At the Land’s End

It has been a long while since I managed to sit down and write something.  

The past 18 months have been a strange period for my family.   It started with an unprecedented amount of traveling, for various reasons—the combined distance that we traveled would have been able to circle the Equator.  It included a lengthy road trip from the Pacific Coast all the way to the Atlantic Coast, leading us to a new life in a completely different environment. Then the pandemic suddenly hit and we were confined.  Such solitude, in a relative sense, finally allowed me to contemplate in detail the places we had just been to—historic cities, scenic driveways, frozen waterfalls, and colorful deserts.  The expected and unexpected sights at each place, how they fulfilled my curiosity about nature and history, the conversations that each destination inspired us to have, and eventually, shreds of bitter-sweet nostalgia, all seemed to have precipitated into a dense spectrum of emotions.

The first place that leaped out of the emotional spectrum was a cool, soothing deep blue, blending clear, cloudless sky and topaz-like ocean.  It was Point Reyes.  Just 30 miles north of San Francisco, this National Seashore park felt like a different world.  Its quiet rolling hills, vast beaches, and idyllic wildlife made it one of our family’s favorite places to visit during our 14 years living in this area.  Our first visit was a weekend getaway back in the summer of 2012.  I can still vividly remember Emily’s joyful expressions when she waded along a creek in a miniature natural rain forest, pointed at a gang of grazing elk, and picked wild blackberries along the foothill roads.  That trip was the foreword of a colorful book that records our exploration of many natural wonders along the west coast of the country. 

In the early spring of 2018, we visited again.  After a strangely tiresome winter, we were hoping that a day’s escape would rejuvenate us.  Our Saturday morning drive there was a remarkable start, as the winter rains had dyed the hills with a verdant tinge, and the cool wind brought a palpable freshness of trees and grass through the car window.  The Bear Valley Visitor Center was located right at the entrance of the federally protected Point Reyes National Seashore.  A stroll in the grove next to the Visitor Center led us into a meadow surrounded by rows and rows of giant oak trees, many of which arched over the hiking trail, like humble, bearded guards.  At the heart of the grove there lay a recreated village of the Native American tribe that used to live herethe Coast Miwok.  A few “kotcas”, huts made with redwood bark, together with a fire pit and a larger gathering structure scattered around.  Despite these signs of human activity, we were the only humans there at the moment—no birds stopped their morning songs; even a fox in the grass only slightly turned its head to us as we passed by.  

An old oak tree with furrowed bark
Bear Valley Trail covered by arching trees

Then we drove on into the depth of the park.  The geography of Point Reyes is unique, as it is a cape, protruding from the smooth Northern California coastline.  On the map, it looks like a woodpecker clinging onto a tree.  And its presence outside the motherland, for some reason, seems to harbor a higher variety of scenery and wildlife.  Lagoons were studded among hills; reed-decorated narrow driveways connected groves and marshlands.  Two gangs of tule elk, a species only found in California, crossed our paths with a cautious leisure.  Then we started climbing onto higher grounds until we reached the westernmost point on top of a cliff.

Map

The view was spectacular, with a simple, unconfined grandeur that was composed of straight coastlines and smooth, deep blue ocean.  This was where I saw California’s coastal waters at their bluest, most mesmerizing state. Only when we saw the strings of broken waves near the coast did we realize that the water was moving.  Along the paved path leading to the very tip of the cape, giant cypress trees grew with a leaning postureharshness could get here after all, perhaps in the middle of the winter.  The path became more and more steep, serpentining among boulders, beyond which the ocean unfolded more of its eloquent details–its fine ripple patterns and gentle embraces with the rugged rocky coasts.  At the end of the path was a lighthouse, white, solitary, minuscule, just as many others along the California coast.  I oftentimes felt a similar sentiment upon visiting these lighthouses,  that the past of this young state had morphed so much in just a couple of centuries, and that many, myself included, tend to take its prosperity for granted.

Looking out at North Beach
Cliff-side view at the Pacific Ocean
Trail leading to the Lighthouse

The last stop of the day was Drakes Beach, just tucked by the southern corner of the cape.  This was Point Reyes’ most tender, intimate place, as a smooth beach was encircled by an array of ivory bluffs, and waves meandered up the sandy territory silently.  It was right before the mating season for elephant seals.  Quite a few had already picked their spots along the beach, resting, waiting, and ignoring the approaching curious tourists.  Only one of them rose its head and belched a series of loud noises, its demeanor content and carefree.  Emily was having the best time of the day.  Barefoot, she walked along the line where waves had ceased, leaving a row of shallow footprints.  Then she started leaping as she watched her reflections on the mirror-like water, which had been gilded with a gloriously golden hue by the setting sun.  In front of me it suddenly became a platform, spotlighted by the sun and gazed at by faraway hills, where my daughter was having her balletic strides, the curvature of her arms supple and graceful like the spring breeze.  My heart was heaped with warmth. 

The serene Drakes Beach with ivory bluffs
A ship-like rock at the beach during sunset
A proud elephant seal claiming territory
Emily’s joyous leap

Point Reyes Station was a quaint little town just outside the Seashore park.  Starving and in a rush to go back home, we found Whale of a Deli right by the main road serving food at the speed that we would appreciate.  My wife, Fei, as always, managed to spot a delicious quick meal off the menu–salmon burritos.  On this chilly evening, the rich, hot, and spicy entree was a perfect ending of the day.  

Seared salmon burritos with pico de gallo, guacamole, and sour cream, from our kitchen

And of course we would want to make the dish in our own kitchen to reminisce about that wonderful day.  I found a seared salmon recipe loaded with bold Mexican flavors; Fei prepared her signature re-fried beans and seasoned rice.  For extra freshness and richness, we also put together some pico de gallo and guacamole, serving on the side with dollops of sour cream.  We typically don’t prepare all the condiments and sides from scratch, but sometimes it is worth the extra effort.  There goes a satisfying Mexican-inspired feast, to remember that special destination at the distant end of the West. —WZ, FZ, & EHZ

Keeping Darkness at Bay

For various reasons, touring San Francisco always gives us perplexed feelings. Meandering contours, lingering fogginess, and colorful shades all render the city dazzling and dynamic, but also lofty and eccentric.  In a practical sense, the sinuous, traffic-jammed 40-mile drive between the suburban town we live in and the ocean-side metropolis makes it more distant and difficult to reach.  Once in a while, however, we would overcome the mental barrier to plan a trip for a specific destination in the city, to feed a corner of our curious minds.

At the end of 2017, we decided to pay a visit to Alcatraz Island, an essential landmark of the San Francisco Bay.  Even though mystery and thrill within Alcatraz’s very fabric, as an abandoned prison, met the requirements for popularity in contemporary culture, it only became appealing to us when we realized that it was now managed by the National Park System for its historical and ecological values.  National parks never disappoint! This trip turned out to be a thought-provoking one as well.

Solitude
Alcatraz in the Bay, from the shuttle boat

Remaining
Lighthouse and cellhouse

For a winter day, the San Francisco Bay was sunny and warm, and moderately humid, which made the shuttle boat rides between the city and the island enjoyable.  While the cluster of buildings on the island got close and started to its true rugged faces, it became clear that this isolated island had gone through such harsh conditions over its short history.  In the 1920’s, Alcatraz served as a federal penitentiary that held America’s most notorious criminals.  Their lives, in the forms of factual biographies, fictional films, and speculative anecdotes, added tremendously to the fame of the island.  But only upon walking through the detailed audio tour of the island did the lives of the inmates became hauntingly tangible.  The grand cellhouse, despite its size, did not boast spacious individual cells.  In fact, the sheer concentration of cell rooms under the same roof made it suffocating even when viewed as an outsider.  San Francisco’s vibrancy was clearly visible through the small windows along the walls, which must have added unimaginable weights to the thoughts of freedom.  The Bay’s iconic landscapes, the turquoise water, verdant hills and vivid buildings, even became seemingly within reach when one would walk down the stairs the led to the outdoor recreation yard.  And yet most knew that they were facing an agonizingly long wait, if any, before returning to the free world.

Exposure
Hallway and cell rooms in the main cellhouse

Distance
Landscape from recreation yard

This unsurprisingly ensued riots with horrid violence, and attempted escapes with obscure outcomes.  The Bay’s grim natural surroundings—cold water, speedy torrents, and occasional appearances of predatory sharks—resonated solemnly with the darkest side of human nature in these stories.  Before long, authorities came to the realization that the torment of being places in this prison, both for inmates and federal personnel, was unbearable.  That, in combination with the mammoth undertaking to financially maintain the prison, led to its end of service in the 1960’s.  And yet history did not end here.  A group of Native Americans claimed the island shortly after it was decommissioned, an act, among many others across the country, contributed to the Indian self-determination becoming the official US government policy.

Remnant
Warden’s house

Rebirth
Side view of cellhouse and surrounding indigenous plants

Prosper
Blossom

When Spanish colonists first spotted it in the fog-locked bay in the 18th century, the island was said to be habitat of a large number of California brown pelicans, hence the name—”alcatraces” means pelicans in archaic Spanish.  Nowadays, measured have been taken to preserve the breath of nature on this island that had been densely impacted by historical human activity.  Between buildings and paths, native plants were stretching freely; birds and seals had also returned to multiply.  “Alcatraz was never no good for nobody.”  This was a famous quote from the island’s last inmate, Frank Weatherman.  With a condensation of many historical events in a oddly isolated environment, the island had unfortunately gathered and reflected a remarkable number of human nature’s unflattering facets—sin, despair, prejudice…  It was a consolation, however, that all were preserved and examined there today for a good reason.


Boudin Bakery is a must-go place for every tourist visiting San Francisco. As food enthusiasts, we could not say no to the opportunity of savoring one of the city’s most interesting culinary offerings—sourdough bread. I have to say, the deep tang of sourdough is an acquired taste.  But its earthiness and complexity do become appealing when repeatedly tasted.  Besides the signature clam chowder in sourdough bowl the is ordered by virtually every customer, Boudin is also creative about using sourdough for other bread-based dishes, waffles, pancakes, pizzas, tacos.  Their shrimp pesto pizza we ordered this time hit a fabulous balance between freshness of seafood and that we decided to try it in our kitchen.

Breadmaking is an art, and not an easy one.  And sourdough may be among the finest of the art.  As beginners, we were not brave enough to grow our own starter from the floaters in air—we were told that could be scarily unpredictable. Instead, we requested dried starter from the famed Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter.  With that healthy, consistently robust colony of yeast, we also referenced King Arthur’s sourdough pizza crust recipe, and MyRecipes.com’s shrimp pesto pizza recipe, for our final production.  A home kitchen’s oven can never reach the high temperature required to accomplish the authentic level crustiness of pizza, but we were satisfied with what we had, and the flavors were fantastic.

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Sourdough pizzas: shrimp pesto; pears, arugula, walnuts and truffle oil

As we were looking for ingredients in the pantry, we saw a bottle of truffle oil gifted by a good friend, which we had not been able to use much.  That immediately reminded us of a fragrant pancetta-arugula pizza flavored with truffle oil that we had tasted at a local bocce ball alley, Campo di Bocce.  We quickly gathered a few things at hand and put together a modified version of that pizza, loosely following rusticcrust.com’s recipe, ommitting crumbled gorgonzola but drizzling a touch of truffle oil to impart some unique, strong flavors.  These two pizza recipes seemed always appropriate to be served hot or cold under the perpetually mellow climate of Northern California’s inland valleys.  —FXZ and WZ

Fleeting Past and Flickering Present

The departure from Los Angeles after each trip always ends up feeling like the lingering chapter of a nostalgic music piece.  Remnants of the cozy sunshine and breezy ocean gradually fade out and transition into something wilder and earthier,  before we enter into the familiar scenes up north.   The delight of visiting some hidden destinations studded along the lengthy pathway between the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolises has become a vital part of our Southern California trips.

This time in January of 2018, we chose to take a detour along the historic US 101.  Santa Monica Mountains, the range separating the LA basin and California’s Central Valley, turned out to contain so many natural and historical treasures.  A mere 20 minute drive from the bustling LA metro and north of the famed Malibu beaches, mountains rose with rugged rock formations and extensive vegetation coverage.  At the visitor center of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area,  we learned that this area is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna as well as the Native American’s sacred grounds, and therefore a key point of interest to locals for outdoor activities.  Outside the urban life of the City of Angels, this place must be a pure enjoyment for those who wanted to slow down and savor the beauty of life’s another façade.  For us, time was a luxury.  During the short morning in this area, we could only visit the Paramount Ranch, which preserved film sets used for western-style movies.   The dusty roads and false-front buildings blended in the rustic mountain scenes around them, bringing us back to the legendary pioneer times.  The history of film had portrayed valor, love, loyalty and resilience that were the themes of the primal land.  Aside from that, however, how much of reality still exists that could lead us to comprehending the true charisma of the past?

Mountains and Horses
Hills and a horse rental at Paramount Ranch, Santa Monica Mountains

Western town film settings at Paramount Ranch

Hearst Castle, which is 200 miles up north, turn out to be another interesting manifestation of that notion.   On top of the hills along the scenic California State Route 1, accessing the castle was only possible via a shuttle ride, now a state-run park service.  Owned  by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst,  construction of the mansion lasted 3 decades since the 1910’s, and technically never completed to reach its original full design.  Tt is now among America’s most famous castles,  boasting a compound of historic architectural style across Europe, and the owner’s collection of numerous antiques to decorate the castle.  The front façade of the main building, Casa Grande, was a colossal marble display of fine sculptures, with ornate windows and rails around the towers on the two top sides.  It was nothing but grand, luxurious, and splendid, neither was the interior.  The owner’s attention to details created many admirable elements in the interior design, brought to life by the finest craftsmanship of the time.  Surrounding the main mansion, a number of exquisitely designed smaller buildings served as guestrooms for the celebrities Hearst invited to the castle for the weekend, among which we found the most beloved film stars of all times.  A century later, however, one might argue the glamour of the castle only remained faintly in tourists’ leisurely minds.  How much it encourages or inspires may be a question that invites various answers.

Casa Grande
Hearst Castle’s Casa Grande

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Details on the ceiling of the Gothic Suite

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A guest house

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The indoor Roman Pool

As we descended from the hilltop via a winding path, the castle’s mountainous surroundings started to reveal themselves from the winter’s misty veil, and yet hid itself momentarily, only leaving the rising sun’s golden rays flickering from the distant Pacific Ocean.  Our adventure, fortunately, did not end here.   On the hillside of Highway 1 leading us away from the castle, we surprisingly spotted herds of zebras idly grazing with cattle, a wild and humorous sight no one would have imagined.   They were, in fact, descendants of some residents of Hearst Castle’s private zoo.  Further down the road, a beach crowded with thousands of elephant seals was one of the scenic route’s deserving top tourist spots.  The cool water of the California coast provides them with abundant food, making it optimal feeding grounds for these migrating sea mammals.   Mostly resting, the occasional budging and roaring of the sheer large number of the seals made the beach an extraordinarily lively place.  We found this moment of our trip most delightful.  Among all the busyness of modern life, decorated endeavors sometimes end up being a feeble attempt to celebrate life’s glory.  The plain, humble, unadorned efforts, on the other hand, may become the most relevant, and touching.

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Herd of Zebras at Hearst Ranch

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Bustling elephant seals


In the quaint little town Cambria south of Hearst Castle, we had a delicious Mexican dinner after a long drive, the evening before our castle tour.  Medusa’s Taqueria had a most refreshing chicken salad that struck the jackpot of nutrition and flavor for all of us.

Mexican chicken salad
Mexican chicken salad from our kitchen

Back in our kitchen, we succeeded in replicating this dish, based on a recipe found on recipetineat.com.  We almost followed the recipe step by step, except adding a handful of cucumber slices.  Chicken breasts were marinated with lime, honey, chili, cumin, and oregano, pan-seared to just done before sliced.  The winning combo of vegetables imparted self-complementary crunch and creaminess.  After an exhausting road trip, it was hearty and comforting; on a common Sunday afternoon, it is a dish that the entire family can prepare and appreciate together, a reminder of life’s wonderful richness.  —FXZ and WZ