Friday, 19 April 2013

Geo field trip to California: From Zzyzx to Salinas

By British standards, the drive from Zzyzx to Salinas—the next destination on our itinerary—was pretty significant. By American standards, though, it was rather tame; 7 hours is the sort of “easy” day’s drive I used routinely to do when going on family vacations in the summer, or when commuting between home and college. That said, those drives involved multiple states; this one was conducted solely within the boundaries of California, something that begins to give you an idea of just how large the state is—especially considering that we began and ended several hours from the state’s southern and northern borders, respectively. 

A selection of photos taken out the bus window during our drive between Zzyzx and Salinas

Our route took us through a number of different habitats, some much more attractive than others. We started off in the desert, of course, then drove up into the mountains. At a certain point, we began to see a sprinkling of wind turbines on the highest ridges; more and more began to appear, until eventually it seemed as though every available surface was covered with them. I know many people complain about turbines as an eyesore, but I actually don’t mind them; they’re far more attractive than, say, the wastelands left by strip mining, and they are a lot less damaging to the environment to boot. By the time we reached the far side of the mountains, we were surrounded by California poppies and other blooming wildflowers sprinkled across rolling green slopes. The entire landscape looked like a computer screensaver.

The screensaver-like countryside at the southern edge of California's Central Valley

Sadly, this beauty did not last long. We were entering California’s Central Valley, also known as the “fruit bowl” region. Soon we could see nothing but one farm after another; where in-season plants were growing, the land was green, but elsewhere it was dusty and barren, waiting to be plowed, planted, and irrigated. We passed nearly every crop imaginable; there were, for instance, strawberries, soy, cabbages, potatoes, artichokes, and, occasionally, wine grapes. I probably would have thought this area bleak at any time, but I found it particularly depressing because I had just read Tending the Wild, an anthropology book that describes the incredible diversity of wildlife that existed in this area before European colonists arrived and transformed the landscape into a giant pasture/garden. The absurd amount of (imported) water that is required to sustain all this unnatural growth just adds insult to injury. In between some of the agricultural areas were fields full of oil derricks—evidence that people are trying to extract every last drop of natural resource from California, regardless of the environmental price. It’s all pretty disheartening.

We stopped for lunch around midday, exiting from the interstate into a town whose sole purpose seemed to be to cater to hungry drivers. I made a beeline for the Starbucks so that I could utilize their free wifi (and also, after several days of drinking weak brews at the DSC, consume a proper cup of tea). I wound up crossing the street with a big bunch of students, which is how I learned that British people a) don’t understand and b) are frightened of American crosswalks. In particular, they seem to have difficulty with the concept that a steady red hand indicates “no walking,” while a flashing red hand, displayed after the “walk now” signal, indicates that pedestrians in the crosswalk should finish what they are doing, while nobody else should begin a new crossing. Even though I’d prepared them for our crossing by saying that we’d need to walk fast to reach the other side in time, we experienced a bit of a panic in the median, with a bunch of people stopping dead still in the middle of the road as soon as the flashing hand appeared. I’m glad I was there to act as an interpreter, otherwise we might have had students stuck all afternoon on the concrete divider.

Because I had a mishap at Subway while paying for my lunch, I wound up being the last person to return to the bus. Imagine my surprise when, halfway across the truck stop parking lot where the bus should have been, I looked up and saw it driving away. Unfortunately, I had lent my cell phone to a colleague so she could contact her family back in the UK, so I had no way to call someone up and ask why I was being left behind. Luckily, my absence had not gone unnoticed; actually, the bus driver had (incorrectly) assumed it might be faster for him to drive to me rather than waiting for me to walk to him. He pulled the bus over to the side of the road so I could hop on, and then we resumed our journey.

We didn't stay here, but many of our students probably wish we had; problems with their rooms ranged from broken faucets to windows with no screens to a lingering smell of cigarette smoke.
We reached Salinas in the late afternoon and went through the predictably complex process of simultaneously checking 40-some people in to the same motel. When it came time for the instructors to meet up for our walk into town for dinner, we were surprised to see that a group of students had lingered behind their peers so that they could walk with us. What kind of 20-year-old on a field trip wants to hang out with the old folks? The answer, it turns out, is a 20-year-old who doesn’t feel comfortable in a new town/state/country. It wasn’t just the crosswalks, either (though those were a factor!); people just generally seemed unnerved by differences in the way things looked, the way people sounded, and how things worked. I found this really surprising (and a little sad), because I’ve always felt pretty nonplussed about these differences; if anything, I’ve found them interesting.  I later discovered that some of the students had Googled “Location of Deliverance” during the trip; if that’s what they think all of America is like, no wonder they were uneasy!

The Salinas main street, as seen from outside the National Steinbeck Center

Our dinner, at Monterey Coast Brewing Company, was quite tasty—though, again, the portion sizes were out of control. The real culinary treat in Salinas, however, was our breakfast at Sang’s Café the following morning. Sang’s is such an unprepossessing little place that you could almost walk past it without noticing; in fact, this is what our students did, passing it up in favor of a cute little café down the street. As we stood outside looking at the menu, a woman came out and told us that we should definitely eat there, because the restaurant serves the “best breakfast in Salinas.”

The menu at Sang’s was absolutely massive, as was every dish; each item came with a host of side dishes including, at a minimum, some type of bread (“whole wheat toast or English muffin or rye toast or sourdough toast or white toast or pancake or French toast or biscuit and gravy or whole corn tortillas or whole wheat tortillas or whole wheat pancake”) and some type of meat (mmm, American bacon). I was surprised when my British colleagues asked for clarification about some of the options—“biscuit” and “pancake,” for example—but it’s true that Brits and Americans use the same words to refer to very different types of food. Our breakfasts were all delicious, but I think the best part of eating at Sang’s was having the opportunity to see locals and get a feel for the “real” Salinas—something that is very difficult to do on a field trip and in a touristy area.

Stephan and Kate outside Sang's Cafe

After breakfast, we headed over to the National Steinbeck Museum, where a docent gave us a brief overview of the facilities. The Museum contained three major sections: an area devoted to Steinbeck himself, a display from the agricultural museum (which, I think, was in the process of moving between buildings), and a gallery of local art. Caitlin and I had to tour this rather rapidly since we were expected at the Salinas Enterprise, where we were picking up the second of our rental vehicles. Caitlin’s plan was to ride north to Half Moon Bay and do some reconnaissance ahead of our official arrival there the following morning; I, on the other hand, was going to stay with the rest of the group and visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium later that afternoon. I only had to visit the rental office in order to show them my driver’s license; once that was done, I could head back into town.

Outside the Steinbeck Museum

I probably should have gone back to the Steinbeck Museum in order to tour it at a more leisurely pace, but it was nice to have the opportunity to wander around Salinas and see what it had to offer. Its main street wasn’t flashy and glamorous, but there was something very appealing about it: It was an old-fashioned city center with a variety of thriving, non-chain businesses—something of a novelty these days. I photographed a couple of the old signs and then ducked into the Cherry Bean, a wifi café, to avail myself of their Internet and have a bite to eat. I ordered a Peruvian wrap that was absolutely delicious. It was only a pre-packaged, microwaveable burrito, but I really enjoyed it—it went quite well with my mango smoothie. Also tasty was the opportunity to be by myself and do exactly what I wanted for an hour or two.

After lunch, we drive the 25 miles between Salinas and Monterey in order to visit the Monterey Bay Aquarium and nearby Cannery Row. The trip should only have taken about 30 minutes, but the town and its environs were absolutely heaving with traffic. It was a beautiful, sunny day, so really it was no surprise that there were people driving, walking, biking, jogging, kayaking, sailing, and shopping. Even before we got out of the bus, I was able to spot some sea lions out in the bay, along with scores of sea birds bobbing up and down on the waves. I love that even in the most anthropogenic of habitats, it is still possible to see interesting wildlife.

Monterey Bay shortly after the clouds started to roll in

The Aquarium sent a staff member out to our bus to give us a quick introduction to their exhibits; she then escorted us into the facility via a back door that allowed our group to bypass the long lines at the main entrance. I had very much been looking forward to our visit to the Aquarium, but from the moment I stepped foot inside, I couldn’t wait to leave. There was more traffic in the building than there had been on the streets outside; it was impossible to get close enough to any exhibit to really enjoy it. I made a half-hearted attempt to see a few things: the sea otters and auks swimming in their respective tanks, the jellyfish, the fish in their giant indoor aquaria. My favorite part of the visit was the view I could get off the Aquarium’s balconies; they overlook Monterey Bay itself, and with the help of my binoculars I was able to see wild sea otters and probably a dozen different species of sea bird.

After maybe a half hour, I just had to leave the Aquarium. I felt bad about not seeing all the different exhibits, but I couldn’t torture myself with the crowds any longer. I was also interested in walking up to some of the vacant lots I’d seen at the top of the street; they were not the type of place that most people would find aesthetically pleasing, but I wanted to get a few photographs of the interesting urban decay. I bought a cup of tea to drink as I walked, and within a couple minutes I discovered that it was splashing all over my clothes with each step that I took. The lid was not quite tight enough to prevent leakage as the tea sloshed around, so I solved my problem by ducking in to the nearest store and purchased a Monterey Bay travel mug in which to dump my tea. The only reason this particular anecdote is interesting (assuming it is!) is that this was the third mug I had purchased so far during the trip; the first was an unusual ceramic hand-warming mug I’d found at Calico, and the second was a Route 66 mug I bought in order to provide some revenue to the wonderful people at the Mojave River Valley Museum. Considering that we’d not even been in California for a week, I was, on average, buying a new mug every other day. Ridiculous.

Wildflowers growing amongst the old building foundations at the far end of Cannery Row

Even though the streets of Cannery Row were just about as packed as the Aquarium had been, I enjoyed myself much more. The vacant lots were thronging with photogenic wildflowers, plus I found some interesting plaques embedded in the sidewalks. I took a walk on the pedestrian/bike path that runs parallel to the main road, and there I discovered some of the older, less commercial, and more historically interesting buildings left over from the town’s canning days. I also watched some tandem bicyclers run their vehicle into a bollard and then hold up traffic while they laughed hysterically.

Tandem bicycle mayhem

Once our visit to Monterey was complete, the only thing left to do was drive the remaining hour or so to our lodgings in the redwood forest. Luckily for us, the bulk of our drive occurred as the sun was setting; this gave us spectacular views of both the coast and the Pacific Ocean as we drove along the much-adored and very scenic Route 1. At one point we even saw waterspouts from a whale, though I failed to ever see the animal itself (which didn’t stop me from putting it down on my species list!).

I was sad to say goodbye to the dazzling scenery, but soon after we turned off the coastal highway, we were introduced to a whole new type of beauty: the beauty of the dark and mysterious redwoods. The section of forest where we were staying was logged about a century ago, so none of the trees was more than 100 years old. Nevertheless, they were still pretty magnificent. I was surprised by how much the scenery reminded me of places I’ve visited in Appalachia—in particular, Ohio’s Hocking Hills region. There were a number of small farms and cabins tucked into the trees, and I’d have been more than happy to set up shop in any of them.
Our destination for the evening was Redwood Glen, a Christian camp and conference center located adjacent and/or near to several different preserves. Since the University of Exeter is decidedly not religious, I’m not sure why this is where we stayed; I’m guessing the answer has something to do with a good price. The students were obviously a bit uneasy about encountering Christian slogans and propaganda everywhere, since that is just not something that they see much of in Britain. The staff were all quite professional, however, so there was never any awkwardness associated with the fact that Brits are much more secular than Americans.

Not the greatest photo in the world, but it gives you a decent idea of the kind of scenery we saw while driving along Highway 101

All the faculty were assigned rooms that were on the ground floor but which overlooked a large, downward-sloping lawn; this allowed us to have elevated balconies that provided excellent views of the redwood wildlife. Within moments of arriving, I was standing out on my porch with my binoculars in hand, looking to see what the forest had to offer. It was quite late in the day, however, and the forest was much cooler than the desert; so much so that we could even see our breath. I withstood the chill as long as possible but eventually had to head back inside.

Our lodge at Redwood Glen

The University of Exeter group had an entire building all to itself, which was great considering how much younger all the camp’s other guests were. In addition to housing all our rooms, the building also had a library, ping pong and foosball tables, and a large common room with tea facilities. Because we’d arrived so late, the camp’s staff had thoughtfully arranged to send our dinner (pizzas) over to our common room. After eating and having a brief organizational meeting, we dispersed to our rooms to rest up before beginning the final phase of the trip: research projects in the forest (for the physical geographers) and in nearby Half Moon Bay (for the human geographers).

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