Thursday, April 08, 2010

California part 1

This was my first experience of California. My plane arrived at SFO in daylight, so I got to see the Bay glittering in the sunlight from above, while struggling to make sense of the geography. I was met by old Wisconsin friend Johnny P (skateboard in hand) and immediately driven south along Highway 1 down to Big Sur under the sliver of a crescent moon, listening to a CD compilation of '66 Grateful Dead live recordings which I'd made him a couple of years ago. We drove up to the top of Partington Ridge and slept out under the stars (wow! I haven't seen such density of stars in many years) at his friend Jim's place.

Waking up, I was confronted with an incredible view of the Pacific Ocean before we headed back down the road to the Esalen Institute for a day of work exchange (working in the grounds weeding out invasive plants and moving mulch around with Lars, listening to Bongwater in his pickup truck during jaunts between the two different Esalen sites). Esalen's somewhere I've read about for years and it is a truly incredible place. I had to get my saz out and play a bit as we were watching the sunset (an orange globe that, touching the horizon, went distinctively mushroom shaped, then briefly rectangular!). A couple of people came over to listen, including Chris, who took this photo:

sunset saz jam at Esalen

The next morning up at Jim's, after another night under the open sky, JP asked him if he could dig out a Dead tape which included "Help on the Way"/"Slipknot"/"Franklin's Tower". I suggested '89. He went and dug out Deer Creek 18/07/90, and blasted the first set through his outdoor speakers, as we sat blissed out in the sun, high above the ocean, watching a pod of dolphins jumping and whales spouting in the distance with purple lupins and orange California poppies blooming on the slopes below us. Rarely has anything sounded so perfect in its setting. We got into a discussion about analogue vs. digital - Jim's quite deep into sound technology and was proud to let it be known that what we were listening to had not been digitised at any stage. He claims that however high the sampling rate of a digital recording of the Dead, he can feel the difference, even if he can't hear it, and he went on to lament the way that so many tape collectors of old are ditching their extensive cassette collections in favour of digitisation. As much as I love the collection at, I could fully relate, and it was probably the first time I've heard any analogue Dead since I dabbled in tape trading in the early 90's. Here's the digital version of what we heard (the best I can do):

We headed north up to Mendocino County, taking inland roads once we'd got through San Francisco and over the Golden Gate Bridge - I was struck by the lush greenery and gently rolling hills. Apparently there's almost no rain for many months, so a good part of the year sees this landscape parched and brown - I seem to have picked a good time to visit. JP put Tom Waits' Nighthawks at the Diner on the car stereo, a great choice, and I realised that I'd never heard it from beginning to end (despite knowing all the songs).

Spring Equinox weekend was spent with our old school friend Holly and her husband Todd. We visited some astounding rockpools off the shore north of Fort Bragg, completely blown away by the otherworldly marine life while Todd collected mussels (purple starfish, sea sunflowers, purple sea urchins, bright green anemones, gooseneck barnacles, chitons, etc., plus a posse of grey seals lounging on some distant rocks, waves washing over them occasionally). And I think this was most beautifully clean air I've ever breathed. We even managed to include a visit to an ancient Native American shell midden (a huge dump of fragmented mussel shells left by the Pomo people, now in the midst of sand dunes). More Grateful Dead connections, of course, this being Northern California - I tracked down something Todd had been looking for on, Ken Kesey's emotional spoken piece in the middle of the "Dark Star" played during the Halloween '91 show in Oakland, something I knew well. It turns out that Holly and John had been there too, really good to hear their various stories and impressions.

We drove further north on the Monday, up to Arcata in Humboldt County. John's considering doing an 'appropriate technology' course at the University there, so he wanted to check the place out a bit. I found a local paper and it turned out that there was an open mic that night as well as a reggae event north of town. Reggae is huge up there. Neither of these worked out - we arrive as the latter was being set up but decided the space was a bit sterile and that a reggae sound system might be more enjoyable than listening to a string of aspiring singer-songwriters...but the sound system hadn't arrived when we got to the venue, wasn't due to start for another couple of hours, and we were tired, so carried on up to Patrick's Point State Park and camped there. After a walk on Agate Beach the next morning, we headed south to check out Founders Grove, one of the mightiest of the many redwood groves in that part of the state. Just overwhelming. As well as the enormity of the redwoods, I was struck by the delicacy of forest floor covering (ferns and wood sorrel, mostly) and the springiness of the ground underfoot.


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