Hippo's Trips MAYTIME SHORES  
Hippo's weekend: one-day expedition north of San Francisco during the first nice Saturday of May

 Raging Pacific Ocean 
Raging Pacific Ocean.
 Spring flowers wherever you look 
Spring flowers wherever you look.

The Silicon Valley (San Jose et al.) is pretty, but not pretty enough to keep me from feeling an urge to get out someplace, where are several millions fewer people in the 50 miles vicinity, preferably no one. You may not be able to succeed as the same idea often simultaneously comes to considerable part of the said millions.
Oddly enough, I have hit an area usually said to be crowded, yet wonderfully empty this time, with no civilization overpressure of stuffed roads, packed parking lots, unvisitable restaurants, and waiting lines at the paths to the beach. Maybe Californians became utterly confused by the momentary weather, probably disgusted, too. It has been raining frequently even now in May, it is quite cold and the skies are overcast (this is how Christmas is supposed to feel); simply a normal European climate for May -- the idea of Sunny California gets beaten down by rain.

It was not to be a big trip, since the May 15/16 weekend had just two days and it made no sense to venture farther (and longer) than a few hundred miles. Also, my neighbors joined me this time, Mr. and Mrs. Vana and their two little boys. I told them about my plans Saturday morning and I could have hardly expected them to be ready for a longer trip with overnighting somewhere before it would have been better to stay and sleep at home anyway. Therefore, a one-day quickie, back home tonight.

 Golden Gate Panorama with San Francisco 
Golden Gate Panorama with San Francisco.

How to decide really fast, where to go? There is nothing to the west, just the ocean. A rather boring plain stretches to the east, the San Joaquim Valley, followed by mountains (and Yosemite Park and lots of great places). Yet, it was supposed to snow over 4,500 feet and you can still ski in the real mountains. Hence we chose north, the Marin County. There is a large wooded state park there, including a long piece of shoreline, promising clean beaches, very diluted populace and hopefully even some interesting animals.

 ...under the surveilance. 
...under the surveillance.

One gets from Palo Alto to San Francisco over freeway 280, quickly and easily, just to watch it all change at once. The highway 1 leads to 19th street and seems to consist of at least 50 blocks; every block, a traffic light. Cars in three lanes each way sometimes don't even start moving and they come to a halt on red. Going downhill, you can enjoy the view at the hills in front of you, with the tops of red towers of Golden Gate sticking out behind. But then suddenly you move fast again and before you realize it, you are speeding across the entrance to the Bay over the Golden Gate bridge, highway 101. I wonder why the ocean side sidewalk is only accessible to bikers (thus devoid of people) while the bay side is one big promenade and heavy crowds of people stroll up and down. Perhaps the cyclists have a strong lobby with the city hall.

Complicated landscape featuring steep mountain slopes and shoreline full of points, cliffs and bays, became a high-end suburb of San Francisco and a popular recreational area for the Bay dwellers. Fortunately for us, a substantial part of the population remains close to bars and shopping centers of Sausalito, Tiburon, San Rafael and other communities that target tourists. Traffic and parking in those centers looks accordingly, though there are also other institutions, like the infamous San Quentin prison. We have, on the other hand, escaped on the highway 1, well known coastal scenic route.

 Marin County hills and bays 
Marin County hills and bays.
 The City. 
The City.

Once you get to the countryside, things change rapidly. A wonderful view opened in front of us on Mount Tamalpais (West Peak, alt. 2560 feet), still dominated by the City. Landscape is still intertwined with technology and human presence. Our relatively short hike around the mountaintop could abruptly end at a fence, but we did not let it stop us (there was a big hole in it, and trespassing is a felony, I believe); we found ourselves on the premises of a F.A.A. and U.S.A.F. installation, apparently containing navigational systems for the heavy Bay air traffic. Well, there were no dogs chasing us, not even people showing us out. A lady on duty at a gate we had approached from inside actually greeted us cordially. Only now after some time I recall a tiny plate on a pole of the U.S.A.F. sign: a symbol of a walking person with a stick. A hiking trail leads right through the restricted area, and our fears from the totality and another continent just had surfaced out of old habit.

Counterpoint of the highest mountain view is a perspective of beaches and cliffs rolling on forever, while the sea tries to pour itself into your shoes. Driving down to Reyes peninsula, we passed by Bolinas lagoon and through the forests of Reyes National Seashore park, still on highway 1. It was the time of lunch and midday slowdown. Though we were going with two cars, I probably was the only one truly awake in our little expedition at the moment.
 Surprise in the heart of countryside 
Surprise in the heart of countryside.
 Just like Norway 
Just like Norway.
Inside a tiny place named Invernes on the southwest edge of Tomales Bay, I suddenly stopped, most likely making Martin wonder, what the heck. I caught a glimpse of an unusual sign (see picture), as well as the "Welcome" writing in Czech!

So we had Wiener Schnitzel and fried duck and chicken, potato salad, dumplings (with poppy seed, strangely) and red cabbage (I think the rosins in it are rather German invention). Speakers played some Czech brass band (ugh, I'd rather had some Australian rock). All those heavy fried things had to be washed down with draft Pilsener beer (I say, Budvar would be better, but it must not be imported to America). The food combination and the accent of the landlord (the waitress did not speak Czech at all) indicated that he was out of the old home country for a long time; finally, an article on the back of the menu with Moravian Eagles explained: Mr. Vladimir comes from Valassko and emigrated in 1948.
We had it a little harder paying the bill: a lunch for five (including two kids) and one large (Hippo's) and one small (Bara's) beer had cost us together including tax and tip, $73. I can say I liked the food in my first American Czech restaurant, but I had to produce all my cash I had, closing down some return alternatives, like the one over Golden Gate, where it costs $3 south -- and I spend all my $$$ in a pub.
 Cliffs and rocks of McClures Beach 
Cliffs and rocks of McClures Beach.
 A fishing pelican. 
A fishing pelican.
Anyway, the service was great and the duck even better than the veal in the Schnitzel. The waitress expressed her puzzlement about the absence of crowds (a practically empty restaurant), who are usually pushing in big chunks; and she gave us some advice where to go on Point Reyes.

The place is truly breathtaking, I immediately recalled Norway and its northernmost tip, North Cape. Green rolling hills and sheer cliffs down to the sea, glittering in the sun that is just happy to burn through puffy clouds which came from across the vast open ocean; small fishing villages occasionally reminding of human omnipresence, (rein)deer. Point Reyes is a fjordy affair, literally; just before the edge falling down to the sea, water gathers in ponds, making you often wonder if the waterline you admire belongs to a protected lagoon or a little lake.

 Living mercury balls 
Living mercury balls.
 McClures Beach 
McClures Beach.

The kids could finally drop down to earth at McClures Beach, and to dig in it (which is their only real hobby); and let themselves get knocked over by the waves and washed down into the Pacific, and yell at the top of their lungs, which you would not notice through the busy roaring surf, if you stand just a little further away. I went to explore cliffs at the southern corner of the bay, climbing on rocks and making pelicans who fished nearby worry and foolishly consider me a potential competition or a predator.
Perhaps because I did not disturb a seagulls' nest on a tunnel rock, where the surf pumped white foaming water through a hole every 12 seconds, I was rewarded by a glimpse of two whale backs that momentarily touched the surface of the deep water, and by the a look at a very shy sea lion, hunting in his own personal mini-bay. Finally even the pelicans resumed their circles above the rocks and small living quicksilver balls spread across the wet sand freshly pressed by the surf -- flocks of tiny birds with nimble legs, running their long beaks into the ground in a hope for a meal.

 Spring fighting 
Spring fighting.
 The End. 
The End.

May sun was only unwillingly dropping to the far sea horizon, painting splotchy spots onto a dramatic western shore. Deer (or reindeer?) grazed on the lush hillsides, watching us in their mindless way, or ignoring us while playing their spring games. Thousands of tiny streams rushed down to the sea, occasionally taking along big lumps of ground beaten by winter storms. On the very far horizon, two gigantic ships moved silently.

It was the moment of turning away, of going home, back to the Valley, to the millions of ants of electronic progress. Driving in a line of other travellers through a nightfallen country, three or more lanes of freeways, evenly saturated by Saturday night traffic, electrical night of industrial East Bay areas, artificial diamond of the City on the Peninsula, starting south, then west, and finally north of us; the tiredness of the mind, giving way to the most natural and comfortable tiredness of the body.
Other days are quite worth enduring for this very one.

Cordially Yours, Hippo.

You can reach the author by e-mail at sidparal@hroch.net.
Copyright © 1998 by Sid Paral. All rights reserved.