Tag Archive | California road trip

California Marathon Road Trip: Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

In an attempt to get me to California again after I told Jon that our next trip would not be in Cali, he signed up to run his first ever full marathon on December 8th.  The California International Marathon.  In California.  But with those sweet puppy dog eyes and his desire to do the run where the weather was warmer, and where he lived for a few years, how could I say no?  Yes, I’m a sucker…

So off we went.  As is usual on our road trips, we headed out directly after work the first evening to get a jump on the drive.  The first night’s drive was to Eugene, and there was a risk of snow.  Luckily, it held off, and we spent the night in Eugene under cloudy, 17 degree skies.  We got up early – before 6!, after arriving just before midnight and getting only about 5 hours sleep.  Next up, the drive from Eugene to Sacramento.  We got on the road just after 7 – after scraping all the windows and spending several minutes warming up the car.  The Siskyous awaited.  Of mountain passes, the Siskyous can be treacherous in snow, with the highest elevation at 4610 feet!  Fortunately, we passed through bare and mostly dry roads, with only a light dusting of snow on the ground at the edge of the road.  We heard that Eugene got 7 inches of snow later that day – so we certainly lucked out…

Not much snow on Mount Shasta, December 5, 2013

Not much snow on Mount Shasta, December 5, 2013

The rest of the drive was uneventful, with us enjoying a few of the vantage points along the way, and a quick stop for a lunch at Subway.  Then we made our way to just outside of Willows, California.  Willows is home to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge.  I had read about it on the internet, and saw that December and January are the peak season for the refuge, when it has the highest numbers of migrating birds for the winter.  Jon wasn’t as excited about the refuge, mostly because it is about 75 miles north of Sacramento, and he was envisioning driving all the way back to the refuge after we had already arrived in Sacramento.  When I told him we could stop on the way down (assuming the drive didn’t take too long), he checked out their website and got a bit more intrigued.

For a little history, the area where the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge sits was once known as the Colusa Plains, a windswept plain with short grasses and shrubs.  However, much of the area in Sacramento and immediately surrounding it was a wetland delta.  It would flood in the winter, and dry out in the summer.  That makes for extremely fertile soil, with all the nutrients which are deposited there during the seasonal floods.   Before the turn of the last century, settlers began damming the creeks and rivers to prevent the delta from flooding.  By the 1930s, the landscape had been dramatically altered.

154 (2)

Red Tailed Hawk Checking Us Out

The Emergency Conservation Fund Act of 1933 was tasked with providing habitat and breeding areas for migratory birds, because so much of the original wetland areas had been lost to agriculture.  Bring in the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, who set to work creating this area of now federally protected land, using bulldozers and shovels to artificially create a delta.  The flooding is mechanically induced each season, with a series of pipes and valves releasing water from the river into the delta.

Out for an afternoon stroll

Ring Necked Pheasant – Out for an afternoon stroll

The Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge is part of a complex of five different refuges, and three Wildlife Management Areas that are administered together by the U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife.  Admission is $6 to the refuge for the day, or an annual pass is a steal at $12 – the other refuges in the complex have no admission fees.

Butts Up Everybody!

Butts Up Everybody!

The birds don’t care whether the flooding is natural or man-made.  They have flocked back to the area over the years, with MILLIONS of ducks and geese, songbirds and hawks overwintering here.  There is a 2 mile walking tour, where the birds were not hanging out the day of our visit; but we did see muskrats (or otters, not sure which), some mallards, deer, and Jon saw a jackrabbit.    There is also a 6 mile driving tour, which you can do at your own pace.  The day we were there, there were only three other cars, so we mostly felt that we were entirely alone.  They will even loan you binoculars at the visitor’s center (we brought our own).

Red Winged Blackbird

Red Winged Blackbird

In a word, we were awestruck – the sheer numbers of birds on the marsh, feeding, sleeping, preening and occasionally taking flight, was spectacular.  We saw hawks watching birds, and even saw a hawk with a kill (he was a bit too far away to see what he had though).  We saw great egrets hunting, deer wading in the water for better feeding grounds, and we even saw two ring necked pheasants.  This is easily a few of the best hours I have spent in my life.

Great Egret

Great Egret

Getting in a Scratch While Crossing the Delta

Getting in a Scratch While Crossing the Delta

We watched one of the most beautiful sunsets I have ever seen, and then continued on our way to Sacramento.   And almost a month later, Jon is still saying this is one of the best experiences he has ever had, so if you can, GO.

The Sunset at the Refuge was Fantastic

The Sunset at the Refuge was Fantastic

Farewell from the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Farewell from the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge

Farewell to Another Year – See you later 2013!

And just like that, another year has flown by and it is time for another annual recap.  The top 10 for another (mostly) great year in chronological order, rather than order of importance, are:

1. Jon and I took our first trip to Walla Walla wine country, after Jon ran his 3rd half marathon in Richland, WA.  He placed 3rd in his age division and 11th overall!  We had some great food, great wine, and visited the Whitman Mission National Historic Site.

2.  My dear sweet bitchy kitty Martini went home to the angels after losing her battle with lymphoma on March 1.  I’ll never know how old she was, but I will always remember the nine years I got to spend with her.  And unless you are Oliver, to know her was to love her…

3.  Jon and I took a fantastic road trip to California, down the coast through the Redwoods, the Anderson Valley wine country, San Francisco, Monterey and finally Sacramento.  We saw huge trees, big elk, lighthouses, one of the world’s most awesome paintings, and we ate great food, tasted great wine, and saw great views.  And I puked.  Several times.  Ten days and almost 2,500 miles later, we came home exhausted and thoroughly spent, but happy and with memories to last a lifetime.

4.  On April 20, this sucker for a cute baby brought home sweet Coraline, a six month old kitten who was brought to my vet’s office after being dumped on a farm.  She doesn’t have a mean bone in her body, but she does love her kibble.

5.  I got to indulge my inner nerd in June with a trip to Antiques Roadshow in Boise!  We didn’t make it on the show, but if you are interested in watching other people from the Northwest, the 3 hours are airing on January 6, January 13, and January 20 (who knows, maybe the back of my head will be on!).  Although we can’t fund our retirement by selling our treasures, we had a blast, and had a great time seeing the Old Idaho Penitentiary and the World Center for Birds of Prey.

6.  I completed my fourth (on September 1 in wine country!) and fifth (on October 5 at home for a great cause!) half marathons.  Next year, I will have several friends testing their resolve with me!

7.  Jon and I enjoyed a weekend trip to Olympic National Park, where we hiked in the Hoh Rain Forest and listened to the crashing waves of Rialto Beach.  Although Hurricane Ridge gave us the finger with a huge downpour, we’ll be back to see those views.

8.  I had a scare with my horse Biz, who had a scary bout with colic after his most recent dental x-rays.  At 26 years old, I am aware that my remaining time with him… well… you know…

9.  Jon and I welcomed our newest nephew on November 13 (that makes two nieces and two nephews now!).  He is sweet and perfect and cuddly.  His parents love him dearly (at least until he starts talking back).

10.  Jon finished his first full marathon on December 8, in Sacramento, California.  I got a trip to California out of the deal (no more trips to California Jon!), where I got to visit the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, the Governor’s Mansion, and the John Muir National Historic Site.  Posts on the trip coming soon, I swear!

This annual recap reminds me of how truly blessed we are to live the life we do.  We are surrounded by awesome friends and family, loving animals, and we are lucky to have the freedom to enjoy our travels to wonderful places.  Although there are always the highs and lows, I am thankful that there are many more highs…  I hope you have all been blessed by 2013, and that all your dreams come true in 2014.  So bye, bye 2013 – you have been good to me!

California Road Trip: The Long Road Home

Sadly, any good vacation must come to an end, and we were at the end of our California Road Trip.  We loved the scenery, we loved the things we saw and experienced, and I think we managed to pack a lot into it!  The summary of what we did:

Other notable stats include:

  • seven different hotels
  • 2,492 miles driven
  • two times driving around the same blocks in San Francisco while trying to find the parking garage
  • one fight about the San Francisco traffic
  • one killer bike fell off a car in front of us on the freeway
  • ten bottles of wine made it home with us (I thought that showed a lot of restraint!)
  • 2,476,983 bugs lost their lives on our windshield, grille and mirrors
  • Six – the number of times I vomited, in two different towns
Mount Shasta From the Car Window

Mount Shasta From the Car Window

Jon and I had a fabulous time, and we managed to make the long, boring drive home from Sacramento in one long, boring, exhausting, marathon of a day.  The drive without any stops is about 11 hours – we only stopped for gas, food and bathroom breaks.  We did run into heavy traffic in all the usual places – Tacoma, Seattle and Everett (a complete stop in Everett due to a car accident) – but otherwise it was smooth sailing the whole way.  We made it in about 13 hours.  The non-stop drive made for some sore, stiff bodies the next day, but thankfully we had a day to do some laundry and get some rest before we had to go back to work!  And Oliver and Oscar were so happy to see us!

I Don't Condone This - But This Guy Did Look Like He Was Enjoying Himself!

I Don’t Condone This – But This Guy Did Look Like He Was Enjoying Himself!

If you want to go back and read from the beginning of the trip – of course you do!  I can’t wait for the next trip – for now we are saving and planning until we can make it happen!

California Road Trip: Leland Stanford Mansion

Our very last tourist activity of our California Road Trip was visiting the Leland Stanford Mansion.  It is in downtown Sacramento, surrounded by commercial buildings and concrete.  It looks a bit out of place, to be honest… but it wasn’t always that way.  The two photos below, show the Mansion as it really looks, directly in front of a gigantic glass and steel office building – and the photoshopped Mansion postcard that you can purchase in the gift shop…  (I didn’t take photos inside, so I have scanned some of the postcards I purchased for interior shots.)

The Leland Stanford Mansion - Built 1856-1857 - Second Empire Architectural Style The Home Today Without the Commercial Building Photoshopped Out

The Leland Stanford Mansion – Built 1856-1857 – Second Empire Architectural Style
The Home Today Without the Commercial Building Photoshopped Out

The Leland Stanford Mansion Postcard - Country Setting

The Leland Stanford Mansion Postcard – Country Setting

Leland Stanford was born to a successful farmer in New York in 1824.  He studied law and was admitted to the bar, and then like so many others of the period, he moved west.  To Port Washington, Wisconsin.  In 1850 he married Jane Lathrop and they settled in together, but unfortunately, his law office and his entire collection of law books was destroyed in 1852.  Why is all this important?  Well, because after the fire he decided to follow his five brothers to California, where he discovered that he loved the hustle and bustle of the Gold Rush and was quite successful operating a store selling supplies to miners.  Shortly after, he and several other businessmen pooled their resources and founded the Central Pacific Railroad, and Stanford was named President of the company.

In 1861, Stanford ran for California Governor and was elected to a two-year term.  In the grand scheme of things, he really wasn’t Governor for very long… In 1868, while the Central Pacific Railroad was under construction, Stanford and his buddies created the Union Express Company, which merged with Wells Fargo and Company (you know the express company which delivered money and mail…) and they they managed to acquire control of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which Stanford became President of.

If all this robber baron finagling is confusing, no worries, because what you really just need to know is that a) this guy played a big part in the railroads to the West Coast, and b) as the President of the Central Pacific Railroad, he got to drive the ceremonial last spike at Promontory Utah, where the Central Pacific Railroad met the Union Pacific Railroad.  Talk about something to tell your grandkids!

But sadly, he never got to tell that story to any grandchildren, because Leland and Jane’s only child, a son named Leland, Jr., died of typhoid fever while traveling with his parents in Italy in 1884.  As a result of the death of their only child, Leland Stanford decided that if he would not have the opportunity to educate his own child, then he would educate other children.  He set up an endowment that created a university that perhaps you have heard of: Stanford University in Palo Alto.  The University was named for Leland, Jr.

But the mansion, you ask…  The mansion was built between 1856 and 1857 by Shelton C. Fogus.  It wasn’t quite a mansion at that time – only 4,000 square feet.  The Stanford’s remodel of the home between 1871 and 1872 would raise the home by twelve feet (remember my last post where I explained that Sacramento was prone to floods?), add a new bottom floor and a new top floor and expand the square footage to 19,000 square feet!  And he wasn’t even Governor anymore at that point!  It was at this point that the very distinctive Mansard roof was added.

The Music Room in the Leland Stanford Mansion

The Music Room in the Leland Stanford Mansion

Stanford died in 1893, at the age of 69 and Jane kept the home until 1900, when she donated it to the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sacramento, who gave it to the Sisters of Mercy to be used as an orphanage.  In 1932, it was handed over to the Sisters of Social Service, who converted the orphanage into a home for dependent high school girls.  These are girls who have been removed from their homes for various reasons, abuse, juvenile deliquency, etc. and they ended up here in an attempt to give them some sort of home life that they couldn’t get in their own homes.

The State of California acquired the property in 1978 through eminent domain to be used as a state park, but allowed the Sisters of Social Service use of the home until 1987.  Our guide told us that the Sisters of Social Service were ok with getting out from under the home at that point, as the cost of upkeep of the mansion had become a burden.

The State then completed a major restoration of the home, restoring most of the home to its 1870s look.  One of the things that the nuns did is to preserve the original walls and layout of the home – instead of knocking down walls, they added walls in places where they could easily be removed.  They painted and wallpapered too, but they didn’t damage or remove the original architectural elements, having plumbing and electrical wiring worked around the features to avoid damaging them.  And the orphans and girls apparently treated their home with respect – that doesn’t seem to happen so much anymore…  The restoration project left one wing of the home as it looked during its time as a Girls’ Home, and it is interesting to see the differences.

The home is now open for tours (on the hour), except when the current Governor of California is using the home for special events.  The tour begins with a 15 minute video about the history of Sacramento, the Stanfords, and the home, and then you get to visit all but the very top floor of the home.  Our guide was very knowledgeable about the home, and you could tell she is very proud of it – she should be, it is awesome!

The Master Bedroom of the Leland Stanford Mansion

The Master Bedroom of the Leland Stanford Mansion

A lot of the Stanford’s original furniture and the home’s accessories (sconces, doorknobs, etc.) are still in the home.  When I asked how they came to have so much of the original furniture, when the home had been a girls’ home and an orphanage for almost 90 years in between, the guide explained that the nuns had put all of the furniture up into the attic for safekeeping.  They did sell off some pieces when they needed money for the home’s upkeep, but many of the original furniture pieces and accessories weren’t sold.  Stanford was very proud of his association with the railroad, and he had furniture custom made to look like trains – the guide showed us a sideboard that had the distinctive look of the front of a train, and wall sconces designed to look like train lanterns!

Dining Room Sideboard - With Locomotive Motif

Dining Room Sideboard – With Locomotive Motif

And one last thing that our guide explained – why our tour was free!  Apparently during the budget crisis a few years ago, the mansion was transferred from the California State Parks Department to the Legislative Branch – after all the Governor maintains an office here and uses the home for events.  Apparently, the Legislative Branch of the California State Government is not allowed for charge for its services (that makes sense, being government for the people and all…) but they have interpreted that to mean that they are not permitted to charge admission to see the home.

If you have a chance, do visit, and I hope you enjoy this beautiful home as much as we did!

California Road Trip: Old Sacramento and the Underground Tasting Room

Our last full day of vacation had arrived… Well, that’s not quite true, because we had one more after that, but it was dedicated to making the all day drive from California to the very northwest corner of Washington.  So anyway, our last full day of touristing was in Sacramento.  We were there to visit Jon’s friend Pablo, and so Jon could enjoy his old stomping grounds.

Me at Old Sacramento with the Delta King Riverboat - Now a Hotel

Me at Old Sacramento with the Delta King Riverboat – Now a Hotel

We started our day with a return trip to Old Sacramento.  Jon took me there the first time we visited Sacramento before we were married.  I know it is touristy, but I do enjoy the historic buildings there and the fact that they are almost all built before the turn of the 20th century.  The earliest is from 1852, just after a terrible fire swept through the city.  Sacramento was also prone to severe flooding, so in the early 1860s, they began the process of raising the city of Sacramento.  However, they simply raised the level of the streets and not the buildings.  The first floors of the buildings became a basement, and the original second floor was now at street level.  There is a historic underground tour, but unfortunately, it was only on Saturdays (we were there on a Friday).

Old Sacramento Historic Buildings

Old Sacramento Historic Buildings

The several blocks of Old Sacramento today are part of the Old Sacramento State Historic Park.  Almost all of the buildings in Old Sacramento today have been re-purposed into tourist shops and restaurants, and there is also a museum on the history of the railroad that is an excellent stop (we didn’t go this trip, but we went a couple of years ago).

Jon and I had lunch in a little sandwich shop and then headed over to The Underground Tasting Room, to sample a couple of their wines.  The Underground Tasting Room is shared by two wineries, Fenton Herriott Vineyards and Twisted Twig.  You can choose a flight from either winery, or a combined flight with wines from both places.  The tasting room is set below the current street level on the original street level of Old Sacramento, and has a little enclosed patio seating area with a fountain.  It was a warm sunny day and we enjoyed just sitting in the sunshine.

The Underground Tasting Room in Old Sacramento

The Underground Tasting Room in Old Sacramento

We were the only ones there when we visited – a couple was just leaving as we got there – and our server was gracious and friendly.  We decided to sample the Fenton Herriott Vineyards selections, as they make some white wines in addition to the reds, where Twisted Twig is reds only.  Here’s what we had:

2011 Chardonnay: Aged on neutral oak.  It tasted of light oak and cream with an herbal finish.  It just wasn’t really my style.

2012 Rose: Light flavors of cranberry and raspberry – good, but I was a bit turned off by a bitterness on the back of the throat on the finish.

2009 Merlot: This wine had a medium body and was very fruit forward with light tannins.  It is ready to drink now.

2007 Twisted Twig 2007 EPIC Cabernet Sauvignon: We did get to sample one Twisted Twig wine because the Fenton Herriott Cab was unavailable.  It had heavy tannins and was a very bold cab with a nice balance.  It had begun softening but would hold up for a while longer.  It was good, but I felt that the $38 pricetag was a bit much.

2009 Tempranillo: We ended with this wine which tasted of smoke, light cherry and coffee.  It was very drinkable and delicious.

Fenton Herriott is a small, family-owned winery – their wines have a production of 100 cases or less for each one.  The vineyards and winery are located in Placerville, California.  To be honest, I was hoping to like the Fenton Herriott Chardonnay and Rose more than I did, but I was pleased with the reds, and it would be worth a trip out to the winery when we are in the area again.  We purchased a bottle each of the Fenton Herriott Merlot and Tempranillo and headed on our way to our next stop – the Leland Stanford Mansion!

California Road Trip: The 17 Mile Drive

After visiting the San Carlos de Borromeo Mission, we headed into the nearby town of Carmel-by-the-Sea.  Carmel is a cute, resort town a few miles away from Monterey, which has evolved as a quirky, artsy community over the years.  Back in the early 1900s, several well-known writers lived there, including Jack London, Ambrose Bierce, Upton Sinclair and Sinclair Lewis.  Apparently it is very dog friendly, with pups being welcomed in most shops and hotels and the outdoor areas of restaurants.  Clint Eastwood was the Mayor there for one term in the late 1980s.  Curiously, there is a law prohibiting wearing women from wearing heels over two inches high – to lessen the risk of lawsuits from tripping on the sidewalks, which are uneven from being pushed up by tree roots.  If you are interested in wearing high heels, don’t worry, you can get a permit for free from City Hall – and the law is not enforced.

After checking out Carmel, we continued to the 17 Mile Drive.  The 17 Mile Drive is a scenic drive in the gated community of Pebble Beach.  Non-residents must pay a toll of $9.75 to get into the community – but you get a map with your admission, and once in, you can travel at your leisure visiting the many scenic vistas and pull-outs along the drive.  The map gives you a bit of information about each of the stops.

The day we were there, it was a bit foggy – that is typical – but relatively warm for March, with just a mild breeze.  There were some surfers catching a wave off the beach and we watched them for a few minutes before continuing on our way.  China Rock was next – named for the Chinese immigrants who made their homes in lean-tos against the rocks in the late 1800s and early 1900s.  They fished and polished agates to sell to tourists to make a living.

A Cloudy Day at the 17 Mile Drive

A Cloudy Day at the 17 Mile Drive

One interesting vista point is at Bird Rock.  As the story goes, Bird Rock was called that because thousands of birds roosted there.  Bird Rock was harvested for its rich deposits of guano back in the early 1900s (bird poop makes great fertilizer!) and after the guano was gone, the seals and sea lions decided this rock seemed like a good place to hang out!  So now, Brandt’s Cormorants, Western Gulls, pelicans and Ashy Petrels hang out with California Sea Lions and Harbor Seals, all vying for the perfect spot.

Bird Rock on the 17 Mile Drive - Get Your Fill of Guano Here!

Bird Rock on the 17 Mile Drive – Get Your Fill of Guano Here!

In the parking lot of the view point, there are several California Ground Squirrels that make their home in burrows they have dug in the rocky soil at the edge of the water.  Even though there are several signs asking tourists to not feed the animals, and their fleas can carry bubonic plague (not something I want any experience with!) we found someone ignoring the signs right away…

A Tourist Feeding Ground Squirrels

A Tourist Feeding Ground Squirrels

Fanshell Overlook is a great place to spot Harbor Seals.  The moms and pups love the soft white sand beach so much that they close the beach from April 1 to June 1.  During our visit there were already seals there hanging out enjoying their time on the beach.  I could stand there and watch them for hours…

Harbor Seals on the Beach Below Fanshell Overlook

Harbor Seals on the Beach Below Fanshell Overlook

Another of the scenic pull-outs is at the Lone Cypress, which is a Monterey Cypress tree growing on a rock outcropping jutting out into the bay.  Monterey Cypress trees are native to only two small areas, at Cypress Point in Pebble Beach and at Point Lobos near Carmel.  The trees in these native stands are up to 40 meters tall, 2.5 meters diameter and 300 years old.  These trees are unique because as they age, they take on a twisted, spread-out form due to the high winds that they are exposed to on the coast of California.

The Lone Cypress - Estimated Age 250 Years

The Lone Cypress – Estimated Age 250 Years

The Lone Cypress Isn't Really As Lonely As They Make It Out To Be

The Lone Cypress Isn’t Really As Lonely As They Make It Out To Be

As you drive, you see the beautiful homes of the rich and famous – this is some of the most exclusive real estate in the world.  Some of its famous residents include Charles Schwab, King Merrill Chase (GM Executive), George Lopez, Clint Eastwood and Condoleeza Rice.  On the drive, you also come upon the Pebble Beach Golf Links and the Pebble Beach Lodge.  The lodge is open to the public, and so is the golf course, but at $495 for 18 holes, it is a bit rich for my blood.  You can stay at the historic Lodge (built in 1919) starting at a mere $745 per night!  I better keep looking for my anonymous benefactor…  Good thing golf isn’t really my sport anyway.  I’ll stick to mini-golf!

A View of the Pacific Ocean Through the Gnarled Cypress Trunks

A View of the Pacific Ocean Through the Gnarled Cypress Trunks

The entire drive is 17 miles, and is well worth the time.  The only thing that would have made it better is if we had blue skies – but I suppose the cloudy weather probably meant that there were fewer tourists.  There are only limited options for food and fuel (super expensive gas!) – the Pebble Beach Lodge does have a public restroom tucked in among the many ritzy golf shops and clothing boutiques.

After our slow cruise through the 17 Mile Drive, it was time to hit the highway for our next destination – Sacramento!

California Road Trip: Monterey Bay Aquarium

Our next day in Monterey was dedicated to going to the Monterey Bay Aquarium.  We slept in a bit, and then walked from downtown out to the Aquarium – a distance of 1.7 miles.  It was a great walk along the harbor towards Cannery Row.  There is a nice paved walking trail that goes right along the water, then breaks away from the water to meander through a park, and a cute touristy shopping area.  Once we got to the aquarium, there was a long line.  I didn’t realize it was Spring Break for California schools – Spring Break at home wasn’t for another week!  So although we had to share the aquarium with more (SCREAMING!) children than usual, we enjoyed the visit.

Harbor Seal Outside Monterey Bay Aquarium

Harbor Seal Outside Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Monterey Bay Aquarium opened in 1984 on the site of a former cannery.  Cannery Row was the home base for an active sardine fishery from 1916 until the final collapse of the sardine industry in 1973.  The Monterey Bay Aquarium primarily focuses on plants and animals that are native to the Pacific Ocean, and they are one of the premier research institutions in the United States for several animals, including Great White Sharks.

Sardines at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Sardines at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

They have an Open Sea exhibit, jellyfish of every size and shape, sea horses (they are so cool!), and a Kelp Forest with lots of native fish living among the beautiful tall plants.  Jon and I really liked the Open Sea exhibit – it was very peaceful just watching the tuna and the sharks mingle with the sardines and other fish.  I imagine that they interact as they might in the wild.

Giant Sea Bass at Monterey Bay Aquarium

Giant Sea Bass at Monterey Bay Aquarium

We also really enjoyed the bird aviary.  The Aquarium has a program for raising and releasing several species of birds, but there are a couple at the aviary that cannot be released for whatever reason, and they use these birds to raise chicks from incubated eggs at the Aquarium.  You can get super-close to the birds in the aviary, but they are just going about their business, not paying any attention to the people watching them.

Sleepy Bird at Monterey Bay Aquarium

Sleepy Bird at Monterey Bay Aquarium

All in all, we saw Sandbar sharks, Leopard sharks, Hammerhead sharks, Sevengill sharks, several kinds of tuna, Giant Sea Bass, Giant Pacific Octopus, a Leatherback Sea Turtle,  Sturgeon, a dozen types of seahorses, a dozen types of jellyfish, Wolf and Moray eels, giant Lobsters, Puffins, Penguins, Snowy Plovers, a Laysan Albatross, White Sturgeon, Bat Rays, and many other animals.  It was a great experience, except for all the screaming children.  My ears certainly took a beating and I fought a headache most of the time that I was there.  But I did enjoy my visit.

A Gorgeous Black and White Bird at the Monterey Bay Aquarium

A Gorgeous Black and White Bird at the Monterey Bay Aquarium – I Loved This Little Guy!

After we left the Aquarium, we walked back up to the hotel through Cannery Row.  It is a strip of touristy gift shops and high end boutiques.  We stopped and had a late lunch at the Ambrosia Indian Cafe, with Basmati Rice, Butter Chicken, Tofu Masala.  It was quick and delicious and really hit the spot after our hours at the Aquarium.

The best part of the walk back to the hotel was along the marina.  There we spotted about a dozen harbor seals sunning themselves on the rocks in the shallow waters close to shore.  They are very cute – they balance themselves on the rocks – heads and tails held up!  It looks like they are planking – what I wouldn’t give to have core muscles like that (without the blubber of course)!  We also saw a couple of sea otters, but unfortunately they were a bit far away to get a good photo.

Seals "Planking" in Monterey

Seals “Planking” in Monterey

I really loved my visit to the Aquarium and walking along the boardwalk enjoying the sunshine with Jon.  And the day wasn’t even finished!

California Road Trip: Monterey

In my last post, I shared our visit to the de Young Museum and Girl with a Pearl Earring.  After our visit to the de Young, Jon and I wandered around Golden Gate Park for a little while.  We considered going into the Japanese Garden, and we wanted to, but we didn’t have very much time before we needed to be getting back on the road.  So the Japanese Garden goes on the list for next time we are in San Francisco.  I swear the list grows larger with every trip I go on!

A View From Outside the Japanese Garden, Looking In

A View From Outside the Japanese Garden, Looking In

After a brief delay due to not being able to figure out where the car was parked (you know you have done it too!  I just admit it!), we were back on the road.  We traveled through strip malls, business parks and suburbs for miles, on our way to Monterey.  Fortunately, the traffic through San Jose wasn’t too bad, and pretty soon we were driving through some beautiful farmland.

We arrived in Monterey and got checked into our hotel, which was right downtown.  It was about 5 pm, and the hotel desk clerk told us that there was a downtown Farmer’s Market until 7, so we checked it out.  It was amazing to see all the fresh produce available in March!  Strawberries, radishes, and lots of food stands, including freshly made donuts, pizza and Mexican food.  Wow.  If I lived in Monterey that would certainly be on my list of things to do each week!

Radishes at the Farmer's Market in Monterey

Radishes at the Farmer’s Market in Monterey

After perusing the Farmer’s Market, we wandered down to the Fisherman’s Wharf.  We were hungry for an early dinner, and we wanted to see what our options were.  I found it to be a very interesting experience.  There are a ton of restaurants on the Wharf and they all have somebody outside trying to lure you in.  They each have a big stock pot with clam chowder, and they offer you samples, trying to show you that their clam chowder is better than the next guy’s.  And they have plated meals to show you their specialties, whether it is lobster fettuccine or oyster shooters.  If you aren’t ready to commit quite yet, they pull out the free appetizer coupon…

Jon and I went all the way down to the end, assessing our options, but I was distracted – by a Sea Otter!  There was a guy swimming around in the marina, so I watched him for awhile and got a couple of photos!  I was pretty excited, because he was the first Sea Otter I saw on our trip!  There is also a dock right off of Fisherman’s Wharf where a group Sea Lions have made their home.  They were very close!  I really enjoyed watching them sun themselves on the dock and I marveled at the fact that they were able to climb on the railings of the dock.

A Sea Otter Clutching His Dinner in Monterey

A Sea Otter Clutching His Dinner in Monterey

Sea Lions at Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey

Sea Lions at Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey

Eventually I had to pull myself away so we could get some dinner.  We decided to try Rappa’s at the end of the Wharf – Jon was intrigued by the fact that they had oyster shooters.  I tried out a Carmel Wheat beer from nearby Carmel that was very good.  We started out with a half dozen oysters on the half shell – Jon got four and I had two.  They were really delicious – so fresh!  I was in the mood for steak, so I had the rib eye topped with mushrooms, with local vegetables and seasoned rice.  Jon had char-grilled cod with local vegetables and seasoned rice.  Our meals were very good, and it was nice to be able to just look out at the water and watch the boats and the sea lions go by.  Perfect…

Dinner at Rappa's in Monterey

Dinner at Rappa’s in Monterey

After dinner, we explored the Wharf a bit more – we poked around in a few of the souvenir shops and made a stop at Carousel Candies.  Carousel Candies specializes in salt water taffy, and has been making it since 1960.  They also make handmade chocolate and handmade caramel apples, but we were there for the taffy.  This was the best taffy we have ever had!  And Jon loves salt water taffy, so we always get some when we find it.  It was soft and chewy and stayed soft for at least a couple of weeks after we bought it!  I know that because I hid a little stash from Jon so I could have some later – I had to hide it or he would eat it all!

Fisherman's Wharf in Monterey

Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey

On the way back to the hotel, we checked out some historic buildings that are part of the Monterey State Historic Park.  More on that in an upcoming post!  And we ended the evening with a view of the most beautiful moon.

The Moon in Monterey

The Moon in Monterey

California Road Trip: Alcatraz Island Federal Penitentiary

In my last post, I explored the history of Alcatraz Island prior to its time as a federal maximum security prison.  But no visit to The Rock would be complete without seeing the prison building.  The cell block that visitors see today was constructed between 1909 and 1912, and became home to federal prisoners in 1933 when the Army Fortress was deactivated and transferred to the U.S. Bureau of Prisons.

Alcatraz Island Penitentiary Sign

Alcatraz Island Penitentiary Sign

When you visit, you receive an audio tour (available in several languages) with headphones to wander around the prison and hear about the various areas of the prison. The audio tour also gives you information about some of the prisoners that were housed at Alcatraz, their daily lives in captivity, and details about the building itself.  The tour is narrated by several of the former guards and inmates, and informational posters give you some details on these men.

A Few of the General Population Cells

A Few of the General Population Cells

Me During My Incarceration

Me During My Incarceration

The prison had over 600 cells during its military prison days, but during its time as a federal prison there were 336 regular cells, 36 segregation cells and 6 solitary confinement cells in use. The rest were used as storage. The regular cells were 9 ft. by 5 ft.; smaller than the segregation cells which were 9 ft. by 7 ft.  The general population lived in cells along two main corridors, and there were 3 stories of cells looking out onto each corridor.  At one end was a gun gallery where guards had a clear view of the corridors and the fronts of the cells.

One of the General Population Cells at Alcatraz - 5 Feet by 9 Feet

One of the General Population Cells at Alcatraz – 5 Feet by 9 Feet

We got to see “The Hole” – the solitary confinement cells where prisoners were housed when they got unruly. In the hole, you were alone and confined in the dark for 24 hours each day – no exercise, no entertainment, no nothing.  You didn’t even get a toilet or a sink – just a hole in the floor – YUCK…  It was different than I expected though – I thought those cells would be in a basement or dungeon. Instead, they were right on the main floor with all the other cells – it only got dreary once they put you in that room and closed the window in the door.

The tour doesn’t talk about this, but legend has it that a malevolent presence with glowing red eyes terrorized prisoners in “The Hole” – supposedly one man screamed throughout the night about this entity, but when guards checked to see if he was alone they found nothing with him. However, in the morning the man had stopped screaming and was found dead, with hand marks around his neck. Guards are said to have counted an extra inmate that morning at role call; the dead man was seen in the lineup and then disappeared.

"The Hole" Cells in Cell Block D - the Treatment Unit.  No Inmate Could Be Assigned to The Hole for More Than 19 Days

“The Hole” Cells in Cell Block D – the Treatment Unit. No Inmate Could Be Assigned to The Hole for More Than 19 Days

And of course, the tour details the escape attempts. During the life of the federal prison, there were 14 escape attempts involving 36 prisoners. Of these prisoners; 23 were recaptured, 6 were shot and killed, 2 drowned and 5 are missing and presumed dead.  Three of these men dug out of their cells using homemade tools and spoons, climbed up the pipes through the utility corridors to the roof, made it down to the ground, and set out in homemade rafts and were never seen nor heard from again.

The Cell that John Anglin Dug Out of in 1962.  He Made it Off the Island, But Was Never Heard From Again, and Presumed Drowned.

The Cell that John Anglin Dug Out of in 1962. He Made it Off the Island, But Was Never Heard From Again, and Presumed Drowned.

The most famous of the escape attempts is called the Battle of Alcatraz, and it occurred in 1946.  A group of 6 prisoners (there were 3 ringleaders), managed to overpower a guard while he was searching an inmate who was returning to his cell.  They then used a homemade bar spreader to spread the bars that protected the gun gallery (the thinnest inmate starved himself so he could fit between the bars).  At this point, they were armed and thought they had the keys to let themselves out.  However, a brave guard had handed over all the keys, except the one they needed.  He had hidden that one key in the toilet of the cell where he was being held hostage.  They were trapped.

The Actual Bars and Bar Spreader From the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946

The Actual Bars and Bar Spreader From the Battle of Alcatraz in 1946

Meanwhile, other guards were returning to the cell block from duties guarding the prisoners working during the day, and they were captured one by one as they returned.  When they didn’t check in, another guard was sent to check… and another… and another…  After some time, the inmates had nine guards held hostage.  The inmates were frustrated at this point because without the key to the door, there was no escape, so they decided to kill the guards who could testify against them.  They fired into the cells were the guards were being held.  Five were wounded, three seriously, and one guard, Bill Miller, later died of his wounds.  At that point, 3 of the inmates figured they should distance themselves from the situation and returned to their cells; the other three decided they wouldn’t surrender.  They got up on top of the cell block to fight it out.

The other guards had figured out what was going on by this point, and entered the gun gallery – a massive firefight occurred – one guard was killed and four others were wounded.  Prison officials then cut the electricity and waited for night to fall.  Guards went back into the gun gallery to provide cover for several other guards who entered the cell block unarmed in order to free the captive guards.  The guards in the gun gallery couldn’t get a clean shot at the inmates perched on top of the cell block though, so after the captive guards were freed and evacuated, they called in some heavier firepower – The Marines.  The Marines shelled the prison, and drilled holes in the roof and dropped grenades in to corner the inmates.  They were eventually trapped in a utility corridor.

The Gun Gallery at the End of the Cell Block - Where Armed Guards Kept an Eye on Inmates

The Gun Gallery at the End of the Cell Block – Where Armed Guards Kept an Eye on Inmates

The Marines entered the building and fired into the utility corridor at intervals throughout the day – the three inmates were killed in the corridor.  The three other inmates who had returned to their cells had been identified by the guards, and were tried for their roles in the escape attempt and the murder of the two guards – two were executed and the third received an additional life sentence.  As a result of the Battle of Alcatraz, security was increased and there was not another escape attempt until 1956.

The prison was closed in 1963, because operating costs on Alcatraz were more than three times what it cost at other federal prisons in the country (more than $10 per prisoner per day vs. $3 elsewhere).  Additionally, residents of San Francisco were becoming increasingly frustrated with the sewage being discharged in the bay from the prisoners and the guards and families that lived there. The last prisoners were moved to other correctional facilities around the country.

All in all, Alcatraz is a very lonely place.  Inmates in the early years were not allowed to talk, and throughout the prison years, inmates could have one visit from family once a month.  Inmates typically worked during the day, but outside of work, inmates were only allowed one hour each day of recreation.  The day we were there, it was very cold, and that was on an unseasonably warm, sunny March day in San Francisco.  It must have been brutally cold there in winter.  During the history of the federal prison, 15 prisoners died of natural causes, 5 committed suicide and 8 were murdered. 3 guards were also murdered during escape attempts.

Even though there are tons of people everywhere inside the prison, the tour is pretty good at moving you through efficiently, so it isn’t as claustrophobic as you might imagine. Jon is frequently annoyed around crowds, and Alcatraz didn’t bother him at all. And of course the other areas of the island are not crowded at all, because people really just want to see the prison.  We really enjoyed our visit and it was well worth getting up so early in the morning.  If you have the opportunity – GO!  But do buy your tickets online, well before your visit!

California Road Trip: The History of Alcatraz Island

On our full day in San Francisco, we started out by getting up really early to go to Alcatraz Island.  I was really looking forward to this part of the trip, and it almost didn’t happen.  You see, I looked at the website, and it told me that during the peak season, tickets could sell out a week in advance.  No worries, I thought – we were going in March.  On a weekday.  But I didn’t know quite which days we would be in San Francisco and what else we would be doing there.

So, when I went to book the tickets, they were sold out…  For the next nine days…  I was really bummed!  But I did some sleuthing and found some internet rumors that you could purchase same day tickets on a walk-up basis for the first boat each day.  You had to get in line early, because they were first-come, first-served.  Once the 40 or 50 tickets were sold, the rest of the people in line were out of luck.

Luckily, Jon loves me, and agreed to get up super-early to get in line for the Black Friday of Alcatraz Island tickets.  Since we were walking, we had to head out from the hotel for the 1.7 mile walk to the pier – at 6:00 am!  How’s that for nerdly dedication!  The ticket booth opened at 7:30, and we got there at 6:40 – we were the second couple in line, behind a dental student from Los Angeles and his wife (they were friendly and we had a lot of time to chat).  The internet rumors were true, and they did have the promised holy grail of walk-up tickets.  So, we had tickets on the first ferry to go out to the island at 8:45 am, but you have to get ready to board the boat at 8:20 am.

We got on the boat with about 150 of our closest friends and headed out.  The trip over to the island was nice; we got some good views of the city and I was able to get some good photos. It was pretty cold though – San Francisco was warm that day – about 65 in the afternoon, but I had to wear my winter coat, gloves and hat during the trip (granted it didn’t help that we had been standing around in the cold for a couple of hours at that point).  Alcatraz is about 1.5 miles out from the mainland, so it didn’t take long and the ride was pretty smooth.

San Francisco from the Alcatraz Ferry

San Francisco from the Alcatraz Ferry

I’m sure that you all know that Alcatraz was a federal prison for thirty years, from 1933 to 1963. But you may not know that Alcatraz has a history that extends much further back. Alcatraz was first formed when it pushed up into the Bay about 10,000 years ago.  The local Indians believed that the island was cursed, but there is some evidence that they traveled out to the island to collect bird eggs. Spanish explorers first “discovered” it in 1775 and named it La Isla de los Alcatraces (the island of the pelicans). The Spanish built a few buildings on the island but didn’t do much else with it. The Americans purchased the island in 1850 and set about creating a military garrison post there; in order to shore up the coastal defenses protecting San Francisco.

The U.S. Government also decided that it would be a good place for a lighthouse to guide ships into San Francisco Bay. So Alcatraz Island became home to the first lighthouse on the West Coast of the United States in 1854.  The original lighthouse was built with a third order Fresnel Lens.  The first keeper was paid $750 a year – barely enough to cover his food.  Unsurprisingly, he was dismissed because he was absent for long periods from the lighthouse – probably because he had a second job…

The lighthouse currently on the island replaced the original lighthouse in 1909, because when the Army decided to build the current cell house structure, it became apparent that the original lighthouse would not be tall enough to be seen over the structure and the buildings and sheds were considered unsightly.  The current lighthouse is 84 feet tall and constructed from cement.  It was automated in 1963, and is still in use today, operated by the U.S. Coast Guard.

The Warden's House Ruin and the Lighthouse on Alcatraz Island

The Warden’s House Ruin and the Lighthouse on Alcatraz Island

While the first lighthouse was being constructed, building was also going on for the military garrison. Eventually the garrison would house about 200 men.  During the Civil War, Alcatraz was used to house war prisoners, which was its first use as a prison. During this period, building continued, and by the end of the Civil War, they realized that the defensive technology being utilized at Alcatraz was largely being rendered obsolete by new advances. It was at that point that officials decided to change the focus of Alcatraz from a defensive structure to a detention site. A brick jailhouse was built in 1867, and the island began being used as a long-term detention center for military prisoners in 1868 (confederates caught on the west coast were among the first military prisoners housed there). It just grew from there.

Alcatraz Island - Buildings (L to R): Lighthouse, Warden's House Ruin, Cell Block Building, Barracks/Apartments

Alcatraz Island – Buildings (L to R): Lighthouse, Warden’s House Ruin, Cell Block Building, Barracks/Apartments

The Spanish-American War gave the island a whole new crop of military prisoners, expanding the population to about 450. The 1906 earthquake generated the first batch of civilian prisoners, when prisoners from the mainland were transferred there after the earthquake to ensure that they would not escape. During World War I, conscientious objectors were imprisoned at Alcatraz.

Alcatraz Island  - The Cell Block Building is in the Upper Left

Alcatraz Island – The Cell Block Building is in the Upper Left

The Island contains several buildings from before the federal prison era  – some are still intact and some are in ruins.  The original brick barracks, built in the 1860s, were added onto in 1905, resulting in the structure that is seen today right next to the dock.  During the prison era, the soldiers’ barracks were remodeled into apartments for the guards and their families.    The Chapel was built in the 1920s, but despite its name, it wasn’t used as a chapel.  Instead, it was living space for single officers and workshops.  The Post Exchange/Officers Club was built in 1910, and was a general store where soldiers could buy goods.  During the prison era, it functioned as a recreation hall with a dance hall and bowling alley.

Military Chapel Building - Built 1910 - Mission Revival Architectural Style

Military Chapel Building – Built 1910 – Mission Revival Architectural Style

Sadly, the Post Exchange, Warden’s House and the Lighthouse Keeper’s Quarters were burned in a 1970 fire during the Indian Occupation of the Island.  The light tower was also damaged by the fire.  There is still some dispute about the cause of the fire; the official story is that it was accidental.  I do find it curious though, because the Post Exchange isn’t near the Warden’s House and Lighthouse; and the Military Chapel is in between and it didn’t burn.

I really enjoyed wandering around the island and checking out the ruined structures; and we hadn’t even been inside the prison yet!  I’ll post about that next!