Southbound — San Francisco to Vegas

Muir Woods National Park

The second leg of my California journey began when I showed up on the doorstep of my friend Dennis who lives in the suburban Bay Area community of Walnut Creek. His home was my home for a couple of days while I saw some of the sites in and around San Francisco. With Dennis guiding the way, our first stop was Muir Woods National Park and its 200 plus acres of California redwoods, the tallest trees in the world.

The drive took us through Berkeley and up and down the hairpin turns of Muir Woods Road before we reached the park’s entrance. It was a rainy Wednesday afternoon, but neither the precipitation nor the occasional congestion of tourists on the trails detracted from the experience of walking through a wonderland of nature-made skyscrapers. Apart from the enormity of the trees, the first thing to catch one’s attention is the smell. It’s pungent and pleasing in the same way eucalyptus is, but earthy, woodsy, and musty.

Muir Woods National Park

Coincidentally, on the same day we went to Muir Woods, a video circulated on Facebook about the health benefits of “forest bathing.” A Japanese study found that trees emit a protective oil that is also beneficial to people. No running, rock climbing, or strenuous activity is required. Mere contemplation among trees, the video said, slows down heart rates, lowers blood pressure, and reduces stress.

My own unscientific conclusion is this: the taller the tree the better, so the best of all possible places “to bathe” in a forest must be the seven county expanse where Muir Woods is located. Five of the counties are in northern California, two are in southern Oregon, and combined, they form what is known as Redwood Empire.

Ferry Arch, Fisherman’s Wharf, San Francisco

The following day I swapped towering redwoods for towering buildings in San Francisco and a walk along the Embarcadero Historic District, where 47 piers extend from a concrete seawall alongside the San Francisco Bay. I started out at the Ferry Building Marketplace, where I had a delicious mushroom empanada at El Porteño, fed a few crumbs to birds milling about outside; and thumbed through many of the tempting-to-buy new releases on display at the Book Passage bookstore.

Pier 7, Embarcadero, San Francisco

The Ferry Building is the dividing line between even and odd numbered piers. The industrial, even numbered piers extend south of the Ferry Building. The odd numbers extend north leading up to the bars, restaurants, shops, museums, boating excursions, and myriad other amusements at Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. I went north to Pier 39, marveling at how each pier along the way has a distinct focus — e.g., office space, restaurants, museum, etc. My favorite was Pier 7. A so-called “simple finger” pier made with timber decking and ornamental iron railings, Pier 7 is beautiful in its simplicity.

Also beautiful in their simplicity were the many natural and agricultural wonders on my daylong trek back to Vegas, which began with a drive along Monterey Bay and ended with a full moon illuminating wide open desert skies in eastern California and Nevada. My first stop was the Salinas River State Beach, a narrow strip of land wedged between the Salinas River and Monterey Bay. Due to dangerous currents, the beach is used more for walking and horseback riding than swimming and surfing, and the day I was there, the river was much more lively than the bay. Two otters entertained those of us on the riverbank by diving for fish, surfacing to eat their catch, and after “brunch,” taking what appeared to be a bath followed by a floating nap.

Eberle Winery, Paso Robles, Calif.

From the park I drove east to Salinas then south through miles of geometric tapestries created by rows of grape vines and budding heads of lettuce before reaching a fork in the road. One way would take me to Las Vegas through Los Angeles County and the other would cut across the state to Bakersfield.

I chose Bakersfield and am very glad I did. The scenery along State Road 166 is stunning. It winds through the rolling hills and jagged cliffs of the Cayuma River Canyon before plateauing into vast fields of citrus trees in the San Joaquin Valley. 

State Road 166, Cuyama River Canyon, Calif.

About an hour the other side of Bakersfield is when the sun went down and the moon came up, allowing for the amazing scenery to continue, even in the desert in the dark of night. 

That big old moon gave me comfort and brought to mind this gem from Divine Sisters of the Ya Ya Sisterhood: “[A] summer moon will put up with inattention for just so long.” 

 

Northbound — Costa Mesa to San Francisco

Pismo Beach, Calif.

Finding myself living in Las Vegas (long story), I decided to make a trek up the California coast and back down again, beginning in Costa Mesa, home of a dear childhood friend who graciously put out the welcome mat for me four months ago when I first landed in the Pacific time zone. From Costa Mesa, I meandered north, stopping in Hermosa Beach to have lunch with a fellow education reporter from my writing days for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Next up was a nearly 400-mile stretch to the Bay Area in and around San Francisco to visit with fellow reporters from way back, from the 1980s when I was working for United Press International in Guatemala. The best part of my California journey was seeing old friends and colleagues, but the scenery wasn’t bad either. Here are a few highlights from the trip north.

COSTA MESA

The CAMP parking lot, Costa Mesa, Calif.

In Costa Mesa, a coffee shop called the Blackmarket Bakery very quickly became my office. It’s located in a wonderful cluster of restaurants, shops, and cafes called The CAMP, where the parking spaces say it all. Instead of numbers to be punched into a parking meter, each one has a zen-like message. Two of my favorites were “Follow New Trails” and “See the Forest.” And the pastries at the Blackmarket Bakery, especially a bread pudding made from chocolate chip, snickerdoodle, and molasses toffee cookies, are delicious.

Also worth checking out in and around Costa Mesa are the meandering marshland trails of the Newport Back Bayand Crystal Cove State Park, 2,400 acres of seaside wilderness that that includes 3.2 miles of coastline, a remodeled seaside colony from the early 1900s, and 15 miles of hiking trails, not to mention the vast selection of top-rated milkshakes at Ruby’s Shake Shack.

Newport Back Bay, Costa Mesa, Calif.

HERMOSA BEACH

My next stop was Hermosa Beach, which packs a lot into its 1.5 square-mile expanse — most notably biking, bars, sunbathing, surfing, and, above all, volleyball. I’m guessing there are good eats in Hermosa at every turn. If you’re looking for a low-key sandwich shop with sidewalk seating, Gum Tree Shop & Café is a good place to go, and its turkey, tomato, and avocado sandwich with sweet chili aioli on sourdough proved to be a good choice for lunch. 

Leaving, Hermosa Beach, I headed north with no agenda other than to skip some of the main attractions — e.g., Hollywood Boulevard, Santa Barbara, Hearst Castle — and to keep an eye out for off-the-beaten-path destinations, which led me to the following gems….

‘What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas’

The F Street underpass, Las Vegas, Nev.

It’s a slogan that’s as synonymous with Sin City as Caesar’s Palace, the Bellagio, and Mandalay Bay.  “What Happens in Vegas Stays in Vegas” alludes to the good times one might want to keep from friends, family, and coworkers back home, but it could apply just as easily to a short stretch of road known as the F Street underpass.

Located about two miles from the Strip, the F Street underpass is where one of the nation’s worst homeless problems and the ramifications of Jim Crow-era segregation policies collide.

In short, it’s a tale of two cities, both of them within a short drive of the neon glow.

WEST LAS VEGAS

F Street connects an area known as West Las Vegas to downtown and just beyond that, the Strip. From the time the city was founded in 1905 through the implementation of desegregationist polices in the 60s and 70s, West Las Vegas was the only part of town where African Americans could live.

At the time, it thrived. Jackson Avenue, in particular, was a bustling scene of restaurants nightclubs, and black owned businesses. Ironically, desegregation policies would become its downfall. Granted the ability to choose where they lived and to vie for jobs on a more equal footing, affluent and middle class African Americans left West Las Vegas.

Businesses shut down, homes were boarded up, and little by little, the area became known for its vacant lots, blighted streets, and gang activity. In recent years, there’s been a moderate revival. Businesses, service organizations, and office buildings have begun to crop up along one of its major corridors, and the city has channeled millions of dollars into a handful of renovation projects.

One of those is the F Street underpass. Blocked at one point during an expansion of Interstate 15, the barricade that was put in place became a controversial touchstone. Many African Americans viewed it as a veiled attempt to keep members of the community away from downtown Las Vegas and the Strip. They wanted the barricade to come down. Others leery of the neighboring homeless population wanted it to stay put.

Ultimately the city decided to remove the barricade and put $13.6 million into a facelift for the F Street underpass that included, among other things, 12 tiled murals honoring African American leaders and local landmarks. The revamped underpass reopened in December 2014.

THE HOMELESS

Since then, it’s become a popular destination for many who drift in from a cluster of nearby shelters and service organizations that cater to the homeless.

With more than 6,200 people living in the streets, Las Vegas has one of the largest homeless populations in the country. According to a report from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, it ranks ninth among metropolitan areas of a similar size.

And now, two years after the underpass became both a gateway in and out of West Las Vegas as well as a tribute to African American history and culture, it’s also become a haven for the homeless.

Many have made it a quasi permanent home — one with a concrete floor, an interstate rooftop, wide open entrances north and south, and on the walls, the steady gaze of, among others, Louis Armstrong, Natalie Cole, and Sammy Davis Jr.

 

 

 

Walking on the Edge

The edge of the Grand Canyon was a mere few feet away, and I was torn. Everyone else, it seemed, was walking up to it and posing for pictures. Children ran around with an enormous amount of freedom given that certain death was just a slip of the foot away. And there I stood, camera in hand, desperately wanting to capture the depth of what I saw, yet worried that one minor misstep and over the edge I’d go.

I wasn’t alone. There were others who were skittish of the canyon’s edge. One was a roofer — either professional or amateur, I’m not sure. What was clear is that he knew his way around a roof, yet he was the one in his group most ill at-ease near the canyon’s edge. In response to a little teasing from his friends, he had these words of wisdom: “A roof is only 20 feet up, maybe 24. The fall isn’t going to kill you.”

Another skittish visitor at Guano Point, located along a stretch of the canyon’s west rim located on land owned by the Hualapai Tribe, asked a security guard for advice. This is what he had to say: “As long as you stay six feet away, you can’t go over.” 

Good to know.

Six feet, however, is too far away to get a good sense – much less photos – of the canyon’s depth, so I joined the brave and skirted along the edge. I walked very carefully at first, making sure I’d found a secure foothold before raising my camera and clicking away, desperately trying to capture the contours, the ridges, the sheer magnitude of this twisting, turning, 277-mile hallway that Mother Nature’s glacier-paced bulldozer — the Colorado River – has been digging over the course of millions of years.

Capturing the grandness of the Grand Canyon on film proved to be a challenge. But what I learned in the process is that by staying focused on the one thing, the camera’s lens, the other thing, the fear of walking near the edge, started to wane. It didn’t go away, which, is a good thing given the precipice at my feet, but a sense of sure-footedness returned. That feeling alone was worth the trip.

LCCU

Six years ago, I attended a personal finance course offered by the Latino Community Credit Union. I was impressed then and still am with the effort the LCCU puts into working with the Latino community and coaching those new to the United States through the intricacies of a complex banking system. Here is the text of the story as it appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer in November 2010.

Jimmy Carter Inspires as Sunday School Commander in Chief

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President Carter at Maranatha Baptist Church. Jan Williams, in the background, keeping an eye on the class.

George Williams arrives at the Maranatha Baptist Church parking lot in Plains, Georgia, Sunday mornings at 5 a.m. to give out numbers to those who show up for President Jimmy Carter’s Sunday school class. My friend Sharon and I pulled into the lot at around 6 a.m. last Sunday, early enough to be third in line and get a front row seat just a couple of feet from where Carter would speak later in the morning.

But first things first.

We still had four hours to go – an hour of waiting in the car, an hour allotted for visitors to file through the Secret Service checkpoint, and two hours of the Jan Williams show, a delightful blend of humor and menace aimed at keeping us entertained while making sure that no one broke any of the rules involved in attending Sunday school with the 39th president of the United States.

Jan is George’s wife as well as a no-nonsense former teacher who, no doubt, had few, if any, discipline problems in her classroom, and she wasn’t going to have any with us. When Carter walked into the church sanctuary, she told us not to stand up or applaud; during the photo op, he would be seated on a stool and we would not shake his hand or put our hand on his shoulder; nor would we talk to him other than to say “Good morning. Glad to be here,” and if we did address him by name, President Carter or Mr. Carter would be “perfectly fine.” Mr. President, she said, was not an option, because he’s not the president, and references to him being an ex or former president were not necessary.

“He’s aware of that,” Jan said.

As 10 a.m. approached, Jan wrapped things up by telling us she ‘d be standing at the front of the church, off to the side. “All you have to do,” she said, “is glance my way and you can tell if you are the gifted class or not.” With that reminder, she took her place on the sidelines, and President Carter walked into the room.

Windows on the World

I am thrilled to see that the Tarboro Brewing Company, the latest culinary contribution to Eastern North Carolina by Inez and Stephen Ribustello, opened its doors last weekend. The duo met nearly 20 years ago while working at Windows on the World, the cluster of bars and restaurants that — prior to Sept. 11, 2001 — catered to tourists at the top of the World Trade Center. Working there in the late 1990s and early 2001s is how the Ribustellos learned much of what they know about food, beverages and the pairing of the two. They subsequently took that knowledge, along with a natural knack for entertaining and making people feel at home, and opened On the Square, a dining experience that brings people from up and own the East Coast to the most unlikely of tourist destinations — downtown Tarboro, NC. Last year I wrote about Inez and Stephen and their culinary journey for the Carolina Alumni Review and am pleased to see that what was then a mere dream in the making — the Tarboro Brewing Company — is now yet another “window” in their world.

Leveling the Playing Field

Say Yes_Not Just About More Time

My latest, a white paper for Say Yes to Education that looks at the merits of providing at-risk youth with the kinds of services they need to address the barriers that often prevent them from showing up at school on time, if at all, much less doing well while they’re there or finding the time or the place in what can be a chaotic home life to focus on dividends, quotients and divisors, for example, or the difference between peak, peak and pique.

The work of Say Yes to Education is part of an ever increasing effort on the part of school systems and education organizations to level the playing field for disadvantaged youth by removing socioeconomic impediments and educational barriers brought about by decades of institutionalized racism. The Say Yes approach, which builds on the work of other organizations, such as Communities in Schools, is twofold. And it’s massive.

On a community-wide level in places like Syracuse, Buffalo, and Guilford County, North Carolina, it works with local entities to bring a broad spectrum of support services — everything from the arts to counseling to legal assistance — into or as near the school house door as possible, all of it intended to mitigate or overcome the obstacles that often come with a life lived in poverty.

Once these young people complete high school, diploma in hand, the second part of the Say Yes program kicks in – the promise of a college scholarship. By working with local philanthropists to raise money for a scholarship fund, Say Yes guarantees that all eligible graduates will be able to attend an in-state public college or university or one of the more than 100 private institutions that are part of the Say Yes program.

The Laundromat


 

At the laundromat this weekend, I met a man who’s been living in his car for the past year. As we both stared at our clothes whirling in the dryers, he said he was quite content and had all he needed. He also talked at length about the pros and cons of different thermal clothing brands, his days as a hospice care volunteer, and the heroic feats of a park ranger he met along the way, and as he folded the last of his clothes and prepared to leave, he thought to ask me what I did for a living. Upon hearing that I’m a writer, he told me there was a novel I should read — In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust. Then he recommended two movies — Children of Paradise by Marcel Carné and Ran by Akira Kurosawa.

Lucky Strike

I’ve spent a good chunk of time lately in Northern Virginia where one of my neighbors is a 90-year-old former prisoner of war named William Tippins. He stopped by one day last week and asked me if I wanted to go to Ft. Belvoir, specifically to the Base Exchange, or BX, a shopping mall of sorts anchored by a store with Macy’s-like products and a Target-like layout. Keen to check out the bargains and hear more of his story, I said yes.

During World War II, Tippins was in a foxhole in Anzio, Italy, when a mortar shell exploded, knocked him unconscious, and sliced through his lower abdomen, leaving his intestines hanging out. When Tippins came to, a German soldier was standing above him.

“For you the war is over,” said the soldier, who gave Tippins a choice. The soldier could put him out of his misery or let him walk three kilometers to the nearest aid station. Tippins chose to walk.

Periodically pouring water on the wound, as the German soldier had told him to do, Tippins survived the trek. He was then taken to a German field hospital near Rome, where, he said, “they put my intestines back in and sewed me up.”

A couple of days after the surgery, Tippins tried to escape. He was caught and placed in solitary confinement at Stalag VII-A in Mooseburg, Germany. Unable to keep down the rations of bread they gave him, his health rapidly deteriorated, and prison officials sent him to an aid station in a town called Fuerstenwalde outside of Berlin.

Tippins was telling me this story, one of stunning bravery, gumption and grit, as he was driving along back roads from Springfield, VA, to Ft. Belvoir. When we pulled into the BX parking lot, he put the story on hold while we went into the Macy’s-like, Target-like store and looked around. I eyeballed the bargains while he, an apparent regular, chatted with a few familiar faces before we went back to the car. Once there, he promptly picked up where he left off — in Fuerstenwalde.

Her name, he said, was Ursula, but he didn’t know that at the time. All he knew is that she had rosy cheeks, tended to his wounds, and on the down-low, brought him extra food. He, in return, gave her a nickname – Pinky. And that was that. She brought him food, he called her Pinky, and the war determined everything else.