Wednesday, September 30, 2009

In Bigfoot's Living Room

She frowned and almost spat when she spoke; clearly I had inadvertently wandered into sensitive territory, and she was probably tired of the question. How could I not ask? All available space on the restaurant walls was covered in cast iron pans with people's names neatly painted in red and white; there was a sign over a doorway that declared this to be the world's largest privately owned collection of cast iron cookware. One pan proudly held the name of Doug McConnell, host of TV's Bay Area Backroads.

My friends and I had just emerged from a week-long backpacking trip in the Marble Mountain Wilderness in far northern California, and we were in desperate need of some real food. There wasn't much to choose from in the little town of Orleans, so we ended up at a place that simply said "Cafe" outside. A local who had told us where to find food said, "We just call it the greasy spoon."

The Greasy Spoon

“We keep writing Guinness trying to get in the book,” she said pouring the brown stuff that was standing in for coffee that morning, “but apparently they don’t have a category for it.” She paused, thinking dark thoughts about the Guinness Book of World Records editorial staff. “So we’re just waitin’ – what else can we do?” she grumbled.

We changed the subject, "I see you have a stage - do you get bands coming through here?"

"Oh yeah," she said, brightening her mood, "mostly local bands. Sometimes we'll have bands come in from Forks of Salmon."

Forks of Salmon is now without any doubt my favorite town name. Also, any band out there looking for a good name, please consider Forks of Salmon.

To those that don't know California well, it's a land of surfers, movie stars, hybrid driving liberals, and patchouli-soaked pot-smoking hippies. But California is huge, and the more you explore it, the more it defies any simple stereotypes. I was trying to explain this to some friends in London, telling them that even San Francisco isn't at all what most people expect — ironically they had been to San Francisco with their parents and the first thing they saw when they walked out of their hotel was a guy walking down the street in assless chaps. Okay, admittedly San Francisco will have the very occasional assless chaps guy, but the cultural terrain changes dramatically as you travel around the state. Here we were, many hours from anywhere, in a dark, cast-iron-clad greasy spoon where the lumberjacky locals who looked like they had been plucked from the cast of extras on Northern Exposure argued over their card game at the corner table, and bands came in from Forks of Salmon. The road we were driving down was marked "The Bigfoot Scenic Byway" and we had passed an Adopt-A-Highway sign that read "In memory of Critter" and a full-sized billboard reading "Produce the Birth Certificate!" We were no longer in assless chaps territory.

Driving down the Bigfoot Scenic Byway

This was exactly what we were shooting for when we planned this trip. We weren't looking for the world's largest privately owned collection of cast iron cookware per se, but we were intent on finding a remote and quiet corner of California for a backpacking trip. To me, backpacking is all about solitude, so when you plan a trip in the summer high season in California you have to choose your trail carefully. Popular trails in the central Sierra can get miserably busy, and there's nothing worse than a traffic jam on a wilderness trail. I knew we had picked well when I told people that I was going backpacking for a week in the Marble Mountains and I got multiple looks of confusion, one persone that thought I was headed to Vermont, and two people that thought I was going to Danang, Vietnam. While a trip to Vietnam sounds pretty good, these Marble Mountains are a section of the Klamath Range just south of the Oregon border, smack dab in Bigfoot's living room.

Bigfoot in his living room

People in Bigfoot Country take this stuff seriously — it's not just a couple of eccentrics with Bigfoot-shaped mailboxes — the whole area is covered with Bigfoot signs, Bigfoot-branded businesses, Bigfoot power stations (seriously), and more Bigfoot statuary than you would believe. In fact, to add another unconfirmed, non-Guinness-approved world record to the trip, the Bigfoot Museum in Willow Creek has what is supposedly the world's largest Bigfoot statue right in the parking lot.

That's one big Bigfoot

Bigfoot with a couple of grimy backpackers for scale


I have to admit that when we set out on the trail a week earlier, I had some small amount of hope that I would catch a glimpse of something and convince myself I had seen Bigfoot. I didn't actually want to see Bigfoot — that would uncomfortably rattle some core beliefs about science and reason that I'm not especially keen on rattling — but thinking that maybe I might have possibly caught a glimpse of something that could have been Bigfoot (but was probably just the back end of a black bear) seemed like it would be entertaining, not to mention fodder for a vastly exaggerated story I could tell for years to come.

At the entrance to the Marble Mountain Wilderness from Haypress trailhead

I'm sad to say that we saw neither hide nor hair of Bigfoot, in fact we had a megafauna-free trip for the most part, despite being in the area that reportedly has the highest concentration of bears in California. At least in part, the lack of animals was due to a large wildfire that had occurred in the Marbles in 2008, and we spent the first day of the trip crossing eerie burned landscapes.

Luckily we were out of the burn zone by the time we hit Cuddihy Lakes, and we were treated to the green meadows, forests, and rock-walled lakes we had hoped for, and the wildflowers were still putting on a show despite being a bit late in the season.

Walking around the first of the Cuddihy Lakes

Sneezeweed in bloom

A new one for the life-list: Klamath gentian, Gentiana plurisetosa

Fishing at Cuddihy Lakes

Our food rations were light on this trip, so we were hoping for fish to supplement what we carried in. The first lakes we hit had been fished hard by summer hikers and pack teams and apart from giant salamanders there wasn't anything moving in the lakes, and we got no bites.

The uppermost of the Cuddihy Lakes

The ultimate goal of the hike was to reach Spirit Lake, described by California outdoors writer Tom Stienstra as one of his favorite lake destinations in the state and a site considered sacred by the local Native American people. Looking at the map, Spirit Lake doesn't look like much more than a small pond, so we didn't know exactly what to expect.

Spirit Lake in the sun as we arrived

Spirit Lake was beautiful - is it Top 10 list worthy? I wouldn't say so, but it does have some really good things going for it. For one, there are two incredible campsites perched above the lake near some of the best fishing spots, and it's far enough into the Marbles that most pack teams and hikers don't typically make it this far, so there were plenty of fish to be caught. Spirit Lake doesn't wow with grandeur and towering granite cliffs or the like, but it has a primordial unspoiled feel that you don't find many places, so it's a fabulous place to go to get a break from the modern world.

Just a few hours later, the spirits descended

Perhaps the most fascinating thing about Spirit Lake is that it's fed by a warm and somewhat salty spring, and when an unexpected cold weather system hit the area just a few hours after we arrived, eerie swirls of fog appeared and were whipped around by swirling winds like ghosts on the lake.
Larkspurs in the fog

Thick fog on Spirit Lake

I kept looking around for Bigfoot lurking in the fog, but he was not to be found. Luckily you don't need to see Bigfoot to feel like you've glimpsed another world, all you really need is a breath of fresh air and wall covered in cast iron pans.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Airstreams and Moon Germs

With all of the news coverage of the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing in the past few months, I was surprised to see almost no mention of the San Francisco Bay Area's connection to this historic event mentioned in the local papers. Only a few people I talked to knew of the USS Hornet Museum in Alameda, and even fewer knew that the Hornet was the ship that recovered the astronauts from the Apollo 11 & 12 missions after splashdown.

The USS Hornet

View of San Francisco from the flight deck (flag at half mast in honor of the passing of Senator Kennedy)

Beyond the association with the lunar missions, the Hornet was instrumental in several key battles during WWII, in fact the Hornet was the ship from which the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo was launched, later made famous in the Spencer Tracy film Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. Coincidentally, Jimmy Doolittle himself was born in Alameda where the Hornet was based and still stands today.

I love exploring large ships, partly because I retain some element of disbelief that something so massive can float, but also I have a peculiar fascination with staircases on ships (gangplanks being a close second). I don't care where they go, I want to climb them. They're really just ladders pretending to be staircases, and I always have that moment of pause at the top when I have to decide whether I should be going down face-first. That's how the cool guys do it in movies like Under Siege — no self-respecting action star would back down a set of stairs no matter how steep — and lord knows I want to be at least as cool as Steven Seagal, so I generally give it a go. [Apologies for the minor digression here, but you really must read the IMDB bio of Steven Seagal, which was written by himself, his publicist, or a deranged stalker - it's hard to tell which.]

Steven Seagal would totally go face-first down this one

Maggie opts for the non-Seagalian method of descent

I have to admit, I liked finding an escalator on the ship, but you would never see a Tommy Lee Jones knife fight here

For space travel aficionados there are countless bits of interest scattered around the hornet: photo exhibits of the splashdowns and recovery missions, the Apollo space capsule used for testing the heat shields, an SH-3H Sea King helicopter used in the movie Apollo 13, and bits of snazzy space fashion.

Lunar couture

Comfy rescue basket

Peering in the Apollo space capsule

The highlight for me among the collection of Apollo artifacts was what is undoubtedly the world's most historically important Airstream trailer.

The one-of-a-kind Airstream MQF

Fearing that the returning astronauts might be carrying some sort of unknown moon germs, a special "Mobile Quarantine Facility" was devised for the astronauts to keep them separated until doctors felt it was safe to release them. The Mobile Quarantine Facility had to look cool and futuristic — no mere Winnebago would suffice — so they used a super-modern Airstream that was specially sealed and fitted for the purpose.

Winnebago's concept for the MQF was unfortunately never commissioned

The astronauts' exit hatch from the MQF

The crew of Apollo 11 talking to Richard Nixon from a safe distance

When I entered the Mobile Quarantine Facility, there was a small child of about 3 years old standing there. "Hi!" he said. "Hi," I replied. It turns out that what he really meant was, "Hi, I just crapped my pants inside of a hermetically sealed Airstream." Maggie climbed in, turned around and climbed back out.

Holding my breath inside the MQF

Everyone gets a chance to be an Apollo astronaut

One small step for man, one giant gulp of moon germs

The USS Hornet is well worth the visit, even if you have little interest in the space travel history. Most of the ship is open for you to wander at will, with most rooms set up as they would be on a working ship, and there are guided tours into some of the otherwise closed parts of the ship. The stunning views of San Francisco are worth the price of admission alone. The USS Hornet Museum is open 10 am - 5 pm, 7 days a week, adult admission is currently $14 - bring a coat as it gets windy and often cold inside the ship. If you time your visit well, you can combine it with a trip to the monthly Alameda Point Antiques & Collectibles Faire or a tasting/tour of Hangar 1 Vodka, or Rosenblum Cellars.