Category Archives: California

Bolinas, North California

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It was a dark and stormy night . . . Eventually we find Bolinas, hidden by trees on the edge of America beside a lagoon, and observe it for a bit through the windscreen with the wipers going. There are three buildings with lights on, although the trading post style store is closing up. All the action seems to be at Smiley’s Schooner Saloon & Hotel – blues, (Tuesday being designated ‘Bluesday’), the clack of pool balls, throaty laughter and some banging. Despite the name – at least the ‘hotel’ bit, Smiley’s is one of those places where locals drink, play cards and pool tournaments, and there’s surprise and detached interest as we, strangers, shove through the saloon doors to discover them gathered there in the warm gloom.

The town is summed up in a brochure I found in Smiley’s: “Just west of infamous San Andreas fault on the edge of the continent is Bolinas a well-hidden enclave of artists, writers, musicians, fishermen and just plain folks. Although the community doesn’t promote tourism there are a limited number of guest accommodations available . . .” I like that ‘well, if you must’ approach to tourism.

There’s a history of furtive activity. Smiley’s was built for a Captain Morgan in 1851, “the gold rush days of growth. Those were days when one gambled with one’s dreams and then watched them either shatter and splinter or one crafted and honed them into realities” read the brochure in the warm, creaky room.  The bar is only one of 14 in California to have been in ‘continuous existence’ for over 100 years. That means it survived the dark days of the Temperance Movement (despite several Temperance Movement members living in town) and managed to stay open during Prohibition in the 1920s, apparently by painting all windows black except one through which passersby would see the paraphernalia of a barber’s shop. Drinkers would go in purportedly for a haircut and come out drunk. Rum runners did well out here in Bolinas, “roaring in and out of town in their new fangled automobiles”.

There’s good food at the Coast Cafe, and daylight revealed a smattering of interesting stuff – bookshops, a gift shop, a place to get vegan banana bread, a community centre, boats and a sandy beach, beautiful houses under dripping trees – and a lot of trees. In some ways it’s not far from San Francisco, in other ways it is.

Smileys, Bolinas. Tel 415 868 1311

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16hrs in San Francisco

That’s 16 hours in San Francisco with 6 spent asleep. Much to see, no time to waste. If you too happen to be passing through in winter, exhausted with an urgent desire for alcohol and lettuce, follow the blind and try the following:

Do the Golden Gate Bridge thing: Over you go & back you come.

Drink in Mission. This is San Francisco’s old heart: edgy, arty, tatty, wearisome and energetic in equal measure. Population is predominantly Latino and Hipster plus flamboyantly dressed old writer/artist types; a fair few wealthy arrivistes joining in, and a fair few people shuffling by with shopping trolleys in the street waving their fists and holding animated, abusive conversations with lamp posts. Parking’s tricky but there are plenty of people eager to look after your car.  Head for Mission, Valencia and 24th streets and find the party. “I’m so-o-o-o happy. I’m in love with life” said the friendly man who joined out table outside some bar. “I’m. In. Love. With. Life. Man” . (A friend who lives there recommends Doc’s Clock).

Do the driving up and down the steep hills thing. Yes, like Steve McQueen in Bullitt, but slower, and pausing at the intersections.

Check into Cow Hollow Motor Inn in Cow Hollow, a relaxed neighbourhood which is either in the Marina District or on the border of it, depending on who’s talking. It’s not the most glamourous choice but it’s good and nice and affordable and an easy, easy option with parking. And it also has a load of fine restaurants and bars within walking district.

Eat healthy food at Plant. This was a right treat. Almost everything in the streets around Cow Hollow is a restaurant or bar, but there are only so many nachos and tacos a girl can eat, and Plant Organic Cafe proved irresistible – and it was fabulous. There are a number of branches in San Francisco but this one’s on Steiner St and Chestnut St.

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Have breakfast at Mel’s Drive-in (opposite) on Lombard St. Maybe ‘The Elvis’: scrambled eggs, chorizo, green chile, Monterey Jack cheese and a whole load of other stuff, like toast and jelly. Plenty of chrome, booths and jukeboxes, staff in black and white and a menu of 50s staples (root beer, banana splits, spaghetti and meatballs, sundaes). Mel’s declined, closed and reopened in the late 80s, but now has its kitschy charm preserved by grateful and nostalgic patrons. The original Mel’s was demolished shortly after starring alongside Ron Howard, Richard Dreyfuss and Harrison Ford in American Graffiti but this one’s just like it.

Cow Hollow Motor Inn 2190 Lombard St 415 921 5800

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Seal-spotting, Big Sur

 Stopped on Hwy 1 to look at seals and nature-loving seal-spotter hipsters.

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Big Sur

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The plan is to drive north up Hwy 1 to San Francisco, taking in the spectacular sights, specifically, Big Sur. Dawn finds us as far as Carpinteria, south of Santa Barbara. Wrestling a bit of sticky curtain away from the window at Motel 6, I see there’s a lorry parked by the pool and, above it, the highway, and over that, slashing rain. It’s an unusual deluge apparently, and there are mudslides and rock falls and whatnot. We have breakfast at the Shoreline Beach Cafe, Santa Barbara, get caught for speeding and can’t see Hearst Castle for the thick fog (although do enjoy the sci-fi weirdness of the announcements echoing through the cavernous entrance hall: ‘ticket holders for the 2.15 tour proceed to Gate No. 3 . . .’, and the marketing: Hearst jerky, Hearst sweatshirts, Hearst wines). Everyone looks wet, cold and miserable except the people in the fuzzy archive film showing in the shop who look merry and rich.

Brave the driving wind to watch elephant seals cavorting by a car park (on a beach, obviously). The first of the big males have arrived from Alaska, says the guide ranger man, referring, presumably to the seals. And then, miraculously the sun comes out and turns everything into steam, just in time for sunset and expensive but, to be fair, great Californian wine at Nepenthe, jutting out over the Pacific. Everyone loves Nepenthe; it’s been a stop between San Francisco and LA for decades. Rita and Orson, Henry Miller and Richard Burton and Liz Taylor all figure in its much-touted history.

After trying one lodge that was charging $550 a night we were kiss-the-ground grateful to spot Fernwood. The Children at Play sign at the top of the dark dripping trail to the Big Sur river was a little creepy late on a December night, but the cabins under the redwoods by the store and Redwood Grill were cosily rustic, and the food, hot and hearty. Lots of wood, chopped and growing. There are tent cabin things and camping sites by the river, camping supplies and maps of Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park on sale, and while the campers I spotted hunched over their Macs, seeking shelter in the bar didn’t look ecstatic, I reckon this would be a top base for a few days should it ever get warm again.

Nepenthe: 48510 Highway #1, Big Sur, (831) 667-2345

Fernwood: 47200 Highway 1, 831 6672422 Cabins from $110.

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I’ve seen tumbleweed (and coyote haunch weaving into the scrub) in Texas and New Mexico, but the tumbleweed catching my attention today is Tumbleweed the N. California based tiny house company who are holding one of their weekend workshops on the UCLA campus. I’ve admired Tumbleweed’s houses and evangelism from afar and have been trying to get hold of Jay Shafer who founded the company (fast forward as I get lost in LA and UCLA and hurry, uninvited, into the lecture room) here he is, in front of a group of 50 attentive would-be tiny home builders, describing how to cut window openings, choose sidings, install vapour barriers.

The tiny, or at least small, house movement is taking off – or rather moving mainstream, no longer appealing predominantly to people looking to get off-grid, but to people keen to scale down and simplify their lives, people interested in the sustainability aspect, revolted by excess and waste, and people looking for a home that they can afford and own rather than spend their lives paying mortgages. There’s also the attraction of custom-building and using money saved on space to buy high-end design furniture and fittings, and as one of the attendees, Rachel, pointed out, the benefit of being able to take your house with you when you move. Another Jack, who has already constructed a number of increasingly small houses, tells me he used to have a huge house which was all well and good until something needed fixing: “Where we live now there are many multi, multi-million dollar homes, and the first thing I think when I see them is maintenance and upkeep. It’s a full-time job.”

Throughout the day, there’s a cooperative sharing of ideas. Whatever the motivation for constructing or occupying a small house (and some here are planning to start their own ventures and build and sell), everyone is united in meeting or beating the outdated building codes and minimum size standards. While the International Building Code (which seems to govern building in only the USA and Canada) can be interpreted differently at local level, say Tumbleweed, they include the stipulation that all houses must have ‘at least one room of no less than 120 sq ft; ceilings of no less than 7ft (except in basements) and no habitable room of less than 70 sq ft, with no dimensions smaller than 7′ except kitchens’.

Back in Texas, Tiny Texas Houses and Reclaimed Space had also discussed their frustration with a system that seemed to reward construction on a grand scale and place obstacles in the way of people keen to reduce their environmental impact.

“When I found out it was illegal to live in a very small space” says Jay, when I corner him afterwards, “I had to do it.” Jay’s a pretty inspiring person, as is Tumbleweed’s new poster boy, Austin Hay, who aged 15, started building his own house and now lives in it, blissfully mortgage free for life. Tumbleweed do make self-build easy by selling the plans and offering a lot of experience and hands-on support although you can buy one someone made earlier if you prefer. The Houses to Go, designed to sit on trailer beds, range from 67 sq ft -117 sq ft, with more spacious cottages ranging from 260 to 880 sq ft.

By the end of the day, I’ve moved on from designing my house to choosing wood-burning stoves and deciding between locations. All pipe-dreams for now. If you want to be similarly inspired, take a look at the Tumbleweed website (images in the video are of house plans available in their catalogue).

Spending a day listening to people discuss building their dream homes was an unscheduled pleasure. It does mean that evening we’re not in Big Sur browsing through books in the Arthur Miller Library, but having a row in a Motel 6 in Carpinteria on US Hwy 1, which, I say, I can not and will stay in because it has wipe down sick yellow walls and not strip lights exactly, but something like it, and which he says is OK and will do.

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Is that all there is? (Newport Beach)

I didn’t get into a car in Detroit with the express purpose to driving to LA to get a look at the beaches. However there’s something about getting to the end of the road after 5000 miles, climbing over the parking lot wall and standing on sand in drizzle, peering from under your hood at the black space you presume is the sea, out-of-season bar signs flapping morosely in the wind, that makes you think, ‘bloody hell, is that it?’. And as far as America goes, that really is it.

“LA’s beach communities are the epitome of Southern California’s Endless Summer” say the LA Tourist Board, and that is right except when the endless summer has ended, like in December. California was hot and sunny like the pictures when we left Palm Springs, but it was obscured by fog by the time we were droning on in 8 lanes of traffic towards LA. And from the freeway in the gloom, LA looks grim, tatty, polluted, crowded and all used-up. It was also 67 degrees fahrenheit according to the Chevy dial. I didn’t know what that meant, but I knew it wasn’t good. And because it had taken us so long to crawl along the highway, I knew I wasn’t going to have time to stalk Deepak Chopra, or arrange to meet my friend Georgienne Bradley of, or hang out where Barry ‘Walrus of Love’ White recommended a man took a lady, or visit  Koenig’s Case Study House No.22, or eat Persian pizza in Tehrangeles. When it’s sunny anything is possible; with lower temperatures comes a dollop of reality.

Anyway, on we went to Newport Beach, can’t remember why, and after studying the pier through the car window, we ate fish at the well-festooned, retro Crab Cooker (where wine comes in plastic cups, why’s that?) and checked into a motel next to a tattoo parlour and liquor store.

The way I’d pictured it was that we’d reach the west coast, fresh and energetic, park on a dune, run laughing across the sand and splash into the Pacific before drinking champagne on a dune, wrapped in towels as the sun set, which is an indication of a) the power of tourism marketing and b) my reluctance to think things through.

I stood on the beach and looked at the sea again the next morning, surfers passing briskly like commuters. There was a line of them a few feet out, bobbing like jetsam. Then they trotted back, rinsed off the sand and drove off in Fords and Nissans. No-one had a campervan, no-one high-fived, there weren’t any volleyball players. Sun might have made it spectacular; made it the quintessential golden Californian scene I felt such a journey merited. I’ll have to do it again in June.

We made our mark, and moved on.

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