I might have been disappointed that we only had a single guest for Thanksgiving dinner, but this is 2020, and having a guest was the Best Thing Ever. Lyra came to see us and brought Pandora, an endless source of fun.

Jonathan sharpened his knives and made spatchcock turkey (remove backbone, lie flat to cook). This may have been the smallest turkey he ever cooked. It was done in an hour (!), and was delicious.

We had a family zoom call that let us connect with Lily & Neil, and Amanda & Jim. I felt a lot better about our separation just by being able to see us all together on the same screen. I’m grateful for the technology that is the glue holding us all together these days.

A Carmel reality check

I just completed a post that shows some of the delightfully quirky small houses of Carmel, CA. Before you pack your bags and jump in the car to move to a place where the temperature rarely drops below 60o during the day, the sun shines, and the beach is within walking distance, you might want to know a few things.

Everyone loves it here.

  • That means the streets are crowded, even during Covid times. I can’t go downtown and window shop because of the number of visitors who insist on arriving every day. That includes us, of course.
  • There is always traffic on the highway. “Highway” refers to one lane each way through much of this area.
  • Water is everywhere, but so is drought. We should have gotten about 3 inches of rain during November 2020, and we got 0 in. There is an old sticker on the mirror in our bathroom from a period of water rationing, when people were advised to keep their daily total water usage to 2 gallons. For failing to find alternative water sources for the area, the local water utility was just cut back in the volume of water it is permitted to take from the Carmel River. The utility’s plan to build a desalination plant has been paralyzed by local opposition (desal plants emit hot water into the ocean that kills some sea life, and produce vast quantities of salt that have to be stored somewhere). Water rationing may return.
  • Utility costs are high compared to other places. That includes electricity–remember PG&E was responsible for a couple of the huge forest fires in California and is technically bankrupt several times over. Also gas, water (see above), sewer, and there is only one residential cable/internet provider.
  • The median price for a house in Carmel-by-the-Sea is currently around 1.7 million dollars.

Carmel Style

We are staying in a lovely house here, and though that is the case with most of our Airbnb rentals, there is something distinctive about Carmel-by-the-Sea. Some of the local atmosphere comes from the people. As Lyra and I were walking down the street, a convertible passed us with the top down. The driver was a smiling, silver haired, tanned man wearing a navy blue sweater. A woman was barely visible in the passenger seat, obscured by a Christmas tree about 8 ft. tall that pointed skyward, crowding the back seat passengers and two large dogs with them. They looked like a Ralph Lauren ad. We waved, they waved. The holidays are starting.

This tree overshadows our neighbor’s front door.

Carmel’s atmosphere also comes from a strong focus on maintaining a “town in a forest”, look and a small-town feel. New houses must be built around existing trees, creating relatively dense cover around most properties. This adds a layer of privacy to homes that have been popular with artists and theater people since the first wave of creative refugees arrived in Carmel after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. There are a couple of trees so close to our house that they make loud screeches as they rub the eaves when there is strong wind. It was a bit creepy the first night–then we figured out what made the noise.

Ironically, quirky architecture was introduced to Carmel in 1925 as the original “she-shed”, long before that term existed. Hugh Comstock built a tiny house for his wife’s doll collection. The house was called “Hansel”, and has a steeply pitched roof, a few exposed beams (not exactly half-timbering), a small, arched front door, and a rather uncertain-looking chimney made of the local stone. Over the following decade, Comstock built several other of these “fairytale cottages”, and many of the elements introduced in the cottages have been used in other houses, creating Carmel Style.

“Hansel” was Comstock’s first house, surrounded by trees and gardens. Its uneven roofline, steep roof, exposed timbers, arched front door, and rustic fence have all become elements of Carmel style.

Some of the features that can be admired as you walk or drive around Carmel include:

A steep roof, often extended over small gables.

Exposed timbers/half timbering on the exterior was inspired by the fairytale theme of Comstock’s original houses. As the first house he built was called “Hansel”, the second was “Gretel”.

Comstock Studio has a Carmel stone chimney with decorative cap.

Chimneys show off local Carmel stone and often have a decorative top. Carmel stone is sedimentary shale, flaky and relatively light. Easy availability and the warm color (like Cotswold stone) was why Hugh Comstock used it.

“Fables” built by Hugh Comstock, with its octagonal room.

Octagonal rooms are a feature of some Carmel style houses, probably adopted from “Fables,” another Comstock house. It includes a stone chimney and an octagonal windowed room at the front of the house.

Roofing imitates thatch on a number of houses. Shingles attached in a spiral pattern, a cone-shaped roof, and an octagonal room, make a place look much more like a hobbit house than an “ordinary” beachfront home. Other houses have an uneven roof line, as though the house was old and unstable, though the swayback look is intentional.

It can be difficult to admire more than a single feature when a house is almost completely cloaked in trees. That hardly matters when you catch sight of an unusual stone chimney cap, or a tower that makes you want to move right in. A relatively small number of houses were built by Hugh Comstock, but many of the features he used have been copied in bits and pieces on newer houses.

Fireplace, board and batten walls, vintage trophy, art.

Comstock influenced interiors, as well. Fireplaces are part of the look, since once they were the main heating source for small cottages. His interiors were untreated board and batten, painted or unpainted, and ceilings had exposed beams. This is a legacy of California climate, too, where houses were not generally insulated. Ask any Eastern transplant about their first winter in California, getting out of bed to find their home ice-cold with only a tiny wall space heater in the bathroom battling the chill. No wonder so many people go outdoors and run!

Rustic ceiling, antique lighting, art. A Comstock-type interior.

Comstock used interior balconies, later adopted by other builders. (L) “Fables” balcony, (R) view from the balcony around three sides of our living room.

Not every house in Carmel is based on a fairytale cottage, but many of the whimsical elements introduced by Hugh Comstock in his efforts to please his wife have endured to create the rustic look and enhance the charm of Carmel.

Discovering Pebble Beach

Pebble Beach is known around the world as a course used periodically for the US Open. We knew we wanted to see the area even though neither of us plays golf. We probably won’t be starting lessons–rounds at the Pebble Beach links start at $575 assuming you are already a guest at the resort (Rooms start at $990/night).

Our first visit introduced us to the 17-Mile Drive, another highlight of the area. To get to any of the overlook points on the Pebble Beach headlands, or beaches encompassed by those headlands, you pay the $10.50 toll (per day, multiple entry). Having decided to go ahead and visit, we proceeded to look for the pebbly beach that is the area’s namesake. We hunt for sea glass on gravelly beaches, and I thought the original pebble beach might hold something for us.

There are signs directing visitors to parking. This being California, access to the shore is guaranteed by law, and no one, not even David Geffen, the Pebble Beach resort, or anyone else, can keep the public off the shore between the low and high tide lines.We actually found a marked coastal access pathway crossing the parking lot and heading down the side of the clubhouse to the sandy beach. Getting to the pebbly beach required crossing a short stretch of the course, so we looked both ways and scuttled across safely.

This is a “real” pebble beach, a good place to look for sea glass.

Pebble Beach and its surroundings is a golfer’s paradise, with a golf course around every corner, and spectacular coastal scenery beyond. We were curious about whether people actually play the holes that jut out along the cliffs, and they do. There were people teeing off from a tiny patch of green surrounded by rocks on the edge of a dropoff. Fortunately, they were hitting back toward land and not trying to drop a golfball onto a tiny green. It looks like that would be as difficult as landing a SpaceX module. Jonathan had his big moment at Pebble Beach, swinging his beach scoop/golf club for a perfect shot. We did find some beach glass. Not a lot, but worth the visit. We decided against lunch at the club house, and went home for a break.

Later in the afternoon, we resumed the 17-Mile Drive at the opposite end from the Pebble Beach Golf Club. To see all the stops, you need to drive the route counter-clockwise, more or less north to south, starting in Pacific Grove and heading toward Carmel by way of the cliffs. All the pullouts are on the water (southbound) side of the road.

We are not fans of the toll, but without it, the road would be very crowded most of the time. The roads are private in this area, and the toll both keeps them maintained, and cuts down on the number of people who visit. On Trip Advisor, reports are split between praise for the views and complaints that the coast here is no prettier than other stretches of seaside road where a toll is not charged.

Moss Beach, near Point Joe

We stopped at Moss Beach, and were rewarded by seeing a white-tailed kite. These birds are distinctive in the way they hover over one spot while they hunt, and what caught our eye was the bird hovering in place over the sand. They are a hunting bird, big as a hawk, and almost all white.

The day was overcast and the tide was low, with lots of shore birds wading along the beaches and on the rocks. Bird Rock is a favorite stop on the drive, though it isn’t covered with birds, but with seals and sea lions.

Bird Rock

After Bird Rock, we stopped for a short visit to Fanshell Beach, then pushed on to Cypress Point. The Monterey Cypress trees here are one of the last stands of these trees in their native location, though they are widely planted elsewhere and thrive especially well in New Zealand. These cypress trees are often shaped by strong coastal winds that result in interesting irregular shapes. My photo is a grove of trees that is not much altered by the wind.

The Crocker Grove, Cypress Point
The Lone Cypress (Wikipedia)

After Cypress Point, there is more coastline with views out to the southwest, and the Lone Cyprus, a tree growing on a stub of rock almost cut off from the shore.

By the time we made it past the Lone Cyprus, it was getting late. The sun sets too early for us in November, already down by 5 pm. We decided that our exploration of Pebble Beach is complete for now.

Leaving the Emerald Triangle

Three northern counties of California produce more cannabis than anywhere else in the US, gaining the region the name “the Emerald Triangle”. The Wall Street Journal has been covering the cannabis industry here since the 1970s, long before it was legal. We’ve spent the month of October in this gorgeous area. We head south this week, with regret, but it’s time to settle for the winter, and it’s a bit chilly here in the far North.

We’re in Eureka, CA, part of Humboldt County. Often the entire state north of Mendocino is called “Humboldt,” with an inflection and implicit eye roll, like “the back of beyond,” where all the crazy hippie growers live.

It is beautiful here, there are only 14 cases of Covid-19 in the entire county, and when you go for a walk on the beach or on a trail during the week, you are often alone. People are good about wearing masks on the street, at the Arcata Farmers Market, and in stores. The Farmers Market is really good and runs year round. All products come from within 50 miles, and yes, there’s a lot of squash, peppers, and tomatoes right now. (That’s a good thing.) We have not eaten out.

We haven’t visited all the places you can hike or walk along the shore. There are far more than can be covered in a month. However, here are a few highlights.

The best place to hunt for California agates in beach gravel: Big Lagoon County Park, Trinidad CA

My three favorite places for bird watching:

  1. Arcata Marsh, Arcata, CA–there are thousands of shorebirds that visit this area, and lots of trails.
Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, former farm outbuildings

2. Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, south of Eureka, CA. More trails and lots of birds. We’re still seeing migrating species, especially on the warmer, sunnier days.

Mad River County Park

3. Mad River County Park, near Loleta, CA includes a trail behind the dunes. Trees have grown into a kind of tunnel, and tiny warblers jump through the branches faster than you can aim your binoculars. The trail comes out on the beach, and we walked back along the shore. Fog had rolled in and we walked through ghostly gray light.

I don’t have a favorite place for walking on the beach–there are miles of beaches, dog-friendly, even horse-friendly. At the Humboldt Bay National Wildlife Refuge, there are signs saying No Dogs, No Vehicles, No Runners (?). We’ve seen more deer in our yard than at any of the wildlife refuges, however.

We learned a bit about Frisbee Golf when we went for a walk in a park in Manila, CA that turned out to be a popular disc golf course.

I will miss it here. The past two weeks have been without rain and when you stand in the sun it is warm (60s). Nights are cold, but there has been no frost. There was a full moon/blue moon/Halloween moon on Saturday. It’s been perfect for being outdoors.

We took advantage of the drive south to get off Highway 101 and onto the Avenue of the Giants that winds among redwood forest for 31 miles. This was our initial cruise through the forest. On our next visit to Humboldt, we’ll stop at one of the many places where trails thread through the huge trees.

Not far beyond the Avenue of the Giants, we entered the familiar California environment, brown hillsides, patches of trees, and lots of irrigated grape vines.

We decided to avoid the Golden Gate Bridge and downtown San Francisco, but got a look at the city as we drove by.

By this time, we were ready for a break, so we stopped in to see Lyra at her new apartment in Mountain View, and to meet her puppy, Pandora. Pandora was much smaller than she looked on Skype, and cute as can be. We hadn’t see Lyra since Christmas, and that was a pleasure, and a big relief. How we all want to hug our family members! We visited with Amanda and Jim in Eureka, and we wanted to see Lyra. We don’t know when we will get back to Illinois to see Lillian and Neil, or out to Syracuse, NY to see my mom. Family–in the flesh–is to be treasured these days.

After our break visiting Lyra and Pandora, we went on to our destination in Carmel, a lovely house tucked in on a side street only two blocks from downtown. Driving due south for eight hours had the positive result that it is a bit warmer, as well as less rainy. It should be a good month.

Eureka: Architecture and Art

I was surprised by the range of interesting buildings in Eureka. There are large Victorian showplaces, classic California bungalows, even a few old Art Deco buildings. What I didn’t know when we arrived is that Eureka is home to an Old Town that preserves much of the late 19th century central part of the city, and the entire district is on the National Register of Historic Places. Here are a few of the lovely houses I saw, and some interesting quirky things.

The pinnacle of Victorian splendor in Eureka is the Carson Mansion, built by a lumber baron back when redwood was being shipped out of the forests at an incredible rate. This house has never been allowed to deteriorate, and is now a private club. You can apply on-line.

Across the street from the Carson Mansion is the Pink Lady. This is a lovely big Victorian, but it did have a period of abandonment, and is now refurbished. This is a private home and was recently on the market, if you’re interested in living in a showplace in beautiful Eureka. It has a view of the water, too.

We passed this row of three restored houses. In addition to all having individual character and nice restoration, these are not huge mansions, they are a livable size, and yet have lovely ornamentation.

Victorian houses catch my eye, but they are not the only interesting places in Eureka. There are lots of bungalows, a single story with a front porch, sometimes with Craftsman touches. This one was particularly fine. There are lots of others. Not all of these are huge, many are a comfortable size.

I was surprised to see some older family-sized water towers. In addition to storing water, the raised tank increases water pressure.

Artists abound in the Humboldt region. These metal jellyfish hang under someone’s carport in Trinidad, CA.

Trinidad is a tiny community perched on headlands that project into the Pacific. The views are beautiful, and there are days when whales spout and dive just off shore.

In front of a cafe in Bayside, this large metal lady dances in the breeze.

Bayside is another tiny community tucked in between Eureka and Arcata. We avoided the highway for the short trip between the two towns when we went to the weekly, year-round farmer’s market in Arcata. We passed Bayside on the Old Arcata Road and always admired its cafe.

On Quaker St. in Eureka, there is a man who makes sculpture out of broken machinery, tools, and old car parts. He came out to chat with us and told us that his grandchildren have made the newer pieces.

There are lots of places that have chainsaw art, too, legacy of the redwood boom times, when you could have just about anything made of redwood.

This is only a fraction of the interesting houses and artworks we passed during our month in the north. There is a bubbling creativity that comes out in many places you wouldn’t suspect. Fences, gates, birdhouses, yard sculpture; there are lots of hidden pleasures to find.

Disaster: Let me count the ways

It’s probably no coincidence that I’ve been reading more and more fiction that presents disastrous alternative histories of the world, something we have all thought about in 2020. I began a few years ago wanting to read something by Margaret Atwood. I was put off by The Handmaid’s Tale (also didn’t get through it on TV). I ended up reading the three volume series that begins with Oryx and Crake. Others have followed, some good, some bad. Here are my thoughts. I’m not reviewing the books, just providing a quick summary of the disasters involved. I am intrigued by what disaster novels get right and what they ignore about the potential effects of apocalyptic change.

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

What happens? A disease kills all humans.

Who/what caused it? Not an attack from space, nor mutation of much-abused nature, the disease turns out to be invented and spread by a group of tech superstars who believe they are going to save the world. The founding characters all take the names of endangered species.

The group who “knew what was best” for humanity designed new beings who would not possess the regrets that seem to weigh down all humanity. The perpetrators inadvertently die along with most everyone else. Not everyone dies, and the new creatures are not everything that their creators might have wanted. The survivors are a random group.

The author gets right: If you introduce fatal disease into the world, you cannot dictate who gets it and who survives. The details of life in a completely deconstructed world are what you would expect, a combination of scavenging from the old, and a return to farming.

The author gets wrong: Would anyone have survived after such an event? If they survived the disease, wouldn’t they die of shock once they realized what had happened?

Is there a funny part in this apocalypse? Bouncing blue penises.

Worth reading? Yes. No one can predict the future, even tech stars.

The End of October, by Lawrence Wright

The Hajj, Mecca

What happens? An unknown virus causes a global pandemic. The book came out just as the Covid-19 lockdowns began. It seemed eerily predictive.

Who/What caused it? The source is unknown for much of the story, a virus that mutates to a deadly, rapidly spreading form.

Henry Parsons is the epidemiologist sent by the CDC to stop a new disease killing people in a refugee camp in Indonesia. By the time Henry arrives at the camp a taxi driver exposed to the illness has set off for Saudi Arabia to participate in the Hajj. Millions are infected, and world crisis sets in. The plot veers into preventing world war, more James Bond than real life.

The author gets right: Wright is absolutely correct in describing reactions to a pandemic, especially hoarding, panic, and some dramatic scenes of death.

The author gets wrong: In this story, children still attend school, certainly not happening in most places. Electricity, water, food, medical care still seem to be available, though overwhelmed in the active pandemic areas.

Is there a funny part? Not in this book.

Worth reading? If only to check out the author’s take on pandemic reactions and the ways he pegged what would happen in some situations and not in others.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

What happens? The complete collapse of civilization.

What caused it? 99% of the world’s population dies within a few months in a pandemic of unexplained origin.

First, TV goes off, then the internet blanks out, then electricity, then running water. Gasoline and aviation fuel last a few years, but survivors mostly find one another by walking from place to place, scavenging the houses of the dead. The book follows The Traveling Symphony, a group who live by bringing excerpts of Shakespeare and classical music to tiny communities that have survived. They travel in horse drawn refashioned pickup trucks

Entertaining? Survival shifts from looting the homes of the dead to farming and hunting. One man develops The Museum of Civilization, a case full of electronic devices that used to function.

Frightening? When a self-appointed prophet appears, he and his followers rapidly go from intoning bible verses to brainwashing their community. From there they begin taking hostages to exchange for whatever they want, mostly ammunition and wives for the prophet. The ruthlessness of the group who believes they are “the light”, and everyone else is “the dark” is terrifying.

The author gets right: The Traveling Symphony, with the motto, “survival is not enough” is charming, something that I hope would happen after a total collapse. They scout empty school buildings for musical instruments.

The helplessness of people who have lived in a city their entire life is probably accurate. At the abandoned airport where much of the story takes place, there are actresses, copywriters, and salesmen, but no engineers, mechanics, or farmers to help get the community restarted.

The author gets wrong: There is a lot that is glossed over. Life would probably be more nasty, brutish, and short than this novel indicates in a world without antibiotics, surgery centers, or police. There are no roving bands of thugs. People begin to cooperate very early on, and after one man is ejected from the community (for rape), there doesn’t seem to be much intra-community strife.

The Calculating Stars, by Mary Robinette Kowal

What happens? In 1952, most of the US government and a lot of the East coast of the US is destroyed an asteroid. After a few years of nuclear winter, Earth is going to heat until the seas boil and all human life is destroyed.

What caused it? An asteroid unexpectedly hits earth, landing on Washington, DC, Chesapeake Bay, and the Atlantic Ocean.

In this scenario, the world has some time, a generation or two, to get to the moon and establish a colony before Earth becomes uninhabitable.

Entertaining? One of the best things about this story is the author’s effort to incorporate the racism and prejudice of the 1950s and suggest how disaster could have steered the world toward greater equity. There are no computers or other electronics apart from the space program, where women “computers” are indispensable. Women pilots have trouble breaking into the corps of astronauts, and women of color have even greater difficulty, but change begins.

Frightening? The premise of the book, a meteor landing in the ocean, is an unlikely event, but it would indeed make the world uninhabitable.

The author gets right: People cope with the nuclear winter, but when it begins to warm again, they get comfortable and lose interest in the space program, despite the countdown to when everyone will die. This sounds like the present reaction to global warming.

The author gets wrong: There is a crater in place of Washington, DC, and the only living member of Congress and the cabinet is the Secretary of Agriculture, who takes over as President. The power came back on pretty quickly in the surviving areas for such a huge disaster.

The Last Policeman, Countdown City, and World of Trouble, by Ben H. Winters

Earth being hit by a planet killing meteorite

What happens? Scientists predict earth will be hit by an asteroid in just over a year.The world goes crazy, reacting to the inevitable impact with everything from denial to preemptive suicide (“jumpers”).

Who/what caused it?  It’s the universe.

Entertaining? Henry Palace, the “last policeman,” can’t seem to help himself when someone asks for the answer to a puzzling question. Everyone around him assumes that people who disappear have gone awol or crazy, while Henry gets on his bicycle and goes to find out.

Frightening? In a chilling scene, Henry visits the coast on one of his quests, and finds ocean liners filled with refugees approaching the US. (The estimated impact zone is in Malaysia/Indonesia.) News reports refugees being welcomed, but Henry sees the Navy sinking the ships and firing on survivors in the water.

At the end of Countdown City, the water supply, the last of public utilities to keep functioning, finally stops. I won’t spoil it for you, but the result is not good.

The Author Gets Right: Lots of people do crazy things when they know they are going to die in the near future. Lots of people keep doing what they normally do, because they can’t think of what else to do. Not everyone wants to go gamble away their savings, or dance on top of a bar.

The Author Gets Wrong: The power goes out, yet food still arrives in huge trucks. A few people secretly cobble together what’s left of the internet via generators. Gasoline disappears, yet buses occasionally speed down the highway taking people to places they believe might allow them to survive. Henry’s sister stops by in a helicopter. There’s a lot that doesn’t seem likely.

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth

What happens? The US stays out of WWII and veers into Fascism and anti-Semitism, with suggestions of even worse to follow.

Who/What caused it? Charles Lindbergh gets elected instead of FDR.

In this reimagining of history, Lindbergh is depicted as a Nazi sympathizer, though toward the end it’s suggested that the Nazis may have been holding his child (thought dead after abduction as an infant) as a hostage.

Entertaining?     Yes, Roth deftly takes history on a dark detour and just when things are going to get very bad, and Jews may be sent to re-education or prison camps, Roth backs down. He gets history back on track with the unexpected disappearance of Lindbergh (suicide, murder, plane crash) and the election of Eisenhower. The story outlines a brush with disaster, that is averted just as quickly as it began, and sets history back on track.

Frightening?   It’s an excellent alternative history, and you can put the  group of your choice in place of the Jewish community that Roth uses as the government’s target, and the results are still scary to contemplate. For this scenario to happen, politicians have to be utterly unscrupulous, following the person in power but disavowing all his proposed (truly terrible) policies once he’s gone. (Sound familiar?) The ease with which oppression builds and then ebbs away should scare you.

The author gets right: How quickly neighbors turn their backs on each other to protect their own families. He’s got blustering, know-nothing politicians down pretty well. The shift to toadying from normal White House activity is eerily familiar these days, though the book was published in 2004.

The author gets wrong: The happy ending, if there is one, is that the US goes back to normal as soon as Lindbergh is gone and Eisenhower is elected. Would terrible policies be swept away along with a bad president? Will they?

Leaves crunch, and I smell Autumn

Californians don’t pay much attention to fall as a season of the year. In the south, it’s the time when the heat abates–the palm trees don’t change color. In the Bay Area, a bit more fog comes in, but there’s not a seasonal shift to speak of.

As in many things, northern California is different. The leaves on cottonwoods and aspens turn yellow, pale orange, and silvery beige, blinking in the breeze. At first, while bird watching, we mistook the occasional falling leaf for a bird, starting, and turning our binoculars on the spot. A week later, so many leaves are falling that we aren’t so easily fooled.

Autumn in Northern California

I’ve been enjoying the changing leaves because they remind me of fall colors in the Eastern US where I grew up. Out for a walk on a recent sunny day, the breeze ruffled some leaves while others crunched underfoot releasing their woodsy scent. There are few more pleasurable moments at this time of year. I know the coming months will bring fog and rain, but for now this is an idyllic time of sounds and smells that remind me of autumn days gone by.

The fires have died down in the northern part of California. As soon as the air quality improved, everyone stopped monitoring the fires. There may still be fires, but they are out of sight and out of mind. When there is a sunny day on the weekend, every park fills with cars, as everyone who was cooped up by the pandemic and the smoke emerges to soak up some sun and breeze before winter sets in.

We are in the right place to see fall migrating birds, especially the warblers that are making their way south for the winter. As the leaves fall and the thickets become transparent, we can see tiny birds hopping from branch to branch once again. We spotted warblers in the spring, and all summer we’ve been tantalized by their tiny chirps, though they’ve been impossible to see. It’s fun to have them back.

One tree after another

Northern California has many environments. The famous Redwood National and State Parks harbor what is left of redwood forests. Redwood groves are dark even during the day, the trees so tall that sunlight rarely hits the ground. The trees lend a solemnity to the woods, blanketing everything in broad branches. The immensity of a mature redwood is difficult to appreciate. We’ve seen the stumps of trees cut down in the 1890s that are enormous. Again, it’s difficult to envision how such huge trunks could be hauled from the forest and moved to a sawmill. How could sawmills handle such giant logs?

The primeval-seeming redwood forests are not far from the coast, and make a dramatic contrast with the sandy beaches and rocky headlands. The coast provides wind, sun, and dunes, a sharp counterpoint to the dark green shaded stillness of the redwood forest. Our bird watching thickets are a bit of transition between the two.

There is another surprising environment here, coastal marshland. We are very near the Arcata Marsh. We knew there would be birds from what we read and our experiences in this kind of wetland. We were not prepared for Arcata, where we have seen hundreds and hundreds of shorebirds that normally we see in ones and twos. This has been a wonderful experience, getting to see species that are unusual for us in large numbers, having a chance to look at birds for as long as we want rather than getting a brief glimpse before they fly off. There are long-billed curlews, marbled godwits, long billed dowitchers, sanderlings, and various sandpipers. We took part in October Big Day, a bird counting day, and spent some time counting and recording birds at the marsh. We plan to go back now that it is one of our favorite places.


We have no permanent home in the US, and for the past six months, we’ve worked our way across the country until we arrived in Eureka, CA, where our oldest daughter and her fiance live, and where we can walk along the Pacific Ocean again. It was almost a coast-to-coast drive.

Starting in Chicago in April, we first went east to Lake Erie (to collect beach glass), when we were still reeling from the collapse of eight months of carefully planned travel in Europe. We already had our October reservation in Eureka, CA back when we thought we’d be landing at LAX on Oct. 1. As each month rolled over and yet another Airbnb property could be cancelled, we moved slowly across the US, making the best of the disaster.

Beach glass

In Ohio, there was wonderful beachcombing, and my brother and sister-in-law came from Syracuse for a socially-distanced visit just before New York required 14-day quarantine for doing such a thing.

In Minnesota, we rode on our host’s pontoon boat on the Mississippi.

Pileated woodpecker

On our way to Montana, we spent a night in Devils Lake, ND with dear friends from our old days in Southwest archaeology.

While we were in Montana, we visited the US/Canada border, and I swam in ice-cold water. I canned a dozen quarts of pie cherries and saw the woodpecker of my dreams. That’s in addition to Glacier National Park, and a lot of glorious wilderness.

A sunny day at the beach in Oregon.

In Oregon, my sister Paula and her partner came to visit. They stayed in their Airstream in the local RV resort and we tried to stay apart. (No hugs.)

We were fortunate that the weather was good enough for us all to stay outdoors. We may not have practiced ideal social distancing, but we wore masks and sat separately.

After every family visit, we went into seclusion for two weeks or more, since we have no one else to see, and we don’t go to restaurants. We shop for groceries, and we have occasionally had to do something else, like make a xerox copy for one of my monthly medical appointments. Jonathan goes into fish stores, mostly to buy crab. I don’t go in.

I fell off the shopping wagon once in Astoria, OR and got a new shirt, as both of my others with long sleeves are now frayed at the collar. I prefer in-person shopping for clothing, and resale/vintage stores particularly.

This week we crossed the finish line of our westward travels, arriving in Eureka, CA with our Prius loaded as full as we want it to get. We could see out the rear window, but not all of the rear window…..

Jim, Reggie, Amanda, & Hairy on a special occasion.

Just as we finished unloading the car here in Eureka, Amanda and Jim and their two tiny dogs came for a visit. We can’t really make a bubble because Jim has to go to the office in order to work. He’s not particularly exposed to people in his job, but it’s not the definition of a bubble.

We’re going to make the best of it, and enjoy seeing family in person, even if it’s from a safe distance.

Our home in the redwoods this month.

Eureka! We made it.

The Devil’s Churn, Spouting Horn, Thor’s Well: Splashing our way south

About halfway down the Oregon coast, the beaches become fewer in number, the headlands become higher, and the offshore rocks more frequent. The highway clings to the headlands and crosses inlets and rivers on a series of bridges built in the 1920s and 30s. Driving along, we’re barely aware of how difficult it was to get this road in place, with its narrow spots, twists, and turns.

Offshore rocks and shoreline phenomena all have names. Otter rock, Seal rocks, Sea lion rocks. We passed rocks that look like whales, or the fin of a monster shark lurking just below the surface. We stopped at the Devil’s Churn, the Spouting Horn, Thor’s Well, and the Devil’s Punchbowl. There are many others.

We began at Smelt Sands, where strong waves and high tide created a huge plume.

Blowhole at Smelt Sands

The Devil’s Churn was more difficult to see. It’s a narrow inlet where the water swirls and crashes.

The Devil’s Churn

The Spouting Horn is a blowhole that puts up a cloud of spray when the tide is coming in. We visited at a good time.

The Spouting Horn

The Devil’s Punchbowl is a collapsed cave. Water rushes in and out, echoing with each rush of the waves.

The Devil’s Punchbowl

Last, and possibly most intriguing of the formations we saw was Thor’s Well. This is a hole that fills with the tide, then sinks, making it look like the ocean is draining away. It’s not large, and is unmarked, along the shore near the Spouting Horn. We looked for a while and finally found it, watching the water sink straight down, then fill with the next wave. It’s in the back of the video near the water line, you need to look carefully to see it. Watch the water sink down into the hole, and refill from the next wave. THE VIDEO LOOKS SIDEWAYS BUT PLAYS PROPERLY. Click to have a look.

Thor’s Well

Last but not least, there’s nothing like a nice, big splash.

A big crash on the rocks.
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