Wednesday, March 12, 2014

The Minnesota-California Connection

It’s been quite a while since we’ve had a good old-fashioned Minnesota winter—the kind we can be proud of, with vast heaps of snow, three-hour commutes, ice dams, leaky roofs, and neighborly conclaves in the dark around the snow-blowers. Temperatures remained below freezing, and often below zero, for weeks on end, and the skies were often brilliant both day and night as a result. Meanwhile, Packed ice created ruts on the freeways reminiscent of the patchwork of lakes and woods on Isle Royale.

In was so nice in these parts, in fact, that the snowy owls dropped down from the arctic in droves, though I never saw one. The closest I got was a snapshot taken by a client in Bloomington of one such bird perched on her front door railing.

The cross-country skiing was superb. We hit a few new trails in the course of the winter—the Minnesota landscape arboretum, the system at Itasca State Park (twice), Town and Country golf course, and Hiram ski trails south of Walker. And we visited long-standing favorites, too, such as William O’Brien State Park, Highland Park Reserve, and the Theo Wirth trails near our house in their myriad permutations. 

No one can accuse us of ignoring winter, or of hiding out. But in the end, we had a hankering to get away, and that’s what we did. (Nor were we alone. In early March, for the first time in history, all the parking ramps at the Mpls/St. Paul airport were full.)

We arrived in San Francisco at sunset, picked up our rental car, and drove over the mountains on a twisty road in the dark to Half Moon Bay, a half-hour away, where the green grass, 60-degree temperatures, and smell of eucalyptus reminded us almost immediately why we’d come.

The next morning, I looked out the motel window at a large Pride of Madeira shrub (echium candicans) loaded with conical blue flowers, and my heart sank into a puddle. This lovely creature is widely planted on the coast—it’s drought tolerant and doesn’t mind sea spray. Yes, it looks like a hot-house plant. And yes, we’d be spending the next week in one of the world’s mildest hothouses.    

I’d set up an itinerary to cover only three hours of the California coast—from Half Moon Bay to Salt Point State Park. We’d spend one night in San Francisco, visit the gardens and museums in Golden Gate Park, hike the cliff trail across the Presidio the next morning, then move north across the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County and on to the Sonoma Coast.

Much of the landscape follows a familiar pattern: long beaches below tall bluffs or cliffs, with breaks where the creeks wind down to meet the ocean. Further inland is a zone of sensuous hills covered with pastures and intermittent clumps of trees. As you rise further into the river valleys you reach the deep woods, thick with mosses and ferns, laurel and rhododendron, with redwoods and Douglas fir towering above, and California oak and alder filling in the middle story.

It had been raining for three days before we arrived, and the forest was wet. We hiked a mile or so up the Purisima Creek Redwoods Trail (starting from the Higgins Canyon Road, in case you’re interested). We observed banana slugs and a newt or two in the trail. Woodpeckers were chattering in the distance and winter wrens closer at hand. Mushrooms. Flowering shrubs we’d never seen before. This is what we’d come to do: luxuriate in the presence of growing things.

In Moss Harbor we made a stop at Fitzgerald Marine Reserve (lots of bushtits in the shrubbery, though the ocean “surge” had obliterated the tidepools).

By noon we were in Golden Gate Park, where we wandered the Tea Garden and the conservatory at some length, though we skirted the Georgia O’Keefe exhibit at the De Young Museum. I hope you'll forgive me for saying so, but it’s hard to cough up $52 to look at stale, stylized paintings of flowers after a morning wandering among genuine flowers glistening in the morning dew. But the pastrami sandwich Hilary had in the museum restaurant was seriously GOOD, and I was mesmerized by the huge David Hockney mulit-screen video montage hanging on the wall in the lobby.

The nine-story observation tower was also cool.

So this is how a trip goes. Up to Bodega Bay, back down to Point Reyes. Looking at things. Soaking it up. Meeting people on the headlands or deep in the woods. Whale-watchers, mushroom gatherers, house-painters on their day off.

We saw herds of Tule elk and fallow deer, a coyote, two bobcats, elephant seals, garter snakes, and a Pacific treefrog—the smallest amphibian on the Pacific coast.

The lupine were just barely coming into bloom. The blue-bottle likewise. The bishop pines were as statuesque as ever. The solitude on Kehoe Beach complete.

One day we hiked nine miles across Point Reyes from the trail center to Arch Rock and back, tacking on a few beach hikes later to wind up the day. On other days we may have hiked only three or four.

We saw seventy-five bird species, of which the most beautiful, I think, were the red-shouldered hawk, the cinnamon teal, the Western grebes, and the varied thrush ( a species I’d never seen before). We saw a hundred hummingbirds if we saw one. Allens or Rufus? Who can tell them apart?

There’s something cosmic about watching a huge flock of widgeons drift up Tomales Bay effortlessly with the tide in evening light. And something sublime about the quesadillas they make at Perry’s Deli in Inverness (with a quince/kale salad on the side).    


1 comment:

Lisa Borg said...

My, John and Hill, sounds just heavenly. We will hopefully be following in some of your footsteps on our trip which starts tomorrow. I can't believe you saw all that wildlife!