In the Right Place at the Right Time

This Overpass on SR 14 Collapsed in Both 1971 and 1994

Assembling California is the fourth volume of John McPhee’s geology tetralogy, the other volumes of which are Basin and Range, In Suspect Terrain, and Rising from the Plains. I delayed finishing the quartet because, as a California resident, I relished the enjoyment I would get from reading Assembling California. My only disappointment is that, being an Easterner, McPhee was mostly enthralled by Northern California, especially the area around I-80. Oh, well, it happens.

Assembling California is all about a fact that the geology, in its own way, replicates how the people of California came together from everywhere. So, too, did the pieces of rock that form the state migrate from all over the world and stick together—a process which will continue over millions of years to take the start apart just as it put it all together. Geologist Eldridge Moores writes:

People look upon the natural world as if all motions of the past had set the stage for us and were now frozen. They look out at a scene like this and think, It was all made for us—even if the San Andreas Fault is at their feet. To imagine that turmoil is in the past and somehow we are now in a more stable time seems to be a psychological need. Leonardo Seebler, of Lamont-Doherty, referred to it as the principle of least astonishment. As we have seen this fall, the time we’re in is just as active as the past. The time between events is long only with respect to a human lifetime.

I, for one, have been through two major quakes—the Sylmar Quake of 1971 and the North Hills Quake of 1994.

There are times when I stop and listen, waiting for the earth to rise up again and send me into paroxysms of terror. Whether I live or die will depend if “I am in the right place at the right time.” I can pretend that I will never experience another earthquake, but the chances are good that I will.

Eschscholzia californica


Field of California Poppies

After a wet winter, such as this has been, there is a brief explosion of bright orange for a few weeks in the Spring. Don’t worry: It’s not Donald J. Trumpf. It is the California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica) in all its glory. Today, my friend Bill Korn and I went to the Antelope Valley California Poppy Reserve in the high desert valley running east and west between I-5 and California 14. We took separate routes and arrived there within fifteen minutes of each other.

The California Poppy is the official state flower of California: It is considered an offense to pick any of them. They are truly lovely, though, and the Poppy Preserve was crawling with thousands of people who came out to wander in fields of flowers. There were one-hour lines outside the bathrooms and the portable toilets.

We took several trails and saw the pointillist dots of bright orange extending in several directions.

Poppy Fields with San Gabriel Mountains in Background

I’m happy that I was able to work only half a day doing taxes before making my getaway. It was a good day!

Art and Inequality

Glass Hood Ornament on 1930s Automobile

Glass Hood Ornament on 1930s Automobile

Why is it that the most beautifully designed automobiles ever made came from the 1930s, a decade that was very good for the very rich, but not so good for everyone else?

On Saturday, Martine and I decided to risk going to visit the Nethercutt Collection despite the threat of an approaching rainstorm. We had a great afternoon looking at classic automobiles and got onto the freeway for the homeward trip just when the raindrops started to fall.

This particular visit raised that question about 1930s auto design. It appears that, sometimes, the greatest art comes during bad times. Going back as far as Ancient Greece, the Age of Pericles with its great tragedians was also the time of the horrible Peloponnesian War. John Milton did his best work under Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate. Marcel Proust wrote just as France was sliding toward the Great War of 1914-1918.

Does this mean that America may produce great art during the dictatorship of Donald J. Trump? Maybe not: There was little of note produced during the Bubonic Plague.

Prize-Winning 1932 Bugatti

Prize-Winning 1932 Bugatti

I guess it takes more than widespread misery to create a period of great art. We’ll just have to see what emerges in the years to come.

In the Cloud Forest

The Cloud Forest Around Bellavista

The Cloud Forest Around Bellavista

All through this horrible tax season Easter Week, my mind has been floating free, dreaming of the things I want to see on my next vacation. I have already written about Quito, the Quechua crafts market at Otavalo, and the tourist railroads of Ecuador. Today my dreams are turning toward the high cloud forests of the Andes, over a mile in altitude, with their exotic birds such as the lemon-spectacled tanager, the pale-browed tinamou, the fasciated tiger-heron, and thousands more.

If my brother agrees, I’d like to spend a few days at a lodge in the cloud forest, perhaps such as the Tandayapa Bird Lodge west of Quito. A few days hiking in the misty forests and looking for exotic multi-colored birds would be soothing to my soul.

Mountain Tanager

Mountain Tanager

There are several patches of cloud forest in the Ecuadorian Andes. It would be fun to choose from among them. The trip is months away, but it is at times like this, when otherwise I would be under heavy stress, that I let my thoughts fly south.


My Christmas Place



At Christmas time, my thoughts turn to Reykjavik, Iceland. I always think of the small city—the world’s northernmost capital—as my special Christmas place.

Not that I have ever been there at Christmas, which at that latitude is dark twenty-two hours a day around the winter solstice. No, like most of the other tourists, I have only been here in the summer. Then why do I think of Reykjavik when I think of Christmas? Is it the warmth of its people in that freezing seasonal darkness? Is it the thirteen Yule Lads of Icelandic lore that have woven their spell on me?

Here is a photo of the port of Reykjavik taken by Páll Stefánsson of The Iceland Review. His photographs have a way of keeping his little land foremost in my mind.

As for the “real” meaning of Christmas, I give you this comic strip by Berkeley Breathed:

A Merry Christmas to All!

A Merry Christmas to All!

A City I Love

Buenos Aires

Buenos Aires, Plaza de Mayo

In front of Retiro Train Station, a serious attempt was made to pick my pockets at a time I was carrying several thousand dollars in cash. A couple came up behind me and squirted me with a mixture of steak sauce and mustard while “helpfully” attempting to clean me off with paper towels (which they just happened to have in their hands) and steering me to a nearby bathroom where their accomplices would finish the job. But I was on to that dodge, so I took a sharp right and stopped a cab.

While walking the streets, I had to be careful not to trip on the array of broken sidewalk tiles. (This particularly bothered Martine in 2011.)

Subways, trains, and buses are so crowded that it can take your breath away. One day I took a ride on Subte A to the end of the line at San Pedrito and back in hopes of riding the old subway cars, which supposedly are stuill in use. The cars were all new, and standing room only.

So why do I love Buenos Aires?

There is something about the city’s faded splendor that reminds one of Europe again and again. I think there was a conscious attempt to imitate Paris and Madrid back when Argentina was riding high as the main supplier of canned meat to both sides in the First World War. But then hard times came, but the splendor still shone through—not everywhere, but sometimes in surprising places. The Galeria Pacifico on Calle Florida is probably one of the most gorgeous indoor shopping centers anywhere.

There are dozens of old cafés, many dating back to the late 1800s—places where you can get a good meal, attentive service, and sit and read a book or newspaper without being rousted out. Places like La Biela in Recoleta, and La Puerto Rico and the Palacio Español in Monserrat. These places are usually crowded with older men, and I felt that I fit right in.

I don’t know how many more times I can walk the streets of this fabled old city, but I hope the gods allow me the chance to return at least once or twice.




The Folk Singer

With Folk Singer Juan Carlos Balvidares, “El Caminante Argentino”

With Folk Singer Juan Carlos Balvidares, “El Caminante Argentino”

In 2011, Martine and I encountered a folk singer in front of the Café La Biela, sitting in the shade of an Ombú tree. I remember his singing vividly and so was delighted to encounter him again at the same place on the day after I landed in Buenos Aires. Señor Balvidares is the author of numerous tangos, milongas, zambas, vals, and chacareras. He has traveled around the world singing his songs.

This time, I bought a CD of his music. You can get some idea of his style by looking at this YouTube site. Click here for him performing in the barrio of San Telmo.

I have written previously about the late Carlos Gardel and his great tangos of the 1920s and 1930s. Balvanera may not have Gardel’s dulcet tones, but his music is an authentic and living link to the songs of the gauchos of the Argentine and Uruguayan pampas. Although he plays largely for tourists today, I enjoyed listening to his music—then and now.