Swimming Pools, Movie Stars

So, things were pretty peachy once I arrived in California after my epic trek westward…

Truth is, this is just some beautiful home on the bi-weekly route of the landscaping company that hired me to prune, rake, pull weeds, haul mulch and drown slugs on stately properties throughout Marin County. As I knew that the work day would end here and the owners would not be home, I washed the car the evening before and packed the camera.

Photo taken in 1991 on (the short-lived) Kodak Ektar 125 film.

The 25th Day of December

My personal favorite? 1990. I had just moved to California eight weeks earlier. Didn’t have a job, an apartment or any friends upon arrival; I found those first two items in short order. The friends came later, but I was never one to sit at home due to a lack of someone to hang with, and I quickly launched a program of solo excursions exploring the beauty of the Marin County coast.

A year earlier, the Loma Prieta earthquake took a big bite out of the hillside just south of Stinson Beach, dragging a large chunk of Highway 1 into the sea. The scar is still visible today on aerial views.

The area was fenced off for a long time (over two years, I believe) during the lengthy reconstruction process. The northern gate was located near the far left edge of this map. This provided a perfect spot to park the Pontiac and roam the coastal trails, free from the noise of traffic…nothing but the sounds of birds, surf and the wind. I’d often see a few other hikers in the area, but on that Christmas day, I had the whole playground to myself.

One of my favorite spots was along that ridge you see to the northwest of Gull Rock. There is a giant slab of stone that sticks straight out of the hillside like a snake’s head.

This is a nice spot for sunbathing or meditation. I enjoyed stretching out on the cool, hard rock and staring at birds soaring on the breeze and listening to the waves crashing below. It also afforded a great view of the construction area, and during work hours, I would watch the bulldozers launch truck-size boulders on a long bouncing trek down the hillside (they seemed to be moving in slow motion), ending in a titanic, silent splash in the cold water.

The weather for this holiday visit was sunny with a nice sea breeze and a temp in the mid-50s. From the snake’s head, I spent a good amount of time working my way down to the rocks at the water’s edge…

…and then moving back up another section of the cliffs; rinse, repeat. Not technical climbing by any means, just scrambling, but the faces were fairly steep and demanded careful navigation.

The crown jewel of the area is a tiny, beautiful crescent of a beach and a cove (bottom center of map) located where Lone Tree Creek empties into the Pacific.

The “trail” to reach this wonderful stretch of sand is a precipitous little adventure clogged with large rocks, scrub and poison oak and it begins right at that “1” symbol on the map.

Due in no small part to the lack of a proper trail to this beach, I never saw any other people there during my many visits. It really is a fantastic spot to have all to yourself and it was always part of my itinerary when I’d leave my apartment on Carl Street and drive to the coast.

Once the sun got low, I walked backed up the silent highway to the Pontiac, loaded a CD (something appropriate for the mood and the scenery) into the boom box in the back seat, sat on the hood of the car with my back against the windshield and watched the sun blaze into the briny blue.

At this point, the mood for food came on with authority, so it was back over the Golden Gate and into Chinatown, which was fully open for business and fairly packed. I found a table and ordered a big dish of beef chow mein.

As for this particular slice of California, it’s been more than twenty years since I saw it last. Perhaps it looks quite different today, perhaps not. Stop by if you’re in the area and tell me what you see.

Note: These photos were shot on Ektachrome film with the only working camera I owned at the time, my grandfather’s vintage Argus C3 rangefinder, along with a handheld Weston Master II exposure meter.

The Return

Ragtop full of holes, floorboard full of holes, clothes full of holes. It was a cold ride over California’s high country in April of 1992. Here I am shivering atop the Sierras during my final hours in the Golden State, as I made the long drive eastward to relocate in the Midwest.

Even though I was pulling a heavy load behind a car that wasn’t designed for towing, I wanted to bask in the wonder of western vistas once again, as I did outbound two years earlier. So I improvised a leisurely and circuitous course to my destination, staying on two-lane highways for the greater part of the journey. From Marin County, I took the scenic route over the mountains to Minden, Nevada, where I began the beautiful drive to Lone Pine, California, down US 395. Then came Death Valley, Las Vegas, Zion National Park, the Grand Canyon, Flagstaff, Winslow, Albuquerque, Santa Fe, Boise City (having never been to Oklahoma, I wanted to cross it off the list), Amarillo, Lubbock, Abilene, Austin, Houston, New Orleans (where I purchased a pair of carryout frozen daiquiris), Biloxi (where I got bombed on said daiquiris and watched a seagull steal my gas-station cheeseburger that was thawing on the beach towel), then northward to home.

East of the Sierras, somewhere along Highway 395…

I was under the impression that I had no photos of the Pontiac with the U-Haul trailer attached. But as I was looking through my old negatives recently, I discovered two such frames (and there’s my motivation for posting this story). Here is the first shot—pausing for a look at the road ahead as I prepared to cross the Panamint Valley

The other photo of the trailer, taken in Winslow, Arizona…

In the image above, the LeMans is parked at the corner of 1st and Kinsley. I was setting up for this shot…

Standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona

After Winslow, I didn’t use the camera again on this trip, though there was still plenty to see and plenty to enjoy. One of the most powerful and memorable moments occurred late the following night in the vast emptiness of western Texas. It was a calm, moonless night and the air temperature was perfect for driving. There were no other vehicles within sight, no houses, no towns. The darkness was impressive, but not complete. Brilliant starlight was beaming down through that crystal clear Texas sky—starlight that was bright enough to reveal the landscape around me, bright enough to drive by. I turned off my headlights for several seconds to prove the point. It was a sublime experience, paired with a wonderful sensation of solitude.

Kodak Tri-X film
Kodak T-MAX 100 film

Grain Beats Pixels

Before cell phones were smart, and before I owned a DSLR, I carried one of those crude pocket digital cameras; you remember…the kind with a max resolution of 640 x 480. Found the shot above, featuring my dad’s Stetson hat, in my archive.

Below: same car, different hat. Once I found that old digital image, I remembered this frame in my negative library. Love the grain on this 3200 film. As far as I can tell, this is the first self-portrait I ever shot with the LeMans…probably less than a year after I purchased it. Parked here between Highway 1 and a seaside cliff, the Pacific booming right below me. This spot is just a short walk from my favorite coastal hiking ground, as described in this post.

Kodak T-MAX P3200 film

Marin County, California



Carl’s Big Adventure

The year was 1990…


And this was a once-in-a-lifetime journey—the kind of thing you can get away with when you’re in your twenties and have no responsibilities. Having just completed my military service and with a fresh B.A. in my pocket, I grew my hair, sold most of my junk and moved to California; no job and no place to live lined up beforehand, not even any friends in the Golden State at the time. I’d worry about those things when I got there.

Since there was no schedule to keep, I decided to make the trip even more memorable by taking an extremely indirect and unplanned route…a route that, in the end, would tally over 7000 miles and 17 states, plus British Columbia; most of these places, I had never visited before.

My contempt for interstate highways was well ingrained by this time, so I avoided them for the vast majority of the trip, except at the very end, when I was quite road weary and the sky was wet. In addition to the small highways I favored, I was able to crank out many miles on gravel and dirt roads, took some ferry rides through the bayou country and got to drive down a few Gulf Coast beaches.

All of this in a 1969 Pontiac LeMans convertible which I had purchased for $1500 in cash just four months earlier and which had no shortage of potentially troublesome body and mechanical issues. Surprisingly, the entire journey was completed without a single breakdown…not even a flat tire.

Great driving weather for almost the entire route; no rain until I hit Vancouver and Seattle. The extremes ran from blazing heat with clouds of locusts in western Texas to snow covered roads high in the Montana sky.

I did stay in motels occasionally, and also with some friends along the way, but I’d often just park in a quiet spot in the wilderness and sleep in the car, or in a hammock when there were trees available. The most painful moment of the journey was the “shower” I took in a coin-operated car wash in Texas.

Knowing that this trip would be a visual smörgåsbord, I wanted to thoroughly document the experience. Since GoPro technology did not yet exist, I took my big ol’ 1987 Quasar full-size VHS camcorder (with wired remote control), stuck it to a hefty industrial-strength tripod head, and, in a display of DIY engineering that would make any backyard mechanic proud, I crafted a few mounting brackets that would allow the camera to be secured to the top of the windshield, the passenger door and the trunk. A little shaky and certainly not up to Hollywood standards, but it worked. Of course, I added plenty of tripod-on-the-side-of-the-road shots to complete the bigger picture (glad I went to the trouble…my 35mm SLR died three days out).

So, I’m the proud owner of 14 hours worth of vintage, raw VHS video, which is decaying and growing more brittle by the hour. A few years ago, I finally worked up the gumption to edit and post the first chapter of the saga, which takes us as far as New Orleans. I’ll post links to subsequent chapters if and when they become available, but no promises on how long it will take to complete this series; I’m easily distracted by my current projects.

Here’s Chapter 1.

View the video on Vimeo.com