Wednesday, October 31, 2012

These Were My California Storytellers

"Western time now," Laura Ingalls Wilder noted in her letter to husband Almanzo when changing time zones on her train route from her home in Missouri as she documented the journey to visit daughter Rose in San Francisco where the Pan-Pacific International Exhibition was held in 1915. Laura's collection of letters was published in West from Home. Western time it did feel like as well on out honeymoon trip to California. Not just a change in hours but a change in pace, attitude, historical backgrounds shaping our identities and social differences.

Laura, whose Little House series was yet to come, struggled with how often she used the word beautiful in her letters to describe what she saw. Beautiful was a word that I would think of often. During her visit, the city was transformed from the 1906 earthquake and resulting fires that would destroy much of a city that seemed built overnight by the gold rush. Still, there were haunts of the past. Margot Patterson Doss writes in the introduction, "There were occasional vacant lots enclosed by wrought iron fences. In some were marble steps, leading up into thin air. Inez Irwin described them as "a little like meeting a ghost in a crowded street." I felt like I met a lot of ghosts here too.

Natalie Merchant, the upstate New York singer songwriter. Gold Rush Brides, her song with 10,000 Maniacs was with me, but I thought of her observations in "San Andreas Fault," from her first solo album Tigerlily in the context of the dreams the West offered but Mother Nature's harsh realities. I thought of San Francisco, a city built by the riches of gold, destroyed by fire, elemental forces at play.

"San Andreas Fault moved its fingers through the ground.
Earth divided, plates collided, such an awful sound.
San Andreas fault moved its fingers through the ground.
Terra cotta shattered, and the walls came tumbling down.
Oh promise land, what a wicked ground.
Build a dream, tear it down."

With our poorly battered East Coast still reeling from Hurricane Sandy, the duality of nature - its awe-inspiring, nurturing, giving side and its vengeful side - is on my mind. Steve and I lost an old oak tree, but consider ourselves lucky. Still, I think of how the Earth gives, but the Earth takes away.

Naturalist, conservationist, environmentalist, author, an American treasure, the great John Muir, who I knew far too little about until watching Ken Burns' extraordinary series on the National Parks: America's Best Idea, said,

"I only went out for a walk,
and finally concluded to stay out till sundown,
for going out, I found, was really going in."

Much about this trip was indeed about going out, and going in. Going out in Muir Woods not far from the city limits of San Francisco.

The first caretakers, a sign here in Yosemite National Park reminds me .While on this trip, the first presidential and vice presidential debate were held. The environment hasn't gotten a lot of attention, although I'll never understand why clean air, water and soil would ever take a back burner. Where our resources are concerned, I just hear a lot about taking. I liked a quote I read from Robert Redford in a book, "Yosemite Meditations,"

"I think the environment should be put in the category of national security. Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad. Otherwise, what is there to defend?"

Seeds of Hope: The California Gold Rush Diary of Susanna Fairchild, by Kristiana Gregory, part of the Dear America series. While this diary was fictional, it gave a fascinating context of true events. Susanna talks of a bear and bull fight at the camps, fights which did take place. An interesting story in the historical notes section,

"The bull and bear fights that took place in early California provided jargon for Wall Street that is still used today. When the animals were brought into the ring, the bear was tethered to a chain. It would dig a hole several inches deep and lie down. From this hole, it would fight, either in prone or sitting position. The bull would stand. Thus, in America's financial centers, a bull market means stocks are going up, and a bear market means stocks are going down." 

At the local bookshop in the gold rush town of Columbia, I picked up A Columbia Diary, the real life diary of Clementine Brainard. I've read a few fictional diaries but this is the first actual diary I read. Clementine wrote in the first entry on October 19, 1853 of her intentions to keep journey during her sea journey but didn't. I brought a diary with me and had romantic notions of keeping it during my trip, and alas was too exhausted to write in it. I consider my blog a bit of a diary, one I haven't felt like writing in as much lately.

Clementine writes, "Do I ever have any thoughts that are worth being transferred to paper? I must be a singular individual.if I do not."

I'm so glad Clementine documented her thoughts, even though yes it feel voyeuristic to read them. Spoiler here if you want to read it yourself.  She writes of her husband's frequent ill health, speaks often about mail deliveries but doesn't elaborate much about what's in the letters, talks often about her faith, and speaks matter-of-factly when talking about death (maybe unsurprisingly seeing how common early death was). She bears her first child with barely any mention before and after of this event. Clementine's husband dies at 30 years of age and she remarries and has six more children, four of whom die in infancy. Walking around an old cemetery in Columbia, one cannot help but think of the hard lives people led and the progresses we made in medical care.

Alice Waters, who founded a national movement for local foods. Julia Child's story has been in my life a lot the last year or two, but what about Alice? Steve and I are still talking about the meal we savored in Berkeley, California at the cafe of Chez Panisse. On many meals on our trip here, we felt like someone just went to their back garden and whipped us up a feast.

Some weren't allowed to tell their stories. Banned books are displayed here at City Lights bookstore in San Francisco. Freedom of speech?

Always on road trips, unexpected storytellers find me, like favorite childhood storyteller Charles Schultz, who has a museum dedicated to him in Santa Rosa. At nearly 37 years of age, I still look forward each year to A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the soundtrack is one of my favorite holiday albums. The visit to the museum was my most charming stop, and how often can one go into a cafe and say with excitement, "One Peppermint Patty hot chocolate, please!" I'm sure somewhere Linus, this Halloween night, is waiting in a patch for the Great Pumpkin, and Mr. Schultz is smiling down on him.


  1. For weeks I've been wanting to take some time to sit down and catch up on your last couple of posts and finally, on this snowy, quiet Sunday-after-Thanksgiving I am taking the time to do just that. I have often dreamed of traveling and having the time and space to read about an area and its history, as you have, while there. I've done it in bits and pieces, and tried to do it with my daughter, but our travels wind up being mostly to the same relatives in the same places much of the time.

    Alice Waters is a hero of mine, but the one time we were in the area a number of years ago there was too much else going on to consider actually eating at Chez Panisse. So I am most jealous of you! I have heard you need to make reservations way in advance -- did you need to do that? And how was it eating vegetarian since I know they do serve meat, and it is a set menu.

    Well, while you were eating at Chez Panisse in California, my daughter and I were visiting New York. Based in part on your recommendations, we met my sister at Tea & Sympathy for tea one afternoon before heading on to see a friend appearing in the Broadway musical of Mary Poppins (the main reason for our visit!). I would love to post a picture of our amazing 3-tiered display of delights -- from tea sandwiches to scones with clotted cream to tea cakes -- but I don't think I can do that here. Anyway, it was delightful, and so much food we had to take much of it with us.

    While there I was chatting with the woman that owns the place and I told her that it was reading your blog that inspired me to be there. She was very happy to hear that and told me to pass on that you should send her a link to your postings and as she would love to share them on the website. (

    And thanks for the info on the Charles Shultz museum. It definitely sounds like it is worth a visit if only for the Peppermint Patty Hot Chocolate!!!

  2. Hi Amy! Thanks so much and Happy Thanksgiving! I can't believe how far behind my blog is. I have travel posts on San Francisco, the wine country, Columbia (the gold rush town), Yosemite (we stayed in Mariposa), and Berkley all in draft form. I need to complete those - and a wedding post!

    Eating vegetarian in California was the easiest experience I've ever had. Alice Waters is very veg-friendly. We were able to get a reservation at the more casual cafe calling as soon as the restaurant opened that day which was major luck. Our reservation was for a Thursday at 1:30. We got an unexpected private tour by the manager of the downstairs more fancy restaurant when we mentioned we were honeymooners, and there was an Argentinian chef there who the manager said was standing next to Alice. I couldn't believe she was there! We also ate at Thomas Keller's Bouchon Bistro - so wonderful! Since we asked for contributions to our honeymoon instead of doing a registry, we splurged on some fancier meals than we usually do on vacation.

    I'm so glad you enjoyed Tea and Sympathy! I will reach out to her. Feel free to send them to me via e-mail if you'd like: On this blustery day here, a pot of tea with some soup and scones with clotted cream and jam would hit the spot. I need to see Mary Poppins! My sister, mother and I all loved the film version. I walk through the theater district each weekday and sadly never see a show. Just rush to the bus terminal!

    A wintery afternoon of reading sounds lovely by the way. We had the first snow a few weeks ago and it was so quiet and magical.