Monday, June 13, 2011

Soul Perspective 6/6/11

I woke up furious with the hotel manager for putting us into a highway-adjacent room. A consistent pounding, like wheels on pavement humming nearby. I hopped from the squeaky bed, tore open the curtain, not really prepared to do anything to make the noise stop, slid open the slider door and stood barefoot in total blackness.

No headlights. No cars. No movement of any kind that I could see. Yet sight was the only sense out of the five not bombarded by stimulation.

Immediately my skin felt the brisk wind whip down from the high rock walls. The peaceful aroma of cool, damp foliage clung under my nose. I breathed it all in and my taste buds tickled with the rugged taste of nature, earthy like stream water with a finish on the back-end reminiscent of the granola bar I ate earlier. My eyes still had nothing to consume – how could they, there was no light to be had in the valley that night; they had warned us snow clouds in the higher elevations might cover the normally vibrant starlight panorama.

But the sound quite specifically detailed the landscape. I closed my eyes and tilted my head to where Yosemite Falls crashed over the sheer walls and plunged into the valley. Even in total darkness, the sound outlines precisely where the waterfall spills into view, freefalling 1430 feet before colliding with a first rocky basin, then cascading another 995 feet to the valley floor. The booming comes from the water slamming into the rock, but not solely. If you listen at night, your ears will pick out different chords, like a complex musical piece played by an infallible orchestra. The distinct sound of rushing water echoes from high atop the cliffs; a subtle pop as the torrent bursts from land into open air. The wind current along the rocky face strums the falls like fingers across harpstrings, brushing stray water droplets from the edges of the chute. Each piece occurring simultaneously, the final harmony something otherworldly: regardless of how much it sounds like a 747 taking off.

I did not experience Yosemite’s other waterfalls at night, but having climbed atop several in daytime, I an assured that the auditory experience is the same as Yosemite Falls, the park’s most famous waterfall and the tallest in North America.

Don’t get me wrong, Yosemite’s ocular carnival is one of our nation’s greatest experiences. As you drive into the park from Route 140 you climb then descend a series of winding roads, ultimately spilling like one of those waterfalls onto a cliffside drive. The valley opens under the azure blue sky and for some reason the words to, “America the Beautiful” begin humming in your head. There are no amber waves of grain, but the purple mountains majesty was definitely on point. In the distance Yosemite falls crashes over the horizon, a miniature, silent sculpture of the real-life gargantuan. Along the top ridges that surround the valley, the park’s most recognizable rocky soldiers welcome you with proud dignity. El Capitan, Half Dome and spots of other falls can be picked out by an eager eye. Once on the valley floor, the roads loop to the civilized camps past the sights high above.

The waterfalls are the most impressive of Yosemite’s countless natural wonders. But be sure to time your visit right, because by summer’s end the snow high in the mountains has melted and many of these cataracts have gone dry. Late spring and early summer afford the most powerful falls, and because of that, the best reasons to scale to their summits. But make sure to stay in the Valley, regardless of what time of year. And be sure to book early – as in almost a year early. The valley accommodations are few, fill up fast (our lodge is booked solid through October), but the location, proximity to trailheads and the luxury of a shuttle bus to take you to them is priceless.

For a day hike, engage the challenging trip to the top of Vernal Falls, continuing on to Nevada Falls. Lying at the southeast corner of the valley, the trail also leads to the top of Half Dome, for those with the lungs and balls to attempt it. We never had the chance, due to that aforementioned snowfall. Half Dome’s summit was closed, the two cables that hikers must use to scale the final push up its curved, slick rock head weren’t even erected for summer season yet. 

But we went the almost 5 miles into a gulley, along a river between two mountains, around the back of the valley walls and up, up, up to the top of Vernal Falls. On my prodding, we followed the snaking river further upward, at one point jumping off trail to reach a hilly peninsula that granted us secret views of the valley below and the treasures up ahead.

At the base of Nevada Falls the terrain had an eerie similarity to the white, dry rock of the Badlands, only here there was very evident presence of water. We went hand over hand up countless inclined switchbacks, like Hobbits scaling Mt. Doom (and here I ask for no jokes about my wife’s diminutive stature or my referencing Tolkien; if you have a problem go read how he described nature, take out the mystical creatures and you’ve got a pretty accurate description of the Sierra Nevada mountain range).

Once atop, a little ways back the metal signs warn you that Half Dome is closed and any further would be futile, unless you plan to continue on one of the other 22 mile trails out of the valley and into the vast Yosemite wilderness. Our day hike didn’t really allow for that.

As you approach Nevada Falls you realize immediately that there are few barriers between you and oblivion. For most of the edge is a slow declining cliffrock, rounded just enough to give confidence and hesitant footing. A few trees cling at the precipice and highwire squirrels scurry up and down as if a fall into the ether wasn’t a claw-slip away. But you are a the end of a valley, the forest and river below sprawl out like spilt green paint. Birds big enough to spot but too far out to recognize catch the updrafts and simply float, debating whether they too want to climb up to the rear side of Half Dome, which is tucked around a corner out of sight, for the moment. And in that moment, you close your eyes and listen to the rushing water, so much closer than the night before when you were in total darkness on a patio, 1500 feet below this one’s cousin.

But the sounds are the same, amplified by proximity and natural cliffrock punctuation. There’s “America the Beautiful” again, playing in tune with the roaring, tumbling water. The effort to reach the summit is worth it. You know that there’s another way down; a nearly 4 miles along the opposite cliff wall, then into the forest through back country and more switchbacks.

At the top of Nevada Falls your legs burn, not from the sun that broke through but from the constant incline and granite footfalls. And you don’t care. Because there’s so much more to see on the way down – different views, different perspectives.

Yosemite is good at that – different perspective. From the trail back you see the rear of Half Dome, which the day before we hiked along a trail to Mirror Lake and sat in a meadow along the river staring up at Half Dome’s terrifyingly sheer face. Posters on the shuttle bus warn you of bears but up high on a trail the signs are severe, metal and urgent. Down on the patio, in inky blackness listening to Yosemite Falls and then two days later I climbed it, staring into the water face from a hundred yards and not thousands of feet.

Perspective. It’s what Yosemite offers each of your senses. A different perspective on the world you explore. What sounds like concrete highway is actually liquid majesty; just depends on how you listen. What looks like Yogi on a bus poster is really a sly, deadly hunter; just depends on where you’re hiking. When an easy trail is filled with people, further up the strenuous conditions thin the crowd; just depends how much you want the peace.

The perspective is of peace. Peace of mind. Peace of soul. Peace of nature. I took out my cell phone at the top of Nevada Falls because I wanted the shot as my background. As I stood with my arm outstretched trying to capture as much as I could, I cringed. I put the thing away quickly. The juxtaposition was almost vomit-inducing, moreso than the thin air and the dizzying heights.

Then I remembered taking a photo with my phone of the poster on the shuttle bus (which are totally worth taking around the park, by the way) that was next to the bear warning. On the poster was an enlarged photo of the valley as seen from Glacier Point at twilight, purple peaks disappearing into a multi-tiered pink sky. Superimposed in bold black letters: “Only the soul can comprehend what the eyes see.”
Perspective, indeed.  

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Columbus Curve - 6/3/2011

Right where Columbus Ave makes its sweeping curve, before the famous beat poet hangout City Lights Bookstore, is the nexus of the universe. A unique place where life converges in a way unaltered by preconceptions or prejudices. It is where cultures and countercultures collide head on like particles whizzing toward each other in an atom smasher. And all this at one San Francisco intersection.

Climb Columbus and you’ve scaled North Beach, a predominantly Italian neighborhood rivaling Boston’s North End or New York’s Little Italy for number of salami-hung windows. Cafes line the streets, gelato on every corner and the sweet tang of mama’s sauce wafting from any one of the umpteen ristorantes.

At its edge, North Beach buffers the beat leftovers (including City Lights), Alan Ginsberg seemingly still stepping over sidewalk cracks. There’s even a museum dedicated to the art form, appearing on the outside like an old time movie theater with uplit marquee and all.

But that isn’t the only marquee at the intersection. Underneath blaring neon lights lifesize photos of barely clothed women smile lustfully at unsuspecting tourists who were told the area had good Italian food. This red light district flows seamlessly back and forth with the beat poet museum and enforce counterculture seediness without so much as batting a single, heavily mascara-covered eye. Business must boom from the business district at the bottom of the hill, where one of the Bay Area’s most distinctive towers looms high in a skinny pyramid shape.

Exploring this area strips one layer off of San Francisco after another. The general feel may come as confusing to an outsider. But when you see the traditions intermingled, the people coexisting in bustling harmony, you understand that the city is one of understanding – or at least of minding one’s own business.

But not until you stand at this intersection and peer down Grant Street, which juts off the curve like a fortune tag from an unopened fortune cookie, do you really get it.

Row after row of Chinese lanterns were strewn zig-zagged down Grant Street, the main thoroughfare of San Francisco’s famed Chinatown. I traversed it once alone, stopping at most stores un-entered by tourists, such as the Chinese market that smelled like the dry fish flakes I used to feed my goldfish. I would have to guess that salty, heavily fishy smell came from the bins of dried brine shrimp and jars of dried shark fin. I’m uneducated in any of the other products lying en masse for purchase, and my single attempt to ask the store clerk proved fruitless (they didn’t sell fruit either). But the Wok Shop (you guessed it, woks only) was more helpful. She explained in broken English which wok I should buy, should I desire to lug home a cast iron piece with bamboo handle. A few doors down I read a sign that said Asian Art Museum and, seeing nobody entering, decided to enter. The first floor opened onto a spiral ramp, in the middle of which gathered a group of older Chinese men, huddled around a table occupied by an even older Chinese man. The eldest was painting Chinese writing on beautiful scrolls in deep ebony ink. The crowd watched, applauded and even tried their hand a few times. I climbed the ramp and looked down on the scene, few others beside me. The experience was mesmerizing, watching the crackled old hands skillfully draw the brush barely over the scroll, whisping it at precisely the right moment for maximum letter beauty and showmanship.

Of course, upon description to my wife, she had to see Chinatown for herself and we embarked on a few hour trek together the next day. Before we could even get through the gate at the other end of Grant Street, we were transported into another world. VitaLife Tea Shop is a must for anyone looking to meet the locals and drink away a few hours without the alcohol hangover.

Kenny, our tea master (correct term?) got us in with his sign promising a free tea tasting. But his flare and genuine enjoyment of his craft kept us sitting and sipping for two hours.

We must’ve tried a dozen teas – green, red, black, some to give energy, some to calm the muscles, even one that smelled and tasted like soggy brocolli, guaranteed to soothe arthritis.

“Tea is not about what you want. It’s about what you need,” Kenny said, his ponytail bobbing with each nod.

He wouldn’t allow sweetener, that’s forbidden and the English are, well, Kenny used a few unflattering terms for the way the Brits drink their tea.

But dare I say I learned a few things while on vacation? Our fellow daring vacationers and a couple locals sat alongside us, sipping and sweet-talking with our tea master. He turned the entire affair into a one-man show, knowing full well that the dozen shelves of mammoth glass jars filled with tea were not going to sell themselves. Especially the one high up (apparently tea, like liquor, gets finer and more expensive the higher the shelf), that cost $800 per pound. And yes, we did try some. I couldn’t taste the $800; maybe $500, but who knows, I just started drinking tea a few months back in London, so obviously what do I know?

“We lie,” Kenny said at one point, opining about men and their relationships with women. He did that quite a bit, tossing out his life philosophies garnered from the tea leaves. “I mean, look, I have a jar of tea called “Monkey Pick.” A monkey can’t pick a tea!”

He made sure to tell us that tea gives people a high, and pointed to the mother-daughter combo seated next to me and screeched, “Look, Mom is so high!”

After two hours, too much tea and a few tear-eyed laughs (Kenny at one point told an obnoxious visitor that the bathroom was outside, down one block, turn right and down one block then turn right into an alley and to squat there – and didn’t correct her until she was just out the door following his directions), Danielle and I floated out of the tea shop relaxed and happy.

We walked through Chinatown, off the beaten path and found a fortune cookie factory that let us go in and watch. We got free cookies for our spontaneity.

Ultimately we made it back to Grant Street and to the top where it pierces Columbus. Danielle stopped short and took in the myriad cultures that bombarded her all at once, from Italian to beat poet to gentlemen’s club. We breathed in the last bits of Chinatown and, perhaps a bit high from the tea, looked across the crazy counter-culture intersection. Down a side street I hadn’t previously noticed, near an Italian place and a strip club, sat a Mexican taco joint, as welcoming and welcomed as if it were part of the neighborhood.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

A $.25 Execution - 6/1/2011

Witnessing an execution in San Francisco only costs a quarter. For the paltry fee you’re placed steps away from the guards, the creaking wooden doors and the hangman himself. Lest you think the scene a bit morbid, remember to bow your head when the friar administers last rites to the poor soul about to meet his maker at the end of a rope. Before you can blink, the scaffolding trap door falls, the criminal drops, the line goes taught and the lights go out - quite literally. 

As you step back from the grim scene, now shrouded in darkness, you’re not thinking about the fragility of life or the consequences of wrongdoing. You’re simply wondering what else $.25 can get you in the Bay Area.

Conveniently enough, right next door to the execution are hundreds of possibilities. How about a game of baseball? A trip to a shooting range? Or even a private serenade by a mariachi band composed entirely of monkeys?

Fisherman’s Wharf tickles every sense but no experience does so with such unexpected nostalgia and eerie sense of humor as the Musee Mecanique (The Mechanical Museum for all you non-Parisians). This waterside warehouse is lined from front to back with mechanically operated old-fashioned arcade games, musical instruments and miniature scenes. Music boxes from the 1890s, gypsy fortunetellers from the 1930s and The Bimbo Box, a 1958 jukebox from Germany that plays “Tijuana Taxi” while a chorus of sombrero-clad monkeys strum along.

Or if your comically sadistic side comes out (as mine did), pop a quarter into one of the several mechanical miniature execution scenes. Having just been to London, I of course chose the probably historically inaccurate Tower hanging, but by all means don’t hesitate to check out the French guillotine a few rows away.

Typically on the first day of our trips Danielle and I tend to consume a lot of pavement, a lot of wandering, a lot of stuff (as I’ve made painfully clear in the past, do not try to walk to the Eiffel Tower, it’s never as close as you think - never).

The first of our four days in San Francisco afforded us the ability to walk a slower pace. The Golden Gate Bridge could wait; Alcatraz was scheduled for another day. We strolled along the waterfront Embarcadero all the way to the famous Pier 39, taking in the barking of the sea lions and the smell of Boudin’s sourdough. We even sat along the water with a Boudin’s loaf and a cup of clam chowder from a stall on what I call Crab Row (Sidenote: California calls it Boston Clam Chowder and their version contains things like leeks and miniscule portions of clam. It wasn’t bad, but it was a very Californian version of what I consider my hometown’s greatest culinary achievement. Leeks? Really?).

Around the Wharf we were hit with the salty smell of the sea, the savory smell of bread, the sweet smell of Ghirardelli square (yes, it deserves its own blog post but I can’t very well dip my laptop in chocolate, can I? Wait, can I?).

But it was the dusty, old wooden smell that caught my attention most. Skirting the front of Pier 45, before the working section of the Wharf juts out into the bay like a pair of arms waiting to grab the day’s catch, sits an unassuming white warehouse. A small sign above the door just says “Arcade” and if you weren’t looking you might not see the banner that says, “Musee Mecanique” high up on the building’s façade. But it was the smell that made me wonder at what was inside. It reminded me of my grandparent’s attic, a place I hadn’t been in years but that was full of nostalgic treasures. When I peeked in the door and saw the old fortuneteller stand, he of Tom Hanks in “Big” fame, I immediately lapsed into my favorite travel philosophy.

When you think you should bypass, when you think no is the right answer, go in, say yes. Sometimes it backfires (restaurants are a good indicator at how good your spontaneous judgment is). But more often than not, you stumble into the best experience of your day.

In our society of overpriced time-wasters, the level of entertainment inside the Musee Mecanique comes at a virtual clearance sale bargain. There is no admission fee but plenty of change machines. You’ll have to dodge the children running for the newer machines at the rear of the warehouse room, but it frees up the endless rows of tinkering, hand-painted wooden and metal machines.

The interactive pieces are resolutely intriguing. I hit a double in a pinball-esque baseball game and scored ten points in the Junior Deputy Sheriff shootout. I cringed at some of the creepy dolls behind glass and there wasn’t a chance I was putting a coin in to see what they did. If I wasn’t celebrating my first anniversary in a few days, I might’ve peeked into one of the numerous early-1900s peep show Cali-O-Scopes that show risqué pictures of clothed women. I’d say that their definition of XXX is a bit outdated. The only hint of disappointment was that the 1920s version of Rock-em Sock-em Robots was temporarily out of order.

After the wistful wooden aroma, the first thing you’re awed by is the craftsmanship on most pieces. The intricate detail laced throughout the old Western scene or the elves in Santa’s workshop comes straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting. When you put a coin in and you hear the gears shift, the metal parts invisibly clanking inside, it’s hard not to be amazed that these hundred-year-old mechanisms still turn. 

When the lights clicked off on the execution site, a puppet had lost its life for the thousandth time. And the sombrero-clad monkeys next door played him a tinkering funeral march for just $.25. 

This city is famous for the massive, man-made wonder spanning the bay. But the real wonders of San Francisco are the smaller ones that span generations.