Couple of Days

Sweet winter sun gives us 80-degree days, yesterday and again today. I took a hike for a couple of hours up the coast, just past Steamer Lane, in the late morning. My wife and daughter went camping in Big Sur for a few days to explore the glorious weather and scenery to our south, while my sister called from over the mountain and wanted to come visit the ocean. Steamer Lane’s wave action was living up to its name, as large waves popped up on the outer reefs a few hundred yards off shore, while a light wind lifted a spray off the lips of the waves, making the spray look as if steam rises from the ocean. The outer waves look somewhat like steamships going across the bay in a regular pattern, and thus the name Steamer Lane. There are versions of how this legendary surf spot received its name, but this one makes the most sense to me.

These warm winter days at the beach draw out some of the funny characters that Santa Cruz attracts. I pulled into the parking lot near the Lane and startled a couple of young men sitting in the open mini-van next to me. They were smoking pot and were sprawled out on the floor of the van over a pile of sleeping bags and a big brown dog. Tattoos, fuzzy heads, dirty jeans and bare skin from the belt up, they lay in the warm sun in a sort of sleepy, psychedelic frenzy, which shocked my sister, as she had to open her door onto the scene they had created for all to view, and she is not that acquainted with this odd beach culture.

The pot got quickly extinguished, although the lingering cloud hung thick inside the mini-van. The two of them grinned at us, nodded to indicate that they were still somewhat functional as human beings, and garbled back some sort of greeting about how nice the sun felt. I’ve been around these beaches all my life, so I hardly consider this laid-back life style to be much of a shocker. People drift into town from all over the country in the winter, and I know these precious golden days are quite stunning to them. It’s like being able to drive to Hawaii. But to have your own party in a public parking lot right beside the sidewalk just seems discourteous to those who come to walk the beach trail and watch the waves. The beach and surf culture in this town encourages a style of manana laziness that meshes with the Mediterranean climate.

My peripheral neuropathy, this medical condition I have now had for eight years, is some days more intense than others. My feet are numb and some days the numbness extends up my leg half way to my knee. On better days I hardly notice it, and on those days when it comes on stronger, I would swear that I have no sense at all of being connected with the earth. Yesterday was one of the better days, so I was able to walk maybe three or four miles without too much tripping over my own feet and weaving a crooked, tipsy path. I had my aluminum walking sticks with me, which I often bring when I know I’m going for a longer walk, and they work wonders at keeping me from doing a face plant.

I see more old people around Santa Cruz using these walking sticks. The town is a haven not only for the surf-bum, pot-smoking crowd, but for retirees who come to drink up inspiration from visiting the ocean. Week days, when the rest of the world is at work or school, these special classes of people–the bums and the old–take possession of the benches and walkways. So I saw several people yesterday like me who look pretty healthy, but have some special medical adversity gnawing away at their comfort and well-being. I still find it difficult to identify myself with this crowd. Eight years ago I could jog for miles, jump in the cold ocean water in the winter time and surf waves for a couple of hours, or ride my racing bike up long, forested roads into the mountains. The neuropathy erased most of that for me within the first year, so that I am reduced to walking slowly on smooth and even asphalt trails, or putting in laps in the local swimming pool. Maybe I should have began slowing down more gradually at an earlier date in life, so that I wouldn’t still be in a state of shock at this age.

This life is not so bad, however. I’m not quite as laid-back as the pot smoking surf bums and am not in any pain or suffering from the neuropathy, so I manage to find a sweet spot in it all, where I am fortunate enough to come enjoy the ocean when it’s at its best, be a stumble bum for a couple of hours, then return to my house in the forest a couple of miles inland.

In the early afternoon my sister got a craving for food. We drove down the coast to Aptos, some fifteen miles south of the lighthouse at Steamer Lane, and went to lunch at one of her favorite little restaurants that is located within a beach resort complex. Some pimple-faced Hollywood heart throb was spotted visiting here just last weekend, which got the attention of all the local news agencies–a celebrity sighting!  We ordered a couple of small shrimp louie salads and coffees. I don’t drink coffee much in the middle of the day as I did during my working years, when it was just too embarrassing to fall asleep in the middle of a business meeting. My habit has been to just yield to the notion of soma, but yesterday I drank two cups and skipped that whole sleepy-head part of my day. We ate and watched the ocean from a different angle. No wind or fog had come into Aptos from the outer waters of the Monterey Bay. Just a pretty backdrop of blue water as we peered at it through a light forest of skinny pine trees.

“This is what you’re supposed to do in retirement”.
“Okay, this is not so difficult”.
“People fly to the coast of Spain to do this, and we can do it right here”.
“I see. Well, yes! I am on this beach as much as I can be”.

We got back in the car and drove up along the coast, hugging the shape of the land as it meets the edge of the water. The neighborhoods, towns, and roads here were designed in the days before people much understood speeding expressways and freeways. The only way to drive and stay close to the water is to make many turns and go through numerous stop signs at the busier intersections. We drove through the heart of Capitola Village, and up one of the long side streets to a hill that overlooks the entire bay, but is removed from the busy flow of traffic–a different perspective on what we have been looking at all day. Below us now we see the whole village and all the people that come together within its tight geographical confines of narrow river canyon. The afternoon wind has forgotten to come up. Everything about this day feels delightfully easy and restfully familiar. The individuals in the village are doing the same things I always see them doing from this God-like perspective, as if the village is a mechanical device with human parts embedded in it that can be replaced by other parts at any time. It is always doing the same thing, but the people within it are constantly changing.

A couple walks by us with their dog and stops to discuss the weather. They have been thinking of moving to the Big Island, but days like this make them just as glad to be here.

“We would like to move to the mountains above Hilo and start a small farm, but we have family here that we would have to leave behind, and, besides, farming is hard work. We don’t want to be doing that in our old age”. Sounds like an old dream that is still smoldering.

“I agree. I don’t want to farm either. I like looking at productive land and admire the people working the land, but that’s enough involvement for me. I would move to Hilo for the weather and the beach.”

It’s my sister who first got me all stirred up several years ago to want to move to Hilo. We went and visited two or three times. We had too many complications back on the mainland that needed to be resolved. Now that has all changed, but the heightened desire as somehow become deflated as well.

We then drove over to the local produce stand on another hill above Capitola Village. My sister wants to do her daily grocery shopping in fresh, warm air, rather than within the confines of a concrete building. The sun is now sinking and she must get back over the mountain because, like me, she does not like driving in the mountains in the dark. We have some hint of a discussion about maybe another round of exploring the coastal sunshine again tomorrow. The sun goes down, moon comes up, and the moist cold air of night settles in on me.

At dawn, however, I have resolved to get up early to write, when I see an email in my inbox from my sister. One day of indulging in this bright and gentle winter sun is not enough for her. I tell her that life is going that way with the wife and daughter down in Big Sur. They have decided to stay another night at their favorite campground, Kirk Creek, above the steep sea cliffs. I know the spot well and can’t blame them for wanting to linger on.

Since before Christmas I have talked of wanting to go San Francisco’s de Young Museum to see the David Hockney art exhibit. I went one day and managed to pick the one day out of the week that the museum was closed, a Monday, so had it in mind to return another time before the exhibit became disassembled. Several painters in the family, my sister being one of them, I knew she had in interest in seeing Hockney as well. We swapped a couple more emails, a quick phone conversation, and soon she was back over the mountain, a 30-minute drive, for another day of sunny exploration. It would be good, we decide, to drive up the entire coast from Santa Cruz to San Francisco along the quiet and scenic Highway One, rather than the elaborate freeway construct that is so heavily used that it is often no longer efficient.

I have time before she arrives to make my morning green smoothie in the Vitamix, loaded with two fists full of baby leafy greens, and gulp it down with a second cup of coffee before she pulls up my driveway.

We fill the tank on my little Toyota and I drive, as her larger GM car is too much for the traffic and parking limitations imposed on drivers in San Francisco. We stop north of Ano Nuevo–New Years in Spanish–named so, I imagine, because of the low tides around the beginning of the year that allow one to walk out to an island just offshore from here. It’s all marine sanctuary now, so I don’t bother visiting this piece of the coastline. The rangers are bossy, which takes away the fun and spontaneity of visiting a scenic spot. The rules and regulations they impose on people seem intended for school children on a field trip who often load in here by bus to go see the elephant seals laying on warm sandy beaches. We’re just looking for the quick walk out to the edge of the fields to view the waves pounding on shore.

Just a few miles north, at Cascade Creek, is a stretch of coastline and trail I often come to visit. My sister hasn’t been here before and is looking for a short but vigorous hike this morning before going into the city for the day. Something she says about the Arcadian experience, mixed with the metropolitan, makes for a full day. I take out my walking sticks, which allow me to move with grace over the bumpy dirt road we must follow down to a stand of eucalyptus trees.

She likes to talk philosophy and religion. I’ve recently been reading from Seneca’s “Letters of a Stoic”, so that is the gist of our conversation as we move through the fields and rolling hills of this open countryside. Not a single man-made structure is within our view, only the tall brown grass of what was once dairy grazing land, and a few hawks circling overhead. The morning discussion is centered on one of Seneca’s letters that advises us to not read just the maxims of philosophers, the quick and easy quotes that have a bright attraction to one’s mind, but rather make the effort to read and understand the whole philosophy of him and his counterparts. We haven’t the time today to cover all of that, even in a long-winded dialog, so the talk turns to more of a comparison and contrast between the key ideas of the stoics and that of the early church fathers. St. Augustine’s Confessions rolls into the conversation, and I say how I don’t think Augustine ever really gave up his love for Plato.

We return to the car on this dirt road. My sister says what a perfect sanctuary this place is, where she can loosen her mind, feel carefree for an hour, and leave the worries of the world behind to ponder the greater things. I put my walking sticks in the trunk of the car and we head north through the town of Half Moon Bay. Several small coastal towns here are tucked in the bottoms of steep river canyons. They look like some modern version of ancient Ohlone Indian encampments, the way they are compacted and constrained by the geology of ancient river beds. I’m sure those people of the past had a unique view of the world that has become as well forgotten as that of the Roman stoic philosophers.

We drive through the new Tom Lantos tunnel near Pacifica, which has been drilled into a mountain to reroute traffic around the notorious Devil’s Slide. That stretch of road has always been so intimidating to drive through because of the sheer drop-offs, a thousand feet into the Pacific, and winter rains that once made large chunks of the road wash away. The new tunnel, though its darkness swallows all of the ocean view, lets us pass on smoothly toward the city. We climb one long grade and can see the entire San Francisco Bay from on top, while looking behind we can see the open Pacific and steamships heading either toward or away from the mouth of the great bay at the Golden Gate.

We are lucky this day to find a free parking spot in Golden Gate Park that is within walking distance of the de Young museum. The expensive parking garage would be our other resort. I pull out my walking sticks once again. They are still a new phenomenon to me, even though I have used them irregularly for a couple of years. I tripped and twisted an ankle a month or so ago, and the ankle still sends me signals that it is not completely healed, so the sticks keep me upright and help me from tipping over unexpectedly. I’m slow on foot anyhow, and the busy rush of foot traffic along the asphalt between my car and the de Young causes me to constantly side-step so that the quick walkers mighty pass. I really feel the intensified speed of city people, since I have lived in the forested mountains of Santa Cruz County most of my life. City walking is not my custom, but it is enjoyable to come on occasion and get caught up in this quicker life.

We’re hungry and the early afternoon sleepiness syndrome has already begun to settle in on me. We go to the museum cafe for lunch and that extra pick-me up from freshly brewed coffee. A guard at the door is checking bags, purses and packs. He sees me with my walking sticks and advises me to grab a table in the cafe right away because the crowds are now building and seating might soon be impossible. I occupy the closest empty table, as I can see people scurrying around with trays of food, looking for a spot to settle and eat, while my sister goes through the long ordering line.

I pull out my Kindle and read for fifteen minutes from Knausgard’s novel, titled “My Struggles”. My, what detailed writing! He will walk me through his busy early life in Stockholm to the point that I feel like I am shadowing his every movement, his every thought. It is a style that he has adopted, I would guess, from reading Marcel Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time”. I forget for a few moments about all the human activity going on just beyond my elbows in this busy cafe, and find a vicarious life within his words. But soon we are eating –squash quiche, gazpacho, sprigs of brightly-colored lettuce–and sipping coffee. Just beyond us are doors to the Hockney exhibit, where crowds continue to swell.

We must wait 20 minutes after buying our tickets and headphones for the audio tour. My sister is treating today, or I might not have rented the headphones. Neoither of us attend museums very often, so it’s a big deal to make the effort to be here and understand what it is that makes Hockney supposedly one of the greatest artists alive today. The talking tour is supposed to help with that. I suspect that our immersion in art over the years has already prepared us for the visual tour.

As I’m standing in line, waiting to enter the first main gallery room, a short Chinese woman, less than five feet tall, keeps staring at me and my walking sticks. They are about as tall as her head. I don’t know what she sees, but it sure holds her attention to watch me shifting my weight back and forth and leaning easily on them at times. Secretly, I think many people in the museum would like to be holding a pair of them right about now. I feel less vulnerable when moving through the density of this crowd, somewhat assured that I will not be knocked down and trampled on.

Hockney’s paintings are huge and they are brightly colored. They cause people to move in close to examine brush strokes, whether oil or digital, then pull back for the distant perspective. I have little deep appreciation for some of them, particularly the portraits he painted of friends of his. My headphones cannot talk me into any deeper fondness for them, but I learn that they are his friends,and there is something sublime about visiting with them, if only for a moment. The many portraits show people sitting in office chairs and just staring glumly at me. I feel like I’m at work in an office building myself.

The larger pieces grab my attention, however. He painted smaller individual panels, which are then hung up together in groups to present one much larger image. I don’t know how else one might be able to paint or transport a canvas that is 12 feet tall and 60 feet long. The paintings he did with his iPad lack the finer detail that I could see in his charcoal drawings and oil paintings, but there is still something of the spectacular in them. The tiny drawing surface of an iPad is suddenly transformed into large murals that look neither like a photograph or a painting. The magic, I suppose, is in the magnification and the printing of tiny, manageable images, into scenes that suggest I might climb into them.

The color choices of his English countryside pieces is interesting. I guess I’m from the old school in thinking of Gainesborough as being a master of depicting the great outdoors, where Hockney’s strokes of paint are much more happy and celebrate a vision of bright oranges, reds, and tropical-looking greens. The longer I looked and thought about his choice of colors, the more I came to agree with him that they do give off a pleasing sensation, and not one of garishness.

I had to dig down deep and remind myself that painting and the love of imagery is subjective. He is working hard at pulling a response out of me that might upset my normal values and expectations. My headphones don’t tell me much about such things. They tell me where he was and what media he might have used, and leave the rest for me to ponder. The crowd is too thick today to ponder much more than I might be able to do if positioned within a herd of cattle. We had thought that since the exhibit is about to conclude in San Francisco that it might not be so heavily attended. I imagine everyone else thought the same, because here we were, all together, trying to squeeze out as much aesthetic enjoyment as possible from this man’s huge effort. That is perhaps what the museum experience is supposed to be like. Even though the works are big and expressive and there is much to look at, it is hard within the confines of an hour or so to breathe it all in.

We talked about our experience earlier in the day of following the long dirt road to the sea at Cascade Ranch. Nearly all of Hockney’s paintings have dirt roads or garden pathways in them. His roads often intersect in the foreground and split in two different directions, giving the eye cause to look at more than one scenario within the same painting. One road might lead to a red barn on the edge of farmland, while the other road leads into thick forest. A nice effect, one that I had not thought of, before seeing his work. The study of roads is so much a part of me as I seem to enjoy drives through the back country. I think I will now see roads in a new way.

But for this day, we must leave the museum, find our trail through San Francisco’s busy commute traffic, and get back out on to the wide open coast, to wend our way home. All the early morning light we had seen coming north has now turned into a softened and glowing orange mist that is ignited by a falling sun. Yes, now I see Hockney trees of red and orange that had been green only a few hours before. Large waves rolling in from the open sea are no longer green and blue, but purple and pink, as though the road I had driven was not truly one road, but two.

Back home in the forest last evening, my sister gone home, I learn from a voice mail on my phone that my wife and daughter have decided to remain in Big Sur for another evening of camping above the cliffs. They are completely removed from cell phone service. Big Sur forces one to become disentangled from the tethers of civilization. A full moon is lifting over the forest tree tops. The night feels like it might be a warm one. The day has been too big to not go out and give this fat, bright moon long hard look. Besides, the busy shuffle of the city is now just part of my memory, and I can relax and think longer about what I have seen today. I pull out my propane campfire and stir up a little bit of magic night brightness. Although it is dimmed by this pregnant moon, the modest fire gives me heat. Within minutes I see the fire beginning to die out. I have run out of propane, so I sit a little longer and imagine that I can feel the moon giving off heat.

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