road that connects our town to the next.  To people driving on the interstate, it is easy on-and-off access to food, gas and lodging.

Rachel suggested that some of these RVers may be in a continual state of going somewhere, a group for which getting there is all the fun.  Many of the campers looked to be older and one approach to retirement, I suppose, would be to liquidate most of one’s possessions—including the house—and invest in a comfortable and well-provisioned RV.  Then, all of one’s time could be spent roaming around, seeing new places and making new memories.

The idea is not without its attractions.  I sometimes feel weighted down by the material goods in my life, too many things to store and maintain and way too many to be enjoyed at once.  Do I really need all of it?

And certainly, there is no shortage of places I’d like to visit in this country, not to mention Canada and Mexico.  Rachel and I took a driving tour of the country in the summer of 1985, looping north as we traversed from west to east (we lived in California at the time) and dropping south to return home after visiting Rachel’s parents in New Jersey for a few weeks.  We covered a lot of territory but it was just a beginning.  It’s a big country we live in.

Nonetheless, although one might meet many interesting people in many diverse places, one would not likely make any deep connections and even if one did, after a short period, it would be time to move on.  It’s would be a lot of reaching out and embracing but also a lot of leaving behind.

Rachel and I agreed it would not work for us and both came to the same conclusion, almost simultaneously, that we need to feel rooted, just like the plants in our garden.  We enjoy traveling and hope to do it always.  But we will always need a place to come home to.