Friday, October 29, 2010

The ways of the road

Many tourist hot-spots create such a draw that very often beautiful places near them are largely ignored as people swarm to see the more famous sights.  This happens with Yosemite National Park.  The surrounding mountains and towns tend to get very little airtime, so, taking the road less traveled we decided to do some exploring in and around Oakhurst, California.  Nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the town is fourteen miles south of the entrance to Yosemite and the Mariposa Grove.  Next week, I will blog in detail about Yosemite.

Curious to explore some of the road that we had traveled along a couple of weeks ago, we headed south for Gilroy and picked up the 152 heading East.

The first stop was Casa de Fruta. Here we bought some treats to eat on our trip.  I'd heard a lot about this place but was a little disappointed at the quality of the fruit, considering the high price we were paying for it.  Put it this way - it wasn't going to become a traditional stopping point for future road trips.  However, the Halloween display was cool.
 Kids might get more out of this stop than we did, though it did provide some good photo opportunities .
We definitely won't run into any vampires here!
Next, we stopped at the San Louis Reservoir visitors center.  They have lots of displays, nice toilets but no coffee shop.  It seems that Californians are adverse to coupling coffee shops (or indeed restaurants) with views!

The San Louis Reservoir is the largest off stream reservoir in the USA.  Off stream just means that it is not sited on a river nor does it get significant surface runoff. It's water comes from the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta via the California Aqueducts - those huge canals I saw on the last road trip.

The dam is the fourth largest in the USA - though I can't figure out why they needed a dam if they aren't damming a river.  Maybe, they were just intending to make a great big bowl to store water in.
 On the way home we stopped at the lower side of the lake, under the dam and had a nicer sky to play with.
Onwards East, we continued along route 152 as the hills gave way to the flat expanses of the Central Valley.  We decided to cut of the main highway and travel as the crow flies to Oakhurst, through Chowchilla and avoiding Madera - the way Jane, our GPS, was suggesting.  We reprogrammed her for shortest route and were told to take Road 7.  It never fails to amuse me how people gave up actually naming roads here and just gave them numbers.  In areas of Ireland there are more than one name for many roads and places.  The Irish name, the English name and some even have nicknames e.g. Derry, Londonderry and Stroke City!  Perhaps the Americans could hire a few Irish people to name their streets for them... It felt like we were in a Harry Potter book when we came across 23 1/2 Avenue!
We just had to take that road.  It took us mostly through orchards and had a very lonesome feel to it as we were the only car on this road.  My husband watches way too much Criminal Minds, CSI (all three of them), NCIS(both the original and NCIS LA), The Mentalist and Bones. Basically, if someone hasn't been gruesomely murdered in the first five minutes of a show, we tend not to watch it.  Avenue 23 1/2 totally creeped him out!  He was convinced that we'd get stopped by an axe murderer here...

Perhaps he wasn't too far off the mark - we were approaching Chowchilla.  I'd done a little research on the place before we decided not (definitely NOT) to stay there.  Chowchilla seems to be best known not just for it's two women's penitentiaries but for a horrific kidnapping in 1976 of a busload of children aged 5 to 14, along with their driver.  The bus turned up empty, the 26 kids and one adult having been transferred to a  van and entombed in a Quarry in Livermore.  Fortunately, the driver and the children were able to dig their way out and all survived.  Happily, (though perhaps not for them) the kidnappers were found and were sent to prison.

Chowchilla looks like a normal little town.  One last comment though - The name "Chowchilla" comes from the indigenous tribe of Chauchila and translates as "Murderers" referring to the warlike reputation of that tribe.

Maybe my husband sensed it in the air.  Luckily, we were fine!

After Chowchilla the landscape buckled into hills again.

I liked how this road exactly matched the shape in the sign!
We stayed in the Queen's Inn in Oakhurst.  This delightful, family run business also has a winery on the premises.
We booked into the suite because it had a jacuzzi tub, and because we intended doing lots of hiking thought that the tub would be a God send (it was!).  The free WiFi, as advertised, was very weak in our room.  This turned out to be a cloud with a big silver lining as it meant that we didn't spend our down-time glued to our computers.  The staff were very apologetic and bent over backwards to make our stay as comfortable and relaxing as possible. We were able to get internet connection quite easily in the comfortable foyer/main office of the Inn and so could use it when we needed to.
The rooms were beautiful with fresh modern decor, lovely paintings by local artists and each had french doors that opened out into serene grounds by a river.
There is a gorgeous little wine bar and beer garden attached to the Inn.  It a great way to spend the evening, enjoying the wine they make - aptly called Idle Hour, and making friends with the locals.   

When we weren't drinking wine, we took to the car and explored the immediate area.  Oakhurst is really handy to Yosemite, where we spent two days hiking, but the third day we decided to suss out Bass Lake.  This is another man-made lake and they are working on the dam at the moment, so the lake level is very low.  Definitely more of a summer spot, the lake front was quiet and we stopped at the Pines Resort to have lunch at Ducey's.  I could see this place would be great for familys at the height of the summer, with cabins close to the lake and lots of water sports to keep all age groups entertained.

As we consulted our map for our onward journey, I spotted a place nearby labeled " Exact Geographical Center of California" and we just had to go!

We weren't disappointed.  The drive was spectacular and there was actually a marker to show us the exact spot!

We drove on to Redinger Lake, down a one-car-wide lane.

And across a rickety bridge
Really dodgey looking...
But then I tend to have a thing about driving over bridges - you should see me crossing the Bay Bridge - white knuckles on the steering wheel - even if I'm not the driver!  And I have not attempted it since they put the s-bend in it, especially after that poor lorry driver plunged over the edge.  I see that to avoid any similar court action this bridge has warned truck drivers not to do that.

But what a view from the bridge...

Safely across the bridge we continued through beautiful Californian foothill vistas. 
It was really remote and we saw no other traffic.  I wondered that my Husband wasn't as worried about axe murderers here.  Even after we stopped to take photos of the above view and found this by the side of the road!
Non human, thankfully.  We were happy to get back in the car and keep driving, though I couldn't stop snapping pictures out through the window.  Most I had to delete, but some did capture that feeling we had of being on top of the world.
California continues to amaze and delight me.  Every fold in the land has stories to share and secrets to unravel.  If these here hills could talk, maybe the tales would be worth as much as the gold they hold.

Byddi Lee

Friday, October 22, 2010

Gardening Girl is GO!

This week I got great news - I was accepted to do the 2011 Master Gardeners Program with Santa Clara County.  The course is only held every two years and has only 50 places.  This year, I was told, there were 172 applicants, so I am well pleased that I was one of the candidates accepted.  Now, maybe I'll learn how to grow bigger veggies than Al!

Perhaps the fact that my compost is "cooked" will also help.  It seemed to do nothing for months on end, then one day I checked, and bingo - it had turned into this lovely, crumbly compost, ready for the garden.

 A full bin didn't go that far, but it is better than the shop bought variety.  You can see how much richer it looks in comparison.

It's been a slow harvest - my summer veggies are still ripening and I haven't pulled them all out yet, so I feel like I'm behind in getting my winter veggies into the ground.

I had great fun last Saturday at the California Native Plant Society plant sale up at Hidden Villa.  I used to weed non-natives at Edgewood Natural Preserve and though I don't go anymore, (The long drive totally negates the whole environmentally friendly aspect of it.) I feel like the Prodigal Child when I meet the fantastic folk who still volunteer up there.  They always give me such a big welcome.  The Edgewood Weed Warriors do an incredible job, not just of weeding but of educating people who volunteer with them.  That's how I first got interested in California native plants.  So, when I arrived at the Hidden Villa and my friend Howie was manning the car-park, I was excited to find out from him that a lot of the rest of the Edgewood crew were volunteering at the event too.

Here is Ken and Howie having a well deserved break.
The event at Hidden Villa was excellent.  The prices were reasonable, the proceeds going to a great cause (CNPS) and the plants were lovely and healthy, and so well labelled that complete beginners, like me, could find what we were looking for.

If you couldn't find something you wanted, there were plenty of experts on hand to give advice. Ken Himes managed to sell me a plant, that to all intends and purposes, looked dead.  But I have complete faith in his word that the Asclepias speciosa, Showy Milkweed, is dormant at this time of year and will grow back, though I know my husband took a second look at the withered stem.

Here, Paul is trying to extend my education some more, though I was so concentrating on getting the photo that I'm afraid I have no idea what he has in his hand! 

Another fabulous thing about the Hidden Villa sale was the free talks they held.  We went to one about planting and maintaining native plants.  I learned a lot from this talk, but two things in particular:

1) Dig the hole for your new plant an inch and a half shallower that the pot it comes in (i.e. the root ball) so that it sticks up above the garden's soil.

2)Make sure that the root ball is saturated with water before planting it.  I kind of knew to do this, but never really knew why.  Apparently, the garden soil, being drier and usually more densely packed, wicks away water that you apply after planting.  A water soaked root ball will attract water because of water's cohesive nature.  A good way to get the root ball really soaked is to have a 5 gallon bucket of water and put the plant into it after you take it out of its pot.  When it sinks you know that all the air pockets are filled with water and its good to plant.

Last Sunday it rained.  We were headed on vacation for a few days.  Typical to get rain the one day you are going away!  But it was good to go and know that the temperatures were cooler and that there was some water, though our neighbors are great about looking after our plants when we are gone.  Next week, I'll tell you all about that trip.

I aim to start putting my natives into the ground in the next couple of weeks.  My Mum is coming to visit then - it's always good to save some back-breaking work for visiting family members!

Byddi Lee

Friday, October 15, 2010

Exploring on Columbus Day

We were in shock. My husband's work gave him the day off on Columbus Day.  The only appropriate thing to do on such a day is go exploring.

Lick Observatory sits on top of Mount Hamilton, and on a clear day (which is most days) you can see its white dome glinting in the sunlight from nearly anywhere in the Santa Clara Valley.  It often seems closer than it is but after a hour long, hair-raising  (and for some stomach churning) drive you finally get to the top. The views of the Bay Area are stupendous.  The observatory has a tour of the telescope and is a great spot to simply dander around.  Check out the fabulous photographs of the observatory on snowy days in their picture gallery.

We've been up to the observatory a few times now.  In fact, before we even moved here, we visited whilst on holiday, and the views were one of the things that made me want to come live here.  The absolute vastness of the landscape from up there made my spirit soar.  And yet, it is so close to civilization and Starbucks. (Actually, I much prefer Peets!)

On each occasion, as we turned to go back down the mountain to San Jose, I would eye up the road that continued on over the mountain.  What was it like over there?  On the other side of the Hamilton range? In the depths of the Central Valley?

On Monday we decided to find out.  Here is the map of our route - taken from Google Maps and amended by me.

On our way up the tortourusly twisty turns, a strange bird ran across the road in from of us.  It had long thin legs, stood about a foot tall, with a distinct crest on it's head.  It sprinted with it's head forward, and I recognised it immediately.

Meep meep!  It was the Road Runner.  All we needed now was Wiley coyote, some TNT and a dab of Acme glue.  My husband took a bit of convincing that there were actually such birds outside of the cartoons. I showed him pictures on the internet when we got home. I didn't get any photos - the road runner was too fast.

However, we weren't so fast.  The road spiraling up the mountainside soon saw to that- this road sign is echoed in the road behind it.

Because it was a road trip, a lot of the pictures were taken from the car as we drove along.  It was simply too hot to get out...and I was feeling too lazy.  But I still got some nice shots of the view and the steepness of the drop away at the side of the road.

We only stopped for a moment at the top, eager to be on the descent into new terrain. The steep roads plateaued out into high valleys.  Sweeping swaths of grassland were dotted by huge oak trees in a gold and dark green color scheme, complemented by the blue sky.  See for yourself -

I'm not sure why this farmer felt the need for a road here... right beside the public road.
Perhaps he didn't approve of the speed limit on the public road.
The best thing about this place was the feeling of being in the middle of nowhere, yet we were only about twenty miles from San Jose.  It had taken us nearly two hours to drive this far.   Hunger drove us onward in great anticipation.

We hoped that the numbers on the road counted us down to the palce where we had decided to stop for lunch -The Junction, a Restuarant located where the Highway 130 meets the road that comes down from Livermore.  We'd seen a piece about it on the TV show, Eye On the Bay (two guys travel around the Bay Area and report back on cool things to do - I'm so jealous of their job...I reckon they need a nice Irish girl helping them to present their show - don't you?  Actually forget the presenting - I'd happily get paid to do the research!)

But this is what greeted us last MONDAY.
Notice the little sign with red writing on the gate.  I was so hungry I could have cried, especially when they rubbed salt into the wound with this sign.
Good job we had some snacks in the car to keep us going as the road wound downward again. 
This time we were not so much terrified of falling of the edge and down the mountain, but of the mountain falling down on top of us!  Loose stone littered the side of the road, and it was hard to see what was holding up the trees that sprouted from the cliff face, left behind after the mountain had been blasted away to make the road.
I fell in love with the little-house-on-the-prairie house.  I'm still convinced that if you went and knocked on the door, it would be opened by Laura Ingalls, with Pa in the background, his eyes watering with grateful emotion that we had taken the time to come by.
Mind you, after seeing the bullets holes on this sign we were a bit wary of even stopping the car for photos, never dropping in for a cuppa with the Ingalls!

As we continued, hastily, on our way - if you can call winding down a mountain at 20MPH hasty - I couldn't help but notice how the trees,  so abundant on the western side of the range, had given way to sparse scrub and thin grassland as we journeyed eastwards.  There really must be very little rainfall on this side of the hills.
The mountain seems to swallow up the road here.  I love the way the first sign says there is a turn to the left then further along it's changed its mind - uh oh, watch out - it's a U turn really!
Eventually there were no more trees, and the grass was like a skim of velvet on the hills, rubbed bare in places like molting antlers on a young buck. What on earth were those poor cows eating?
I wish I'd been a geologist like my Uncle.  He talked me out of it, saying that there was nowhere for ladies to sleep at the drilling camps and oil rigs. I was only ten at the time this conversation took place - the perfect Yuk-boys age! I now have a female friend who is a geophysist and for a long time was the only girl on board a ship of about fifty guys.  So, he did have a point, but I can't see the hardship!  Perhaps a word from my pal would put me straight there!  Please, please - if you read this (you know who you are) share your thoughts about this in a comment!

Anyway - if I were a geologist, I might be able to explain these strange lines of scrub on the hills.  My guess is that the underlying rocks are dictating what grows above it, and they are laid down in layers, buckled and turned on their side, thus I surmise that the vegetation is following the pattern of the underlying rock formations. Am I smart or what? (Well, as a biologist I probably should know that - who'm I kidding?)
About five miles from Patterson, we saw this weird rock formation.  See the yellow lichen.  And is that a rare blue and red lichen at the bottom?
And you'd know we were within sniffing distance of a Starbucks when you see this kind of vandalism.  Or is it just a modern day form of cave drawing? We never accuse the cavemen of such antisocial behavior when we ooh and aah at million year old stick men drawings, do we?

However, it seemed like a slap in the face after driving so far in pristine Old California scenery.  We slid down into the Central Valley, quickly grabbed a Subway sandwich in Patterson then hit route 33 southbound.  The Central valley was flat - as far as the eye could see...
These huge irrigation canals cris-cross the Central Valley.  It is strange to see waterways looking ugly...for want of a better word.  Wouldn't it be nice to make a feature out of them rather than have these big concrete trenches?
The tracks run right along the road...from a distance it looked like this train was on the road.  Gave us a bit of a start, that did!

After about half an hours drive through the monotonous Central Valle,y we turned right onto highway152 to take us back over the mountains to the Santa Clara Valley.  This road is a four lane highway and much faster that the meandering Highway 130.  It was impossible to stop to take pictures, and only a few were worth posting such as the one below of how effective the fire break was in stalling the progress of this grass fire into the hills.
Highway 152 passes the massive San Luis Reservoir.  This is worth a day trip of it's this space!  A swifter pace now, the scenery sped past like a fast rewind of  our trip over the mountains earlier.  We came into Gilroy, noses twitching at the smell of garlic that clings (in a quite nice way) to this town.  It reminded me of how the smell of turf smoke signals your arrival into county Donegal, back home...ummm...oh for a whiff of turf smoke!

The smell of garlic got our digestive juices flowing nicely for our arrival at Huntington Station Resturant and Sports Pub in Morgan Hill.  They have the best outdoor area I have seen here yet.  In fact, it reminds me of places I've visited on tropical holidays.  I love the food here, the holiday type ambiance, and the staff are amazing.  It was a lovely way to round off a pretty cool road trip.

Total time on the road - five hours.

And as it is GBBD today over at May Dreams Garden, I thoughtI'd leave you with a picture of the first of my bird of paradise that bloomed this week.

Byddi Lee