Thursday, May 28, 2009

Pinnacles National Monument

East of the Salinas Valley, nestled amongst chaparral-covered hills lies Pinnacles National Monument, the remains of an ancient volcano. There, you will discover doughnut-shaped rocks, spires and canyons, caves and a reservoir: a small world that was recognized as a national monument by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1908.

Pinnacles deserves either a long day trip from the Bay Area or an overnight in nearby Hollister (or Fremont Peak, where we were camping), to allow ample time to cover the trails. Six years ago we hiked Pinnacles from the West entrance with my father.

Last week we entered through the East entrance off Highway 25, the latter being an immensely popular ride for bikers. Since the park gets steamy hot during the summer, this hike is recommended during cooler seasons. From the Bear Gulch Day Use Area, visitors have three options.

For a leisurely walk (less than a mile), the Bear Gulch Reservoir offers a splendid view on crystal clear waters and a big "No swim allowed" sign, because well, it's the kind of reservoir that gets water in your tap. Just next door is Bear Gulch Cave. However it is currently closed to protect a colony of bats so check back on the status after mid-July.

That said, we were there to sweat it out so we opted for a longer tour: a 5.3 mile hike around the Pinnacles through High Peaks Trail, Juniper Canyon, Tunnel Trail, High Peaks Trail (again, other side), and Condor Gulch Trail to finish. It was great and .... hot. With a 1,300 elevation gain, the hike was a nice workout - the more so as we forgot our real hiking shoes.

Strangely enough, we hardly felt the elevation gain as the trail gradually zigzagged up the mountain to reach the rim right below Scout Peak. At that point, we were surprised to spot a cute little house overlooking Bear Gulch Valley. A cozy Sierra Club shelter? Not so dear. A restroom of course! Gosh the National Parks Service is organized. (I want to be there when they empty the tanks with a helicopter.)

From the rim, brave ones can follow the High Peaks Trail, knowing that they will face "steep and narrow" sections - read "get me 911 right now!" We, wimps, went down the other side of the mountain through Juniper Canyon.

Occasionally we scanned the sky for condors but the biggest bird of prey we saw looked very close to a turkey vulture. Steady flight path, wings black above, light grey below, we've seen it before.

Going on Tunnel Trail was fun because - o surprise - there is a tunnel, which prompted my other half to comment that "the Civilian Conservation Corps really had a lot of time on their hands." Well you'll see the tunnel, you'll understand why. The CCC was actually responsible for nothing less than the stone buildings, trails, roads, bridges, and Bear Gulch reservoir at Pinnacles. Hats off to the CCC.

Going up and down Juniper Canyon and Tunnel Trail, we literally dreamed of hiking shoes as the trail's dirt and gravel combo formed perfect shoe-skating slopes. Thank God for the teeny one's denims. She ended up on her butt more times than we could count.

On the trail, we also perfected the ultimate hiking technique for youngsters: storytelling. We've already tried that a few times and it works better than bribes, better than water stops, better than ice cream promises. Taking turns, we each told a story, twisting and re-arranging the plot with elements of the landscape so that hiking became effortless for the young crew. Well ... we still had to award an ice cream for outstanding hiking capabilities the next day. But hey, 5.3 miles up and down in the sun is an effort.

Right before the Overlook on Condor Gulch Trail, three shirtless young hunks passed us at a brisk pace. "Duh, they forgot their shirt at home!" scoffed my 4-year-old. We saw them again at the Overlook. My husband exchanged a few words with them and told me later "They're in the army." How did he know? To all the questions he asked, they answered with a firm and non-equivocal "Yes, Sir!"

When we finally got to the parking lot, the one item that felt better than a gold mine was a water fountain. We did the hike with less than a gallon of water for four and clearly, that was not enough. Remember that when it's your turn. There may be a restroom on the way - but you ain't gonna find no snack shop with cold sodas up there.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Fremont Peak State Park

Fremont Peak officially kicked off our camping season. As each Memorial Day weekend for the past four years, we went camping with a group of friends. So far we've experimented with various group sizes, weather and locations such as Shaver Lake (it snowed on the pine forest), Lake Isabella (we baked on the lake's muddy shores but enjoyed beautiful starry nights), Malakoff Diggins (we withstood three days of rain in a superb landscape), and now Fremont Peak.

A small park (there are exactly 25 camp sites), Fremont Peak offers a very particular climate feature: it (usually) overlooks a sea of fog and the fog is not even fifty yards below. This photo shows a sunset on a thick blanket of fog, not on the ocean.

As we drove up, we could not believe how overcast the area was until suddenly, we emerged out of the fog in the sun. An experience that could be compared to having a window seat on an airplane that flies through the clouds into the sun. That's what I call a micro-climate.

Fremont Peak State Park is, as described by the almighty Tom Stienstra, "often overlooked" by people who travel to Monterey. And yet, less than two hours from the Bay Area, it qualifies as a camping hot spot. Why?

Two words: primitive campground. Fremont Peak has a lot of "no's" when it comes to facilities: no sinks, no showers, no recycling (or I couldn't find it), no vault toilets (think pit with smell attached), and no room for two cars (although campsites can accomodate 8 people...). We were lucky to get the best view, our own faucet and a lot of space with number 25, but our friends at number 19 were literally in their neighbors' close backyard.

The park's huge pluses though? The view is really hard to beat. The hills are pine and California oak woodlands covered with tall grasses swaying in the wind (of which there is a lot, since it's a peak). And .... there is an astronomical observatory with a 30-inch telescope on the peak.

A state park where you can take a walk in the dark from your campground to the local observatory ten minutes away and look through the lens of a dozen of serious star enthusiasts' telescopes before you get in line to see Saturn with its rings through the big telescope? Now top that!

The night sky is so pure at Fremont Peak State Park that astronomy is actually what draws campers. Across from us at the campground was Bob Black, the membership chair of the Fremont Peak Observatory Association, a fervent education advocate for the city of San Carlos and astronomy teacher for middle grade kids. Bob is that passionate that he comes once a month to pitch his tent at Fremont Peak. He arrives way early in the day to get the only non-reservable campsite because it's such a prime star gazing spot. Ominous number 14. Then he sets up his telescope (one of six) and wraps it up in thick NASA-type silver foil until night sets in and the stars of stargazing align.

So yes, astronomy is huge at Fremont Peak. When we admired Saturn through the telescope, I was dumbfounded. I had never really seen Saturn before I guess. It was so perfectly round and so black-and-white bright that it looked, as my friend Sue put it, "like a sticker on the lens." A postcard perfect Saturn.

That was a big hit with the children, although slightly conceptual for the youngest. Yes munchkin, the celestial object that looked the size of a distant apple is actually 762,700,000 miles away. Sure, let's walk back in the dark. Ah, the forgotten charm of walking in the dark without flash lights because it disturbs star viewing.

The next evening we had a different weather experience as the fog rose up to our level at sun down and crept through the trees with its chill. The children were playing in the woods when word spread like firecrackers: there's a tarantula on the parking lot! Legs rushing, loud voices, more legs. They all ran downhill to see the "monster" which looked in fact quite scared.

The lonely tarantula was one of many wildlife specimens that crossed our path on Fremont Peak: skunk, grasshoppers, roly-polys, hairy itchy caterpillars, black beetles and more. For once, our bug box got a lot of mileage.

However for my five-year-old, the highlight of the weekend was a tooth fairy incident. As a result of a pillow fight in the tent, she lost her first tooth and guess what? The tooth fairy also delivers at campgrounds. Fortunately, San Juan Bautista State Historic Park is only 11 miles away and the gift store sells nice shiny copper coins with the Mission's backdrop. Now that could have been a close call...

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Fort Mason: A Diamond in the Rough

Set between two iconic San Francisco destinations – Fisherman’s Wharf and Crissy Field – Fort Mason is a world of its own.

A pre-Civil War coastal fortification, Fort Mason once featured an underground tunnel connecting three Navy piers to the Embarcadero’s railroad system. You can still find the rail tracks in the parking lot and the tunnel might be resurrected as part of the extension of the F tram line.

However, today’s Fort Mason, now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area (GGNRA), is better known for its cultural non-profits and gourmet vegetarian restaurant, Greens. Don’t let the army-warehouse look fool you – come out and rediscover a San Francisco gem.

Read the rest of the article here on

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

GreensMoms Celebration Launch at Half Moon Bay's Farmers Market

Curiosity killed the cat - despite its nine lives. Will mainstream kill the green movement despite global warming? Everywhere you turn nowadays, it's green this and green that.

It's like we're talking Smurf or something. "I was on my way to green my daily commute when I was road greened by that awful greenling agent. Can you green that?" Green has become such a staple of our daily media brainwashing and consumerist grocery errands that we tend to forget that green starts at home and it starts yesterday. That's where grassroots movements like can make a difference - you can join online, choose a local group, act on a local level and at your own pace.

The cynical will say that it's just another green website trying to sell you stuff. Websites trigger reactions like that, it's the flip side of being available online 24/7. It lacks that warm hand shake and eye contact that seal a deal.

However, is as real as it gets. I should know - I met them. The brainchild of Janice Solimeno and Melinda MacNaughton, was launched at the Half Moon Bay Farmers' Market last week.

I was there, registering people on a laptop while a friend made recycled calendar bags with my girls at the craft table. For the launch, partenered with the popular psychedelic kids' rock band The Sippy Cups and Sippy Doug was present at the market, juggling and entertaining a crowd of fascinated families. Earlier in the month, had a table at a Sippy Cups concert at Bimbo's.

The Sippy Cups are part of a growing number of bands who take the environment so seriously that they even have a Green page on their website.

Now, what is It's a website to help green-thinking moms (and non-moms) live a greener life. Pretty simple statement. Don't you get the wrong idea and think green moms will dance in white robes under the redwoods for the summer solstice. No, no.

GreenMoms is practical and down to earth. A lot of topics get exchanged over online forums. Want a recipe for vinegar-based house cleaner? You got it. Want to know the closest organic produce stand? You got it too. Organic fair trade chocolate? Just check the blog.

With enough community presence, could become sort of the social parental arm of the Environmental Working Group or the Natural Resources Defense Council. So why wait? Register here. It's free. What can I say? Nowadays, free is worth a click.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Open Studios: Hunters' Point Shipyard Artists and beyond

So you can't afford Warhol? Neither can I. That's what open studios are for: checking out local artists at farmers market prices. Out of 200 tortured souls and starving full-time or recreational perpetrators, there's got to be one for you. Say, this "Shadows on road" by Carol Aust. Who knows? You might go home with a big canvas wrapped in butcher paper in the back of the car. Or a funky crafty something that does not even have a name.

Open Studios are fun. The problem - if you like them - is: they're quite confidential. Open studio season is a little bit like high school musical season. It comes in the spring and in the fall and it lasts only one weekend with very little publicity so that by the time you realize it happened, it's all over. Bummer. Unless ... said the Lorax, unless you have a good friend who's part of the exhibiting community and reminds you of your friendly duties. That was our case.

Last weekend we attended the Hunters Point Shipyard Artists spring 2009 open studios. This weekend, Marin opens up their studios with the Marin Arts Council Open Studios. At Hunters Point, we went directly to Building 117 studio 3216.

That's where Teresa Seran, New York city transplant turned San Francisco-based mixed media painter, practices her art. Standing in front of her latest series, she explained to me how a whirlwind of regular and metallic paints lived their own life on acetate-covered canvases. Teresa is a conceptual artist and gets much of her inspiration from roaming the Tuscan or Californian hills.

I'd never seen her studio before so that was enlightening and my girls loved picking their "favorites" describing what the paintings actually represented. That's the beauty of abstract art. It felt just like an art gallery on a smaller scale.

Other studios were very different. In fact, they were each their own different microcosm. Take Deborah Hayner, one of the most intriguing of the lot. Entering her studio felt like walking through a Macau Portuguese chapel except the priest has gone bezerk and lights up old dollies next to votives and old photographs.

As much as a lot of what we saw was deeply conventional, Hayner's art definitely stood out because it was fun and unconventional. Go check out her website's installations page, it's well worth the click. Very Joseph Cornell-ish.

Her object "Sweet Talk" is a metallic carousel of glass plates printed with red lips and out of each pair of lips comes out a bug. Talk about weird. She also has a weakness for Hunter Thompson (see typewriter at the bottom). I would have liked to see more of that type of funky thinking than pretty flowers in pots or trees on skyline backdrops.

Walking the long hallways of Building 101, we noticed a definite trend of some very gifted artists to varnish their paintings to make them look glossy. Stacy Dynan was one of them. Her whimsical style is particularly interesting.

She describes herself as "exploring the dynamic interplay between transparent and opaque elements, often applying her colors in dozens of layers to achieve the particular depth and radiance she desires." True, her paintings did have a silky depth and looked like they were springing out of the canvas.

Because it's my pet peeve, I think she'd make a wonderful children's book illustrator. Or would she? I asked that same question to Carol Aust featured above. Had she considered illustrating books for children? As a matter of fact, she had. However "publishing houses don't like to work with fine art artists," she told me. "They require too many changes that we are reluctant to make." I see how that could be a problem. The egg and the hen, the text and the illustration. Yes.

In a completely different category was Jenny Robinson, a Borneo-born UK transplant now living in San Francisco. She makes gigantic prints featuring derelict and mundane industrial or city structures. I find her prints absolutely fascinating. In her studio there was also a sort of super-rollercoaster that would have made a great set for Dark City. I wonder if her enlarged or projected scenes would be good backdrops for modern ballets. Probably would.

By the way, Ms. Robinson is a very tech-savvy person or knows one - I was not able to copy a work of art to illustrate my blog. However, go on her website and check out her industrial, bridges or landmarks series. What a trip; especiallly - and I'm not saying that in a derogatory way - if you are a sucker for graphic novels. Her work's out there.

Now, next time you see there's an open studio event in your neighborhood, don't be shy. Go through that doorstep. Artists are nice people. They don't bite. They're not necessarily trying to sell you their art. They want to show it to you. The rest is up to you.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

NaPiBoWriWee: A Picture Book Writing Contest

You have until Thursday May 7 11.59pm PST (that's tomorrow night for you West Coast) to complete 7 picture books to honor the National Picture Book Writing Week initiated by Los-Angeles based author Paula Yoo. I just learned about the NaPiBoWriWee on Facebook through Chris Eboch today, at Day 6 of the 7-day contest. How's that for an incentive? Writing contests are great because they have the chopping block advantage. It's all about deadlines. I like the kick in the butt that screams "Come on now, stop procrastinating. It's writing time." News from Ms. Yoo's contest actually came on an auspiciously scribbly day. This morning at the DMV, I had to wait over an hour to ask for a car sticker. When I have that much time on my hands, writing is a therapeutic exercise. I took my notebook out of my bag and started scribbling away. I had been swimming in the rain at Brisbane's Community Pool so I started with a rainy rhyme: I went to swim under the rain, In the lovely city of Brisbane. Looked at it. What would Brisbane folks think of a rainy rhyme? While better than insane or plain, it's not as great as mane. Scrap the rain. I swam with Ben's hen in the city of Brisbane. A little absurdity doesn't hurt, but why exclude nearby communities? In the Bay Area, it's all about being local. I picked my brain until number B080 came up. I swam with Ben's hen in the pool of Brisbane. I surfed with Doug's frog in Pacifica's fog. I hiked with Paco's buffalo is San Francisco's Presidio. I biked with Mel's snail on San Rafael's trail. I climbed with Maddox's fox at Berkeley's Indian Rocks. I took Ming's red-winged bird iceskating at Santa Rosa's ring. Tough to find an animal that ends in -ing... Fortunately, B080 came up before I slaughtered Larkspur (that I wanted to rhyme with vulture) and Mill Valley (rhyming with osprey). Oh well. That's my notes of a DMV morning. And yes, I've completed a picture book manuscript today. It's called Bad Hair Day. With a title like that, I can already see it climbing the ladder of the New York Times' children's books best-seller list.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

SCBWI: Spring Spirit - Davis Conference

The SCBWI Davis Conference 2009 has come and gone. It was a long day and as expected, I feel galvanized to keep on writing and keep on revising.

The carpool experience to the conference was great as I got to know author Mark Elkin (whose book comes out next spring with Tricycle Press) and author/illustrator Lea Lyon (pronounce "lea" as in "tea"), also coordinator for SCBWI San Francisco/South illustrator events.

The conference started with Diane Muldrow, an editorial director at Golden Books/Random House. With humor and perspective, she introduced the Little Golden Books series as an element of post-WW2 Americana (25 cents books anyone?) as well as a living books series to which many talented authors and illustrators keep contributing. As an example, she passed around several books amongst which the upcoming Ocean's Child by Trish Holland and Christine Ford, illustrated by David Diaz, a gem of a book whose lyrical text is beautifully illustrated with Inuit-inspired art.

Presenting several books in the series, she explained the "Little Golden" feel of a book: a lively book for children who are more interested by the crane down the block than fairies and elves, an exciting everyday experience that's new to a child. I'll certainly look at Little Golden books with a different eye now. Honestly until yesterday, I had no idea new titles were still published.

Ms. Muldrow was followed by Chris Eboch's presentation on virtual school visits, a most useful tool for authors/illustrators who want to stay home and offer school visits at lower costs. Better get used to Skype!

I was personally interested in Ms. Eboch's The Well of Sacrifice, a historical fiction novel on the Maya for ages 9-12 and bought a copy to read right away. Her upcoming series Haunted about ghosts also sounded intriguing.

Then, Sara Kahn presented on two German children's books museums (Troisdorf's picture book museum and Munich's international youth library), as well as Persian storytelling techniques.

There's no book conference without online talk now, so Linda Joy Singleton author of the Dead Girl series (and other paranormal series) talked about online book promotion. "This whole online world is keeping me out there," she said. As a matter of fact, she sells her books online, starting with a strong MySpace presence (more than 3,300 MySpace friends including fans of her books). She also blogs and following a recent trend in YA novels, created a book trailer for her book Dead Girl Walking. Yes, books like movies need trailers to attract the younger crowds.

Will picture books need animated trailers on Disney Channel or the Cartoon Network to attract book-savvy preschoolers? I hope not. Let books be books and let parents' voices fill the imaginary gap between page and text.

Next on the editor side came Kendra Levin, editor at Viking Children's Books who offered some heartfelt wisdom on the writing craft and the true inspiration of an author. Why do we want to write on a topic and why now? Being published feels nice, sure. However authors should also want to write the book because deep inside they have a story to tell. To overcome the writer's block, she advised to write a letter to a young person who really needs your book.

I found this very thoughtful. Book writing should not be about following trends and the big bucks (which, apparently, are a rare instance unless you're a celebrity like J.K. Rowling or Lemony Snicket).

She also compared the author-editor relationship to a love match, a feeling echoed by Nathan Bransford when it comes to the author-agent relationship. In short, take your time when choosing to work with one or the other.

Ms. Muldrow came back to speak as an author, as she authored a successful lift-the-flap board book called Mama, What's In There? where you lift a pregnant mama's belly to reveal her baby preparing for life. Aha! Now, that's a new concept.

A discussion ensued on what an author's voice is, a concept that's hard to explain. As I understand it now, the story is told through a unique person's perspective. If your character reacts as anybody else would in a given situation, then the character doesn't have a voice. There. Voice it, people!

Now I'm back in front of my computer and I feel partly depressed partly amped up. Breaking into (and maintaining yourself in) the children's book industry is no picnic. But my head is full of stories to tell, so I'll keep writing them until I'm actually paid not to write anymore.