Birdwatchers look at birds. Birders look for them” – U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Birdwatching, feeding and enjoying birds in our backyards, has long been a popular national pastime. As we seek safe, socially-distanced pastimes during the COVID-19 pandemic, the recreational sport of actively searching for them, called birding, is enjoying the fastest growth of any leisure activity in the world. Rock star birding in Big Sur and the inland mountain ranges of Central California offers many opportunities to see eagles, harriers, hawks and especially condors, as they continue to build nests, mate, and rear their young with a freedom that envious humans no longer enjoy.
For most of us, dragons, ghosts, and witches raise goosebumps but once a year. For the citizens of Burley, deep in the woods of England’s New Forest National Park, every night must feel like Halloween. The hamlet of Burley is far from an undiscovered tourist gem. Quaint tearooms and souvenir stores straddling its winding, one-block main street bustle by day. But visit late on a fall afternoon, when shadows from towering beech and chestnut trees hasten early dusk, and you’ll sense the chill as spirits of the Dark Arts seek to reclaim their realm.
“Bruton is the only spot in the world I have refused to see again since John died.” (Elaine Steinbeck -1992) Elaine Steinbeck’s comment in a 1992 letter to artist Betty Guy refers to the time that she and her husband John Steinbeck spent at Discove Cottage in Somerset, England while he worked on his “reduction of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur to simple readable prose without adding or taking away anything.”
Monterey, California, planned a big celebration today, June 3, 2020, of the 250th anniversary of the founding of the city in 1770. Sadly, all birthday events, from historical reenactments to block parties and patriotic parades, have been canceled or postponed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, other-worldly masked figures haunt the streets of Old Monterey and the venerable adobes are silent and shuttered. We cannot visit them in person, so I invite you to join me on a virtual tour of some of my favorite spots.
Beach Range, Engineer Canyon, Machine Gun Flats: These are not typical landscape features you’d expect to find on maps of a California “coastal gem” and “hiker’s paradise.” Their roles in decades of service under military ownership are now largely forgotten, replaced by the delights of wildflowers, bird calls and jingling mountain-bike bells. Explosions, gunfire and the mayhem of army maneuvers no longer echo across the rugged back-country and ocean-front dunes of Fort Ord National Monument, set between Salinas and Monterey in the heart of Steinbeck Country.
“To plunge or not to plunge, that was the question!” – Winston Churchill. Dashing onto a rustic footbridge traversing the steep-sided, wooded ravine of Alum Chine, the youth climbed up onto the handrail and jumped towards an overhanging fir branch. His younger brother Jack and a cousin watched in horror as the bough snapped. Eighteen-year old Winston Churchill plunged 30 feet to the ground. For three days in 1892 the prolific author (43 book-length works in 72 volumes) and future prime minister of Great Britain lay in a coma followed by three months of bed rest to recover from a ruptured kidney and broken thigh. Modern visitors to this site in the resort town of Bournemouth on southern England’s Dorset coast ponder how close this prank came to changing the course of history.
In an earlier article, “Silicon Valley High Tech Tourism: Selfies and Swag,” I reported a lighthearted survey of tech-related tourist magnets in deepest Nerdistan. This second article responds to requests for more information on the places where engineers and scientists finally accomplished the feat that eluded alchemists for centuries – how to turn sand (silicon) into gold (computer chips). The following itinerary covers a distance of about 30 miles from Stanford University to the former IBM disk-drive campus in south San Jose. With a stop to ponder the implications of events that took place at each site and a break at the Computer History Museum, where many related artifacts are on display, this trip can occupy a full day.
John le Carré dismissed Cold War spy heroes as “A squalid procession of vain fools” in his 1963 espionage novel The Spy Who Came from the Cold. Volunteer historian Carol O’Neil at the former U.S. Naval Facility on Point Sur State Historic Park, 25-miles south of Monterey, would beg to differ. “We had heroes in the Cold War,” O’Neil insisted in a recent interview on KAZU, public radio for the Monterey Bay area. “It’s important for the cold warriors to know that they are valued and their stories are out there.” Eager to hear their stories, I joined a line of vehicles awaiting access to this former top-secret naval operation. Jim, a state park volunteer in a bright yellow safety vest bearing an embroidered NAVFAC logo patch, unlocked the security gate. An intimidating “U.S. Property No Trespassing” sign discourages intruders, now called Point Sur Naval Facility. After warnings of the dangers of ticks, rattlesnakes, and crumbling asbestos-laden structures, he directed us to the administration center. Here we joined a dozen so other visitors curious to learn the secrets hidden in this former submarine detection facility.
Our kayak slid effortlessly over the glassy-smooth water of the estuary. From the shore, an eruption of sanderlings burst into the sky. Swooping and diving in choreographed formation, a wheeling blur of birds enveloped us in a blizzard of beating white wings. Within seconds, they returned to the pickleweed marsh, cheeping and feeding as if nothing had happened. For us, this spectacular avian welcome to two days of watching wildlife on Morro Bay was a memory we will treasure.
Personal digital devices and online social platforms are enabling a new kind of Silicon Valley tourism. Previously only of interest to heads of state hoping to replicate the economic miracle back home, business people pursuing a deal, and a trickle of history buffs exploring where it all began, today the high-tech mecca is increasingly crowded with denizens of the always-connected world. Selfie-stick wielding pilgrims hustle to score swag and Instagram winning moments at the temples of Apple, Facebook, Google, and more. Silicon Valley high tech tourism abounds.
Story and Photos by David A. Laws.
More than two million visitors a year traverse the great marine highway of Alaska’s Inside Passage in the warmth and comfort of vast floating resorts. A bus ride to a glacier or a quick helicopter flight through a fjord is as close as many travelers get to the silence and solitude of “The Last Frontier.” For those seeking a closer look at the inside of the Inside Passage, several operators offer small-ship cruises that combine wilderness excursions with rich cultural experiences in smaller communities.
Story by David A. Laws.
That one nation’s hero is another nation’s terrorist is seldom addressed in parochial school history books. Most children learn of the villainous redcoats in the American war of independence. Few texts tell of the American invasions of Britain. Or that one of these incursions led to the printing of the first one-pound note. These were unexpected connections I uncovered as I pursued a pilgrimage to Wales (Cymru in the Welsh language) to discover the place of my grandfather’s birth in the coastal county of Pembrokeshire (Sir Benfro).
Story and Photos by David A. Laws.
I pulled my jacket close against the chill stirring of an early breeze. A heavy silence enveloped the world in the final darkest minutes before dawn. To the east, a gray sliver of pending morning peeked from beneath a band of straggling clouds to silhouette the rugged crest of the Temblor Range. Planning a day exploring the Carrizo Plain, I had risen early to drive 200 miles from my home in Pacific Grove to watch the sunrise and a promised floral Carrizo Plain Gold super bloom from this elevated spot at the northern entrance to the National Monument that has been called “California’s Serengeti.”
Story by David A. Laws.
D.S. Jones: “This village is weird, sir” – D.C.I. Barnaby: “Jones, they’re all weird.” (From: Midsomer Murders: The Made-to-Measure Murders.) The south-west counties of England are rich in compelling authors, magical characters, and scenic settings from popular PBS television drama and mystery programs. I planned a recent trip to visit friends in the area around a tour of locations associated with three of our Masterpiece favorites – Detective Chief Inspector Barnaby’s blood-soaked Midsomer County, Jane Austin’s Winchester, and Ross Poldark’s brooding Cornish moorlands: a personal Masterpiece mystery tour.
If you feel nostalgic for those psychedelic lightshow/rock concerts of the 1960s, Selfieville a new attraction in downtown Monterey offers a chance to relive your youth. But this time in a family friendly setting without those funny smelling cigarettes! If you’re not old enough to know what I am talking about, imagine a journey through a fantasy world created with a phalanx of high-tech 3D projectors that transform a theater’s static walls into a magical experience.
Location. Location. Location. The real estate promoter’s mantra applies equally to the magicians of the silver screen. Many Hollywood faces long faded from public consciousness appeared in dramas that continue to resonate today because of their memorable scenic settings. Monterey County has been a favorite of movie directors for the variety and accessibility of its scenery since Edison’s cameraman shot Surf at Monterey in 1897. Pounding surf, brooding forest, rugged wilderness, and verdant valleys have featured in hundreds of movies and countless TV shows and commercials. It has also doubled for the coasts of New England, old England, France, Norway, Russia and beyond. Being a dedicated film buff, I grabbed a front row seat, sans popcorm. for a matinee showing of Monterey Peninsula, a movie star for the ages.
With more Mexican-era adobe buildings preserved and restored in downtown Monterey than anywhere else in the state, the city is proud of its heritage as the early capital of California. In late 2018, I revisited two public projects that have been recently updated and enhanced to present in novel and interesting ways the dramatic events that have shaped the history of the city.
Byron, Keats, Wordsworth – for a few brief months in 1820, when his first book of verse topped the English best seller list, John Clare, who worked as a farm laborer near Peterborough 80 miles north of London, outsold them all. Hailed as the “Peasant Poet” by London society for his vivid descriptions of landscapes and English rural life, fickle popular taste rejected his more accomplished later works. Much of his work was inspired by the natural landscape of what is now known as John Clare Country.
Story and photos by David Laws. “There was always something to do in Salinas. For pure culture we had The World of Art, with slides in a big tent with wooden benches” but, as Nobel Prize-winning writer John Steinbeck quipped in a 1955 memoir of his hometown, “the town preferred to hear Joe Conner sing Irish songs.” (Always 59)