29 July 2008

Gnome Home on the Rogue




My home tonight is Valley of the Rogue State Park, where I've got another yurt for the evening. The park sits nestled beside the Rogue River, which makes for a highly pleasant walk, especially when the moon is full. As you pull up to the tiny little town (about 30 miles from Ashland), the first thing that greets you is one of Oregon's famous CCC-constructed steel bridges, the magnitude of which sometimes greatly overpowers the scale of the places in which they find themselves.  Above is the Rogue's majestic bridge, a great place to watch the river flow, anglers angle, and the sun glisten on the water. 

Yurts, by the way, make a fantasic dwelling space. There's something very lovely about laying on your bunk in the center of a circle and staring up through the roof into the trees and open sky. The rounded edges feel much softer than a cabin or tent (although mine has become sort of the Claes Oldenburg model...).

28 July 2008

Back in Ashland

When I look back to my last post, I feel like I've traveled hundreds of miles, both physically and mentally. I've been in Oregon for 3 weeks now, weaving a web back and forth and sideways across this gorgeous, often magical (and I use that word sparingly) place. I've never seen so much sheer physical beauty in one square on a map. Oregon dazzles me on an hourly basis.

Today I sit wi-fing in Ashland's Lithia Park on a picnic table in front of a creek with lots of old trees and rocks strewn along the banks. Children, and often adults, wade in the waters. To my right is a Japanese garden with a lovely reflecting pond. To my left, an open field where moms feed babies, teens play Frisbee, hippies get some sun on their dreads, and it's all a big happy mishmosh of recreating humanity, much as I imagine Golden Gate Park of the 60s might have been. Last night I stumbled onto a labyrinth, walked it, then headed toward the main drag, where I saw a young woman pedaling down the street on a bicycle completely naked. What a fine place to be.

I drove up here yesterday afternoon, after spending the day yesterday in my favorite Mt. Shasta-area town, Dunsmuir. No Cal is still extremely smoke-choked, and Shasta seems a bit down-at-the-heels with all those rings of brown dust obscuring her. But it was great to be back in the funky little town I love and see it still standing, like a hamlet straight out of the 1930s, beautifully preserved, but not prettied up by developers' notions of gentrification.

I was, admittedly, running on a major case of sleep deprivation. Someone could have told me that there was a black bear in a lavendar tutu ready to chauffeur me around town, and I would have said, "Fabulous." The night before, I'd camped at Lake Siskyou camping city, for which the words "unqualified disaster" spring to mind. (Or is it "unmitigated"?) Truly the worst camping experience I've ever had...enough to send me crawling back to another cheap motel. I've never seen such a massive campground in my entire life. Not unlike a massive heart attack. They had an onsite movie theater, arcade, pizzeria, grocery store...need I go on? It was a circus in the wilderness.

Unfortunately, my tent site seemed to be right at the epicenter of the action--and sound travels like quicksilver in the wild. So, just as the bambini and babies stopped screaming, the preadolescents started up, and when they were through, the young adults decided to have campfire chats about their philosophical views on such deep subjects as truck wheel rims...this at 1:30 in the morning. Then there were the young women who began blow-drying their hair at 1:45 am... Meanwhile, I'm in my tent doing all I can to practice acceptance...trying to realize that they're just engaging in age-appropriate behaviors...and quickly losing my equanimity with the passing hours of insomnia.

Finally, a deep, primitive sound began rumbling in my gut, and I was powerless to stop its exodus. "QUIET!!!" I bellowed through my tent. And, by some over miracle, I was heard, and a stillness fell over the entire campground. It was the sound of peace, of children not doing anything remotely childlike, that I hadn't heard in, oh, 3 weeks. I admit, it was among the loveliest sounds I have heard all summer. It left me to my own sweet reverie and a new meditative state: my back against the hard earth.

At 4 a.m., I slept.

At 6 a.m., they woke.

For all the skeptics out there, it truly is possible to break camp alone on 2 hours sleep with 5 little kids watching you in 20 minutes.

Bend

The previous 2 days--which I know have names...but I've been traveling too long to remember what they are--I spent driving down from Mt. Hood, into the fun town of Hood River, through some blazing views of Mt. Hood, into forests so deep that the cell goes away, over high mountains, then down into desert that greatly resembles the New Mexican landscape, then into farmland, and finally into Bend, which seems to be the Cuisinart version of all of that. I spent two days there trying to avoid getting hit by mountain bikes, marveling at testosterone in all of its variegated manifestations, and chastising myself for not having the proper footwear for anything more than the stairclimb to my hotel room. My former compatriots at Outside magazine would be shocked at the disrepair I've fallen into. Bend, it seems, shares much in common with SLO: lots of active young people, some historical buildings, a liking for good clean fun, lots of athletic possibilities, a downtown with plenty of upscale shops and restaurants, a nice body of water running through downtown. It's sort of a remote hotspot in Central Oregon--the only place you'll find for many miles with a Target, a Home Depot, and a Trader Joe's. Oregon has not embraced the big box with the same fervor that other places have, thankfully. However, it was nice to find somewhere I could buy a can opener.

24 July 2008

Straddling Oregon and Washington: Encabined in Mt. Hood






July 23, 2008



I’m sitting here at my picka-nicka table in Gifford Pinchot National Forest, Mt. Adams Ranger District, Washington State, where they really still do have Smokey the Bear signage as you drive in. I’ve rented an historical cabin, originally constructed by the CCC in 1937 as a guard station in the woods of the Government Mineral Springs. This was once a popular hot springs destination for tourists and even sported a large hotel—hard to believe this far out in the wilderness, on the road to Mt. St. Helens. This afternoon I drove out of Portland, across I-84 East, until I hit Cascade Locks, the last town on the Columbia River before you reach WA state. I stopped there for a malt and hamburger at a very old school Tastee Freez-type stand, in the most glorious forested mountainous, watery setting you can imagine. Took my place in line besides the deep woodsmen wearing camo, the kids who looked like they were fishing, the Californians wearing Hollister, and a grandmother in large Audrey Hepburn shades who spent a long time talking with me about ’71 Camaros. Too much fun. I walked along the Columbia Gorge for a bit, then headed up to the mouth of the Wind River, where I discovered one really, truly couldn’t talk on a cell phone in that ambient, then took a too-short drive over the Bridge of the Gods, aptly named, which spans the Wind River and lots of lovely forest land. My original goal was to stay near Mt. Hood, though I overshot it a bit…may end of at Mt. St. Helens in the morning, which I hear is even prettier.

The cabin was remodeled 7 years ago but still has no running water or electricity. However, it’s quite attractive, and large, with a great rock fireplace in the living room and kerosene (now propane) lanterns throughout. The renovators tried to retain as much of the original concept as possible, including the flour bins. It slightly resembles my circa 1927 casita in Santa Fe's South Capitol neighborhood.

After I arrived, I spent a long time perusing the extensive oral history documentation of the very first guard who lived here with his family from 1937-1942. This brought the whole place to life, especially his grown children’s remembrances of what it was like to grow up in this gorgeous forest with bubbling streams laced through it. After dinner, I took a long walk on the Soda Dam trail, where people have summer cottages (mostly unused) in the very depths of the forest—truly Hansel and Gretel territory. (Of course, I’m thinking, “Moldiest homes on earth!”) This is a rather remote area, and in winter, is accessible only by skiing or snowshoeing in. I sipped the medicinal waters, which have an indescribable taste of sulpher, salt, rotten eggs, and several other foul, unappetizing flavors. Not sure the cure was worth the cost, I moved on.

Newport

Margot arrived very late Friday night, and we drove down to Newport on Saturday. That night, we stayed at one of the most fabulous hotels I’ve ever been to, the Sylvia Beach, which sits right on the (chilly) waters of the central Oregon coast. The hotel has a literary theme, and each of its rooms is decorated in honor of a particular writer. We stayed in the Gertrude Stein on Saturday and the Alice Walker on Sunday. They were not the comeliest rooms in the place, but both had ocean views better than we’d ever experienced—we could even see a nearby lighthouse. On the third floor is the coup de grace, a library in which you can pick a book, settle in an easy chair and hunker down with a cup of tea while staring straight ahead into the ocean. Which is precisely what I did on Sunday afternoon, settling in with a book of short stories by one of my writing teachers, Pam Houston, and feeling incredibly lucky to have been given the name of this hotel by my new friend Susan in SLO. The hotel has a wildly sweet vibe, too. Lots of artists staying there, great women working the desk, and 2 cute cats, Dickens and Keats. Newport and the Nye Beach area are classic seaside towns, and Sat. night we ate at Mo’s, a classic harborside joint downtown.
On Sunday, however, we had an absolutely amazing! meal at the Sylvia Beach’s restaurant, Tables of Content. You’re seated at a table with 7 other interesting people and fed a wonderful 8-course meal…which would be plenty, in and of itself. But what makes it truly engaging is a game the hostess plays called “Two Truths and a Lie.” Each person must state 3 facts about themselves, one of which is false. The other diners then ask the person questions to try and figure out the lie. Those who manage to fool everyone receive a standing ovation. This serves as a great way to get to know your neighbors, and our table was not only raucously loud, but also lasted the longest, starting at 7 and not quitting till after 11 pm. This was much assisted by our new friends Bob and Maggie, 2 Canadians from Edmonton who helped keep the conversation fascinating the whole night long. Breakfasts, included in the room rate, are also top-notch, and offer another opportunity to get to know your fellow occupants. Then there’s the popular post-breakfast crawl, which the maids must love, whereby you check out all the open rooms to see just what they’ve got in, say, the Tolkien…the Virginia Woolf…or…sigh…Colette…



When Monday morning rolled around, Margot and I could hardly tear ourselves away, until we both got a good case of the sniffles, and I suggested that it might just be time to book another vacation…during Christmas week. I can't remember ever looking forward to Christmas--until today!

16 July 2008

Greetings from Western Oregon

I guess I've been on the road a week now. Time does funny things when you're in funny places. I've been in funny places. Not funny ha-ha. But sehr interessant, as my favorite German teacher used to say. My departure from SLO commenced with a drive through hell, beginning in Livermore, CA, where it had been 109 degrees at 6:00 in the evening, and up Route 5 North, through a landscape that looked like any good Fundamentalist’s idea of Apocalypse (sans Jesus). Hours and hours of thick smoke blankets (2000+ fires burning in CA, most in the northern third of the state) conspired against even keeping my car vents open. Just at the point when the oxygen had completely exited my body, the sun came out, the sky turned blue, and Mt. Shasta exerted its presence like a barroom hussy. Ah, so this is what all the fuss is about. Northern CA mecca.

After a very cool few hours in the town of Mt. Shasta, where I dined at the Billy Goat Tavern and had an extremely fun conversation about the state of the artist with the proprietor of the Velvet Elephant art supply store, I stumbled around the corner to Dunsmuir, possibly one of the funkiest towns I’ve ever been to. Ever, ever. Part of the State of Jefferson, once a historical district comprising northern CA’s Mt. Shasta area and southern Oregon. The funky folk who live there still retain a certain hardcore segregationist mentality, much like what I imagine Southerners hanging on to the Confederacy continue to propound. I’d never been to the Pacific Northwest before, so excuse my wide-eyed oohing and ahhing. I really thought Northern Exposure was simply FICTION. Then I bump into Dunsmuir, a former logging village…and Yreka, an old mining town, very much retired, and now I feel like I’ve been to Alaska without ever having had a trip in a bush plane. (more about my imminent trip to Alaska to come) I spent hours taking photos, which I'll post soon, in this area, and that night, met two folks named Danielle and Kit, who encouraged me to come see the band at the local bar. A few hours later, everyone in the bar was dancing to this German blues band--I guess that's not an oxymoron ( in fact, some days, I'd say it's utterly redundant).

Next, I headed to Ashland, OR, home of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and scene of the crime for 5 plays/day, and lots and lots of thespian types, earnestly creative kids, cultural tourists, people tossing on vaguely Shakespearean garb...and...to my English-majoring despair...one young man who was typing a letter home and couldn't figure out how to spell Shakespeare. Ah, well...Spell check ate the spelling-bee star... I liked Ashland a lot. Passed a nice evening at the Black Sheep Pub, as authentic a British pub as you're likely to find in North America, then wandered around and drooled at some of the historical buildings. Ashland has an excellent health food co-op, many potential Obama voters, metaphysical stores (the kind that don't exist in SLO), and my new favorite bumper sticker: "One Nation Under Canada."

After 2 sweet nights, I decided to fulfill a lifelong dream, and stayed in a yurt. It was the perfect "gnome home," right on the Rogue River in southern OR, and I took several hikes along the river and explored nearby Grants Pass, which may well be the kids-on-meth capital of southeastern Oregon, otherwise undistinguished.

The next day, I decided to continue the places with kids on bad drugs theme, and headed for urban Eugene, OR, where I stayed at a "guy drinking Bud on the bed"-type motel right on Broadway and got accosted approximately every 45 seconds by the progeny of the Grunge generation, who apparently are majoring in panhandling at Southern Oregon University. I don't think I've ever encountered a city I've despised more than Eugene--and I've been to some good ones in my day, let me tell you. I hated it more than Newark and Clifton, NJ, combined. I walked around for 3 hours looking for photo ops and took all of 3 pictures! Couldn't wait to get the heck out of there.

Going for the study-in-contrasts effect, I then proceeded north and west to Silver Falls State Park, where I've rented a cabin for 3 nights in the midst of total paradise: incredible old-growth forest with trees higher than you've ever seen and a trail with 10 different waterfalls. It's in farm country (aka, the middle of nowhere), about 25 miles from Salem, not too far from Corvallis, and close to the teeny-tiny town of Silverton, where you can plunk a dime in the meter and get 2 hours of parking time. Yesterday I stopped in to an old-fashioned coffee house right on the river, where I felt like a total geek for pulling out my laptop and wi-fi-ing. (The realization that the alternative would be no Internet or cell access for 3 nights helped me bag the Thoreau trip.) The guy behind the bar was talking about going swimming in the swimming hole after work. It's a different world here. The kids who aren't on crystal meth are just so...dare I say it?...seemingly innocent. Incredibly refreshing.

Today, I did my camp chores, then drove into Salem, which is a completely different town from Eugene--very civilized and fun, with good photo potential, which we LOVE. Here, I've purchased my Alaska Milepost, helping me start planning my trip WAYYY up north. (I told you I was traveling!!)

On Friday, I head to Portland, to explore the big city that everyone tells me is just perfect for me, with Margot, who is being a hugely good sport and meeting me there for 6 days of Oregon travel.

08 July 2008

Last Day in SLO

In honor of my imminent departure, as I start my drive north into Oregon, I'd like to quote a bit from a book I picked up last night, Jack Kerouac's Lonesome Traveller (1960). He writes about traveling in CA, Mexico, NY, Morocco, Paris, and London during the Fifties, including his time as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak. I'd forgotten just how fine a writer ol' Jack could be... I found out recently that his mentor, Mark Van Doren, was also one of my mother's.

Here's a passage from the introduction:

"SUMMARY OF PRINCIPAL OCCUPATIONS AND/OR JOBS: 
Everything: Let's elucidate: scullion on ships, gas station attendant, deckhand on ships, newspaper sportswriter (Lowell Sun), railroad brakeman, script synopsizer for 20th Century Fox in N.Y., soda jerk, railroad yardclerk, also railroad baggagehandler, cottonpicker, assistant furniture mover, sheet metal apprentice on the Pentagon in 1942, forest service fire lookout 1956, construction laborer (1941).

PLEASE GIVE A BRIEF RESUME OF YOUR LIFE
...Had own mind. - Am known as "madman bum and angel" with "naked endless head" of "prose." - Also a verse poet, Mexico City Blues (Grove, 1959). - Always considered writing my duty on earth. Also the preachment of universal kindness, which hysterical critics have failed to notice beneath frenetic activity of my true-story novels about the "beat" generation. - Am actually not "beat" but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic...
     Final plans: hermitage in the woods, quiet writing of old age, mellow hopes of Paradise (which comes to everybody anyway)...
     Favorite complaint about contemporary world: the facetiousness of "respectable" people...who, because not taking anything seriously, are destroying old human feelings older than Time Magazine...Dave Garroways laughing at white doves... "


07 July 2008

Today's Photo


So Cal Laughing Girl, Arroyo Grande, CA, May 2008

06 July 2008

I told you Michelle Malone was going to be huge, didn't I?

I'd be grossly remiss in my duties as a used-to-be rock critic if I didn't say I saw a great performance today. LP. Voice like you wouldn't believe, with phenomenal range--Joan Jett/Linda Perry. And yes, OK, Michelle Malone, if anyone's esoteric enough to actually remember her. (Whatever happened to you, Michelle?) Tearin' it up rock'n'roll. I was halfway down the block walking away and there's this siren call you could probably hear in Pismo Beach. I go back and see this eensy person, probably 4'11" soaking wet, perfectly androgynous, and I'm thinking this has GOT to be karaoke. Haven't heard anything this good in a long time. Check out the website. She's gonna be huge. Oh, yeah, rumor has it they're even from Jersey!

Speaking of rock divas, here's an awesome recent interview with Patti Smith on Pitchfork: http://www.pitchforkmedia.com/article/news/42536-patti-smith-talks-new-lp-rock-hall-inspiration
Forgive the cell photo. 
L.P., San Luis Obispo, CA, July 6, 2008

04 July 2008

Today's Patriot



Resistol, Petaluma, CA, June 2008








Self-portrait, Chris McCandless, Alaska, 1992

When I think of heroes embodying the American spirit, California native Christopher McCandless springs to mind. Chris is the hero of Jon Krakauer’s book (and Sean Penn’s film) Into the Wild, one of the most compelling volumes I’ve ever read, much because of its recounting of Chris’ spirit and that of several of his predecessors like Everett Ruess. I’m sure most people are familiar with Chris’ story at this point, so I don’t need to recount it in great detail, but by his admirers, Chris is sometimes likened to a modern-day Thoreau, a young man who set his philosophical principles to action as he wandered throughout the North American continent in his early 20s, looking for ever-greater challenges.

My own journey this past year and a half has taught me much about just how much stripping away one must to do in order to truly travel at all, both physically and mentally. Living in the modern world involves layers and layers of not only conditioning, but stuff. We have possessions and routines, habits and attachments, friendly encounters and deep personal connections, careers and business interests, family ties and people we’ve grown up with, paths we take to grab our coffee, media we can’t live without, gym routines, online websites, even shopping brands we take comfort in, no matter how “off the grid” or “nonmaterialistic” we proclaim ourselves. Yes, even those of us patting ourselves on the back for living away from the mainstream in NM do and have these things.

I had my own layers: a corporate job, a house in the country I loved, a  burgeoning 401K, walls of books, CDs and films, a history of living in the same town for 16 years, friends and acquaintances I bumped into nearly  every time I left home, a 14-year-old dog, respect in my profession... And I wasn't a rash, drop-it-all, go-live-in-a-commune type. Getting to the place I live now was a gradual unfolding over many months. I knew I needed to let go of what I did and live where I was not feeling angry, depressed, disappointed, and stifled by the oppressive status quo. Little did I know when I started how everything would change.

Saying goodbye to such familiarity is a bold step. It’s scary and must be done gradually. It’s not for the faint of heart. The pilgrims did it when they sailed away from their proper, comfy lives in England and landed on this wild continent without their soy chai lattes and their streaming podcasts. They had little but square-toed shoes, funny hats, and simple muskets like the kind Elmer Fudd used to pursue Bugs Bunny with. After taking a long look in the mirror, they realized they were set up for celebrating Halloween and not much else. But seriously, the pilgrims sacrificed a great deal, as Chris sacrificed a great deal, in pursuit of certain freedoms they simply could not find in the lives they’d grown up in.

I think many people come to realize the hollowness of life but then rein themselves in. They get depressed, angry, frustrated. They settle for tokens of supposed success, like Beamers and houses with too-high mortgages and SUVs and closets in suburbia loaded down with sporting equipment. Even if Chris had lived, I don’t see him ever having gone in that direction. Having rejected such trappings early on, he donated $24,000 of his savings to Oxfam. He then set off on an adventure both physical and psychological, gradually stripping away the layers he’d grown up with: an upper-middle-class family life, an Ivy League education, a large, comfortable house, friends and girlfriends--all the affluent trappings of a bright, young male in 1990s America.

And when those layers had come off and he found that he still had a few dollars in cash and a car, he tore up the bills and abandoned the Datsun in the desert. His challenge would then be to walk the country. And when he had succeeded in that, he gave himself an even greater mission: to live off the earth in the backwoods of Alaska. Had it not been for an honest mistake (and, OK, a distinct lack of preparation, which clearly wasn’t his style), he might well have succeeded.

I'd like to think that choosing NOT to live as an American is very American. I'd like to think that anything one can do to challenge the status quo and shake things up a bit is a gift to those around you. The huge reaction that Chris' life story has generated shows just how powerful choosing to live differently can be. 

People tend to regret that Chris died as young as he did and in the way he did (accidentally eating poisonous seeds and/or starvation). And I do too, from the selfish perspective of wishing he’d lived longer and given us more of his adventurous tales and philosophical musings. But in actuality, I believe that Chris would say that he had done exactly what he wanted to do in life, and he was OK dying in a place he loved. He had roamed farther physically, philosophically, and spiritually—had read more, examined the questions more, and connected with more strangers—than most people ever do, and at the age of 24, was simply done with walking the earth.

America is about dreaming big and exploring wilderness and taking bold chances. It's about finding what you want and where you fit. For Chris, it was more important to have engaged with the questions fully--even if it meant paying the price for eating a bad seed or berry--than it was to have sat at a dead-end job not being fed at all.

Chris's sister, Carine, has said, "I think that Chris was someone who didn't waste his life wondering what other people would think of him. He lived his life wondering what he would think about himself.”

She denies that he went out trying to find himself. "Chris knew exactly who he was," she says. "He was searching for a place in this world that he fit into, where he could be true to himself. He was searching for truth, purity, honesty. He was searching for the things that he didn't experience in his childhood."

I like to think of Chris celebrating the Fourth of July in his bus outside Denali National Park. And I like to think we all potentially have within us small vehicles set up in the Alaskan wilderness. And it feels good to be outside walking around in the glory of the natural world, then come home and huddle down with ourselves and our thoughts, a good book, a candle, a small meal. It's pretty amazing, this fact of residing. Having only a few possessions with you can make it easier to see where you're living. 

03 July 2008

02 July 2008

Photos Today



Enso Spring, Embudo, NM, 2005


















Stranger, Embudo, NM, 2005

(from outsider artist Jake Harwell's studio, road to Taos, near Dixon)

01 July 2008

Of Cheap Motels and Family Idylls




San Luis Obispo, CA:
American as Eskimo Pie

When I first landed in San Luis Obispo this spring, I felt I’d somehow traveled back in time about 35 years, to vacations I’d taken when growing up on the East Coast. In the late 60s and early 70s, my family ventured out to nearby upstate NY and PA, and stayed in small motels, where yellow signs boasted “Color TV,” a Fresca machine sat proudly behind the motel office, reservations were recorded with Bic pens on index cards, and a cool stream seemed set to perpetually burble right next to the property. (And people even used words like “burbling” to describe it.) And while I’d never classify my childhood as “simple,” these were undoubtedly simpler times than now, when mom and dad are each grinding away on separate cell phones with laptops glued to their bodies, and kids seem to be suckled on iPods and Playstations instead of games where they get to interact with other humans and run around outside screaming.

Does anybody else feel sadness when watching these Age of Distraction families? I can’t imagine children being sustained on this dearth of attention any more than I can envision a tree and bearing fruit while listening to Linkin Park on earbuds. Is this terribly old-fashioned of me? Of course, kids adore things like iPods and Playstations…in the same ways they love other things that are great for them, like Pop Rocks and Kool-Aid. But some of my fondest childhood memories revolve around the times I spent with my grandma and grandpa, when it seemed their whole raison d’etre was having a good game of checkers with me. I suspect that I am not alone in this…And yet, why is it that we’re all so hermetically sealed behind our electronic devices that we allow the human factor to creep in less and less? As Carrie Bradshaw might inquire, Does your creeping in creep me out?

And so it was, tired and alienated and very much feeling the scars of having lived 16 years too long in NM, a place that drove me to my knees, to put it gently...that I landed in SLO after believing I was moving to LA. (That’s another entry for another time.) From the moment I set foot in San Luis, I knew I had discovered a place that was of another era. It was probably the most wholesome, small-town-American enclave I’d ever been in. It practically screamed, “Good Clean Fun!” As I walked around, my mind drifted to one of my favorite old Sean Penn films, Racing with the Moon. If you want to watch an utterly sweet, impending-loss-of-innocence movie some night, you gotta see Sean and Nic Cage (and a very young Elizabeth McGovern) in Racing with the Moon. (It was actually filmed quite a bit north, in Mendocino, but close enough.)

One of the things that first struck me as utterly anachronistic was the lack of chain stores. OK, it turns out there are some, but they are neatly tucked away and certainly, the town rallies against them in favor of local business. They even successfully drove Taco Bell off one of the main drags. A clear case of “Yo no quiero.” Then there was the low-tech aspect. On Monterey, another of the main streets, sit an electrical appliance fix-it store, a stamp and coin shop, and a lock-and-key, all blissfully unharmed by the wheels of more-modern commerce. Indie bookshops that have not been run off by Barnes and Noble or Borders. Four locally owned frozen yogurt stores. Auto lots that sell used Lotuses and ’67 Chevys. An old-fashioned barber, complete with swirly pole. Hey, didn’t they get the memo that in America 2008, you just can’t set up a town with businesses owned by real people??

Another uniquely American touch here: SLO is the home of the first motor hotel, or mo-tel, built in 1925, just when Americans began to have the resources to make road trips, and a stop squarely between San Fran and LA had broad appeal. 

In fact, this is the exterior of that very first motorists’ hotel, the Motel Inn, which is supposedly being restored by the hotelier next to it, though I have a sense that it may end up on the scrap heap. Which probably would have pleased J. Edgar Hoover, as he thought motels the true hotbeds o' Communism. But even Crazy J. Eddie would have agreed that it's a bit of a tease to see the lovely fa├žade from the road, then drive up to a withering pile of Tyvek.






Anyway, after spending a couple nights at another budget motel, the Travelodge, I stumbled onto the Peachtree Inn, which Margot dubbed “the Beachtree,” probably because it had been so long since she’d seen a beach. Although at first glance I thought I was simply checking into another El Cheapo, I quickly realized that, again, I had stepped back into another time warp. The entirely-too-civil owner handed me several large gold room keys (no plastic cards!) and gave me my choice of rooms built around a lovely courtyard. From a giant eucalyptus tree was suspended a large swing. On another patch of green grass were 3 Adirondack chairs in which families routinely relaxed and, get this, read books! In fact, the only person I ever saw in one of those chairs with an electronic device was me…


You could sit literally for hours in those chairs, which believe me I did ‘cause I was Kentucky-fried, and stare off into the mountains, read a book, nibble on the cookies and pretzels that were left out in the kitchen ALL DAY LONG, and simply ponder your fate. I felt like I was 10 again, and vacationing at the lake with my parents. Except no one was fighting and I wasn’t getting pushed into freezing cold water and tossed into a canoe that leaked.

Every morning I would get up and go to the breakfast room, where they had bad-for-you cereals that my Whole Foods-inured palate hadn’t seen in years, like Honey-Nut Cheerios, which I’m betting no bee or real almond ever got near. There I would actually talk with the motel staff and guests. You could eat inside, where a radio station played songs Pet Clark never even remembered recording, or go outside on the back deck and appreciate the ever-temperate weather and revel in this kind of spring-morning, good-to-be-alive feeling. I was rabidly content.

After breakfast, I would walk into town, always taking a different route, discovering the small shops, Victorian homes, railroad tracks, and creek that flowed through the center. People proved generally in a fine mood here, and would smile or say hello as I passed them on the street. (I have to say, I’ve never met so many nice people in all my life. Just purely nice, for the sake of being nice—no attitude, no edge, no resentments, no angst. Definitely not from NYC.) If you can avoid comparing your age with that of the students—who actually seem less self-absorbed than their peers in many cases—you can generally feel quite swell here. And you wouldn’t want to be feeling anything other than swell. Unless you were going surfing, in which case you’d be feeling stoked. And if you weren’t feeling stoked, you’d probably be… down the road about 3 hours, sitting in traffic in LA.