Stanford & Steinbeck


Sunday came all too bright and all too early after a night of birthday celebrating.  To top it all off, the poor Birthday Girl got stuck “momming” everything to death in the morning.  Guilt consumes me!

A bit late, I headed for my “coffee” date with a high-school best friend whom I haven’t seen in years.  Brainiac that he is, Chase remembered from a miniscule set of photo comments on Facebook that I’ve discovered my gluten troubles.  The sweet man had amazing gluten free muffins and a fancy fruit plate waiting.  It was really great catching up, meeting his husband & roommate, and being an audience to their hilarious shenanigans.

I was supposed to head to Santa Cruz and probably camp (Couchsufing wasn’t delivering as expected), but ended up spending the whole evening with the wild bunch!  After an interlude on a sushi date in downtown Palo Alto with my college friend, Hope, I returned for a tour of the Stanford Campus (Chase and Brian are doing their graduate degrees there).  Then we shared an amazing, authentic, Indian dinner complete with asafoetida, some delightful wine, and more hilarity.  New knowledge: grad school logistics, funding, etc.  Maybe I will put it to use someday!

The next morning I left for Santa Cruz – “Surf City USA” – and arrived early to dreary weather and a sleepy, cold scene.  I first went to visit the campus.  I was expecting an open sort of mission-style campus, and so was really surprised to find a very spread-out, hillside of modernish buildings shrouded in forest.

I found a big lot with a trail to an overlook at the back and ran into a maintenance manager who pointed out highlights of the town.

After hiking around the waterfront, chatting up some locals, and watching some surfers, I went to see the city’s famous “Boardwalk.”  It’s more like a mini-carnival, complete with kitchy shopping opportunities and rollercoasters.

It was pretty dead given the time of year and the rain, so I walked around the downtown until deciding I might be best off spending the day indoors.  Santa Cruz is located on the north side of the famous, enormous Monterey Bay.  An hour around the bay on the opposite side lies a well-known, highly respected science aquarium.  Sign me up!

Upon arrival in Monterey (where the aquarium is), I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Monterey was the stage for John Steinbeck’s “Cannery Row.”  He’s one of my favorite authors, and it was fascinating to walk down “Cannery Row” reading quotes from the book and imagining the scene years ago.

The aquarium was fantastic.  It’s interested traveling at this time of year.  I find myself surrounded by Europeans, retirees, and school children on field trips.  Those were my aquarium companions.  The most interesting parts of the aquarium for me, having been to several aquariums and having a pretty solid working knowledge of Pacific marine life, were:

  • having a name for the jellies I see in Humboldt Bay (moon jellies)
  • learning that the sail jellies can’t/don’t sting
  • understanding why biodiversity is so high in Monterey Bay (a giant underwater canyon perpendicular to the continent and terminating in the bay relatively close to shore)
  • that the water color changes I’ve noticed on the west coast aren’t just due to the presence of the sun or lack thereof, but are affected significantly by the amound of plankton in the water
  • that the Pacific coast water in the U.S. is acutally coldest in the spring, not the winter as one might expect (although I have already lost track of why, exactly, that is)
  • there are flat-billed flamingos!

The aquarium also managed to create the first ever self-contained living kelp forest.  It was pretty awesome to see it pulsing in all its glory.  I did get to learn a few new species and saw the coolest sea horses ever – they look exactly like kelp!  I also got a clearer idea of what some of the sushi I eat looks like in the ocean.  My favorite interactive exhibit was a “restaurant” where you sit down at the counter and punch in your order.  Then a waitress comes on the screen and explains how your choice either encourages or discourages sustainable fishing practices.  I eventually ordered everything on the menu!

I wasn’t feeling the touristy offerings of Monterey after I left the aquarium, so I ended up covering way more ground than intended that day.  I headed to Big Sur and spend the late afternoon and early evening enjoying the famous coastline stopping at lots of overlooks.  The flowers were going crazy and vivid purple carpets covered huge stretches of the cliffs above the ocean.  The water was an amazing blue, and there was very little traffic.  Big Sur seemed to have the best of the Mendocino coastline (cliff colors and texture) and the Lost Coast (majestic height rising nearly straight out of the ocean) combined.  It was great!  I had noticed a few campgrounds on a tourist-info map.  The first one was full and $22 a night.  It seemed sort of cumbersome, lonely and possibly unsafe to set up my tent in a campground, so I drove up a side road to a pullout overlooking the ocean and just slept in the back seat with my favorite puffy blanket.  It was great!



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