Revisiting the Magical Land of Northern California

Each time I visit Northern California, I remember how it’s funny that I never seem to remember how beautiful it is when I’m not there. This happened again last week, when I went there with with my wife and my kid over spring break.

There were three days in San Francisco, admiring the pastel-painted houses and the funky murals and vintage signage and the flowers and palm trees and weird, Seussian succulents that seem to grow out of breaks in the sidewalk on every street. And the skyscrapers — the Transamerica Pyramid is one of my favorite buildings in the world — and the views of the bridges you get when you crest a hill, where at first you seriously wonder whether your rental car is actually going to be able to make it to the top without giving out or flipping over backwards. And those out over Alcatraz in the Bay. Which always reminds me of Clint Eastwood, of course, and the Scorpions.

It really is one of the most picturesque cities in the world. The food’s great, too. I ate huevos rancheros at Chava’s on Mission Street, super burritos at El Faralito, and one of the best Sichuan meals I’ve ever had at a restaurant called Spices II on 6th Avenue and Clement Street in the Richmond District — that low, flat area, between Golden Gate Park and the Presidio on the north side, where there are lots of restaurants. We had tasty yakatori skewers around there, too. And relaxed and drank beer and saki with some friends and let up on my parenting duties a little too much until my kid and his friend who is my friend’s kid made a game out of sneaking up on other customers at the restaurant and poking them in the back and darting back around a corner before they could turn around to see who had poked them. Like “ding dong ditch,” but in a nice Japanese restaurant, with strangers who are just trying to enjoy a nice relaxing meal. When I saw that this was happening, I had to get up and put a stop to it, of course, and apologize to the person who I saw get poked (who was very San Franciscan about it, like, “Oh, it’s fine, it’s all good…”). And I punished my kid by taking away the second half of the cookie he was eating. (He is six.)

This is the thing about a family vacation, of course. It’s much less of a vacation than what a lot of people have in mind — what I have in mind, actually, still — when they hear the word vacation.

That Jefferson Starship album is one of the very first albums I ever bought. I still have the vinyl. I remember hearing that song on WAPP — with that monster guitar riff, and that sweet keytar, and Grace Slick singing about “fire from the sky” and “The beast is on the prowl” — and thinking that that was just about all I’d ever wanted in a rock song.

Things change. Past trips to San Francisco, and the couple months I lived there in 1991, involved more pot smoking and sitting in bars wondering why there would be a dog sniffing my leg. San Francisco must be the world headquarters of bringing dogs into bars. This is one of the city’s drawbacks in my opinion. But, you know, some people really like that about it. (And it’s not the end of the world. I don’t want to pick a fight with dog lovers.)

So this trip involved more stuff suitable for six-year-olds. Like going to Fisherman’s Wharf, and the Aquarium of the Bay, where they have these awesome plexiglass tunnels you walk inside giant tanks of water, so sharks and groupers and schools of thousands of silver sardines swim above and all around you. And walking out on Pier 39 to look at the sea lions lounging on the floating docks the city set up for them. I very much enjoyed both of these things. (Here’s what the sea lions are doing right now at this very instant!) But Fisherman’s Wharf as a whole is very different from what I remember of 1991. It’s full of awful art galleries and cheesy gift shops and extremely expensive, not so good-looking food options. I’m sure the way I remember from 1991 looked similarly different (there’s a phrase you don’t get to write everyday) to the folks who had seen it 20 years before then. A rock band from San Francisco recorded a song in 1971 about a character that would seem very out of place at today’s Fisherman’s Wharf (and probably would have in 1991 as well). Here’s a video of this band performing the song in 1981 with Pete Townsend (of all people!) sitting in and smoking cigarettes and playing guitar with them. But mostly smoking cigarettes.

Like many people, I don’t think as highly of this band as do their more enthusiastic fans. But I’ve always liked that song a lot.

Also suitable for six-year-olds, the famous Exploratorium museum of science, art and perception at the Palace of Fine Arts on Lyon Street. It is justifiably famous, this place. It is terrific. Full of hands-on, experiential-learning exhibits about, umm, science, art and perception. If you ever find yourself in San Francisco, and in such a situation where you can’t be smoking pot and sitting in bars all day because you have children to look after, I highly recommend going there. (Or if you can be smoking pot, or maybe taking psychedelic drugs, because you don’t have children to look after, I would maybe recommend going there anyway. I think that’s what a couple guys probably in their 20s, dressed all in denim, wearing their sunglasses inside, were doing there the day I went. And they looked like they were having a good time. You would have to not mind the hundreds of over-excited kids running around, some of whom might be the type of under-supervised children liable to poke you in the back and dart back around a corner before you can turn around to see who did it. But, you know, if that’s all good with you….)

Oh, and a man named Scott Weaver spent 35 years making a sculpture of the Bay Area’s most famous landmarks out of 100,000 toothpicks. It is a “kinetic structure,” throughout which ping-pong balls roll like a roller coaster. It was on display at the Exploratorium when I was there, but you couldn’t touch it (for reasons that are understandable).

My friend whose kid made trouble with mine at the Japanese restaurant was out there investigating the possibility of moving to the area from his current home in Brooklyn — to Marin County, the at least topographically paradisiacal spit of land across the Golden Gate Bridge, he was thinking. San Rafael, or San Anselmo, or Mill Valley.

We spent a day out there, too. And the fact that you can sit and watch Pacific Ocean waves crash onto jagged rocks at Rodeo Beach (a black sand beach — near to the Black Sands Beach where Dave Eggers and his little brother are so good at throwing the frisbee at the end of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius — and where my kid found three pebbles of jade, so now we’re rich!) and then take a ten-minute drive through a cloud to where you can walk beneath 300-foot-tall redwood trees in the Muir Woods, this presents a one strong argument for relocation. But my friend, I think, is not going to move to Marin County. He changed his mind when he was out at a dinner set up by a work colleague from the area (he works for a company that started out there) and someone asked the waiter whether the tortillas the restaurant served were made with locally grown, organic flour.

Midweek, we took a two-and-a-half hour drive east to visit my sister, who, a couple years ago, moved to a little town in the foothills of the Sierras, called Nevada City. It’s an old gold mining town, settled in 1849, with a population of 3,000, though it’s a five minute drive to the slightly larger Grass Valley. The “Nevada” is pronounced with a harder “a” sound than the more deserty state 50 miles further east. So that it rhymes with “had a” as opposed to “terra cotta” (if you are from New Jersey). I’d never been there before.

We took route 80, and saw, again, some breathtakingly gorgeous scenery. First through Oakland, where there’s allegedly no “there,” but where there is lots of important American history and American music, and much more. And then passing Vallejo, which looks balmy and suburban from the highway — where Sly Stone is from, and E-40, who I think should become mayor. If anyone can solve the desperate fiscal problems that led the city to declare bankruptcy three years ago, I’d think E-40 could. The music he’s been making lately is some of the very best of his long career — a now four-album series under the rubric of Revenue Retrievin’. Municipal treasury departments should take note.

We crossed the Coast Range mountains at Vacaville, where you sort of hope the vacuum cleaner was invented, but I don’t think that’s the case. The prettiest hills I’ve ever seen, though. At least in spring, when they were bright green. It looked like something from a model train set come to life. Then into the Sacramento Valley, which is full of farms (it accounts for something like 200 percent of the world’s agricultural produce or something, I think I read somewhere), and past the state capitol, which stretches on for miles, and has a real skyline of big buildings and was fun to imagine it at it’s beginnings:

In 1947 Sacramento was no more than an adobe enclosure, Sutter’s Fort, standing alone on the prairie; cut off from San Francisco and the sea by the Coast Range and from the rest of the continent by the Sierra Nevada, the Sacramento Valley was then a true sea of grass, grass so high a man riding into it could tie it across his saddle. A year later gold was discovered in the Sierra foothills, and abruptly Sacramento was a town, a town any moviegoer could map tonight in his dreams — a dusty collage of assay offices and wagon makers and saloons.

Also, one of my most favorite bands in the world is the last psychedelic one from there.

We found a good radio station beaming from out of a local high school. (90.5 KVHS “The Edge,” I suppose, out of Clayton High School in Concord?) The youngster DJs’ voices endearingly adenoidal. They played good music: Bob Dylan, The Clash, but no Pavement during the twenty or so minutes we were in range (a little disrespectful, I thought).

Our ears popped soon after we exited Route 80 for Highway 49. The trees became pine trees, the ground got rockier, rivers ran faster. Ahead we could see serious mountains, but we stopped at the main street of Nevada City, which still looks much like how Joan Didion described old Sacramento — like a movie set from a Western movie. Or maybe a place where Dan Haggerty would have stopped in for a drink in The Life and Times of Grizzly Adams.

Freak-folk harpist Joanna Newsom is from Nevada City. Which makes sense, having spent a couple days in the place. I don’t mean to diss, I really like Joanna Newsom. And, you know, my sister, who I love, really loves it there. I just mean that people who meet on the street in Nevada Street hug each other for a longer time than people hug each other anywhere I’ve ever been. Even if they’ve seen each other just the day before. And you can tell they don’t watch a lot of TV and stuff. But I guess, why would you? When you can go for a hike on a wild-flowery path along the nearby Yuba River — which cuts a canyon through the pine trees where bald eagles fly overhead in the bluest sky in the universe, where the spring thaw has the water roaring in frothy rapids, where you’re ready to see a mountain lion sunning itself on every twenty-foot tall boulder than juts out from the craggy banks. Well we didn’t see one, I was half-sad and half-happy about that (what with the kid racing ahead, looking like a tasty yakatori skewer for a mountain lion.) But we did see a naked guy doing some sort of ritual yoga dance on the rocks by the river. And, whatever, that was kinda cool, too. That’s what he was supposed to be doing.