Southbound — San Francisco to Vegas
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.
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 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 the Redwood Empire.
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.
The Ferry Building is the dividing line between even and odd numbered piers. The industrial, even numbered piers extend south. The odd numbers extend north leading up to the bars, restaurants, shops, museums, boating excursions, and other amusements at Pier 39 and Fisherman’s Wharf. I went north, 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 iron railings, it’s beautiful in its simplicity.
Also beautiful in their simplicity were the many roadside vistas 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 its namesake River and the bay. Due to dangerous currents, the beach is used mo
re 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 a bath followed by a floating nap.
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; 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.
About an hour the other side of Bakersfield is when the sun went down and that big old moon took center stage, allowing for an amazing view, even in the desert in the dark of night, and bringing to mind this gem from Divine Sisters of the Ya Ya Sisterhood: “[A] summer moon will put up with inattention for just so long.”