Rain, Sun, & Sunset at Sea Ranch

I think a common misconception people have about California is that the beaches are warm and the water swim-able. While this might hold true for Southern California:  Malibu, San Diego, and the like, Northern California’s coast is often shrouded in fog and cold wind, even and especially in the summer months. The cypress and pine trees found coastal-side are often permanently bent eastward, blown back by the Pacific gusts.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetYet the cold and damp hold the beauty of colorful sunsets, powerful waves, tumultuous clouds, open landscapes, unadulterated sandy beaches and fields and cliffs. Visiting Sea Ranch last November, we were treated to an approaching rainstorm, gusting gales and weathered wooden homes. The Sea Ranch, both a resort and a community, was established in the 1960’s, mostly as an association of vacation homes, with all structures unitary in design concept – timber homes blending into nature and the surrounding space. Ahead of the sustainable design movement, structures must and still do adhere to Sea Ranch’s design rules. A bit of hippy granola now mixed with established California wealth.

Processed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetProcessed with VSCO with c1 presetGrab a few books and get comfy in the window seats, or stick it to your smartphone and do a puzzle. Take long walks outside, rain be damned (Sea Ranch has umbrellas on hand). If it’s foggy and cold, put on your Swedish winter coat that you never get to wear anyway, living here in CA, and leisurely stroll the grounds, filled with waves and wind and golden grasses. Instead of dinner at Sea Ranch, and as Sea Ranch is a pretty remote outpost, pack some yummies for an impromptu picnic, beach or room side. Cuddle up with a glass of wine or hot tea, and look for the mist of whales’ breath hanging low over the Pacific.

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Driving Down the Eastern Sierras

Living in the Bay Area can be traffic hell. If you aren’t crawling along at a slow, slow pace, then chances are the major thoroughfares are still pretty crowded. So when you get a freeway like this (see below), it’s like a magical slice of highway heaven. Road manna.

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We hit 395 close to Lake Tahoe, then whizzed down towards Bridgeport and Bishop. Since we were guns blazing for Death Valley and Palm Springs, we didn’t stop as much as we would have liked. Also, many attractions were still closed for winter. I would recommend driving down (or up) in summer, when the Aspens and Poplars are bending softly in the wind, their shimmering leaves contrasting with the starkly rising mountains and dry desert brush. For miles you’ll be driving along the Sierra’s, even passing under the shadow of Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S. Sunset has some good recommendations, especially for a trip in fall. Definitely on my list of to-do’s next time:

Devil’s Postpile National Monument: crazy rocks apparently having to do with the devil. Just kidding! Geographically wonderful rock formation looking very vertical.

Ancient Bristlecone Pine Forest: home to the world’s “oldest known living non-clonal organism.” Ahem, what? Aka, fantastically gnarled, super old trees.

Hot Springs! These: Keough’s (campy, fun) and these: Travertine (remote, beautiful).

Hiking Mt. Whitney (or at least driving closer along the Mt. Whitney Portal road).

See ya in summer, 395.

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Death Valley Emptiness

Is Death Valley just a large, empty, barren desert? I thought so for years, avoiding visiting this national park in preference of others (Yosemite, Glacier, Yellowstone). But no! No no no! Death Valley National Park is full of people from everywhere: Japan, Russia, India. It’s full of people from the U.S., including Californians (easy weekend trip from the LA area), and most importantly, it’s full of incredibly vast, empty, sky-swept spaces. What looks like a whole lot of nothing is actually filled with moving rocks, small mammals, reptiles, clouds, sand dunes, and mountains. And heat. Because in Death Valley, heat is an alive, tangible, fungible thing. An oppressive presence which you not only feel, but must reckon with and respect. At night, the Death Valley sky is glowing with stars, and during especially rainy years, a sea of wildflowers covers the valley floor in what is known as a Superbloom.

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I have a lot of German friends and family, many who have wanted to go to Death Valley. So have other Germans I’ve met. What is the fascination with this Valley of Death? I think partly the U.S. is associated with western films, and the Death Valley landscape seems to epitomize the barren wastelands of these movies, and represents the ultimate American West. Death Valley is also a place of extremes: elevation (low), heat (high, but cold at night), dryness (extreme, but flash flooding can occur), something not found in this combination in many other places. It holds a fascination that many of the other national parks just do not stir, not just for Germans, but for people from all over the globe.

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Due to our limited time in Death Valley, my husband and I mostly drove to the major sites (map here). One of the highlights was driving around the Hell’s Gate area, admiring the wildflowers. Though the peak of the Superbloom had passed (the sweet yellow flowers blanketing the dusty ground had started to fade), wildflowers still abounded in whites, yellows, purples and pinks. Coming from a green, lush environment, you probably would not find the growth spectacular, but that’s the thing about Death Valley, it’s almost as if you have to slow your speed and understanding, to be-wonder the natural environment on a microlevel. Plants that only bloom every few (or more years) are special indeed.

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Another highlight was hiking in Desolation Canyon. The upside of arriving later in the day, other than the slight subsiding of the heat (it had reached 96 F / 35 C that day – in March!), was that human traffic in the canyon was limited to a few stragglers. Not only were the various rock formations fantastic, but what I really can’t forget was the silence. I’m not sure I’ve heard silence like that. It. Was. Complete. Not a slight wind, a leaf stirring, any animal croaking – not a thing. I can’t remember when I’ve heard silence that deep.

We didn’t overnight directly in the park, but next time I would absolutely camp. And if you can, visit in spring or winter. I can’t even image trudging through here in summer’s heat. Death Valley is also big for off-roading. I imagine this takes you to some really remote,  still places, places where you can contemplate the stark beauty of Death Valley.

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Palm Springs Spring Break

This was one of my favorite trips. Ever. Maybe it was the fact that it was spring break, or that we could just pack up our old Honda Civic and go, without the stress of airports and planes. Maybe it was the warm spring air or stark desert mountains or the midcentury modern architecture. Likely it was everything and more, but let me say, this trip was relaxing. Times five.

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One thing that definitely contributed to relaxation: the pool. The grounds at Sparrows Lodge are gorgeous. The pool and hot tub are located at the front of the property, at the back is a sweet garden (think raised flowerbeds with nasturtiums, lavender, mint), old olive trees, and a communal table shaded by green-leafed trees growing over a trellis. The faint splash of fountains and the twitter of doves and sparrows basically permeates the air with relaxation. Go for a poolside lunch and try the chicken sando – yum. At night the barn and grounds are lit with lanterns and candles, as well as an outdoor fire pit and an indoor fireplace. The beautiful blending of the primal elements of fire, water, air made it hard to step outside this oasis. Ask for the ingredients for s’mores: the classic graham crackers, marshmallows, and Hershey’s chocolate (hate it outside the glorious, glorious world of s’mores), and a roasting stick, are all on-hand.

One of the best things to do in Palm Springs is to rent bikes (or grab those from your hotel), and check out the midcentury modern neighborhoods. You can even do this at night, to avoid the heat of the day – several houses illuminate everything from towering palms to the giant, magenta bougainvillea which grow in Palm Springs like nobody’s business. One of my favorite neighborhoods to explore on bike is Deepwell Estates. If you don’t want to spend money on a guided architectural tour through town, you can download the app PS Mod, which suggests self-guided tours, including maps and information about places and architects such as Donald Wexler, Richard Neutra, Albert Frey, and others.

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Eat lunch at the Avalon’s Chi Chi, or check out out King’s Highway, Appetito, or Cheeky’s. For dinner we tried Workshop Kitchen and Bar, which was scrumptious, but with smaller plates starting at about $12, won’t be your cheapest option. Unfortunately the Parker Palm Springs was closed for a private event while we were in Palm Springs. Bummer but good reason to return.

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We didn’t have time to go to the Palm Springs Art Museum itself, but did pop into the Palm Springs Art Museum Architecture and Design Center. Though small, the design center had a good collection of pictures featuring Bauhaus works – the space is open, fresh, clean. And free to visit!

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