Wednesday, March 7, 2012
California Coast: II
Not wanting to get sucked too deeply into the big-city hubbub, we’d booked a room in Marina del Rey, where Western grebes drift among the tethered yachts. But the next morning, after a stroll down Santa Monica Beach, we headed back into town up Wilshire Boulevard to meet an old friend at the La Brea Tar Pits.
And what more perfect place could there be to meet? The smell of asphalt filled the air, though it was less pronounced inside the archeological museum, where gigantic skeletons of mammoths and sloths, reconstructed using bones extracted painstakingly from the tar, loomed at every turn alongside stuffed mechanical saber-tooth tigers feasting on hapless bears. While touring the museum I occasionally got the impression I’d stumbled into an installation by Joseph Beuys—especially when standing in front of a backlit display of several hundred nearly identical wolf skulls.
Our next stop was the Japanese Pavilion of the Los Angeles County Museum next door. Some very lovely pottery and scrolls depicting misty waterfalls and flowering plum branches. From there it was on to the museum’s modern art wing. It occurred to me at one point that LACMA might have the largest collection of dreadful Picassos in the world. Then again, the Braque hanging on the wall opposite was the finest painting I saw in any museum during our trip.
We soon made a strategic retreat to the museum café and continued our chat with Betty, who lives in Pasadena but seldom ventures into town—well, Pasadena is quite a town in its own right. We talked about jobs, California real estate prices, retirement, her relatives in Kentucky, budget cuts to various space programs at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (where Betty works), mutual friends back in Minnesota, and the high price of gasoline. The lowest she could find on her way downtown was $4.35 a gallon; perhaps I made her feel better when I told her I’d paid $4.89 in Beverly Hills.
It was 4 pm by the time we said our goodbyes and headed west up the coast through Malibu and on into open country. A quick overnight stop at the Clocktower Motel in Ventura (which continues its slow slide downhill, year by year) and we arrived at the harbor in Santa Barbara under blue skies at 8:30 the next morning.
What’s the hurry? Well, the whale-watching boat from Condor Cruises left at nine. We never would have found the place amid all the boats if I hadn’t asked a passing stranger.
“Condor Cruises? They’re the best. But they’re over on the other wharf.”
“We usually use Island Packers down in Ventura, but they’re not going out today.”
“Well, drive into this parking lot—you’ll have to pay, of course—and continue on through the second gate. It will open automatically. Park at the far end. You’ll see them half way out on the pier.”
We followed the man’s instructions and eventually spotted a large boat with Condor Cruises painted across the back. The office itself was unmarked. It was ten to nine when we arrived.
“The nine o’clock has been cancelled,” the young woman behind the counter told us. “But we might be going out at noon. Give us a call in an hour.”
So we wandered out across the sand and sat on a bench, looking across the harbor at yet another pier. Snowy egrets were feeding on the beach in front of us and a cluster of orange kayaks appeared in the distance out of nowhere—it was obviously a class of some sort. I suspect Hilary would have been very happy to join them, and we were both disappointed when we called Condor Cruises and found the noon whale-watching launch had also been nixed. (I was on the verge of suggesting that they might get more business if they put up a sign.) Then again, we had just saved a hundred dollars, and we decided it might be a good idea to book a room somewhere near the beach.
But first, a visit to the bird refuge we’d seen on the way into town. We parked along the highway and walked inland alongside the lagoon. A homeless couple came by and the man said, “Did you see the giraffes?”
Not sure whether the man's rungs went all the way to the top, I said, “Yeah, I saw them yesterday.”
“Why do they only come out on certain days?” his companion mused cheerfully.
Trying to humor them as we walked by, I replied, “Tuesday is definitely their big day.”
A few minutes later, as we looked out across the pond, we noticed that there were two giraffes standing in the brush by a chain-link fence just beyond the refuge. The Santa Barbara Zoo!
We spotted a pair of acorn woodpeckers in a tree alongside the path, and there were scads of ruddy ducks in winter plumage out on the water. Black-crowned night herons lurked in the grasses at water’s edge, and we could see cars streaming past on Highway 101 off in the distance. But more beautiful than anything, perhaps, was Santa Barbara itself, with its red-roofed buildings set off against the backdrop of bristly green mountains rising gracefully from the sea.