Sonoma County Parks Opening After the Fires

Two months after firestorms raced through Sonoma, Napa and Mendocino Counties, parks that had been in the path of the fires are starting to reopen. When we heard that Shiloh Ranch Regional Park had opened to hikers, we decided to take a hike and to see what damage the fires had wrought.

Shiloh is an 860-acre mixed woodland of oak, chaparral and fir forest on the hilly east edge of the Santa Rosa plain that had once been a cattle ranch. About 93 percent of the park burned. Firefighters lit backfires through the park to help defend the city of Windsor and stop the fire’s spread. They also used bulldozers to carve fire lines. So we expected to find a treeless burned out mess.

View of the Santa Rosa Plain from Shiloh

What we found was remarkably like the park we had known before the fire. Crews have removed dead trees and installed erosion control wattles on burned slopes. Underbrush had burned and the forest looked more open, but most of the trees should recover.

So my worry about the fate of the oak forest was unfounded. I don’t understand this. How could a fire so hot that it burned thousands of buildings to the ground leave the forest only singed? I do know that this landscape has always contended with fire as part of its natural life cycle and in some ways even depends on it.

Already we can see signs of new growth. Soap plant and Douglas iris poke through the blackened earth. Trees send up new shoots at the ends of their branches. The plants and their communities are healing.

As we drove back home to our neighborhood in the northeast part of Santa Rosa, we passed some of the burned out sections of the city. Chimneys jut from blackened lots and the carapaces of cars and metal appliances wait to be collected by cleanup crews.

Back in our neighborhood, we walked the few blocks to our little patch of open space, Paulin Creek Preserve, a spot of oak woodland that escaped the fire and, thanks to a group of savvy neighbors, also escaped development. It is among the many things for which we are thankful.

Paulin Creek Preserve



Don Edwards Shoreline Park

Ever since I learned that citizens had organized to protect this part of the San Francisco Bay shoreline from development, I’ve wanted to visit Don Edwards refuge. It’s situated just east of Highway 101 in Redwood City about 25 miles south of San Francisco. (Whipple exit).

Thanks to environmentally savvy neighbors in the South Bay, we can now enjoy this spectacular piece of wildland. Walk out onto one of the old dikes (remnants of salt production) and you are right in the middle of a bird sanctuary. It feels far from civilization, even though you are surrounded by cities and development on all sides.

This place is bird watching central. We saw egrets, stilts, sanderlings, ducks, ground birds and shore birds. And from one of the posted signs we learned about a bird, the Alameda song sparrow, that is able to drink salt water and is found only in these marshes!

Love this marsh and we will return for a longer walk.


Glimpses of Shasta

Driving north from the Bay Area on Interstate 5, we look for the Magic Mountain to materialize to ease the monotony of the flat, straight highway. She first appears somewhere in Yolo County, just barely visible above the level horizon. The vision, beckoning down to the plains, always makes me gasp.

We rejoice as she grows bigger. She holds the promise of new environs, lush snow-covered fir forests. This year she is glimmering, whiter than I’ve ever seen her. Contrast these photos with the header picture of a bare Shasta, taken in late summer a couple of years ago during a historic drought.

We stopped for lunch at the Sundial Bridge which spans the Sacramento River at Redding. Walk out to the middle of the bridge and you get another view of Shasta. Swallows nest under the bridge and you can look right through the glass into their nests to see parents feeding their chicks this time of year. The Turtle Bay Discovery Park is still being developed and now there is a 17.5 mile paved trail from the park all the way to Shasta Dam. On the other side of the river is a dirt path. I really want to walk or bike it some day, but on the day we visited in early May, it was already too hot for a hike. It’s on my calendar for next April.

By the time we reached Dunsmuir, the mountain was towering above the highway, peeking out around corners, eliciting new gasps with each curve in the road. To the west we could see Castle Crags, another impressive rock monument. We decided we had to drive up as close as we could get to Shasta, just 14 miles on a decent road up from the town of Mount Shasta. A parking lot at the 6950-foot mark has been plowed to accommodate visitors. We paid tribute to the Magic Mountain with a selfie before continuing on our journey north.

Mt. Burdell in Bloom

We discovered Mt. Burdell in Novato, Marin County, when Holly lived in Santa Rosa and I in San Francisco and we would meet in the middle to hike. Spring is the best time to visit this verdant oak woodland with spectacular views of the Bay Area.

We have hiked all the way up to the top which adjoins Olompali State Park. Near the old quarry we found stone walls built by Chinese laborers employed by the Burdell ranch in the 19th century. This time we just hiked the three-mile loop past Hidden Pond, full of water in this wet year.

A Trip to the Foothills

Redbud was in bloom

Our recent trip to the Sierra foothills to view wildflowers yielded few flowers but we did discover an IPA with 11.1 percent alcohol content in Murphys. We watched fledgling nuthatches from the second floor front porch balcony of the old Columbia Hotel where we stayed and we saw the “Pioneer Cabin Tree” in its fallen state at Calaveras Big Trees State Park.

The old gold mining town of Columbia has been a state park since 1945 but I discovered it on the way home from a backpacking trip in the 1990s while looking for a toilet. We walked out of the public bathrooms onto car free Main Street and stepped back in time to the 1850s when this town was a bustling community of 5,000. We were too grungy to stay, having spent a week in the woods, but we vowed to return and we did.

Open year-round, Columbia gears up in the summer but it was happening this weekend of the vernal equinox. It’s a great place to bring kids, with ice cream and sweet shops, blacksmithing and candle dipping, a gold panning station and bowling in one of the old brick buildings. You can learn history, too, in the many displays set up by the State Park Dept. The two hotels in town are owned and run by the state. The other businesses are privately owned, like the book store, which features the works of right wing ideologues as well as historical tomes.

You can ride the stagecoach around town

The State Parks wants workers to dress in period dress. You know, big long skirts for women with elaborate shirtwaists like they wore in 1860. The men get off easier. They can wear suspenders and bow ties and caps or top hats. We were greeted by the hotelier, a young woman in male drag. Her name is Abby and she told us she has worked for three seasons as a park ranger aide. She leads tours and also teaches classes for kids on the state website ports program. (Ports is a free State Parks distance learning program that uses interactive videoconferencing to help K-12 schools teach common core state standards). She told us she had tried to maintain the dress code, wearing long dresses and aprons, but her short hair didn’t fit with the program. During that time she made up reasons for the short hair on her tours. She’d had to cut her hair because she’s had lice, or she’d had a fever. Someone suggested she wear a wig, and she did that for a season during the hottest part of the summer. None of her colleagues recognized her and the wig was really hot. Finally she just decided to switch genders. Now she wears a cap with a period shirt and pants, boots, suspenders and a black leather vest. She said she rides her motorcycle to work so she’s now ready for anything.

Abby the hotelier and guide

The state classifies the park ranger aides as seasonal, to avoid paying benefits it seems. The only unionized workers are the housekeepers, who are allowed to work full-time. Sidewalks rolled up before sundown. We watched the park ranger aides close up the tall steel shutters (originally built to foil fire) on all the windows and doors. We could drink in the saloons, but there was nothing else going on in the evening. The playhouse doesn’t start its season till April. We hoped for live music on Friday or Saturday night. Nada. Later we learned the place for adults is Murphys, just up the road on Highway 4. A drinking person’s haven where one can taste all the local wines without having to drive all those winding roads to the wineries. Stopping by on Sunday, we discovered we had missed Irish Night the night before, but locals told us we would have had a hard time fighting the crush of drunks. They did have live music though. Maybe we older people could find a happy medium somewhere.

Columbia’s sidewalks rolled up at day’s end

A day trip took us up to Calaveras Big Trees State Park up from Murphys on Highway 4. Since I’d been there several years ago, the California Conservation Corps has built a walkway across the swampy meadow (we heard frogs but saw no newts) and a new visitors complex. Most of the trails are still closed for the season but we could walk to the big stump and as far as the two thousand-year-old “Pioneer Cabin Tree” that fell down this winter. Which was not surprising as a century ago humans cut the heart out so cars could drive through. Actually, it was amazing the tree stood as long as it did.

Driving home we crossed some of California’s iconic Gold Country rivers and creeks, all in good form after the season’s big rains. The town of Columbia is reached by Parrott’s Ferry Road, named for the ferry that crossed the mighty Stanislaus River before a bridge was built. Now the crossing is over the lake created by New Melones Dam, target of environmental protests in the 1970s. Until the dam was built, the Stanislaus was arguably California’s best whitewater rafting river, coursing through the deepest limestone canyon in the West.

We drove into the deep river valleys of the Mokelumne River and Sutter Creek, over Amador and Dry Creeks and the undammed Cosumnes River. Then we crossed the American River on the way into Roseville, and finally the wide muddy Sacramento on Highway 80.

Bridge over New Melones

Overcoming Traffic in SoCal

In which we discover the fabulous Metropolitan Transit System on a driving trip to San Diego.

mtsmapI don’t get down to Southern California often. For me it’s like another country entirely. But Holly’s nephew was getting married in La Mesa so we had to decide whether to fly into the San Diego airport and rent a car or drive Lucita, our orange Prius. We decided to drive, chiefly because Holly has a thing for Santa Barbara since she lived there for six years. That was years ago and she couldn’t afford to stay, but she takes every chance she can to get a few hours in what for her is paradise.

There were lots of cranes and construction downtown. Plus cool light fixtures

Lots of construction in SD

The drive from San Francisco to Santa Barbara on 101 on Thursday morning was uneventful and beautiful. We have agreed to stop, get out of the car and walk, and change drivers every two hours or so. Otherwise we get crabby and our old bodies get sore from driving. We surmise that the constant tension of hands on the wheel creates arm and shoulder pain. Plus, sitting in the same position for long: never good for people with chronic back pain.

A super wet winter has greened California hills and created lakes in every low spot. For awhile highway 101 follows Coyote Creek, the waterway that flooded the city of San Jose this month. The muddy water had spread out and taken over its flood plain. But we ran into no road closures, stopping to walk the beach at Pismo, and had smooth sailing right down to Santa Barbara where we spent the night at our favorite Motel 6 a block from the beach.

Holly the trip planner insisted we leave by 9am Friday morning, thinking we needed to get to El Cajon where her sister lives before being enveloped by rush hour traffic. And we did get out by 9, just as planned. We fairly flew through LA, but got stuck after we made the mistake of eating lunch at the lovely harbor at Oceanside. It only took 45 minutes, but put us behind schedule. And then we were in the dreaded Friday afternoon commute traffic.

The restored Santa Fe Fepot

The restored Santa Fe Depot

Here’s the thing: you can’t avoid rush hour in SoCal. Rush hour is virtually every hour. And there are freeways everywhere! I know traffic is bad in the Bay Area, and we avoid it by taking BART or just not going across the bridge. We are retired, so we have options. Still, we don’t have freeways going every which way. LA is a network of freeways with some residential neighborhoods in pockets in between. Anyway, that’s how it looks on my map.

I was driving after LA and Holly was navigating with help from Siri voicing Apple Maps, who was worse than useless if you ask me. So Holly threw Siri out the window (not literally) and got us off Interstate 5 and onto a connector. By the time we reached our hotel in La Mesa neither of us wanted to ever get in the car again.

The MTS guy giving directions

The MTS guy giving directions

That’s when we discovered San Diego Metropolitan Transit System. We decided to check out the trolley line on Saturday. Holly’s sister and her family live in El Cajon, a suburb east of San Diego, but they don’t use this miracle of modern transportation. We can hardly believe this, as El Cajon has a major transit hub with free parking and connections to the local bus system.

Seen on the waterfront walk

Seen on the waterfront walk

Everything seems new on MTS and, according to an old timer at the station, they are adding to it all the time. They now have an orange line and a green line and also a blue line that serves the University of San Diego. It costs $2 a ride, but we bought all-day passes for $7 ($5 fare and $2 for the reusable Compass card) because we wanted to go everywhere.

We got on at the El Cajon transit hub with the idea that we would transfer to the vintage trolley, which makes a loop around downtown San Diego. The comfortable red and white trolley cars feel very European, but of course what you see out the window is the hilly desert landscape, mountains in the distance, traveling through neighborhoods of single story buildings, little post-war developments as well as luxury mansions on the hillsides. But San Diego County is doing its part to develop residential projects near transit hubs. We saw several new attractive five-story multi-family developments on our trip into the city.

The beer parlor had tiny tasting mugs

The beer parlor had tiny tasting mugs

El Cajon is near the end of the orange line and we were surprised to see few riders on the train. But this was the middle of the day on a Saturday, so commuters were absent. But soon the train began to fill up and as we got closer to downtown the seats were full. It was a warm sunny day and we got off the train at the waterfront with the plan to walk up to the next stop. That was the Santa Fe Depot, a beautifully restored train station that now serves as a transit hub for Amtrak, the trolley and city buses. There we were met by a MTS greeter who explained that the historic trolley line was not running because of maintenance being done on the tracks. He pointed us to a great saloon down the street and we were glad for his advice. Five IPAs, and we tasted every one. The winner in both our minds was Alpine. So we sat and had a pint, entertained by the bartender who had come from San Francisco and a guy sitting next to us from Lake County here to visit relatives.

Street artist at the Depot

Street artist at the Depot

On the return trip on the green line, the train followed the San Diego River, an urban waterway in the midst of cleanup. We saw some developed walking and bike paths and it looks like more miles are in the works. We could also look out the window at numerous freeways and be glad we were not driving on them.

At the Santa Fe Depot

At the Santa Fe Depot

We got into conversations with several interesting people on the MTS. Ron, a Caltrans worker, said he takes the trolley from his home to work at the corporation yard “right over there.” He likes working for Caltrans and likes San Diego, but said he plans to return home to Amarillo, Texas when he retires in eight years. “The money will go way further in Amarillo.”

When an old woman in a motorized wheel chair zipped into our car, we were amazed at her speed and skill. Then she started singing Mustang Sally. “You better slow that mustang down.” It was obvious she had no plans to slow down, but she sang the whole song anyway. “I don’t have to buy gas,” she said, “I just plug it in when I get home and it’s charged up in the morning.”

You can get a taxi too

You can get a taxi too

On the way home we exchanged favorite beer joints with a guy whose job takes him to San Francisco frequently. People in SD have organized a Beer by Trolley tour and perhaps we will take it next time. But one thing we know for sure. We are never driving here again. No more traffic jams! It’s public transportation all the way from now on. Too bad getting from there to here is so hard to do. You can’t just get on the train in San Francisco and get off in San Diego.

Getting out of our cars should be easy. If only our federal government saw the environmental imperative, took some of the money we spend on war and put it into public transportation projects, we would no longer be stuck in traffic. I fear that will never happen in my lifetime.

Northern CA from the Air

By Molly Martin (the Mo in HoMo)

Whenever I fly I try to sit in a window seat, not above the wing, so I can see the landscape. For me, this is the very best thing about flying. About which, come to think about it, there aren’t many good things anymore. On a flight from Sea-Tac this week I got a pretty good view after the Northwest cloud cover wore off. I started taking pictures with my iPhone just as a substantial fire came into view at the Oregon-California border. I identified Mount Shasta and could see that the smoke was blowing toward it from the north west. It just got better from there.



The high peaks of the Klamath Mountains (that’s rock, not snow, though I did see a few patches) with the gigantic reservoir Shasta Lake beyond.


Seeing Clear Lake makes me think of the Bloody Island massacre of a village of 60-100 Pomo Indians by the US Calvary in 1850. The Island, which was on the north end of the lake, has been “reclaimed.”


I could see the huge charred area in Lake County that burned in the last two years.


The Richmond Bridge and Mount Tamalpais came into view.


Then a spectacular view of San Francisco, the Golden Gate, Bay and Richmond bridgemtDiablo

Mt. Diablo rose above the clouds.


Finally as we landed, the South Bay salt ponds and drainage. Definitely worth the price of admission.