Bucket List: Groundhog Day In Punxsatawney. Check.


So how did Punxatawney end up on my bucket list? First, some background, according to CBS and the Associated Press:

“February 2nd is Candlemas — a Christian holiday with pre-Christian roots. Candlemas marks Mary's ritual purification, 40 days after the birth of Jesus. In pre-Christian times, it was the festival of Light. The Celts called it "Imbolc" — the midpoint between winter and spring.

The Germans believed if a badger came out of hibernation in foul weather, spring was on its way, and if it were sunny, he'd scurry back to his burrow, because winter wasn't done.

When German colonists arrived, there were no badgers in the East, so they drafted the groundhog to do the prognosticating.

In the 1880s a western Pennsylvania newspaper editor hatched the Groundhog Day idea, sold town fathers on it, and the Punxsutawney Groundhog Club — and the holiday — were born.”

Note that last part, about the newspaper editor. Newspaper editors have tried to find ways to promote their home towns for as long as there have been newspapers. The Chandlers used the Los Angeles Times to create modern Los Angeles.

While their schtick has not created a city of 15 million people, I have to hand it to the Punxsatawney Groundhog Club (actually, I literally have to hand it to them—I’m now a member, more on which anon), they have created one of the world’s truly great tourist schemes. It’s not New Year’s Eve in Times Square, or Mardi Gras in New Orleans, or Carnival in Rio, or even Rose Festival in Portland, Ore. (gotta plug the home town), but it is an amazing feat to attract 40,000 people, at 4 a.m., in the geographic center of nowhere (an equidistant two-hour drive from either Cleveland or Pittsburgh), to stand in a field where the thermometer says 12 degrees Fahrenheit and the wind chill is in negative territory to watch a rodent (or squirrel or marmot or woodchuck) named Punxsatawney Phil pretend to predict the weather. I say pretend because the sky was covered with a thick cloud layer and there is no way Phil saw his shadow and scurried back into his burrow, but that’s what the Inner Circle said, after their president spoke a little Groundhogese with his charge at dawn on Feb. 2. That’s par for the course; in his 132 years in the weather-predicting business (the club claims Phil has lived that long) he has only predicted an early spring about 30 times.

Of course, the idea of Groundhog Day is good, but maybe not that good as a tourist draw. Locals say the annual turnout was a few hundred people each year—admittedly a lot of people freezing their butts off to watch a marmot weather predictor. But for the event to become a real draw, to bring 40,000 people into a borough with about 5,000 residents, it needed something besides the basic squirrel weather service idea.

One way to get into the big leagues would be to garner enormous press coverage. Even when I was a boy, Groundhog Day was ubiquitous on print and broadcast media. That interested me in the event. I mean, the Journal covered it every year; it must be important. That tradition continues; on the morning of Friday, Feb. 2, 2018, by noon there were 68,000 Google citations to news stories about Phil’s prediction, from reporters of all types. I defy you to find a U.S. newspaper, broadcast station or network that didn’t do an item on Phil. But in a century, that massive dose of old-fashioned publicity didn’t really make the celebration catch fire.

Another way to get into the big leagues would be to get Hollywood to make a film. Perhaps one mostly shot several hundred miles away, one in which the ceremony itself plays a minor part, but one which makes the words “Groundhog Day” part of the English language as a synonym for “living the same day over and over.”

Well exactly.  Danny Rubin wrote it, Harold Ramis directed it and Bill Murray starred in it. And the year after Groundhog Day’s release in 1993, even though Punxsatawney, PA is no Woodstock, Ill., the crowds wanting to see the real thing rose from the hundreds to the tens of thousands.

Here is my experience of the 2018 event, complete with advice.

First, do not, repeat, do not show up at dawn on Groundhog Day and expect to be able to see the stage without binoculars. And frankly, if you show up at dawn, you’ll never get to Gobbler’s Knob on time, because it is two miles from town on steep, icy, narrow roads (closed to most vehicular traffic except shuttles) and takes 35 minutes to walk. Which didn’t keep hundreds of people from walking, but as we drove past, they looked miserable. Especially on the way in. There were large floodlights almost everywhere, but not everywhere. Walking in the pitch black on icy roads would scare me.

Ticket prices for the buses to the Knob are $5 per person, 12 years of age and under ride for free. If you walk up, the event is free.

But I suggest you check out groundhogday.org and, at the very least, join the groundog club (I did!) and buy a parking pass for $40 and an Inner Circle Section Pass for $20. The parking pass allows you to park quite near the site. The Inner Circle pass gets you close enough to the stage to smell Phil’s breath (kidding). This will be the best money you have ever spent.

I read up on the event on the Internet, which told me you had to be there by 4 a.m.(the site opens at 3 a.m.) for the 7:15 prediction if you wanted to see what was going on. If you have an Inner Circle pass, you can show up at 5 or 5:30 and be fine.

Come prepared for an arctic expedition. Coat, hat, gloves, scarf, (actually, a face mask would be good) all appropriate for sub-zero wind chill. Don’t neglect your boots; there may well be snow on the ground as there was this year. Warm and waterproof are the watchwords. You may not need these clothes (if Groundhog Day had been Jan. 30, it would have been 40 degrees at dawn), but you must be ready.

Accommodations are hard to come by and the “good” ones book up a year in advance. There is not much in town, and not much nearby. Not a surprise for a town of 5,000 in the middle of nowhere. If you don’t want to battle the crowds in Punxsatawney for breakfast, be prepared to drive 30 minutes to the nearest diner. Pittsburgh and Cleveland are each about two hours away, but you’ll need to be ready for a two-hour drive at 3 a.m.; we were ready. By staying two hours away, we got to stay in a pleasant hotel on the eastern edge of Pittsburgh, with nearby restaurants, a gym and a business center.

Note that, if you have a parking place, your GPS will send you to the wrong entrance; be sure to follow the map attached to your parking pass. If you choose to shuttle from downtown, be sure to set Barclay Square as your destination, and read groundhog.org for information on parking.

So, what’s the actual experience like? We had expected to arrive at 5, but the roads were in better shape than we expected, so we got there at 4:45 a.m. We parked and walked the short distance to Gobbler’s Knob. There was an inch or so of snow on the ground, and the sub-freezing temperatures made everything feel slick. My biggest concern was slipping and falling, but despite the apparent hazards, that didn’t happen. Probably because we were standing in a field, not on asphalt or concrete. I imagine a warm rainy year would pose a different set of problems.

My other big concern was standing in one place for 2½ hours with no chance to sit down and not much chance to move. We could have gone back up the hill and bought a hot beverage, but even in the Inner Circle enclosure at the front, if you leave your place you’re not going to get one as good when you get back, unless you are with someone. I was with someone, my daughter Marlow, but was still worried about walking on the icy ground. I was worried, but the entertainment is designed to keep you moving in your place, which helps with both warmth and the lengthy period of standing.

On arrival it was 14 degrees, but it dropped down to 12. That’s something you probably don’t think about very often; as dawn approaches, it generally gets colder all night, with the lowest temperature just before sunrise.

Everything was well lit with large generator-powered lights. The stage was lit for television, of which there was a lot. From the time the site opens at 4 a.m., there is entertainment, hosted by two top-hatted members of the Inner Circle. In energy and demeanor, they reminded me of nothing so much as a young Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi as the Blues Brothers. They were backed with a set of local girls, the Phillettes. In 2018, Sunny Sammy was the standout. All of the dancers were good; she was amazing.

Several bands rotated through, playing until their fingers or instruments froze. Four young women, aged 7 to 17, called themselves “The Queen of the West,” and played violin. I cannot begin to imagine how they either tuned or stayed in tune, considering the weather. There was also a brass band and a group consisting of three guitarists and a string bass called the Beagle Brothers. The two finalists of Punxsatawney’s Got Talent competed for our approval. A big man played a song he’d written about Phil and did excellent crowd work getting us to sing along. In any kind of normal competition, he would likely have won the $500 first prize. Alas, the other act was a belly dancer. Let me make this clear—she was dancing barefoot, in a standard Belly Dance costume (no body stocking), in 12-degree weather with a wind chill below zero, at 5:30 in the morning. I am not an expert on belly dancing, but she was certainly competent. And she blew the singer/guitarist away when it came to crowd acclaim.

The live music was interspersed with lively recorded music. At 6:30 a.m., the lights were turned off for a 20-minute firework display. Who doesn’t love fireworks? And they were being launched from just a few hundred yards away, on a pitch-black, cloudy night. So, they were bright and noisy.

Finally, just before sunrise, the Inner Circle, a group of largely older men in top hats, tuxedos and black overcoats (except for one relatively young member, who apparently didn’t get the memo), walks to the stage, and the prognostication ritual begins. The movie gets this part almost exactly right. The president taps on the door marked “Phil,” with a special cane. Phil is removed. The president talks to him in “Groundhogese,” then reads a scroll (more words but less ornate than the one in the movie) which reveals Phil’s prognostication. Shortly after, the crowd makes a break for their shuttle bus, their nice warm car, or another half hour of bracing cold as they walk back to town. In a nod to the movie, the PA firsts blasts “Pennsylvania Polka,” and then Sonny and Cher’s “I’ve Got You Babe,” which show up more often in the movie than Phil.

So that’s it. There are hundreds of people who come every year. There were people at the Knob from all over the world. I though that coming from San Francisco would distinguish us, but there was one person from Japan and one from Pakistan, so we didn’t have the longest trip by any means.

I love the movie, and I enjoyed the ceremony as much as it is possible to enjoy an event where you spend several hours in the freezing cold to watch a woodchuck predict the coming of spring. For me, once is enough. I’ll just watch the movie every year on Groundhog Day. I’ll be warmer and more emotionally involved.

We'll Always Have Pittsburgh in February

Those of you who know me (and that’s most of the people who read this column) will already know I have an aversion to cold. I didn’t take it well during my five years in Boston, or my year in Hartford, or even during the occasional ice storm in Portland. So, if someone told you I was going to see Groundhog Day in Punxsatawney, PA, you would no doubt have scoffed, particularly if you were looking at the weather prediction for Feb. 2, 2018.

I feel certain none of you were looking at that prediction, but I can tell you the temperature was around 12, with a sub-zero wind chill. The story of how I got there, in the context of my love for the movie and my indoctrination by decades of media coverage, follows. But first, the literal story of how I got there.

My daughter Marlow and I flew from SF to Chicago on American, then changed planes for Pittsburgh. Ten months of the year, United flies to Pittsburgh non-stop from San Francisco, but not in January and February. The plane change was tight but uneventful.

Upon arrival at SFO, I realized I had left our parking pass and VIP enclosure passes in my filing cabinet. My wife was kind enough to FedEx them to our hotel in Pittsburgh, so no harm, no foul. If she hadn’t done so, we’d have been taking a shuttle bus to stand with the hoi polloi, and the stage would have been a distant implication instead of a close-up.

We arrived Wednesday night, and had Thursday to go around Pittsburgh. We were still on Pacific Time, so we didn’t have breakfast until 10 (7 pacific) nor get going until 11.

Paul, paying strict attention to the streetcar's progress

I insisted on riding the T, Pittsburgh’s subway, through the 140-year old tunnel to the Heinz Stadium station. It’s a beautiful system, with lovely up-to-date cars, and clean, well-lit subway stations. We used the same day-pass to ride the Monongahela Incline, which gave us a beautiful view of the city.

Marlow gets wacky in front of one of the big Deutsch Town murals

We had lunch in the Germantown neighborhood (or Deutsch Town, if you will), at a restaurant which served pierogi. Marlow had never had them, and I hadn’t had them in years. Still good.

We knew we were going to have to be in bed by 9 p.m. (6pm pacific!) and up at 2:30 a.m. Working backwards from dinner and a viewing of Groundhog Day, we knew we had to be back at our hotel, an hour away from downtown (in rush hour), by 4:30 p.m.

Paul pays homage to the opening scene of Groundhog Day at the Warhol Museum

Thus, we decided to limit our sightseeing to one more attraction; the Andy Warhol museum. It is quite something; allow more than 90 minutes to see it. I knew I hated his movies; the exhibits reminded me why. I knew I loved his art; ditto. He was older than I realized (8 years older than my dad). He presented as younger. He had a quite successful but relatively ordinary career as a commercial illustrator until he reverted to his college roots and became an artist. He lived with his mother and never married; infer what you will, but I’ll infer he was given a tough time while growing up in a Catholic neighborhood of Pittsburgh. His Brillo Boxes (I’d only seen pictures; they are more impressive in person), his silk-screened works and his appropriation of pop culture images made him an artistic pioneer. I still think he was a bit over the top.

Marlow and I watched Groundhog Day. I have seen it at least 25 times; Marlow maybe a half-dozen. There are still parts where I cry, especially after my instruction in the Buddhist themes of the film. Dinner, 9 p.m. bedtime, 2:30 a.m. wakeup,

Saturday was taken up with a visit to Amish country, an item Marlow wanted to cross off her bucket list. Lancaster County is the Pennsylvania center of Amish culture, but it is four hours by car from Pittsburgh. As it happens, T, a woman Marlow’s age who was in the next village over from her when she was in the Peace Corps in Mali (and whose initial has previously appeared in this column, back in 2011), lives near Middlefield in Geauga County, Ohio, the fourth largest Amish area in the United States—and a mere 90 minutes by car from Pittsburgh. Thus, we combined a reunion with T and a tour of Middlefield and environs.

Scenes from Amish Country

It began with lunch at Mary Yoder's, a fine Amish restaurant. The food was simple, well-prepared and beyond ample. Amazingly, I couldn't finish mine. One side dish I ordered was noodles on mashed potatoes. T said it was a common dish, and that the Amish like their carbs.

We didn’t see any good Amish quilts (in winter, they are making them more than selling them), but we did see a number of Amish people, on the road, in the stores, and at the computer terminals in the library. I will never understand how the Amish make the rules that state in which parts of modernity they can partake. Middlefield’s no Lancaster, and many Amish related tourist attractions and enterprises are closed for the winter, but as Marlow said, as we made our second purchase from an Amish sales clerk, “I’ve met my quota of Amish.”

It was a balmy 31 degrees, with a wind-chill of 21. As T put it, “you don’t spend a lot of time thinking about wind chill in San Francisco, do you.” No, we don’t.

I must comment on a fortuitous happenstance. As American Airlines blanketed the Internet on Saturday with warnings to book away from Chicago because of harsh weather, I admired the sheer dumb luck that I had booked our return through Charlotte, N.C., presently unencumbered by weather warnings.


Nevada City and Carmel

A couple of recent trips, and a backlog of interesting material from friends, moved me to push out a brief column.

When we stayed with friends in Nevada City, they mentioned a farm in the area that had u-pick blackberries, strawberries and raspberries. I love all berries (also including boysenberries and ollaliberries), so I promised myself I would brave the two-hour drive up to the Sierra foothills so I could pick my own berries (store blackberries are inedible black rubber balls). I hate driving, and I especially hate driving by myself, although I had plenty of podcasts to keep me company.

By the way, the last time I wrote up a Nevada City visit, I mentioned a bakery but wasn't sure of the name. It is the Three Forks Bakery and Brewing Company, and it is amazing, in a town with a lot of amazing food.

I could have chosen a bed and breakfast, or stayed in a modern motel outside of town, but chose instead the National Hotel, the oldest hotel west of the Mississippi, located in the heart of downtown. The idea for Pacific Gas and Electric was hatched in this hotel in the 19th century, The A/C was out in my room, but the public spaces of the hotel are interesting, there is a balcony over the main street, and the restaurant is quite nice. You want quiet, ask for a room in the back. I think I noted this in my last Nevada City writeup; this is NOT an early to rise town. I wanted to have breakfast before I left at 7:30 for the 8am start of picking. The only two places that were open were Three Forks (but the didn't really have breakfast ready until 8) and The Curly Wold Espresso House, which had a lovely breakfast burrito, and newspapers for sale in honor boxes out front.

I had a wonderful lunch at the New Moon Cafe, where I ran into Carol, a long-ago girlfriend, who now lives in Nevada City. We had a lovely chat.

So, I left town at 7:30 for the short drive to Riverhill Farm, on Cement Hill Road. They had strawberries, but those bushes are low to the ground.  I picked strawberries with my grandmother near Salem in the 1960s. I hated it. I hated squatting. So I wouldn't pick strawberries now on a bet. But blackberries and raspberries grown on bushes. There are two kinds of blackberry bushes, with thorns and without. The people on the farm said the berries with thorns were sweeter, and that's as may be, but I tried both, couldn't tell much difference, and spent most of my time picked the no-thorn blackberries. I gained a real insight into why grocery store blackberries are so awful: it is REALLY hard to tell when a blackberry is REALLY ripe. Still, I came out with a dozen pints, plus a half-dozen pints of raspberries. The raspberries in the stores are huge and plump. These were small and delicious. It was already hot as heck at 8am; I can't imagine having gone to the 2pm u-pick the day before, when the temperature was in the 90s.

My other recent trip was to celebrate my wife Vicki's birthday; we are starting to develop a tradition of celebrating that natal event with a visit to Carmel. We have been going to the area for years. We have become regulars at  an oceanside Band B called the Sandpiper. We ate sand dabs (my favorite fish, after sturgeon)  two days in a row, at Anton and Michel and The Grill, two sister restaurants in Carmel-By-The-Sea. For the birthday dinner itself, we went to the Lucia restaurant at the Bernardus Lodge and Spa. It was breathtaking to look at, and the food was amazing. Vicki said it was literally one of her favorite restaurant experiences ever, and she knows the meaning of the word literally. We also had soft-serve frozen yogurt, my favorite dessert.

The Carmel beach is not really long (like, say, Ocean Beach in San Francisco, or the beach at Bodega Bay), but it is long enough for a nice hour-long walk, and it is well-maintained. OK, there was a lot of seaweed on the beach this time, but we could walk around it. Not too much wind, except a gentle cooling breeze off the ocean. Our daily walks were a highlight of the trip. The beach was kind of crowded, and too many dogs for my taste, so it isn't my favorite beach, but having a room only 100 yards from the beach can compensate for a few small picked nits.

I've said it before, but it bears repeating: there are ocean people, mountain people, and desert people. I am blessed to be an ocean person married to an ocean person. My late father-in-law was a desert person, but thankfully did not pass that on to his daughter. I spent a day in the mountains at Nevada City, and it was all right, but Carmel... that is heaven on earth.

Nevada City

Nevada City has never been a big location on my "to-do" list. I never heard of it before a friend of mine moved there to be a faculty member at the  Ananda College. There is the Expanding Light retreat center there, which sounds interesting to me, although I have never been able to go...until now. It is a two-hour drive without traffic--and there is always traffic on Interstate 80. Vicki and I went up there to spend a weekend with friends.

By the time you turn off onto California 49, traffic thins out in a major-league way. At the junction is the town of Auburn which has a delightful old town section in which we found several lovely restaurants, including a wine bar that was beautiful and served good food. We were told to stop in Grass Valley and try the Cornish Pasties there. We didn't on this trip, but may some time in the future.

Nevada City downtown was a hoot! There's a new coffee shop we really liked (can't remember the name), but all the shops and restaurants were cool. We were tempted to go to the amateur theater production, but were too tired. I attended the Episcopal Church downtown (the oldest in California), then had Cajun Sunday Brunch at Ike's Quarter Cafe (disappointed they weren't seating outside under the big tree). We shopped at the Inner Path yoga studio and store at Main and Commercial downtown, but it is just one of several interesting shops in the district. (And you can tell when you are in a small town when the main street is Main Street).

The weather was wonderful, the people were nice, and the air was clean and crisp. I can see why someone would want to live up there. I heard one person espouse a theory that there is energy in the granite that suffuses the area, and that Nevada City is the same elevation as Sedona, Arizona, and that's what makes it so spiritual. That's a story which, as one old editor used to say, is "too good to fact check."

People who have known me for a long time will be astonished to hear that I have become a regular walker/hiker. In fact, as part of a weight loss program, I am clocking 10,000 steps a day minimum, more on a good day. We walked the Tribute Trail along Deer Creek, over a new bridge and around a loop into downtown. It is a nice path, but a lot of hills.

We also drove up Highway 49 and walked the Independence Trail, the first handicapped accessible trail in a California State Park. It is amazing! Flat as a pancake, with packed dirt, yet passing through a beautiful wooded area. One of the best walks I have ever taken in this state. I like my hiking trails like I like my bike trails: railroad right-of-way flat.

We happened to be in Nevada City a few weeks before Expanding Light's annual Tulip Festival. We toured the gardens there and saw a lot of tulips, but were reliably informed that we'd seen nothing compared to the way they'd be two weeks later.

There is a farmer's market that we missed, and a "membership farm" that sells its produce at the market. I bought a farm card  because I am told they have "pick your own" blackberries and raspberries. I am going back up for those sometime this spring or summer. I hate picking berries, but I love eating them. It is worth a two-hour drive to me to get  good ones. The grocery store has good blackberries for about 20 minutes every year.


It has taken me longer than it should have to sit down and write my impressions of our Christmas trip to Hawaii. For that, I apologize. I went with my wife, both daughters and a boyfriend. We stayed in two condos located near each other at Waikoloa Beach, near Kona on the Big Island of Hawaii. We disagreed on how best to get there by plane, so one group took 10 hours with a stopover in Honolulu, while another flew direct on United in five hours. It all depends on how you value your time, the risks of stopovers, and the need to arrive at the same time as your luggage (the stopover group lost a bag on the way home).

There is a lot of lava on the Big Island, and an active volcano. The volcano was three hours each way by car from our condos, a half-hour north of Kona. The volcano was spectacular and worth the trip, according to the group that went--everyone else but me. We swam in the warm ocean (most of us did, anyway). We were drenched by one day of torrential rain. We went to a Christmas Eve Luau and bought fresh leis, watched the staff unbury the roast pig, and were entertained for an hour by an elaborate show. We, toured a coffee plantation, where we learned of Kona Red, an amazing anti-oxidant made from the "cherries" in which coffee beans grow (I bought some and am using it). We walked through a lava field and looked at thousand-year-old drawings carved into the rock. W  ate a lot of good seafood. We watched a beautiful sunset at A-Beach, and discovered that you can't really see the sunset from Lava Lava Beach Club. The high temperature every day was 80, the low 70. That's warmer than Catalina's 75 every day (where we spent last Christmas) and in a different universe from the 40s and 50s in coastal Lincoln City, Ore. where my wife and I spent most Christmas vacations for the first 30 years of our marriage.

Unlike our visit to Kauai four years ago, we had air conditioning this time at our daughters' request. The condos had much less charm than the house we rented last time, but many fewer mosquitoes and way more comfort.

Hawaii is a magical  place to spend the holidays. I can see why so many people like it there.

To Seattle by Train

I finally did something I have been meaning to do for decades. I took a long ride on a private railcar. I am still interested in riding on one like the Virginia City, (how can you not love a car with a fireplace), but in the meantime the Silver Solarium will have to do. It has been meticlously restored by its owners. If you ride, ask Bert to see his PowerPoint--the amount of work required to rennovate the cars was eye-watering. This car and its two sisters are examples of the epitome of American rail car construction: Vistadome cars built for a mid-20th-century streamliner train. They are moved around by being attached Amtrak trains. Amtrak reminds me of what friend the private pilot says about flying in a private prop plane: "Time to spare? Go by air." Thanks to the shuttling of the Coast Starlight onto sidings to allow freight trains to pass (a violation of federal law known as the "Amtrak Two-Step") the Coast Starlight is often hours late. That's fine if you don't care. We didn't care. Although Vicki is not a train buff and generally does not sleep well on trains, she consented to join me and agreed she had a pretty good time.

We engaged the suite, which has a double bed that can be made up into two large seats during the day. Since we spent all our time in the dome and the observation car, we left our bed set up all day so I could take two naps and V could take one.

The train was an hour late into Emeryville. We were the only passengers getting on the Silver Solarium, so we were greeted by name. We were served dessert in the dome car and hit the sack at about midnight. We were up at 7 the next morning, in time to see some beautiful Cascade mountain scenery along the Natron Cutoff between Weed, California and Eugene, Oregon by way of Klammath Falls. There wasn't a lot of snow (we passed a trackside snow gauge that measured up to 12 feet of snow!), but enough to slightly improve the scenery. Railroads are remarkable when they consist of single-track right of way, miles from roads, towns and farms. They are so much narrower than highways. The views were unique and amazing.

The food was great, all cooked on board from scratch. We had breakfast, lunch and dinner on board. Alcohol was free for the asking, as were soft drinks.

You may say to yourself, "Well, Amtrak has sightseer cars." Well, yes, but for reasons I found hard to explain, windows on the top of the Vistadome car (and the front and back of the car as well) make for a better viewing experience than simply having large windows on the side.  We also enjoyed the observation lounge at the back of the train. You've probably seen pictures of these loungers; a dozen easy chairs arrayed around the side with a rounded rear window offering a view behind the train. It was comfortable and pleasant.


Among the classy touches: fresh flowers everywhere



In the Silver Solarium Vistadome car, you can see out the sides, the top, and toward the front of the train.




I have seen many pictures of an observation car, but until this trip I had never ridden in one. The height of comfort! Of course, there were only 14 of us in the private section of  the train, which tended to keep the crowds down.

Tuesday in LA

When I make my annual visit to LA, I like to stay at Su Casa; the rooms are one-bedroom apartments with a full kitchen and lots of space to spread out. I always get an oceanview room. You are literally 40 feet from the sand once you get out the front door. The front desk gets one (1!) copy each of the NY Times and LA Times for all the tenants. I grabbed the Times; no one else asked for it. Sign. Print media really ARE dying.

As usual, I tried to do too much in the morning, so instead of the one-hour walk on the beach I wanted, I got a 20-minute walk. My motto is: something is better than nothing. I excused myself because I knew I had a big walk coming.

It was time for my annual walk and talk with J, a colleague from my days at Byte.com. He lives in Studio City, across the street from an entrance to the Santa Monica hills. Usually, we hike to the top, but he is now 82 and told me he didn't trust his balance on a dirt path with steep sides. So, we went instead all over his neighborhood. It was a two-hour walk, and pretty vigorous at that.

Thank goodness the LA heat wave had broken that morning, so it was only 80 instead of 90. I love the people I get to see in LA each year, but even in October, the town is too damn hot for my taste.

J and I talked of cabbages and kings, of politics (he is a rather conservative libertarian/Republican), and the Authors' Guild (we are both members, but he makes real money from his books, something I never did do), of old Hollywood, architecture, and the death  of pets. We have eaten lunch at the Good Earth for a decade on these visits, but the restaurant was gone, so we had Thai food instead. Nice, but nothing to write home about. I know we both enjoyed our few hours together, because we both told each other we had.

Back to Su Casa for a quick nap, during which I was reminded that a rotating selection of musicians sits directly across the beachside path from my room, plugs an amplifier into a portable generator and plays music, loudly, on a continuous basis during the day.

Ninety minutes, at rush hour,  to make a trip Google said should take an hour, to Echo Park for dinner with B, an IT industry guru and consultant, with whom I have maintained a friendship since I profiled him for InformationWEEK in 1986. We had prime rib at Tam O' Shanter, the original Lawry's restaurant from the 1920s. We sat there for several hours, swapping old IT stories, as well as life stories. He is a raconteur, no question about it. And again, I don't have to guess that we both enoyed our time together. Usually we spend some time on the patio at his lovely old house, but I was sleep-deprived, so begged off early. After my experience with freeways earlier in the day, I took Western to Sunset to PCH to Ocean to my hotel. About the same amount of time, but at least I was moving...

Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) In San Francisco

My family constantly asks, "Is this what you are going to do with your retirement?" Well, this is what I may do with my retirement, some of the time. There are a number of hikes and sights I have thrown in a drawer, meaning to get around to them "someday." Well, someday is now.

On Dec. 4, 2012, the San Francisco Chronicle wrote an article pointing out that many of the owners of Privately Owned Public Spaces (POPS) did not go out of their way to let people know of their existence. Some signs were at ankle-level, in small type, or printed in a light color. The city has since begun to standardize the signage. In the meantime, SPUR, a San Francisco urban renewal group, has published a guide to POPS. I printed out the guide and kept it in a drawer, periodically mentioning my desire to see at least some of these sites. Many of them are inside office buildings, and cannot be seen at night nor on weekends, which is when we are usually in the city. As a birthday present, my wife V took Monday off, and we went hiking around downtown SF.

POPS result when a developer wants more floor space or more floors in a building than are allowed by the building code. They can "buy" the space from the city by providing amenities for public use, one of which is a public space, maintained in perpetuity by the building owner. It is this private maintenance that makes POPS different from public parks.

So, here is what the new signage looks like:


The SPUR map shows 55 POPS, but many of them are "snippets," and amount to a few tables and plants. We went to eight of the sites rated "excellent," or that seemed interesting to us.

Redwood Park b etween Transamerica Pyramid and 505 Sansome

Perhaps, like me, you have driven by the Transamerica Pyramid and wondered about the small park at the foot of the tower. This week was the first time in 37 years of on-and-off residence in San Francisco or Orinda that I have set foot here. It was set up in 1972, when the tower was completed, so isn't officially a POPS, but it is, by far, the most beautiful of the ones we saw. It is a grove of redwoods in the middle of the city. The trees, amazingly, create a cool and quiet respite from the city (SF was an unnaturally warm -- 80 -- on the day we toured). It contains walls you can sit on, a fountain and artwork. The 505 Sansome POPS is in the lobby of the building, with tables and chairs, separated from the redwood grove by a large glass wall; on a cold or rainy day, it would be the perfect place to sit and gaze at the redwood grove.

Redwood 1

The fountain and the redwoods


The artwork

Redwood 3

The fountain

A brief digression

We stopped for lunch at Mangia Tutti at 635 Clay Street. Lucky for us, they serve lunch until 3, because it was past 2 when we got there. The food was great, the service was first-rate and the prices seemed reasonable for San Francisco. Also, the bread and dipping sauces were heavenly.


343 Sansome

Not far away is a POPS you wouldn't know existed if you didn't have a map--it's a sun terrace on the 15th floor! Tables, chairs, benches, olive trees and benches, with a piece of artwork in the middle. Both sun and shade were available during our visit. It was quiet, delightful, and had a terrific view.

343 sansome

The view from 343 Sansome

343 sansome 2

A great view of the Transamerica Pyramid (and me)

343 sansome 5

Art in the middle of the sun deck

150 California

The SPUR brochure suggests stopping at the front desk and telling the attendant where you are going. This is a good idea, as otherwise, you may take the wrong bank of elevators and not be able to find the fifth floor sun terrace. Tables and chairs, sun and shade, and a lovely view of the city.

Time for my Booneville Dog story. In 1978, I was riding my bike through the semi-rural western reaches of Portland, Oregon, following the instructions of a book about metro area bike rides. The book warned of a dog in a neighborhood known as Booneville (not the one near Corvallis you find in Google). We stopped to buy a soda (no bottled water back then!) and met the store owner--and his dog. The dog was not as advertised, and the owner had no idea that hundreds of bike riders had heard of his dog because of the guide book. The same goes for the attendant at 150 California. We stopped at the front desk and told him he was in the guidebook!

150 california 5

The view from 150 California

101 California

This office building is mostly known around these parts as the site of an awful gun incident on July 1, 1993. Turns out its front plaza is a beautiful POPS with a pretty fountain, and its lobby is an award-winning garden. Lots of places to sit, but quite shady--which is OK if it is 80 out, but it isn't 80 out very often in SF. Handy place to go if you are taking out of towners on the California Street cable car; lots of nearby food service.

101 california

The 101 California fountain

One Bush

One Bush is the oldest POPS listed by SPUR. This was the first high-rise building in SF after World War II, and the public space has been around since 1959. I have walked or driven past it hundreds of times without realizing it was there. It is below ground and has walls along the Market Street side that make it difficult to see (which, given the nature of some of the denizens of Market, makes sense). SPUR describes it as an "urban garden" for "visual enjoyment only," with no benches or food service, resulting in a rating of "fair." Still worth a look, even if just for the shock value for San Franciscans who didn't know it was there.

One bush

The One Bush fountain

100 First Street

This 1988 entry is another example of "hidden in plain sight." It was paid for by 100 First Street, but is entered via a non-descript staircase from Mission Street which does almost nothing to hint at the sun terrace above. I particularly enjoyed this POPS, despite the fact that the fountain is turned off and the tables and chairs are attached to the ground and thus immobile. I would rank it second, after the Redwood Park at the Transamerica Pyramid. There is a deli at the foot of the stairs.

100 first

The non-descript stairs leading to the sun terrace. The setback from Mission makes it a quiet place.

100 first (2)

One of several settings of benches and tables

100 first 3 (2)

The fountain would have been prettier with water in it.

560 Mission Street

Lots of places to sit and two nearby delis make this a likely stop for lunch. A tall kinetic sculpture in a shallow pool is beautiful, and contains steps that allow you towalk out and get a closer lookat the art. There is also bamboo along the walls. Quite lovely.

This is V's second favorite. She said, "It is minimalistic and very Zen and calming. At first, I thought it would be perfect if it were above Mission, but now I know it is the perfect counterpoint to Mission.

560 mission

The sculpture in the fountain, and the steps

555 Mission Street

Directly across the street from 560 Mission is 555 Mission, a much more open, light and airy POPS, if you're into that sort of thing. It features playful sculptures and a small grove of ginko trees in the back. The crane from big building project in the back adds another dimension; maybe they should keep it there.

555 mission

Other POPS

There are 47 other POPS in the SPUR brochure, and no doubt more on the way with all the new development south of Market Street. They are sometimes lovely hidden gems in the world's favorite city, hidden on upper floors or in plain sight. Plus, I like to think that we should all make use of them as often as possible, so that the public gets its money's worth from the amenity provided to us in exchange for the developer making a whole lot of extra money.





Sheraton Fisherman's Wharf

This tourist hostelry was recenently remodeled; the rooms now look like the rooms in one of those fancy Manhattan micro-hotels, only, of course, bigger. White walls, modern furniture. I hate hotels with individual air conditioning units in the rooms, because they are so noisy; break down and buy AC for the building, big spenders. There is some motor that sounds like an idling truck that starts up at 6am and makes sleep difficult. But before then, the room was dark enough and quiet enough. Continental breakfast, which to me is no breakfast at all.

Jack London State Park

So much for retirement. I mean, it didn't REALLY start until this week, which was the first week of school. Until yesterday, it was just the same summer vacation I have had for the last 11 years. But, sure enough, just as people warn you, it is possible to get busier in retirement than you were before. So many projects. So many things to do.

In the meantime, my wife's eye for the unusual has been sharpened. A few months ago, while perusing the legacy media output of the San Francisco Chronicle, she spotted an evening performance of Broadway under the Stars, by the Transcendance Theater Co. at Jack London State Historic Park near Glen Ellen, CA, just outside of Santa Rosa. We went and had a wonderful time, spent the night, and came back the next day to inspect the park, which contains both buildings and memorabilia associated with Jack London, who lived there just before his death. There is his cottage, the big house his widow built, and the amazing mansion they were about to move to when it burned down in 1914. The performance was amazing; the venue, the remains of a winery, reminded me of  the outdoor theater in Ashland, Ore. before they put a roof on it. Which is to say, magical. Downtown Glen Ellen is cute as a button, with several great restaurants (some of which do not serve lunch). Parking is tough; take a shuttle bus. The yellowjackets are numerous and obnoxious, so don't expect much of a pre-show picnic, and don't take any meat or sweet fruit. And even then you might get swarmed. For reasons I cannot understand, they seemed less interested in the output of the food trucks: crepes, grilled cheese sandwiches and various slabs of tri-tip type beef.

This is not the lavishly detailed description of our magical weekend that I had hoped to produce, but I'm already two weeks late with it, and I refuse to allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. If this small item gives you the impression that this is an experience you should try, along with some advice on how to improve your experience, it has achieved its goal.