Monday, May 31, 2010

Baja Escapade

Before my summer shows begin, Art and I decide to take mini getaway to San Jose Los Cabos. Alaska Air offers inexpensive direct flights between San Francisco and San Jose leaving late morning and arriving San Jose early afternoon. We fly out on May 10th. The direct flight is just under 3 hours and we arrive shortly after 2:30 p.m. With just carry on luggage we are through customs quickly. Renting a car always makes Art nervous, but a friend has suggested U-Save car rental where we expect the rate to be $50 a day including insurance. Exiting the terminal we are bombarded by dozens of rental car shuttle drivers and taxi drivers, each one ploying for our business and promising the best rates. I intentionally did not make rental car reservations since on a previous trip we paid nearly double by reserving in advance. Overwhelmed by their aggression and with the rental car lots within view, Art and I set out walking the two long and dusty blocks until we come to U-Save car rental, sandwiched between Thrifty and Euro Car rentals as promised. We negotiate the expected rate of $50 per day including all inclusive zero deductible insurance. I sign paperwork that I can't read hoping that what I am signing is what we have been promised. With Art in the drivers seat of a small Dodge, we exit the airport and I navigate us in the direction of La Paz. We drive Highway 1 north, the old road that connects San Jose Los Cabo with La Paz. This two lane road is narrow and winding and without a graded shoulder. If one swerves off the edge a 12"-18" drop is most certain to cause an unpleasant accident. Gas tankers and trucks roar towards us at 100 kilometers an hour and "pelegrosa" curves are boldly marked with a series of yellow arrows and rows of imbedded metal road nodules. When we enter the small towns, very serious road bumps necessitate slowing to a crawl, and even at 5 kilometers an hour, they are jolting. Aside from the challenges of driving an unfamiliar road, the landscape is starkly beautiful. The desert is lush with fields of iconic saguaro cacti, bursting with orange blooms, and the montage of purple shadowed mountains morphs at every curve. The sky is a brilliant blinding blue, contrasting with the with the near white sand. We cross dozens of bridges spanning vast dry washes and as the road climbs, there are deep canyons lush with oasis of palms and small villages.

With our minds on rental cars, we neglected to change money at the airport, and foolishly we have no small bills, only three $100 bills. Finding a bank or ATM is a high priority and our first foray into a small town is unsuccessful. Further on, in La Brirreles, we find several closed banks, and one welcome ATM that magically regurgitates $100 worth of Mexican pesos.

There is an hour time difference between California and Baja and it is nearly 7:00 p.m. when we arrive at the outskirts of La Paz. We have some business to attend to in the morning and we successfully navigate to our destination. We are welcomed and shown to a guest cottage for the night. On a casual glance, the accommodations look fine, tucked behind the main house and adjoining a lovely garden. We quickly deposit our luggage in the room, close the French doors and walk next door to the restaurant within the shopping center. It is nearly 8:00 p.m. and we have no energy left to explore for an alternative dinner spot. The restaurant is tiny and the air within is still and hot. Unfortunately, the two tables outside sit in the sun and even at 8:00 P.M. the temperature is hot. We choose a table inside and order two icy margaritas. They arrive in large fluted handmade glasses and one each is enough to alter our consciousness. We relax into the Baja experience. Dinner is surprisingly good; my fish fresh and smothered with a lime salsa and the traditional Mexican platter that Art orders is good.

Returning to our guest cottage we find that there is no toilet paper or bath towels and the sheets are far from pristine. Happily, I have packed a set of clean sheets to use on our third night when we will stay in a bare bone beach cottage In Zacititos. There is an unpleasant odor along one side of the room but observing the many cats and dogs on the premises and the open, screen less windows I attribute the smell to the animals. Lulled by the margaritas and the long day, we fall asleep quickly. Several hours later, I awake to piercing cat meows. Having witnessed cats parading in and out our cottage window earlier, I assume the escalating meowing is the courting ritual between feral cats. The meowing continues and at one point I get up to investigate. The meowing immediately ceases and I return to bed and fall back into an uneasy sleep. As dawn sheds light into our room, I hear a frantic scratching coming from behind a sleeper couch against the wall. I move the couch but no cat scurries from behind and with horror, I grasp that a cat is most likely trapped within the sleeper couch. Tearing off the cushions I unfold the couch and a small flash of dark fur disappears further up into the hollow backing of the couch. I wonder when the last guests stayed in this private cottage, and how long this frightened animal, presumably kitten, has been trapped? I quickly surmise that the putrid smell I noticed last night was most likely from a deceased litter mate, and the frantic meows during the night were the anguished mother cat. I put a dish of water within the couch and leave it unfolded while we go to breakfast. I expect that with the room empty, the mother cat will rescue her kitten and nurse it back to health. Luis is our only contact here and I tell him the situation, trying to impress on him the importance that the couch must be left open. This is not a hotel, there are no maids to speak to; no one else to tell. We pack up and drive into La Paz to attend to our business.

Friday, May 07, 2010

The Crowell Siblings

We visit briefly with Helen in the morning before beginning our drive back to Santa Barbara. The return drive is uneventful and we speed along California highways, arriving back in Santa Barbara in time for dinner in the formal dining room of my fathers retirement home.

The Salton Sea, Borrego Desert and Camels

Our plan today is to explore parts of the shoreline along the Salton Sea, drive through the Borrego Desert and spend the night in Rancho Bernardo where my fathers sister resides. We drive along the north end of the Salton Sea, stopping now and again to admire the nothingness along the shoreline. There are abandoned liquor stores, restaurants and trailer parks, derelict and sad along this part of the shoreline. The morning is hot and dry and real estate signs announce foreclosures and houses for sale for as little as $35,000. We find a few small towns that are still surviving; one with a high school, a grocery store and a bait shop. Small, inexpensive houses dot the colorless landscape. Beach front property is readily available along the salt rimmed beach flats of "Desert Shores."

We turn westward and follow Hwy 22 upward towards Borrego Springs. My father explains the geology of the area as we drive along the ridge road above sculpted canyons with distinct bedding. The various rust and sand colored layers of uplifted bedding are beautiful but it is nearly noon and with the sun directly overhead these dramatic hills do not photograph well. Ocitihilla cactus flank the road, flame tipped with red blossoms against the vivid blue sky. We stop at Borrego Springs for lunch in a rather charming village cafe and once again share a B.L.T. and a pile of french fries.

Continuing westward, we drop down the other side of Borrego and connect with Hwy 78. The terrain changes from desert to pine forests as we pass through Julian, a quaint tourist town bursting with antique and gift shops and eateries. Descending further, the landscape morphs to agricultural. Everything is lush and green and we drive past horse ranches, small farms and apple orchards. I imagine that I am hallucinating when I see camels in a distant field. I make an abrupt stop along the side of the road and make a U turn. It is not my imagination; there are a dozen camels grazing in a pasture. I am delighted look up and see that the street sign is Camel Dairy Lane!

We arrive at my Aunt Helen's retirement home by 4:30 P.M. She is 90 years old and is delighted to see us. The nurses comment on the family resemblance between brother and sister and my aunt beams happily. Helen usually eats her meals in her room, but my father and I take Helen into the main dining room to eat dinner together. We visit briefly after dinner with the promise to return in the morning.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Pilgrimage to Mecca

We leave the Painted Canyon parking area, retracing our tracks back along the dirt road until we reach Box Canyon Road and turn in the direction of Indio. Our plans are to ferret out the adobe house that we lived in nearly 54 years ago.

In 1956, I lived with my parents in a tiny adobe cottage, adjoining a date orchard in Mecca, California. Mecca is just a few miles north of the Salton Sea, and light years away from Palm Spring which lies just 25 miles further north. My brief 5 or 6 month residency in Mecca made a significant impression on my life. I am an only child and my father was mapping this particular area of the San Andreas Fault. My parents enrolled me in the Mecca kindergarten. My sour, sharp featured teacher was crotchety; my classmates spoke no English, and I spoke no Spanish. Our classroom was utter chaos and I had no friends at school. Happily, the school day is short and at noon, my mother would pick me up and we would drive along the irrigation canal back to our tiny cottage. My father was in field all day and my mother would allow me to play outside of our adobe house. I was soon venturing further and further from our dusty front yard, ferreting out desert creatures and building nests in scraggly trees where I could hide away and day dream. When my father would return from the field, he often had a surprise for me. It was often a horned lizard or a snake tucked inside his lunch box. On one or two occasions he brought home a desert tortoise, and subsequently drilled a hole in the back flange of the tortoises shell so that we could tether our captive by a chain to the small tree outside of our cottage. The tortoises would plod endlessly around in a circle, wearing a deep rut in the dirt. I remember many hot and slow afternoons when I would lie on the ground feeding them iceberg lettuce. My father had many small clear plastic specimen boxes among his geological research equipment. To my mothers’ horror, I would occasionally "borrow" one of his plastic hinged boxes and lie and wait in the dirt for the unsuspecting scorpion. I could corral the sand colored scorpion under one half of the box and quickly snap it shut, thus capturing my new pet for careful inspection, both top and bottom. So….for those of you who ask: “Why inspires you to create the pieces that you do?” Much of who I am and what I create was nurtured by scientific parents in a desert landscape. Consider that dragons are not a far stretch from lizards…just add wings and stir your imagination.

I made one very special friend during this time; Maria. She was my age, 5 or 6 years old and lived in an outdoor encampment in the date orchard adjoining our simple adobe cottage. We didn't speak the same language, but happily played together, with Jenny Dolls on the shaded and dusty front porch of our tiny cottage. On several occasions, Marias' father would invite me to walk with him and Maria to the nearest grocery store and he would buy us popsicles. On this road trip, I found that same corner store; much changed in 54 years, but I have no doubt that it is where Maria and I ate popsicles together on scorching afternoons in 1956.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Painted Canyon

It is mid afternoon when we leave the Patton museum. We drive from Chiriaco and follow Hwy 195 along Box Canyon Road descending towards Indio. We pass the canal on the flats and turn northwest along the hills and follow the road that parallels the San Andres fault zone. Rugged hills are on our right and the saltine flats are on our left.

Memories of my childhood engulf me. I remember, as a child, driving with my mother, along the irrigation canals to go to my kindergarten in Mecca. I remember exciting camping and hiking expeditions up painted canyon where the canyon walls narrowed and I could touch both sides of the canyon with my outstretched hands. The rock walls were a glorious mixture of burnt oranges and yellow ochres, swirled together like partially mixed cake batter. At one point, the canyon was so narrow and fractured and the ascent so steep that a rickety wooden ladder was nailed to the rock face to the help hikers climb to the next level of the canyon. I remember with awe, that my father would magically repair a rotted rung of the wooden ladder, making it possible for us to continue our hiking adventure. My short, little girl legs needed help to ascend steep and narrow sections of the canyon and my parents were always behind me, giving me a push up to the next level. The adventures that I experienced in Painted Canyon have significantly influenced my life and my expectations of travel and adventure to this day.

We drive two miles up the canyon along a beautifully graded gravel road. It is late afternoon and the day is overcast, so the wonderful jumble of mountains that make up this area of the San Andres fault is not optimally lit for photographs. I recall camping here, on a Girl Scout expedition, when one of my scout mates discovered a beautiful black, hairy tarantula. To the arachnids dismay, our troupe adopted it for the weekend and it went home with one of the girls to become a family pet.

I drive my father to the end of the road. There is an expansive, well graded parking area and we sit for a few minutes to gaze further up the canyon. From this point on, one must be on foot and I watch a a small group of hikers enter the mouth of the canyon.

Sunday, May 02, 2010

One of General Pattons' Men

The cholla cactus are not yet in bloom, but fields of them stretch for miles, backlit in the desert sunlight. My father tells me a story of when he and my mother were courting. The two of them went on a picnic in the high desert and my father picked a cholla cactus bud from the desert sand and placed it in my mothers hair as an ornament. Obviously in love, she made no objection, until it came time to remove the thorny ornament. In spite of this, or perhaps because of this, she married my father and they shared 60 years together. We drive past fields of Ocotillo cactus, beautifully exotic, their long fronds tipped with red blossoms. After meandering many of the park roads, we leave Joshua Tree and have lunch at a gasoline stop in Chiriaco on the summit along interstate 10. My father and I share a bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwich. He enjoys a beer and I indulge in a chocolate milkshake.

After lunch we visit the Patton Museum. In 1944, during WW2, my father served under Patton as part of the 3rd army when Patton took over the land operations in Normandy. My father signs the guest book as one of Pattons' men. The museum is small and somewhat dark and while my father takes his time within the museum, I am transfixed by an exhibit of trench art; shell casings and rocket shells from WW2, intricately repoussed and engraved with designs that a most experienced metalsmith would be proud of. There is an outside section of the museum where tanks and DUKWs are on display. My father is delighted to see a DUKW; an amphibious vehicle that transitions between land and water. In 1944, my father maneuvered DUKWs on the west coast of Devon; just beyond the surf line to take wave measurments in preperation for the invasion of Normandy. I take photos of my father beside this remarkable machine.

Joshua Tree National Park

After suffering through the standard motel continental breakfast of hardboiled eggs, cold cereal and bitter coffee, we drive the few miles to the entrance of Joshua Tree National Park. We retrieve maps at the visitors center and meander the park roads through fabulous jumbled granite rocks formations. It is late morning, but the light is still dramatic and golden, with contrasting shadows delineating the monumental rocks. I drive slowly and pull off frequently so that my father can enjoy the jumbled rock vistas from the comfort of the van. There are miles of trails and endless boulders and rock faces to challenge the most adventurous climber. Our morning drive together is magical.

The road we choose winds upward ending at a spectacular lookout point where we can see Palm Springs and the Salton Sea sprawled in the haze, 5,000 feet below. I park in a handicapped space and with little help, my determined father ascends the challenging pathway up to the vista. He sits at the edge of the vista, inhaling the beauty of the landscape, the San Jacinto mountains in the distance, most certainly recalling memories of earlier years, when as a professor of geology at U.C.L.A. he led field trips to this area.