Michele and I went to Los Angeles to play tourist over a very long weekend. We had originally planned to go to see my sister in Albuquerque and then go down to Big Bend TX but I was not over my nasty little cold so we canceled out. But I did get better and now we had a couple of weeks with a clear calendar so we decided to drive down the I-5 to Los Angeles for the March for Science and to see Michele’s cousin Maureen who is fighting pancreatic cancer.
By the time we got to the Grapevine, over the Tehachapi Mountains, the light had started to fade, so we drove into the Los Angeles Basin in the dark. We did get to the Silverlake area just in time for dinner, however. The next day, the Friday before the March for Science, we went to see the Space Shuttle Endeavour; levitating over an appreciating crowd.
I went to Yosemite Valley, for the day, a couple of days ago. I don’t want to say that I was disappointed, because I wasn’t, it was a lovely, warm spring day and the Valley was Yosemite Valley at its best; majestic, serene, lots of water, and the dogwoods were blooming. It just wasn’t surprising. I’ve been reading alot of geology lately, about the Farallon Plate diving – or, subducting if you prefer – under the North American Plate and pushing mountains up all the way to the Rockies, and I’ve started to visualizing the change taking place in an relatable time. But, in real life, the change is taking place so slowly that we can’t see it – although we do feel it occasionally – and this Yosemite is the same Yosemite I first saw as a child in 1948, even if I don’t remember much of it.
About twenty years later, I first saw El Capitan – El Cap – as a sentient being and it hasn’t moved one inch from my first picture. And the best places to photograph El Cap haven’t changed either, the meadow where you can watch the climbers, looking down valley from another meadow across the river, the aptly named El Capitan View turnout, or the Tunnel View turn out. The pictures below, right and bottom, were taken on a trip to The Valley with Michele’s cousin, Marion Kaplan, during the Rim Fire when the sky was full of smoke and the valley somber, and the upper left on a drive through The Valley, late in the day, shuttling a car from the west side to the east side of the Sierras. The sky has changed but the walls have not. When I raise my camera to take a picture, I am struck by how many times I have taken the same pictures, most of them now sitting in Kodak Carousels in storage somewhere. That is not to say that, today, now, The Valley isn’t still screaming Take my picture!; it is. It still is one of the most stunning places I have ever been, even when it was smoked in, looking and feeling like Mordor. But it does raise the question, What is the point of taking pictures of Yosemite? I’ve sort of come to the conclusion that the only reasonable answer is To get a Selfie. Really, think about it. There are already hundreds of millions of pictures of Yosemite and the world probably does not need another one, but maybe, just maybe, the world needs a picture of us, either indirectly by showing our own interpretation of a place, or directly with a portrait. Either way, the picture is witness to our visit to The Valley, something to bring to show and tell. This day, when I got to Yosemite, they told me that Glacier Point had just opened for the season and, since that is one of my favorite view spots, I went there first. I was amazed at the volume of water in Merced and Nevada Falls…
and I could almost hear Yosemite Falls across the valley, it was just like old times. It was 59° at Glacier Point – which is amazingly warm in the sun at 7200+ feet – there was still snow on the ground, and, more importantly, the view has not changed in the last sixty years, so I went back down into warmth of the The Valley. One picture that I did want to repeat is of the boardwalk across the road from the Yosemite Valley Chapel and across the valley from Yosemite Falls. As an aside, now that I am walking around Yosemite, I remember two things that have changed during my memory. One is that there used to be a great view of the church, with Half Dome in the background, from the meadow next to the church, now trees – which I understand the Park Service planted – have grown up to block the view. The other is that Mirror Lake is now a meadow most of the time. End aside. Once I got to the boardwalk, the natural thing seemed to just walk across The Valley to Yosemite Falls, to hear its powerful roar and feel the mist. To simply let The Yosemite Valley of the Merced entrance me.
Last weekend – well, weekendish – we drove south through the Salinas Valley to Paso Robles (hereinafter called Paso to sound like a local). Paso’s recorded history goes back to 1795 when it was considered California’s oldest watering place, because of its mudbaths and hot springs, according to Wikipedia. Two years later, in 1797, the first vineyards were started in the area and, by the late 1800s, the area was already known for its Zinfandels. Now there are about 200 wineries in the area and the historic city core is booming.
It was our 22nd anniversary and for our anniversary dinner, we ate at Artisan in the old downtown area. The price was great and the dinner was good and we would have considered it much better if we were from anywhere other than the Bay Area and hadn’t just had a stellar dinner the Friday before. As an aside, there are not many downsides to living in the Bay Area – not counting cost, especially housing – but one of them is being spoiled rotten by the local dining. I remember going to New York, on a food and architecture pilgrimage, about the end of the 70s and being very disappointed. After eating at Chez Panisse, Poulet, and getting food to go from the Cheese Board Collective, old timey restaurants – like New York’s famous Lutece or the Kennedy favorite, La Grenouille – just seemed so old fashioned. End aside. This time, the disappointment – and disappointment is way too strong a word, the dinner was good, excellent really – was the result of just having had a pick up dinner at Mau in Oakland and Mau just seemed so much newer as in more au courant.
The next day, after a super breakfast at Kitchenette, we toured several wineries. In the rain! To me, the Paso wine country feels a little like Napa forty years ago. The 200, or so, wineries are not enough to turn the landscape into a wall to wall monoculture like Napa and most of the area is still open so driving around was more fun for me.As the day went on, I increasingly realized that I don’t particularly like wine tasting. Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against drinking wine, it’s just spending the whole day tasting with the expectation that we wouldn’t be there unless we were going to buy some of their wine that I don’t like. What I do enjoy is looking at the buildings and driving around the countryside , however. We ended the day with dinner at The Hatch where Michele had Chicken and Waffles and I had Ramen – with okra, collard greens, maitake, bacon, rotisserie chicken, and a pickled egg according to the menu – made with great local ingredients. As another aside, I had ordered the ramen for the ingredients, but the noodles were gummy and I realized, once again!, that folk food – for lack of a better descriptor, food like coq-au-vin or beef bourguignon or ramen – is not based on great ingredients but great technique to cover up problem ingredients. End aside.
We spent our last day, wandering around town and shopping like any red-blooded ‘merican – I got a new, Sterling Silver, loop earing, for only $2.68 – and then driving home the long way. We drove east on The 46 – when in Rome, blah, blah, when in Southernish California, I am agreeing to use the descriptor The in front of highway numbers – and then north on county roads, roughly following the San Andreas Fault. Whenever I drive around the Bay Area at anytime near Rush Hour I can easily slip into a California’s-too-crowded annoyance but out here, it’s almost empty. It could easily be everybody’s idea of Nebraska. When we turned north, towards Parkfield – famous for having a 6.0 earthquake about every twenty years – we started running with the grain. The valleys are wide and almost flat, bookended by low rounded hills, with nothing but the occasional ranch. As we cross the bridge into Parkfield, we are greeted with a welcome back to the North American Plate. Parkfield itself is a tiny road stop with a population of 18, most of them interested in earthquakes, I would guess.
Your best work is your expression of yourself. Now, you may not be the greatest at it, but when you do it, you’re the only expert. Frank Gehry
Before I went, I thought that the whole purpose of my going to Los Angeles was to see the Frank Gehry show at LACMA – the Los Angeles County Museum of Art – but, on the way home, I realized that the highlight of the trip was just being in Los Angeles for a day. Like many people – actually, most is probably more accurate – raised in Northern California, I was raised to look down on Southern California in general and Los Angeles in particular. We were taught that L.A. was crass, even vulgar, completely lacking the refinement of us Northern Californians.
As an aside, one of my favorite Northern v. Southern California stories is from Herb Caen, “Mr. San Francisco”, who quoted a well known bon vivant from Santa Barbara (which really is in Southern California even though we Northerners sometimes try to claim it). The Santa Barbaian, let’s call him Bon, told of a time he was in San Francisco visiting a schoolmate who was now a lawyer on Montgomery Street; it was summer and Bon was wearing a tan linen suit with white shoes, feeling very spiffy. As Bon was walking down Montgomery Street, he spotted two guys wearing sandwich boards that advertised a health food store. They were walking towards him, the one on the right was wearing a tomato costume under his sandwich board and the guy on the left was dressed as a carrot. He giggled to himself, thinking Only in San Francisco. As they passed him, the carrot leaned over to the tomato and said in a stage whisper, “I can’t believe that idiot is wearing white shoes on Montgomery Street.” End side.
I wouldn’t say that Los Angeles is totally unlike San Francisco, but they are atleast a third of a culture apart; the climate is very different, even the light is different, the standards are looser – and, if that sounds pejorative, it is because that’s how I learned it, maybe a better way to say it is that the culture is more open to innovation and change – and the chaos is amped way up.
This difference shows itself the most in L.A.’s streetscape and architecture. The chaotic grid covers hundreds of square miles and there are times when the out-of-towner has no idea where the particular disorganized spot where he/she/or it is standing is in relation to some famous landmark, identifiable place, or where they want to be. Every part of Los Angeles seems to be screaming for attention. It is this landscape and this light that educated the architects who matured in it. Yet, when Los Angeles wanted a Museum Of Contemporary Art, they chose an outsider, Arata Isozaki. He is from Japan and about as far away as they could get.
I don’t want to say that Isozaki is not a good, or even great, architect but when Michele and I went to MOCA about twenty years ago, we were very disappointed, it seemed too formal, too contained. Then we walked down the street to The Temporary Contemporary – now relabeled as The Geffen Contemporary at MOCA – which was a warehouse lightly redone by Frank Gehry and were delighted.
Somehow, as simple as it was, this museum was more L A and everybody liked it. Even the New York Times’ art critic, William Wilson, liked it, saying it was a prince among spaces that was all set to embrace whatever princess came round the corner. The space prompted, the Guggenheim to talk to Gehry about a remodel in a factory space at Bilbao for their new museum. That lead to the totally new Guggenheim Museum Bilbao.
As an aside, Gehry must have as much of a distortion field as Steve Jobs once he gets close. Many, maybe most, of his jobs started out small or as remodels and became bigger and more expensive. End aside.
With Gehry living and practicing in Los Angeles , the Museum still felt it had to go out of town to get a prestigious architect. And that is the rub, it seems finding or showing or using out of town architects is considered better – better as in more prestigious, in a we are a world-class-town way, I think – than using local guys. And that is not just in Los Angeles, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art hired a guy from Switzerland who designed a building that not only doesn’t fit in but doesn’t work very well. Sadly, it is not just in signature museums that the out of town syndrome reigns, it is also the art in them. I have been going to museums all my life – dragged would have been a better term for the first dozen years – and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was the first museum that really spun my beanie. It was on the top three floors of the The War Memorial Veterans Building – designed by Arthur Brown Jr, a local guy who also designed the City Hall – and it was full of art I had never seen before. Some of it was the permanent collection but much of it was small shows of local, emerging, artists.
That is not the case now (with some exceptions). The shows have gotten bigger and the artists have become more famous and often that means the artists are from somewhere else. I think the purpose of travel is to see a different place and the homogenization of art in museums, like the standardization of stores and restaurants, makes places seem less different.
As an aside, the only museum that I know about that fights this trend is the Oakland Museum. It only has local – by that, they mean California, so not local, local – art so the visitor is treated to a great Robert Arneson or a Michael McMillen,
rather than a mediocre Jasper Johns. And that is good, because you aren’t going to see any McMillion in New York, only great Jasper Johns. End aside.
When we left Fresno last Thursday, the Volkswagen still wasn’t repaired. Or, more accurately, they repaired the water pump only to find out that the radiator had started to leak and they would need until Monday to fix it. Since we had an Enterprise rental car – with unlimited mileage – for a week and Los Angeles was only about 425 miles out of the way, I decided to run down to Los Angeles to see the Frank Gehry show at the L A County Museum. To keep costs down, I was going to camp at the Carrizo Plain north of Los Angeles and go into town in the morning. Courtney Gonzalez volunteered to come along for company if we could take the time to visit her niece.
Driving south on 101 and the 58, California looked dry and the Golden Hills were a parched dun. As we got close to where we were going to camp – camp is way too grandiose, all we really planned on doing was throwing our bags down on a flat spot with a view – we saw a tarantula crossing the road, then another one, then several more, then lots more. It was a tarantula migration! and we were in the middle of it. Courtney said, We don’t have a tent and I don’t want to sleep out with tarantulas crawling over me in the dark. I didn’t either but I was still in denial, thinking we would soon enter a tarantula free zone in which we could sleep without worries. We didn’t. As an aside, I haven’t seen a tarantula, in the wild, since the fall of 1981 when I was moving into my Portola Valley home. That fall, I saw three; two near my home and one on a back road to Mt. Hamilton. In the thirty four tarantula-free years since, I would sometimes wonder at the oddness of that year of seeing tarantulas crossing the road and how it must have been a once in a lifetime event. Now Courtney and I were seeing hundreds and it turns out that this is an annual event. It is not a migration but late September to early October – in dry grassland areas – the males go hunting for girlfriends. Tarantulas live from six to twelve years, mate once near the end of their life and – presumably – die happy (sometimes, but not usually, the girlfriend will kill the male after mating). End aside.
Discretion being the better part of valor, we opted out of spending the night on the Carrizo Plain. Instead we wandered around for a while and then drove back to Civilization in the fading light. Fortunately, the late afternoon light was golden and I did get lots of pictures.