California is big. We noticed scale in The Avenue of the Giants, the giant redwood forest, in the North of the state. The trees are 300’ tall and up to 2,000 years old with ecosystems both on the ground around them and in them, and in their canopies, high above the ground. As magnificent as the trees were, I was captivated by the story of an eccentric naturalist, Charles Kellogg, whose camper van (caravan) is on display at the Interpretive Centre. He made it from a fallen redwood tree and travelled around American in it promoting forest preservation in the early 1900s. Rockefeller later donated millions to help do that. What I loved about Kellogg was that he earned his living as a vaudeville star. He could imitate any bird call perfectly. He could also put out a flame by singing a note at a certain pitch and thought that if you could work out the frequency needed for each building, fire departments would be redundant. What an optimist.
A week in bucolic Santa Rosa brought a fresh sense of scale. We moved into a flat and started exploring foggy Bodega Bay, the Russian River Valley, the Sonoma Valley and – I love this name – The Valley of the Moon. Again, everything is enormous. Huge vineyards and orchards cover the valleys and the rolling hills. The grass between the vines and trees is hay yellow, which makes the hillside vines look like neat rows of corn braids on a blonde girl’s head. In Nova Scotia we’ve become used to buying peppers, strawberries and lettuce out of season from the supermarket, and it all comes from California or Mexico. I can tell you there is no comparison between the food which ends up at the supermarket and the fruits and vegetables we bought from the farmers’ stands and markets in this area. Sweet Gravenstein apples were being harvested: musky champagne table grapes were heavy on the vines: fragrant peaches and nectarines nestled in wooden barrels; portly zucchini were available in the farmers’ markets.
Horticulturist Luther Burbank had an experimental farm in Santa Rosa. He created hardy plants by grafting mostly and sold them to fruit farmers. A contemporary and friend of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison, Harvey Firestone, Jack London and Helen Keller, his mission was to help Californians grow their own food, especially during the First World War. His house, greenhouses and gardens are open to the public, and as we wandered among the experimental plants (spineless cacti, white blackberries) we found beautiful plumcots (plum/apricot mix, which Burbank invented) fallen on the ground, and foraged them to eat later. Burbank tried to get Californians to eat quinoa – but he was ahead of his time. Now we pay $15/kilo for the stuff, and it is everywhere.
Burbank helped writer and adventurer Jack London create his Beauty Ranch at the end of the Sonoma Valley. Here we wandered the ranch and, in the evening, watched ‘Broadway Under the Stars’, an open-air musical revue put on by young actors and musicians. The performance was world class, and it was spine-tingling to be entertained on Jack London’s ranch, where he wrote and farmed and rode his horses. The audience was mostly retirees with permanent golf tans, and there were several chauffeurs and cars waiting at the end of the evening, so I guess it’s an area for the well-heeled. In the cheap seats, we chatted to retired teachers who had visited every province in Canada, and who urged us to make sure Canadians never lost our Medicare. (Note: The terrible September 2017 wildfires destroyed most of this area.)
The town of Sonoma has a Mediterranean feel, with a central square and park surrounded by winery tasting rooms and smart shops. Picnicking in the park, we were happy to see families eating with bottles of wine atop the red and white checked tablecloths – obviously no Draconian liquor laws here. It’s not surprising it felt like Europe, the Spanish influence is strong. The Republic of California and then the State of California was declared in 1850. We’re learning lots of history and getting a sense of how recently the Western US was colonized.
The closer we get to Los Angeles, the more entertainment is available, and famous names try their material out. Nothing could have been further than the refined wine country than the show we attended by Gabriel ‘Fluffy’ Iglesias, a 350 lb-Mexican comedian, at an extraordinary venue on the campus of Sonoma State University. The back of the huge concert hall rolls open onto an open-air amphitheatre, and the audience was 8,000 strong. About half the audience was of Mexican origin, and there were many jokes about the ‘wall’, but nothing incendiary. When they gave away a size six XL T-shirt, about ten men that size came to the front to claim it. I was hoping they had reinforced the floor. I must say people in the US know how to put on a show. The organization was perfect, and I was so impressed with the loos, I took a picture of them.
The next day we set off for San Francisco, where we discovered the city is the show.