Laureles Grade

Last Sunday I achieved a 20 year ambition.
Laureles GradeMany years ago my in-laws moved to Carmel Valley in California. Their house was about 15 miles from Carmel, east of Carmel Valley Village. Over the years I visited them many times, and got to know all of the different routes to their house. And to get there from Salinas, or to avoid traffic around Monterey, the key was Laureles Grade: a 5.6 mile road over a 1200 ft. ridge between the Monterey-Salinas Highway and the Carmel Valley Road.
It’s not a particularly fast road – the posted limit is 55, but it’s too twisty to work up much speed, and it’s easy to get stuck behind a slow vehicle. And the scenery is unremarkable, except for a brief vista of Salinas. But it’s a driver’s road. The experience of driving it fast, with concentration and precision, is immensely rewarding. And I know that it isn’t just me. The northern end of the grade is just a couple of miles from the Laguna Seca race track, and on race weekends, or around the time of the Monterey Historics Motorsports Reunion, you’ll see many new and classic sports cars on the grade, from Porsches to Ford GT40s to a certain replica Jaguar D-type.
I loved driving the Grade, but there was always a problem. I lived in Massachusetts, so whenever I visited California I drove a rental car. I had some nice cars back east, including a pretty little Mazda Miata and an AWD turbo Subaru Legacy GT which could go through any turn as if it was on rails, but I never got to drive any of them over the Grade. And the rentals were all the kind of car that a corporate travel department would approve of…
A few months ago, just after Christmas, I finally got to drive the Grade in a car of my own: my Toyota Prius. Now the Prius has many admirable qualities, but handling is not one of them. As I blogged at the time, it wasn’t fun, and shortly afterwards I replaced the Prius with a Hyundai Genesis Coupe. 3.8L, RWD, 300+HP, loads of fun.
Last weekend we drove down to Carmel to attend a wonderful musical event: a reunion of Al Stewart and Peter White, the guitarist who accompanied Al on many of his biggest hits, complete with band. It was a great show, and we stayed overnight in Carmel. On Sunday morning we were trying to decide what to do, and how much time we could spare before I had to get home to work. We were thinking about Point Lobos, or bird-watching at Moss Landing, or maybe an early lunch in Santa Cruz… and then Kate made a simple suggestion: “Let’s drive over the Grade in the new car.”
So we did.
And it was magical.

Foothills Park

Today was an almost perfect autumn day (California variety), and we decided that it was the ideal occasion to explore one of the perks of living in Palo Alto: Foothills Park. It’s a 1,400 acre tract of rolling chaparral, woodland, and lakes, open only to Palo Alto residents and their guests(!). We parked by Boronda Lake and walked around it, and then drove via the Interpretive Center to a hilltop “vista” which gave us a splendid view of San Francisco Bay. As you can see from the photos, we had a clear view of Mount Diablo and Oakland, as well as local landmarks like the Hoover Tower at Stanford and the airship hangars at Moffett Field.

(Thumbnails link to full-size 4000×3000 originals.)

I really have become a Californian

Last Sunday evening, as I was heading back to my hotel in Newton, MA, I decided to stop off at the CVS drug store to pick up a bottle of white wine.
Drug stores in Massachusetts don’t sell alcoholic beverages. And the liquor store next door was closed, too.
Now I see that it’s not just a question of day, time, and kind of store: proximity to a church is also a factor:

The owner of a Braintree gas station and convenience store says he won’t appeal the town’s decision to deny him a license to sell beer and wine, even though he doesn’t agree the sales would hurt the “spiritual and educational activities’’ of the church across the street.
Mobil on the Run is within 500 feet of St. Thomas More Roman Catholic church, and the town license board was required by state law to consider the church’s opinion, according to Town Clerk Joseph Powers.
The pastor of St. Thomas More Parish sent a letter to the board saying he had concerns about Mobil on the Run selling beer and wine because of the large numbers of children and teenagers who worship and take religious classes at the church.

And yet religious wackos keep insisting that “people of faith” are under attack from strident atheists and aggressive secularists….

Coit Tower

Although we moved to the Bay Area a year ago, we haven’t spent any time exploring San Francisco itself. I’ve been up for a couple of business meetings, but that hardly counts. So yesterday we jumped on an early Caltrain, rode up to the city, and took a cab to Coit Tower.

The forecast was for cool and foggy weather, which meant we wouldn’t see too much from the top of the tower, but that didn’t matter. We were most interested in seeing the amazing murals. We planned to join in the guided tour at 11am, which provides access to some of the murals that are normally closed to the public.

We arrived before 10am, and explored the murals in the public rotunda. We noticed that the number of visitors was steadily increasing, so we decided to take the elevator ride to the top of the tower immediately, rather than waiting until after the tour. Even so, we had to stand in line.

As forecast, the view was distinctly misty. However there was one odd sight which piqued my curiosity: what appeared to be a small aircraft carrier, under tow, with a strange structure on the flight deck:
(Click for more detail)
At the time, I thought that it looked like an amphibious assault ship, such as the USS Tripoli, but I was confused: hadn’t the Tripoli been decommissioned years ago? (Yes.) Perhaps it was part of the “ghost fleet” from Suisun Bay; I knew that they were scheduled for scrapping. But in that case the ship’s course made no sense. Kate found a link to a real-time map of San Francisco Bay shipping, but I couldn’t find it on there.
My best guess is that it was in fact the Tripoli, being towed out to sea (perhaps to Pearl Harbor), for use as a launch platform for SCUD and other missiles as part of the THAAD or Aegis BMD anti-missile programs.
By the time we returned to the base of the tower, the crowds had grown dramatically. There was a long line for the elevator, and outside the traffic was backed up all the way down the hill, as people waited for one of the few parking spaces at the top. We decided to skip the tour of the murals, took the #39 bus down the hill (admiring the way in which the driver negotiated the traffic), and had a wonderful lunch at the Mona Lisa in North Beach.
You can see more of the pictures I took here.

A weekend in Sacramento

On Friday night we drove up to Sacramento for the weekend. My son Chris was being ordained as an Episcopal Deacon on Saturday, and we decided that it would be a great opportunity to explore Sacramento.
The ordination went off very well, although unfortunately Chris’s grandparents weren’t well enough to make the journey. I took a number of photos, and although they capture the feel of the event, the quality is pretty abysmal. I blame myself for adhering to the rules (“no flash photography”) – rules which many others ignored. (It’s tough having those first-born, rule-observing instincts!)

On Saturday afternoon, Kate and I explored the “Old Sacramento” area. It was very hot, and the crowds made it hard to appreciate the historic character of the place. We took the steam train ride, which was a bit underwhelming – a short trip to nowhere. Hmmm. Fortunately when we returned on Sunday morning, things were very quiet, and we could really enjoy the nicely-restored district.

The main reason for the Sunday morning visit was to go to the California State Railroad Museum. This was a wonderful experience; I’ve been to many railroad museums around the world, and the CSRM is clearly the best so far. Mostly this is because of the holistic approach: it’s not just a place of pilgrimage for hard-core enthusiasts, like Didcot or Lancaster, Pennysylvania. As you can see, it brings in the history, politics, sociology, business, and culture of the railroad in California, as well as the resulting love affair with toy trains. Nice touches: the sleeper car, which vibrated on its tracks just as if it were rolling down the track, and the enormous “cab forward” freight engine of the Southern Pacific:

After lunch on Sunday, we decided to head back, rather than waiting for the rush-hour. (Even so, the traffic heading back from Reno to San Francisco was quite impressive.) On the way, we stopped to look at the “ghost fleet” moored in Suisun Bay. You can just make out the clipper bow of the USS Iowa, BB-61:

Street rods and classic cars in Pomona, CA

On Saturday morning we drove the 382 miles down to Pomona, CA, to take Hannah back to school. When we arrived at our hotel in Pomona, we found the parking lot full of beautifully restored and customized classic cars, sparkling in the sun. I grabbed my camera….

While Hannah and I were busy taking pictures, Kate discovered that there was going to be a huge auto swap-meet on Sunday, starting at 5am, just up the road at the Fairplex. 5am? Really. OK. And so the next morning I tiptoed out of the hotel and drove up to the huge, sprawling county fairgrounds. I arrived about 5:30, and it was quite misty, but the crowds were already building. There were thousands of booths being set up to sell and swap every kind of car-related equipment, paraphernalia, and memorabilia. You want a flawlessly chrome-planted rear bumper for a 1948 Chevy? No problem.
The swap-meet area was divided into two by a wide access road. On one side were all of the booths, concessions, and vendors. On the other side were the cars, neatly organized into different areas for street rods and restored cars of different eras. VWs had their own dedicated area. Ditto Porsches. And for hour after hour the cars streamed in….

I wandered around, photographing, admiring, dreaming. The pictures aren’t particularly great – the light was really bad – but the pride of the men (all men?) in their restoration work was palpable, and you can see it in the results. I stayed until around 8:30, before rejoining the others for the rest of the day. And then yesterday afternoon we drove back. Each way, we did 380 miles in less than 7 hours, including stops. (And it was not nearly as tiring as I expected – I think this may become a regular run.)

Sea otter and seals at Pigeon Point

We enjoyed our visit to Pigeon Point Lighthouse in February so much that we went back there this morning. No elephant seal this time, but plenty of things to see. Check out the gallery here. I got a series of shots of a Sea Otter eating; they’re at extreme zoom, but still pretty clear. (DSCN0902-DSCN0910, plus a detailed blow-up at the end.) Then there were about a dozen Harbor Seals hanging around in a photogenic manner on a rock below the lighthouse.
And yes, of course we went back to Cameron’s for lunch. Beer, buses, and bangers-and-mash. How could we not?

Sea otter (detail)

Sea otter (detail)

Harbor seals

Harbor seals

Pigeon Point, the elephant seal, and beer with buses

This morning we drove across to the old lighthouse at Pigeon Point, south of Half Moon Bay. It was foggy going over the mountains, and when we reached the coast we were unimpressed by the NWS forecast of sunshine. It was high tide, the waves were pounding, spray was flying, and the clouds were low and threatening. In the bay just south of the lighthouse we spotted an elephant seal playing in the surf; occasionally he would swim out around Prisoner’s Rocks, before returning to the beach. I managed to get some nice shots of him. After a while, the sun came out and the seas moderated. We saw a pair of Harbor Seals just offshore, but I couldn’t get a clear photo.
For lunch we scooted up to Half Moon Bay and went to Cameron’s Pub: the one with two “London buses” parked outside. Of course neither of them ever saw service in London: they are a couple of Bristol FLF Lodekkas. Both are in pretty shabby condition, and neither will ever run again. As to their actual provenance, one seems to be ex-Thames Valley, based on an annual inspection checklist in the cab.
Photos from both Pigeon Point and Cameron’s can be found here. Herewith a few samples:

Insanely busy

I seem to be slipping into a mode where I spit out a handful of blog posts and then subside for a week or more. C’est la vie. Since last blogging, we’ve made great strides on getting the apartment up and running. We have TV, Internet, and VOIP telephony. (And on the TV, mirabile dictu, we have SpeedHD! YES!!!) We have shared printing, albeit with a replacement printer: my HP All-In-One didn’t survive the move, so I went out and bought a Canon MX860. The idea of a WiFi-enabled device that does full-duplex printing and feeder-based scanning/copying for under $200 strikes me as vaguely amazing.
The car is almost sorted out. Some friends of mine decided to buy a new 2010 Prius, and offered me a great deal on their 2007 Prius Touring. It took a few days for everything to come together, but we’ve done the deal, I now have a California license, insurance is sorted out (which was more of a hassle than it should have been), and tomorrow I’ll go to the DMV to make it official by paying the sales tax and a gazillion other little fees. There’s not much point in me posting a picture (it looks like every other silver Prius you’ve ever seen), but it’s a true geek’s car. Now to pick out a personalized plate – maybe “CLOUD C” or “ESSEX U” or “AVEBURY”…
As we unpacked all of the boxes, I was all for crushing them and getting rid of them as fast as possible. Instead, Kate advertised them (for free) on Craig’s List, and we had grateful takers for all of them. Lesson to the impatient: recycling stuff is worth the small effort. We haven’t unpacked the books yet, so we’re going to have plenty more.
An on top of all this, I’m busy making plans for another trip to China! I’m flying out on Friday. This time, my plans are so fluid that for now I’ve simply booked a one-way ticket to Hong Kong; we’ll make up the rest of the itinerary over the next few days. There’s a nice urgency in all of this which I also found at Amazon (and didn’t experience during the last few years at Sun). But at Amazon, the urgency was of the short-term variety: small teams, short projects, quick pay-backs. Not here.
(Weird travel detail. I’m flying out on Cathay Pacific, and I thought that since I may wind up on quite a few CX flights over the next few years, it might make sense for me to join their Frequent Flier program, the Marco Polo Club. I went through the long online application form, right up to the point where they told me that it would cost $50 to join. I checked the out-of-the-box benefits: nothing special. So I think I’ll be accruing my CX miles on AA or BA.)

What a week

This has been an incredible week. 10 days ago we shipped all of our belongings off to California. Since then:

  • We’ve stayed in four different hotels (one in Seattle, three in California). The California shuffle was because of having to continually adjust our expectations about when our stuff would arrive from Seattle, and because many hotels were sold out because of a sporting event for the older set over at Stanford.
  • We’ve set up local bank accounts, and found to our delight that Bank of America is California is actually wired in to the rest of the network, unlike BofA in Washington State which seems to be a poor stepchild.
  • We’ve bought two cars. Well, actually Kate bought her car; I’ve agreed to a purchase which will be consummated next week.
  • We’re moved in – finally. (Yes, the movers were a day late on an expedited move for which we paid an extra $500. Yes, we’re pissed. Yes, we’ll get over it.) Of course “moved in” is a relative term: we still have around 50 boxes to unpack or commit to the storage area. But the furniture is in place (the movers only broke three pieces), the kitchen is up and running, and we have somewhere to sleep.
  • We have internet connectivity, WiFi, and VOIP phone service. We would have TV as well, except for the creative ingenuity of someone at Comcast. And the (non-Comcast) VOIP setup was tedious, involving 40 minutes on the (cell)phone to tech support (including opening up the WAN side of the VOIP box so the tech could ssh into it), followed by a reconfiguration of the Time Capsule that we use for WiFi. TV should be set up on Monday.
  • We’ve discovered three wonderful Italian restaurants nearby, ranging from the fabulous to the neighborhood (in walking distance) to the delightfully creative. And we realized that this was something we missed in Seattle; while there were tons of good seafood places and eclectic nouveau wine bars, there were relatively few good Italian restaurants. Perhaps we missed them; it’s academic now.
  • I spent a relatively full week at work, including several breakfast meetings. Busy, busy, busy. I’m having fun.
  • And this evening we finally got to see the latest Harry Potter film. It was good. Watching the scene where they magically restored a house which a wizard had trashed, we both (a) thought of Mary Poppins, and (b) wished we could use some of that magic on our unopened boxes. Ah, well.

Tomorrow we’ll tackle the clothing and the rest of the geek infrastructure. (Printing would be good. Music too.) And we’ll do a grocery run, which will involve a tough choice: we have Whole Foods, Trader Joe’s and Safeway within a few blocks….