A state of wonder and weirdness
Excerpts from Sam McManis’ Crossing California
I was tired, bone tired. Not the kind of tired that is of the Man-I-Really-Worked-My-Tush-Off-Punching-the-Clock variety, or even the soporific blahs that come from sheer unadulterated boredom, and certainly not the type of tired that involves actual physical exertion of, say, running a marathon or scaling Half Dome.
No, this was a specific kind of tired known, at least to me, as California Freeway Ennui. I had just concluded yet another week-long sortie into the wilds of California. I’d visited deserts high and low, a traffic-choked metropolis, a few one-pump-of-the-brake-pedal towns, a mountain retreat and a seaside highway. I’d even traversed a dusty trail to the summit of Mt. Wilson, where, if you squinted real hard and engaged in selective observation, you might forget you’re still in Los Angeles, where even after all these years the air is opaque and palpable.
Weary as I may have been, longing to just set cruise control and zone out on Interstate 5 back to my Northern California home, I had one last mission to complete: to stand in the center, the dead geographic center, of the state. It was stupid and sentimental and probably would be a colossal disappointment, but so be it. I had seemingly been everywhere else in California, all four corners and many pit stops in between, but had always put off this side trip, mostly because it was so far afield—about 7 miles south of North Fork in the Sierra Nevada foothills, where pine and oak battle for arboristic supremacy and where a gas station is as hard to find as an extinct grizzly—and I had always quasi-scheduled it on the return trip from a Southern California sojourn. Something always came up.
I’d be barreling down the Grapevine, that asphalt DMZ that separates SoCal from the Central Valley, where you can view miles of flat agricultural land straight ahead on I-5 and look east and see the Sierra range from the Highway 99 route. Inevitably, I’d think up excuses not to veer right. It was either the wrong time of year and snow would be obscuring the center-of-California marker said to be put there by proud Sierra dwellers, or ominous summer thunder clouds would loom over the range, or I was losing the light and the prudent thing would be to put it off to another time.
This time, I remained vigilant and veered right onto 99. No more excuses. The center of California, and the enlightenment that I surely thought would come to me there, awaited. I followed the GPS (which, in the foothills, I like to think stands for “Giving Poor Service”) directions exactly as plotted. Naturally, I got lost. I had gone 7.1 miles beyond North Fork, as directed. I had seen that the highway, which changed names several times, had turned into Italian Bar Road, which was right on course. I had passed the U.S. Forest Service office, another marker. But now I found myself whizzing by a sign welcoming me to Fresno County—decidedly not my destination.
Lost, I tell you. Hopelessly lost. Donner Party lost.
As I pulled over to the soft shoulder to regain my bearings—and fret about the mere quarter tank of gas I had remaining—my smartphone was dumbstruck: “No service.” I put my head against the steering wheel, ready to bag the whole idea, which was flawed from the start, anyway.
Then it hit me: How futile even to try to get to the center of California, either literally or figuratively. It may exist on some brass marker set in stone on some nondescript hillside, but what does that have to do with trying to find the real heart of the state, to understand the inner core of California’s being, to, in the callow words of the new-agey folks I encountered so many times in my travels, center one’s self?
Enough. I turned the car around and headed back.
So, sorry to disappoint those who embrace cliché, those who find comfort in easy categorization and a sense of order in the reinforcement of hoary stereotypes, but there is no one California. No such thing as a typical Californian, either. Nope. Nada. Doesn’t exist.
My fellow media mavens lie—or maybe just lazily exaggerate to avoid diligent sussing out such inconvenient things as facts or nuanced stories—when defining California as “where all the fruits and nuts are on the Left Coast.” Many a comedian, lo these many years at your local Laugh Factory, has made a decent living skewering wacky Left Coasters. They do it because that’s what people want or expect to hear; that’s where the punchlines reside. Whether it be from jealousy (the mild weather, the gorgeous terrain) or insecurity (those Hollywood elite “Beautiful People,” with their hard bodies and smooth Botoxed visages, and those equally hardy, healthy NorCal outdoorsy types), they want to believe that Californians just aren’t authentically American; that they do not possess values of the heartland; that they will not let pass through their artificially plumped lips any foodstuff not organic, vegan, macrobiotic, locovore and artisan-crafted; that they would, as with their extreme opposites in Texas, secede from the Union in a heartbeat if they could.
But I’m here to tell you that it’s just not so. Some of the most conservative, anti-government, scarlet-necked shit kickers I’ve encountered reside along the Interstate 5 corridor north of Sacramento and on up to the state line. And, by contrast, some of the crunchiest, Patchouli-scented neo-hippie slackers call Austin, Texas, home, even after the South-by-Southwest carnival packs its tents and moves on. So, like, go figure.
True story, one that says it all about the hearts, minds and lower intestines of a bifurcated (or maybe just bipolar) Californian: In late 2015, I saw an SUV—do note, a hybrid SUV—careening down Interstate 5 in the San Fernando Valley with an “I’m Ready for Hillary” sticker on the left back bumper and, on the right bumper sporting, a “TrusTed” sticker, as in Texas Sen. Ted Cruz. As if that wasn’t confusing enough, a window sticker proclaimed, “Deer: The Other Red Meat,” contrasted with the license-plate holder that boasted, “This Car Stops for Broccoli.” I sped up, changing lanes like a madman, to catch a glimpse of the driver, but he or she hit the gas and took off before the inevitable freeway gridlock near Burbank.
Little matter, nothing surprises me anymore. It could’ve been an Asian-American skinhead with septum piercings listening to Joni Mitchell while sipping boba tea, or a trustafarian white girl whose vaping mist enveloped her Native American dream-catcher dangling from the rearview mirror while cranking up Toby Keith on the radio.
Empires rise and fall, whole civilizations flourish and fade, great mountain ranges erode over time, so only a fool deluded by hubris would be presumptuous enough to believe he has created something of permanence.
And Jacques-Andre Istel may be many things—thinker, autodidactic student of history, mayor-for-life, former stock analyst, parachute designer, recall candidate for governor in 2003, loving husband—but he’s certainly no fool. But, for the sake of argument, let’s say you wanted to erect an elaborate, lasting monument for humankind, firm of foundation and with the solidity and mass to repel the elements. What material would you choose?
Istel’s answer: granite.
His art installation-cum-museum, straightforwardly called Museum of History in Granite, lies along a particularly arid stretch of Imperial County, just off Interstate 8.
Imperial may just be the most schizophrenic of California’s 52 counties, at once hotter-than-Hades and dust-bowl parched, but it also is one of the state’s most productive agricultural regions.
There really is not much reason for anyone other than farmers and cheap roadside motel and convenience-store operators to set down roots in this southeastern-most sector of the state, though it does get its share of the tourist dollar from the ATV enthusiasts carving up the sublime beauty of the Algodones Dunes with heroin-like tracks.
A more remote place, then, could hardly be found for a dreamer such as Istel to plant his flag and deem the site, his life’s work in what has been a very full life, the Center of the World. Spread over 2,600 acres, 922 granite panels are set three feet into the ground with reinforced concrete and rise about five feet in geometric patterns, weighing, by Istel’s calculation, 4,865,378 pounds. Engraved on most of the surfaces—the project is ongoing and includes a pyramid and a church on a man-made hill—is nothing less than the history of the universe, from the Big Bang and Genesis to the invention of the TV remote control, replete with timelines, reproduced etchings of great artworks and what Istel deems epoch-making events.
So, if this was your all-consuming undertaking, wouldn’t you, too, opt for a rock of such substance?
“It is intriguing in the digital age, writing in granite,” Istel muses in his upstairs office just to the east of the monument. He is in his late 80s, but sports the wiry body of the extreme-sport parachutist he was as a younger man and the keen mind of a born promoter. “An atomic explosion can wipe out the [internet] cloud [storage system] and cause a certain amount of embarrassment. But this’ll be here. It’ll stay.”
Then he paused and raised an index finger. He acknowledged the museum’s impermanence with a sly smile. “I’m asked, ’What about a major earthquake burying it?’” Istel said. “I have a very good answer for them. It’s this: Think how happy future archaeologists will be with the rubble!”
The desert wind howled, and Alfredo Acosta Figueroa moaned. It was a deep, guttural sound rising clear from his diaphragm, anguished and heartsick.
“Ah, mannnn,” he lamented, voice trailing consonants like kicked-up gravel, evoking the same poignancy as when he once sang corridos at 1960s farmworker rallies. “Ohhhh, ridiculous! They’re destroying it.”
He paused, sighed audibly, and seemed to deflate a bit into the passenger’s seat. Figueroa, at that moment, looked every bit of his 83 years, face fissured like the hillsides ringing Blythe and the Palo Verde Valley, his signature straw fedora falling lower over a furrowed brow.
“Pull over,” he said, at last. “Just park right here. Yeah, on that shoulder. Ah, mannnn. Get out. I’ll show you. I don’t want to show you, after what they’ve done. But I show you.”
We had been driving for an hour on the back roads north of Interstate 10 near the Arizona border, me at the wheel, Figueroa riding shotgun and his eldest son, also named Alfredo, mostly silent in the backseat. Plenty of times on this sunny February afternoon, Figueroa had requested we stop the car on sandy shoulders. Each time, it was to point out features in the hills and the arid landscape that, he said, supports his fervent, almost messianic belief that this is the sacred ground known as Aztlan, the site that tells the creation story of Figueroa’s Chemehuevi ancestors and, pretty much, those of all Aztecs.
But this was the first time all day he had asked to stop and wander in the desert to get a close-up look at one of the huge (50 feet wide and 200 feet long) geoglyphs, Native American symbols carved into the rock, desert as canvas. He wanted to show me Kokopilli and Cicimitl, two of the most prominent geoglyphs that constitute the Blythe Intaglios, renderings of Aztec gods and symbols depicted either as human or animal, formed by scraping away the dark, manganese-stained top layer of rock to show pale, powdery caliche soil underneath. He wanted to inspect what’s left after, more than a year ago, bulldozers from the Blythe Mesa Solar Power and McCoy Solar Energy projects built a road that skirts and somewhat alters the geoglyphs, and to show how close (less than 300 meters) the solar-panel farms come to the “sacred” site.
“Working on a Saturday,” Figueroa’s son muttered, referring to the solar-farm construction. “Man, there used to be nobody. No road.”
“Ridiculous!” the elder Figueroa growled.
It was only a short walk, maybe 50 feet, from this new road to the meseta where the two geoglyphs sit. From the sky, via satellite images or Google Maps, the forms are fully shaped and easily discernible. Kokopilli, a massive representation of the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, shows a round-headed figure either playing a flute or drinking from a straw, five plumes jutting from his head and his body breastplate taking the appearance of an anthropomorphized bee or bird in flight. Cicimitl, farther east on the same meseta, is said to be an animist figure aligned at 13 degrees magnetic north with the three peaks of the Mule Mountains. Up close, though, stepping carefully on the jagged, blackened rocks, all I could see is sculpted lines that give only a partial rendering of the work as a whole. In time, Figueroa will explain that significance but, first, he and his son are still trying to process the transformed landscape.
“Ah, mannnn, see how they broke it up; it used to be all together before they plowed through,” Figueroa said. “The sun and arrow [geoglyphs], they are gone. They really did a job on it. Look at the fancy bridge. And there’s a concrete [culvert] and wash over to the north. Ridiculous!”
City: San Francisco
Square miles: 0.35
Take a walk down Eddy Street. Resist the urge to walk fast with head down. Take in the acute, sometimes acrid, sensory details of these city blocks, the beating, arrhythmic heart of the Tenderloin. Be vigilant and streetwise, but don’t succumb to fear, for there is much to see and experience in San Francisco’s most notorious and misunderstood neighborhood.
A stoop-shouldered merchant sweeps the entryway of the Superette 128 market, careful not to disturb a homeless man and his dog, curled up sleeping nearby. Men linger outside the Herald Hotel, jawing and guffawing and swigging from 40-ouncers. Kids frolic on the swings and jungle gym at verdant Boeddeker Park, the roar of their playful squeals only partially drowned out by honking taxis and construction jackhammers. The marquee at the Tea Room Theatre (“All Male Entertainment”) is lit but not yet open, same for The Power Exchange (hint: not a public utility building) a few doors down on Jones Street. Cops circle a man sprawled at a crosswalk, as a woman in a Marilyn Monroe T-shirt pushing a baby stroller tries not to look.
What’s needed to fully comprehend this teeming street scene, this mingling of the ordinary and the sketchy, is context—historical and sociological perspective explaining such a rich urban milieu.
Context, conveniently, can be found at the corner of Eddy and Leavenworth streets, where the newly opened Tenderloin Museum has got it all covered.
A labor of both love and, well, labor, by lawyer and Tenderloin activist Randy Shaw, the museum is three years in the making and $3.5 million in the building, with donations coming from local business owners, grants and philanthropists. At times during the process, Shaw admits he thought that, with all the challenges the Tenderloin faces—poverty, homelessness, crime—what good will a museum do? “Maybe we should just open up another restaurant,” he said, laughing. “But we kept at it. It was an ambitious goal, but we made it.”
It is a goal mostly met, true.
The museum is a handsome, glass-walled space tucked into the ground floor of the Cadillac Hotel, the first of many SROs (single room occupancy residences) that define the neighborhood. With archival photos, footage, recordings and yellowed newspaper clippings—augmented by artifacts ranging from a vintage pinball machine to peep-show viewfinders from famous fan dancer Sally Rand to ticket stubs from the Blackhawk jazz club—it presents a history of the Tenderloin as a section of the city far richer than just a tawdry hub of gambling, drug use, porn and prostitution. Families have long lived here, churches long thrived, its sense of community evident in its embrace of all ethnicities, its tolerance shown by its acceptance of the gay and transgender populace long before the Castro District became LGBT ground zero.
Where the goal might fall short is Shaw’s hope that the museum will be a tourist draw, luring visitors away from obvious haunts such as Fisherman’s Wharf, Golden Gate Park and Union Square and over to The ’Loin.
Shaw, author of the oral history “The Tenderloin,” knows what you might be thinking—is this dude deluded? But he believes the neighborhood can bring in tourist dollars. At times, he sounds like a super-positive realtor talking about a ratty fixer-upper having so much potential. His zealotry is so palpable, so contagious, that you want to believe him, regardless of evidence to the contrary.
The museum idea was spawned when Shaw led a successful neighborhood effort in 2007 to create a National Historic District for the Tenderloin. Now that the buildings, including the dozens of SRO hotels, were protected from the gentrification sweeping the rest of San Francisco, thoughts turned to commerce.
“We asked, ’How can we revive this community?’” said Shaw, who has dedicated his career in nonprofit advocacy to helping the Tenderloin and its residents, though he does not live there. “What are our strengths? We looked at this low-income community with a long downturn, and we decided our strength is our history,” Shaw said. “When we were working on the [historic district bid], we ran across all this great history. In the last chapter of my book on the Tenderloin, I mentioned that we just can’t seem to get tourists to come here and spend money. A museum is a way to bring people in from the outside and build on our history.”
Shaw hopes people will stop bad-mouthing the Tenderloin and actually see it for themselves.
City: Nevada City
New-Age Vibes: High
Sometimes—no, often—I get tired of hearing myself talk, especially all those voices in my head. So, I can just imagine what others must make of my logorrheic tendencies. I needed to get away for a weekend to a place where I would not feel the compulsion to chat, chew the fat, make small talk and pass the time with a story or three.
So, at the request of my wife, my boss and my sanity, I chose to hole up and shut up. That I picked the summer solstice, the longest day of the year, to do it made me feel as if I might achieve prolonged illumination, both seasonal and personal. Or, at least, that’s what the New Age non-dogmatic dogma promised.
I am embarking on a 48-hour vow of silence. I am secluding myself deep in the Sierra foothills 20 miles northwest of here for a weekend getaway at a meditation retreat for which the selling points are no external stimulation, no outside contact with the wider world (either wired or human) and no inane chatter.
Lest you consider it an act of harsh asceticism rather than a valid vacation option, my two-night stay at the Ananda Meditation Retreat on San Juan Ridge in California’s Gold Country also promised the possibility of a deep connection with myself and the divine, the chance to commune with nature and the nature of my being, and to both unplug and recharge amid stately oak, pine and alder trees.
That I’m neither a yogi nor an Eastern-religion “seeker” matters little. For decades, people of all faiths—and maybe even a few with none at all—have repaired to Ananda’s verdant 70-acre spread to meditate, rejuvenate and, most of all, contemplate the meaning of life and their place in it.
That night, in preparation for the morning meditation, I read from the 1946 book Autobiography of a Yogi, by Paramhansa Yogananda, on whose teachings this center’s precepts are based. Surpriya Supriya, who manages Ananda (she was born Sheri Goldberg in the San Fernando Valley) suggested would give a primer on the practice of Kriya yoga.
The book clued me in to the meditation mantra “Hong-Sau,” that helps focus the mind on the task at hand. It’s “hong” on the inhalation; “sau” on the exhalation. Repeat as necessary.
Early the next morning—I didn’t hear the 5:30 a.m. gong but was up anyway, anxiety-ridden about meditating—I gingerly walked into the temple just as spiritual directors Nayaswami Dharmadas and Nayaswami Nirmala chanted to the stock-still adherents.
Supriya had told me this group of Kriyabans—practitioners who had gone through extensive training—had given the OK for guests to sit in on the last half of their three-hour meditation.
I took off my shoes, grabbed a blue yoga mat and found a spot near the back. I unfurled the mat, and staring at me was the familiar Facebook logo. It was as if the universe was laughing at me, saying, “Ha, you think you can turn off thoughts of social media so easily!”
Cross-legged on the mat—even though several Kriyabans were perched on chairs and looked much more comfy—I tried to stay still and empty my mind, but not before glancing around the temple. At the altar were five portraits of spiritual leaders: Jesus Christ, Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, Yukteswar Giri and Yogananda. Below it was a larger photo of Yogananda and a smaller photo of the recently deceased Kriyananda (born James Donald Walters), Yogananda’s disciple and founder of the Ananda Retreat in 1968.
Why Christ? I wondered. Were they just covering all the bases, or what?
Later, Supriya would tell me that Yogananda considered Christ “a great yogi who practiced meditations. I know some [Christians] might be up in arms about that, but …”
As at dinner previously, I was painfully self-conscious at the start of meditation. My slightest movement—nose-twitch or swallow—led me to think I was disrupting something sacred. A man in front put on noise-canceling headphones about 10 minutes after I arrived, and I hoped it wasn’t because he could hear my breakfast-craving stomach rumbling.
Eventually, I got down to some serious hong-sauing. Eyes closed, I tried to will myself to banish invasive thoughts. For a moment, I felt a blankness, a pleasant absence—nothing intruding on the nothingness.
Then I thought, Hey, I’m not thinking about anything, and the process began all over again.
I could not help it: Thoughts swirled in my brain, a Gertrude Steinian stream of trivial consciousness. I told myself, This won’t look good for the story, then scolded myself for thinking about the story when I should have been thinking about not thinking, about letting go.
After a good spell, my overheated mind calmed, my breathing—hong-sau—got shallower until I wasn’t aware of breathing at all. I didn’t know how much time had elapsed, but I was mildly surprised when Dharmadas intoned, “We’ll end this meditation with a prayer.”
I’d been sitting for an hour and 45 minutes.
A silent breakfast of oatmeal and a banana awaited me, like a karmic reward.
In the afternoon, after a two-hour nap, I took a hike on one of the retreat’s trails, lined with manzanita, oak and pine. I was feeling calmer—or maybe just half-asleep. Ambling along an overgrown fire road shaded by oak branches, I looked down at the trail at a fortuitous time: A rattlesnake stretched out sunning itself not three feet in front of me.
It was a standoff for a minute or two. I tried to slow my breathing—“Hong-sau, hong–freakin’-sau”—but the snake didn’t budge. I stared at it and marveled at its clever camouflaged properties, how it almost seamlessly blended into the landscape. I forgot that its bite can be lethal. We had a moment there, the snake and I, maybe not of understanding, but of detente. I gingerly stepped around it, exhaling a mighty “sau,” believe you me.