Big Sur

Bixby Creek Bridge

What is there to say about the Pacific Coast Highway in the Big Sur region of California? Not much, really.

Except that it's one of the Most Beautiful Places on Earth, that's all.

Flowery view


Highway 1

Barbed wire

Cove with turquoise ocean




Spiky flowers that I don't know

Big Sur is the California that men dreamed of years ago, this is the
Pacific that Balboa looked at from the Peak of Darien, this is the face
of the earth as the Creator intended it to look. – Henry Miller

Point Reyes

Shark area! Sneaker waves?

Sunday afternoon we had dejeuner sur les dunes at Point Reyes, with fancy expensive slices of gravlax, about a pound of fresh, perfectly steamed and dressed cold asparagus, chickpea salad, and a bag of salt and pepper potato chips, purchased in the little town of Point Reyes Station.


It was good to stretch our legs and blow out the cobwebs, although the wind was fierce.

Point Reyes is a cape north of San Francisco, and a National Seashore. A raw and beautiful place.


Lauren explores the edge of the Pacific, which was anything but pacific. Watch out for sneaker waves, sis.

Dune flowers

Wildflowers were in bloom everywhere, down low, roots gripping the sand.

Drakes Bay

"Drake? Sir Francis Drake? The Elizabethan privateer? Made it all the way over here to the Pacific? In that little wooden ship? No!"



Amy and Lauren go to the Pixar premiere of Up

Here we are on the top deck of the parking garage behind the gorgeous old, renovated Art Deco Paramount Theater in downtown Oakland where we watched the premiere of Up with several hundred Pixar people and their dates, family, or friends.

I found the sleeveless slightly retro shantung silk dress at a shop in Berkeley, and the lightweight black overcoat at a vintage store nearby, both that day (Saturday). The blue band on my wrist is my admission.

I wish I had brought my camera, but I'm also glad I didn't lug it around. Sometimes you have to make a choice to take pictures of something or to actually Be There. Everyone looked quite beautiful and interesting.

The movie? I laughed. I cried. It was really, really good.

"You got in a laugh spiral at that one part," my sister noted.

The story deviates from reality in surprising, unpredictable, delightful ways. I sat there often wondering, where can they possibly go with this next?  And then they'd go somewhere I never imagined, and yet it makes a weird sort of sense, and it's wonderful and witty.

Also, for all the plot deviancy, the main characters and the themes are amazingly human, warm, and engaging – full of humanity.  Uplifting.

Pixar has made ten films now that were all hits and no money-losing failures. The winner's streak will not be broken with this one. I don't think I'm supposed to say much else about it.

"And you can't talk or blog about the movie I'm working on either," warned Lauren.

"What movie?"

Watching "Up" with the people who had worked on it and were so proud of it was quite special. For the wrap up party, we walked a few blocks to the also-vintage and striking Fox Theater. We had a lovely time.

UPDATE: I neglected to mention the delightful animated short film that preceded Up, and will appear with it in theaters: Partly Cloudy. Storks deliver babies, we all know that. But did you know animated clouds make the babies?

Read this about the short: Peter Sohn gives us an exclusive about the importance of Dumbo, his mother and animating clouds in directing his first Pixar short, Partly Cloudy.

Fun fact: The look of the boy scout stowaway in Up, Russell, is inspired by Pete Sohn.

Trailer UP

Mirror glass

Next morning I got up and got out of the loft to let my sister sleep, crossing the bridge to San Francisco and the immediate waterfront.

"You have a ridiculous amount of energy in the morning," my sister mumbled. Each day is a chance for something new! especially on vacation.

Pier in morning sun

A pretty place, a silver place, this San Francisco.

A very pedestrian city is made more pedestrian on Sundays.

They had blocked off one of the roads in this area and people were coming out to buy handmade art from vendors, walk dogs, bike, stroll with strollers, and dance around on roller blades.

Selling art

I bought a couple of necklaces made by a Japanese woman. Mostly I prowled around with my camera and a cup of coffee.

Look, look, look, was the word in my head.


I'm not often in cities.

Public art

Pretty cool, huh?

Ferry terminal, Port of San Francisco

I never saw so many well-dressed, well-fed, business-looking Bohemians in my life. – Oscar Wilde

You wouldn't think such a place as San Francisco could exist. The wonderful sunlight there, the hills, the great bridges, the Pacific at your shoes. Beautiful Chinatown. Every race in the world. The sardine fleets sailing out. The little cable-cars whizzing down The City hills. And all the people are open and friendly. – Dylan Thomas

Perpetual spring, the flare of adventure in the blood, the impulse of men who packed Virgil with their bean-bags on the overland journey, conspired – to make San Francisco a city of artists. – William Henry Irwin

Valley drive

Palm trees and a truck

One thing I did on this vacation is take photos that made me happy for no good reason. This is one of them.

Coming down, down, down out of the high desert east of Bakersfield on Friday morning, I stopped at the first real (big) farmstand in the southern San Joaquin Valley.

“When you get to Bakersfield, I warn you it smells like onions and oil,” said my sister the night before on the phone.

I was surprised by the pumpjacks all over, but had an inkling there would be a bounty of fruits and vegetables, having read The Grapes of Wrath.

And I actually liked the way it smelled, in that cultivated land, and the dry sunshine air.

Fruit array at Murray Family Farms

I bought a small sack of ruby red grapefruit the size of kickballs, ripe cherries that burst in my mouth like cherry supernovas, tiny soft thin-skinned yellow limes, and a bag of homemade kettle corn.

The agriculture in the Central Valley was on a scale I have never seen before, and nevertheless so tidily laid out, in orderly rows, trees pruned to perfection, vegetable squares in shades of green. Geometric and fertile at once. Cultivated.

Strawberries, asparagus, citrus, nuts, and so much more were ripe and fresh at hand.

Dear ducks

Can’t resist a petting zoo. Or a pecking zoo. This one was at Murray Family Farms.

I drove south of Bakersfield and north on the speedy Interstate 5.

I listened to campesino music for much of this portion of my drive, in honor of the many men in broad-brimmed hats in the fields and orchards. The music sounds a bit like variations on The Chicken Dance, but I was in the mood for it.

At the aqueduct

This is one of those photos.

Cars don’t rust here! And other amazing sights!

Tule elk, at a distance

I spotted the Tule Elk State Natural Preserve near Buttonwillow in my CA atlas and stopped at the viewing area. I affixed my telephoto lens to my camera and stood on a picnic table.

Tule elk are the smallest subspecies of elk. Sort of like elf elk. But still big compared to regular deer and other animals.

At the viewing area I chatted with a local farmer/ rancher. He was driving a white pickup truck – which I have decided is overall the most common vehicle in California.

The California Aqueduct

A brief photographic pause at a vista point off the freeway, Interstate 5.

It’s all about water in the San Joaquin Valley. They’ve got the sun and the soil and the skill, so just add H2O from the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Voila! the vegetable section in your grocery store.

California dreamin’

Daisy at the Bay Bridge between Oakland and San Fran

Busy! And internet access a challenge.

Embarcadero, this morning

More later today or tomorrow.

Death Valley

Dantes View, with Death Valley below

I am a puny, insignificant, mildly sunburned, mortal ant crawling on the surface of the earth. I am struck with awe in America's largest national park, gazing down at the hemisphere's lowest, hottest, driest point.

"Death Valley." You think low, hot, flat, 20-mule team, borax, dead 49ers, wear a hat and sunscreen and bring water, right?

What I didn't realize is that Death Valley is basically a rift valley surrounded by rugged mountains.  The mountains cast a rainshadow, and also trap the hot air rising from the valley's salty earth and cause it to circulate back down, making it even hotter.

Gazing down at the inferno

The elevation at Dantes View is 5,475 feet above sea level. It was breezy and in the low 80's, maybe upper 70's. The lowest point in Death Valley is -282 feet. It was 96 degrees down there.

But it's a dry heat.

Second hottest temperature ever recorded on earth was 134 degrees at Furnace Creek in Death Valley in 1934. I'm pretty sure you can cook meat at that temperature. (Hottest? 136˚ in Libya in 1922. So close!)

From Dantes View, I could look across the valley at Telescope Peak, elevation 11,049. It had snow on top. To the west a mere 76 miles is Mount Whitney, at 14,505 feet, the highest point in the contiguous U.S.

Earth, air, fire, no water

Coffin Canyon, The Devil's Golf Course, the Devil's Cornfield, Starvation Canyon, Badwater, Funeral Mountains, Burned Wagons Point, Surprise Canyon, Hells Gate. You can tell what they thought about Death Valley, those prospectors and ladies in bonnets in covered wagons.

There are all kinds of stories – strange, tragic, amazing. The problem with going west is that you're almost there and then all kinds of mountains are in the way. Think Donner Pass.

Furnace Creek ranger station and museum

This place is a repository of history, geological and climate info, and maps, with helpful rangers who let me charge my camera battery. A ranger I talked to remembered New Hampshire from hiking the Appalachian trail.

The clerk in the small bookstore apologized for asking for my ID with my credit card. "People's Republic of California," he said. "I live in Nevada."

There are date palms growing in the valley, parks and campgrounds, and a Shoshone Indian reservation. I didn't actually make it to the lowest point because the distances are so vast and I wanted to get out of the valley before dark.

I had a lamb gyro for lunch/ dinner at the 49er Cafe.

Zabriskie Point

Many tiny people also visited the park with me yesterday. Cars, rental cars, tour buses. English, French, German, Italian and Spanish spoken here. Plenty of room for all of us.

I also took photos at a touristy ghost town south of Death Valley. Will post later.

Cactus blossom

At the higher elevations, cactus and wildflowers were still in spring bloom. Here I am crouched down along the side of the road, getting ancient dust on the knees of my blue jeans.

Wish I had rented a sports car because you can drive really fast out in the Mojave Desert. But some of the mountain roads are a little hairy. Also, I was in a cell dead zone most of the time. What happens if I break down, I wondered?

"I was actually starting to get worried about you," said my sister when I finally called her from near China Lake. "How's that for a role reversal?"

Open road, free spirit

Like Steve McQueen, all I need's a fast machine. But the PT Cruiser is like a windup toy going uphill out here in basin and range country. I call her Bonnie. "You can do it, girl," I pat her dashboard.

I listened to hard rock, pop, Mexican, and country music stations, and a little evangelical stuff that was sort of entrancing and seemed to make more sense out here in this Biblical landscape.

Near Mojave National Preserve I tuned into 1610 a.m. and listened to the soothing voice of a lady park ranger describe the wonders and dangers of the desert. "Some people come out here just to be alone," she intoned.

Amen, I said.

The mortal ant, as photographed by the camera on a rock, with timer

The blogger finds she can be alone with herself, in a vast, lonely, beautiful, terrifying place, and not lose her mind. In fact maybe regain her mind, and heart, and return (next week, all to soon) to her family more loving and attentive and less bitchy and fried.

I did talk to fellow visitors agog with the wonders of the West, like a group of young Englishmen on holiday, heading to the Sierras next, and older folks paired in couples, geared up in good sturdy boots and sensible hats, calmly exploring.

I could do this for a month, but I'm in the pretty town of Tehachapi at the edge of the desert (at another Holiday Inn Express), east of Bakersfield, and I've got to race north to meet my sister at Pixar late this afternoon. And everything is so far apart in California.

Sand dunes near Stove Pipe

Crossing this part of the valley it was windy, with sand particles scouring the air, dancing with dust devils, washing ashore against the dunes, beached, and bleaching in the Death Valley sunblast.

All this salt and sun and wind and sand and no ocean. How strange.

Time to consult Google maps and my new California atlas for today's route. Andale!


I-10, east of Los Angeles, heading toward San Bernadino

Yesterday: solo, direct (standby) flight Boston to LA. 

I read Moby Dick, typed budget committee minutes, spied crop circles, snaking rivers, snow-capped mountains and red canyons below, and nibbled a $4 wedge of in-flight cheese.

On the shuttle bus to go rent a car, rummaging in my bag for a $1 bag tip, I realize my wallet is lost, with Everything in it.

Back to the airport, where I find a benevolent and competent manager who makes a few calls and discovers my wallet on the floor of seat 11-A of the 757 I flew in on… moments before the flight closes its doors and departs.

Stupidity followed by dumb luck! (Fortune cookie.)

"The funny thing is," I say to my sister in a cell phone call from the shuttle bus – my Oakland sister who texted to ask if I had arrived in the great state of California yet, "this is the exact sort of thing I'm worn out from dealing with with my kids, and the reason I need a vacation. Only I inflicted it on myself."

"Wow, imagine if you didn't find it."

"I thought of that. I'm hundreds of miles away from anybody I know."

"I guess your life would be really different."

"My life in LAX, sleeping on plastic seats, eating people's leftover muffins and salad wraps, and panhandling. And I can't even play any instruments or sing."

View from Holiday Inn Express, Barstow

Morning in the Mojave desert. Now that's the warm and dry I'm talkin' about. Dessicate me, o dry sage-scented desert winds! And next to the hotel: outlet shopping.

The hotel is nearly full. "We're not far from the National Training Center," says the girl at the desk. "Some government thing."

Why did I choose Barstow for my first night of spring mom-cation? I think America's great and only songline, Route 66, had something to do with it.

Flagstaff, Arizona
Don't forget Winona

Kingman, Barstow, San Bernadino

Oops, I'm going in the wrong direction! In a lollipop red PT Cruiser. (Hey, you don't get to pick the make of your economy car.)

My route so far…

View Larger Map

Stay tuned for photos from, mwa ha ha, DEATH VALLEY. I hope.

Won't you get hip to this timely tip:

When you make that California trip

Get your kicks on Route 66.