Truckee or bust!

Winter_1931_x

My sonnet, “Old Photos,” was recently published in the Wisconsin Review. It focuses in part on family archives and the pressure one feels to put them in order for future generations. The 1931 photo of my grandparents—featured above—is one of these documents.

Irving Wergeland and Merle Waite were avid skiers, who often entered skiing competitions held around Tahoe and Donner Lake. It is said my grandmother even qualified for the Olympics one season, but could not afford to go. My grandparents were skiing buddies before they were man and wife. They left behind a pile of ski jumpers, skiing goofiness, and winter scenery. The snow in the Sierras was clearly deeper back then. One family photo displays my grandmother standing next to a snow bank thicker than she was tall. Californians would be pretty happy with a similar snowpack round about now.

My grandfather was a full Norwegian, though he grew up in California and eventually attended U. C. Berkeley. I’ve begun speculating that perhaps my great grandparents—Ole and Anna—ended up raising their children in Truckee, so they could be near good skiing. I find their choice of town especially intriguing, because we recently learned that after they left Norway around the turn of the twentieth century, they eventually docked in Vancouver, British Columbia. I don’t know if they sailed on to San Francisco from there—or if they traveled overland.

I do like to imagine the family heading south on various wagon trails, as they would have made their way through Washington and Oregon in order to reach Truckee. I’ve wondered if they stopped in the city of Ballard—now a Seattle neighborhood—once teeming with people from Scandinavia. I’ve wondered this, because I used to live and work in Ballard, though by that time, it had become a much different place, one beckoning hip young families. The 1920’s era cottage I once owned would not have been in existence. No doubt the burgeoning logging and fishing industries were more than evident.

No matter what their mode of transportation was, it must have been some trip. The Wergelands were from a region with no lack of mountainous scenery—they enjoyed ocean views. So what did they think of the Puget Sound, the Olympics, and Mount Rainier? Did they spot the intact Mount St. Helens? Did it rain for days? How did they cross the Columbia River Gorge? Did they make their way over to the Oregon Coast? Or did they head down an earlier incarnation of I-5? Did they have to pass over the Siskiyou Summit as they entered California? Did they think to check out the giant redwoods before they settled?

As a girl growing up in the Sacramento Valley, I found their Sierra Nevada world truly exotic. I never got to live there, but we did visit relatives on occasion, and to me it was a fairy-tale realm. I experienced snow for the first time near my father’s childhood home. This was a rare treat, because I could play softball in hundred degree heat without batting an eye. To me, any sort of sledding was on par with Marriott’s Great America, home of the Tidal Wave and The Turn of the Century roller coasters. If my father had announced he was moving back to Grass Valley, I would have dropped my Davis life in a second and started packing.

I never had the pleasure of meeting my Norwegian grandfather. He died of a heart attack before I was born, in 1945. Yet, he’s left behind documents suggesting he had a poetic bent and would have been simpatico with John Muir. I recently stumbled upon one piece he wrote, probably in the thirties, about the pitfalls of the movies. He was quick to lament how people were wasting their time watching the silver screen when they could be out hiking—or skiing—in the Sierras. Though my father was only eight when my grandfather died, he grew up with a similar sensibility, one he eventually passed on to me.

Posole in Seattle, Posole in San Diego

Invariably, whenever I stand in the checkout line with my three cans of hominy, among other things, the person next to me starts chatting. This never happens with any other item – just hominy. Are you making posole? You’re making posole, right? Let me guess, you’re making menudo. I guess gringos in Southern California generally don’t eat hominy—so my three requisite 25-ounce cans tend to stand out.

I used to try to track down dried hominy – widely sold in New Mexico – in San Diego. People around here must not have a use for it—I can’t locate it anywhere. I’ve been forced to switch to the canned variety, and this has made me lazy.

If you are whipping up a batch of posole with dried hominy, you need to let it soak overnight before you boil it for three hours before you add the final seasonings for the final 30 minutes of boiling. With canned hominy, you just dump the contents into the pot along with some pork, juice of lime, and red chile powder, My recipe actually calls for dried red chiles, preferably grown in New Mexico, but I’ve begun using New Mexican chile powder instead. In any event, one hour of simmering usually does the trick (that is, before the final 30 minutes of boiling with the final seasonings—garlic, oregano, and salt).

I actually fell in love with posole when I lived in Seattle. The city once took pride in a restaurant that cooked up some genuine New Mexican cooking. This dimly lit place, known as The Santa Fe Café, brought a little bit of New Mexico into the Pacific Northwest. Sadly, the restaurant recently closed after 30 years of fine meals.

For those not in the know, New Mexican cuisine differs from Tex-Mex cooking, not to mention American varieties of Mexican food. It is indigenous to the longstanding tri-cultural region of New Mexico (Native American, Spanish, and Anglo) and has been around for roughly 500 years. What sets it apart is their creative use of red and green chiles.

For example, my favorite dish at the Sante Fe Cafe was the Christmas enchilada plate (stacked Santa Fe style, not rolled), served with posole and pinto beans. It also came with these ultra thick flour tortillas that helped to mitigate the heat. By the way, Christmas in this context means half the stack is slathered in green chile sauce—the other half in red chile sauce.

Years ago, I came to understand the Santa Fe Café did a pretty good job of delivering the sort of meal that is mainly available in New Mexico. This was during the early 90s, when I toured New Mexico and sampled fare in a number of restaurants there. During that trip, I purchased Santa Fe Recipe: A Cookbook of Recipes from Favorite Local Restaurants by Joan and Carl Stromquist. I have been making posole at home ever since (I could actually buy dried hominy in Seattle—I believe at Fred Meyer).

It sure is sad to watch my some of my favorite places leave the planet. The city of Seattle I once knew so well has been slowly morphing into a new realm. Favorite haunts, like Elliott Bay Books, have moved. Others, like the Harvard Exit Theatre, have closed. The movie industry has been changing, so more Seattle moviegoers now watch streaming flicks at home. Strange to remember how Seattleites once loudly boasted their surprising range of independent, if not downright cool, cinemas.

No doubt new haunts are currently capturing the hearts and minds of the generations that have followed mine. No doubt new favorites in Seattle have emerged, places that will be missed ten or twenty years from now when some sentimental aging writer sits down to think about life as a new adult in the Emerald City.

Fortunately, a few of my favorite restaurants in the Santa Fe area are still open, including The Shed, Café Pasqual’s, the Santacafe, not to mention Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante, which is situated along the high road to Taos. I’ll have to get back there if I get a hankering to order something Christmas style.

Winter up North

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It is still dark at 6:50 am,
darker than San Diego right now,
where nature is muted
but still colorful—especially the Bougainvillea.
Flip flop: I’ve traveled north for an inside out getaway,
where elements challenge my suitcase,
the clothes I’ve packed—the shoes and boots.
And where getting out there
requires gumption, preparation,
because waves have set down logs
too heavy for any man.
They weren’t there last summer.
Cold air slices the blackness
that pressed the sun down last night—
blackness darker than black can be,
because the wind chill factor is high
and the waves are freezing,
more powerful than summer swells
breaking in places that swallow things.
Danger could open up anywhere.
Just this thought wrings a drop of awe from the morning—
knowing how the deep folds in.

Green, Luminous Green

I moved from California to the Pacific Northwest at the age of 14 and spent the next 25 years there, during which time my home state slowly became a distant memory. I finally returned to take a job at a community college—though in Southern California, not the Northern California of my youth. Since then, I have driven the length of California (there and back) once or twice a year, as I often spend my academic breaks in Oregon. This routine has reacquainted me with the entire state.

The I-5 experience in the long valleys can vary, depending on the weather and time of year. Last summer the scorched land – struggling under an oppressive drought – looked a little worse for wear—brittle, dry, parched. Smog or smoke can make the drive less appealing. But this winter – after glorious rain – California looks like the Promised Land once more.

It has even been raining in the desert. In Rancho San Diego, my colleagues and I arrived at work one morning to find over an inch of water in places on the first floor of our college library. Water had spilled into the work area, staffroom, and dean’s office. Amazingly, it missed the books.

It’s remarkable what they can do to dry out a place. Within hours we found ourselves with a set of industrial strength humidifiers. Then someone came along to drill a line of holes into several interior walls. Meanwhile, finals week proved to be a noisy affair for all involved. Humidifiers were still humming strong when I bid farewell to the attendees of our staff holiday party and turned toward winter break.

Of course, national news outlets covered the more serious floods and slides, which did occur around the state. The Los Angeles River – normally a shallow stream – became a roaring river, became dangerous. Real rivers swelled and wreaked havoc here and there. Mud burst into homes in Camarillo Springs.

It rained in Joshua Tree National Park where I spent a few days with friends. Welcome moisture continued to hover in the air for some time afterwards. This made it easier for me to adapt to the normally ultra-dry climate. Dampness also made it easier to hike in the wash leading up to Warren Peak. The 360-degree vantage point provided a clear view of Mt. San Gorgonio, snow-covered and primed for winter outdoor enthusiasts.

Apparently, Joshua Trees don’t always bloom. They need showers at specific times of the year—and they need it to freeze for a spell. It is worth waiting them out. Joshua Trees deliver greenish-white flower clusters resembling large pinecones. Folks in these parts are hoping for blossoms. They are already trying to predict just how spectacular the upcoming desert wildflower season is likely to be.

As far as I’m concerned, bold green swaths have offered enough inspiration for one year. Green has sprouted everywhere: along I-5, the back roads, Highway 101. Green – luminous green – a 2014 holiday treat.

I drove along Highway 1 in Northern California on Christmas Eve day. Diamond-shaped road signs, newly placed at regular intervals, warned me about floods that were nowhere to be seen. I found it easy to imagine how water had recently covered these dips. While the road did seem safe to drive, I reduced my speed anyway, in case other hazards might be lurking ahead. One did materialize: a herd of loose cows, aimlessly wandering into the road.

I finally dropped by Blue Canoe Coffee & Tea in Anchor Bay (population 176) in order to get this piece started before I lost too much fertile mind-stream. The place was supposed to close ten minutes ago, but the atmosphere has proved to be laid back.

“Here comes the rain again,” someone at a neighboring table casually notes. “It will stop by the time we leave.”

Camping in the Desert

I usually camp with friends, which is always enjoyable, especially after the fire is going strong—and supper is ready. Problem is, I know some ambitious hikers. As much as I enjoy being with them, come morning, I invariably find myself facing an 8 or 9 mile hike. More than once, I’ve sat watching the day deepen as these plans were being fine-tuned, only to find myself yearning to remain in the campground to read and write—perhaps go on a short hike in the afternoon.

Lazy Day in Camp

Lazy Day in Camp (Notice the Smile)

I finally decide to take matters into my own hands, reserving a site in the Anza Borrego Campground in the Anza Borrego State Park, which surrounds Borrego Springs, California. Borrego Springs is a sleepy, unassuming sort of place, bathed in dry heat. The town once drew the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Bing Crosby, Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and other celebrities who arrived in their private planes for some R & R. That heyday appears to be over. I’ve never spotted a human star in the vicinity, though a lot more people do start showing up there about now. The off-season ends when temperatures drop into the eighties and visitors can enjoy being outside all day long in this fascinating terrain, which includes vast expanses of desert, mazes of canyons, badlands, and mountains. The spring wildflower season tends to be particularly spectacular.

My trip, however, was scheduled this fall. In the beginning, all went well. I stopped in Julian for pie—and still had plenty to time to set up camp before the sun went down. My fire did not sputter out. Dinner was easy to prepare, and I eased into the evening, watching star after star dot the sky. As temperatures were not expected to drop below the mid-fifties, some people in the campground were in a celebratory mood, which remained merely festive during the early part of the evening, but began to feel more daunting by the time most campers had retired to their tents. I was beginning to wonder if it was safe to pass this rowdiness on the way to the restroom. The party also made it difficult to sleep. I could tell other campers were struggling with the noise. Several pleas for quiet went out, loud enough for me to hear. But to no avail.

Dusk in the Anza Borrego Desert

Dusk in the Anza Borrego Desert

As I was growing up, my family often camped in California State Parks. In those days, rangers kept the peace. I don’t remember us ever having to deal with people who were too noisy—or for that matter, music being played over the sounds of nature. We kids – put to bed early – were the ones who were told to pipe down. These days, guests are on their own at night—unless they dial 911, which nobody that evening appeared willing to do. And I don’t blame them. What a depressing way to end a day in nature!

The Next Morning

Children occupying other sites wake up early, and begin busily moving about the campground. The desert light has the effect of making the place feel safe once more. I watch as two young boys – deep in discussion – head down the road. People begin riding past my site on their bikes. Some appear to be hiking toward the Palm Canyon Trail, which is my one planned activity (in the afternoon). I finally get in that down time I’d yearned for on earlier trips. The morning continues to be luxuriously slow. I am visited by birds, not to mention a lone jackrabbit that stops to look my way, remaining still for a long time—its two sensitive and very big ears pointing to the sky.

I finally grab my trekking poles and wind my way to the Palm Canyon Trail. This jaunt (1.5 miles one way) leads to an authentic palm oasis tucked deep in a canyon that often has running water. The trees up in there look like lions, big and shaggy. I head toward the grove, hiking for roughly thirty minutes before a hiker coming from the other direction stops me and says, “There are bighorn sheep up the trail.”

Bighorn Sheep

Bighorn Sheep

And I light up to say, “Thanks.”

“A family of them.”

I begin scanning the terrain. As I walk, more people tell me about the sheep—how they are really hard to see. “They crossed right in front of us!” And I begin to fear I’ve missed them.

Then I spot four females, on the other side of the creek bed, standing on the steep, rocky incline of the canyon. They are positioned at odd angles, clearly trying to blend in. I fire off a few photos, before gazing at these lady sheep that look like billy goats.

Bighorn Sheep

I want the moment to last, but this is a popular trail, and I can’t be upset at the kid who exclaims, “Oh my God! Bighorn sheep!” which ultimately makes the animals begin to trot. Next thing I know, a pack of kids are running up and down the trail, alerting everyone about the sheep. Meanwhile, the four bighorns calmly move to my side of the canyon, and then up and up and up until they reach the very top. The sky above the ridge swallows them whole.