Van Morrison in Boston, April 26 & 27, 2016

Van Boston 2016 marqueeWang dang doodle – Van’s four-concert April mini-tour, which began with a set at the New Orleans Jazz Fest and then went up to Alpharetta, Georgia, for a show that reeled them in,  came to a crackerjack end with two nights at the Wang Theatre in Boston. And I got to go to both. I wouldn’t say that he pulled out all the stops for us,  but he pulled us through on a number of them.

So there I was in my seat on Tuesday night, knowing that Shana was going to open at 7:30; that she was going to have a 20-minute set; and Van was coming on at 8. I was in my seat in plenty of time, having spent the better part of the past three hours at a Boston preshow, so you know that was good. Since moving to the States in 1990, this has been my group – the East Coast fans, and they are the best, the best fans ever. You got to figure I’m in the best of caledonia moods as I sit there waiting for Shana to come out. So I start talking to the two women seated beside me. Van chit-chat. Lovely ladies, who it turns out are at their first Van Morrison concert, crossing something off their bucket list. I have a vision: What if I’d never been to a Van show before: what would I have done with a life that didn’t have his music in it? It’s a scary thought. But I recuperate quickly, and with just the slightest bit of envy, I tell them, “This guy’s amazing; you just wait and see.” What I wouldn’t give to be at my first Van concert again.

Shana does a nice job both nights in her opening set. She’s got her East Coast band, the Flying Manatees, on stage with her; and on the first night, Jason Crosby plays keyboards and violin. I give a nod to the first night for the fuller sound with Jason there, but also, it was just the better set in terms of setlist (Van’s “Angeliou”) and getting the crowd pumped for Van. I am reminded as I listen to Shana sing a lovely version of “Angeliou that one of the wonderful aspects of Van’s performance is the dynamics, both within a song and in the concert overall. In any event, a gentle version of the song ends with her singing, “I’ve got a story too … it goes like this … a story that goes something like this … I only wanted to see you laughing in the purple rain …purple rain, purple rain, purple rain, etc., etc.” and the Boston crowd loves it.

photo by Brian Heffler

photo by Brian Heffler

They are ecstatic by the time Van comes on stage. He walks on with his sax and the crowd erupts to its feet; but it’s business as usual as Van does his solo on “Celtic Swing.” And we’re into the standard opening numbers. “Close Enough For Jazz” and “Magic Time” give us a chance to listen to how good the band is and appreciate Van’s sax playing, which sounds great tonight. But more on that later.

There’s nothing like hearing a song for the first time live, and so it is with “By His Grace,” with a “keep on keeping on” ending. We get it both nights. On the second night, we also get a very nice rendition of “Symphony Sid,” and by this time in the set, along with songs like “Born To Sing,” “Carrying A Torch,” “Wild Night,” and the list goes on, that Van is very comfortable as the band leader of this very tightly kept band. It sounds great, it sounds rehearsed. You can’t have it all.

Here are the setlists from both nights:

April 26

Celtic Swing; Close Enough For Jazz; Magic Time; By His Grace; In The Midnight; Born To Sing (w/Chris Farlowe); That Old Black Magic (w/Shana Morrison); Rock Me Baby; Someone Like You; Wavelength; Sometimes We Cry (w/Dana Masters); Enlightenment (w/SM); Baby, Please Don’t Go>Parchman Farm>Don’t Start Crying Now; In The Afternoon>Ancient Highway>Joe Turner medley>Burn, Baby, Burn>Raincheck; Wild Night; Whenever God Shines His Light (w/DM); It’s All In The Game>You Know What They’re Writing About>No Plan B/This Is It>Burning Ground; Brown Eyed Girl; Celtic Excavation>Into The Mystic; Stand By Me (w/CF)

April 27

Celtic Swing; Close Enough For Jazz; Symphony Sid (w/DM); Magic Time; By His Grace; Carrying A Torch; Rough God Goes Riding (w/SM); Stormy Monday Blues>Take Your Hands Out of My Pocket>Red Rooster>Goin’ Down Slow; Thanks For The Information; Kingdom Hall; Wavelength; Someone Like You (w/DM); Wild Night; In The Afternoon>Ancient Highway>Joe Turner medley>Burn, Baby, Burn>Raincheck; Whenever God Shines His Light (w/DM); Help Me; It’s All In The Game>You Know What They’re Writing About>No Plan B>September Song>Burning Ground; Stand By Me (w/CF)

Anorak alert: I am told that Van played a few bars of “Celtic Excavation” as the intro to “Into The Mystic.” But don’t go by me; I totally missed it.

“As we sailed into the mystic …” and we were into, you know, the mystic. The Boston crowd loved this one too. I had a random thought that maybe after the Cyprus Avenue shows when a number of fans noted with chagrin that Van hadn’t played “Cyprus Avenue” for them, as a marketing plan, he decides from here on out that he will play a “local” song – “Jambayala” in New Orleans, “Georgia On My Mind” in Alpharetta, and “Into The Mystic” for Boston. Should I be looking for a West Virginia show so I can hear “Shenandoah”?

The other thought I had was that the “standards” (pretty much all the songs that don’t have any of those >>> things in them), besides having a really polished feel to them, sounded upbeat, some of them pop, some of them jazz, and all sounding a lot like the studio cuts. I like the sound, and I recognize the change from the recent past, where the interpretations of his classics were slow and and dirge-like to my ears. If the set is going to be, like it was the first night, three-quarters full of standards, starring band leader Van with his orchestra, then let there be light and joy.

If you only got to go to one of the shows, Wednesday night was the one to go to. But if you had only gone to that one, you’d have missed the first night: the better “Game” with a Van sax solo, a bit of lingering on the “make it real” bridge, and THIS IS IT! which has been my IT since I first heard him do it in Belfast in 2012. I lead a charmed life. And the theatrics of “Parchman Farm.” I like Van’s version of this, and because I don’t go to all that many shows, I don’t get to hear it often enough not to appreciate the nuances of the night’s performance. Tonight he introduces it with “I wonder why I didn’t write this song; it’s by Mose Allison,” and he has the best time with it. And Shana’s duet with Van on “That Old Black Magic” got her vamping a bit, which was good all around, and I daresay she made some new fans in Boston.

But in a way, the highlight for me on night one was “Enlightenment.” In recent times, this is one of those songs that has sounded the same at every concert, performed in that dirge-like kind of boring way. If there are throwaways, this is one of them – for me, at least. But tonight, first of all, it’s faster paced, like all the standards. That’s better. It feels like a new old song. But even better, I listen to the words he’s singing, and I swear to god, serious, it feels like I’m hearing the words for the first time. Is this one of those songs that finally speak to you, even though you’ve heard the song a zillion times? [Later, back at home, we put on a couple of versions “Enlightenment,” and I realized that the only reason I thought I was hearing the lyrics for the first time is because I was. Just a little change in the words in one spot gives the song a new spin, at least for me.

Tonight, there’s none of the non-attachment  wording, and where in the original, it goes:

Enlightenment says the world is nothing
Nothing but a dream, everything’s an illusion
And nothing is real

in tonight’s version, he sings:

Enlightenment says the world is nothing but a dream,            Everything’s an illusion, but at the same time it’s all real

It’s a small thing, but it’s like a whole new take on the subject, or at least it seems that way to me.

The second show might have been the better of the two because of the song extensions. “Rough God Goes Riding” first. The ending bit that invokes the heroes reduced to zero, Jesse James, Billy the Kidd, Robert de Niro and Clint Eastwood, he has some added theatrics for the crowd. He says something like,

This one is really going to be very difficult … America, what do they know? Just like … OK, this one is up (he gives a thumbs up), and that one is down (giving a thumbs down). Just like Donald Trump … [yeas from the audience on the up sign, bigger boos on the down sign]. If you keep going like that, it’s going to be a Clinton, if you keep going like that. Just like Bill Clinton; it doesn’t matter. Bill goes, AAAAAAAA-MEN!

Well, that was fun! It’s not the first time he’s given us his thoughts on Bill, but it’s been awhile.

“Stormy Monday Blues” is a killer. Chris Farlowe joins Van on stage and Van just takes it to town, through Sonny Boy Williamson II’s “Take Your Hands Out Of My Pocket” and Howlin Wolf’s “Red Rooster” and “Goin’ Down Slow.” Dave Keary’s solo is superb, unfortunately all too short, but it’s all Van scatting, improvising and singing the dirty blues.

The band deserves a big hand. I think Van’s got them where he wants them, and I hope he keeps taking it up a notch with them. The band: Dave Keary – guitar; Paul Moran – keyboards and trumpet; Paul Moore – bass; Dana Masters – backup vocals; Bobby Ruggiero – drums.

Van is sounding just as superb as ever, his voice in such good form, such control. He gave us a couple of tasty treats over the two nights.

It was great to see everyone. What can I say … one more time again. See y’all on the road!

vilcabamba, ecuador – 2016

blog vilcabambaLast year’s travels in Ecuador took Celeste and me to the town of Vilcabamba, nestled in a valley in the Andes mountains in the south of the country, near the Peruvian border. We were only there for three nights – just enough time for us to know that we should come back, but for a longer time next time.

And here it is – the next time. Celeste is able to stay for one week, and after she left, I had the rest of February at my leisure to explore. Not that I did much of that, at least in the physical sense. I looked at other people’s photos of their hikes to the waterfalls, while I kind of just hung out.

I had so been looking forward to just doing nothing. I had spent the better part of 2015 in “go” mode, and I just wanted to stop. Vilcabamba is the perfect place to practice stopping. And I made the most of it.

Mostly in the hammock outside my room. My home for the month of February was Rumi Wilco, an eco-lodge about a half-mile walk from town. It’s not quite the jungle, but it feels like the jungle down near the Chamba River.

The walk into town was a daily event – there’s always something fresh in the tiendas in town that you can add to tonight’s dinner. There is an overflow ofblog drinks bounteousness when it comes to fruits and vegetables in the valley, and along with the clean air and the clean water, Vilcabamba seems to have it all. If you go into town, you can also get terrific smoothies made with whatever fresh stuff they’ve got on hand at the Juice Factory – we had the guanabana, which we were told would keep us clean, or at least clean us out, and it did – or a cappuccino at the Midas Touch, both great places to sit out front across from the town square and people-watch.

The town square was the main area of entertainment during Carnivale – at least the programmed part of it – parades, bands, jugglers, live music – and the town was out in full force and in full color.

Actually, the best part of Carnivale for me was that the Rumi Wilco folks had needed to move two of us out of our regular rooms and put us up in a pole house a little farther out in the jungle. A little slice of heaven, up in the trees. I barely left the place.

I did venture forth the last day, totally oblivious to what that might mean. The walk to Felicia’s house on the other side of town meant crossing the river twice, and at the river’s edge were young boys in a water bucket brigade, dousing everyone who dared cross the bridge. My puny can of foam was no match against buckets full of water – I came home drenched to the bone. But I had a very nice visit with Felicia, whom I’ve been emailing over the past year. She’s been helping me with my research on shaman religions and plant medicine, and my visit to Vilcabamba means I can go to my first San Pedro ceremony. I am very curious.

In the days leading up to the ceremony, I took to the hammock with caledonia gusto. I’d get my little pile of supplies set up on the chair, slide into the hammock and lie there for hours. Sometimes I’d stare off into the view, sometimes I’d meditate, sometimes I’d read, and sometimes, the best times, were when I was writing my book. I feel good about the book. I feel good about a lot of things.

The view from the hammock

Before we leave the hammock … those pictures are an afternoon view, of which I had many, but it was the nighttime view that was so enchanting. On moonlit nights, the ground would be bathed in light, a bird would begin chirping in the trees, there’d be dogs barking in the distance, and the sound of the river rushing by was a constant thrum. It’s easy to stop when this is what life gives you.

In the days following the ceremony, I spent a lot of time in that hammock, pondering some of life’s lessons, discovering bits of me that I wasn’t aware of, drifting about in happy thoughts of peace, love and understanding, and just generally getting in touch with myself. Talk about stopping!

Ecuador earthquake

Six days ago, a 7.8 earthquake occurred on the north-central coast of Ecuador … where it hit hardest, there was considerable damage and destruction, lost lives, and horrible injuries. If this were to happen in the United States, everyone would look around and ask when the government was going to get here and solve the problem.

But this is Ecuador. Here, people rely on themselves. In the aftermath of the quake, I have read so many stories of heroic people working tirelessly to extract people from the rubble, get food and supplies into the affected areas, and provide medical assistance to the many injured. This is a poor country financially, but in terms of its people, it is the wealthiest nation I know. I am always touched by everyone’s generosity and helpfulness, and now, in the hours, days and weeks after the quake, they are heroes.

Here is just one story about the hours following the quake in the coastal town of Canoa. I have fond memories of the time I spent in Canoa last year and the year before, but I just didn’t get a chance to go this year. A few months ago, I heard from a couple from my old hometown in New Hampshire who’d sold their house and moved to Canoa and were now the new owners of the Surf Shak on the beach. Living la vida loca! Cathy and Alan – who are mentioned in the story. Since the night they were taken to the hospital, they have both received surgery and are recovering slowly.

The earthquake was felt all along the Ecuador coast, but other than the immediate area around the epicenter, significant damage was limited to the two big coastal cities – Manta and Guayaquil. The southern coastal town of Manglaralto, where I stayed for six weeks this year, felt severe shaking, but nothing they didn’t recuperate from quickly. Before I arrived in Manglaralto, I spent a month inland, in the Andes mountains, in the town of Vilcabamba. They too felt the shaking, but nothing much.

It’s been 15 days since I returned to New Hampshire from Ecuador. I wish I was there now, but instead I’m up here … with a couple of blog posts to write about my time in both those places. Stay tuned!

 

montana – august 2015

When I left Washington, I headed north over the Canadian border into beautiful British Columbia – the final stop on my tour of the Pacific Northwest. I was sorry to leave, and it was right about this time that I started to laughingly call this my farewell tour. I’m not sure, but this might be my last road trip. Perhaps I got it out of my system … I still want to travel, but I’m going to give myself over to buses and trains, at least for the foreseeable future.

And I don’t think a bus trip to the Pacific Northwest is what I have in mind, so I feel like I am saying farewell to my friends and family out here. But we hardly see in each other nowadays, so it’s not that painful. More joyful in fact, getting to catch up and spend quality time together.

All this to say, the first two weeks of August was people time. I never took my camera out once to snap a mountainscape or beautiful sunset – but lots of photos of friends and family, in both British Columbia and its neighboring province, Alberta, where I spent time with my brothers and their families.

Directly south of Alberta over the American border is Montana, and I am delighted to be here. If you’ve been following the book story so far, you’ll know that Virginia City, Montana, is the setting for book 3 in the trilogy. And I’m here to do research for about 10 days.

First stop is Helena – the state capital, and home of the state archives, where I spent a few days doing research – a lot on Thomas Francis Meagher, who was the acting governor of the Territory of Montana in the late 1860s and plays a big part in my book. I won’t give away anything, but Meagher was quite a character, somewhat larger than life, and I am delighted that I get to write about him. To remind everyone just how much larger than life he really was, after his death, his wife paid for and had installed a statue of him in front of the State House. He looks rather imposing, brandishing his sword sitting high on his horse.

A few hours south of Helena lie the two towns of Nevada City and Virginia City, deep in the dusty bits of Montana. Back in the 1860s, gold was found in them thar parts, and Virginia City became the capital of Montana for a time. It was a lively city back then, as were all the settlements along Alder Gulch, and it’ll be a great story to tell. Today, the two towns are tourist destinations – the Old West on display, and I availed myself of walking tours of both.

blog Nevada City 2I was in Nevada City on a Sunday, in time for an afternoon re-enactment of a tale from the town’s history – a vigilante lynching – that was played out along the dusty streets amid the old buildings of the time. Before the re-enactment, I had time to stroll among the buildings and visit with some of the people, who of course were in character the whole time.

I spent most of my week doing research at the libraries in Virginia City and nearby Ennis, and got a chance to meet with a local historian and a native Sioux, both of whom shed a little light on me. There is such a rich (no pun intended) history here to tell. I’m not wishing my life away, but I’m looking forward to the day I start writing it. Ireland first, though, right?

Here’s a taste of what I’ll be coming back to …

♫ I might be movin’ to Montana soon

Just to raise me up a crop of

Dental Floss ♫

– Frank Zappa

washington – july 2015

North out of Seaside, Oregon, it’s a short drive to Astoria and across the bridge over the Colombia River. The Lewis and Clark Columbia River – that blog Columbia Riverone. These guys stopped everywhere, it seems, at least if you go by the signs honoring them, which are everywhere. I stop to read this set of L&C signs, and now I don’t remember what they said, but I think something relatively nasty happened to them on the spot I have chosen to take a river photo op, and I think they moved on from here post haste.

Me too – Continue reading

postcards from oregon, june 2015

I’ve put myself in a bind here … attempting to recount something that happened eight months ago, and I’ve got no notes. Just photographs. The good thing, though, is the pictures tell the story just as well as I could. And if a picture tells a thousand words, here, then, is the story of Wendy’s and my road trip through Oregon in 34,000 words … Continue reading

Northern California

Dexy is back to being my bff after two well-deserved weeks off in San Francisco. She’s raring to go as we head north along the coast on Hwy 1. First stop, Marin County. This is my first time in Marin – it’s just one of those subcultural things one should do, especially if one is me. Subcultural, meaning Van Morrison. The place of “Hardnose the Highway,” one of my go-to Van albums, so it’s good to drive through the neighborhood with my 1970s glasses on.

Our visit to Marin County is what you’d call a “day trip” – a stop in Mill Valley for lunch, on to Fairfax and San Anselmo, followed by a beautiful drive to the coast to join up with Hwy 1, turn right, and before you know it, we’re in Point Reyes Station. This is a cool little town, a bit of an Old West feel to it. The main reason we’ve stopped is to check out Gallery Route One, where Robbie’s cousin Vickisa has her French Quarter Fest book on display. Now that’s cool. She’s made the music, the whole sound of New Orleans, come alive on the pages. This is one person who gets New Orleans, the rain and all. There are also some creative types working the walls around town. Degas meets Clint Eastwood – it’s a bit spooky.


Hwy 1 north of Point Reyes Station, wending its way through the hills and in and out along the coastline, is the roller coaster ride of a lifetime, and the ups and downs and swerving all around are enough for Wendy to cry uncle and swear off “the scenic route” forever. Dramamine and Sea-bands aren’t much help at all, although the Dramamine lets her sleep through many of the curves in the road through Northern California in the days ahead.

Our first night’s stop is just over the Marin border in Sonoma County – at the very charming Bodega Harbor Inn in Bodega Bay. We’d been warned that the town closes up around 9 p.m. – just about the time of sunset, which closes whenever it feels like it.

It’s back to the twists and turns of the coast heading north through Sonoma and on into Mendocino County – the rugged coastline, the roadside wildflowers, the requisite lighthouse, just another pretty day on the California coast before we land in Fort Bragg to close out Day 2.

North of Fort Bragg is the little town of Westport, nestled on a band of coast beneath the wooded hills that spread to the east. In the grand scheme of things, Westport is but a small footnote, and most of that would be taken up with lumber stories from years gone by. And yet theblog westport 1 scene of it has been etched in my mind these past three years since the day Bridget and I drove through the village late one afternoon. To all the world, or at least to all of me, it looked like a part of western Ireland had picked itself up and put itself down here two oceans away. And straight out of the Irish weather book, a deep fog has rolled in and settled about the place by the time Wendy and I arrive mid-morning. I think to myself that perhaps this small place will find a spot in my book, and ever industrious in that pursuit, I find and purchase a little history book of the town that I hope will give me a sense of this place during the last half of the 19th century.

North of Westport, Hwy 1 takes a jig-jag zig-zag east to Leggett, where that highway ends and we now join Hwy 101 as we continue north. But first, a stop in Leggett is a must, for the requisite photo op of Dexy driving through the massive Chandelier Tree, a magnificent redwood that’s a harbinger of what’s ahead of us just up the road. It’s a gorgeous day and a perfect spot to enjoy our picnic lunch.

Hwy 101 isn’t called the Redwood Highway for nothing, and soon we have crossed over from Mendocino into Humboldt County and are making our way to the Avenue of Giants, much of which traverses Humboldt Redwoods State Park. It’s hard to keep your eyes on the road when there is so much grandeur to take in; words become somewhat useless to describe the majesty of this place, and the only hope is that photographs capture at least a fraction of the beauty.

From the Avenue of Giants, it’s back onto 101 and a straight drive to Eureka on the coast, a most charming Victorian seaport that demands a stroll along the waterfront and plenty of window gazing in the many shops and galleries in the Old Town. And that’s how we spend our last night in California – taking in the picturesque, which is just a tiny bit of what the town has to offer.

Our final day in California is all about driving – plenty of miles up the coast till we reach Oregon – but first a stop at Holly Yashi in Arcata, just north of Eureka. We arrive in time for a tour of their facilities, where they design,Blog Holly Yashi Arcata create and make all their jewelry, plus a poke around the store, ogling the finished product. Neither of us can resist (which is the whole point, right?), especially after watching the acid bath that creates the various colors on metal, and we walk out the proud owners of Holly Yashi, in my case an elegant pair of earrings.

Next stop, Oregon!

San Francisco – 2015

Two weeks in San Francisco is a dream come true for me. Three years ago, on my last visit to the city with Bridget, we crammed as much as we could into our four-day stay, absolutely delighted by everything we saw and did. When it was time for us to leave, it wasn’t without regret, but as we got Dexy on the road heading east out of town, I cushioned the regret with the notion that I’d be back, and that I’d spend more time exploring all that San Francisco had to offer.

Haight AshburyThree years later, and I’ve made it back. And while I don’t get to explore all of what San Fran has to offer, two weeks is enough to explore at least a little bit more. It’s great thanks to my friends Art and Carol that I’m even here. When Art and I met up in Downpatrick, Northern Ireland, for a couple of Van shows late last year, he mentioned that he and Carol were off to Hawaii for two weeks in June. Before you could say “It’s a marvelous night for a Moondance,” we’d arranged that I would stay at their place in Bernal Heights and look after their cats while they were on vacation. So there we were, Rufus and Mack and me, ready to pounce.

As is my wont, any place I land that excites me, automatically becomes a barbary coastcandidate as a location in my forthcoming novel. San Francisco fits that bill, so before much else, I’m off to the public library downtown to do some historical research about the Irish, and I make a delightful discovery. Unlike on the East Coast in the mid-1800s, where upon their arrival the Irish faced a wall of discrimination they had to leap over to grasp even the lowest rung of the ladder, here in the west there was no establishment and the Irish were as free as everyone else to make their mark on this new frontier. This is surely the stuff of a good story, I think to myself.

StrEATfoodBetween bouts of reading about the discovery of gold up in them thar hills and the goings on along the Barbary Coast, I make a break for lunch to meet up with fellow Free Stater Travis Eden at StrEATfood, an open market of food and drink vendors in SOMA (South of Market) set up in a parking lot on 11th Street beneath Highway 101. Travis and I catch up over a seriously good hamburger with serious amounts of bacon. Then it’s back to the books for me.

Downtown has its places of interest, including City Hall, Davies Symphony Hall and the Asian Art Museum, but it’s farther up Market Street, in the Powell Street/Union Square quadrant, where most of the action is. As well as the shops and eateries, it’s also the best place to catch one of the trolleys heading uptown, toward North Beach and Fisherman’s Wharf.


The trolley ride to North Beach is all uphill, cutting along the edge of Chinatown, and it’s times like this that one is most happy not to have to rely on walking to get from point A to point B in this city of hills. And there at the top of the hill, before the headlong descent to the water, is a straight-on view of Alcatraz out in the bay, with Sausalito rising in the background. Fisherman’s Wharf is down there too, but first a side trip to Washington Square in North Beach to sample the food and drink and some live music on stage at the annual North Beach Festival.


Down at Fisherman’s Wharf, Wendy and I stroll along the boardwalk past the piers and take in the shops at Pier 39, and of course the sea lions and the views north, south, east and west. We resist the urge to fill up on chocolate, although it is surely listed as one of the must-do’s for tourists. We’ve made it to Fisherman’s Wharf, and that’s plenty enough to cross off the checklist.


I’m not sure if the Castro District is on the top-10 tourist must-see list, but it’s on mine, based on the glimpse of it I’d got out the bus window when we’d passed through the area three years ago. It looked like a happening dude neighborhood then and the same holds true now. This is Harvey Milk territory, LGBT territory, and all the colors of the rainbow. We can’t resist stopping in at the Harvey Milk restaurant at the corner of Castro and 18th for lunch and liquid refreshment – it just seems like the thing to do – before wandering around the neighborhood. My only regret was not finding what I was looking for in the sex toy shop: an outlandish sticker I could add to Dexy’s back bumper collection. There was lots of obviously very useful stuff in there, but alas, no sticker, so I was forced to leave empty handed.


SFJF 1It was never more obvious than these two weeks in San Francisco just how much I need a music secretary. In a city where on a slow day there are three or four excellent things going on to choose from, it’s never a question of what to do but how do I fit it all in? Except, apparently, in my case. So I opted to stay home and riffle through Carol and Art’s music collection. Oh, we did get out to the opening evening of the SF Jazz Festival, so I suppose I wasn’t totally devoid of music culture.


As gardening nuts, free admission to the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park is all it takes to get us over there and to spend an afternoon wandering through its 55 acres. Bursts of color everywhere – I am camera-happy. Like the song says, “If you’re going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair.” At least two or three … oh, what the heck, let’s make it an even eighteen.

 

Central California

Death is on my mind as we cross over the Nevada-California border. The ghost town of Rhyolite, Nevada, fading into nothing out Dexy’s back window, and Death Valley, California, straight ahead.

Death Valley National Park
Travel tip: Don’t cram too much into one day. Because if you do, something’s got to give.

In our case, Death Valley draws the short straw. Too much time in the Nevada desert means there’s no dawdling in California’s. It’s straight on through – on the Daylight Pass Road, heading east to west. It’s a shame to give Death Valley NP the short shrift because, if you can stand the parched conditions, there is plenty to see and explore in the park: the ghost town of Leadfield at the base of the Grapevine Mountains; Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation in North America at 282 feet below sea level; Hole in the Wall and plenty of other canyons; and the many zig-zagging roads and trails that lead up to cliffs with names like Dantes View and Coffin Peak.

But despite all we miss, the Daylight Pass Road offers sights of its own, fromDV 10 windswept dunes to sun-swept mountain ranges, and through the canyons where mirages turn the asphalt highway into rivers of sweat – it must be 110 degrees in the shade, if there is any shade to be found.


The thought of death returns. We’ve passed Devils Cornfield and have stopped by the side of the road to size up what looks like a short hike to the Mesquite Sand Dunes. They look spectacular from a distance and now we want to see them up close. I’m not thinking of death for the first quarter of a mile through the corn stacks, but every quarter of mile – no, every step thereafter, all I can think of is this is how people die out here. At least those people who forget their water in the car. But we soldier on.


The corn stacks disappear and the light-colored sand turns white; we climb one dune and another and another, with the prospect that pure sand, devoid of brush and desert shrubs, is just over that next dune. But we are parched – our hike across the desert sands has done us in; there isn’t another dune in us. As we turn to head back to the car – and the jug of water waiting for us – I look up and it’s all sky, revving up for sunset.

 

Stanislaus National Forest
From Death Valley, the shortest route west to San Francisco takes us north along Route 395 that slices through Inyo National Forest past Mono Lake2 California Mono Lake (4) and on into Stanislaus National Forest. And so begins our steep climb up to elevations that reach beyond 9,600 feet, along one of those winding roads that are closed in winter but open to the adventurous in May. We’ve been warned that although it may be the shortest route to the central coast, it can also be quite harrowing. It’s a beautiful spring day in the forest, and I for one am very glad to be out of the desert, whose arid conditions impress upon me the need to seek higher ground.

The climb up is glorious – the stands of majestic trees that stretch for miles, and beyond them the mountains still covered in their winter blanket of snow. At one point along our climb up, we stop to smell the roses, and eat our picnic lunch while we’re at it. Although our picnic table – a slab of rocks that seem to jut out of time immemorial – is just a few yards from the road, it feels like we are the only two people in this vast wilderness; not one car passes by to break our reverie. But as peaceful and serene as all that is, it does make me stop to wonder why. Why is no one else on this “road closed in winter” on this lovely spring day?


We brush off the crumbs and wash our hands in the nearby Sardine Creek; it’s time to move on, ever upward. And up we go, watching the roadside elevation signs creep up – 6,000 feet, 7,000 feet, 8,000 feet, 9,000 feet.


At some point we reach the top, and then it’s the descent downward through the trees. Going up is for dilettantes, going down is for the professionals. The winding switchbacks are unrelenting, and I ride Dexy’s brakes for all they’re worth – to the point where smoke is billowing out from beneath the car. Other than to pull off the road and watch the smoke dissipate, I’m not entirely sure what to do next. Fortunately, a young couple in a car pass us, going the other way, and pull in to see if they can help, and they ultimately offer us some professional advice: The only way to save your brakes – albeit do a number on your transmission – is to head down the hill in first or second gear. It seems like a reasonable trade-off at this point, and after a heartfelt thank-you to the couple, we’re on our way at a snail’s pace down the mountain and out into relatively flat land. Crisis averted. It makes me wonder how Dexy is going to take to the hills of San Francisco in the weeks ahead, but for now, we’re on an even course, beetling it across Route 108 through the lush, and obviously well-watered, agricultural heartland of California, where abundance is everywhere. The small towns that dot the route vanish behind us as we make our way west along 120 and then 580, through the congestion of cities and towns that lead to San Francisco Bay, and on the other side of the bay, Palo Alto, where I drop off Wendy at her friends’, before heading north into that city of delights, San Francisco. My westward journey is at an end – a 13-day road trip that began on May 17 has taken me from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific. I made it!