Saturday, 4 May 2013

Geo field trip to California: Redwoods and Half Moon Bay

Yesterday I was grading the papers our geography students wrote during the last portion of our California field course, and it reminded me that I needed to finish  my account of our trip. So here, without further ado, is the fourth and final part of the tale.


Most of the trees near Redwood Glen are under a century old, their predecessors having been chopped down for timber many years ago. Still, small as they may be (relative to others of their species, that is) they remain rather impressive. I always have and probably always will be a big fan of evergreens, which I think have about them a sophistication and elegance not associated with even the most stately of deciduous trees. One of the great things about these particular evergreens was that they provided shelter to an enormous number of interesting bird species, including Stellar's jays, black phoebes, chestnut-backed chickadees, and the Oregon race of the dark-eyed junco. Despite the intense cold, hummingbirds were also present. Standing on my balcony watching the sunrise, I could find the tiny birds in the branches by looking for their iridescent plumage shimmering in the sunlight as they sat waiting to get warm enough to fly off into the day. Hummingbirds are absent from Britain, sadly, as are my favorite group of birds, the vultures; since California had them both, I was able to get my fix.

The students spent their first two days in northern California working on research projects. The physical geographers collected data amidst the redwoods, while the human geographers worked with Caitlin and me in nearby Half Moon Bay (HMB). As pointed out by many of my students in their final reports, HMB is an odd little town in many ways. The adorable main street looks like a carefully crafted movie set and clearly panders to the many (seemingly predominantly wealthy) tourists who go there for a weekend of shopping, eating, and a break from the city. Surfers know HMB as the home of Mavericks, an incredible--and incredibly dangerous--wave that can reach 6-10 storeys under the right weather conditions. The surrounding countryside is predominantly agricultural, so there is also a bit of a farm vibe in town. For example, there is a garden supply store right in the center of things (selling, at the time of our arrival, darling little Easter chicks).

Funeral home in town. Morbid? Maybe. Beautiful architecture? Definitely.

Throughout the duration of our visit, a group of migrant workers congregated in the central park in the hopes of being offered odd jobs around town. Thus, as you might imagine, there are some racial tensions not far beneath the surface of the idyllic town. There is a significant minority population--predominantly comprising Mexicans and Portuguese--and there is even a "ghetto" with gang problems. I put "ghetto" in quotation marks because it is the most picturesque "wrong side of the tracks" you'll ever see, but, of course, a veneer of attractiveness can cover up some significant flaws. Our students interviewed several of the migrant workers and found out that at least some of them speak very little English, do not feel integrated into the town, and would rather be back in Mexico with the families that they are supporting with their seasonal work activities. On the other hand, one of the town's biggest events is a Portuguese Holy Ghost festival that is renowned for creating a united and celebratory atmosphere. HMB is, undeniably, a complex place.

Great old farmhouse on the outskirts of town. Buildings like this are a clear indication of how important agriculture was (and still is) to the existence and maintenance of Half Moon Bay.

As aesthetically pleasing the town is, I quickly found it tiring because there are really only two things to do there: eat and shop, and I'd already done enough of both of those during the rest of the trip. If I'd had the time and scheduling flexibility, I would have walked along the coast between the main portion of town and its marina a couple miles away (where some of our students were conducting research), but unfortunately that was not possible. Instead, my main indulgence was spending a couple of hours using the fast, free wifi at the public library. While we were there, Caitlin and I also worked on grading student assignments and developing questions for the end-of-trip quiz, so it wasn't all fun and games.

At the library, we also had the chance to watch a bit of local drama unfold. A group of local hoodlums had parked themselves across the street in the driveway/yard/porch of an unoccupied house that was clearly not theirs. They proceeded to set up a grill, blast loud music out of their car speakers, and practice throwing knives at a wooden gate door. Passersby were clearly uneasy, but the HMB police cruised by several times before finally stopping to have a chat with the guys. The whole affair provided a brief glimpse of the "real" Half Moon Bay hidden under the surface of the facade presented to the world.

I found this in the Half Moon Bay CVS. I can't believe this is even a thing--who decided this was a necessary invention?!

Our time in HMB would have been more relaxing if we'd had a more flexible schedule back at Redwood Glen. We were given no real choice about when breakfast and dinner would be (8:30 AM and 6:00 PM, respectively), so we couldn't get an early start or stay late in the day. This was particularly frustrating because they served us huge meals; most people barely had time to get hungry for lunch, let alone dinner, after the massive buffet breakfast. HMB was a 45-minute drive from the lodge, so the poor human geographers were racing around to try to pack in all their research. Likewise, Caitlin and I also had harried schedules, shuttling students around and buying supplies and, on the first afternoon, visiting the laundromat.

In the course of picking up research materials for both the human and physical geographers, I visited three separate book stores before finally finding the nature guides I needed at the wonderful Bay Book Company; in the process, I located a fancy grocery store that Caitlin and I later visited so we could stock up on yuppy snacks for our road trip to San Francisco. I also stumbled across a hippie store where I bought a blue Buddha to add to my increasingly large collection. One thing I made sure not to buy was another coffee mug.

Amazing house leek I encountered on my way to the book store. The larger whorls were as big as serving platters, and even the smallest ones were the size of salad and dinner plates.

As a result of all this crazy scheduling and racing around town, I didn't really document the place as thoroughly as I would have liked; subsequent searches on Google have revealed that not many other people have gotten good HMB photos, either. All I have to offer are the iPhone photos I snapped of the interesting and amusing things I saw around town. Much better is my photo record of the time I spent wandering around Redwood Glen on our final day of the field course, which the students spent writing up the results of their projects. Happily, this gave Caitlin and me the opportunity to finally see the forest up close for the first time.

Coastal redwood

Banana slug

Caitlin and I went next door to the Pescadero Creek County Park to look for the "big tree"--one of the few that was not razed when the area was plundered for lumber during the 19th century. Supposedly the tree is easy to locate, but Caitlin and I were unable to find it; I think we were headed in the right direction but were cut off from the correct trail by tree surgery machinery that had been parked in the road. We therefore decided to take the "scenic route," which involved taking off our shoes and wading across a shallow creek. I was working so hard to keep my binoculars and camera out of the water that I ended up dropping in my shoes, which balanced gently on the water's surface while slowly making their way downstream. I climbed out of the creek and grabbed a stick to fish them out, and, of course, ended up completely immersing them in the water while dragging them toward me. Our walk back was a bit...damp (for me, at least), but at least we saw some good wildlife along the way.

Western trillium
Redwood violet

On our final evening at Redwood Glen, the students handed in their research reports and celebrated the end of the field trip by attending a bonfire. It was too cold outside for the event to entice me, but before I could escape to my room to read (I was deep into Introduction to California's Beaches and Coasts), the human geographers pulled Caitlin and me aside in order to give us a gift. They had bought each of us a Half Moon Bay bracelet, but, even better, had made a drawing of our entire group:

Thanks to my short hair, it's pretty obvious which of these drawings is me, but I love the added step of creating nicknames to differentiate between the two Caitlins. I wish I had the distinction of being the "Greatlin," but I have to concede that "Kightlin" is pretty clever.

The next morning, Caitlin and I had a hasty breakfast and bid farewell to the rest of the group before embarking on a long and totally unnecessary road trip. When we'd reserved our rental van online, we'd been cleared for a one-way rental; however, when we went to pick it up, we were told this was not possible for that particular vehicle. The only compromise was for us to drive from Loma Mar back to the rental agency at Salinas, pick up a "regular" car that could be left at the airport, and then drive back up to San Francisco...except that Caitlin was actually going to Berkeley, so it made more sense for us to go there and then for me to drive down to the airport on my own to return the car. If you're tired just reading that, then you can imagine what it felt like to actually do the trip.

One up side to all this driving was that we saw some amazing scenery; another bonus was that Caitlin and I have a lot in common and had a good time chatting (and eating the organic version of Cheetos that she'd bought at the posh grocery store). Speaking of food, Caitlin and I had an indulgent celebratory lunch at Barney's, a Berkeley restaurant that is home to a seemingly endless variety of gourmet burgers.

My Baja burger at Barney's

Since I still had many hours to spare before my 11 PM flight to Ohio, I then accompanied Caitlin to her favorite Berkeley book store, Black Oak Books. There, while browsing in the nature section, I found a must-have bird art book that turned out to have been authored by one of Caitlin's ex-boyfriends. What a crazy coincidence. Since we still had some time before Caitlin's uncle was due to pick her up, we headed next door to Far Leaves Tea for, obviously, a cup of tea.

Caitlin also took the opportunity to pull out her iPad and show me maps of the area so that I would know how to get to the airport. It was a relatively easy trip that really only involved one turn, but I think you can probably guess where this story is going. I hit the road almost immediately after Caitlin was picked up, and very shortly after that managed to miss my exit. In my defense, it wasn't actually my fault--there were cars in my way and I just couldn't safely get where I needed to go. Instead of cruising around the northern portion of the bay and then swinging south for the short trip to the airport, I backtracked along the same patch of road that Caitlin and I had already covered earlier that day. I had only a vague notion of where I needed to go, so I visited a CVS in order to take a peek at their road maps. These indicated that I would either have to drive all the way around the bay or take one of two toll roads that went directly across it. I made a quick ATM trip and then headed toward the San Mateo Bridge.

The San Mateo Bridge. Photo not mine--obviously.

To be honest, the trip across the bridge was worth both the toll and the extra time on the road. The bay is unbelievably huge--a fact that you often read, but can't really wrap your mind around. By driving across the width of it, I could begin to appreciate both the size of the area and its beauty. I just wish that there had been places where I could have pulled over to look at the view and the wildlife (I think I saw some eiders and scoters bobbing on the waves).

At long last, I did finally get across the bay and reach the airport, drive through its labyrinthine roads to the rental agency, hand over the keys, and head into the airport. There weren't too many things there for me to do to keep myself occupied for five hours I still had left before my flight, but the free wifi was about all I needed. I found a nice empty waiting area in which to catch up with e-mails, and, wouldn't you know, it was the same waiting area in which some of my students were sitting while awaiting their own eastbound flights. Typical!

That said, I actually quite enjoyed getting to know the geography students and learning about all the things they study--which are, generally speaking, very different from the stuff I deal with during the biosciences field trips. Everyone was quite welcoming of me despite the fact that I was very much an outsider, and they tolerated my propensity to point out birds and wander around photographing flowers. I learned a huge amount about California's history, culture, geology, and geography, and appreciated the state much more than I ever had during previous visits. The field course was tiring, but awesome. As I always say when discussing all the other field trips that the University of Exeter sends me on, I hope I get to go again next time it runs!

The Pacific Ocean--brr!

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