Saturday, February 26, 2011

Field of Gold

This is going to be a short post, because I have a job interview at 8:45 this morning, followed by a 5 hour Salsa workshop. Then, I'm going to come home for a nap so I can have the energy to enjoy our neighbors' house warming party. It's a big full day, but no excuse for breaking my perfect record (so far!) of blogging every Saturday morning this year.

Today I'm going to tell you why living on the Central Coast with a dog is very different than living here without one. At least, if the dog is the kind that needs lots of exercise and the person is the kind who feels guilty doing anything outside without the dog. Sometimes this obligation really gets on my nerves.

I've only jogged the bluff trail in the Montana de Oro once in three months, because Piper is not allowed. I used to do it every few days. I could be jogging through Cerro Cabrillo park and over to yoga class in Morro Bay once or twice a week...a double fitness blessing, if I had the heart to leave her at home. I never explore the canopied paths at Los Osos Oaks any more, or enjoy the view from Valencia Peak. All my old routines are ruined.

But maybe that is okay, because I am forced to find new ones. For instance, one day I was driving toward SLO on Los Osos Valley Road when I realized I had no idea what was on the other side of our southern hills. So I turned onto Clark Valley Road and headed up into them thinking, "maybe there's a dirt road or a trail head up here when I can run with the dog."

There wasn't, but there was some very interesting other stuff.

First, I passed through some wide fields with green houses and horse fences. At one driveway there was a sign that said "POLO." I guess that means they have games back there. I'm going to look into it. Wouldn't that be fun to go watch!?

I continued driving up up up... to a beautiful view of the valley behind me, and green groves ahead. (Sorry I couldn't take photos, the road was narrow and curvy with no good place to stop.) After a couple miles, the paved road switched to dirt and I hoped it would turn into an interesting and safe place to park the van and explore on foot. But it soon dead-ended on private property. I'd love get an invitation to visit those people, and see what it's like up on their land, and maybe I can. In addition to several "No Trespassing" and "PRIVATE" signs there was an ad for a Psychic. Someday I'm going to get all my friends together who are interested in such things and we're going to go up there and have some readings. ( I can't do it alone because I believe in psychics and I don't want to know my future any more than I want someone to tell me how a book ends before I've read it.)

Having gone as far as I could go, I turned around and headed back to Los Osos Valley Road (or the LOVeR, as we sometimes call it.) Just as I was about to turn onto it, I realized I had the option of going straight and exploring some more. What I'd thought was just the entrance into the Memorial Park was actually two narrow roads side by side. One swung into the park, the other extended past it, and around a curve. I couldn't see where it went, but I was excited to find out.

And boy, was I met with a treat! A whole field full of baby goats. I didn't get very close to them, because it made their mama's nervous, so these pictures pretty poor. But even perfect photos couldn't show how adorable they were...toddling around and bleating in their tiny little voices.

I don't know how old they were. Maybe just a few weeks? Some of them looked like they were still figuring out how to use their legs. They would spread them wide and strain their little necks trying to get at the grass. Then, if they still couldn't reach, they would pop up, fold both their knees into the air and just fall forward onto them. It looked to me like it hurt, but they seemed perfectly happy.

Did you know that a happy baby goat will wag it's tail just like a puppy does!? I didn't, but they do.

The road next to the goats was wide and even and unpaved, perfect for jogging with Piper. So, we set out to explore the rest of it on foot. It turned out to be a loop about a mile long, with some strange and beautiful elements.

The strange thing was a railroad track! It was right in the middle of a little residential neighbor hood that is mostly hidden from the main road. The track wasn't a big one, as you can see, but it was long.

I first noticed it where it crossed the dirt road, and then went over a small bridge. It was old and beat-up, obviously not in use anymore. But it must have been at one time, because it stretched out along several different properties, running up hills and through back yards...crisscrossing the road at several places... branching off and rejoining itself numerous times. I felt like I was only seeing a small amount of the total track. I wanted to follow it, but it kept disappearing behind houses and under hedges.

What was the purpose of this tiny track? Was it a ride for kids? A vehicle for vegetables? A way for neighbors to loan each other yard tools without walking down the lane? And why was it left to fall apart? It's a mystery I'm going to solve. I'll let you know when I do.

All these little things...the goats, the psychic, the railroad...where fun to discover. But the real delight of the day was this:

An entire field full of yellow mustard.

Of course, a photo, even a panoramic view pieced together from 7 different shots can't do it justice, even if you click on it to see it larger than it shows up right here. The intensity of color, the breadth of the view...there just isn't any way to capture that. I turned a corner and suddenly it was as if the world had turned to gold.

In the distance you can see Hollister peak, and the chain of volcanic hills leading down to Morro Rock and the Pacific Ocean. You can even see The Rock itself, right where the hills end and the sky takes over as backdrop for the flowers.

As incredible as the view was...with the flowers stretching from here to the hills, where soft green folds and rocky outcrops reach up to touch the pearl blue wasn't the best part.

The best part was the sound.

I couldn't hear it at first. But as I got closer and closer, it started to swell all around me, the hummmmmmmmmmmm of bees! How many? I don't know. A hundred? A thousand? A million?

Piper and I stood at the very edge of the field, stood still and just let the noise surround us. I tried to find the words to describe it to myself, but it was difficult.

It was like a song without words...sweet sweet sweet as honey, but serious too, like the threat of getting stung. It was pure and high, but deep and grumbly. It sounded like one clean pure note, and also like all 88 piano keys being played at once. If those bees had been trying out for a Broadway play they might have been cast as a chorus of angels, or a den of angry bears, or waves crashing against a shore, or the air whistling past Alice's ears as she falls down into Wonderland.

Forgive me for the attempts at poetry and metaphor. I try to steer away from that kind of writing, because I know it is usually just bad writing. But I don't know how else to tell you about the bees. And I don't know if I want to tell you the next part at all.

K and I went back the next day. I wanted to show her the goats, and the railroad, and of course, the field of gold. When we got there, the babies were just as cute as every, the track was just as mysterious, but the field...

the field was gone.

It had been completely plowed under. Nothing was left but mud and tire tracks. I tried not to be sad about it. This is an agricultural community and I support the farmers in whatever they need to do to grow their crops and care for the land.

I'm just grateful I got to see it, and hear it, while it was there.

Thank you, Piper! Without you, I would have missed it all.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Dragon, Fairy, Duckling, Swan

Last Saturday was a big day for dancing. Or rather, watching other people do it.

In the afternoon, K and I went to "Volumes of Pleasure" our little local Los Osos bookstore, to watch the Cal Poly Dragon Dance Team's performance at the Chinese New Year celebration. I don't know anything about Chinese New Year, so I'm sure there was all kinds of symbolism and tradition that I missed out on. But it was still an awful lot of fun.

They had cleared their parking lot to make room for two huge dragons.

And their band.

I don't think I'd ever seen dragon dancers before. I couldn't believe how easy it was to forget about the people inside and almost believe we were watching real dragons. Maybe that's because I grew up with Sesame Street and The Muppets. All those hours watching "Pigs in Space" must have trained my brain to accept soft-sculpture animals as another kind of life-form.

There were a bunch of little kids in strollers watching from the sidelines. I tried to imagine what they must be thinking. They were at that age where Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy are all real. Why couldn't the New Year's Dragons be real too? They certainly had a lot of personality; prancing around like ponies and tossing their manes like lions.

At the culmination of the performance, the Dragons stood up tall on their hind feet and the white one managed to bite and "swallow" a cabbage that was hanging from the bookstores awning. I'm going to have to find out what the symbolism of this was. And why it spit out a cloud of cabbage bits at the crowd afterward.

It was really a dramatic and impressive performance, especially when the dancers revealed them selves and we realized that the front-legs of the white dragon were played by a pretty big guy. Imagine how much strength and balance the hind-legs dancer must have in order to do the standing up maneuver.

Just by coincidence, I spent the evening watching more dancers from Cal Poly. But they were dressed very differently, and had a whole other set of "moves."

Welcome to San Luis Obispo and the Cal Poly Mustang Ball DanceSport Competition!

I actually debated about going to this. K didn't want to join me. I thought it might be the kind of thing that sounded like more fun that it actually would be. But I decided to go, and my sweet friend A decided to go too. Since she was with me, we would have had fun no matter what...but it was really a blast! We had a ball at the ball.

We showed up a little late and the dancers were already in full swing. (West Coast Swing, that is.)

There was also Salsa, and Tango, and Waltzing and Fox Trot and some other dances I couldn't identify for sure. We couldn't really hear or understand the announcer, so we had to make the best sense of things we could just by watching.

The first hour seemed to be competitions for the beginner and intermediate dancers. They danced in big groups of maybe a dozen couples at a time. Between every song, half the people would stay, half would leave, and a bunch of new pairs would pour in from the chairs set up on both sides of the dance floor. We gave up trying to figure out what was happening, and who was winning. It was entertaining enough just watching them twist and shuffle and spin. But then something happened we could understand.

The announcers cleared the floor and invited any one to come up and dance who wanted to. But they couldn't dance with their own partner or anyone else they had already danced with that evening. It was delightful watching them all scramble around searching for a stranger they could pair up with. At some point it became obvious that there weren't enough guys to go around. As soon as the announcer said this out loud, half a dozen men sprang from the audience, almost falling over themselves as they dashed to the stage. It was thrilling, and touching. They ran toward those left-over girls like they were saving them from a fire, or drowning or Chinese Dragons. I wish someone had run to me like that every time I was picked last in gym class.

When the music started, the judges walked around tapping couples on the shoulder, just like in "It's a Wonderful Life" except that the floor didn't open up onto a swimming pool later on. Once half the crowd had been eliminated, they made every one find a new stranger and dance some more. After the second elimination, they made it even more interesting. "Now," they said, "Ladies lead!" This made it obvious who the really good dancers were. It was wonderful watching the women take charge and twirl their boy partners around like tops. And the not-as-good dancers were pretty entertaining too, as they struggled and fumbled through turns and passes they knew by heart from the other side.

As the "Jack and Jill" contest (I think that's what they called it) came to a close, I could feel excitement building in the seats behind me. When I turned to look, I saw that the evening was about to step up to another level. All the contestants so far had been dressed nice, in cute little skirts and pressed pants. But these ladies were decked out in brightly colored formal ballgowns with sparkles and tulle and feather boas trailing behind. Their partners wore tuxedos with bow ties and spats.

Of course, once they got into the good light, they didn't stand still for long. But, I was able to get a couple of shots that show how elaborate their outfits were.

But I couldn't capture how graceful they were, or how quickly they glided across the floor.

Until this part of the evening, it had been impossible for us to figure out who was winning or losing. The announcers didn't state it clearly and we were ignorant of the systems and codes that the dance community seemed to take for granted. But we knew who won the formal ballroom competition, because they walked away with a huge trophy!

To our surprise, it was this couple. At the beginning, I thought there was no way the girl in the yellow dress could win. She was beautiful, but significantly shorter than her partner. She was much shorter than all the other girls. And, even for a short person, she had really short legs. Shorter than you would expect for someone of that height. Certainly too short to carry her around the dance floor with the same speed and ease as the others. That's what I thought and I was wrong. She was fantastic. She must have been working twice as hard as everyone else, but you would never have known it. She looked like a fairy out there, just floating along like a wish blown through dandelion fluff.

The next surprise of the evening was even better.

Back when I had been craning my next to see what was happening behind me, I noticed a small sad-looking person sitting all alone. She was curled up on the hard plastic seat like a lost puppy. She looked exhausted, and cold. Her hair was pulled back tight like maybe she didn't bother to comb it after getting it wet, but just pushed it flat to her head. She had too much make-up on. It was smudged and gave the impression of dark bluish caves swallowing her eyes. Worst of all, she was dressed in a baggy gray sweatshirt that fell off one shoulder. She didn't see to be wearing much of anything at all underneath. Whatever it was seemed to be falling apart in shreds. Looking at her, I thought about that Hans Christian Anderson story, "The Little Matchgirl." I mean, she didn't look like she was about to join her dead grandmother or anything. But, she looked like she could have played the part convincingly.

I tried to forget about her while I turned my attention to the glamorous dancers on stage. They were certainly a lot more pleasing to look at. And when they were done, it was time for a solo performance from the best dancers we had seen yet!

They were incredible! Sexy and fun, with fast footwork and beautiful bodies. I could not take my eyes off them. Especially the girl.

She had a real 1940's look about her, with her curvy little figure, heart-shaped face and perfect pink bow of a mouth. She danced like a snake, or a fox, or a leopard. Think of every animal you know that embodies speed and grace and flexibility, combine them all in one human body, set it to Latin music and you will have some idea of how she moved.

And her outfit! Oh my goodness, if you can even call it that. I mean, it seemed to fit...and it sure let a lot of her body hang out. So, I guess that's as good a word as any to describe it. But, I certainly wouldn't call it a dress. It was more like an assortment of sparkling black scarves, carefully arranged to look like they might be falling off at any moment. I usually wouldn't approve of such a costume, but somehow she made it work. It was unnerving to watch her. I felt like I never knew which part of her skin was going to be showing through next. But it was unnerving in a way that just added to the excitement, suspense and surprise of their flawlessly executed routine. And she embodied such a perfect balance between being fit and well-fed, that I didn't mind getting peeks at her lower back, waist and thighs.

She just looked too healthy and vibrant to ever look obscene, or trashy, or cheap.

Or pitiful.

Except, of course. When she wasn't dancing!

That's right. If you haven't guessed already, this was the Little Matchgirl who had been sitting behind me!

I guess she had just been saving up her energy for her big performance. And boy am I glad she did. She, and her partner, were absolutely FABULOUS.

I guess she wasn't The Little Matchgirl after all. She was The Ugly Duckling who turned out to really be a swan.

On the Chinese Calendar, we just entered the year of the Golden Rabbit. According to tradition, this is a year for catching our breath and calming our nerves. For those of us who feel like we've been huddling in a corner, or have been wishing we could, this might be the year we get the rest we we'll be able to hit the dance floor like the swans we really are.

The Trouble with Paradise

Oh gee. What to write about this week? It's so hard to decide. Here's how I do it.

I wake up on Saturday mornings sometime between 5 or 6 am. (That depends on whether or not I went out Salsa dancing the night before.) I feed the dog while the computer is booting up. Then I download all the pictures on my camera. (or am I uploading?) After sorting and organizing through all the pictures I've taken over the week...I usually have some pretty good ideas for blog entries. But then, since I'm organizing photos anyway, I take a look at the photos from the last few weeks, and am reminded of all the good ideas I've already had and didn't write about.

Sometimes a topic eliminates itself because I don't have enough really good photos yet. That's the reason I haven't written about the Monarchs yet. Other times, I realize I don't know enough about the topic and need to do some research. That's why I haven't posted about Santa Margarita lake yet. But there are always plenty that I am ready to write about, and the number just gets bigger every week.

I guess I should feel glad that I have such an abundance of material. It will help me keep my writing resolution even during weeks when nothing interesting happens. But, really. I can't imagine such a week ever happening here! My list of "Fun and interesting things to do on the Central Coast" is so long, it would take years to work my way through it, even if it stayed just the way it is now. But of course, it's always growing. Every time we go do something new, we learn about a dozen other things we need to add to the list.

And those are just the permanent attractions, like the Nature Museum and Heron Rookery...or the recurring events like Art after Dark and the Classic Car Show. Every week we end up missing one-time-only adventures because we just can't fit them into our schedules. This week it was the Plant of the Month Club guided hike advertised as "a hunt for the Giant Trillium and other February Surprises." I don't even know what a Giant Trillium is! Maybe now I never will.

No matter how hard we try, we will always be missing out on something. There's just too much fun for two people to have all by themselves. That's why we need you to come visit, so you can take some of the pressure off!

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Beach Masters and Super Weiners

This big guy is not afraid to bellow, but I feel almost shy about speaking out on my chosen topic for this morning. It's a little embarrassing to write about the Elephant Seals. It’s true we live in an incredible place, but at this point, being surrounded by beautiful beaches, gorgeous lakes and rolling green hills almost feels like a given. Of course, the state and national parks nearby are amazing, but they are part of a wider system that all US citizens can enjoy. Yes, we can surf and sail here, but these are challenging activities that a person has to really work at in order to enjoy. Even our amazing Monarch Butterfly groves seem somewhat acceptable. After all, they are so modest compared to the ones I’ve heard about in Mexico. But the Elephant Seals…they push our geographical good fortune over the top.

Here they are, lolling about at the Piedras Blancas Rookery, where we can stand just a few yards away and watch them to our hearts content.

Where else in the world does a 15 mile drive and a short stroll across a parking lot get you front row admission to the constantly unfolding drama inherent in a gathered community of large mammals?

And WHEN else? It's only been since 1990 that the first couple of dozen showed up here. Since then, the population has exploded. Current numbers are around 1700, with 4000 pups born in 2010! In the 1980’s and before, most Elephant Seal beach life took place on islands and other difficult to reach places. (Difficult for humans, I mean.) Even the earliest histories that we have access to regarding this area don’t make it clear if they used this beach previously. During the rampant hunting of the 1800’s, they stayed as far away from us as they could. And before that, naturalists think land predators like grizzly bears might have discouraged them from coming ashore.

So this is a special little window in time, during which we can see them and learn about them. It’s a special little window in their lives too, as elephant seal spend most of their live out in the open ocean. They look lazy when they are here, but in the water, they are incredibly active. Females swim far out into the ocean, searching for food. Males stick closer to shore, but go as far north as Alaska. They all return to this beach (or other rookeries) twice a year for mating, birthing, molting and rest. Luckily for us, the schedules for males, females, juveniles, babies and adults are all slightly different, so there is some kind of activity happening here almost any time of year.

Another wonderful thing about Piedras Blancas is the care that has been taken to make the viewing area accessible to us humans, while keeping it safe and comfortable for the seals. There is even a boardwalk that stretches the length of the beach, with frequent placards explaining all the interesting details about the colony and the species.

Docents frequently stroll by in blue jackets, ready to share their impressive knowledge and answer any question visitors might have. Between the docents and the signs, it's impossible to leave the beach without feeling a little bit like an expert yourself. And sometimes, your really need both sources of keep from getting confused.

Like the time we went up in December of 2010 and one of the docents told us all about the challenges the new born pups face. First, there is the risk of getting squashed by your own papa. Maybe this sounds unlikely, but these guys are HUGE. They are not built for getting around gracefully on land, and they don't seem to care. If there's a baby seal between them and where the dominant male wants to go, it can be real bad news for the baby.

Then, there is the risky period after the mothers have left the beach and the babies are left there all alone. I try to keep from anthropomorphizing the situation too much, but must be terrifying. After giving birth and then nursing for 28 days, the mamas are HUNGRY! So it's bye, bye baby. The pups are left all alone for another 8-10 weeks. During this time, they teach them selves to swim. Meanwhile, they are losing about a third of their body weight.

When they finally launch themselves out to sea they have about a 50% chance of surviving long enough to return to the beach next season. It sounds like a rough life, and it is. But SOME babies have special advantages. I don't know if it's the brave ones, the fast ones, or just the hungry ones, but every once in a while there is an infant who steals milk. In addition his own mothers milk, s/he sneaks it from neighboring moms, growing immensely fat in the process. The docent called them "Super Weiners," and we thought that was a pretty cute name. We didn't see any that day, but it was easy to imagine them looking like jumbo-plump hotdogs.

Then we came across this sign that explained "Weaner" is just what they call the pups who have been weaned.

I haven't heard or read anything to this effect, but it seems obvious to me that these wonder-pups are the ones that go on to become the Beach Masters who win the battles for dominance and are rewarded with their own harem of breeding females.

I guess I still have a lot to learn about the Elephant Seals. If you'd like to learn more about them too, come visit us and I'll take you to see them! Or, visit this excellent website:

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Kareoke-Maker

I wasn't really ready to write about our local bar yet. I was waiting until I had some better pictures. But something happened last Thursday that could change one of the things I love best about this place. So I figured I'd better write about it now...before it's just a fading memory.

I started going to The Merrimaker (affectionately called "The Maker", sarcastically referred to as "The Marriage Breaker) when I lived here before. It's only a few blocks from the house, so it was fun to invite friends over for supper or snacks, and then take a stroll down the street (there are no sidewalks) for a drink and some local color.

The building is situated right at the corner of 2nd Street and Santa Maria. If you head south on 2nd Street, it will take you over to the Baywood Pier, with it's lovely view of the Back Bay and the Sandspit. Go north and you're looking across the estuary, toward the twinkling lights of Morro Bay (the town, and the body of water.) Santa Maria Avenue is, I'm sure, one of the prettiest streets in the nation. It curves along the small Penninsula that creates the Baywood neighborhood. It's lined with million dollar homes and offers stunning views at every turn. So, the location of the bar would seem to make it a pretty fancy place. Except that this is Los Osos...and nothing is very fancy here.

The bar is also across the street from a convenience store and just half a block from one of the most run down looking trailer parks I've ever seen (and I've lived in Kentucky.) So the patrons are a real mix of the struggling and the satisfied. Plenty of customers are well-off and plenty are well, just a little "off."

But here's the thing everyone has in common...they are all friendly and welcoming and fun to be with! And best of all...many of them are surprisingly good at Kareoke. I don't mean they can all carry a tune, though some of them can. But everyone who takes the mic does his or her best to belt it out and put on a good show. Those who don't sing cheer real loud for those who do. It's my kind of place.

So it wasn't many weekends after K and I got settled that I suggested we stroll over there after supper. Since we have a dog now, it seemed like a great way to get the pup some action...with a reward for us thrown in as well.

While we were walking, K teased me about how Piper loves to go out drinking and how she'll "belly up to the bar" with the best of them. I rolled my eyes and told her, "Honey, we're laid back here in Los Osos...but not even the Merrimaker is going to let us bring our dog into the bar."

K laughed and I'm sure she assumed I was right, but what did I know?! As we were tying her up to a magazine rack outside the front entrance, one of the bartenders hollered..."Bring her in!" So we did. She sat right under our feet at the bar while we had a drink and met some of the (other) locals.

Since we love having Piper with us everywhere we go, we were pretty satisfied with the arrangement. That is, until some other dog came in and sat right up on the bar stool! Not to be outdone, we invited Pipey up next to us. She sat right up there like a human, making friends all around.

The bartender even brought her a big biscuit, which she ate right off the counter. (I don't think they are real concerned about hygiene here...they probably figure all the alcohol makes it impossible for germs to survive.)

So, now I had two reasons why the Merrimaker is the best bar ever. One: I can bring my dog and two: they have Kareoke every Friday and Saturday night!

I wish I had a picture of me singing, but I don't. Here instead are pictures of:

The tiny little guy with the GREAT BIG voice. (He sang "Georgia on my Mind and was really quite fabulous.)

Our red-headed bartender. She left her post once or twice to sing her heart out for us. (Notice how the cordless microphone is wrapped in foam padding and colored duct tape. I guess it gets dropped a lot.)

Some guy whose voice was so great, he didn't even feel the need to stand up when his turn came. (Or maybe he wasn't able to stand up this late in the evening...hard to tell.)

As you can see, the really good singers don't just get applause, they get worship. (Then again, this WAS the bartender, so maybe that guy is just begging her for another drink.)

My point is this: Kareoke at the Merrimaker is just a really good time. Even on the weekends when I don't go over there, I just like knowing it's happening.

But it's not going to happen anymore! At least not for a while. The guy who ran the machine and hosted the his tuxedo vest and ponytail...has been arrested! The police found something like a million dollars worth of fake checks and fraudulent foreign bonds at his house. He was part of the Nigerian Check Cashing Scheme! Can you believe it? He's probably going to spend years in federal prison.

You can see him in the background of this photo.

Poor guy. What would possess a person to do such a thing? Greed, I guess. We should have known he had a problem...look how big his tip jar is!

I found out about all this just last night. I dropped by the bar after salsa class expecting to sing...or at least listen. Instead...I ended up playing pool. (Thank you, Uncle G for teaching me how!) It wasn't too bad. I got to hang out with some of my neighbors and I sunk the shot that won the game. So, I guess I'll continue patronizing our local bar...that is, as long as they keep allowing dogs.