San Francisco, CA – Thursday 18th August
Terminal 1, Departures – Door 10, San Francisco International Airport
TRIP TIME 00:28:10
FARE BREAKDOWN Base Fare $2.00
Booking Fee $1.55
SFO Airport Surcharge $3.80
Diogenes 4.35 stars
A Cadillac Mustang tentatively slows, curb crawling with the driver leaning forward peering out the dusty front window. Smiling and waving, Steve steps forward, phone in hand, to open the front passenger door.
Hi, I’m Steve.
I drag my suitcase from the pavement. As it dumps onto the bitumen, the driver appears by the rear door and heaves both our suitcases into the trunk. They land between slabs of bottled water and a forest-green sports bag that may or may not have a small dead body inside. Over-dressed for the surprisingly warm weather, I peel off my baggy black jacket I have carried with me from Melbourne before jumping in the backseat.
I’m still reminiscing over my breakfast – a six-egg white omelette with sautéed kale, guacamole, roasted baby yams and shaved turkey breast. Could it be any more American? Egg white omelettes and turkey breast first came to my attention thanks to a plethora of television sitcoms. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen them on a menu in Melbourne. Unfortunately the tea was truly American in style also – tepid dish water. Thankfully, I brought a stash of real tea bags with me from home. These will have to be rationed out over the next month. Americans may start their day with coffee but I’m a cup of tea girl all the way. I’m not pretty without my cup of tea. America and Australia may well have been colonised by Britain, but the tea has an altogether different standing in Australia than in America. I’ve visited the USA three times and rarely have a found a kettle, electric or otherwise, in a hotel room.
Steve always sits behind the driver as the English gentleman in him won’t allow me to get in the car on the road side and naturally as a lady I can’t be expected to scoot over. I allow him these indulgences, quieting my inner rabid feminist. From my position in the rear passenger seat I get the perfect observation point on our Uber driver. Burgundy check shorts and a ‘limp from years of washing’ indistinct logo t-shirt. Bob Dylan’s version of ‘House of the Rising Sun’ plays too loudly on the radio.
And so begins our trip up the west coast of America. For the next month, Steve and I travel up the west coast, fly across the top stopping in Chicago before landing in New York then down to New Orleans and back west to San Diego.
Eagerly embracing the new disruptive paradigms of Airbnb and Uber, we tasted a previously hidden or hard-to-find version of America. Staying with an American version of my great aunt and uncle in Bend, Oregon and an ageing Mills-and-Boons’-cover-model-turned-bar-owner in New York City, we meet many entertaining people who opened up their cars and homes to us. Uber drivers in exchange for pieces of gold, similarly opened up their private space to strangers from a foreign land. Unable to retreat to a distant room, our Uber host must find their own space within the metal cage.
How long you been doing this?
Steve always starts the same way. He doesn’t actually really care how long you’ve been working your car for Uber or been driving that day. It’s a hook to hang the rest of the conversation on. It turns out our driver today is named Diogenes. The app tells us so. Diogenes himself doesn’t actually tell us much at all. The fourteen and a half miles over twenty-eight minutes costs a total of $30.17 which includes a surcharge of $2.00 for pick up at the San Francisco airport. When you submit yourself to a taxi in a foreign country, there is a fair degree of trust involved. Ubers take this one step further. A private company with little external regulation, car sharing is just one part of a new society we are figuring out as we build it.
San Francisco, CA – Friday 19th August
395 Hayes St, San Francisco, CA 94102, USA
TRIP TIME 00:07:41
FARE BREAKDOWN Trip fare 9.61
Driver – Antonio
San Francisco may well be my new favourite city. The weather is nicely temperate; there’s a cool breeze off the water which means walking around isn’t over heating us. Steve has a tendency to get sweaty easily which means he’s reluctant to do too much walking. I love walking around a new city as its such a great way to get to know a place at ground level. The slow pace allows me to peek into stores and eaves-dropping is unavoidable. The pavements are dirtier than I’m used to. Lots of chewing gum is stuck to the surface and I feel the need to remove my shoes the moment we step in from outside. It’s summer and I’m wearing sandals so my skin is too close to this filth for my ease.
Although this day may be slotted for art viewing, our brewcation is not taking a back seat. After a coffee and bagel earlier, our first stop is Mikkeller bar in a seedy area known as the Tenderloin. Drug deals and sex workers aside, theatres and dive bars sit side by side and I’m sure it all looks shinier when lit by neon at night. With Uber Antonio dropping us right at the bar’s door, it wasn’t long before Steve has an oatmeal coffee stout in hand. I choose a lingonberry-flavoured sour.
Soon enough we have a couple of brews under our belt and it is only a few blocks’ walk to the art. As a visual artist, the art museum in every town we visit is usually on my list. San Francisco is no different. Steve is trained for this by now. I think he secretly appreciates a respite from the heat and sun as well as a chance to sit where he can. Before we even get to step inside a gallery, we come across two people perched on makeshift stools at a fold-out table offering poems for sale.
I can’t resist. After a short conversation, Devon starts tapping away at his vintage typewriter to produce a bespoke poem for Steve and I.
There’s winter left
so so have we, we’ve
traversed meridians, both in our minds and globally, taken to
the air, decided to discover
the new lense(sic) of a new street or two
From Winter Left by Devon Kingsford August 2016
Ten US dollars later, I tuck my personal poem in my notebook and we head through the large glass doors and into the expansive light-filled atrium. With admission tickets purchased, the pressing job is to decide where to begin in the seven levels of galleries.
As both daughters are also studying art, my camera is rarely out of my hand as I snap images and artist details to send to them later. There is so much great American art but one that really connects with me is a piece by the artist Chuck Close. He makes large portrait paintings in which he lays down a unifying grid then adding circles and other shapes of varying colours. This has the effect of pixelating the image and slightly abstracting an otherwise straightforward head portrait. I remember loving his work at The Met in New York City and this was a chance to share it with Steve.
But how can you share art with someone? A person’s response to a piece of art is just that – their response. It is also tied to a particular time and place. If this was the first time I had seen Close’s work, would I even feel moved by it? That’s a question without an answer. It was on a visit to New York five years prior. I can recall seeing the painting in The Met as I entered a contemporary art gallery and it was on a far wall. Initially, it was just a large painting of a man’s face. Only as I walked towards it (or is it more accurate to say pulled towards it?) did the gridded abstraction technique make itself clear. It was a hot summer day in New York City when my then-partner and I decided to spend the bulk of the day in The Metropolitan Museum of Art and Central Park to which it abuts. The bright sun was unrelenting with heat radiating off the brick and concrete all around us. So it was that the lush dark green and cool shadows of the park called.
After a slow stroll through the park and a snow cone replete with lurid red flavouring, we joined the throng climbing the steps from Fifth Avenue to enter the museum. Immediately, the visitor finds themselves in a vast multi-story foyer, light streaming in, wide arches and dome that in itself makes you draw breath. I’m sure I spied Close’s piece just as I had started to reach overload. It’s that point when nothing starts to make a connection and you find yourself walking past more than you stop at.
And make me stop it did. I rushed past the adjoining walls, seeing only the painting in front of me and there I stayed for a long time. Standing, watching, observing others as they barely glanced at this masterpiece. I stood back and I stood close. I didn’t want to leave it but once I did I knew I was done for the day. Nothing else would matter now. How do I share that with another person?
So goodbye to Chuck Close, my tired feet and swollen ankles signalling the end of art appreciation for the day and the start of the evening’s entertainment. Another Uber to our dining establishment is both welcome and needed. A fortuitous meeting the day prior has lead to a masterclass of American west coast wines pre-dinner at the restaurant’s bar.
Local Kitchen & Wine 330 1st St #1, San Francisco, CA 94105
Spicy smoked chicken nuggets unlike Ronald McDonald has known with a green goddess dressing, all herby and zesty cutting through the fried protein.
Roasted Brussel sprouts with a mustard vinaigrette, slightly charred on the outside and meltingly soft inside
Wood fired pizza with hot pepperoni, pork and fennel sausage, fresh goats cheese , cherry and San Marzano tomatoes with generous slabs of buffalo mozzarella.
Olive oil semi-freddo accompanied by char-grilled, perfectly ripe Californian peaches and a sweet Saba vinegar.
After my spontaneous American wine masterclass, we opted for a wallet-lightening Chateau Montelena 2013 Zinfandel. By dessert, we were ready for a glass or two of 20 year-old Tokaji – sweet without being cloying.
San Francisco, CA to Mendocino, CA – Saturday 20th August
During our three days in San Francisco, I had tried and failed to light the gas stove so I could boil some water for tea. There’s no point saying I should go out to Starbucks to buy tea. I need tea as I’m pottering around getting ready in the morning. This is a non-negotiable. On our final morning in my new favourite city of San Francisco, I woke early and sat on the mustard velvet love seat peering out the bay window. While the world went about its workday morning business, I curled up and caught up on my journal writing. I decided to take one last go at lighting the mid-century stove in our eclectic Airbnb.
Our host is a photographer and the apartment reflects his visual aesthetic. Visual vignettes are everywhere. An over-sized glass candy jar filled with fluorescent-yellow foam ear plugs graces the bedside table. 1960s postcards decorate the table lamps perched on the triangular tables twinning the loveseat. A wooden artist mannequin resuscitates a polymer cockroach. There’s a fine line between art installation and amenity in our second floor Oak Street apartment.
With the stove finally conquered, I realise I need to go out hunter-gathering for milk. Americans may like their tea floral, black and insipid but I like mine strong and milky. Coffee here in America is filter coffee with creamer. Creamer is a bizarre concoction of corn syrup solids with hydrogenated soybean or cottonseed oil and white powder thrown in to make it acceptable. Espresso is yet to take strong hold.
So out I trek to find somewhere to buy milk. I aim for a service station or convenience store thinking that will be my best bet. A block west and half a block north and I find two service stations opposite each other. Things are looking positive. As I stand on the street corner waiting for the lights to change, I pull my jacket tight around me to guard against the chilly early morning wind. Unmarked white buses pull up just prior to the intersection and collect a small number of people I’ve just noticed gathering. Later, I discover this is a common practice to bus staff out of town to large corporate estates.
As I enter the store, I head towards the fridge I see at the rear. There’s no familiarity with the bottles I see on the shelves. Out of the way, I manage to decipher images and words to find plain, unflavoured milk. It would have been easier to buy soft drink, sports drink, juice or even bottled water than milk. America clearly isn’t a strong dairy culture, regardless of the cartons of milk I remember seeing children drinking on television. Like a conqueror, I return home successfully and provide caffeinated beverages to prepare us for a long drive to Mendocino north along the Californian coast, the Pacific Ocean at our side.
955 Oak St, San Francisco, CA 94117, USA
TRIP TIME 00:19:44
FARE BREAKDOWN Trip fare $35.11
Driver – Tommy
We get dropped off at the Europe car rental section of the San Francisco airport. Staying close to our luggage, we take our place in the queue which snakes across communal foyer. The vibrant carpet no doubt hiding all manner of stains. Finally, international licenses in hand it is our turn and we stand at the long counter. At five feet tall, I’m not tall enough to lean on the top of the reception counter and yet somehow seated the rental sales person still manages to look down on me. The psychology of sales is not lost on me.
After negotiating our exit from the car park maze, we can begin the self-guided drive portion of our journey. Across the Golden Gate Bridge which this morning is shrouded in fog and we finally start to move away from the tourist traffic and put some miles under our belt. All too soon though it’s time for our first pit stop at Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma. Our American brewcation was Excel spreadsheeted to the hour by Steve, so we manage to avoid the heaving crowds by turning up as they open at 11am. A tasting paddle of their brewery-only beers and a soft pretzel with beer cheese sauce is a fine late breakfast.
Four days of self-driving through Northern California and Oregon dictate that designated-driver Steve is on strictly limited tastings only. California has a legal blood alcohol concentration of 0.8%. While this is higher than what we are used to, the craft beers we are tasting range up towards wine level of 12% ABV (alcohol by volume). The craft breweries we have planned to visit offer all manner of beers from simple west coast IPAs through to barrel-aged stouts. Thankfully, every place offers small tasting paddles.
I’ve offered to drive more than once but Steve definitely prefers to be in control. I don’t think he likes being a passenger, in any sense of the word. I’m trying to avoid leaving nail marks in the door upholstery. Why is it that each corner delivers an RV travelling too fast and too close to the centreline?
Along the pilgrimage route is Russian River Brew Company. These legendary craft beers are difficult to get anywhere in Australia. If we had wanted to sample beers from their bar, the wait line was over an hour. Instead, we opt for takeaways from their bottle shop which requires only a 20 minute wait in the noonday sun. We buy their legendary Pliny the Elder which is a Double India Pale Ale that is not only rare in Australia but also overpriced at AU$50 for a standard 500 ml bottle. Much lauded as the ideal DIPA, it regularly receives 95% and higher on beer ratings websites. What do we think we finally get to taste it hours later? Meh; it’s nice but it is nothing more than a well-balanced, bitter fresh ale in the manner of west coast ales with loads of citrus and pine.
We also snag their available barrel aged beers -the Supplication brown ale aged in Pinot Noir barrels with sour cherries, the Temptation blonde ale aged in Chardonnay barrels and the Consecration ale aged in Cabernet barrels. The Supplication is funky thanks to the added yeast and bacteria and nicely tart from the sour cherries. It’s my kind of beer. The Temptation is buttery and slightly oaky with its time hanging out with the Chardonnay barrel. The Consecration is the youngest of the barrel aged beers but is satisfyingly full bodied with hints of chocolate and spice. At 10% ABV, this is our sipper beer that ends up rounding out our evening.
Before we can get to any of that though we need to complete our allotted day’s brewery visits. Next up we have Anderson Valley Brewery in Boonville, CA. It’s after 3pm by the time we arrive and the dry dusty fields that serve as their car park are full of tents and inebriated campers. Turns out, we’ve happened upon their annual Disc Golf Championship weekend, though we never actually witness the event in action. Essentially a competitive frisbee round-robin, Disc Golf, as we soon discover, has a strong craft beer drinking participation in the west of the United States.
We easily locate the taproom by the steady stream of shoeless people trudging towards an unsigned shed. Now, I know Anderson Valley beers from buying them overpriced from our fabulous bar/bottle shop near our house. Their tart thirst-quenching Briny Melon Gose is a go-to for my summer drinking. Salt and watermelon? What’s not to love about that in a beer. Cans and bottles of Dreef Fooper IPA, Boone Amber Ale, Anderson Valley Wild Turkey Bourbon Barrel Stout, and Blood Orange Gose find their way into our cooler. Two litre Growlers and six-packs fill the hands of campers as they stock up and make their way back to their camps, like ants filling the home stores.
Just before we get to Mendocino where we are to stay for the evening, we stop in the town of Little River and buy some snacks for dinner from the only store in town. Its dark weathered exterior nestles into the grey green cliff side, white breakers relentless below. Inside is a bustling well-stocked convenience store that sells bait, beer, groceries and hot food. Crackers, some cured meats, cheese. Earlier we bought ourselves a cooler box so we would have cold beer with us at each destination.
Sitting on a damp garden bench, my bare feet push into the humus rich earth beneath them. Though low clouds have rolled in from the Pacific Ocean hiding the tops of the dark redwoods in their misty skirts, the sky beyond is still bright. Our tiny log cabin is marginally larger than our queen sized bed. An electric kettle, for which I’m grateful, sits upon the mini-fridge. Gathering what we need for the evening from the boot of our rental vehicle (an oversized SUV), I’m eager to simultaneously flop onto the bed with its soft, white linen and explore my surrounds.
The main house is quaint, pale yellow weatherboards and dark grey slate roof. Chooks roam free everywhere except the fenced off vegetable garden. The host family – mum, dad, five year old daughter, eight and eighteen year old sons – are tucked up inside going about their evening routines. I can hear no cars, no airplanes. It’s odd – this loud silence, almost unnerving. The sound of my pencil rustling against the paper is louder than the birds in the woods that surround me.
Eureka, CA to Elkton, OR – Monday 22nd August
A misty morning in the marina at Eureka gave way to sunny clear skies as we headed inland. Each afternoon while travelling along the Northern Californian coast, a gothic fog rolls in from the Pacific Ocean. Cutting off the outside world the mist hangs low among the bobbing boats, the tips of their masts disappearing above. The American Gothic genre is finally beginning to make sense to me.
Eureka is a working fishing town with a sprawling marina sheltered behind Woodley island nature reserve. And as such the town is just another typical non-tourist town. No photo-worthy vistas are presented just street upon street of retail, light industrial and residential use. Breakfast had to be at The Chalet House of Omelettes, which we spied on our way into town the previous afternoon. Its laced lined windows, blue paint trim and over-sized slate tile roof helps it stand proud in a large asphalt car park. After a few days driving on the other side of the road, turning into driveways still challenges Steve with his car positioning and more than once we have stopped halfway only to let an exasperated driver manoeuvre around us, shaking his head and no doubt cursing loudly.
An extensive laminated menu is handed to us upon our seating and coffee poured without asking. Additionally, decorated chalkboard menus above the counter spruik today’s, and possibly yesterday’s and tomorrow’s, specials. Wall space was taken up with more menu exposition, photos of local celebrities and historical images. They needn’t have bothered with the cottage-style striped wallpaper or plywood panelling.
Opting for a plate of biscuits and gravy to tick that off my to-eat list, Steve chose scrambled eggs with country sausage (a seasoned mince patty) and a hash brown that I’m sure was half the size of his face. To decode biscuits and gravy, you need to realise that it is not a biscuit as in a cookie and nor is it a meat juices based reduction. American biscuits are a version of a scone with no sugar and not necessarily as light and fluffy as you would want with cream and jam. The gravy portion is a white, roux-based sauce that hopefully has cream added for richness. It may or may not come with seasoned ground meat through it. The better ones do as it gives you a reason to eat the dish.
I have made this dish at home a year or two prior to my travels. I browned ground pork with fennel, garlic powder and onion powder as per my American cousins like to use, paprika, parsley, salt and pepper then drained off excess fat. Adding this to a basic white sauce made with heavy cream and serving with fresh biscuits/scones and I can see the appeal. My biscuits and gravy at The Chalet house of Omelettes, however, was not appealing.
So we hit the road resolving to stop somewhere along the way for second breakfast.
‘You don’t do road trips well, do you?’ Steve proposes about an hour into our morning drive.
Reaching forward to turn down the podcast we are streaming through the car stereo, ‘Why do you say that?’ I ask, genuinely curious.
‘Well you don’t seem to want to stop much. We’ve missed two things already this morning.’
‘I don’t like crowds and stopping to take a picture of the largest redwood along with fifty other people doesn’t really do it for me.’ I’m not sure what more to say. I’m rarely attracted to the things that other tourists are drawn towards. I’m not interested in the Grand Canyon, the 911 memorial or Disneyland.It’s the Queen Anne style house, painted murky green on a hill overlooking the Eureka marina that I am drawn towards. It’s the discovering of something unexpected and unearthing its story that most delights me. The Carson mansion built in 1884 looks like it has come direct from Disney Haunted Houses 101.
The Denny’s restaurant we decide to stop at in Crescent City shares a car park with a bridal and a gun store. This is the America I came to experience. The sum of our experience is made up of the deliberately sought and the accidentally found. A slice of chocolate caramel pie for Steve and bacon cheddar tater tots with a side of jalapeño honey bacon for me.
Back in the car and more of Mark Maron interviewing other celebrities is our slightly aggressive soundtrack for the afternoon drive as we press on into Oregon. Almost immediately the quality of the roads change. Yes, we saw the state line signs to alert us that we were leaving California and entering Oregon but I would’ve known some border had been crossed. The roads change altogether. The lanes get wider with large cleared shoulders on each side, the asphalt becomes smoother providing less road noise inside the vehicle which had the effect of amping up Mark Maron’s verbal attacks. Tall lush green redwoods no longer loom over us.
At first, we think the change might be temporary but it isn’t. While I can’t definitively declare, I believe the state tax on the now-legalised cannabis industry has been pumped back into state infrastructure. It is a conversation I bring a few days later with Uber driver Jaimie. He confirms that the state government is enjoying a new found wealth thanks to the booming legal cannabis industry.