Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Fallon: An Endangered Oasis in the Nevada Desert

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Nov. 30, 2014.

An hour’s drive east of Reno, in a vast stretch of arid, saline Nevada desert, there are unexpected signs of life.

The city of Fallon – one of a fistful of dusty outposts along U.S. Highway 50’s “loneliest road” tracing the paths of early miners and settlers – is now probably best known for its fields of cantaloupe and alfalfa, ranchers and dairy farms, rodeos and drag races, and bars where bikers drink whiskey with pilots from the nearby naval base. This mostly rural community of some 8,500 residents sits perched on a landscape that some might see as the middle of nowhere.

You might be mildly shocked, then, to come upon a huge wetland preserve that attracts hundreds of thousands of birds every year, and a community that is making strides in sustainable agriculture, wine making, and the now-familiar refrains of “locally sourced” and “farm-to-table” dining. The city also boasts art galleries among its early-20th-century homes and hotels; as nearby, archaeologists are digging up remnants of an ancient past that stretches back to when the land was submerged under prehistoric waters.

Monday, October 27, 2014

Santa Fe: Voices in the Wilderness

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Oct. 26, 2014.

Don’t be alarmed, San Franciscans, but there exists another “SF” outside of your fog-wreathed imaginations. Nine-hundred-plus miles back east, this city in the high desert is lacquered in adobe and has nary a skyscraper, its citizens prefers cowboy hats to hoodies, and folks have been living there for, oh, about a thousand years.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Gold Is Not All That Glitters in the Sierra Foothills

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Aug. 3, 2014.

In the sun-soaked hills of the western Sierras, a few outposts have begun to shed the nostalgic “gold country” image for more cosmopolitan fare. Towns like Angels Camp, Murphys, Arnold, Sonora, Jamestown and Groveland, little more than a two-hour drive inland from San Francisco, are no longer relying just on well-worn tales of rough-and-ready pioneers or soaring frogs – they’ve added winemaking and high-quality dining to the list of reasons to visit.

It’s been an ongoing transformation over several years in rustic Calaveras and Tuolumne counties, where the summers broil and work can be tough to come by. There are still cultural reminders that this definitely isn’t the Bay Area – big-wheeled pickups tearing down country roads, a defiant pro-NRA sign decorating a front yard, an RV proudly flying a Confederate flag at the county fair – but you would be painting with too broad a brush if that’s all you chose to see. Underneath the backcountry patina, entrepreneurial locals and transplants alike have begun to make these areas more than just a history-and-hiking destination or a through-route to Tahoe or Yosemite. Now, after you venture into sequoia forest or raft down whitewater, you can also while an afternoon on an idyllic country estate, sipping wines made of fruit plucked from under your feet, or enjoying a dinner worthy of any bistro table in downtown San Francisco.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Mendocino County: The Good Life at a Slower Pace

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on May 25, 2014.

Vast and strikingly beautiful, a little quirky, and in ways still undiscovered, or at least untarnished, Mendocino County is one of the Bay Area’s great refuges to the north.

Some days, fog blankets the coast, its villages and waterways cool and quiet in eerie splendor. Inland the warmer and sunnier valleys and mountain ranges are home to hundreds of miles of forest, farmland and an increasingly raved-about wine region. Traffic is nearly nonexistent. You will even (gasp) pass through areas without cell phone service. And guess what? You may not miss it.

If you've made it this far, you've gotten away.

Nature and History Bloom Along the Monterey County Coast

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on May 25, 2014.

From the old adobes and winding streets of Monterey, to the pastoral beauty of Carmel Valley, and the mountains and dramatic seaside cliffs of Big Sur, coastal Monterey County has many worlds to offer.

One of the many fantastic views on Route 1.

A look at things from the water is always a fun way to get your bearings. Bounding across Monterey Bay and pouncing over ocean swells in a 33-foot, military-grade former Coast Guard inflatable speedboat, Fast Raft is a thrill ride that also comes with a message of learning about and safeguarding the ecosystem and its wildlife. Trips can vary with weather and interest, but the craft is fast and light enough to get down to stunning Point Lobos or up to Elkhorn Slough and back in under three hours, with plenty of sightseeing in between. It’s also maneuverable enough to maintain a safe distance from the whales, dolphins, otters, sea lions and several species of sea birds that are likely to cross your path as you navigate past rocky cliffs, sandy beaches, lighthouses and some of the most famous and exclusive golf courses in the world.
A cool, misty morning on the links.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Lake Tahoe: Bask in Blue

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on May 25, 2014.

The streams of summer visitors to California’s great sapphire jewel in the Sierras might seem a little farther away when you’re dangling 40 feet above the forest floor, your brain a heady mix of pine-scented adrenaline.

Or you’re lazing in a kayak, adrift in the cooler, early morning air over the glassy water’s surface, shards of mountain framing the distant shoreline. Or maybe you’re perched on a volcanic outcropping a thousand feet above the lake with nothing but the wind in your ears. Experiences like these are why some are drawn to the shores of North Lake Tahoe.

A rare morning finds the lake silent.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Devil’s Slide: A Dramatically Shifting Shoreline Gets a Hiking Trail

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on April 13, 2014.

Pacifica’s newest hiking trail is a step back into history, both ancient and modern, showcasing striking views of the Pacific and the forces that shape its ongoing, often destructive encounter with the California coast.

Beneath the beauty, powerful geologic forces are at work.

The sometimes fog-shrouded and always breathtaking Devil’s Slide Trail – which opened to the public March 27 and was formerly a perilous section of state Highway 1 south of San Francisco – is generously called a trail. It is mostly a gently sloping, paved roadway with easy access for hikers of all skill levels, as well as for bicyclists and equestrians.

The northern part of the path wends through slanting layers of gray and brown sediment as old as 60 million years, forced upward from the ocean floor through the grinding of the Pacific and North American tectonic plates. The southern section consists of sturdier granite pushed northward from what is now Southern California. Between the tectonic forces pushing them together and the relentless surf, Devil’s Slide is fitfully collapsing into the sea. 

Millions-of-years-old layers of marine sediment thrust into the sky.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Nevada: A Road as Lonely as You Desire

You've put down hundreds of miles already, driving through open space, and an earthy rainbow of grassland, canyon and red-sand statuettes, and the drab, dusty towns of western Utah, when a flinty-faced miner on a sign ahead casually informs you that you're crossing the border.

Nevada's Route 50, aka "the Loneliest Road in America," welcomes you. Only 400 miles to go.
(Note: The kind folks at the Nevada Commission on Tourism inform us that the "loneliest" moniker was co-opted from a negative review by Life Magazine in 1986 of the 287 miles between Ely and Fernley. But who's counting?)

Both the sign -- little more than an orange-and-brown "Welcome to Nevada" -- and its accompanying motel/casino/petrol station barely register against the blustery backdrop of this state's immense high desert, where sunlight saturates the air and earth. Snow-capped mountains are strewn across the horizon and the road points straight, disappearing into their foothills.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Bali: Still Paradise?

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Feb. 2, 2014.

An unseasonable patter of rain cools the baking sand. Past the beached husks of ruined boats, outside a withered hut, a woman attends to a centuries-old task: extracting salt crystals from the sea. She welcomes a curious visitor with a smile and keeps at her work. Though this spot is known to outsiders, there is no pretense. It is more like stepping into another time and another world.

Once a pristine refuge, the Indonesian island of Bali was discovered by Western tourists decades ago. It’s a challenge for travelers more interested in experiencing some semblance of a place as it truly is (or was) than escaping into a tropical fantasy of cocktails and comfort at a seaside resort. We should consider ourselves fortunate when we can have a little of both.

Monday, January 6, 2014

Tastes of Taiwan: Aboriginal to High Art

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Jan. 7, 2014.

To embark on a whirlwind culinary tour of Taiwan is simply to scratch the surface, revealing flavors underneath both ancient and subtle, bold and refined.

For an island known worldwide for its vibrant tech sector, urban sprawl and the occasional legislative brawl, one need only head southeast a short distance from the capitol Taipei to enter a more placid stretch of coastal towns, factories, rice paddies and beaches.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Mississippi: Blues in the Hill Country

Visions of the Alaskan frontier are loitering in the back of my mind. It's a searingly hot July afternoon and I'm at a ranch in northern Mississippi, sweating through my shirt on a quest to unearth for myself one of America's great musical traditions at the roots.

The particular strain of the blues that was born and bred in the hills southeast of Memphis (and overshadowed in popular culture by the legends of the Mississippi Delta) has a unique sound: evocative, percussive, trance-like. A year ago, I had no idea it existed.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Austin, Texas: Fevered Dreams in the Brisket Waiting Line

I'll fess up, I only went to Texas for the barbecue. It was February -- as good a time as any for a spontaneous road trip -- and I'd recently come to the stunning realization that I hadn't yet tasted that most fabled of authentically American meat preparations. So, in order to purge this shameful omission from my record, a bold plan to taste the dark, smoky heart of the Lone Star State was hatched.

But before I regale you with tales of ultra-slow-cooked, oozing-with-its-own-juices, melt-in-your-mouth, deceased animal carcass glory (Spoiler: Actually, I won't spend much time on that. It's been cooked to death already.) I feel I must at least detail some of the journey.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Detroit Is Not All Ruin

Detroit's been in the news a lot lately, and for justifiably negative reasons. I would, however, caution my friends in the media, as well as their viewers, that this city is much more than a former industrial powerhouse now teetering on the brink of ruin.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Singapore Grows Up

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on May 5, 2013.

Singapore, a prosperous outpost in the sweltering heart of Southeast Asia, is growing up.

For years, this tiny island off the southern tip of Malaysia has been somewhat of an anomaly for travelers. Westerners typically view it as a “safe” introduction to the region. Streets are spotless, crime is low, English is widely spoken, and there is a great street food scene.

It’s also a fascinating mix of strict laws, a highly educated populace and opulence to rival any city in the West. A densely populated tourist spot and playground for the rich that also faces increasing calls from its populace for political openness, environmental protection and labor rights, Singapore is still crafting an identity.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Canada by Rail, Part II: The Great Plains to Nova Scotia

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Feb. 24, 2013.

The train station in Jasper, Alberta, an airy, dignified building with high wooden rafters built in a Swiss-chalet style in 1925, was nearly empty on Saturday afternoon. On the walls were photo essays and Art Deco promotional posters extolling the history of Canada’s transcontinental rail system.

Nestled in the Canadian Rockies at over 3,400 feet, Jasper marks a midpoint of sorts for this two-week passage across the country. From the continental divide between west and east, Via, Canada’s national passenger train service, continues through the Great Plains all the way to Nova Scotia.

Canada by Rail, Part I: Vancouver to the Canadian Rockies

A version of this story appeared in the San Francisco Examiner on Feb. 24, 2013.

Low-hanging clouds shadow the blue-and-gold train as it eases out of a Vancouver rail yard. Outside the city, verdant farmland will eventually yield to an ascent through canyons cut by glacial rivers on a stunning 600-mile passage to the frontier of the Canadian Rockies.

This is the beginning of a two-week journey in early October retracing – west to east – Canada’s transcontinental railway route laid in the late 1800s. It’s a whirlwind trip that can’t possibly explore everything along the way. But the hope is to get a glimpse of the land’s natural beauty and the cities and towns that sprang up along the way, using a mode of transport that has been both romanticized and forgotten.

The excursion departs from cosmopolitan Vancouver’s bustling downtown and waterfront. In its formative years, the trains shipped grain and lumber from the east, and brought new settlers to this emerging port city. Today, the same freight lines remain active, while passenger trains ferry vacationers in comfort on slow, winding tours of nature and history.

Picking up speed, the diesel-powered Rocky Mountaineer ambles through fertile British Columbia pasture, climbing in altitude until the air begins to thin and cool, and the clouds give way.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Alaska: Buzzing the Glacier

It’s a brisk, soggy patch of late September on the rugged Kenai Peninsula. I’ve been tooling around downtown Homer in a friend’s old pickup truck, fantasizing about joining this community of modern frontiers-folk. The afternoon is growing long now and I’m standing outside the town’s only movie theater, pondering what the sage Douglas Adams once referred to as “the long, dark teatime of the soul,” when my friend calls. He says he knows a local pilot, and, it turns out, we’ve got an impromptu date with a glacier.

My long-awaited introduction to the northern wilds of Alaska hasn’t disappointed. It’s been a whirlwind week: halibut fishing, joyriding on stormy seas, moose stalking, boozing, a lesson in blues history from a local radio host, gazing in awe at natural beauty in every direction, and most rewarding, getting to know some of the warm and colorful people that make their lives here. It’s a patchwork and fragile existence for many, and I think that makes friendships even more vital. The Land of the Midnight Sun is a fascinating, untamed, wide-open place.

Leaving the harbor at Homer Spit.