Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Ferry Queen

October 10

Litter can tell you a lot about a place.  Discarded Sierra Nevadas and Haagen Dazs wrappers indicated Berkeley was slightly more upscale than the average American city.  A return to Bud Light and used condoms let me know I was entering Oakland.
Oakland does have a reputation as a fearsome place.  The city conjures images of Hell's Angels running wild or Raiders fans dressed up in costumes better suited to a medieval battle.  Oakland recently topped the FBI's list of most dangerous cities in California.  The reality for me was quite different.  I enjoyed a rather pleasant stroll down Broadway to the Bay.  I would have been tempted to stop at numerous bookstores and restaurants if the early hour had not meant that they were closed.
My experience at Cafe Gratitude had left me eager to try more Bay Area cuisine, so when the open for lunch signs were finally lit, I immediately pounced.  My target was the Chicken and Waffle, a spin off of Los Angeles' famed Roscoe's Chicken and Waffle.  The diner was packed, soul food in demand these days from people of all colors.  I examined the varied menu, most of the choices pictured on a mural covering the wall behind the counter top where I sat.  My decision was easy.  I had never tried the unlikely combination after which the restaurant is named.

The meal was at first disappointing, the fried chicken and macaroni failed to ignite a passionate response in my mouth.  There did seem a method to the pairing, though, as I discovered when I bit into the waffles, the contrast of salty and sweet delivering an extremely pleasant taste sensation.  I wouldn't want the duo for every meal, but i now understand the allure.
The impatience of my stomach was punished upon reaching Jack London Square and the Ferry Terminal.  I had just missed the previous ferry and would have to wait two hours for the next.
Don't worry, I'm not cheating and then rubbing it in your face.  The boat is part of the ADT - pedestrians aren't even permitted on the Bay Bridge to the best of my knowledge.  I didn't mind the rare opportunity to sit and rest.  When the ferry finally showed I appreciated even more the chance to advance effortlessly. Seven miles of no effort whatsoever and suddenly the captain was directing us to disembark.

Months of work had finally brought me to San Francisco.  A Spanish name, but a very American town, filled with a vibrant array of peoples and cultures.  Interestingly enough, however, the name did not come from the mind of a Spaniard.  The original settlement had been known as Yerba Buena*.  Colonel Bartlett, who liberated California from Mexican disinterest during the Mexican-American War, picked the current name during a brief stint as mayor.
There were few visitors in those days, but that changed only a couple of years later, when the Gold Rush turned San Francisco Bay into a bustling port virtually overnight.  Evidence of the Bay's usefulness was everywhere along the shoreline.  Piers, marinas, boats old and new crowded the water.  Fish, shrimp, and dungeoness crab sat in various stages of preparation at an endless string of seafood restaurants.  Even the lonely island out in the harbor, Alcatraz, had once served a purpose in the maritime economy, as the site of the first lighthouse on the West coast.  Later on the island adversely effected the shipping interests of certain members of the criminal class, as Al Capone could have attested had his syphilitic brain not melted into a pile of pus.

I spent the night at Fort Mason, where Hosteling International gives the less than wealthy traveler a chance to stay in the heart of downtown San Francisco.  Mason has had many uses over its 150 year history, defending the city from possible attack, hosting exhibits for the Panama-Pacific International Exposition, and operating as a storage facility and staging area during World War II.  Now the Fort is stuck with me and a gaggle of smelly Europeans as house guests.  Oh how the mighty have fallen down, cracked their head on the sidewalk, and bled out. 

10 miles/4069 total miles

*Which means dank herb in Spanish, I believe 

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

I Am Vegetable

October 9

I packed the tent away, perhaps for the last time.  The REI Halfdome 2 has served me well.  Very little of my original gear has made the cross country journey intact.  The tent is an exception, with only a minuscule crack in one of the poles to show for many months of wear and tear. 
My body has hung together just as well.  At this point last year I was suffering from back spasms and shin splints.  As of today my feet feel like I could do another thousand miles.  My brain, on the other hand, has told me that is a terrible idea.
We comprised and aimed for the University of California-Berkeley, only ten miles or so away on the ADT, one block away as the crow flies. The advantage of the ADT is the views and there could have been plenty between Inspiration Point and the Cal campus.  The early morning mist had other ideas, drawing a curtain over the Bay Area, leaving me to imagine what lay below.  Probably a duel to the death between King Kong and Godzilla, I conjectured.
I spent some of the morning getting lost and falling on the ground, but these foibles are part of my regular routine now, like brushing my teeth and taking a shower*.  I shan't bore you with those details.  Suffice it to say at some juncture I was spat out onto Grizzly Peak Road, where I was stunned to realize I knew where I was. 
As I proceeded toward Cal-Berkeley I ran into a friendly bicyclist named Lovejoy.  Curious as to why I looked like Santa Claus fallen on hard times, he asked for my story.  He was intrigued, especially since he had recently met a Wounded Warrior in need of help while walking in San Francisco.  Lovejoy found the man naked on the sidewalk, curled up in the fetal position.  "R," as we will call him, was at first unwilling or unable to speak.  With some gentle prodding he admitted to having done "terrible things" in Iraq, actions for which he felt he would never be forgiven. Ever since their run-in Lovejoy had been working to get R the assistance he needs.  I promised to inform the WWP about R's situation if Lovejoy would send me the man's information.  We parted shortly thereafter, but not before making dinner plans for that evening.
I descended to the Berkeley campus where I ran smack into a bear.  The beast was a bronze statue of the school's mascot, thankfully not prone to moving, much less devouring hikers.  I was hungry myself and headed to the International House^ for lunch.  I wolfed down a lamb and hummus pita sandwich, as if anyone gives a flying fornication. 
There was plenty of day left, so I decided to take advantage by checking into the hostel where I had reservations and doing absolutely nothing.  The Piedmont House is a relic of Berkeley's days as a bastion of left-leaning thought.  The 60s at Cal were a cloud of marijuana smoke occasionally interrupted by a hit of acid, a line of Ginsberg poetry, or a Free Speech Movement.
The Free Speech Movement was a student uprising in the middle of the hippie decade which began in response to the University administration's ban on political demonstrations.  When an activist was arrested for defying the ban, huge sit-ins and protests resulted.  Mario Savio summed up the feelings of those involved:
   "There's a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that  you can't take part. You can't even passively take part. And you've got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you've got to make it stop. And you've got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it, that unless you're free, the machine will be prevented from working at all."
 The evil Dean Wormer eventually backed down.  Cal students continued to rage against the machine throughout the 60s.  They were at the forefront of the Civil Rights movement and later led student opposition to war in Vietnam.
The man who appeared to run Piedmont House could have easily been transported from that era yesterday.  Yow was at times a brilliant philosopher and at others a flaky burnout case.  Paranoid of bed bugs, he had my sleeping bag frozen.  I wondered what sense this made since he left me my pack.  My sleeping bag is normally stored inside, if one is infected surely the other is as well.
I hung out at the hostel, over the course of the afternoon meeting a few college students in residence as well as a middle aged man who had clearly overindulged in hallucinogens himself.  I was retrieved by Lovejoy around six and we rode in his car to Cafe Gratitude.
The restaurant is more like a collective, growing organically out of the strongest of roots.  Lovejoy explained to me that its origins lay in a game, the Abounding River, which the owners invented.  Abounding River allows participants to examine their lives while receiving positive affirmation, free from judgments, from other players.  Cafe Gratitude started simply as a place to host the game.

I found that story quite unusual, but you may find it even harder to believe my reaction to the Vegan fare they served.  I am a committed carnivore.  Until my twenties I found most vegetables repulsive and I have no love for raw vegetables even as an adult.  When Lovejoy told me what Cafe Gratitude's menu was like I cringed inwardly.  Be polite, I thought, just enjoy the atmosphere, socialize, and don't insult your host by spitting the food on the floor.
When the appetizer, I Am Grounded#, arrived I was stunned.  The dish was essentially patatas bravas, but the sauce was not made from cheese, but cashews instead.  I could not have told the difference blind-folded, except that the flavor was superior to any examples I had sampled in Spain.
I still doubted my entree would be much more than edible.  When I Am Hearty landed in front of me, I admitted otherwise.  Of all the experiences I've had on this trip, enjoying a Vegan meal would have seemed the least likely of them all not too long ago.  At least I'm getting pretty used to being wrong.

10 miles/4059 total miles    

*He actually does not shower very often - Editor
^Not affiliated with the shithole in Austin. 
#All the dish titles relate to the positive reinforcement aspect of the Abounding River game: I Am Bold, I Am Dazzling, I Am Thriving, for example. 

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Great Escapes

October 8
I have to say no to the devil.  I have a meeting with my friend Mark on Thursday in San Francisco, so there is just not enough time to fit him in to my busy schedule. 
The ADT takes a long detour over Mt. Diablo, whose heights allegedly provide a fantastic view of the Bay Area.  I condensed these twenty four miles into merely eight by taking the less scenic route to Walnut Creek.
The shortcut put me back on pace to make my rendezvous.  I felt free to sally forth on the ADT again and headed into a new labyrinth of trails amidst the hills.  I managed to go a few miles without making a wrong turn, but eventually my extraordinary winning streak came to an end.
When I ran into a road I knew I was lost again. At least there was a neighborhood visible below.  I figured I would venture down there, find a main street in Lafayette and reorient myself.  A gate to the right was marked private, so I decided left was a grand plan.  A few hundred yards further on I ran smack into another enclosed property.  A normal person would have turned around, but thankfully I don’t suffer from that particular disorder. 
I could see an escape route – black tarmac ready to release me from this private property trap.  I responded by sliding down the steep hill on my butt, putting freedom only twenty feet away.  There was still a major problem.  A fence running behind the neighborhood blocked further progress.  I looked for a home owner, but early on a weekday afternoon no one was present.  Since I was still unwilling to trespass, I decided to see if the fence would lead me to an exit.
I started along a ditch, but the intercession of a culvert forced me back onto the treacherous hill, where I repeatedly slipped and fell on the slick surface.  As I came to my feet I saw an older woman in her backyard, sitting poolside with a book.  I opened my mouth to explain that I was not a burglar or serial murderer before she panicked and called the police.  Then I paused.  She was asleep.  Simultaneously, I noticed a gap in the fence.  I sprinted through in a flash.
I was unfettered, but where should I go next?  I moved south, towards Lafayette, finding the BART* station there.   I consulted their map, discovering that Happy Valley Road, which lay on the other side of the parking lot, would lead me straight back to the ADT.  The road name sounded ominous, but I assumed I was too old to elicit much interest from Sandusky. 
Two hours on Happy Valley and I met the ADt and was face with another decision.  The trail ventures into East Bay Municipal Utilities District (EBMUD) territory and a permit is required to hike there.  Lacking permission and fearing the fine, I picked a parallel course.  My choice meant there was a high fence between me and Briones Reservoir and I was nearly out of water.  A bicyclist stopped and gave me a few ounces, delaying dehydration only slightly.
Briones Reservoir
By six thirty I was desperate.  When an opportunity arose in the form of a stream, I pounced.  In my haste for water I never saw the “No Trespassing “sign or the barbed wire I must have stepped over on my way in and out.  I braved the inclined bank, picking my way down to the water’s edge.  I filled the bottles, then proceeded up the difficult grade.  Only steps from the top I grabbed a sapling for purchase.  The wood snapped, my shoes slid, and I prepared for the long fall to the bottom.  It never came.  Somehow I stayed upright, lunging in one stride to safety.
I had to answer one more question before I could rest for the night.  Where was I going to rest for the night?  Tindal Park was the logical choice, but how should I get there?  The ADT went via Inspiration Point, via more EBMUD land.  Other options were longer and dusk was beginning to settle.  I couldn’t read the warning sign at the entrance to EBMUD, so I decided to chance ignorance as an excuse.  I assumed I would see or hear any vehicles long before they would spot me. 
The gambit paid.  Forty minutes of walking with only the flashlight to guide me and I made the gate exiting EBMUD.  Houdini was an amateur. 
22 miles/4049 total miles
*Bay Area Rapid Transit

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

A Mazing Disgrace

October 7
In college we used the term apple-berry-pear to describe anything bordering on perfection.  The adjective derives from an unusually tasty beverage manufactured by Tropicana at the time.  The target of the phrase was usually an exceptional lovely lassie, as men in their late teens and early twenties are somewhat prone to horniness. 
I feel apple-berry-bear is spot on as a description of the greatness of the San Francisco Bay I am currently entering, easily the best area for shipping on the Pacific coast.  Despite the area’s obvious attraction as a safe harbor, Europeans were slow to settle the region.  Either a dangerous slog over the Rockies and Sierras or an equally perilous voyage around the deadly Cape Horn were required.    Few thought the riches worth the reward.  The first permanent settlement did not come until the time of the American Revolution, when Juan Bautista de Anza set out with a smaller group of priests and soldiers.  He explored more of the Bay Area than any European had previously, establishing future sites for the Presidio and the Mission de Asis in the process.
I followed in the Spaniards footsteps on the De Anza trail.  The path was paved for bikes, taking an arrow straight route through the neighborhoods of Antioch. Hardly an echo of what De Anza and his compatriots experienced.  When I entered Contra Loma Park, however, the degree of difficulty increased exponentially.
The trail was easy to find at first, the Contra Loma Reservoir providing a well-defined landmark in case of confusion.  A host of ADT signs sucked me into the maze, providing a false sense of security.  I climbed into golden hills, the tall grass looking more like wheat ready for threshing.  Five miles in the trap swung shut.  A fork in the road left me perplexed, the arrow not definitively pointing in any of the four possible directions.  Murphy must have been a hiker.  I chose poorly.
Contra Loma Reservoir
The punishment was delayed thirty minutes, until the easy downhill glide took me to a locked gate marked, “No Trespassing, Private.”  This subtle clue led me to believe I had gone wrong.  Getting here had been no problem, returning to the fork was a wee bit harder.  The Bay Area is famous for steep hills and I’d put this one up against any.  I would have spent a lot more energy cursing myself on the return trip, had there been an excess to give.  I met a hiker familiar with the Park at the top, who referred to the trail I’d just climbed as “The Wall.”  An apt title, I feel.
I now had three remaining tines to choose from and miracle of miracles the second guess was a winner   - at least for half a mile, when I missed another turn.  Mercifully I noticed the error rather quickly and corrected course.  Passing Somerville cemetery, the burial ground of early 20th century Welsh miners, I encountered another of Frost’s dilemmas.  The ADT sign demanded a left turn, which seemed to take me back in the wrong direction.  I took a leap of faith and obeyed, regretting every step for some time afterward. 
I proceeded in a worried fashion for an hour, assured only somewhat when the trail bent in a more reasonable direction.  Three Latino bicyclists leapfrogged me and I went by them in turn as they rested.  On my next break they pedaled past once more.  They returned shortly and asked me where I was headed. 
“Clayton,” I responded.   
“We have to turn back.  We are going the wrong way,” the leader said, and they were off.  
Was I included in “we”?  Confused and demoralized I carried on nonetheless, waiting for confirmation of failure.  Instead I was surprised by redemption, in the form of another ADT sticker.  The homes of Clayton dotted the hills on the horizon.
I made my triumphant procession into town, visiting the library to research possible sleeping arrangements.  I found a Day’s Inn situated between Clayton, Concord, and Ygnacio Valley.  Which city was I in?  Who cares, I’m pretty used to not knowing where the hell I am. 
17 miles/4027 total miles     

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

The Bridge of Death

October 6
I have reached the four thousand mile mark, a number so large it makes my brain hurt, although honestly about anything beyond double digits does that.  You can’t undertake such a long journey without passing over hundreds of rivers, creeks, arroyos, unless you walk in a circle in Nevada.  At none of these crossings did I feel the overwhelming fear I experienced today. 
The trek started with a bridge, spanning the gap between Brannan and Sherman Islands.  There were no trolls and he old man from scene 24 did not await me with his questions three.  The danger still lurked on the horizon.  I strolled onto Sherman Island with ease.
I could, however, see the devil by now, and I don’t mean Mt. Diablo, which dominated the background.  In front and center the Antioch Bridge stood, perhaps the last major impediment on my way to the sea.  The ADT does not approach it directly, instead taking a scenic tour around the Island.  I was glad to oblige, putting off our inevitable confrontation as long as possible.  Like an underdog boxer, I bobbed and weaved, scared to come too close for fear of the knockout blow.
Cows and sheep grazed around me, oblivious to human struggles, even those that could decide their fate.  Water surrounded us, a seemingly endless resource, but a sign at Eddo’s RV Park and Resort spoke of conflict over its use:

California is one state, but split into two well-defined regions: the North and the South.  Their civil war is over the content of the very rivers and sloughs by which the livestock and I were encircled.  Southern California is a desert and as such is constantly in search of the life-giving liquid.   Northern California is the economic center of the state and well-provisioned with rivers running out of the Sierra Nevadas.  Governor Brown has stirred up the controversy with a proposal to build two water tunnels through the delta.  The South claims their future is uncertain without the tunnels.  Northerners argue that the entire delta ecosystem could be disrupted if the water is diverted. 
I’d heard some of the Northern Californians seriously suggest seceding from the South.  They feel the desert regions over-consume and under-produce and have become a drain on the much more successful and efficient North.  These thoughts diverted my attention from the Antioch Bridge momentarily, but soon I stared doom in the face.  I procrastinated, stopping to eat a can of Vienna sausages.  When the last meatsicle went disappeared down my gullet, our meeting could be delayed no longer.  The Bridge is almost two miles long, but the distance was not my main worry.  There were two serious concerns, the first was immediate.  There is no pedestrian walkway – you are on the same level as the vehicles, which fly by at up to seventy miles an hour.  A few feet of shoulder presents the only zone of safety.
Once I had begun I marched in a robotic fashion, not wanting to pause for even a second. Trucks and cars roared by in packs, there were few breaks in the traffic.  As I rose higher I crouched lower, terrified a freak gust of wind would blow me off the side and down hundreds of feet to the San Joaquin below.  The climb felt endless, but eventually I came to the bridge’s summit, the end now visible, but not yet near. 
There was yet one more obstacle.  I was on the left, preferring to face the onrushing machines rather than having them at my back.  The turnoff at the finish line was on the other side of the road.  A small gap, opened up, giving me my opportunity.  I hurdled over a concrete barrier and as I semi bore down on me, scooted onto the opposite shoulder.  Only a few hundred yards left.  I winced at the “whoosh” of every auto zooming by me, counting down every single step until….
Safety is green grass growing above a curb.  I entered Antioch a victorious crusader, selecting a dingy cafĂ© for a celebratory meal.  If you had seen the smile on my face you would think I’d been invited to dine with the King of England. 
My accommodations for the evening were equally unimpressive.  The Executive Inn has probably not entertained any corporate bigwigs in quite some time, unless high ranking members of the Crips or Bloods count.  The non-smoking room smelled like a Tom Petty concert and even the knobs of the dressers and the phone book had been stolen.  I could not have cared less.  The bridge of death was behind me. 
17 miles/4010 total miles

Monday, October 22, 2012

Hey God, You Forgot My Receipt

October 5
The delta breeze blew softly, a welcome relief after the heat of Sacramento.  A cloud of blackbirds swirled in the fields, their tight alignment and rigid discipline fooling me into thinking they merely numbered in the hundreds – until they broke into smaller divisions, revealing thousands of individuals.  They moved as if one mind guided them, the close quarters they kept never leading to a collision.
The levee and adjacent farm land are mainly products of Chinese labor, brought to California to perform cheap and difficult labor no one else would.  Many stayed on after the initial work was complete, opening businesses or toiling at one of the nine asparagus canneries on the delta.  Not all were law-abiding citizens.  The Bing Kong Tong, whose clubhouse has been preserved in Isleton, was a criminal gang much like the Italian mafia.  The Tong’s members were just like other immigrants, except the new opportunities they sought involved extortion, gambling, and prostitution.   I think there is a line in Neil Diamond’s song “Coming to America” about protection schemes.
Bing Kong Tong
I tried to find some traditional cuisine across the street from Bing Kong at the Pineapple.  My search for an authentically spicy Szechuan chicken dish failed even here.  The bland favors were a terrific disappointment until I doused the plate with red chilis.  Do you need to know the secret password to get the real thing?  
I cruised over bridges and past marinas.  The marsh grasses and palm trees gave the delta a coastal feel, even though the ocean is still seventy miles away*.  I finished up at Brannan Island, named after the man who instigated the madness of 1849. 
When Sutter learned of the gold found at his mill, he feared the likely consequences and tried to keep the discovery on the down low.  Sam Brannan, a Mormon elder, was responsible for releasing the proverbial genie from the bottle, selling out not only Sutter, but Brigham Young as well in the process.  Brannan owned a store in New Helvetia, near Sutter’s Fort.  When he noticed how many of his customers were paying in gold, his spidey sense activated and he quietly began hoarding merchandise and buying stocks in mining equipment.  Once well-provisioned, he traveled to San Francisco with a bottle of gold dust, where he yelled, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American river.”  Then he sat back and watched the money roll on in. 
Brannan had originally come to California as the head of a Mormon mission.  Eventually, the head of the church, Brigham Young, sent a messenger asking for the Lord’s cut of his profits.  Brannan’s supposed reply?  “You go back and tell Brigham that I’ll give up the Lord’s money when he sends me a receipt signed by the Lord.”
Quiet, empty Brannan Island was a poor representation of the man, who has been described as brash, coarse, courageous, and even generous.  Whiskey and a failed marriage led to the downfall of Brannan late in life.  Darkness and fatigue led to my downfall late in the day, at an out of season campsite on the island.  Unlike the dead millionaire, I do plan to get up again, hopefully tomorrow.
16 miles/3993 total miles
*This number is the driving distance.  To discover the actual mileage I still have to cover on the ADT you can multiply by two.  Or trace the curviest hilliest route possible on a topographic map.