Author Archives: Lyle W. Norton

About Lyle W. Norton

Free-lance writer specializing if wine, food, travel and jazz reviews.

Mr. Jones Revisited

Mentors are like artists or writers, sometimes their impact is not fully appreciated for decades.  Then, at times, it is passed on and lives for generations.  This could be the story of Mr. Ron Jones, a very normal looking young high school English teacher in 1965, with a fresh credential, trying to enlighten a class of 4th-year English Seniors, some looking for inspiration and others waiting for it all to end.  Though I found him an interesting teacher, it took years to fully understand the profound effect our time together had in developing some of my lifelong passions and, in many ways, guiding the way I look at things.

Mr. Jones had a typical mid-1960s high school teacher image, short hair, gray slacks with cuffs, a button-down dress shirt and tie and tweed jacket.  His look was preppy, but intellectual, one that would drastically change for teachers in the next few years. Jones had chosen, as one of his extracurricular requirements, to help with the football team and I would often see him at practice.  He was athletic and knowledgeable about the game, but his classroom persona revealed much more than just a jock teaching English.  The fall of 1965 was at the cusp of massive cultural and social changes in this country and, I believe, as a young man, he sensed and embraced them early.

During a week-long segment on poetry, Mr. Jones veered from the classics to discuss some new contemporary poets.  “Ya’know, he said, “many of the writers and poets today are singers and songwriters.”  Then, poetically, he recited lyrics by Buffy Saint Marie and Leonard Cohen, prose of a new day.  Half the class continued to be bored with both the new and the old, but Mr.Jones had my full attention.  In this moment, a teacher was about to inspire a student.  Months earlier, with no expectations, I had gone with a friend to a Bob Dylan concert.  The profound effect of his music had led me to other songwriters of the emerging folk rock movement and Mr. Jones just legitimized them all.

For the next few weeks, students were allowed to bring in music on Fridays.  We listened seriously to songwriters, discussing and interpreting their poetry the best we could.  Some students never understood or cared about it at all, foreshadowing future oblivion or a difficult adjustment through the next decade. At times, I thought Mr. Jones and I were having a conversation and others in the class were just listening. A typical classroom discussion was best summed up by one of my Friday submittals, Bob Dylan’s song, “Ballad Of A Thin Man” from his new album, “Highway 61 Revisited”:

You raise up your head

And you ask, “Is this where it is?”

And somebody points to you and says

“It’s his”

And you say, “What’s mine?”

And somebody else says, “Where what is?”

And you say, “Oh my God

Am I here all alone.”

But something is happening here

And you don’t know what it is

Do you, Mister Jones?

Passion for music of all kinds has continuously enveloped my adult life, always leaving time to explore the lyrics of great contemporary song writers like Joni Mitchell, Jackson Browne, Neil Young, Bruce Cockburn and others who have chronicled our time so eloquently.  Amid many musical influences, Mr. Jones steered me in their direction and gave me permission to be open and accepting of something new.

Weeks later, this engaging teacher offered an intriguing extra-credit opportunity, one that got the attention of my friend Steve and I.  “There is a film playing at the Towne Theater, it’s called, ‘The Pawnbroker,’” Mr. Jones announced, “it’s not required but if any students are able to watch it and write a brief description of your impressions, I’ll give you fifty extra credit points toward your grade.”  With SAT scores lower than expected, we were both focused on our GPA’s and justifying a week-night movie as the road to an A was appealing.  “If you wanna do it, I can pick you up at 6:30,” Steve said as I nodded affirmatively.  Steve’s dad had recently given him a brand new, burgundy-colored 1966 Pontiac GTO as an early graduation present, vastly increasing my transportation opportunities.  The car was a beast that delivered less than eight miles to the gallon and even with fuel priced at twenty-nine cents per gallon, lack of gas money often restricted our travel.  Luckily, tonight was about extra credit and Steve’s mom pitched in a few dollars.

I loved the movies, especially when Paul Newman overcame adversity and prevailed over the latest antagonist or Jerry Lewis would portray a character among his breadth of idiots.  I loved movies, but had no concept of film as an art form until that rainy January night, my first time inside the Towne Theater, at the time San Jose’s only art and foreign film venue. The featured film was director Sidney Lumet’s “The Pawnbroker,” a dark portrait of a soulless man, the survivor of the Nazi concentration camp where his wife and children were killed.  The main character, Sol Nazerman, played by young actor Rod Steiger, operated a pawnshop in Spanish Harlem that also fronted for a pimp.  His experiences had left him totally detached from others or the world around him. I was expecting a more dramatic Hollywood ending where we watch significant changes to Sol’s life unfold into happily ever after. In this film, real change came slowly or not at all, with a small glimmer of hope left to the interpretation of the viewer. The “Pawnbroker” was stark reality, but, at seventeen, the most poignant film I had ever seen, a film that heightened my understanding and awareness of the Holocaust.

Eager to write a brief review of the film to secure the extra credit, I described the use of visual flashbacks to horrifically reveal Nazerman’s past, they helped me to better understand his behavior.  Unlike today, information and reviews were not available to the masses.  Viewers had to rely on their own perceptions. In a later discussion, Mr. Jones, admittedly a fan of Sidney Lumet, described how the director used various techniques to create a more powerful message.  It was the first time I understood the role or appreciated the contribution of the film director.

Remaining somewhat interested over the ensuing years, my curiosity re-emerged after I met my wife, Karen, an undergraduate student who also had an interest in film.  Hers was influenced by her parents, who would go to the Towne Theater to watch art films and mine from Mr. Jones.  Karen and I have remained avid film buffs for 47 years, beginning in 1969 with watching art films on campus or at the old Saratoga Theater, a metal quonset hut nestled against the Santa Cruz Mountains, in the village of the same name.

I never communicated with Mr. Jones after graduation but like to remember thanking him and telling him how much I enjoyed his class. Moving on with my life, I remained unaware that he had touched and opened a side of me that could have remained dormant forever.  Questions will always remain of what became of Mr. Jones.  Did he continue teaching in the public school system or drop out and live in a commune for the next ten years?  He may have written the screenplay of a film that I enjoyed, not that credits for someone named Ron Jones would raise a red flag.

Whatever became of him, Mr. Jones will always be remembered as a wonderfully effective teacher, one that opened a young mind to appreciate artistic expression of all kinds.


Zinfandel Keeps Good Company

 

Zinfandel is America’s wine grape. Sure, there is primitivo, a distant cousin from Italy, but zinfandel is the only grape that truly has roots here.  When friends from San Francisco had to make a “zinfandel run” to northern Sonoma County and suggested we accompany them for some tastings and lunch, we freed our calendars and made it happen.  It had been some time since we did this and our companion’s quarterly allocations were

Seghesio Home Ranch Vineyard

Seghesio Home Ranch Vineyard

building up at two separate wineries, each producing very diverse styles of zinfandel.  Anticipating that the tastings would be very distinctive, I was also interested in releases of other varietals.

The Dry Creek Valley, located fifteen miles north of Santa Rosa, has the warmest climate in the area, sandwiched between the Russian River and Alexander Valleys.  The terroir in this region is more conducive to zinfandel than pinot noir or chardonnay, typical in most of the county.  Today’s stops, Mazzocco Sonoma, part of the Wilson Family Wines empire, and historical Seghesio Family Vineyards in Healdsburg, both construct highly acclaimed zinfandel with completely divergent views on how the varietal should be expressed.

Worth mentioning, Wilson Family Wines own eight different wineries in Sonoma County, as far south as St. Anne’s Crossing in Kenwood to Jaxon Keys Winery in Hopland, CA to the north.  Four

Mazzocco Winery

Mazzocco Winery

wineries focus on zinfandel, two on cabernet sauvignon in the Alexander Valley, one daring soul pursues pinot noir and the matriarch Wilson Winery produces a variety including petite sirah and syrah.  Many of their wines were awarded gold medals in Sonoma Harvest Fest and the San Francisco Chronicle Wjine Competition.

Edoardo Seghesio first planted his Home Ranch Vineyard, north of Geyserville, in 1895, following his instincts that it was the right terroir for zinfandel, petite sirah and many Italian varietals.  “Today, Seghesio owns over 300 acres of estate vineyards and farms nearly one hundred acres of outside vineyards making them one of the largest producers in the region. History and a commitment to the land has been rewarded with an ideal platform for producing consistent quality wines.  We didn’t know what Spring releases they were pouring, but foresaw that some special single vineyard and reserves would be included.

In the land of zinfandel, the first three wines we tasted were Italian varietals, including the dry, herbal 2015 Seghesio Vermentino ($22), a rare white varietal, dry with nice expressions of fruit and a minerality that defined its character.  Excepting those from Burgundy, European white varietals are unfairly overlooked and many consumers are missing opportunities to add diversity to their taste buds.  Also dry, but fruity, the 2013 Seghesio Sangiovese ($30) is soft, with a nice creamy structure carried through the finish.  There are many very fine releases of sangiovese, used to produce chianti from Tuscany.  This is another good one.

With roots in the Barolo wines from Italy’s Piedmont region, barbera typically shows deep colors and earthy flavors.  When I unexpectedly encounter a good California barbera, I often take a bottle home including the 2013 Seghesio Barbera ($30).  Deep, ruby hues and soft,

Seghesio Barbera

Seghesio Sonoma County Zinfandel

102017b_11Barbera_F

Seghesio Family Vineyard Barbera Alexander Valley

accessible flavors are enhanced by a balanced structure and deep color that seemed to glow when held up to the light.  This one will pair perfectly with pasta or mushroom risotto. Seghesio also produces other Italian varietals, arneis, pinot grigio and fiano, in estate-owned vineyards, both in the Russian River and Alexander valleys.

“The Cortina Vineyard, named after the loamy soil that exists on the site, has been farmed by Seghesio since 1957. Known for its subtle, elegant flavors, the 2013 Seghesio Zinfandel Cortina Vineyard ($40) was awarded 94-points by Wine Spectator magazine. In addition to the soft flavors, I found great bouquet and texture to this exceptional wine.

Using old zinfandel vines and a small amount of petite sirah grapes from their flagship Alexander Valley Home Ranch Vineyard and gnarly vines from the Saini Beach Vineyard in the Dry Creek Valley, the 2013 Seghesio “Old Vine” Zinfandel ($40) is a dry, austerely luscious wine with balanced structure and a nice spice character to the flavor. Enjoy the wine by itself or try BBQ meats that would enhance the spice.

Using a blend of old and young zinfandel vines and a small touch of petite sirah for color and softer flavors, the 2013 Seghesio Zinfandel Home Ranch Vineyard (58) expresses an earthy bouquet that transcends into the flavors.  The “Home Ranch” had the softest creamy texture of all the wines tasted, leaving me no choice but to take a bottle home to my cellar.

Seghesio Home Ranch Zinfandel

Seghesio Home Ranch Zinfandel

Sonoma Valley’s Pagani Vineyard has been literally deeply rooted in the soil and the fabric of the regional zinfandel community since 1887.  It is dry-farmed, creating deep-rooted vines and fruit that produce rich, potent flavors, yet express a lighter structure than the other zinfandels we tasted. This defines the 2012 Seghesio Zinfandel Pagani Vineyard ($48). It is fascinating when the special, unchanged characteristics of an old vineyard can produce uniquely identifiable wines, vintage to vintage.

Seghesio produces many wines at different levels, many are available at local outlets.  The single vineyard releases, at a higher price, are available online, from the winery and wine shops, offering the truest picture of their finest efforts. After lunch, we would drive north a few miles to the heart of the Dry Creek Valley where Mazzocco Sonoma specializes in a different style of zinfandel.

Mozzacco is a very welcoming place, located on Lytton Springs Road, north of Healdsburg.  It does produce cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and other varietals but its focus is on high alcohol, lively and fruity zinfandel, mostly from designated vineyards.  To prepare our palates, the tasting opened with a 100% sauvignon blanc, a white wine sourced from the Alexander Valley.

ZIN_RES_SMITH

Mazzocco Reserve Zinfandel Smith Orchard

The crisp and fragrant 2015 Mazzocco Sauvignon Blanc ($28) created in a New Zealand style, was a very nice beginning that expressed stone fruit aromas with vibrant grapefruit flavors and mineral elements on the finish.  As one who usually prefers a softer, creamy style, I liked the grapefruit accents and would recommend this refreshing wine for hot, summer afternoons.  This was a good beginning, but it was time to enjoy four single vineyard zinfandel releases, all highly acclaimed.

Awarded gold medals over the past three years by the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition, the 2013 Mazzocco Zinfandel Briar Vineyard ($29), estate-owned with seven percent petite sirah, was intense from bouquet to palate with wild berry flavors and a hint of spice on the finish.  Another highly acclaimed zinfandel in both the San Francisco Chronicle and Sonoma Wine Competitions, the 2013 Mazzocco

Mazzocco Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley

Mazzocco Zinfandel Dry Creek Valley

Zinfandel Reserve, Warms Springs Ranch ($52) conveys a myriad of aromas and flavors ranging from floral hints to roasted nuts and spice from mid-palate through finish, jammy, but at the same time, elegant.  The “Warm Springs” was the best illustration of their signature fruit-forward Mazzocco wines.

From the heart of the Dry Creek appellation, with deep volcanic soils, the 2013 Mazzocco Zinfandel Reserve West Dry Creek Vineyard ($52) delivers concentrated, balanced fruit and berry flavors with accents of cocoa and pepper throughout the finish. This wine is meant to be enjoyed outdoors with some nice gorgonzola cheese.

They saved one of their best reserve zinfandels for our last wine. From their highest elevation vineyard at 2,400-foot, with iron-rich soils that allow the fruit to mature slowly, the 2013 Mazzocco Zinfandel Reserve Smith Orchard Vineyard ($52) expressed rich, diverse flavors ranging from currant jam and anise to chocolate and creme brûlée.  This is truly a luscious zinfandel that caught the attention of Robert Parker/Wine Advocate who awarded it 91-points, citing a combination of intensity and balance.

Wine Spectator, National Geographic Traveler and Sunset magazines have recently published articles recommending travel to Sonoma County for its rich food, wine, culture and open space.  While the world-famous pinot noir and cool-climate chardonnay are the stars of this region, travelers should not miss an opportunity to experience the zinfandel and other varietals in the north end.  Along with Paso Robles, Lodi and Calaveras County, the Dry Creek Valley is at the table with California’s best and these two wineries afford a fine   opportunity to enjoy different styles, each excellent in their own way.

 


The Wines of Kelowna

Photos by Ron Siddle 

An interest in wine and golf led us to southern British Columbia to explore the delights of Kelowna and

Kelowna skyline

Kelowna skyline

surrounding areas that boast of their numerous wineries and challenging golf courses, an abundance of lakes and a nearby ski resort.  While nine rounds of golf in six days topped our itinerary, we found time to explore one of Kelowna’s wine trails, tasting some very nice releases and discovering several new varietals.

With nearly 180,000 permanent residents, Kelowna is the warmest and driest part of British Columbia, making it a great destination for summer water sports on Okanagan Lake, voted “#2 Best Beaches in Canada” by the 2011 Trip Advisor Readers Choice Awards. There are eighteen championship golf courses in Kelowna and many more majestic mountain lakes north in Vernon.  In the winter months, Big White Ski Resort, less than an hour from town, is known for great powder and available rentals.

The view from Cedar Creek Estate Winery in Kelowna British Columbia, looking towards Lake Okanagan. RON SIDDLE/Valley Press

The view from Cedar Creek Estate Winery in Kelowna British Columbia.

In addition to vineyards, Kelowna also produces wonderful organic fruits in acres of orchards and is Canada’s’ major producer of goat cheese.  Locally, around the lake, there are five distinct wine trails and over thirty wineries. We began our exploration along the western shore of Okanagan Lake, among hillside vineyards, beautiful vistas and beaches, at one of the pioneer wine producers of the region.

Established in 1987 and twice recognized as Canada’s Winery of the Year, Cedar Creek Winery is a magnificent property with nineteen current releases on their menu. Most of them were

Cedar Creek Ehrenfelser

Cedar Creek Ehrenfelser

available for tasting including an 100% ehrenfelser that, outside of Germany, is produced primarily in Kelowna and sparsely in Washington State.  A grape with lineage to riesling and silvander, the 2014 Cedar Creek Ehrenfelser ($17) is a fresh white wine that expresses stone fruits on the nose and multi-layered ripe fruit flavors on the palate.  Others preferred the 2014 Cedar Creek Pinot Gris ($18) that is slightly more acidic with less residual sugar.  Aged in French oak for 35 days, the pinot gris, common to the Pacific Northwest, revealed ”floral fruit” and melon flavors. A Gold Medal Winner at he 2015 All Canadian Wine Championships, the sweeter 2014 Cedar Creek Gewürztraminer ($16) added aromas of ginger and anise to the mid-palate flavors.

Fermented three separate ways, in stainless steel, large foudre casks and traditional oak barrels, the Cedar Creek

Cedar Creek Platinum M

Cedar Creek Platinum M

Estate Chardonnay ($17), the first of a flight, conveyed soft tropical fruit flavors with a buttery nut finish.  The second wine, the 2014 Cedar Creek Platinum Block 5 Chardonnay ($28) expressed strong hints of green apple on the nose and palate with a nice minerality on the finish. The last wine of the flight, the 2010 Cedar Creek Platinum M ($53) is clearly a sweet dessert wine with over 70% residual sugar.  Fortified with spirits, small amounts of chardonnay are placed in miniature casks and baked in the sun for five years resulting in rich, concentrated fruit flavors.

Onward to the red wines, beginning with two pinot noir releases.

Surprisingly, pinot noir grows well in Cedar Creek’s estate vineyards, mostly those near the water.  To achieve rich, fuller flavors, the vines are thinned during the growing season, eliminating all but the best clusters.  As a result, the small production 2013 Cedar Creek Estate Pinot Noir($23) has classic mushroom and cherry aromas with more hints of strawberry on the palate.  From the vineyards best spot, the 2013 Cedar Creek Platinum Block 4 Pinot Noir ($56) is more muscular with aromas and flavors of spice and mocha throughout.

Cedar Creek has eleven acres of vineyards in nearby Osoyoos with rocky, well draining soil that force the vines to struggle during the growing period.  There is something about these “tough love” soils that push the vines to greatness.  This is the case with the 2013 Cedar Creek Platinum Desert Ridge Merlot ($37) that

Cedar Creek Desert Ridge Meritage

Cedar Creek Desert Ridge Meritage

expresses spicy aromas, rich dark berry flavors with nuances of coffee on the finish.  For my palate, this is an extraordinary merlot that would stand up nicely to blue cheese. From the same Osoyoos vineyard, the 2013 Cedar Creek Platinum Desert Ridge Meritage ($40) is a Bordeaux blend of 58% cabernet sauvignon, 22% cabernet franc, 14% merlot and 6% malbec that is fruit driven with all the structure necessary for a good wine.  It will pair well with a big, juicy steak.

Cedar Creek Winery is an impressive property suitable for fancy picnicking, sortable events and further exploration through vineyard tours.  We were very excited about tasting their wines and recommend it as a “must stop” when in Kelowna.

The view from St. Hubertus

The view from St. Hubertus

Historical, with first vine plantings in 1928, a stable 30-year ownership and sustainable farming practices all describe the St. Hubertus and Oak Bay Estate Winery, our next stop along the wine trail. The grounds of St. Hubertus are more rustic than Cedar Creek, but quaint and charming, suitable for picnics and gatherings.  The wines are low production and estate grown with attention to detail at every step of the process.

To begin, I enjoyed my first taste of the popular Swiss grape, chasselas.  The 2014 St. Hubertus Chasselas ($20) is light and crisp with very accessible flavors and a nice lemon zest finish.  A perfectSt-Hubertus-Riesling pair with Swiss raclette cheese or sushi.  Aside from the floral aromas, the major characteristic of the 2013 St. Hubertus Riesling ($17) is the nicely balanced green apple flavors, not overpowering, but forever present.

Still surprised to see the pinot noir varietal in British Columbia, we had to taste the 2012 Oak Bay Pinot Noir ($20).  It’s hard to compare it with the opulent pinot noir from Sonoma County or Oregon, but I found this wine to be a nice well-structured, medium-bodied pinot with classic vanilla and cherry aromas and flavors.  Continuing to experience varietals rare to the United States, the 2012 Oak Bay Marechal Foch ($22), with dark ruby color, was the biggest and boldest wine of the day.  Marechal Foch is a varietal mostly grown in the Loire Valley of France, with some plantings in Oregon’s

Oak Bay Marechal Foch

Oak Bay Marechal Foch

Willamette Valley. This vintage was rich and jammy with dark fruit, plum, spice and hints of tobacco everywhere.  The winery suggests pairing marechal foch with Coffee and Chocolate Braised Short Ribs, a sign of its power.  A small amount of chamboucin, a readily available French-American hybrid grape, is blended to enhance the characteristics of marechal foch.

Our last stop was the relatively new Ancient Hill Winery, a rural property located near the Kelowna Airport. There were vineyards on the property in the 1950s and 1960s that were converted to orchards.  The current

The vineyards at Ancient Hill Winery

The vineyards at Ancient Hill Winery

owners migrated to this region from the Netherlands in 2005 and re-planted vines on the property.  Today, they produce many varietals uncommon to California and the Pacific Northwest, not the case with our first tasting.

Fine pinot gris releases are common, especially in Oregon and we found that wineries in Kelowna produce very good ones at sensible prices.  The 2014 Ancient Hill Pinot Gris ($16) had a rich mouthfeel and spice flavors that followed fragrant floral aromas with hints of peaches and papaya, a good value at $16.

Having avoided rose’ thus far, I found the 2014 Ancient Hill Rose’ ($15)  too intriguing to pass up. Comprised of nearly 75% zweigelt with added gewürztraminer, baco noir and pinot noir, this rose’ has a vibrant color with complex spice and berry flavors, fruity, but not overly sweet.

A rare blend of two popular Austrian grapes, Zweigelt and Lemberger, the 2011 Ancient Hill “Lazerus” ($15)

 Ancient Hill Winery

Ancient Hill Winery

is a light red wine, aged entirely in stainless steel, that reveals the dark cherry and spice flavors of each varietal.  The blend changes each vintage, but the 2011 can be enjoyed by itself or with a light cheese.  Producing only 220 cases,  the 2012 Ancient Hill Pinot Noir ($17) is a lighter wine with some tannins that delivers nice spice and dark berry flavors mid-palate.

Abandoned by the French, the muscular baco noir varietal can now be mostly found in Canada and Washington State.  The bold 2012 Ancient Hill Baco Noir ($22) has become their flagship red delivering rich flavors of black cherry and plum with spice and hints of chocolate on the finish.  Aged in oak, this moderately price wine would stand up to any lamb and beef dish.

The Okanagan Valley wine region has much to offer any wine tourist, an abundance of wineries, great venues, different micro-climates that produces unique varietals at reasonable prices.  We barely scratched the surface of viticultural opportunities in the region.  My recommendation is to take advantage of the many wine tour options with pre-determined stops along the five wine trails, all with a designed driver.  Wine lovers must include British Columbia in a future vacation, especially if they enjoy, gorgeous mountains, lakes, food and all the recreational opportunities one can imagine.


Revenge for San Thomas

 

An April 2016 small headline read: “Cyclist killed in hit and run collision on San Thomas Expressway,” a very unfortunate repercussion of today’s crowded urban lifestyle as we all try to share access.  Today, the San Thomas Expressway, in the South Bay, is a crowded thoroughfare, extending from Highway 17 at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains to Highway 101, linking west Santa Clara Valley commuters to the likes of Apple, Google and Oracle.   Unless there is an accident or normal congestion, people take it for granted, hardly noticing what surrounds it and never comprehending what lies beneath it.  On the same day of the fatal collision, the Valley Transportation Agency announced the start of The  San Thomas Expressway Box Culvert Repair project.

After reading that, “The project will repair the floors and walls of the four-mile-long San Thomas Creek concrete drainage channel,” I stopped, letting  my mind transport me back to earlier years.  Ironically, the 1961 completion of the San Thomas Expressway was one milestone that marked the end of my childhood.  After homes replaced the orchard in 1957, new and old neighborhood kids still had the creek to play in.  Not learning its name until they were turning it into a box culvert, the San Thomas Aquino Creek, named for Catholic philosopher Saint Thomas Aquinas was a natural open creek that carried storm water from streams in the Santa Cruz Mountains to San Francisco Bay via the exact route of the new expressway.  Actually, the kids in our neighborhood were serviced by a short, half-mile stretch of the creek that connected Saratoga Road to Stevens Creek Road, both upgraded to boulevard status years ago as they were also expanded in a never-ending crusade to end gridlock.

Our creek had everything.  Although water flow was scarce in non-winter months, there were always pools filled with tadpoles, lizards scurrying across the banks, loquats, berries and small bushes that tasted like licorice.  A special part of the creek lie ahead, a 500-foot stroll up from the Forest Avenue entrance.  The tiny stream meandered to the right, creating a beach of small stones, all under a large willow tree that made it a natural clubhouse that we named “Sandy Beach.”    We met there, planned adventures and argued there.  We talked about things that we weren’t supposed to, there.   Four hybrid mutts, Budd, Paul, Steve and I, wove time for the creek into every summer day.  Morning basketball in Paul’s driveway, grape soda in the party room that Steve’s parents build behind their house and wiffle ball games in my makeshift backyard stadium still left us plenty of time to enjoy Sandy Beach and to be annoyed when others would use it.

Another quarter-mile past Sandy Beach was the dreaded tunnel under Stevens Creek Road, a simple underground passage, not claustrophobic, that was always terrifying for me to pass through.  Local crime stories, graffiti on the walls and other evidence that people had been there provided ample justification for my young imagination to create many horrifying scenarios.  I never walked, but ran as fast as I could when I had to endure the tunnel.  There was no sky, no trees, just ugly concrete and stale air.

A similar scenario to the 1957 removal of our orchard playground, we ushered in a new decade in 1960 watching workers cut a deep, wide trench in the vacant land, parallel to the creek.  Nothing actually needed to cover our special part of the stream, but the decision was made to channel all the water through a culvert underneath the new expressway.  Left with no value, the creek would be filled in within the next few days as if nothing ever existed there.  San Thomas Aquino Creek, where life was once abundant, died and was buried in a concrete tomb.

I was disappointed and angry, but not as much as Paul.  No one ever consults the neighborhood kids before progress moves in unannounced.  Frustration and a sense of helplessness led to this moment in time for Paul and I.  A series of events over the next few days, a shared, private experience, allowed us to move on from our loss.

Paul moved into one of the new houses with his single mother and grandmother.  He was short, with an athletic build, a dirty blond crew cut and an oversized mouth that would make Mick Jagger envious.  He was very competitive and sports or anything he put his mind to quickly became easy.  Although we didn’t realize it yet, Paul was smarter than the rest of us.  He also liked things that went fast and had a temper, now directed at the new concrete villain.

I was nervous as usual but Paul kept insisting that we needed to face the new culvert.  “C’mon,” he said, “The workers are gone and no one will come back until Monday. Nothing’s gonna happen.”  I hated tunnels and was always afraid of getting caught, but succumbed to Paul’s insistence, thinking we could at least share the blame.  With a few hours of sunlight left, we entered the deep open drench and walked a few hundred feet to the opening of the newest completed section of the concrete channel.  From this point forward, it was a tunnel and I began to breathe harder and to take shorter steps.  Fortunately, I would soon be distracted.

“Hey, what are these?” asked Paul as he knelt and started tinkering with something.  Placed evenly along the concrete lip of the large box culvert were small, red Homelite motors that were attached to large hoses used to evacuate any nuisance water from the bottom floor as the work was being done.  Later in life we would all learn that Paul had an incredible mechanical mind, but this moment was the first hint of it.   He glanced up at me and I quickly recognized the look of determination.  “Ya know,” he said, and I could almost see his brains synapses working, “we could use one of these.”

With less than an incredible mechanical mind, I began to ask why, then stopped as I noticed the huge smile on Paul’s face.  I knew what he was thinking and I asked the question, “You’re not talking about my old go-kart, are you?”

“Yes,” he responded, “We can do this.”

I had a go-kart frame that had hung on the wall of my garage since the last blown engine and my waning interest in racing.  Paul had always wanted to get it running again, but my family was through putting money into it.  He looked at the motor.  “They’ll never miss it,” he said with a smile.  There was no going back for either of us.

We ran back to his garage to retrieve a wrench, a screwdriver and a flashlight, standard tools for a heist of this magnitude.  Within minutes, we were re-entering the culvert as the sun was setting and, in rapid time, Paul had freed the motor.  Those of us who knew him were aware of Paul’s two-stage laugh.  When something was reasonably funny, it was a smile, a softly muttered “huh” as his head and upper body rocked back.   The second stage, following something very funny or expressing enthusiasm, involved a big, loud, sometimes mischievous, laugh, arms and feet moving. He was getting excited about our new project and what was motivating us. As much as I enjoyed the big infectious laugh, this was not the time for it.  Changing the mood, I said, “Let’s just get this thing out of here and worry about the rest later.”

One on each side, we lifted the motor, carried it out of the culvert and across the now useless bridge, down Forest Avenue and past my house to Paul’s garage.  He checked in with his mother and I heard him say, “Lyle got a new motor for his go-kart and we need to work on it a little more.”  She said fine as long as he had dinner first.  A few minutes later, we hauled the motor to my garage as I informed my parents that it belonged to Paul.   Everything was okay, but now, my dinner was ready.  By the time that I finished, Paul had the engine mounted on the frame with one bolt and two small vice grips, an imperfectly acceptable short-term solution.  “We’ll finish it tomorrow,” he said, flashing me the small laugh before he ran home.

The next morning Paul was at my house before I finished breakfast.  By mid-morning, he had hooked up everything except the throttle.  These were gasoline-powered motors that were not intended to run a vehicle, but a solution was at hand that needed my approval.  “I’m just telling you this,” he said, “because you’re the one that going to be driving this thing first.”  Paul then explained his idea of connecting the throttle to a piece of cord that I would pull with my right arm to accelerate while driving with my left hand.  Those of us without mechanical skills must assume other roles, such as “guinea pig.”

We rolled the modified go-kart onto the driveway and Paul started the motor by tugging a built-in cord with a wooden handle on the end.  A small tug from my cord and I began to move forward.  Now in the street, I pulled cautiously, getting comfortable at each speed until I was at full throttle.  Who knows how fast I was going, but sitting six inches above the surface, I felt like I was breaking the land speed record at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah.  After slowing to a crawl and making an awkward U-turn, I accelerated for the return trip and saw Paul down the street, waving his arms and running in circles.  It was the big laugh.

We took turns driving the go-kart all weekend.  We drove it everywhere, sometimes illegally, not the best idea when your powered by a stolen motor.  We cared little, it was great fun and both of us felt in control.  Our revenge had been imposed for losing the creek.

By late Sunday afternoon, we were both getting bored with driving our “rocket machine,” and having achieved our goal, agreed that there was only one more thing to do.  As inconspicuously as we have retrieved the motor, we quietly disconnected it from the frame, gathered a few tools and returned it to the culvert as we said good-bye to the creek.  Paul was right.  They never knew it was gone. That evening, through my bath, the Ed Sullivan Show and the first few minutes after my head hit the pillow, I though about our escapades and fell asleep smiling.  It was something we had to do.

As irony would have it, both Paul and I would be driving soon and the new San Thomas Expressway helped us get to where we needed to go.  Months ago, over 50 years from our special weekend, Paul and I shared dinner and a bottle of wine.  Sometime between the salad and the entree, he leaned over and asked, “Do you remember the time we stole the Homelite motor?”

“Of course,” I responded, hoping for the big laugh.

 


The Earthquake Game

 

Wow!  Here we were, sitting in section 6, Row 10 seats one and two,  a couple of seasoned baseball fans, ages 41 and 11, taking in the surroundings of Candlestick Park, attending our first World Series game in 1989 between the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland Athletics.  My son, Ryan and I had tickets to the 1987 World Series games scheduled in San Francisco that never happened  A costly error sent the St. Louis Cardinals there instead.

This year, we broke the hearts of Cubs fans, those who had waited longer than us.  No regrets.  Our team, not the Cubs, had advanced to the World Series for the first time since the 1962 San Francisco Giants were defeated by those damn New York Yankees in the last inning of the last game, missing greatness by only a few inches.  The tickets for tonight’s game came via the friend of the mother of a colleague named Steve.  Ironically, it was friends in Los Angeles who “scored” our tickets for this all San Francisco Bay Area World Series.  The seats were great, upper deck, right behind home plate, a bit high, but we could see everything from here.  Due to strange winds, the jets from SFO were using an alternative flight pattern that took them roaring above the stadium, inciting the crowd of 50,000 people, hungry for blood after a 27-year drought.   At 5:00 pm, the players were finishing their warm-ups and national media was beginning to present our anthem to a national audience, sung a capella by local band, Huey Lewis and the News.  Brief eye contact and a quick smile toward each other reassured us that this was going to a memorable night.

Absorbing all the visual and audible images of this moment, I thought back to when I was selected as one of two mandatory eight-year-olds on the Lions youth baseball team in 1956.  I never played but got to sit in the dug-out with the twelve-year-olds and began to develop a passion for the game.  Then, the large book, The History of Baseball, a birthday gift from my parents, taught me everything I needed to know up until 1957.  With the surprising news that the New York Giants, with young star, Willie Mays, were moving to San Francisco for the 1958 season, I was instantly consumed, spending many of my summer days over the next few years, lying around in the yard listening to the game through a transistor radio held to my ears.

As I do during each memorable baseball experience, I also remembered  Mr. Robert Ishimatsu, our former neighbor and a person responsible for my love of the game.  Amid some neighborhood concern when the Ishimatsu family first moved next door in 1955,  my parents became vocal on the right side of the issue and our families became good friends, me especially with their son, Marty.   Two years later, when I visited Marty in the hospital after he became ill, I fully expected him to come home soon.  He did not, leaving his parents and two young sisters to quietly mourn.

One day, in the early summer of 1958, I had deposited myself on the backyard lawn with transistor radio in hand,  listening to the latest sports news when a soft, clear voice from the other side of the fence, said, “Hey Butch, would you like to go to the game today.”  It was Mr. Ishimatsu.  I was elated.  My transition from radio to a real game was long overdue.   I answered affirmative  and I thanked him until he politely asked me to stop.  Bob Ishimatsu took me to ten or so games over the next few years, all of them great memories, quietly cathartic for both of us.   To this day, I think of him every time I attend a baseball game.

My passion for the game dipped during the ensuing years.  An inability to hit a curve ball rendered it totally a spectator sport and normal distractions in high school and college pushed it back into my subconscious, including meeting and marrying a women who found baseball slow, boring and a temptation to eat junk food, preferring an active soccer match instead.  However, we had two sons together and my suppressed love for the game began to re-emerge.

My wife, Karen and four year-old son Cole stayed home in Los Angeles during this World Series.  Cole was too young to understand, but still a Giants fan in training.  Ryan and I worked together to suppress any influence from his new little friends who would most likely grow up being Dodger fans, something totally intolerable.  Supervising a “play-date” with these new friends,  Karen paused to answer the phone, responding, “Oh, hi Steve, what’s up.”  Hanging up the phone seconds later, she turned on the television and, for the first time in her life, became interested in a baseball game.

The tremor was loud and violent, like an explosion.  At first, it was sheer panic, instinctively reaching to brace myself, totally in the moment.  I reached for Ryan while looking up to see 200-foot light standards waving like the outfield flags.  Surprisingly, my first coherent thought was a recollection that Candlestick Park was built in 1960 on landfill in the San Francisco Bay.  The seemingly endless, muscular vibrations would surely take us down. Then it stopped, everything stopped, for a moment.  There was silence.  Strangely what followed the shaking and the stillness was jubilation.  With San Francisco and Oakland as the competitors, the crowd was mostly Bay Area locals who had lived to tell their past earthquake stories.  The only question was how long the game would be delayed.

Ryan seemed okay, although experiences like this one can linger.  I was still thinking of our vulnerability, sitting atop the saddle of a twenty-nine-year-old stadium built on land that was once water. The fans around us instantly became a community, providing updates, ironically, from transistor radios, the only reliable source of information available at a 1989 baseball game.  For the next hour, the least informed people in the country, regarding this most current event, were the people in the stadium.  At one point, someone shouted that the Bay Bridge had collapsed, later clarified to a section that fell into San Francisco Bay.  Otherwise, local officials were reporting no serious damage or injuries.  I also learned that only the parking lot, not the stadium, was built on landfill and even it did not fall into the bay.

That next thing to occur was the most surrealistic image of the entire experience.  Fifty-thousand baseball fans, calm, patiently waiting for the game to begin, were soon watching chaos on the field.  While the fans were local earthquake veterans, the players, the player’s wives, the New York media broadcasting the game were from various other places throughout the country as well as from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela, hotbeds for grooming the game’s future stars.  Uniformed players were hugging their distraught trophy wives or girlfriends, guiding them to safety as they maneuvered their stilettos across manicured turf.  Soon, anyone who was in the catacombs beneath the stadium was on the playing field seeking the safety of open space and local law enforcement officials were responding to what could turn into a significant event.

With no public address system or electricity for the scoreboard, the fans stayed until Huey Lewis exited through the centerfield fence as dozens of police cars entered and surrounded the field.  The game was over before it started.  Soon, after word of mouth from ushers,  disappointed fans stood up and quietly exited the stadium.  We had avoided tragedy, but the night was still young.

After exiting into the parking lot, Ryan and I hovered around an ABC truck that gave us access to the television, covering what we were in the middle of.   We looked up as a small truck, driven by Giants manager Roger Craig, drove by with several players riding in the rear bed, reminding me how Mr. White would transport our team to little league games.  But professional prima donna baseball players, riding in the back of their manager’s truck was not what we had planned to see tonight.   The evening was rapidly moving beyond baseball.

The setting sun injected a new challenge to the situation, darkness.  Tonight, we would not benefit from light of the modern night.  No street lights, no neon, just a glow from the Marina District to the north, becoming visible as we accessed higher ground in our new station wagon.  We were then directed to an alternate route when leaving the stadium.  Expecting to turn right onto the access road to Highway 101, less than a half mile away, we were all forced to turn left and proceed through Hunter’s Point, a neighborhood that had dealt with inadequate street lighting and law enforcement protection for decades.  Soon, we sat in gridlock, in a bad neighborhood during a declared city emergency, the only illumination coming from car headlights,  We were sitting ducks on a pond.

Already feeling uneasy, we began to hear the sounds of breaking glass, Soon, several looters were using baseball bats to shatter store windows, helping themselves to what was inside.   Our worst scenario happened after one of them glanced toward the street and saw targets, unable to run.  First, there was a shattered windshield of the Corvette a few cars ahead of us.   Then, there was another loud and violent explosion.  The rear window of our car was splintered,  our shocked bodies jolted from fear.

For the first time, Ryan’s sounds of distress pushed my adrenaline and anger to the point of giving him bold assurances that no one would enter our car.  Sounding tougher than I was, it was time to find a way out.  Sirens were approaching which would give us some cover and survival instincts seem to be an antidote for traffic congestion.  We were moving again.

We turned left, drove awhile, then turned right because it looked hopeful.  Always boasting of my directional acumen, I had no idea where we were.  Soon, my headlights illuminated a very brave man, standing alone next to a motorcycle, waving his arms off to the right of his body.   “This way,” he yelled. “Turn this way.”   We did, shouting a thanks through our fractured window.  A few hundred feet ahead, the road veered to the left and there it was, a green CalTrans sign that read “San Jose Ave South.”  No longer lost, we would be at our friend’s house in thirty minutes.

Surviving the trauma, we began to feel safe again.  However, after continued assurances of public safety, the radio was now reporting numerous casualties, a collapsed freeway and multiple fires in the Marina District, real tragedies of the day my oldest son and I attended our first World Series game.


The Orchard

 

As a child, I can remember being awakened by the sound of an irrigation pump, sucking the water from the nearby artesian well to the surface and out to the ditches that I called canals.  I was excited to hear it.  It meant that there was movement in the orchard and things would be changing soon.  The mustard plants were already a few feet tall.  Soon they would be taller than me, providing a bright yellow carpet beneath the prune trees that were blossoming their way out of dormancy.   With the onset of summer, the orchard would become much darker, much cooler from heavy new growth.  This was my first memory of spring, growing up in post WWII Santa Clara Valley.  From my bedroom window, I could look past our new lawn, through a small vacant lot right into the orchard, my personal forest and an ever-changing playground for the kids in this first new neighborhood

Early in Jack London’s “Call of the Wild,” he describes “the sun-kissed Santa Clara Valley” through the image of “an endless array of outhouses, long grape arbors, green pastures, orchards and berry patches.”   This was still true in 1955, even the old portable toilets that seemed to magically appear just before picking season.  My family was among the thousands that pioneered the growth of suburbia in west San Jose, California, proud, at the time, to be called “the second fastest growing city in America.”  My father installed hardwood floors in new homes, start to finish.  He was harvesting a different crop and the bounty was endless.

I was happy.  I had my orchard,  a place to play with my friends, a place to be alone.  Here, I could become Davy Crockett,  the rugged historical character portrayed by actor Fess Parker on the Mickey Mouse Club television program in vivid black and white.  The coonskin cap was a nice touch but the orchard, along with my imagination, brought him to life.  We built forts or formed multiple room apartments in the mustard plants, adding more space when needed by tucking and rolling our bodies to smash the plants down.  I was small, the perfect size for creating a hallway.

Now that the water from the pump was running, Steve, Eddie and I would curb our boredom by challenging each other to stick races in the canals.  Personalized sticks or whatever would float, were placed in the water near the pump for a boost, then we would all run to a place far upstream and wait for the results that were seldom accepted without argument.   Sometimes we would watch the end of a race from one of the large walnuts trees, dispersed among the rows of blossoming, soon to be fruit-bearing, prune trees.

The walnut trees gave us high ground, a look-out and a place to be inconspicuous.   Climbing up first, I had the element of surprise and ammunition, fresh from the tree.  While young, the hard, wrinkly walnut shell is encased in a soft, green, pulpy husk that fit well into a young hand, good for throwing at others, firm enough to sting, but not damage.  The unripened nuts were perfect projectiles and every kid on the block had survived a walnut fight.   Eddie was the smallest but could throw harder than anyone else.   “C’mon, stop,” I yelled, “didn’t you hear me call truce?”  He would eventually stop, reminding me, once again, not to start a walnut fight unless I could finish it.

Periodically we would hear strange music in the distance and rush to climb another walnut tree to listen to the Colonel play bagpipes.   The Colonel was a short, bald European-looking man who, while sitting on a bench under a small arbor, would unknowingly serenaded us with his unusual, haunting melodies.  We always had a perfect spot, we could see him, but he couldn’t see us.  Steve thought that the Colonel had been in the French Foreign Legion, something he thought of anyone with an accent.  “It’s just what I heard,” he scowled, defending himself against our insistence on proof. We should have introduced ourselves to the Colonel and, hopefully, heard some of his stories from the past.  Maybe we would have been disappointed.  He would forever remain a mystery, but the sound from his bagpipes formed a lasting memory.

While the walnut trees gave us so much, they had a way of consistently taking their pound of flesh, mostly in the form of long, deep, hard wood splinters in our hands and feet.  We could push the small ones out by squeezing our skin together, but the deep ones required a quasi-surgical procedure that involved a sometimes sterilized sewing needle, tweezers and my double-teaming parents, one holding me steady while the other performed the extraction.  My father was ex-Marine and a survivor of two battles in the Pacific.  He only knew one way to remove large splinters and each time he would declare, “This is going to hurt, but I will do it as fast as I can.”   It did hurt and always seemed to last longer than it should.  Splinters were an inevitable consequence of life among the walnut trees, but the fun was worth the pain.

One day in 1957, grading equipment appeared and soon a small paved street separated us from the orchard.  They named the street Forest Avenue, which seemed fitting.  It was installed by the city of Santa Clara which meant that we had lived on the undesignated border between the two cities all along.   The short-term pleasure in playing catch with neighbor Billy, each of us standing in a different city, was short-lived.   The graders didn’t leave and our lives were about to change.

Within a few weeks, large trapezoidal mounds of dirt appeared, the tops as wide as a road.  Still not fully comprehending what was happening, we quickly discovered a thrill in running off the top of the mounds to see how far we would sink into the sloping banks.   One time the dirt was above my knees, making it nearly impossible to escape without some tugging from others.  I joked that little Eddie would surely sink all the way up to his neck.  He jumped anyway, flashing me a familiar hand gesture as he thrusted his legs forward, landing on his butt and sliding quickly to the bottom, tearing his jeans.  From a large family, he had younger brothers waiting for those future hand-me-downs, and his mother would not be happy.

Late in the afternoon, the large earth movers were abandoned by the workers and Steve discovered that, without keys, we could still make them lunge forward a few inches simply by pushing the starter button.  We spent nearly an hour taking turns pushing the button until we had moved the behemoth maybe five feet forward.  That was my last memory of playing in the orchard.   Many more graders and other large equipment appeared, much more activity ensued and the reality set in that Forest Avenue would be a connector street for the new neighborhood, hundreds of six-thousand square-foot parcels replacing one orchard.  Less food, more people.   The pride in being recognized as the nation’s second fast fastest growing city came with some harsh physical truths.  In those days, no one protested or chained themselves to a tree.  Growth was progress.  Safely into my ninth year, maybe it was time for me to move on from the orchard.  Besides, Davy Crockett didn’t make it.  His battles were over.

Everybody went about their business as the new neighborhood progressed from sticks to walls.  Coming upon a fallen walnut tree made me briefly sad and nostalgic, but, for the most part, our lives didn’t change.  Some of the prune trees, those not in the way, were spared to help sell homes.  Buy a house, gain a free fruit tree.  Our orchard had become a sacrificial lamb to the American Dream.

Each spring revealed fewer blossoms.  The beauty of Jack London’s Santa Clara Valley could now mostly be found on postcards.  The new neighborhood unveiled scattered prune plum blossoms, but was now focused on the large production of a new crop that would later be called “baby-boomers.”  At first, they were nicknamed the “orchard kids,” but we welcomed our new friends as seamlessly as we said goodbye to the orchard.  Newbies Cindy, Paul, Budd, Tim, the Long sisters and others integrated with Steve, Eddie, Susan, Jill and Glen from the old gang.  As we progressed through adolescence, it became one community with hardly a memory of what once was.

My sister, born in 1965, grew up, then raised her daughters in that old house, all without any reality of my treasured playground.  A few years ago, I was talking to my youngest niece about the way things once were and she asked, “Where was that orchard you were talking about?”  Getting into the car on our way to the mall, I pointed across Forest Avenue toward the aging homes and  answered,  “Right there.”

Things that never exist to some, survive in the minds of others.


A Garden Of Earthly Delights

 

It’s near, I can tell by the way the approaching hallway was quickly filling up with people as I walked through.  Hopefully, the crowds won’t be a distraction.  Knowing that I would be spending some days in Madrid in 2012, I made it a point to come to the Musee de Prado to view, among other pieces,  artist Hieronymous Bosch’s, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,”  the controversial 15th Century triptych that formed a college research project and began a lifetime passion for the arts and natural beauty in general.  As my eyes quickly brushed across the piece, left to right, I noticed an attractive, middle-aged woman, her brown eyes also fixated on Bosch’s bold images.

The left panel has been described as depicting Creation,  the serenity and beauty of its namesake forming a blissful scene while God introduces Eve to Adam.  In the large central panel, the artist begins to question our morality with scenes of increasing vice and unheeded warnings of future danger.  Chaos begins to emerge, presented theoretically with images, such as a man struggling to carry a large mussel shell partially encasing naked bodies, a curious metaphor.    Having done some research on the painting, I would have loved to spend an evening with Bosch, picking his fresh brain on details, after he completed the work in 1510.

The Garden of Eathly Delights

The Garden of Eathly Delights

The right panel is clearly Hell and Damnation, represented in an abstractly modern way, a fantasy of grotesque images, even by today’s standards.  We see musical instruments inflicting torture while a large rabbit carries a human corpse on the end of its spear.  Then, there he is, hiding behind some gnarled skeletal remains, Bosch, in self portrait, observing the carnage, looking unsurprised and expressionless.

As the crowd began to dissipate, my mysterious compatriot moved in for a closer look as did I.  Finally approaching her and, putting my hand on her shoulder, I whispered into her ear,  “This may sound corny, but I have observed this painting twice in my life, 43 years apart and, both times, the same woman was standing next to me.”   Smiling, my wife responded,  “I don’t think its corny, it’s kind of romantic.  Forty-three years doesn’t seem like much after looking at this.   And, before I forget,”  she continued,  We must see “Guernica” before we leave, it’s here in Madrid somewhere.”  “Guernica” is a famous Pablo Picasso abstract painting depicting the horror and aftermath of the bombing of a small village in northern Spain by Nazi and Italian planes.  Picasso had controversially submitted it as his contribution to the Spanish Exposition at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.  We had learned more about the painting at the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and Karen had already labeled it a “must see.”

"Guernica" by Pablo Picasso

“Guernica” by Pablo Picasso

Since that day in 1969, when we both, as undergraduate students, traveled to the DeYoung Museum in San Francisco and selected a piece of art to research for my final paper, our passion  began to grow into what has been has become a major part of our lives over the past 47 years.  Together, we have seen Monet’s “Water Lilies” at the Musee’ de L’Orangerie in Paris,  Chagall’s stained glass “Windows” at the Art Institute of Chicago, Cristo’s “Umbrellas,” Richard Serra’s 100 meter long “Snake” at the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, James Turrell’s evening exhibit at the Chichu Museum on Japan’s Naoshima Island and the Impressionists at the d’Orsey, always an aphrodisiac, enhanced during our last trip by a small room on Rue Clare and a cheap bottle of French wine.

The month of April 2012 in Spain was extraordinarily wet.  It was raining, days later when, after visiting “Guernica” at the Reina Sofia Museum, we boarded a train and left Madrid for parts south, Granada, Alhambra and Sevilla.  We were also bound for a cave that Karen had researched, located somewhere near the base of the Andalucia Mountains, containing art of a more primitive form.  She justified her desire to see the Pileta Cave by reminding me that we had a car reserved in Ronda and that we could visit the famous white hill towns nearby.

Karen had done most of the research for our 28-day journey, but the itinerary fluctuated as she immersed herself into each experience that generated new “must sees.”  Our normal paradigm is that I am initially reluctant to her changes and later, as men do, boast about them as if they were always my idea.  This experience was no different as we were about to discover more than Andalucia’s hill towns.

Most images of old Spain are based in Andalucia.  It is the home of bullfights, flamenco, gazpacho and, to our discovery, breathtakingly majestic landscapes and ancient history.  In Ronda, rain pushed us into a taxi from the train station to the hotel.  Curiosity and the need to walk sent us out in the rain, staring directly at Spain’s oldest bullring as we exited out into the street.  A hotel clerk directed us to turn left and keep walking until we came to Plaza de Espana and the new bridge. I am always entertained by the Old World’s  interpretation of time and this “Puente Nuevo”  project dated back to 1751, back when they made them like they used to.  As I asked for clarification, the clerk responded with very good, broken  English, “Don’t worry, you will know it when you see it.”

The walk down to the plaza was pleasant, but unremarkable.   Aside from the old bullfights and being the home of Ernest Hemingway, Ronda was a very charming city, but we anticipated that the true scenic drama would come from the white hill towns at hand.  Walking across the plain stone surface of the plaza, Karen, approached the railing first, looking out across at the bridge and softly muttered, “OK, this is pretty spectacular.”   I turned, responding to her and it appeared, a view so breathtaking, so unforeseen, that fresh words were not necessary. Continuing to stare in silence,  we could not have imagined that this unassuming bridge would span, bothRonda, Spain vertically and horizontally, the gorge locals called “El Tajo,” 400 feet deep, 200 feet wide, connecting us to La Cuidad, the old Moorish district, its ancient structures perched along the cliffs on the other side of the chasm.    As we continued to explore with a new adrenaline rush,  more staggering cliffs appeared and it was soon clear that Ronda was the most magical hill town in Andalucia.

Our month in Spain had left us with enduring memories but these cliffs, “El Tajo” with its bridge and the ancient structures were majestic, as awe-inspiring as the recent visual images by Picasso, Goya, Bosch and others.  Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and Gehry’s Guggenheim in Bilbao were magnificent, but did not overpower the striking natural beauty of Ronda.   Without much discussion, I realized that this was another “Garden of Earthly Delights” moment.  We had, again, "El Tajo"discovered something together that moved us, two very visual people, sharing a moment, locking in a memory.  This rainy afternoon in Ronda was mesmerizing, leaving us wanting more, but we had a “Ford something” reserved the next day and alluring places to be.  Both of us knew that we had not finished exploring Ronda.

The early morning rain made the white-knuckled drive over the steep and winding Cadiz Mountain pass the most quiet of our trip.  Healthy fear always trumps complaints of one’s driving or navigating.  More relaxed to be driving on the gently winding valley road, we soon approached the cozy village of Grazalema with its whitewashed buildings, red roofs and bright floral window boxes.  The extraordinary picturesque town,  Zahara, with white buildings spread out below an old fortified Moorish castle and the cliffs, simmering from the afternoon sun in Arcos were truly indelible images, a consistent theme of

Zahara, Spain

Zahara, Spain

Andalucia.   The evening return to Ronda on a two-lane highway was dry and flat, stimulating more conversation than the unnerving morning jaunt over the mountain.  We discussed our schedule for the next few days but it was difficult for me to think beyond wanting  to explore “El Tajo.”

We started early and the sun was shining.  Crossing the bridge and stealing yet another glance at the gorge, we entered La Cuidad seeking trail access to descend its walls. Passing the old building entrances that innocently faced the street, it is difficult to imagine that they are resting directly upon the top of the cliffs.   “I think this is it,” Karen proclaimed as a small path dissecting two structures appeared.  We followed it and soon were descending down into “El Tajo” with a perspective that seemed to reshape itself with every step.  The surrounding flora changed, the deeper we plunged.  The gorge became a series of unique ecosystems complete with waterfalls, blue ponds and green foliage, rooted in the rocky cliffs.  Our desires to photograph kept us mostly to ourselves but the experience was and will be forever ours.

The walk back up the canyon was equally stupendous, ending with a late lunch in one of those buildings roosted atop the cliffs with a view of the bridge.  It began to rain again and, feeling a bit overwhelmed, I suggested that we

Panoramic of Ronda

Panoramic of Ronda

forgo the Pileta Cave.  With a challenge disguised as an option, Karen replied, “You can do what you want, but I’m going to see what’s in there.”   Soon, I was making the somewhat unpleasant, dark, damp and slippery descent into a cave to view prehistoric finger painting, depicting animals and fish, evidence that the artists were familiar with the sea.  The experience was beyond description and, once again, I was appreciative of the spousalIMG_0391 nudge.

We left Ronda by train, vowing to return.  Although our next few days would be spent in Sevilla, Karen had made arrangements to debark the train for a few hours in Cordoba so that we could visit the Mezquita, an ancient temple with both Moorish and

Karen at the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain

Karen at the Mezquita in Cordoba, Spain

Christian influences.  Our time in Ronda and the Andalucia was still very much on my mind.  The experience, days after we revisited a significant piece of art in our lives, was a reminder that there are vast earthly delights to explore and, more significantly,  that we still had the passion to find them.

 


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.