Tour of California, The Video

I’ve put together a video of my recent trip to Pinnacles National Park and Carrizo Plain National Monument. It’s not a Speilberg, but it shows what I saw.

The music is “Gemini” by Pipe Choir. Found at the Free Music Archive.

The video was made using Cyberlink PowerDirector. Footage was captured on a Contour+2 camera mounted to my helmet and a GeekPro action camera mounted to the bike’s crash bars.

Tour of California, Part 4

March 21, 2019: Pinnacles National Park to Santa Rosa (205 miles)
Roads Traveled: California Highway 25, California Highway 156, US Highway 101, Monterey County Road G11, California Highway 1, Soquel-San Jose Road, Summit Road, California Highway 35, Interstate 280

I packed up my camp and headed out of Pinnacles without a plan for where to go. I headed toward Hollister for food and fuel. Along the way, I thought of some of my options. I thought about heading east to the Yosemite Valley, or maybe I would do the Mount Hamilton Loop and Mount Diablo. I stopped at adventure headquarters (Starbucks) to check out my options.

When I arrived, I saw a pack of the official motorcycle of Starbucks, BMW GSs, in the parking lot. I stopped and said hello. It turned out they were heading to Carrizo Plain. I answered some of their questions about the roads in Carrizo Plain and got back some arrogance (These are GSs, they can do anything.)

The weather for the evening and on Friday was not looking too good anywhere. It was supposed to be in the mid-30s and raining in Yosemite. The Bay Area was looking at wind and rain overnight. I decided to head north and figure things out as I went.

I made my way over to Highway 101 and went south a couple miles to take Monterey County Road G11 (aka San Juan Rd.) west to Watsonville. G11 wound its way through miles of flat farmland. The smells of growing vegetables filled the air; however, when I passed the town of Aromas I smelled the unmistakable odor of cinnamon gummy bears – perhaps Aromas was aptly named.

After a few miles of northbound travel on Highway 1, I hoped on one of the area back roads recommended by Lance, Soquel-San Jose Rd. The road used to be the main link between San Jose and the coast before construction of Highway 17. The road was really fun. There was no traffic and there were many great curves. At the top of Soquel-San Jose Rd., it intersects with Summit Rd., which turns into Highway 35 a few miles north. Summit Road passes through the town of Loma Prieta, the epicenter of the 1989 earthquake (there’s the San Andreas again!)

Summit Road crosses Highway 17 and turns into Highway 35, also known as Skyline Boulevard. Heading north from the intersection with Highway 17, Highway 35 is barely one-lane wide and has many tight blind curves. The road was quite a challenge. Once it passed Black Road the highway opened up and I could increase my speeds. I could see why Skyline Blvd. is popular with motorcyclists. I didn’t see many on the road today, though. I saw more sports cars than anything. Perhaps it’s still a little too early in the season.

As the road climbed higher along the ridge and toward Mount McPherson it started to get colder. I had to stop and put my jacket liner in. Off to the west, I could see the Pacific Ocean and an incoming storm. Off to the east, I could see San Francisco Bay.

I stopped at the legendary Alice’s Restaurant at the intersection of Highway 35 and Highway 84. Alice’s is the destination for people riding and driving the area around Skyline Blvd. I had to stop for a snack. When I stopped, I was given some compliments on my motorcycle by some of the customers. One of them, a Canadian, instantly was drawn to my two Canada stickers, which he loved. He told me he was thinking about a V-Strom and was glad to see one in the wild being used as it was intended.

I highly recommend the raspberry cheesecake.

I continued north on Highway 35, eventually meeting up with (gasp!) the Interstate to make my way through San Francisco. I hit the city right at the start of rush hour, so it was slow going, but splitting lanes made things a little quicker.

I made a quick stop at the Golden Gate Bridge for that missing photo op and to get some more National Park stamps.

I decided to cheat again (the horror!) and got a room in Santa Rosa. With bad weather in the forecast I would re-evaluate the plans for my remaining days as the weather changed.

I made a stop for gas in Rohnert Park and was approached by another customer. He told me he had a similar V-Strom and complimented my on mine. He told me he didn’t think the bike would be a good choice for long trips. He was shocked when I told him I had taken mine to Canada and had been riding around California for the last week. Maybe he’ll get out there and see for himself and change his mind.

March 23, 2019: Santa Rosa to McKinleyville (231 miles)
Roads Traveled: US Highway 101, California Highway 175

The weather didn’t improve in Santa Rosa, and I ended up spending the previous day there. It gave me a little time to do a complete proper load of laundry and to do a little cleaning of gear.

I headed north on Highway 101 for the final stretch home. There’s so much more of California to see, but that will wait for another time.

I rode through acres and acres of Sonoma and Mendocino County vineyards. Their grapevines were neatly lined up in ranks and files like soldiers on formation and stretched from the edge of the highway up into the hills.

I made my way back through Leggett, where my journey essentially began by riding through a tree. I hit a patch of rain going through the Leggett area. It only lasted a few minutes, but plenty of it was able to make it under my helmet.

I tried to take Highway 271, which is the old alignment of Highway 101, at Piercy to change things up, but alas the road was closed. I soon crossed back into Humboldt County and wound my way through the towering redwoods of Richardson Grove.

I hit more rain, this time heavier, in Weott. This patch of rain was shockingly cold, and my heated grips on full were not doing much to make my hands more comfortable.

I made it home between 1 and 2, and was greeted by a happy family. Another adventure in the books.

1,535 total miles.

I started out the trip with just a plan of visiting some seemingly unrelated places. Along the way, I discovered the thread that connects these places, and a much of California, together – the earth’s forces, always in motion, making California the beautiful place that it is.

At times I felt lonely. But I also reveled in the silence and solitude, finding beauty in both and experiencing those things you just can’t put into words and have to experience yourself.

Spotwalla Map of the Trip

Tour of California, Part 3

March 19, 2019: Carrizo Plain to Monterey (237 miles)
Roads Traveled: Soda Lake Rd., California Highway 58, Bitterwater Rd., California Highway 41, California Highway 33, California Highway 198, US Highway 101, California 68, California Highway 1

I got up early enough to see some nice golden color as the sun was rising. Pillowy clouds had moved in and subdued the morning light.

As I was packing up, I got a couple visitors to my camp site. The first was an older man who had been camping with his wife on the opposite side of the road from my site. He walked around looking at the bike and told me how impressed he and is wife were that I was able to fit “so much stuff” on the bike. The second was a woman who had arrived shortly after sundown. She had seen the bike parked in the campground as she drove through. She told me she had a motorcycle of her own and had never thought about going camping with it. She picked my brain for a few minutes about the kinds of things to get for camping from a motorcycle. After saying goodbye to my neighbors, I took off down the hill to see some of the plant life on the valley floor.

On my way down the bumpy dirt road I saw a black object laying on the ground. As I got closer, the item looked familiar. It turned out to be the sunshade from my GPS! Apparently it had fallen off from the bumps on the way up the hill the previous day. I was surprised to see it in one piece after spending several hours on the road.

I stopped multiple times on the way out of the monument to take pictures of the wildflowers in bloom. I saw goldfields, baby blue eyes, phacelia, and fiddlenecks in the early stages of their bloom. Another week or so and these flowers will likely be big and bright.

I made a right turn from Highway 58 onto Bitterwater Rd. Bitterwater was devoid of other traffic, allowing me to use the whole road for my travels. I passed through open range and several cows in the roadway and soon entered Bitterwater Canyon – another creation of the San Andreas.

I had to stop in the canyon to reposition my right-side handguard because it had worked its way in, jamming up my brake lever. After a quick adjustment with an Allen wrench, I was good to go.

Bitterwater Rd. let me out on Highway 41 near the Jack Ranch Cafe in Cholame. I took 41 east over Cottonwood Pass and into the Central Valley. As I descended into the valley, I could feel the winds picking up as they too came over the mountains. The air was fragrant from the farmlands and smelled a lot like an herbal tea.

I stopped in Coalinga for gas and a snack so I could plan my next move. All around me, rain was forecast for the late afternoon and evening. I thought about going back to Pinnacles, but my tent wasn’t very waterproof at the time. I had a friend from the Motorcycle Relief Project in Monterey, who was interested in getting together. So I planned to head to Monterey for the night and to meet up with my friend. Not looking forward to the prospect of a leaky tent, I cheated and booked a hotel for the night. I could recharge and get some cleaning of clothes and myself out of the way.

I headed out of Coalinga on Highway 198. The road was like a roller coaster with its ups and downs and twists. There was no traffic and I was able to have a lot of fun. Soon, I was in San Lucas and heading north on Highway 101.

I arrived in Monterey before the rain. I enjoyed a burger and beer at the hotel bar then did some laundry.

I got in touch with Lance from the MRP and we arranged to have breakfast the following morning and do some riding.

Sleeping in a bed felt good.

March 20, 2019: Monterey to Pinnacles National Park (145 miles)
Roads Traveled: California Highway 1, Nacimiento-Ferguson Road, Jolon Road, King City Road, California Highway 25, California Highway 146

As is expected, I slept well in the hotel bed. No shame in this game.

I met Lance for breakfast at the Black Bear Diner. I love Black Bear even though it’s a chain. The portions are big and the prices right.

Lance is a blacksmith, and runs a school with his brother where they teach people how to ride adventure bikes. Though not a veteran himself, he attended the MRP in September as the off-road riding instructor. I learned a lot from Lance in Colorado, and it was good to see him again.

After breakfast we headed south on Highway 1 toward Carmel. As we pulled onto the highway the skies opened up and it started to rain. Onward we went!

We stopped at Mission San Carlos Borromeo for a few pictures. Ryan, my oldest son, had done a report on the mission for school, so I thought it would be nice to stop there for him. Lance, being a blacksmith, looked closely at all the metalwork and told me how difficult some of the stuff was to do by hand. While we were checking out the mission the skies cleared. We continued on.

We rode to the Bixby Creek Bridge near Big Sur. Bixby Creek is one of the most photographed bridges in California – probably slightly less than the Golden Gate. Built in 1932, the concrete arch bridge is 714 feet long and is 280 feet above Bixby Creek as it enters the ocean. We stopped in the turnout for a few pictures and watched all the other people who stop to photograph the bridge.

Lance and I said our goodbyes and I continued south toward Big Sur.

Highway 1 follows hugs the coastline of California for much of its route from north of San Diego until it turns inland west of Leggett. It is famous for the views of the rugged coast and its roadway precariously perched upon the precipitous palisades of the Pacific Coast. The highway follows nearly every curve of the land. Numerous pullouts and vista points were along the highway, giving travelers amazing views of the coast and the ocean. I stopped at one and saw the unmistakable puff of a spouting whale. Unfortunately, the wiley creature disappeared and hid under the water, preventing me from getting a picture of it.

As I continued and approached Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, I saw a pullout full of cars with people lined up along the cliff. I stopped and saw one of the coolest sights one could see – a waterfall flowing into the ocean. The scene, with its blue green water and colorful vegetation looked like it belonged in a tropical paradise. California truly gives you a taste of everything.

South of Lucia, I turned inland on Nacimiento-Ferguson Road. The road, a steep, twisty, narrow stretch of pavement connects the coast with Fort Hunter Liggett and King City. In about 4 miles of road distance you climb nearly 3,000 feet into the Santa Lucia Range. The road itself was one you take slow. Its steepness and sharp switchbacks kept me in first and second gear for most of the climb. The road then drops down, following the Nacimiento River into Fort Hunter Liggett, an active Army base. There was no guard posted at the gate on this day and I continued through the base. The road inside the base was very smooth and free of any traffic.

After leaving the base, I turned onto Jolon Road and headed for King City. I picked up a little rain just outside of town, but it was short-lived and I could see clear skies ahead.

I stopped for a cup of coffee and to check on the upcoming night’s weather before heading on to Pinnacles. I headed east on County Road G13 and passed pastures and vineyards before entering the narrow Becker Valley. Soon I found myself back on Highway 25, heading north to Pinnacles.

As I turned onto Highway 146 for the final stretch to the national park, I passed a milestone on the V-Strom. My odometer clicked over to 8,000 miles. It’s not much, but the miles were all mine. I arrived at the park with minutes to spare before the store closed. I picked up food and drink for the night and found myself a campsite.

I did a quick set up of my tent and placed my stuff inside, then headed into the park to explore. It was nearing sunset and the fading light seemed to enhance the reds and greens in the mountains around the Condor Gulch Trail. Looking up at the rocks that make up the Pinnacles, I saw several birds circling overhead. From where I was, I could not tell exactly what they were, but Pinnacles is home to many turkey vultures and has been a place where California condors have been released back into the wild. A few of the birds looked much larger than the others, so it’s quite possible that some of the ones I saw were condors.

Where does Pinnacles fit into my “theme” for the trip? The pinnacles, which are the park’s namesake, are the remnants of an extinct Neenach volcano. The pinnacles are made of solidified andesite and rhyolite produced inside the volcano. The pinnacles happen to be the western half of this extinct volcano. Creep along the San Andreas Fault moved the pinnacles to where they are today from their original location near present-day Lancaster – 200 miles away!

After a short hike along the trail, I returned to camp for my dinner and to wait for nightfall. The moon was full and I had plans to go back into the park for a little night viewing of the pinnacles.

After dinner, I headed back into the park. I arrived at the parking lot at the Condor Gulch Trail and was the only one there. It felt a bit eerie, but at the same time I couldn’t help but wonder why people wouldn’t want to use the brightly lit night to view the pinnacles glowing in the soft moonlight.

I hung out on the trail for about an hour, watching as the light changed as the moon rose. Soon, the pinnacles seemed to glow in contrast to the dark trees and other vegetation around them.

While it’s great to share adventures, sometimes solitude is what makes it special.

Tour of California, Part 2

March 18, 2019: Pinnacles National Park to Carrizo Plain National Monument (235 miles)
Roads Traveled: California Highway 25, Indian Valley Rd., Vineyard Canyon Rd., California Highway 46, US Highway 101, California Highway 58, Soda Lake Rd.

I got up around 7:30 after sleeping much better than the previous night. I bundled myself up so I would stay warm as the overnight temperatures had dipped into the low 40s. I tried to burn my remaining firewood to warm up a bit while drinking my morning coffee and breaking down camp, but it just wasn’t happening.

I took the short ride into the National Park proper to view the Pinnacles. The views of the rock formations were good, but I didn’t have much time to hike around. I thought I might come back on the return leg so I can do some exploring.

I headed south on Highway 25. The highway didn’t have a color rating on my Butler map, but I found it to be quite fun. There was very little traffic and the road was in fairly decent condition.

The hills in the area were bright green! Much of the scenery of rolling hills and grasslands reminded me of the “Bliss” wallpaper that was the default on Windows XP. Soon Highway 25 met up with Highway 198. I continued straight onto Peach Tree Rd. The road, which was very narrow, wound its way through farmland and the valley called Slack Canyon, then climbed up into the hills toward San Miguel. At best, the road was 1 1/2 lanes, maybe less. It didn’t matter though because I didn’t see a single car, truck, or anything until I was a few miles outside San Miguel.

I dropped into San Miguel for a top-off and a stretch. I stopped for a few minutes at Mission San Miguel. Stopping at the mission brought back some memories. When I was growing up, my dad would often take my brother and me to San Francisco for our summer vacation. Along the way, we stopped a few times at Mission San Miguel to tour the grounds. I quickly noticed a lot had changed around the mission since those days of my childhood. The road now had curbs, and the town had been built up quite a bit. No longer was there a dirt parking lot and empty fields around the mission.

I backtracked out of San Miguel to Vineyard Canyon Road to go to Parkfield. As I made the initial climb up the hill out of San Miguel I got a glimpse of Camp Roberts in the distance, my old annual training stomping grounds from my time in the California National Guard. “Camp Bob” still looked like a collection of old World War II-era barracks (because it mostly is), but it looked like it had been built up considerably since my time in the Guard.

Vineyard Canyon Road wound its way through green pastures and soon climbed up into a landscape of brown brush. The road dropped into a valley near the town of Parkfield.

For geology and earthquake fans, Parkfield is the epicenter (har har) of activity. Parkfield lies on the San Andreas Fault and is in an area keenly studied by geologists. Parkfield is the perfect place because since 1857 there has been a magnitude-6 quake on an average of every 22 years. The relatively short time between events and regularity of occurrence makes Parkfield the most closely studied earthquake zone in the world.

I stopped at the bridge into town, where a sign proclaims you are crossing the San Andreas Fault. Heading east the sign tells you that you’re entering the North American Plate; heading west, the Pacific Plate. The bridge itself lies on a portion of the fault that experiences aseismic creep, that is fault movement that does not result in an earthquake. Since the bridge was built in 1936, creep along the San Andreas has resulted in the piers of the bridge shifting 5 feet relative to each other. Looking down the south guard rail, one can see a bend created as a result of the creep.

I stopped at the Parkfield Cafe where a water tower proclaims Parkfield as the “Earthquake Capital of the World” and invites customers to “Be here when it happens.” Across from the cafe is a hotel inviting you to “Sleep here when it happens.” I thought the cafe would be a good place to stop for lunch, but alas, they are closed on Mondays. Fortunately, the cafe’s owner was out and about in town and saw me wandering around the cafe. She was kind enough to go inside and get me a bag of chips.

I left Parkfield and headed south on Cholame Road which runs along the San Andreas until it reaches the Cholame Valley. One thing I noticed on Cholame Road, which runs through Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties, was Monterey County takes care of their road. In Monterey County the road was very smooth and the pavement relatively new. Once I entered SLO County, the road turned into a rough, pothole-covered mess. Those potholes that were filled, were not even filled level with the rest of the road surface.

Cholame Road soon meets up with Highway 46, just west of its junction with Highway 41. The intersection of Highways 41 and 46 is called the James Dean Memorial Intersection. The junction is the site where actor James Dean was killed in a car crash in 1955.

There is not much left in Cholame, other than a restaurant, which I stopped at for lunch. Because of its proximity to the James Dean intersection, the walls are lined with photos of Dean, and there’s a memorial to him in the parking lot. I chose the bacon cheeseburger, which was very good.

Continuing on, I stopped in Santa Maragarita on Highway 58 to top off my gas tank and to pick up some supplies for the night. Carrizo Plain was still another 60 miles away, and there’s no other place to stop before getting there.

Highway 58 was a very nice road. Caltrans had recently laid fresh blacktop over its rises, falls, twists, and turns. The scenery was wonderful as well. Green hills abounded with stands of oak trees and streaks of yellow and blue wild flowers.

58 emerged in the vast Carrizo Plain, tucked between the Temblor Range on the east and the Caliente Range on the west. I soon reached the National Monument boundary and the shores of Soda Lake, a shallow seasonal lake that is a dry bed most of the year. However, because of the wet winter, the lake was full.

The national monument covers nearly 247,000 acres and contains the largest single native grassland remaining in California. The east side of the plain is where the San Andreas fault runs along the base of the Temblor Range. Carrizo is one of the places where it’s easiest to see the surface feature of the fault. If you have seen a picture of the San Andreas Fault from the air, you’ve likely seen the Carrizo Plain section.

I headed up the 5-mile dirt road to the Selby campground nestled in the foothills above the valley, where it’s free to camp. Surprisingly the campground was nearly full and I got the second to last site. It was still somewhat early and I took my time taking in the vistas from the campground before setting up my camp for the night.

As the sun went down, I heard a pack of coyotes in the distance calling each other. After that, there was no sound at all except for the occasional airplane flying overhead. There’s a reason why the Bureau of Land Management’s information about the plain says “you can hear the silence.”

The downside of being so far away from everything is that any items you might need you need to carry in with you. Due to my limited space, I did not have any firewood. I love a campfire, though. I found two partially burned logs inside the fire ring, but was unable to get them lit.

Instead, I enjoyed the clear skies under the light of the nearly full moon. The valley was illuminated in blues and yellows by the moonlight, and thousands of stars were visible overhead.

Tour of California, Part 1

When I discovered I was going to have three weeks “free” at work without a trainee to work with, I got the idea to take a week to do a motorcycle trip. I wasn’t sure where I would go though. I figured given that it was early spring I would stick to California because the weather would be better. A few places crossed my mind: Death Valley, Yosemite, Kings Canyon, to name a few.

As the time got closer and closer, I soon realized that some of the places would not be feasible given a week-long span. Going to Death Valley would require either crossing the Sierra Nevada mountain range and one of its passes – but they’re typically covered in snow until May or June – or going south to Bakersfield, crossing Tehachapi Pass and going north on the east side of the Sierras – a route that would require more time than I had. Another problem with Death Valley was that winter rains had washed out many of the roads I wanted to ride once I got there. There just would not be time.

I decided to make a trip to Carrizo Plain National Monument because I heard there was going to be a “superbloom” of wildflowers. Carrizo Plain is a large valley situated about halfway between Santa Margarita and McKittrick. On the west, it’s bounded by the La Panza Range and on the east, the Temblor Range. Carrizo Plain is probably one of California’s secrets, since most people I talked to had no idea where it was.

I made my plan to head south, with Carrizo as the “turnaround” point. Once I looked at my rough plan, I realized this was not just a trip about visiting a spot to see wildflowers. It turned out this trip was essentially focused on the San Andreas Fault.

The San Andreas Fault is probably the most famous earthquake fault in the world. It stretches 750 miles across California from the Salton Sea to just off Cape Mendocino. The fault forms the boundary between the Pacific Plate on the west and the North American Plate on the east. The San Andreas has produced large earthquakes from Los Angeles to San Francisco. When the “Big One” hits, it’s likely going to be on the San Andreas.

As I looked at my maps and routes, I learned my path would cross the San Andreas several times, and many of my stops were in some way related to the fault.

Follow along as I wind my way through California to see not only new the power of the earth’s tectonic forces, but also the renewal of life that comes every spring.

March 16, 2019: McKinleyville to Gualala (214 miles)
Roads Traveled: US Highway 101, California Highway 1

I spent the day of the 15th packing for the trip. I don’t pack much in the way of clothes, just a few days’ worth. This keeps the load light and compact enough to fit in one pannier on the bike.

I got suited up and headed for Starbucks, as is tradition. I sat with Greg, my usual traveling buddy, and had breakfast. Greg would have loved to come, but not only was he working, but he was planning a trip of his own. As it was, this would be my first trip that I would plan and take solo. The feeling was strange. I had gone to Oregon with Greg the day I bought my current motorcycle. We had gone to Mariposa for Horizon’s Unlimited, and traveled together to Nakusp, British Columbia, last September for HU CanWest. It seemed the tail end of Greg’s bike was always in front of me. In a way, it was comforting to travel with someone. Greg was an experience motorcycle traveler and I guess I was the Luke Skywalker to his Obi Wan Kenobi. I learned a lot from Greg about motorcycle travel. I had followed his travels from Alaska, to Baja, to the Southwest. Now it was my turn to share a solo adventure. Greg was looking forward to it. I rode off a little before 10.
My first stop was at the Chandelier Tree in Leggett. The Chandelier Tree is a tourist trap where you pay for the privilege to drive through a tree with a hole in the bottom. It is practically in my back yard, but I could not resist the urge to stop. I had driven our Ford Explorer through the tree (with mere inches to spare on each side), but never my motorcycle (like throwing a hot dog down a hallway). I forked over the $5 to ride through.

While taking a short break, I talked to two other motorcyclists who had ridden up Highway 1 from Vacaville. One of the guys was on an orange V-Strom, the carrot-hued cousin to my blue one. We talked about the mods I had made to my own bike and his plans for his. They were planning on riding up to Highway 36, a very popular road for motorcyclists, but the clerk in the gift shop talked them out of it. The winter had not been kind to the highway and it was probably not the best route at the time. The clerk instead told them to ride back south and take Highway 20 through Clear Lake. The pair still wanted to ride the Avenue of the Giants, though. I knew it had been flooded in the week prior, but found out for them that the road was clear. They thanked me for my help and we parted ways.

I hopped onto Highway 1 for my first time riding it. The road was nice and twisty, with hill climbs thrown in as well, necessitating low gear for most of the route between Leggett and the coast. Nearly every turn had patches of gravel that had fallen from the hillsides, requiring an open eye and a light touch on the throttle. The highway traveled through thick forests, which occasionally broke enough to get a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. After a little more than 20 miles riding through the forest, you emerge on the edge of a cliff with a panoramic view of the Mendocino coast and the Pacific Ocean. From here the highway turns south and hugs the coast.

The highway winds its way through the towns of Fort Bragg, Mendocino, and Little River on its way south. I stopped for lunch in Elk at the Elk Store. There wasn’t much to it, a few shelves and coolers, and a deli counter with a vast selection of sandwiches – or you could customize your own. I chose the Cubano, their take on the Cuban sandwich, made with pork belly, ham, lettuce, pickles, and cheese. The sandwich was grilled for several minutes on a panini press. The sandwich was an excellent rendition of the simple Cuban sandwiches I enjoyed in Cuba, and worth the $13.

I continued south along the cliffs and through pastures. I passed the town of Manchester, site of the cable landing for a transoceanic cable linking the United States to Japan and Hawaii. Soon I was the gleaming white tower of the Point Arena Lighthouse rising above a rocky peninsula. I stopped to check it out.

The original Point Arena Lighthouse was built in 1870 and damaged beyond repair in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. The current lighthouse was built in 1908. Its slender tower rises 115 feet above Point Arena. The new tower was built to withstand earthquakes. It was built by a company that specialized in building smokestacks and utilized steel reinforcement as opposed the unreinforced brickwork of the original tower.

Just off shore from the lighthouse, I saw many rocks with parallel lines running through them oriented in the northwest direction. The parallel lines, or stratifications, are evidence of the movement of the nearby San Andreas, which lies less than 2 miles to the east.

I stopped for the night at Gualala Point Regional Park. The park is owned by Sonoma County and lies on the banks of the Gualala River. This was the only campsite I reserved for the trip due to most campgrounds in the area being fully booked up for the weekend.

A first glance, the campground was not very impressive. The dirt portion of my campsite was a muddy mess, and there was lots of muddy berms and debris around the campground. According to the camp host, a few weeks prior the campground was under about five feet of water. OK, now the mud and debris makes sense. To keep my tent from getting soaked and muddy, I actually put it up on the asphalt parking pad at my site. One of the pluses of traveling on a motorcycle. I wouldn’t have room for a tent on the pad if I had been in a car.

As it turns out, the campground at Gualala Point is a stone’s throw from the San Andreas Fault which makes up a portion of the Gualala River’s bed before it turns toward the sea.

I spent the night sitting by my campfire, listening to the sounds of the forest.

March 17, 2019: Gualala to Pinnacles National Park (270 miles)
Roads Traveled: California Highway 1, US Highway 101, California Highway 152, California Highway 25, California Highway 146

I did not sleep well overnight, not falling asleep until after midnight. It was nothing with my sleeping pad not being comfortable enough, or being on the asphalt pad. I just couldn’t get a good position in my sleeping bag, so I was unable to stay very warm.

I’m not sure when exactly I fell asleep, but I remember waking up sometime around 6:30 and covering my head to keep out the morning light. Next thing I knew it was 8:30. I didn’t get on the road until after 9 am.

Highway 1 south of Gualala was pretty slow going. Because the road follows the contours of the land, and is in places built directly into cliffs above the ocean, it’s very twisty with many slow-speed switchbacks. That just made it more of a challenge – one I wanted to partake in. Just south of Fort Ross, I ran into very heavy fog. At times I could barely see the road, at other times it seemed like I was riding on a road in the clouds as the road passed barely above the top of the fog mass.

Somewhere near Jenner I managed to get a small bug in my mouth – ack! It wasn’t a big one, likely a gnat or something, and I didn’t immediately know what to do. At first I tried to just tough it out and swallow it, but it had gotten stuck at the back of my mouth and wouldn’t go down. I found a spot to pull over and spit it out.

I desperately needed coffee and a bite to eat – one bug wasn’t enough to fill me. I wasn’t finding much in the way of coffee places along the road. I didn’t get stopped until I reached Tomales. Like a beacon, I saw a place surrounded by numerous motorcycles with their riders milling about chatting with each other. It seemed I had found “The Spot.” That spot was the Tomales Bakery. I carefully parked my motorcycle by backing it to the curb and making double sure I put the sidestand down before stepping off; I didn’t want to be the guy who makes a fool of himself in front of a bunch of strangers.

There were the usual BMW GSs, a couple KTM Super Adventures, even a couple V-Stroms. Now I’m not one who goes out of their way to talk to people, I’m a bit of an introvert, so I just sat there drinking my coffee and eating my almond croissant, while looking at the varied selection of motorcycles.

After my breakfast, I continued south as Highway 1 paralleled Tomales Bay. The bay is long and narrow, with a submerged portion of the San Andreas Fault running along the west side of the bay at the Point Reyes Peninsula.

I stopped at the visitor center for the Point Reyes National Seashore. Point Reyes is a triangular peninsula separating Tomales Bay from the Pacific Ocean. The land that makes up the peninsula is interesting in that the rock that makes it up does not match the rock on the east side of the bay. The east side of the bay is made of rock called the Franciscan Complex. It’s comprised of shale, chert, graywacke, and pillow lava. However, the rock under the peninsula is made of granite from the Salinian Block. Geologists have determined the Salinian rock that makes up the Point Reyes Peninsula started its like in the Tehachapi Mountains, more than 300 miles to the south! The Point Reyes Peninsula reached its current location as a result of movement on the San Andreas Fault.

The visitor center has an exhibit on this movement, so people can see an example for themselves. A short trail across the street from the visitor center takes people on a journey through time to learn about tectonic movement. The main attraction of the trail is a pair of picket fences about 15 feet apart. There isn’t anything fancy about the fence, it’s unpainted and is a dull grayish-brown in color. What’s interesting about the two fences is they used to be one! The gap in the fence was caused by fault motion during the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. A line of blue stakes at the top of a small set of stairs lays out the path of the San Andreas Fault.

I stood straddling the San Andreas and snapped a couple pictures. I grabbed a passport stamp from the visitor center and continued on my way. I still had a long way to go and it was already noon!

Highway 1 wound its way back inland and met up with Highway 101 just north of San Francisco. I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time on my motorcycle. I knew the towers were huge, but passing under them on a motorcycle makes you feel very small. After crossing the bridge I made my way through the city along the Great Highway and back to Highway 1.

South of San Francisco the traffic on the highway slowed several times – Pacifica, Half Moon Bay, Pescadero. Tourist traffic was the culprit. It was a very nice day and people wanted to go to the beach!

After passing Pescadero, I looked at the time and saw it was nearly 3 pm! I still had a couple hours to go until I reached Pinnacles and stop-and-go traffic at every town was not helping anything. I was also starting to get tired since I didn’t sleep well the night before. I stopped at the lighthouse at Pigeon Point to figure things out. All I had to do was get passed Santa Cruz and the traffic would let up and I could make up time to get to Pinnacles before it got too late. After all, sunset would not be until after 7 pm.

Traffic slowed again when Highway 1 turned into freeway south of Santa Cruz. It appeared there was an accident on the side of the road. What’s a guy on a motorcycle to do? Keep chugging along and repeatedly put your feet down when traffic stops? Nope! Lane splitting is the answer. As soon as I inched toward the dividing line between lanes, I saw cars in both lanes move to the side like I was Moses parting the Red Sea. I happily rode the gap and soon found myself past the slowdown and onto a nearly empty road.

I turned east at Watsonville and hopped on Highway 129. 129 wound itself through a narrow canyon carved by the Pajaro River and came out on Highway 101 near San Juan Bautista. I got onto Highway 156 to get to Hollister to make the final run to Pinnacles.

At Hollister I turned onto Highway 25, also known as the Airline Highway because it was once used by pilots to route themselves from town to town. Highway 25 passes through rolling hills and ranches as it runs through a valley created by the San Benito River and our friend the San Andreas Fault. As I navigated from curve to curve and over each rolling hill, I noticed the green hills seemed to glow in the late afternoon light.

I arrived at Pinnacles National Park just as the store and visitor center closed. Oh well, I can visit in the morning. I set up my camp and made use of the campground’s shower. I sat next to my fire under the stars and relaxed.

As I sat there in silence, I thought about how weird it felt being alone. I had done the trip home from Nakusp by myself, as I had from Mariposa, so it was nothing new. While I enjoyed the solitude, sometimes you want to share adventures with others.

Because I got there so late, I didn’t ride into the park to view the Pinnacles. I decided I would check them out in the morning before heading to Carrizo Plain.

Up, up, and away

February 5, 2019

What is there to do when the weather is nice?

I was having coffee with Greg to discuss upcoming motorcycle trips we were each planning. Greg is leaving for the southern United States at the end of March, and I’m planning a lap of California.

I could tell Greg was a little distracted.

“It sure is a nice day. I should go take the plane up,” said Greg looking at the blue skies with scattered puffy white clouds. It really was a nice day. A welcome break in the dreary wet weather that had been plaguing Humboldt County over the previous week or so.

“That would be fun,” I replied.

We continued our coffee and trip discussions. My trip was coming up sooner, and I had a bit of a plan after finishing our cups. We packed up and walked out to the parking lot.

“You going to take her up,” I ask?

“I think so. Wanna go?” Greg said.

Humans have been fascinated with flight ever since they first wandered out of their caves in prehistoric times. Ancient civilizations had myths about men flying like birds. Daedalus fashioned pairs of wings for himself and his son Icarus to escape imprisonment by King Minos. Leonardo da Vinci made technical drawings of flying machines in the 1400s. The Montgolfier brothers experimented with hot air balloons in the the 1700s, making several flights around Paris. And of course, we can’t forget two bicycle makers named Orville and Wilbur Wright who made the first powered heavier-than-air flight (of a whopping 120 feet) in December 1903. Humans have mastered the air, and air travel is almost as common as traveling by car. But there’s something different about flying in a small plane ….

Of course, I said yes to Greg’s invitation.

After a quick stop to pick up my camera, we headed for the airport to head up.

Our bird, a 1976 Cessna 172 Skyhawk, awaited in the hangar. The Skyhawk has been in continuous production since the 1950s and is considered the most successful aircraft in history with more than 44,000 units having been built. The cabin is roughly the size of a compact car’s passenger compartment and seats four. Greg’s Skyhawk has a 180hp engine giving it a top speed of about 140 mph.

We taxied out to the runway at Samoa Field, a small general aviation airport on the sandy peninsula separating Humboldt Bay from the Pacific Ocean. Greg went over some final checks and explained the workings of the plane and its instruments.

“Are you nervous yet? He asked.

I wasn’t. I trusted Greg knew what he was doing and would be able to fly us around safely. As we taxied to the end of the runway, Greg reminded me that all takeoffs are optional, but landings are mandatory. The phrase is a little funny, but also true. Gravity is a cruel mistress.

Then the engine sputtered to a stop.

Cold fuel was the culprit. After restarting the engine and letting it warm up a bit more, we were ready.

We lifted off and circled around the tip of the northern spit. The tide was in, and the ocean was rough from the recent weather. Waves were crashing over the jetties at the entrance to Humboldt Bay. We returned to the airport for a quick touch and go, then headed east.

The city of Eureka looked much different from the air. From 2000 feet up, the city looks like a model. Ahead of us stood the snow-covered Coast Range, and farther in the distance we could see the Trinity Alps.

Greg flew us over Kneeland Airport and its runway blanketed in a smooth layer of snow. There would be no landing by anyone here today. A solitary figure was walking around the smooth strip, the only disturbance being their footprints and a large heart created by their steps. Greg lined us up for an approach to see what a snowy landing would look like, then we continued east.

Several times I tried to pick out details that would provide clues to our location, but I was unsuccessful. In fact, I had thought we were farther north and east than we actually were. Snow had covered much of the roads that might provide further clues. As I looked toward the west, the snow-covered hills and the ocean provided a nice contrast to each other.

We tried to pick out some of the peaks of the Trinity Alps and the southern Cascade Range further to the east. Lassen Peak’s 10,463-ft summit was visible in the distance, but clouds blocked any view of Mt. Shasta.

We circled around and Greg showed me an interesting “unofficial” approach to Murray Field. We dropped down and followed the contours of a canyon east of the town of Freshwater, soon emerging over the pastures around the airfield. After another touch and go, we headed north toward Arcata.

We circled over the Arcata Plaza and Humboldt State University. Occasionally we’d hear the squawk of another pilot over the radio. With no local air traffic control, the pilots essentially controlled each other, calling out their intentions as they moved through the air. If only more people could get along like that.

We touched down at Arcata-Eureka Airport for a quick top-off of fuel. Having flown into this airport many times on commercial flights, the view from the front seat was a new experience.

After fuel and another short hop, we found ourselves back at Samoa Field where we pushed the plane back into the hangar and put it to bed.

Seeing home from the air offered a fresh perspective on a familiar face. As Amelia Earhart said: “You haven’t seen a tree until you’ve seen its shadow from the sky.” The beauty of home is best viewed from all angles.

New Year’s Cruise Days 8 & 9 – The Wrap Up

January 7, 2019 – Miami/Ft. Lauderdale

We woke up around 7:30 a.m. to prepare to disembark from the ship. We had placed a breakfast tag on the door, but there was no breakfast delivery this morning. De-boarding the ship was easy and we were off by 8:30. We located our bags and passed painlessly through US Customs without needing to fill out any forms or answer any questions.

We snuck to the front of the line and took a shuttle to Miami International Airport. At the airport we picked up a rental vehicle for the day – a very manly Dodge minivan. We packed everyone up and headed up I-95 for our hotel in Fort Lauderdale. Despite it being only around 10:00 a.m., we were actually able to check into our room.

We were getting hungry, so we set about looking for breakfast. We found the Moonlight Diner down the street. Moonlight was a kitschy 50s-style place with stainless steel outside walls and plenty of neon lights. The only thing missing was waitresses in poodle skirts. I caffeinated myself with a couple cups of Joe and ordered homemade corned beef hash with poached eggs.

After breakfast (or was it lunch?) we packed Mom’s bags into the van and I took her to the airport for her long flight home.

After a little rest, we packed up the boys and headed back to Miami to explore. We decided to visit Little Havana. As far ethnic neighborhoods go, Little Havana was nice, but not like the real thing. We walked down 8th Ave. (The famous “Calle Ocho”) looking at the art and shops. We passed by Domino Park, where old men played dominoes all day in groups of four.

We stopped at Azucar Ice Cream company for a sweet treat. Azucar is a family-owned ice cream shop that makes all their ice cream by hand in amazing flavors like dulce de leche, sweet plantain, and Coca Cola. The boys enjoyed their treat, and we enjoyed talking with the owner about his family’s ties back to Cuba.

After dessert, we found ourselves at the Esquina de la Fama (Corner of Fame) restaurant. Esquina proudly proclaims they have the best Cuban sandwiches in Miami. We ordered a round of sandwiches and listened to a lone musician play a mix of traditional Latin songs and instrumental covers of modern pop songs. The sandwiches were grilled panini-style and had ham, bacon, chorizo, cheese, and lettuce. Esquina’s take on the Cuban sandwich was good, but just didn’t feel quite the same as those we had in Havana. They cost a lot more too!

We left Little Havana for a place called Wynwood Walls. Wynwood is a former industrial neighborhood that has been revitalized into an art hub. The story goes that a warehouse owner caught a boy painting graffiti on his building. Rather than have the boy punished, the warehouse owner offered the boy payment to paint the entire wall. Soon other street artists were invited to paint walls in the neighborhood, transforming it to the art hub it is today, as well as giving street artists an outlet to practice their craft in a legal way. Some of the biggest names in street art have exhibits in the neighborhood.

As we walked around the neighborhood, we saw ESPN Deportes was doing live broadcasts celebrating both the 15th anniversary of ESPN Deportes and the College Football Playoff National Championship that was being played that night (in California).

We met a videographer, John Sierra from the Miami Medial School, who was walking around getting footage of the murals when he saw the boys. He asked if they wanted to be interviewed; of course they did. However, the normally talkative boys froze up once the camera started rolling (go figure). It was still a fun experience for them.

We braved Miami traffic back to the hotel and settled in, preparing for the flight home in the morning.


January 8, 2019 – Ft. Lauderdale to San Francisco

We awoke at 5:45 a.m. to head to the airport. We forced our full suitcases closed and headed out. We were worried about crowds at the airport, but we breezed through check-in and security, giving us well over an hour to spare.

We were sitting by the gate enjoying a breakfast of muffins and coffee when I was a guy walk by who looked oddly familiar. He bore a striking resemblance to someone famous, but I couldn’t quite put a name to the face at the time. I didn’t think much of it.

Our cross-country flight on JetBlue was much better than the one on United. For a “low cost” airline, they sure pull out all the stops. The seats had more room, the entertainment options were better, and they offer better snacks. They even have a pantry with snacks and drinks that they open to customers during the flight. The six-hour flight went very quickly.

After landing at San Francisco we headed to the baggage claim to get our bags. While in the baggage claim I saw famous-looking guy again and got to thinking. I pulled out my phone and did a quick Google search to confirm my suspicions. I then asked Alicia if she agreed with my theory about famous-looking guy. So what did Alicia do? She walked right up to him and asked. My suspicions were correct. Famous-looking guy was none other than 2012 World Series MVP, one of only four people to hit 3 home runs in a World Series game, San Francisco Giants hero, the Kung Fu Panda, Pablo Sandoval!

I have to admit, I fanboyed a bit at the experience of meeting one of my favorite baseball players. He was kind enough to pose for a picture with me, and one with the kids. Pablo even signed an autograph for Ryan.

Pablo was so gracious despite having spent six hours on a plane. He didn’t have to talk to anyone, and he didn’t have to pick up his own bags. Nor did he have to pose for pictures with random people in the airport, but he did. This was definitely not one of those moments they talk about when they say “don’t meet your heroes.”

We managed to make it out of the city without too much delay and found ourselves back home in the early evening. Despite the exciting journey, coming home was a relief, and as always, it’s nice to get back to your own bed.

New Year’s Cruise Day 7 – Havana, Part II

January 6, 2019

We had an 8:30 a.m. excursion scheduled via the cruise line, but we decided that getting up at 7:00 was not something we wanted to do, so we skipped it. We took our time getting up and about and got off the ship around 10:00.

The excursion was supposed to visit the old Spanish fort and the statue of Christ overlooking the harbor. While we wanted to see them, we also wanted to do some more exploring of the city. We figured we’d hire a cab and visit what we wanted without having to deal with a group.

We stepped out of the cruise terminal and quickly found a cab – a convertible pink 1949 Pontiac (with its original engine!) At the wheel was Yudiel, accompanied by his girlfriend “Day,” who acted as a translator. We managed to pack the four of us inside the car with Yudiel and Day. $40 would get us a one-hour tour of the city.

Our first stop was the Castillo de los Tres Reyes Magos del Morro – the Spanish fortress overlooking the entrance to Havana Bay. The fortress was built in 1589 and was named for the three biblical magi. The morro had been one of the planned stops on the original tour. We stood on the edge of the promontory where the fortress had been built and were greeted with panoramic views of the entrance to the harbor and of old Havana. The boys wanted to explore inside the fortress, so I took them in. The fortress was similar to Castillo San Cristobal in San Juan, Puerto Rico. The boys got a big kick out of exploring the fortress’s rooms and climbing the ramps leading to the upper levels, calling it “The Great Wall of China” (what?)

Yudiel took a few pictures of us seated in his car, and even pretended to steal my camera. We were finding Yudiel and Day to be more personable than Ragith the night before. We loaded back up and headed for our next stop.

We passed through a Cuban military training facility and by an exhibit on the “October Crisis,” known as the Cuban Missile Crisis to Americans. Day mentioned the piece of an airplane that “Fidel shot down.” I would have liked to stop at the exhibit, but the guard would not allow Yudiel to park his cab there. I think seeing the Cuban perspective would have been interesting, since American schools only tell the details from our point of view.

We reached the top of a hill directly across from a house that formerly belonged to Che Guevara. On the hill was the 80-foot-tall statue of Christ. The 320-ton statue was made from marble from Italy that had been blessed by Pope Pius XII. From its spot on La Cabaña hill, the statue can be seen from all over Havana. The Havana Christ’s eyes are even sculpted empty so as to give the illusion that the statue is looking at the viewer from wherever they are.

While looking at the statue, Yudiel asked me if knew the difference between the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio de Janeiro and the Cuban statue. Yudiel said Rio’s Christ looks over the city with his arms outstretched, welcoming the world to Brazil. Yudiel then pointed out that Cuba’s Christ has his right hand holding two fingers up by his chin, and his left hand in front of his chest, depicting Christ holding a Cuban cigar in his right hand and a mojito in his left.

We hopped back in the car and started driving back toward Old Havana. Alicia told Yudiel that we wanted to see the “real” Cuba. One of the things we love to do when traveling is to get off the typical tourist path and see the places where only the locals go. Yudiel was happy to oblige. We turned away from the city and into a residential area. We entered an housing complex consisting of several multi-story buildings that would have looked more at home in Moscow than in the Caribbean. We stopped at a lunch counter called “La Orquidea” – The Orchid. For the equivalent of $16 US we got two pizzas and four Cuban sandwiches. These “real” Cuban sandwiches were made on round rolls and topped with ham, bacon, cheese, and ketchup. I washed it down with a can of Cristal beer, Cuba’s national beer. The boys enjoyed their sandwiches and the pizza, and even shared their lunch with some of the local cats who had come to watch us eat.

After lunch, we headed back toward the port to conclude our tour. This is when things took an interesting turn. Alicia asked where we could buy some cigars. Day got excited and asked, “You want cigars?” Of course we did. How could we go to Cuba and not acquire some Cuban cigars? Day told Alicia to wait a minute because she “knows a guy.” Day made a quick phone call. Yudiel made a turn over some railroad tracks and entered a part of Havana that looked like tourists did not go to. The streets were narrow and rough; they were lined with multi-story apartments built in the early 20th Century in neo-Classical styles. We passed groups of children playing in the streets, and old men sitting on stoops followed our car with their eyes as we passed. You could tell that bright pink Pontiacs were not a common sight in these parts.

Yudiel made several turns through the streets until we stopped in front of a building with “106” above the door. Yudiel told us we were there and to hop out.

I began thinking this is how people buy drugs back home. I continued thinking and thought, this is how American tourists get kidnapped in Cuba.

As we stepped out of the car, the front door of the building opened. An older American couple stepped out. I heard the man, who was wearing dark sunglasses and a large Panama hat, tell his wife, “I guess this is where everyone comes for cigars.”

I stepped through the door, which was so narrow that the brim of my hat scraped the edges. Day told us to go to the second floor and go through the open door. We climbed the narrow stairs and found an open door, where a man motioned for us to come in. We stepped inside to find … a living room?! This is definitely not on the normal cruise ship tour. A bald man with a gold tooth, who bore a striking resemblance to Pitbull, pointed at the couch and told me to sit down. If we were going to be murdered, this is when it would happen. The boys didn’t care about what was happening, they saw a Christmas tree with toys under it. On the far end of the living room, I saw a small table with a pile of cigar boxes perched on top.

Why did this man have a large stash of cigars in his living room? Day told us that people who work in cigar factories are given a box each week to take home. Often, additional cigars are “acquired” from the factory with or without permission. The workers then sell the cigars to make ends meet after their government rations run out. Pitbull was one of these workers; we didn’t ask where they came from and he didn’t tell. We made a selection and worked a deal; the kids tried to work Pitbull’s children’s new scooter into the deal.

We asked Day why we went to Pitbull for cigars. She said they and Pitbull have an arrangement. When people need a taxi, Pitbull calls Yudiel. When one of Yudiel’s fares wants cigars, they go to Pitbull.

Our one-hour trip had turned into a four-hour trip thanks to Yudiel and Day. We had a lot of fun, so we hooked them up with a generous tip. They were especially grateful since they would only see a small portion of the $40 fare due to not owning the car. Anything over the original fare was theirs to keep. Alicia and Day even became Facebook friends so we could recommend them to anyone going to Havana.

Yudiel and Day dropped us off at the San Jose market where I got to see my “friends” again. We picked up some last-minute souvenirs before heading back to the ship.

We rode back to the ship on “CoCos.” CoCos are little taxis that look like a motor scooter and golf cart hooked up at a drunken party. In reality, they’re 100 percent Cuban creativity, and totally safe. CoCos have three wheels, they’re top heavy, and passengers sit on top of the gas tank. What could go wrong? Alex loved the ride in the CoCo. It was his request, after all. Ryan, on the other hand, couldn’t wait to get out. We survived the half-mile ride back to the ship and got on board.

We took the boys for a quick swim and gelato. Then we stood on deck and watched Havana pass as we said goodbye to Cuba. As we sailed out of the bay, we could hear people shouting ¡Cuba Libre! – “Free Cuba!” – a toast to the island that originated during the Cuban War of Independence. Either they really liked their visit or they were thirsty for a rum and Coke.

As we steamed toward Miami, we spent the night packing our suitcases for home. Our journey was coming to an end.

In the media Communist countries always seem to be portrayed as these places where the people trudge about without emotion, passing a gray landscape of ugly cities where the concept of fun is nonexistent. Cuba was in no way like that. I’m not going to comment on political philosophies, but what I saw in our two days in Havana was a vibrant city with a population full of life. The people have taken cultural ideas from their past and from around the world and made it their own. They possess a can-do spirit that lets them overcome political and economic limitations to make things just work. The people we met look forward to the future when they can share their home with the world with no limitations, yet are proud of what they are now. I can’t wait to visit again.

¡Cuba libre!

New Year’s Cruise Day 6 – Havana Part I

January 5, 2019 – Havana, Cuba

Today was the main event, so to speak, of the cruise. Day one of two in Havana. Previous guest meetings on the ship had prepared us for the day, which would start off with a trip through Cuban Immigration and Customs. Typically when a ship calls in a port, you just get off the ship and start walking around, no worrying about passports or visa stamps or anything like that.

Cuba was a different beast. The cruise director had talked to us about filling out our Cuban visas, and the need to have them done perfectly. And at $75 per person, if you make a mistake you have to buy another one.

As a requirement from the US government, we were required to participate in a “people to people” shore excursion in order to legally visit Cuba. For a long time Cuba was off limits to American visitors, but in recent years the restrictions have loosened. Americans are now able to visit Cuba for purposes of interacting with Cuban people and culture. Because of this restriction, if you weren’t on an excursion you could not get off the ship if you were an American citizen. Fortunately, two excursions (one for each day) were included with the cruise.

We met in the ship’s theater to gather into our groups for our excursions. As soon as Cuban officials cleared us to get off the ship we were herded like cattle to the gangway and the line for immigration. While in line, many people tried to push forward as if it was somehow going to get them into Cuba sooner. In actuality, it just slowed the line down.

Surprisingly the line to get through immigration was not very long. I was expecting a Kafkaesque queue with many superfluous hoops to jump through for what would eventually be a simple task. Instead, I was pleasantly surprised that all we needed to do to satisfy immigration was present our visas, smile for a picture, and get our passports stamped. After getting our passports back from the immigration officer, we headed for the customs line where we passed through a metal detector and put our bags through an x-ray machine.

Unfortunately, the US-led embargo has resulted in a bit of tit-for-tat. If the US does not want people spending their American money in Cuba, Cuba has decided that they don’t want it. In order to buy anything in Cuba, we had to exchange our US dollars for Cuban Convertible Pesos – “CUCs.” As ordered by the Cuban government, CUCs are exchanged at 1 to 1 for US dollars, British pounds, Canadian dollars, and Euros. But in another act of revenge for the US embargo, exchanges on US dollars are subject to a 13 percent fee. So in actually you get 0.87 CUCs to one dollar. Mom took Alicia’s advice and bought Canadian dollars from her bank before leaving. We, on the other hand, didn’t have time to get an order from our bank.

Oh, and once you exchange your dollars you don’t get them back. Spend your CUCs or be stuck with them forever.

We got on our bus for the tour. As we waited we could see old American cars, something Cuba is famous for, passing by on the street outside the cruise terminal. We were greeted by our tour guide Yakarta (named after a city in Asia) and we headed into town.

Our bus drove through streets full of opposites. We passed decrepit buildings from the early 20th Century in neo-classical and art deco styles. Occasionally we would see one of these buildings in renovated condition. Interspersed with these old styles, we also saw buildings that were were obviously inspired by the Soviets. Small motorcycles zipped around us, and traffic was filled with old Ladas, newer Hyundais, and the ubiquitous 1950s-era American cars (which I’ll touch on later).

We stopped in the Murelando neighborhood, home to a community art center called “The Tanque.” The Tanque was at one time a large concrete water tank, but has been turned into a space for local artists to work. We watched one artist make posters with handmade ink stamps, one guy was making jewelry out of coconut shells, others were doing more traditional things like painting. We sat and enjoyed a drink while listening to a band that played music that was a fusion of Latin sounds and rock, but distinctly Cuban.

We left Murelando and headed for the Legendario rum factory. While on the way, Yakarta talked about Cuba being the birthplace of rum and praised Cuban rums as the best in the world. In actuality, a rum-like drink was distilled in Cyprus in the 1300s, and the first rum made fro molasses was made in Barbados in the 1600s. In addition to praise of rum, Yakarta talked about the greatness of Cuba. Yakarta said Cuba has very crime, very little poverty, and no violence. Yakarta also made the claim that Cuban doctors (who she said make less than auto mechanics) have developed cures for cancer and diabetes, but cannot share their discoveries with the world because of the US embargo. While I don’t know the truth of those statements, she came off as a mouthpiece for the government, and was likely only telling us things they wanted us to hear.

Yakarta told us about the history of rum in Cuba while at the factory. I would love to tell you more, but I didn’t listen. I was distracted by coffee and cigars. I watched the barista in the rum factory make a flaming Cuban coffee. Flaming coffee is made by adding chocolate liqueur to espresso. The liqueur is then set alight in a small pot. The entire flaming concoction is then poured into a coffee mug from the height of about two feet, making a wonderful display of a flame being poured into a cup.

As I exited the rum factory, I was accosted by several guys (more “friends”) trying to sell me cigars for half the price of the store inside the factory. They told me to check the “other” shop through a door on the bottom floor of the factory. I went toward the door, but only saw an alley. Not today. Not today. I got back on the bus and found out the “cigars” the guys were peddling were likely stolen. Alicia told me an employee from inside the factory confronted the men about stealing cigars from the store. The men fled, but not before tossing their cigars to another person standing by.

The bus carried us on to the Plaza de la Revolución, site of many of Fidel Castro’s speeches to the Cuban people and even masses celebrated by the Pope. One one side of the plaza were two government buildings with steel sculptures of Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos with quotes from each. “Hasta la victoria siempre” – “To victory, always” from Che, and “Vas bien, Fidel” – “You’re doing fine, Fidel” from Cienfuegos. Towering over the opposite side of the plaza was the 358-foot-tall José Martí Memorial. Martí is Cuba’s national hero and there are references to him all over Havana.

After a few minutes at the plaza, we re-boarded the bus and rode toward the Malecón, the 5-mile-long sea wall along the north side of Havana. The Malecón was lined with many old and new hotels, and buildings yet to be repaired after Hurricane Irma in 2017. We passed the US Embassy, surrounded by its wrought iron fence, and directly across from a plaza containing the José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform and the “Wall of Flags.” As we passed, Yakarta conveniently left out the word “Anti-Imperialist” when referring to the plaza. She also didn’t say anything about the reason for the Wall of Flags. I will though.

The plaza, which was built in 2000 directly across from the US Embassy, has been the site of many protests against the US government. The first protest was over the custody of Elián González, the 6-year-old boy who was taken from Cuba by his mother and whose family in the US refused to return to his father in Cuba. Since then, the plaza has been used for other protests and the stage that has been used for concerts. The Wall of Flags was placed in the plaza in 2006 as a sign of protest against an electronic message board that had been built on top of the US embassy. The group of 138 now-rusting flag poles and black flags with white stars (which were not flying today) were put up a month after the message board was installed and are just high enough to block the public’s view of the board when standing in front of the stage.

As we passed the far end of the plaza, Yakarta pointed out a statue of Martí which depicted him shielding a child with his body and arms while pointing in the direction of the US embassy. Yakarta told us Martí was protecting the child from invading “imperialists.”

We continued into downtown Havana and passed the former capitol building. The capitol was built between 1926 and 1929 and formerly housed Cuba’s congress until the revolution in 1959. The capitol has a similar appearance to the US capitol, but was not built as a replica despite being built by an American construction company. After the revolution, Cuba’s congress was disbanded and the building fell into disrepair before being turned into a museum. The building is currently being restored to be used again by the Cuban National Assembly.

A block away from the capitol, the bus stopped in Havana’s Central Park for a break. We wandered around and found a shop just off the park that sold Cuban sandwiches. We grabbed a couple for the road (and to satisfy two hungry boys) and realized we were late for the bus. We ran back and made it just in time.

The bus then took us to the San Jose Artisans’ Market, another of our people-to-people and Cuban culture stops. The market was filled with kiosks with artists selling items ranging from paintings, to t-shirts, to handmade wooden cigar boxes. Once again I met many “friends” who wanted to find me exactly what I was looking for (especially cigars).

We returned to the cruise terminal and made our way back onto the ship. We grabbed a quick dinner, dropped the kids off at the kids’ club, and headed back out to explore the city some more.

Just outside the terminal we picked up our taxi for the night, a bright pink 1952 Chevrolet convertible (powered by a Hyundai diesel engine) driven by Ragith (pronounced “Rah-heeth”). Ragith was in his 20s, had spiky hair, and stylish clothing; he would have looked just as at home in Miami as he was in Havana. Ragith drove us around the city to some of the places we had seen during our bus tour. The only difference was we could spend more time at them, and choose where we got to go.

We stopped at the Plaza de la Revolución where the sculptures of Guevara and Cienfuegos were aglow with back-lighting. Floodlights illuminated the Martí memorial, while soldiers stood guard at its base. I used a pedestrian under-crossing below the Avenida Paseo to get a closer look at the memorial. As I walked past the guard shack, I got some curious glances from the soldiers watching over the entrance.

Ragith then took us through some of the neighborhoods where tourists don’t often go. We passed the enormous gate of the Colón cemetery, Havana’s largest cemetery, covering more than 122 acres and holding about 800,000 graves.

We headed down the Malecón, where waves were crashing over the top of the sea wall and onto the sidewalk. We passed a plaza below the Hotel Nacional (which was mentioned in “The Godfather II”) where there looked to be a large party going on. Hundreds of young Cubans gathered with loud music for what was likely a typical Saturday night.

We ended our nocturnal tour at St. Francis of Assisi Plaza across from the cruise terminal. What a great time, and there was still another day to explore!

New Year’s Cruise Day 5 – Cozumel, Mexico

January 4, 2019 – Cozumel, Mexico

I started to feel like I was coming down with something. I had a lot of mucus in my throat, and it’s led to a cough. Ingesting large amounts of Vitamin C didn’t help. I hit the invaders with another 1000-mg dose of C and had a glass of orange juice before heading out.

The pier in Cozumel was shared with a ship from Norwegian Cruise Lines – Norwegian Getaway. For some reason the good people of Cozumel weren’t content with just releasing cruise ship passengers to the street. After the mile-long walk down the pier (OK, it was actually only about 1500 ft), we had to go up an escalator, over a footbridge across the main road along the waterfront, down a set of stairs and into a shopping mall – all to get to the street.

We passed shops selling the typical $8 tourist t-shirts (“Build a wall around Cozumel and make the Bahamas pay for it”), vanilla, prescription drugs, and “Mexican silver.” If getting your drink on is your thing, there’s also a plethora of bars within stumbling distance of the ship.

Cozumel Island is off the eastern coast of the Yucatan Peninsula, about 12 miles off shore. The main economy of the island is tourism, and it is well known for its beach resorts, scuba diving, and snorkeling. Much of the island is covered in mangrove forests, and most of the development is on the west side of the island in the town of San Miguel.

We grabbed a taxi and headed for our hangout for the day, the Nachi Cocum beach resort. Alicia had visited the resort on a previous trip and enjoyed it. The cab ride was only $25 for five of us. We squeezed our group into a Nissan Versa and headed through town where seat belt laws and common sense were nowhere to be found.

Our view through town was of more touristy shops – more t-shirts, serapes, and silver. We passed another cruise terminal where three more ships were releasing their passengers unto the town. Soon we left San Miguel and entered the less-populated resort area. The ride to Nachi Cocum was on what appeared to be Cozumel’s only highway – Quintana Roo Highway C-1. On the right side, we passed the occasional entrance to beach resorts. On the left was a wall of trees separating the highway from the island’s interior. I noticed there was little regard for traffic safety as cars and trucks shared lanes, passed on the right, and drove at speeds the seemed very unsafe. Traveling by car in Mexico is always an adventure in itself.

We arrived safely at Nachi Cocum with the driver advising us to give plenty of time for the return trip to San Miguel due to traffic. We got out and checked in at the resort. Nachi Cocum is a mostly all-inclusive club that limits itself to less than 200 guests per day in order to keep the experience intimate. Drinks were free (¡Uno cerveza por favor!), and so was the food. There was pool and hot tub with a swim-up bar, and of course plenty of sandy beach to play on.

I downed a decongestant and a Zicam given to me by my mother. Then had a cold beer. I could feel the cough disappearing.

I looked out a the ocean and saw it was a little rough. The water closer to the beach was a bit cloudy from the sandy bottom being churned by the waves. The boys didn’t care much. They played in the pool, where they “snorkeled” and swam with their fins. Ryan swam up to the bar and ordered a piña colada on his own (“Without alcohol, please.”) I relaxed in a beach chair watching birds and the waves, all the while any feeling of my cold started to disappear.

I later went into the water to try snorkeling. I found my action camera’s battery was dead, so I wouldn’t be able to take any pictures or video. It would not have mattered anyway because of the water’s cloudiness. I swam out nearly to the rope separating the swimming area from the boating channel, but the water never got any clearer. At least it was a good swim.

I returned to my beach chair and ordered a lunch of nachos and fried chicken tacos. My compliments to the chef. Both dishes were ¡muy delicioso! I finished off my lunch and ordered a bowl of coconut ice cream for dessert. I received my ice cream and Alex eagerly volunteered to assist me with eating it until I ordered him one of his own.

We managed to get a van on the way back to port, so we all fit comfortably. We passed by more of the same shops, but then I saw a coffee shop with a multitude of motor scooters parked in front. Could this be a Mexican Starbucks?

We arrived back at the mall at port and got a (real) Starbucks, where the prices were slightly better than home. 180 pesos, or $10 US got us two blended drinks that were very refreshing. I walked around a bit and got hounded by street vendors who all seemed to be my friend – “My friend! Farmacia?”; “What do you need, my friend?”; “My friend. Come look at this!” I just wanted to go get my free tanzanite earrings from Tanzanite International. Speaking of which, the free “tanzanite” earrings were tiny studs with the tiniest bit of tanzanite (perhaps tanzanite dust) you could possibly have. Just about what I expected for free.

Once back on the ship, we all hit the showers for a rinse to cool off and a short rest before dinner. Alex got mad because he got sunburned and we had to put aloe on him – “What do you mean sunblock wears off?”

Alicia and Mom had gotten reservations at the on-board steakhouse for free, compliments of the casino. We started off with wonderful crab cakes and seafood chowder. Ryan, of course, ordered a cheeseburger. My filet and lobster tail were perfect. Mom got the staff to sing “Happy Birthday” to Ryan for his upcoming birthday, complete with an LED candle next to his cake. Ryan and the rest of us enjoyed our red velvet cakes.

The day was nice and relaxing. Tomorrow we arrive in Cuba.