U.S. travel

Beauty and Frustration in Yosemite Valley

I need to get out of town and away from screens and the internet. My day goes from ipad to laptop to iphone to TV or kindle. There’s glass between me and life and I need the cliché dose of nature to clear my head. I log onto the Yosemite reservation site, not really expecting to get anything at the last minute, but there are tent cabins available. I book one, sure that R. will be willing to go on a last minute trip.

The first glimpse of Yosemite valley literally stops traffic–people careen to the left and right turnouts when Half Dome and various waterfalls come into view. It really is jawdropping, but we’ve been in the car for longer than we’ve expected and just want to freaking get there. The 180 miles from San Francisco to the valley have stretched to a five-hour trip thanks to traffic and two-lane roads meandering through the stoplight-filled downtowns of the central valley.

It’s been a nice drive. No complaints other than the usual, which is that it is impossible to get in or out of the Bay Area anymore. We planned a Sunday–Tuesday trip specifically to avoid traffic and we still find ourselves shaking our fists and asking, “What are you all doing on this road?” The You All of course, being Us. We are part of the problem. So many people.


We don’t pull over at first few pullouts, but when we get to the valley floor we can’t help it. It’s too much. Too pretty. Thank god we do because Bridal Veil Falls is magic. It’s a half a mile hike from the road and a complete change of climate. A cold mist fills the air before we get anywhere close to the bottom and I shiver in my tank top. I’m glad I keep going because when the falls hit the granite they make rainbows. Everyone is soaked and ecstatic.

Which makes our arrival at our lodging, Housekeeping Camp, all the worse. The Camp can’t help but be anything but a crushing disappointment after what we’ve just experienced but I’d swear someone actually tried to take our souls, pull them from our bodies, and grind them into the pine needles.


Housekeeping Camp looks more like a refugee camp when we arrive at sunset. A blue fog of smoke hangs over the forlorn canvas structures. The ground is bare dirt. “Park wherever you can,” the buffed, outdoorsy, 20-something dude at the reception desk tells me. My fellow guests have taken the “wherever” to heart and crammed their automobiles in and around the stones the separate the camp from the road. We squeeze into a space next to a giant pickup truck.

I chose a riverside tent which promised, I dunno, something about waking up and looking at Half Dome. What we got was a creepy, inland, poo-brown concrete block and canvas prison tent, surrounded by other prison tents and located next to our car/the road/the giant dumpster.

I’d warned R. that Housekeeping Camp was a nightmare. Thanks to me expertly managing his expectations, he is pleased by all the “space” we have. He’d pictured a seven by seven tent with no furniture, so what we go was an improvement. 8 x 15 (?) with a patched canvas roof, double bed, bunk bed, shelving unit, two outlets and an indoor and outdoor light. Woo hoo!

Never mind our plastic-covered double bed is littered with sand. The canvas roof and door filthy and held in place by black tape. The bear box opens with a shriek and groan no matter how slowly and carefully we let down the steel door. The fire pit littered with trash. We can’t see the river.

Deep breath. It’s okay. We’re here.

We brush the sand off the bed and unroll the sleeping bag. We put our food and lotions and toothpaste into the bear box as per regulations. We hurry to the store to buy firewood.

We’re good. We unpack. We get the Christmas lights in place despite bringing too short of an extension cord. The river isn’t that far away. The scenery is pretty in an August-in-Los Angeles kind of way. I read that housekeeping camp is the only place you can have a campfire in the valley and I understand why now. I’m bathed in smoke. I don’t know if it’s the wood or the nature of the valley but every fire creates a veil that drifts and swirls but doesn’t dissipate. We move left, right, we can’t escape.


We’ve got to create our own fire if we want to eat. We do, and add to the smoke. Our lukewarm sausages and buns are pretty good because we’re starving. Now what? The family next to us is already in bed. The group of friends across from us is drunk and raucous and we listen to their tales of socialism and home invasion. The long, one-act play is entertaining to a point. The only mom in the group is also an audience member, pacing the periphery, bouncing her cute, animal-costumed baby against her chest. Hopefully it won’t be eaten by a mountain lion. Seriously–there is a sign warning parents not to let children walk alone. This little one can’t walk so hopefully she is safe. Though if the mom was trying to camouflage the baby, dressing it as a bunny might not have been the best choice.

Eventually R. wants to go to bed. I’m determined to see the fire burn down. He does, and I don’t, because a camp ranger comes by to “remind” me that all campfires must be extinguished at 10pm. With water.


Heavy sigh. I don’t have a bucket. I find a Taco Bell cup in the car and go back and forth to the bathroom faucet until I’ve put out the perfect-for-marshmellows embers.

Now I’m in bed at 10 p.m. instead of my normal midnight. R. is recovering from a cold so he’s okay with this. He’s snoring and I’m crammed next to him in a double bed (we’ve got a queen at home.) We spend the night wrestling in a non-sexy, exhausting way.

We wake at 6 a.m. to the grumble of a diesel truck and the beep beep beep of heavy equipment. The truck is delivering Pepsi to the store near us. The beeping comes from across the river. Something under construction. Seriously?? I can’t believe this. I thought last night was hell with all the smoke but this is too much.

I get up. R. stays in bed. His ability to sleep in is legendary. I open the bear box as quietly as I can and eat yogurt for breakfast.

Now – to hike! I’m groggy but excited. It’s a beautiful day. A sweet pine-scented, sun-drenched, high sierra dream. I cross the stone bridge near camp. The Merced river is high. It’s been reaching flood stage on and off all spring. What surprises me most about it is not the strange green color of the powerful, turbid water, but the variations in the sounds it makes. When I’ve listened to streams before, they sing a steady song, something along the lines of tinkle tinkle tinkle. This river is wild, roaring and hissing and swirling unpredictably. What’s happening upstream? Giant chunks of snow slipping down slopes, boulders tumbling when the ice that has held them all winter melts? Big things, to affect this volume of water.


I try to make my way to the hotel formerly known as the Ahwahnee. They had to change the name to the Majestic because when Delaware North lost its government contract to run the restaurants and hotels, they claimed they owned many of the famous names – including YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK. It’s basically extortion. While this goes through legal channels the park changed the names so the new company could take over the concessions without a problem.

I have a few moments of peaceful bliss before coming upon the road-working crew that woke me up. They are grading and paving a new road with the usual assortment of Cat equipment. A woman stops the motor grader to allow me to cross the fresh asphalt.

From here on, the hike is idyllic. Where are the hoards? I pass charming cabins, presumably to house staff, and spot the webcam with the view of a meadow and Half Dome I’ve been watching.

I find the trail to Mirror Lake and it’s just me, birds, oaks and pines, mosquitoes, and giant granite boulders. I love this landscape. I can’t believe the sheerness of the rock that surrounds me. I make my way to the bottom of a small waterfall I spotted from camp and stare straight up at the sheets of water cascading down. It’s amazing and I’ve got it all to myself. I need this nature time. The flora and fauna I see in San Francisco is ragweed and homeless people.


Mirror Lake is looking a little fetid these days. Turns out it was never a “real” lake. Entrepreneurs in the early 20th century (?) dug out the area to make a place for Half Dome to reflect perfectly. Now the prissy park department has decided to let it go back to being a meadow…I read on a fancy display sign next to the paved path. <– You get my drift? Fer god’s sake, it’s been a fake lake for 100 years. People love it. What is and isn’t “natural” in Yosemite is up for debate. Dredge the one acre and let people have a special moment. It’s famous!

After I get to Mirror Lake I really want to hop on a shuttle and go meet R. for lunch. I’m tired. But argh…turns out the shuttle is a mile away. I trudge on.

I wait at the shuttle stop with a bunch of other pink-faced tourists. Extreme hiking Dad is trying to convince his five-year old daughter–who’s sitting exhausted on the dirty ground–that they should walk to wherever it is they are going since he has no idea when the shuttle will show up. She resists and I support her. “It will be here soon,” I say. “I’ve been here 15 minutes and it comes every 20.”

Fortunately it does show up and the little girl is saved. : )

Lunch is pathetic. I’m sooooo hungry but I’ve got a choice of four greasy meat things on buns or pizza. All too heavy for a hot day with more walking ahead. I get pizza and only eat two slices and give the rest away to a family. I love when people take food from strangers! Humans are trusting – sometimes!

R. and I try to get on a bus to Yosemite Falls and are turned away from the first one. The buses are crammed. Standing room only squished like sardines crammed. We walk back a stop and wait on the other side because those buses seem emptier, and do manage to catch one, ending up on a 45-minute tour of the park. Which is pretty okay, but the bus is hot, and the driver angry from having to yell, “Move to the back of the bus! All the way back, not partway!” at every stop.

Looks like I had the trail to Mirror Lake to myself because everyone in the park is going to Yosemite Falls. I can see why. The approach is dramatic. We hundreds of tourists are tiny specks compared to the super-sized attractions around us. We try to ruin Yosemite but can’t, it is just too awesome.


The falls are immense and like the river, wild and irregular, the huge plumes more like an avalanche than water. The spray is so thick that anyone who ventures out on the bridge over the river comes back soaked. I hide behind a log, prep my camera and jump up for a quick shot.


We decide to walk back to housekeeping camp from here, though we end up west of where we meant to cross the river in a beautiful, huge, spring-green meadow. The views are amazing…of everything. The scope of the place is astounding.


On the other side of Swinging Bridge we find more great photo ops – the falls reflected in a still spot on the river.


By the time we get back to camp we’re beat. We planned to eat dinner out but parking is awful (most lots are full) as is traffic, and we can’t face riding the bus for 45 minutes – if we manage to get space on one. We get beer and pretzels from the store and sit by the river to enjoy sunset on Half Dome, but it isn’t the most spectacular thing we’ve seen today. I’m embarrassed to admit I’m a bit bored. I should recognize this as a symptom of being overstimulated but I don’t. I miss my usual toys. I’m trying to have a tech-free few days and except for a few tweets and instagrams, I’ve kept off the internet and I don’t have my computer. I brought a good old-fashioned paper book to read but after seven pages I’m reciting the overwrought prose out loud to R., who isn’t interested. Neither am I.

I’ve had a great day and am ready to chill but no chill is to be had. Chill being a comfy couch and sushi delivered. The evening campfires are lit and smoke chokes the camp. It seems worse tonight. We both cough. We opt not to build our own fire and eat cold turkey sandwiches for dinner. It’s now 9 p.m. and we are completely unable to entertain ourselves. Pathetic? Maybe. We retreat to the forced snuggling of our double bed and listen to an audio book.

I wake pre-dawn, having to pee, which involves getting up and getting dressed. It’s 5am though I haven’t seen this hour in years, I feel pretty good. I’ve slept six hours and that seems to be enough. We leave today and I was worried I wouldn’t have time to hike, but I’ve now got loads!


I’d like to be in the big green meadow for sunrise so I set off. All the service trucks are on the road, getting in before the gridlock, but overall it’s peaceful. I check the weather on my phone and find out the river is at flood stage right now. The first sign I see of this is a two-inch deep coating of water over a ten-foot length of the path I’m traveling. What to do? There is no way around it. Though I don’t want to get my feet wet this early, I’m wearing all terrain sandals, so I go ahead.

I make it to where the meadow should be and find a lake. The meadow is completely flooded. This doesn’t seem strange. I didn’t know the meadow well enough to miss it and the lake looks fine where it is.

I cross the bridge and shuffle through cold water to a grass island and watch the sunlight creep its way down what might be El Capitan…not sure what all the big masses of rock are called. I’m surrounded by birdsong, though I don’t see the birds themselves. As the light slowly approaches me, I acknowledge I’m not a sunrise person. Daybreak isn’t particularly glorious or amazing. I know what comes next–whereas sunset thrills me…the start of night…of mystery. The period at the end of the sentence that was the day. Sunrise is ellipses. Not a thing in itself but the start of everything else.


The sun is up and it promises to be another beautiful day. I really want to see Yosemite falls again. We saw it in the afternoon and I know it will look completely different now. Every feature in Yosemite has a different golden hour. The problem being that the paved path that leads to it is also part of the lake, fast moving water rushing over the black asphalt. I can see the shore, near the lodge, and it isn’t that far. What the hell. My feet are already wet.

The water isn’t just cold, it’s ice cold. Freezing. By the time I’m halfway across I’m knee deep and my legs are burning. I wonder how long it takes to get frostbite but don’t bother to look it up. It takes only taken five minutes to cross but it feels like longer. I stumble out of the river lake, embarrassed because I’ve done something kind of stupid. Fortunately no one is there to chastise me because they are all SLEEPING. As they should be.

My legs are both numb and burning and I towel them off with my sweatshirt. I take the paved road by Yosemite Lodge instead of the nature path because I’m temporarily sick of nature. I can wiggle my toes if not feel them. I think they’ll make it.

The cafeteria at the lodge is open and I go in for two eggs scrambled and multigrain toast and a chance to thaw my feet. The population of the sunny room is split between dazed people such as myself, and sporty people wearing backpacks with too many straps and pockets.


When I’m fed and dry I head across the road to the falls and am rewarded by rainbows! Yosemite falls makes rainbows in the morning. I’m so glad I came. I people-watch from a mist-free location. It warms my heart to see adults completely in the moment, and so gleeful in the face of a thunderous and powerful and beautiful force. Thank god Yosemite is a clumsily-managed national park and not a for-profit venture. We don’t need zip lines and the Yosemite Under the Falls Experience. Okay now that I’m thinking about it, I do want that because it would be amazing. And that probably will happen, but back to my point. Watching my fellow humans “have a moment” is really nice. That woman could be a CEO or a waitress and she’d be making the same face. We stand together in awe. I guess that’s what keeps people coming to this place.

I take the long way back to camp, hiking a trail on the north side that puts me surprisingly high above the valley. On the map it’s just a fingernail from the road. I’m completely alone again, just me and the lizards and the birds. My analytic brain calculates the chances of me being raped and murdered and thrown in a crevasse and my creative brain says it’s zero. I’m sweaty and tired and safe and happy and very much living the moment, mosquitos and all. Success.

I needed a few days off the grid and in nature, and although I wasn’t technically off the grid and the nature was interrupted by the hideous structures in Housekeeping Camp, the nature still got me. Despite its awesome power and clear ability to smash and flood and eat unattended children, something in us wants to look up at a clear blue sky and impossibly vertical cliffs and gushing water and rainbows and smile at a stranger and proclaim, “Wow!”

Thanks, Yosemite.



A short, wet drive to a well-annotated town

I don’t usually write about one-day trips. This blog is for significant adventures. Then it occurred to me that most people will never visit Volcano. Most people will never visit California, or even the U.S. I thought about someone in a country I’ll never visit, maybe Poland, taking a weekend trip to a small town. Would I want to read about that? Yes. So here you go.

tovolcano copy

I wanted to take a tour of spring. For a few weeks each April the dry golden hills of California turn a crazy vibrant green and explode with wildflowers. I wanted to see the green, to lay in the green, to take pictures of the green, to find a field of wildflowers and bring back a big bouquet that would make me sneeze once it was confined to our tiny house.

It wasn’t supposed to rain. My dream trip was sunny. I’d prepaid the first night at the hotel with the expectation we’d arrive late after a long day of “car-hiking,” what we call it when we take back roads and stop often to take photos. Now the weather was shitty and we had to go anyway.

The problem with trying to take back roads in a rapidly-developing state like California is that that little squiggle on the map is now the main drag through a city. It took us longer than it should have to get out of the Bay Area because country was now suburb. Our car-hiking was past strip malls.

When we escaped from the sprawl of Concord I finally felt I was somewhere else. The Sacramento delta has an understated charm but the light was crappy and I wasn’t inspired to do much more than snap a few crappy photos from the car.


I cheered up when we got to Volcano. We’d discovered the town a few years ago when we were driving around the gold country and vowed to come back and stay overnight.


All the gold rush towns along highway 49 are really cute, though most are sadly soul dead, any normal businesses long gone and replaced with antique shoppes and jewelry stores. Still, the buildings are preserved and if you squint your eyes you can pretend you are back in 1890. And 1890 is ancient history in California. That said, there are more authentic-feeling ruins around. Old mining equipment and such. So even if it is quite new compared to things in Europe or even the east coast, it is part of our history and thrilling to us natives.

Because – if you were wondering – in elementary school we spent about a week on world history and the whole rest of the year on California history. Making dioramas of log cabins  in shoeboxes, taking field trips to Sutter’s Mill to pan for gold, learning about the missions, writing reports on how to grind acorns…

Ai yi yi. As a kid I loved this, as an adult I’m not sure I got the best education. Was it good for me to study our rather unimportant history in so much detail instead of learning about the rest of the world? Would the rest of the world have been too abstract? I caught up later and love to travel so I guess it all worked out.

Anyway, Volcano. At two or three square blocks, Volcano is too small to ruin. There aren’t enough storefronts to attract tacky retail. It boasts two small hotels, two restaurants, a bar, a post office, a grocery store, and a theater. It’s off the beaten path.

Our hotel, the Union Inn, is lovely on the outside and slightly less so on inside, as if some HGTV contestants had $1000 and five hours to make the place “look like a BnB.” Boxes checked, barely.

We walked around town during a break in the rain. Every Single Building in town has in informational plaque. This is simultaneously educational and unnerving. It’s like, hi. You are a tourist. I’m a cute building. I used to be a jail. I’m adorable, aren’t I? Take a selfie with me. Don’t worry. No one will make fun of you. No one really lives here.


Once it started raining in earnest we settled into the bar adjacent to the St. George hotel. And geeze that place works. I worry I’m being manipulated when I’m in a tourist town but the décor is great, the vibe is great and the bartender was an amazing kind soul who told us the history of the place as if he didn’t do that 20 times a day. He actually led me into the hotel lobby to show me a photo of Volcano in its heyday. Population 5000, wood shacks everywhere and a landscape destroyed by strip mining.

A lady from a group of drunks at the other end of the bar informed me that I was in charge of music and that the jukebox was free. I dutifully picked 10 songs. The bartender nodded “good choice” at one of them and I beamed.

I gathered, after a couple hours, that because this place is really close to Sacramento there are “regulars” who often come to Volcano for weekend getaways. We were befriended by a fascinating “May/December” couple. I don’t know if people even use that term anymore but it’s what my mom calls someone very young with someone much older. The man, in his early 70’s, struck up a conversation with us and after a few minutes of yelling he and his 20-something girlfriend moved a couple bar seats over to be closer to us.

I wasn’t sure they were a couple at first but the woman kept touching his arm whenever he got too loud and boisterous, which was all the time, and rolling her eyes at his outrageous statements, then telling us what he thought about related subjects–exasperated with him in that way that only a mate can be.

I’m familiar with the concept of older men with younger women, but only from magazines…Hugh Hefner with his newest bunny, the grizzled president of some South American country with his mistress. No one I know has ever dated someone 40 years their senior. Since it doesn’t seem to happen all that often I wondered how this relationship came about.

I liked them both. They were intense and opinionated and we had a great time discussing California politics, but I did sense some tension. I asked the woman if she’d heard of Roughing It, a book by Mark Twain about the gold and silver rush, and she replied, angrily, “Of course I’ve heard of it. All young people aren’t idiots.”

Oops. Someone has a chip on their shoulder!

After another glass of whiskey she began to high five me whenever I agreed with something she said, and then she’d nudge her boyfriend and say, “See, she understands.”

At some point they went out for a cigarette and smoked and cuddled on a bench in front of the window, then disappeared. I was relieved. They’d been acting something out for me, the audience, and I was confused and not eager to see how it ended.

After that, a bearded, red-faced man who looked like he’d arrived on one of those large, RV-style motorcycles asked if we were from San Francisco, because we looked like we were. I expected some good-natured ribbing when he found out he was right, but he lived in San Francisco back in the day, and pointed out a leather-clad man behind him. That guy’s daughter was the director of a play that was opening in the small theater that night–a soft open for friends and family so we couldn’t go. Too bad.

We had a good dinner back at our hotel and fell asleep early.

The next morning it was still raining. I was determined to get some photos, dammit, so I got the umbrella and my good camera and trudged up Church Street to the old cemetery. The gravestones listed birth and death dates as well as country of origin. People came from all over the world to Volcano to search for gold. What a crazy place it must have been in its heyday. And funny that people still come to California the strike it rich, this time with tech companies.


It was nearly impossible to keep my camera dry and absolutely impossible to avoid soaking my feet, so I gave up.

The inn only had four rooms and we were the last to breakfast. I’m not a fan of BnB’s for this specific reason. Breakfast is served from 8:00-10:30 but if you come down at 10:15 you’ll be greeted by a very impatient server. If we came down at 8 like everyone else, he could clean up the food and get on with his day. Not to fault the guy–he was super nice and friendly, just with an undercurrent of wanting us to hurry up and leave.

I’d discovered there was a cave right nearby, and I love caves. The owners of Black Chasm (it’s privately owned) had hand-painted a sign on the road in the style of official brown and yellow government signs declaring Black Chasm a National Landmark. Which I’m sorry to say turns out not be true…according the the NPS website.


Shrug. It was still a good cave. I liked it. And no rain down there!


We had amazing pizza for lunch at Pizza Plus in Sutter Creek. The best sauce I’ve had maybe ever. Still too rainy to walk around, and my feet were still wet from my morning adventure.

We stopped for a few minutes in Locke, a town in the shadow of a levee in the Sacramento delta, built by Chinese workers in the early 20th century. The polar opposite of overly cute overly touristy Sutter Creek, poor Locke is sad and rundown and barely inhabited. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground for these historic towns.


We got home that evening and despite the cave, my overall feeling was that the trip was a disappointment. I barely took any pictures and saw almost no wildflowers. I didn’t get my spring fix.


It took me a few weeks to realize that the only problem with that trip was that what I expected to happen didn’t happen, so even though a whole bunch of other things did, I couldn’t appreciate that right away. My expectations create a kind of haze over the real world, a transparent overlay, so that when things align, everything is super colored, super amazing. When things don’t work out, I’ve got this pesky vision of sunny skies overlaid on the gray clouds, fields of poppies on the walls of the dark bar and it’s hard to have a good time because of that.

Should I stop having expectations so I can be more flexible and adapt to the “real world?” Yes, I’d like to be more flexible, but I dunno. I like having expectations. It’s still spring in California so I’ll try again. There are still poppies out there.



We took a quick trip to downtown Los Angeles to celebrate a friend’s birthday. I didn’t have my computer with me because trips with friends don’t offer much time for contemplation and writing, so I didn’t blog on the spot but I’ll attempt to recreate our weekend now.

We flew from SFO to LAX and took a Lyft to the downtown Standard. We’ve stayed there numerous times in the past and I think this was one time too many. It’s got a very distinct style that they haven’t updated in the past decade. So even though it is still great and if you wiped my memory I’d ooo and ahh, it felt like same old same old.

Gauging from the crowd at the rooftop bar on a Friday evening, it is no longer the hip place to be, which was a disappointment because LA people watching is so fun.

We walked to dinner at Redbird. Downtown LA is definitely NOT gentrified. The denizens are similar to those in San Francisco’s tenderloin district, but the vibe is totally different. Bigger, emptier, more haunting. Many shuttered buildings. No crowds on the sidewalks, just the occasional idiot tourists (us!) and raving homeless person. I didn’t feel in any kind of immediate danger but we all agreed to cab it back.


Redbird is in an old rectory and photographs much more majestically then it presents in real life. I can barely remember the food because of all the other odd things that happened. We arrived on time and the host apologized that the party at “our” table was having desert and would be done soon. I was mystified that we were assigned a particular table and not the next 4-top that opened up. We didn’t mind. We were happy to have drinks and gawk. Good people watching there for sure! After half an hour we were getting hungry, and the host again apologized. We moved from the bar to a bar table when one opened up–which earned us the ire of the bartender! We’d already had a round, but when we went to the bar to get another he haughtily refused to make us a drink. We were at a TABLE now and the nonexistent SERVER would get our drinks. We sat there drinkless and confused. At some point the host, who was really very nice, told us the table was almost ready and offered to buy us drinks. We were happy to accept and explained that we had tried to get our own and been refused, so he did some magic handwaving and a few minutes later the server appeared with drinks for us.

When we were finally seated it was at the most awkward table ever. The back of my chair was a foot from a chest of drawers thing – which the waiters actually needed to access to get silverware and other supplies. So the whole meal waiters were squeezing behind me and rustling around. !!!!

R. had a headache and felt bad from the flight, so after we ordered he left to go back to the hotel, which meant we ended with way too much food.

Highlight! Actress Riki Lindhome from Garfunkel and Oates (one of my favorite shows) sat down at a table right across from us midway through dinner. She was on a date and I was trying hard to be cool and not stare at her. Meaning, I totally stared at her. And felt sorry for her that people like me stared at her when she was just trying to have a nice night out. Oh well!! : ) Overall it was a good night and they comped us a lot of our food so I had no complaints.

Saturday morning we headed straight to The Last Bookstore.


What a great place! In case you haven’t heard, all the big bookstores in San Francisco are gone. The chains left, and the little indy places are flourishing, but we don’t have any grand spaces dedicated to books. No clean, well-lighted places, just small narrow spaces filled with eau du old paper.

The Last Bookstore is a temple! A cathedral! A maze! Amazing! Built in an old bank it is what a bookstore should be.

horrorvaultAnd…the only bookstore I’ve ever been in that advised patrons not to make a nuisance of themselves while taking photos.

In addition to books, the mezzanine level hosts art galleries. I actually bought some art. My house is very small and I’ve got limited wall space so I was really happy to find some very small original art.


We spent the afternoon at the Standard’s rooftop bar/pool area, which was a very strange experience. Years ago I laid on the exact same couch and had an amazing time drinking and frolicking. Since then, my tastes have changed. I was older than the 20-somethings that surrounded me and therefore invisible to them, which was amazing. A group shared our corner and spoke freely about stupid ass shit. I don’t want to be mean. I was 20, I was an idiot, I admit it. But to see it now played out in front of me…god…the posturing…the insecurity…guys literally comparing their abs…the women tottering around on high heels taking selfies…I so do not want to be young again. I wanted to tell them all they were beautiful and to relax.


Saturday night, Birthday Night, we had cocktails at Bottega Louie and then dinner at Bestia (down by the LA river). Yum and yum.

To cap it all off, when we left Sunday, I saw that Iron Maiden has their own plane. What!!??? All in all a great weekend.


Two days in Chicago

September 15-16, 2014

I like Chicago. When we were here a few years ago it was 100 degrees and a thousand percent humidity, so it was nice to be able to walk around the city this time without drowning in my own sweat.

Here are some of the things I saw as I wandered:

wreckingSomething getting knocked down, downtown

carbonArt deco wonderland

flowersNeon sign

ominousclockSlightly ominous art deco clock

dollhouseThis is a dollhouse-scale miniature room. There are about 50 of these tiny rooms at the Art Institute of Chicago. I stumbled across them by accident. Jaw-dropping moment.

Weird thing I haven’t mentioned yet. It went from summer to fall during this trip like someone flipped a switch. Indianapolis was hot when we arrived. Kentucky was so hot we didn’t mind the cloud cover and the crappy light. Then, it was cool. 50’s, low 60’s. Too cool to stay long at the concert at Fox Hollow farm. Cool enough in Chicago that I was thinking of buying a jacket. I saw leaves on trees fading to greenish yellow.

As someone who has lived most of my life with California’s faint seasons, this quick change surprised me. I pictured September in the midwest starting out in the high 80’s and then dropping ~one degree every day until it was “crisp” at the end of the month. So, I don’t know if this was unusual, but the phrase, “Fall is in the air,” gained a whole new meaning.

I have nothing insightful to say about Chicago. I haven’t spent near enough time there to understand the place. It’s big though! Makes San Francisco feel tiny. I picked an “L” train line at random and rode north until the end. The city goes and goes and goes. 9 million people I think? We check in at a paltry 800k.

I like the way staring out at a huge city makes me feel. We lucked out and got a high floor at our hotel and I could see city until the horizon. It excited my imagination, but in reality, I can’t use all that city. It doesn’t matter if there are 10 things going on that I’m not doing tonight, or 1000. San Francisco is the right size for me. My friends are within hiking distance, and I’ve never seen a city with so much creativity per square mile.

I’m not sure how this turned into a love letter to San Francisco. Oh yes, I know. Every time I visit another city I think, could I live here, and more importantly, should I live here? Most of my friends are from other states and I have to constantly check in with myself to be sure…it seems so unlikely that I was born in the right place. I think I was though. I mean, the gods were a little bit off course when I landed 20 miles south of here but it all worked out. I found my way home. As I did Tuesday night. I heart SF.



Willet or won’t it?

September 13, 2014

We had a fairly mellow day, as far as this trip goes. We got breakfast on Frankfort Street, a very cute area/neighborhood a couple of miles from here, and from there headed south to the Willet distillery. The road construction forced us off the highway an on to a pretty small road with farms and hay bails.


Willet was a bit of a disappointment. I’ve been trying to get over the fact that until two years ago, they didn’t produce any of their own bourbon; they bought it all and aged and blended it, or as the woman who gave the tour kept insisting–married it. Since they age for four years minimum, we won’t know if they have a good product until 2016.


Copper pot still at Willet

Our tour guide was pretty and practiced and seemed as if she belonged in a trade show booth. Not super sincere. Not much work was going on, maybe because it was the weekend?

We were allowed to taste the fermenting grains, and frankly, they tasted sour and harsh to me, whereas at Maker’s Mark, I’d have had a bowlful. I was also surprised to hear they didn’t rotate their barrels at Willet. The temperature varies in the rickhouses where the barrels are stored–very warm at the top and cooler at the bottom (which I noticed had dirt floors). The barrels at the top mature more quickly, so at Maker’s there is a schedule for how long each barrel stays where. The woman at Willet basically said, it is too hard to move them around. We’ll blend them later and it will all be good. The equivalent of not taking a good photo and saying, I’ll just photoshop out the mistake later. Sloppy!


Rickhouse at Willet

Back in Louisville, we had a southern-inspired dinner that sat like a rock in my stomach. On the plus side, we sat next to a super friendly local couple at the bar who, like many we’ve met, politely inquired as to why we decided to come here. Heh. I don’t think that would be my first question to a San Francisco tourist!

This hotel is so nice though, I hate to leave it. We finally visit the downstairs galleries and wow, room after room and really nice art. Amazing.

enchantingThe lower gallery:


We were going to drive halfway to Chicago tomorrow but I’ve searched and searched and can’t find an interesting place to stay, so we are going to drive the whole way.

Horses and pigs

September 12, 2014

Argh. Woke late with a headache. I’m not going to blame the bourbon, I’m going to blame the gin. One of the cocktails last night was a gin/bourbon combo which I’d normally never drink, but it was a pairing so I did it.


Hotel owner’s car

The woman I sat next to at dinner gave me a couple of suggestions of things to do, including Churchill Downs! I was so focused on distilleries I didn’t even realize that was here in town.

And by “in town” I mean in town. I pictured Churchill Downs as an elegant structure set on a slight hill and surrounded by green grassy fields, horse stables in the distance.

This is the reality!!


The racetrack is located in a somewhat rundown neighborhood, surrounded by parking lots. The historic building has unsightly modern additions tacked on both sides, mall/Las Vegas style.

The moment I got in I forgot all that. The horses! They were right there! This is so cool–there is a mini ring right inside the front gate, and before each race, all the horses and jockeys gather here.


The grooms walk the horses around (each wearing their number) while an announcer woman talks about them. This is Frisky Kitten’s debut race, things like that. I had no idea that we would be able to get so up close and personal with the horses. You could really see which horses looked raring to go and which seemed to be having a lazy day.


After the viewing, the jockeys mount and take one more turn around the ring, then head to the track. A man, somewhere, blows a bugle–the signal that the race will begin in 10 (?) minutes. Everyone heads to the stands.


The race begins with little fanfare. I expected an, “on your marks, get set, go!” type thing, but once the horses get behind the gates, they open them with no warning I could detect. We stood right on the rail for the first race. The track is sand, not the dirt I expected, so the thudding of the hooves is somewhat subdued. As the horses approach the finish line, everyone goes crazy, yelling for the horse they bet on, waving their betting tickets like tiny white flags. It is quite exciting!


The winning horse and jockey go into a really pathetic “winner’s circle” – a small square area attached to the track, where they take a perfunctory photo with the owners (?). No garlands or bouquets.


Then, people head out to get another drink or to view the horses for the next race. It is a fun cycle. I made my first ever bet! I did not win.

From here we headed to Fox Hollow Farm for an outdoor concert and food trucks, another recommendation from the woman at dinner. I thought it would be an interesting local event. I was amazed how the food truck trend is everywhere.


The event was fine, but we didn’t have the equipment we needed to properly enjoy it, namely, blankets and chairs. The lawn was wet and the night was cool. The farm was a collection of random houses, some nice, some mobile. I explored the immediate area, which featured a very small cornfield, a patch of acorn squash, some beans, and a pretty fenced garden. A ways out we found a pigpen and a few goats and I saw a herd of cattle in the distance (raising grass fed cattle seems to be the main focus).


The farm is all about sustainability, biodynamic, connection with the earth, education, etc. I guess that sounds better than, “We are a cattle ranch with an event space. Hold your wedding here!” I was just a little overwhelmed by buzz words.

We spied on the locals. They looked and acted like perfectly normal people! ; ) The concert was a band from Cincinnati. I loved that they were belting out songs about how no woman is ever gonna do the things to you that I do to you–to an audience of tiny children dancing in front of the stage. Hah!

We headed home early and chilled in our nice hotel room.

Clouds, rain, creeks, bourbon

September 11, 2014

We had grand plans today for touring many distilleries, but everything took a bit longer than expected, and interesting things threw themselves in our path, so we ended up visiting only one.

Traffic all around Louisville is awful due to road and bridge construction. What should have been a 70mph drive south was often 35mph or less. We got trapped on the wrong side of barrier and couldn’t get off on the proper exit, but this actually turned out to be fortuitous, as the road we ended up on took us by the Kentucky Railway Museum.

The scenery (once we got off the highway, which was trees, fields, trees, fields) was pleasant but not mind blowing. Rolling hills, picturesque farms and barns. I’d have liked to stop and take photos but there wasn’t anywhere to pull over other than driveways, and this definitely felt like Private Property. The places were all very nicely kept up so it wasn’t like a guy in a dirty wife beater was going to come out with a shotgun, but I don’t know the rules in this place. The one time we did stop in the only pullout we saw, the next car that drove by stopped and asked if we needed help!


I got a taste of “the south” when we stopped in Boston, Kentucky to get gas. Super small town, people hanging out in their pickup trucks and talking, stray dog, gas station/supermarket that sold fried chicken and pizza. When I said the chicken looked good, the woman behind the counter said, “We still got chicken livers, one serving left,” and opened up a Styrofoam container to show me. Mmm yeah. And they all had southern accents! Finally! People in Louisville haven’t really given me the accent experience I was promised.

It was cloudy all day which I think was a blessing. I like the look of blue skies but the sun started to come out once and it was as if I’d stepped into a steam oven.

As we headed to Maker’s Mark, we passed the Railway Museum and had to stop. Dozens of old engines and trains cars sat out on the tracks, beautiful decay. Such great textures. I’ve limited myself to five photos here but I took many more.



One of my favorite moments was discovering that a flatcar had turned into a natural bonsai garden. So beautiful.



As seems to often be the case, there was no one at the museum but us and one other couple.


We finally made it to Maker’s and were lucky enough to hop right onto a tour. These tours all cost money, by the way, which is too bad. Everyone drove at least an hour to get there, partially on one-lane roads, so it would be nice if the tours were free (not $10 per person!). There is a tasting but I’d say you get less than a teaspoon in each glass.

Maker’s is in a really idyllic setting, all by themselves in nature. I expected to turn a corner and find some huge factory, but no. Small, charming buildings. Feels like a family business. Hard to believe they produce the volume they do.


The tour takes you into all the rooms where bourbon is actually being made and in most cases there are no barriers (bottling is the exception). My favorite part was the huge open wooden vats full of distillers beer (?), the first stage of fermentation. It smelled so good. The vats in the later stages of fermentation were roiling. The tour guide had us all stick our fingers in and taste! I was surprised that was allowed until I thought about the rest of the distillation process. Much boiling.


In the gift shop, you could dip your own bottle in the red wax, so of course I did that.

We had to hurry back to the hotel to get to a Willet bourbon-themed dinner being held at our hotel’s restaurant. I was very excited. On the way home we passed this scene:


Is this tobacco drying? I think it might be. I’ve never seen tobacco leaves!

The dinner turned out to be a quite extraordinary event. I’m writing this through the lingering remains of my hangover, which was a doozy, so I might not seem as excited as I was last night (which was VERY oh my god that was so fun those people were so nice the hotel people were so nice the food was so good that was so fun.)

What made the night so special was the feeling that we were at a very exclusive private dinner party. We hadn’t expected that. The dinner was advertised on the drink menu in the bar and on the hotel website so it wasn’t a secret. And it wasn’t particularly expensive…$65 per person (which seemed to include all but two cocktails). We expected we’d have a corner of the restaurant, the guys from Willet would say a few words, and that would be that.

We changed and hurried down to the restaurant and were told by the hostess that we’d be starting the evening with cocktails in the penthouse. We didn’t even know there was a penthouse. Turns out the couple that owns the hotel keep an apartment on the roof for when they are in town. It was a nice space, huge patio with a view of the river.


We walked in and the food and beverage manager from the hotel hurried over to greet us. That surprised me. R. was happy and proceeded to ask him questions about the hotel. Turns out, the hotel is owned by a couple (man/woman, not man/man as I suspected from the 50 or so photos of transvestites that lined the entryway to the main room). They have an extensive art collection and an urge to bring this museum experience to “up and coming” markets. The museum (I’d call it an extensive gallery) here is open 24 hours a day and anyone can visit.

Sounds like a brilliant and sincere business model–to bring a super cool vibe to cities in need. I doubt the Ace Hotel is rushing to build in Bentonville and Cincinnati.

Staff were everywhere, like ghosts, picking up empty plates and glasses the moment we set them down. The manager brought over one of the Willet guys and introduced us–literally dragged him outside to where we stood by ourselves looking at the river. I was so confused. I felt like the guest of honor at a $500 a plate dinner. Like, why is the Willet guy talking to us for so long? This would never happen in San Francisco.

We had a private room in the restaurant. The food was great and the bourbon flowed…way too freely. If you know me you’ll be surprised to hear I couldn’t keep up. Oh crap, another cocktail? I’m not finished with the last. And then, an exclusive tasting of a special bourbon? Ai yi yi. It turned into an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations (one of the drunk ones). A woman who worked at the hotel got up to make a speech near the end of the meal and basically mumbled before collapsing into the arms of the chef, who’d just described the dinner in detail. He sat her back down. Thank god we were staying here!


I’m pretty sure I was about to go off on an epic marathon of drunk tweets when a friend of mine from California called and distracted me, thank god!

Anyhow, I’m still puzzling out how this amazing dinner was so cheap and wasn’t mobbed. I’m guessing $65 goes further in Louisville than it does in San Francisco and that maybe this hip art hotel is still finding its audience here in Louisville. Or maybe there isn’t a huge “foodie” culture? Any theories or facts? I’m eager to hear them.