Friday, June 17, 2011

Sight-seeing in S.F. with Friends

Last week I spent two days in Yosemite National Park, which is twice the time most people allot to that remarkable destination. This week, I spent three days showing San Francisco to friends, and the itinerary we planned together provided maximum exposure to my new home.

Susan and Denny and Deb and Bill had all been here before and had no interest in making the stops that many first-time visitors insist on, so we divided up the three days we had together this way: Day One was My San Francisco, Day Two was West Marin and Day Three was High Culture, offset a bit by riding buses everywhere we went.

Here is a report on the highlights.

MONDAY: We held our Welcome Dinner at Ragazza, a terrific pizza place where it is difficult to get in after 7 p.m. Fortunately, my visitors’ bodies were still operating on Central Daylight Time, so eating early was an excellent idea. I can vouch for the pie topped with thin-sliced potato, smoked bacon, red onion, rosemary and goat cheese.

TUESDAY: We started at the top of Twin Peaks to take in the near-panoramic view of San Francisco. Next we enjoyed a drive-by of lovely Crissy Field and stopped for beverages and cookies at the Warming Hut, which is thisclose to the Golden Gate Bridge. At Land’s End, we sat in the sun and contemplated life on the edge of the continent, which is also the entrance to San Francisco Bay. The water is at least three colors -- and maybe five. After a short drive to Fort Funston, we sat in the sun some more, watching waves wash ashore and pelicans fly in formation.

After lunch at the Beach Chalet, we waved at the bison housed in Golden Gate Park. In the Botanical Garden, we sat in the shade of coastal redwood trees and later spied turtles sunning themselves in a pond. At cocktail hour, we ambled into Finnegan’s Wake in Cole Valley, a bar once frequented by Janis Joplin. Then we walked to Haight-Ashbury, where we popped in at The Sock Shop, perused the merchandise at Pipe Dreams (the oldest head shop in the neighborhood) and sampled chocolates at Coco Luxe. After dinner at Bambino’s, we headed back to Twin Peaks to watch the sky make art at sunset. Bonus: A 99-percent full moon was on the rise.

WEDNESDAY: First thing, we headed north across the Golden Gate Bridge. We stopped to breathe in the fresh sea air at the Muir Beach Overlook, cruised through Stinson Beach, drove around Bolinas Lagoon (Sea lions! Egrets! Herons!) and then stopped to visit the studio of a friend – Emmeline Craig, a watercolorist who lives and works in Bolinas. After driving through the cow-filled Olema Valley, we stopped in Point Reyes Station for lunch.

After a stop at the Bear Valley Visitors Center, we headed for Limantour Beach, said to be the prettiest of the beaches at Point Reyes National Seashore. On the beach, we sat and soaked up the scenery, the sounds, the salt-sea air. On the drive home, we enjoyed the serenity of the towering redwoods in Samuel P. Taylor State Park. I dropped off my friends, who had dinner at Ziryab -- a great Mediterranean restaurant – and I headed home to relax and once again bind up wounds suffered in a fall at Twin Peaks the day before. (No point in going into details and spoiling this travelogue!)

THURSDAY: We met at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. First we rode to the top of the glassed-in tower so I could say, “I should be able to see my house from here.” Then we visited “Picasso: Masterpieces from the Musée National Picasso, Paris,” an exciting exhibition of more than 100 works of art. Yes, Picasso was a pig – we spent part of lunch trying to sort out how many wives and how many mistresses he admitted to – but he was clearly a genius. We split up briefly to see other works of art. (I opted to walk through “Balenciaga and Spain,” where I learned that Balenciaga was apprenticed to a tailor at the age of 13.)

After lunch in the museum’s café, we all boarded a bus to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where we were eager to see “The Steins Collect,” an exhibition of works by Matisse, Picasso, Cézanne, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and others – all collected by Gertrude Stein and her family members back when you could pick up a Picasso for $25. The art was astonishing, as were the family photos, including one taken one evening when Matisse came to dinner. What a thrill to see these two exhibitions on the same day! (I still must get to the Contemporary Jewish Museum to see “Seeing Gertrude Stein: Five Stories.”)

After a rest in the shade and then a rest in the sun at MOMA’s Rooftop Sculpture Garden and coffee bar, we stopped for pre-dinner drinks at a different sort of bar and then we boarded the F Streetcar for Teatro Zinzanni, where nothing is ever as it seems – but it’s always entertaining, an evening filled with feather boas for sale, good food and polished performances!

All this, punctuated with much laughter and good conversation – and yet when my friends return, they will find that San Francisco has even more to offer.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

A Quick Trip to Yosemite

Trees have much to teach us, and Friday I spent some time with some of the oldest, biggest trees on the planet. Meandering through the Mariposa Grove (on foot and later on the tram) in Yosemite National Park, I was in the company of Sequoiadendron giganteum – giant sequoia trees.

These trees are the biggest in volume – just one branch on the largest tree in Mariposa Grove measures seven feet in diameter -- though not height or longevity. Giant sequoias grow to an average height of 160–280 feet and measure an average of 20 to 26 feet in diameter. The oldest known giant sequoia was said to be 3,500 years old.

We looked at intact trees, fallen trees, trees with split trunks, trees with hollow trunks (you can step inside and see blue sky above) and two trees that are conjoined, covered in a singular bark. We looked at tall trees with names (Grizzly Giant, Clothespin Tree, Galen Clark Tree) and we looked at nameless sprouts, just getting started.

We also looked at trees marked forever with what the guide called “fire scars,” blackened areas left behind after the trees withstood the heat of raging fires. Lightning caused some of those fires, some took place as part of forest management and careless humans started some of the fires. The fire scars are testament to the strength -- and the good fortune -- of the surviving trees, which are still standing, still rustling in the wind, still warming themselves in the sun.

After learning about these majestic trees, I feel a lot better about my scars, external and internal. How about you?

Actually, enlightenment was not on my list of things to experience on my quick trip to Yosemite National Park on Thursday and Friday. I went to see the waterfalls, gushing full and furiously with snowmelt. I went to commune with Yosemite Valley, which John Muir said looks like “some immense hall or temple lighted from above.” (He added, “But no temple made with hands can compare with Yosemite.”) And I went to get away (oh the irony) from one of the top tourist destinations in the United States and my home for almost a year now – San Francisco.

From my door to the Yosemite Valley floor took five hours, and that included one highway backup and two stops. The next day, I came home. In all, I drove 501 miles. I spent the night at the Yosemite Bed and Breakfast outside Mariposa. The B&B is lovely, especially quiet and restful after the crowds and traffic in Yosemite Valley, which in some ways was not unlike being in downtown San Francisco – until you looked up.

Still, the thunderous roar of the waterfalls, the grandeur of the granite and the ancient trees, scars and all, made the trip completely worthwhile. Also, much of the drive from the park to Mariposa follows the racing Merced River, a river I would follow any day. And once in town, Savoury’s serves bacon-wrapped dates, grilled shrimp and good crusty bread.

Though wildflowers are late this year due to a chilly, rainy spring, some lupine was showing off along the drive, and around one bend was a hillside of delicate pink flowers. I imagined painting them. I remembered that I can’t draw, much less paint. Then I imagined painting them anyway.

Other highlights along the way (in no particular order) include:

·      The Altamont Pass Wind Farm 40 miles east of Oakland, with 4,930 wind turbines twirling atop grassy yellow hills.

·      A roadside stand in Big Oak Flat (pop. 200) named “Tie Dye and Jerky.” That is exactly what’s for sale.

·      The first view of Don Pedro Lake, a reservoir in a beautiful canyon carved by the Tuolumne River.

·      A sign advertising “Tequila Tuesdays” at a bar outside Oakdale. (Rats, it was a Thursday.)

·      Roadside fruit and nut stands near Escalon, which features miles of orchards. At The Barn, owner Denise Crom displays a “produce prayer flag” made of brightly colored fabric squares depicting fresh produce of all sorts.

·      A turkey sandwich on rye from Dori’s Tea Cottage in Groveland, a charming place just down the road from a sign announcing “Church Meets in the Park Every Sunday at 10:30 a.m.”

All this – and trees with important lessons to teach!

In honor of the giant sequoias in Yosemite National Park, I hope you will consider helping support all 394 national parks, reserves and monuments by making a donation to the National Park Foundation at