All posts by Steve Stern

Los Angeles to Home, the last lap: 7885.8 miles

When we got to Los Angeles last night, both Michele and I felt like we were home. As different as Los Angeles is from the Bay Area, they are closer to each other than they are to anyplace else. (One thing that Michele kept remarking on is how idiosyncratic each state is and how it is noticeable almost as soon as we cross a state line.) We started the day at Foxy’s Restaurant next door to our motel in downtown Glendale – where I had a couple of eggs with hash browns just like my dad used to cook – and then jumped on The 5 to go over the San Gabriel Mountains and up the west side of The Great Central Valley. 

We cross the Los Angeles River which, even on the first day of November, has water in it and I am reminded of walking along it last spring and…
thinking the river could be a major public asset.
The traffic is light going north in the morning. Just before we start up the steep grade into the mountains, we pass the Los Angeles Aqueduct Cascades Facility that aerates the water that has been in a pipe for much its 280 mile trip from the Owns Valley. The Aqueduct, completed in 1913 mostly by hand, with 142 tunnels, transformed Los Angeles from a small desert city of about 320,000 to a mega-metropolis of over four million (it also destroyed the Owens Valley as farmland and dried up Owens Lake, turning it into a dust bowl).  
I’ve been driving over the Transverse Ranges on this highway since 1959 when it was four lanes and designated US 99 (it was widened and became I 5 in 1968). While it might not look it…
this is an amazing piece of road building that tops out at 4,233 feet (Liebre Summit).
Once we are in the Great Central Valley, it is flat and straight for almost 200 miles.

Although it seems longer.
We get gas at Petro Santa Nella…
just before going past San Luis Reservoir and then Pacheco Pass at 1368 feet.
Then we are in the upper Santa Clara Valley…
through San Jose, going against traffic…
up 280, and finally…
Home, 7,885.8 miles later.


Phoenix to Glendale CA: Mile 7484.8

From Phoenix AZ to Los Angeles CA is about a six-hour drive straight west on what used to be  Interstate 10 but has, almost universally, become The 10. We start at a tick above one thousand feet, in Phoenix, and slowly drop to about a quarter of that as we cross the Colorado River at Blythe CA,  then we will slowly climb out of the Colorado Basin and cross into the Los Angeles Basin 145 miles later, around Beaumont, at about twenty-six hundred feet. All of this on a four-lane, or larger, divided highway rolling about eighty miles an hour. If driving on back roads through Georgia is like sipping an interesting beer, this is like a double shot of rye; fast and effective. 

The first section, Phoenix AZ to Blythe CA is about a 150 miles and it goes by like we are watching it on TV (TV with trucks, that is).

After crossing the river, the country started to feel familiar to me even though this was a new highway for me. All the maps say we are still in the Sonoran Desert but it feels like the Mojave to me, at least from the highway. I’m not entirely sure how the four primary American deserts are officially differentiated but I think it is, mostly, by their flora and fauna. However, there are other, less tangible, differences that give each desert its own personality.

 The Basin and Range Desert is the northern 7/8 of Nevada and the eastern 3/8s of Utah, this is the Cowboy Desert, think Cliven Bundy. The Sonora and Chihuahuan Deserts are the Cowboys and Indians Deserts (where the Indians are more real than the Cowboys). The Mojave is the Wacko Desert, think Area 51 or the mysterious glow in Repo Man. It is the home of the Mojave Spaceport and Death Valley and is the most extreme of all the North American deserts. It is also the most trashed, think Hinkly of Erin Brokovitch fame.  The Mojave is not for everyone but it is my favorite desert and driving up out of the Colorado Basin, it is starting to feel like home.

Michele noticed that we would be passing Joshua Tree National Park and since she had never been there, she suggested we get a to-go lunch at a Mexican place in Blythe that Yelped well, and eat it at a picnic area in Joshua which is about 75 miles up the highway.

The most noticeable geological features of Joshua are the softly rounded granite boulders which were formed when the Pacific Plate pushed under the North American Plate 250 to 70 million years ago. In the mountains, on the other side of the park, there are much older rocks that were formed about 750 million years earlier when the Earth’s plates collided to form Rodinia, a supercontinent before Pangeia. The most noticeable flora are the Joshua Trees which are – theoretically – only found in the Mojave but they are at a much higher elevation than we are, here the Ocotillo, which is Sonoran, is dominant. 

After a short walk past a California Palm grove and into the low hills, we were back on the highway to Glendale where we have a Chinese dinner at one of the best Dim Sum restaurants I’ve ever been to, Lunasia Dim Sum House.  This is our last night on the road. Only one more day to go!

The First Supermoon of December 2017

We decided to go to Twin Peaks in San Francisco to see the Super Moon and we got there just as the Sun was setting over a very pacific Pacific. But it was still about a half hour before moonrise which is what we had driven up for. I don’t understand that, I always thought that, on a full moon, sunset and moonrise were the same time but this was only a 99.8% full moon and that translates into a half hour time difference (I guess). Anyway, after the sun went down, San Francisco just glowed with its new brightest star on the skyline,  Sales Force Tower, giving the whole thing a magic touch.  The crowd seemed younger than Michele and me – Michele said that she thought the next oldest person was twenty years younger than her – and the melody of voices included German, French, and Chinese. I had the feeling that only tourists were on the hill with us and, if that’s true, it’s a little sad. The moon, however, was terrific.    

Show Low to Phoenix continued: Mile 7128.6

Our goal for the day had been to get to Taliesin West – Frank Lloyd Wright’s western architectural school, and, we were to learn, the mothership of the Wright cult – for the four o’clock tour, have an anniversary dinner somewhere in greater Phoenix and spend the night in the western part of Phoenix, so we could easily get to Los Angeles the next day. We made it to Taliesin with lots of time to spare thanks to Google Maps and Phoenix’s excellent highway and boulevard system. 

Phoenix has a series of highways around it which make for easy travel but keep the traveler from actually experiencing the city. This is a problem we had everywhere, when we spend only one or two nights in even a small city, there just isn’t time to get a real feeling for it.  
Once off the freeway, we were on boulevards lined with walled houses.

In 1968-69, I worked in Phoenix, part-time, as the Construction Manager on the John Gardener Tennis Ranch on Camelback but I never visited Taliesin West. Thinking about going there on this trip, I sort of wondered Why? I have been to Wright’s Imperial Hotel in Tokyo when I was there in the 60s but didn’t see the Guggenheim in New York or any Wright-designed house until later (except the Morris Shop on Maiden Lane in San Francisco, one of my favorite places). Thinking about going to Taliesin, I remembered back to those buildings as great. Now, after Taliesin, I still think they are all great but I had forgotten that they were really not very good. What I mean by that is that the buildings were great as sculpture, as showcases for Frank Lloyd Wright, but they were not very livable or, even, usable.

The Hollyhock House on Olive Hill is terrific and it is my favorite Wright house, so far, but I wouldn’t want to live in it; it just wouldn’t really be very livable without some major remodeling like opening it up to the spectacular view. The Guggenheim is another example; the expanding spiral that is the center of Wright’s design is striking from the outside – although, as I remember, there was a lot of criticism when it was built in that it didn’t fit in with the surrounding buildings, Wright’s answer was that everything else was bad architecture and he couldn’t be expected to match them – and makes a great entry inside but it is not a very good place  to show art (it is easy to get too close to a work of art and OK to see from across the way but impossible to see anything from ten steps back and the slant and curved wall don’t help). The Guggenheim is, however, a great place to see Wright’s particular genius and so is Taliesin.

On the way there, we made reservations for a tour which we picked up in the Gift Shop. The Gift Shop was one of the few shops we’ve been to on the trip that had more books than trinkets and the books were almost all on Wright. The only other architect that I can remember being represented was Louis Kahn.
There was much to admire at Taliesin but the tour guide was not one of them. The tour just didn’t click for us and I think a good part of that was the guide. 
 In 1937, Wright, with his third wife, Olgivanna, bought land in Arizona (for $3.50 an acre). He wanted to start a western version of his architectural school in Wisconsin, Taliesin Studio, as well as a winter home. He called it Taliesin West and the students would help build it. 1937 was the height – low? – of the Depression and, and despite having several major contracts during the 30s, Wright was pretty close to broke (well, broke for a guy with a house in Wisconsin and land in Arizona). At Taliesin, he had his students fill the concrete wall forms with local rocks both to save money and to showcase his use of local materials. I liked the use of rough concrete with the rocks, Michele didn’t (Wright’s students were the contractor and the workmanship was often rude and, I suspect, that better workmanship would have helped). 
Originally Taliesin was a winter encampment with stretched canvas for the ceilings/roofing. Changing the ceilings to fiberglass to accommodate air-conditioning is more practical but the design suffers for it, in my opinion.
A couple of months ago, as I remember it, Michele and Aston were discussing FLW and Aston said he didn’t think he was the greatest, that Wright didn’t compare to Le Corbusier because, among other reasons, Wright’s ceilings are too low and his rooms claustrophobic. After touring Taliesin, I think Aston is right.
The tour ended in a small auditorium – with great acoustics – where we were given a pitch to join the Taliesin Institute. I felt like I was being given a pitch to join a cult. It left me feeling a little ripped off.

We finished the day part of our day watching the sun go down from Taliesin which is when I took the picture on top. Wright was still there when the power lines were put in and he objected by calling his Congressman but he was old, the world had changed, and the power lines went in. After gassing up – at Cosco – we went to the Twisted Grove for a very good, but not particularly memorable Anniversary dinner. Then it was a short drive across town – on expressways and Interstate 10 – to a motel.  

A Thanksgiving weekend story

I just got a new book, Grant by Ron Chernow, and thumbed through it to find a couple of my favorite Grant moments. This one caught my eye during this season of both Thanks and National Anger at those who don’t agree with us politically or, even, morally. The story takes place in the McLean house at Appomattox, Lee has capitulated to Grant’s unconditional surrender demand, Grant has written a short Agreement in pencil with terms that surprised Lee in their generosity, and the pencil copy is given to Grant’s aid, Ely Parker, a full-blooded Senecan,  to copy in ink. 

When introduced to the swarthy Parker, Lee blushed deeply, eyeing tensely his complexion. “What was passing in his mind nobody knew,” Porter said, “but the natural surmise was that he first mistook Parker for a negro, and was struck with astonishment to find that the commander of the Union Armies had one of that race on his personal staff.” Another onlooker thought Lee momentarily offended since he believed “a mulatto had been called on to do the writing as a gratuitous affront.” Evidently, Lee relaxed when he realized Parker was a Native American. “I am glad to see one real American here,” he ventured, shaking his hand. To which Parker retorted memorably: “We are All Americans.”