Thursday, February 9, 2012

No Room for Beauty

San Jacinto Mountains
My four weeks home in California over the holidays turned into something of a tour of the state.  I covered around 2,500 miles (more of that than I care to recall spent going up and down a particular stretch of I-5), and regained my appreciation for a state in which you can go from looking at towering, snow-covered (even in a drought year) peaks one day, to fertile valleys and farmlands the next, and end up along a spectacularly beautiful stretch of coast. 

And there was much eating along the way, from our Christmas-eve tamales to Christmas-day sauerbraten, on to home-made menudo with canelo tea a day or two after New Year’s, and Sunday brunches that turned into lunches accompanied by champurrado. 

Montaña de Oro State Park
I saw parts of the state that were completely new to me.  Coachella Valley might have been a bit too much like a desiccated version of Orange County for my liking, but above, the San Jacinto Mountains in the eponymous state park were snow-covered, offering spectacular views over the valley and across the mountaintops, made it all worthwhile.

The Carrizo Plains National Monument was a particularly interesting-looking stretch of country through which we passed as we cut across the state from the desert to the coast.  It was stark without being barren, devoid of any human presence besides the road and the parallel barbed-wire fences for long stretches, and took on an eerie air in the evening when the light grew lower and the scraggly trees seemed spectral, the washes appeared gloomy, and the valleys looked like they could have led anywhere.

Morro Bay
The central coast is a part of California that somehow slides off my radar, but it is as beautiful as any part of the state.  At Montaña de Oro State Park we admired the exposed hillsides that presumably gave the park its name, wandered through groves of imported eucalyptus and watched a lone horseman make his way along the rolling hills that sloped down, on the other side of the road, to an idyllic beach, reminiscent of Half Moon Bay to the north.  It was populated primarily by shorebirds, the larger curlews moving sedately along, seeming to squint down at their feet, whilst the smaller snowy plovers careened along, in and out according to the movements of the surf, their legs moving too quickly to see.  Some horse-riders came past, and we could see up the coast to Morro Bay State Park, the great rock dominating the town beyond.

New Year's morning at Pismo Beach State Park
For New Year’s, we pulled into the Pismo State Beach campground, expecting the degree of serenity, perhaps even a dash of isolation though it was just off a main road, which we remembered from a previous stay.  But we were aghast at the sight which greeted us—the overwhelming majority of the camp-grounds were occupied by massive trailers or motor homes.  These unsightly contraptions—the use of which bears no resemblance to ‘camping’ as I understand it—and the assorted debris they attract, the pavement they require for hook-ups, the noise that comes along with them brought out the luddites in us.  My dad, who shakes his fist on the highway every time we pass one of these behemoths which make a mockery of enjoyment of the outdoors, muttered something unrepeatable that would have brought Homeland Security down on his head if they had cameras in the trees.

But once we got over our outrage, we managed to enjoy ourselves.  There can be few places which offer more beautiful sunsets than the California coast.  2011 ended in a spectacular burst of gold and orange colour as the sun plunged towards the sea, flattened as it thrust its way through the clouds, and continued to pump up its powerful beams even once it appeared to have been submerged beneath the Pacific.  Gulls and pelicans wheeled over the beach, and a few stalwart surfers caught the last waves of the year as the water became a boiling orange. 

San Luis Obispo Mission
I associate New Year’s morning with snow and ice, or at least the gloomy, cold weather that is ever-present during northern California’s winters.  So it was a treat to crawl out of the tent and see blue streams creeping up into the no-longer dark sky.  By the time I was down at the beach, the sun was up and out, the sky was coloured a blue like the most perfect of summer mornings, and the shores were covered with shorebirds getting their first meal of 2012.

But the whirlwind tour of California wasn’t over yet.  People talk about California as a place without history, a remark which ignores thousands of years of occupation by people who were all but exterminated by waves of colonisers.  But those colonisers left their mark, too.  In a move that was as much about social as infrastructural engineering, the Spanish built a series of missions along the California coast during the late eighteenth century.  The awesome beauty of many of these structures is tempered but not spoiled by the knowledge that they were built using forced labour.  Whatever the moral composition of their foundations, they serve as a reminder that California’s history didn’t begin with the Gold Rush. 

San Miguel Mission
Between Pismo Beach and Santa Cruz, we stopped off at the San Luis Obispo, San Miguel, San Antonio de Padua and Nuestra Señora de la Soledad Missions.  San Luis Obispo, right in the downtown, its walls crisp, its interior redone, and its gardens well-kept, was perhaps the least interesting precisely because of its condition.  It was Sunday, and preparations were underway for Mass. 

By the time we arrived at San Miguel, not far up the road, the morning mass had just ended.  This mission was surrounded by a frail-looking adobe wall, and the names on tombstones in its cemetery were reminders of how painfully short life once was for people on what was a frontier of three different empires in its dying off and receding back into Europe, a second rising out of the first and expanding to the north, adding colour to the ambitions that its predecessor had sketched out in what is now California, and a third moving westward like some unstoppable juggernaut, intent on reaching the sea and sweeping all obstacles from its path without regard for niceties, leaving a trail of bloodied bodies and broken agreements in its wake.

San Antonio de Padua Mission
Its interior spectacularly preserved, the outside of San Miguel looks somewhat more battered (although I suspect that this is an impression deliberately cultivated by restoration efforts).  There is a long portico running the length of the building, and the tiles on the terra cotta roof are partially covered by some green moss or lichen.  It seemed very much alive as people wandered out of the service, chatting to one another, mingling with those of us who had just stopped by to admire the mission.

San Antonio Mission was anything but obviously lively.  Located in the middle of the Hunter Liggett military base, the Mission is well off the beaten path.  The road leading to it was closed, necessitating an approach on foot.  The structure stretches out in the middle of an open field, the grass dead and low in this drought year, only some star-thistle poking up.  The ground around the mission is open for some ways before giving way to a scrubby forest through which deer made their dainty way, and through which the early inhabitants of the mission had constructed an aqueduct to bring water from a distant riverine source. 

Dry, brown hills rose up behind the majestic building, its stones tinted orange, its terra cotta roof topped by the inevitable cross.  San Antonio, more than the other missions we’d seen, gave some sense of what the country looked like when it was built.  We wandered the deserted grounds, and I was befriended by the Mission Cat which, after rubbing along my leg, jumped up on my shoulder and proceeded to knead me aggressively, purring all the while. 

Castle Crags from a distance
Having detached myself from these feline attentions, the journey northwards went on, through the miles and miles of vineyards which now make up much of this countryside.  Our final mission, Soledad, was closed, and so we could only admire it from the road, nestled amongst vineyards, hills rising up behind it, the sun on its downward trajectory now in our eyes.  From the road we passed the Pinnacles National Monument before arriving in Santa Cruz, our destination for the time being.

Mount Shasta
I could ask for no more perfect holiday than one spent in such remarkable places of what I consider obvious historical value and natural beauty.  But as I walked in the forest above my parents’ house, much of it owned by a logging company, I reflected that it seems like a majority of us who value such places—because I think and hope that a majority of us do—are fighting an up-hill battle against those who tell us that there is no room for beauty.

I thought of this because the forest around me is shortly to be logged, sections of it clear-cut.  This ugly business—for business it is—was scheduled to start over a year ago, but the absence of an economic recovery put it off.  My thoughts were also moved this way because I had just heard that amongst the 70-odd California State Parks to be closed thanks to the greed and rapacity of wealthy interests who decline to pay their fare share into the common pot that supports things like parks and historical sites, and who are supported in their unconscionable rejection of the social contract which should bind us by a kleptocratic Republican Party, was one that I could just see over the seemingly endless forests.
Montaña de Oro State Park

Castle Crags State Park is a place I’ve been going for years now.  Located just outside of Dunsmuir, on the way towards Mount Shasta (also visible from my perch atop a ridge), it is most famous for the dome that looms a steep couple-mile hike from the park entrance.  But it keeps going back, and contains dipping valleys and soaring cliffs, whole landscapes made from rock, dotted with lone trees and surrounded by vast forests.  It hosts a camping ground from which you can hear the trains that rattle through nearby Dunsmuir at night.

The last sunset of the year, Pismo Beach State Park
But this place, and so many others like it around the state, have been labelled expendable.  It is regarded as less important than the profit margins of oil companies, secondary at best next to the wealth of big businesses, and has even been forsaken by the public who enjoy California’s State Parks.  This public recently rejected a ballot measure that would have asked people to pay a pittance to preserve these parks, exhibiting an unseemly selfishness.


People are fond of talking about California as an enduring frontier...geographically as it pitches up against the Pacific, idealistically as it has experimented with clean energy and environmentalism, and politically, as it blends a libertarian regard for rights with what many like to castigate as a wacky version of progressivism.

But saying that California is a frontier, that it is different, that it is on the cutting edge...just saying these things doesn’t make it true.  And the truth is, today California is looking a lot like the rest of the states, and like other countries facing similar economic predicaments.  Seeing our institutions squeezed, we, like most everyone else, retrench, take it out on those least able to protect themselves, and sound like shallow, me-first individuals who, although making our homes in a breathtakingly beautiful place, assert that there is no room for this kind of beauty in our budgets.

What would put us back on the edge, what would make us a hopeful example, would be if we reasserted that we are willing to pay for those things that make life that much more precious.  Maybe that is the sound of gulls and the gentle rumble of the waves, accompanied by the smell of the ocean.  Or perhaps it’s going to see those places which are a part of our heritage but which we haven’t thought about since learning a version of California history in the third grade.  Or having a picnic in some quiet spot, or going camping or backpacking.  BBQing at the beach.  Whatever...we all have our own idea of what makes a nice day away from it all.  But we have to express that, and remind ourselves that there are things which are bigger than all of us.  Their value might be difficult to tally up on a balance sheet; they might not contribute to a cash flow.  But they’re worth it all the same, and they are places where communities coalesce and families gather.  People have traditions that tie them to these places, and it would be a shame if we closed them up.
The dome at Castle Crags State Park

Go here to learn more about California’s State Parks, here to see the closure list, and here or here to see what we can do to protect them. 

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