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.

Headwaters in the City!

gpsign

Park buildings in the midst of a makeover in the distance

Today Holly and I took a pre-Imbolc holiday walk in one of our favorite parks, Glen Canyon. The park is walking distance from our house in the adjacent neighborhood of Glen Park. Winter and spring are good times to walk there as rains make the canyon’s hills green and birds are abundant. It’s a little too early for wildflowers. The one thing blooming profusely is the oxalis whose yellow flowers cover the surrounding hills.

gpstairs

The park now has trail signs and stairs

Upgrades have been underway in the park for years now. The new tennis courts and kids’ play area are well used. Right now the community center and gym buildings are getting a makeover. We met up with Murray Schneider, a park volunteer and writer for the Glen Park News. He reminded us that the new trails and stairs that climb the park’s steep slopes were paid for with bond money that we voted for years ago. Yes! This is where I want our public money spent.overlook

Today we did something we’ve never done. We walked all the way along the Islais Creek Trail from the playing fields at the park’s southern end up to the headwaters of Islais Creek near Portola Drive and the Ruth Asawa School of the Arts. This part of the trail is new. I’ve battled the brush to get up there before this trail existed and come home with poison oak. Now we can walk unimpeded all the way. Murray told us it’s part of the Creeks to Peaks Trail system which leads up to Twin Peaks.

Bridge over Islais Creek

Bridge over Islais Creek

I have a thing for headwaters, so I was just delighted to be able to access the Islais Creek headwaters on the trail. Headwaters in the City! The headwaters don’t look like much, just a patch of willows protruding from the side of the hill. I took pictures anyhow. I do know that Islais Creek, one of the only daylighted creeks in the city, has several headwaters. The others have mostly been buried underground. Researching neighborhood history, the Bernal History Project came across old maps of springs in the area. There is supposed to be another spring that feeds Islais Creek on the west canyon wall near O’Shaunessy Blvd.

This is what headwaters look like

This is what headwaters look like

From the big rock outcropping below Radish Hill (detritus from earlier construction) we scanned the canyon below and the sky above. We saw red tail hawks circling overhead along with ever-present ravens. Then, hiking down into the canyon, we watched a flock of cedar waxwings snack on berries.

coyotealert

Coyotes live here too

A hike to a wild city park on a lovely sunny day after weeks of rain was a perfect way to celebrate Imbolc.

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.

fire

shastaLake

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.

ClearLake

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.”

burn

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

MtTam

The Richmond Bridge and Mount Tamalpais came into view.

SF

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

Mt. Diablo rose above the clouds.

drainage

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

Bayview Park Lives Up To It’s Name

Native grassland, SF Bay, Brisbane, San Bruno Mt.

Native grassland, SF Bay, Brisbane, San Bruno Mt.

Holly and I try to get out for a walk at the ocean or a park daily before the afternoon wind comes up in San Francisco. A glance out our western window usually tells us whether the fog is in, but sometimes the gray edge of fog is too low to see from our house, even as high up as we are, just down from Holly Park in Bernal Heights. At summer solstice we never know what the weather will do. The sun almost always wins the battle at Gay Pride, but by the 4th of July, the fog has become a serious contender and regularly smites the most festive of fireworks displays.

The other morning the sun blazed in Bernal and so we planned a trip to Ocean Beach. Then as we drove west, the dreaded fog bank came into view. It’s not that I have anything against fog really. Often it’s a welcome alternative to the heat it displaces. It’s just that on that particular morning I craved sun. What a lucky thing that we could just turn around and drive east to find the weather we wanted!

We decided to visit Bayview Park in the Bayview neighborhood, just a couple of miles away from home. This aptly named hilltop park delivers on its promise.

Looking down on the old Candlestick Park

Looking down on the old Candlestick Park

This hill was once bigger and well rounded until its eastern slope was cut off and dumped into the bay to build the foundation for Candlestick Park, the City’s sports stadium for decades. Now that Candlestick has been demolished, it’s a shame we can’t put the mountain back as it was.

Bayview Park is home to the largest community of Islay cherry trees, or shrubs, of anywhere around. When I learned that the name Islay (also Islais, the name of our local creek) comes from the Ohlone language, I was absolutely delighted. This native plant with shiny holly-like leaves, produces edible fruit, and we could see the green cherries.

A 1930s Deco radio tower graces the north side.

A 1930s Deco radio tower graces the north side.

At the top of the hill we found volunteers collecting native plant seeds for the Literacy for Environmental Justice program (lejyouth.org). They are the Candlestick Point eco-stewards (yay!).

Holly humps it up the hill with Bayview in background.

Holly humps it up the hill with Bayview in background.

As we started our walk, we came face to face with an announcement of herbicide application. This disturbed us, as we are among those citizens who object to treatment with toxic pesticides on public lands. The funny thing is that for years when this park was neglected it remained deliciously wild and toxics-free. Our eco-stewards reassured us with Monsanto’s line that within two days the pesticides wear off. They didn’t  consider whether any of the native snakes, lizards, insects or birds (now suddenly so revered by Rec and Park) might suffer in the meantime. We made sure not to touch anything on our walk, but we could not stop breathing the air.

By Molly Martin

Sacramento, You’re All Dammed Up

Homeward bound, oaks have leafed out

Homeward bound, oaks have leafed out

Holly and I had such a good time driving up to Washington State on Interstate-5 in early April, we’ve decided to schedule future road trips in the spring instead of summer. Recent trips to the Northwest in August have ended with us rerouting to the coast to avoid forest fires and suffocating smoke. Western forests are burning more and more every summer and we expect this trend to continue as the Earth’s climate changes. I didn’t think global warming would happen in my lifetime, but it is here now and affecting our daily lives in North America.

Shasta Dam from the visitors center

Shasta Dam from the visitors center

Our interest in the Sacramento River watershed inspired a visit to Shasta Dam on our return trip. The dam forms Shasta Lake, the largest reservoir in California. Set in the mountains, the lake resembles a brittle sea star with arms of the McCloud River, the Pit River, the Sacramento and scores of other smaller streams that feed it. Shasta Dam controls runoff from a gigantic drainage basin, which is still only about a quarter of the 27,580-square-mile Sacramento River watershed. Last summer, after four years of drought, Shasta Lake had shrunk significantly. Now, after a relatively wet spring, the water has risen to near capacity.

Shasta Dam visitor center

Shasta Dam visitor center

You can drive up to the visitor center whose big windows and outdoor deck offer a good view of the dam. Bureau of Reclamation staff also lead free tours down into the dam and power station. For more information: http://www.usbr.gov/mp/ncao/shasta-dam.html.

Completed in 1945, the dam has greatly affected the environment and ecology of the Sacramento River, and flooded sacred Indian tribal lands. In recent years, there has been debate over whether to raise the dam to increase water storage and power generation. Local Indian tribes are leading opposition to this proposal, as it would further inundate the land they inhabit.

The Sacramento River watershed is vast, encompassing nearly half of California. The river and its tributaries are the lifeblood of our state. We watershed geeks have much more exploring to do.

I-5 Was an Indian Trail

ShastaClouds

Mt. Shasta from the north

I grew up and went to school in Washington State, then moved to San Francisco in my 20s, so I’ve been driving Interstate 5 between Washington and California for many decades. A working person who needed to get to my destination as quickly as possible, I concentrated on driving as fast as I could without attracting the attention of the highway patrol. With luck and a supply of No-Doz you could reach Seattle in 12 hours. I didn’t stop except to pull off and sleep or get gas or food. Now that we are retired and have time to appreciate our surroundings, Holly and I can take several days for this trip and we’ve acquired a new appreciation of I-5 and the various watersheds and ecosystems it runs through.

North of Mt. Shasta, the landscape changes quickly from forest to sagebrush country and reminds me of my hometown, Yakima, on the dry eastern side of the Cascade Mountains. We usually come through in August and it’s an entirely different experience in April. Brown and dry in summer, the sagebrush and scrub are blooming! We travel back in time when we drive north in the spring, watching trees and flowers in earlier and earlier stages of bloom. Invisible in other seasons, fuchsia redbuds dot the roadside. The deciduous trees have not yet leafed out and the hills are green. Golden maple and oak catkins cascade from the trees. The mountains are still covered in snow. I rediscovered a volcano in the rear view mirror–a snow cone! We found it on the map–McLoughlin, 9,495 feet. It’s usually bare in August and we barely notice it.

We stopped at a museum in Yreka, which had a fine exhibit about local Indians, but then next the exhibit about mountain men noted that they were “heroes in a virgin and unpopulated land,” essentially negating what we had just learned about the native population. Weird. It seems like the different curators didn’t talk to each other.

Interstate-5 from about Stockton, California, to Portland, Oregon, follows the track of the Siskiyou Trail, an ancient Indian footpath connecting California’s Central Valley with the Pacific Northwest. You summit four mountain passes between Yreka and Ashland, Oregon. The highest is Siskiyou Summit at 4,310 feet.

Siskiyou Summit

Siskiyou Summit

Like many other roads, I-5 follows rivers: the Sacramento in California up to Mt. Shasta. Once over the Siskiyou Mountains you hit the Umpqua, a wild river flowing through lava rock. But I-5 in Oregon mostly sits in the green lowlands of the Willamette river valley. You drive past farming operations and a section that claims to be the grass seed capital of the world, with signs telling us the type of grass grown in each location. I love this and think there ought to be a law requiring farmers to label all their crops so drivers don’t have to take their eyes off the road and risk accidents trying to figure out what is growing alongside.

Lucita and mountains

Lucita and Cascade Mountains

The best thing about driving to Washington on I-5? The volcanoes of the Cascade Mountains! Views of Lassen and Shasta are followed by glimpses of Washington and Jefferson. I love when Mt. Hood comes into view as you approach Portland, and then from the bridge over the Columbia River you can see both Hood and Helens. Then Rainier and the top of Adams as the massive river turns north at Portland and the highway follows the Columbia River basin into Washington State. Is it because I grew up in the shadow of the Cascades that these snow-capped mountains resonate so deeply with me? Driving north on I-5, I feel them calling me home.

By Molly Martin

Captivated by the Magic Mountain

Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta

On our way to the Sacramento River headwaters, we stopped at the Mount Shasta museum, which had just reopened for the season. The big exhibit is about fire and its effect on this landscape; the town of Mount Shasta has burned down many times. What captured my attention was an exhibit of photos and videos of the lenticular clouds that often surround Mt. Shasta. They require high wind to form, but the wind moves while the cloud stays in place over the mountain, often in a dish-like shape. Apparently, some people believe these clouds are space ships, and on the wall is a poster with a drawing of a space ship and a cloud, labeled “This is a UFO,” and “This is NOT a UFO.”

Mount Shasta Museum

Mount Shasta Museum

By evening we were exhausted, maybe just from the five-hour drive. We knew we could get beer on tap at the lodge at our motel. The bartender, a friendly 20-something woman with generous black eye makeup, poured us the IPA from the local brewery, Fall River, and we watched the women’s college basketball Final Four.

Mt. Shasta from downtown Mount Shasta

Mt. Shasta from downtown Mount Shasta

From the bartender we found out what it’s like being young in a small town (“boring, but at least we have good water”), and about Mount Shasta in particular (“a very spiritual place”). She told us about the Lemurians; some folks believe a whole civilization lives inside the mountain. She said there are lots of weird people living here (she said something about seeing folks in tin hats) but all are peaceful. The town is a haven for old and new hippies.

The bartender also told us all about the locals’ reaction to the new Crystal Geyser water bottling plant being constructed near here on the McCloud River at the site of an old Coca Cola plant. The workers at the plant (many hung out at this bar) got a lot of shit from the natives who opposed it, but of course they were only building the plant for the big corporation. It’s supposed to open soon with the promise of providing jobs for local workers. Locals are not holding their collective breath.

Holly in the snow

Holly in the snow

Alice in Wanderland

Alice in Wanderland

The next day we drove right up to 14,179-foot Mt. Shasta, as close as we could get, before snow closed the road. People were sledding and skiing on a sunny warmish day in early April. I engaged a woman in conversation and then she told us stories of mountain spirits, which involved unicorns and magic stairways and disappearing guides. She was a fine storyteller, but at some point we had to excuse ourselves to enjoy the mountain. She apologized and said she lives alone in the woods with no one to talk to. Our new friend Alice (we immediately dubbed her Alice in Wanderland) offered to guide us to her magic place on the mountain if we come in July or August.

Then we drove up to Siskiyou Lake, a reservoir whose water flows directly into the Sacramento River through the narrow rocky Box Canyon. Beyond the dam is the road to Castle Lake, still frozen over and just beginning to melt at the edges. Castle Lake has a campground and picnic area but in early April they were under snow and only a few visitors had parked there. What a spectacular place—on the edge of the Castle Crags Wilderness. The Pacific Crest Trail follows the ridge far above the lake. Without snowshoes or skis we wouldn’t have gotten far. To hike that stretch of the PCT we would have to wait till July.

I’ve just read Joaquin Miller’s Life Amongst the Modocs, published in 1873. It is a fine accompaniment to our focus on Mount Shasta and the headwaters of the Sacramento River. Miller tells a good story and, whether all his adventures are true or not, he was a voice crying in the wilderness at the time, telling the tale from the Indians’ point of view. He writes that he witnessed massacres, fought on both sides of the Indian Wars, escaped from jail with the help of an Indian woman who sawed the window bars at night, and outran death more than once. He recounts the sad story of the last of the several Indian tribes who lived around the mountain, how they were starved and murdered by miners and soldiers.

Reading the Miller book just increased my interest in Mt. Shasta and its surroundings. He does mention the headwaters of the Sacramento, as well as the McCloud, the Klamath and the Pit, another river that feeds the Sacramento and might be considered as the headwaters also. His book made me want to visit all the places he so ably describes, but many are now under the water of Shasta Lake reservoir. He also writes of the devastation caused to the natural landscape by placer mining in the mid-19th century, which ruined the rivers and creeks and killed the fish in this area. The book left me suffused with sadness over our treatment of the indigenous peoples and the land that supported them.

By Molly Martin