Walking San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail – The Barbary Coast: Part 4 of 7

The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present.

San Francisco’s original Barbary Coast was a once hive of opium dens, brothels, bars, and gambling houses.

It was along the waterfront that some of the bawdiest establishments catered to an unsavory mix of rough and tumble sailors and miners. This place was so lawless that it was named after the pirate-infested ‘Barbary Coast’ from Africa’s northern coastline of centuries past. From the time of the Gold Rush, the Barbary Coast remained a fixture of the city until it ended in 1917 with societal and police crackdowns. Today, quiet streets and upscale businesses only hint at its tawdry past.

My exploration of this section of the Barbary Coast Trail began at the Redwood Park located near the Transamerica Pyramid Building. Just across the street, Hotaling Alley caught my attention. The alley follows the original shoreline and the pavement have been designed to represent waves lapping a shore. Adorning the sides of the street are antique lampposts and curious looking hitching posts each topped with a horse head. These are actually bumpers to prevent autos from backing into potted trees, but they artfully pay respect to a time when this area was the location of the Hotaling Stables.

At the end of the street is the beautifully decorated Hotaling building. It was built in 1866 and for a good many years “housed the largest liquor repository on the west coast.” The thirsty saloons of the Barbary Coast demanded whiskey and this warehouse gladly provided it. In 1906 San Francisco was devastated by a large earthquake and a firestorm burned much of the city. All looked lost for this part of San Francisco, but just before the wall of fire reached the Hotaling building the wind shifted and the warehouse of whiskey was saved. Some in the country suggested San Francisco was being punished by divine retribution for its sinful nature; in response, the following was penned –

“If, as they say, God spanked the town
For being over frisky,
Why did he burn the churches down
And save Hotaling’s whiskey?”

Today, this doggerel remains as a plaque outside the old whiskey building.

Turning onto Jackson St. I returned to the path of the Barbary Coast Trail. A minute later, at the corner of Montgomery Street, I looked at an unassuming building of granite and brick. Here was the old Bank of Lucas and Turner and Company. It was constructed in 1853-54 and had an unusual first manager named Mr. Sherman. Mr. Sherman already had a history in California but it was the time he served in the Union Army during America’s Civil War that would immortalize him. Mr. Sherman would later be known for the ‘March to the Sea’ and oversee the burning of Atlanta, Georgia. History knows the man who worked here as General William Tecumseh Sherman.

I returned to the Hotaling Whiskey warehouse and just past it was the old Ghirardelli Building. It is here that in 1865 a process for storing chocolate was discovered that allowed it to be easily stored and shipped long distances. This discovery made Ghirardelli Chocolate a household name. Also at this location is a quiet alley called Balance. The alley can be walked in about 25 steps; its length matches a ship’s hull that is buried beneath. The Balance had sailed around the horn of South America and made several lengthy ocean voyages, but in 1849 it was moored here and abandoned as the crew headed to the goldfields. The ship quickly became part of the growing fleet of ‘ghost ships” that was anchored in the bay and later became the foundations for the buildings in modern San Francisco. All that remains of the Balance today is a street sign.

At the end of Balance is the quaint looking Gold Street. Gold Street is quiet now but during the Gold Rush, this place was likely swarmed with miners who had brought saddlebags full of gold to be weighed and tested for purity. Here the first Assaying Office was opened during the Gold Rush. One can only imagine the fortunes and dreams that were realized or lost on this tiny street. Today, a small plaque at the back of an upscale club marks the location of the old Assayer’s Office.

We followed the inlaid sidewalk markers identifying we were on the Barbary Coast Trail to the tree-lined Pacific Street. Here we passed a number of old brick buildings where sailors and miners once found entertainment and drink. Although this place is very different now some of the stories of that time remain; one such story involves sailors and miners being “Shanghaied.”

Shanghaied means to be kidnapped and sent to sea. The most notorious person involved in this unscrupulous business was Shanghai Kelly. His henchmen, known as ‘runners,’ would befriend unsuspecting sailors who had newly arrived from a voyage and likely had a pocket full of money. The runners would bring the sailors to Kelly’s bar for drinks, laughter, and the promise of female companionship. At some point, the sailor would be given drug-laced whiskey, once the drugs took effect the wobbly sailor would be whacked on the head and knocked out cold. The story goes that Shanghai Kelly would pull a lever opening a trap door in the floor – the unconscious sailor would instantly disappear. Underneath the bar, among the pillars of the wharf, the unconscious sailor would be relieved of his money, taken to a sailing vessel, and sold to an unsavory captain. The next day the sailor would wake to find that he had been kidnapped, penniless, was far out to sea, and likely working for an ogre of a captain…possibly sailing to Shanghai, one of the most distant ports in terms of travel time. If the sailor was fortunate and survived the harsh round-trip voyage, poor food, cramped conditions, and hard labor then he might just return to the Barbary Coast several years later.

Another story involves Shanghai Kelly having a ‘Birthday Party’ in which he invited 100 of the Barbary Coast’s most desperate to join him for a bay cruise to ‘celebrate’ his birthday. At some point during the cruise, all of the guests were given opium-laced whiskey. After the ‘guests’ were unconscious Kelly’s ship delivered new crews to three vessels that were waiting to set sail. Kelly ended his party returning home with a full purse and 100 men departed the party bound for an unwelcome ocean voyage.

Make sure to make a stop at the art store at 555 on Pacific Ave. You can recognize it by the ornate decorations and lighting on the outside. This is the old Hippodrome, the bawdy center of the Barbary Coast. Today, it is a fantastic art store with newspaper articles on the inside wall about its past. There is also an old Prohibition tunnel.

The vibrant North Beach lay just ahead, it was home to the beatniks, Italian food, great coffee, a famous bookstore and colorful theater.

>> Continue with Part 5: North Beach

Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.

Walking San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail – Gold Rush City: Part 3 of 7

The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present.

San Francisco was created by the American Gold Rush.

Gold was discovered by James Marshall, January 1848, at Sutter’s Mill in Coloma, California. The event was not well known until that March when an industrious man named Sam Brannan entered a sandy lot of Portsmouth Square in San Francisco and waved a bottle of Gold Dust over his head and cried out, “Gold! Gold! Gold from the American River!” In true entrepreneurial fashion Mr. Brannan, prior to his announcement, had stocked up on picks, gold pans, and shovels to sell to the newly energized populace who wanted to be miners. Within two years after his announcement, the small city of 1,000 exploded 20 times – to a population of 20,000!

Today, standing in the Portsmouth Square among the bustle of humanity surrounded by cement and steel buildings it is hard to imagine that on this location in 1848 one man’s announcement about gold ignited a worldwide migration of people to America.

The square has a number of plaques that are worthwhile to find, some include: In 1846 the U.S. Marines first raised the Stars and Stripes over San Francisco; the marines had disembarked from the USS Portsmouth and christened the square with the name of their ship. Also, this place was the location of California’s first public school, constructed in 1848 – the same year Sam Brannan made his announcement about gold. Also here is a marker dedicated to Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, who often visited here to overlook the bay. Possibly some of the characters in his books were inspired by the sailing ships and the salty characters who sailed upon them.

Leaving Portsmouth Square I headed south just a few steps to Commercial Street. Commercial Street had a long history of business. One of the early establishments here was a branch of the Hudson Bay Company, a fur trading business that was involved in exploring North America during the 1600-1700s as well as California in the early 1800s. While walking down the street look for a little green space; this small area marks the location of Emperor Norton’s Imperial Palace, an eccentric character endowed with the title, “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico” who for decades charmed locals. He was so beloved by the city that it is reported his funeral was the largest in San Francisco’s history. While here also check out the Chinese Historical Society and the Pacific Heritage Museum. The site of the Pacific Heritage Museum was the original location of the US Branch Mint. It was here that gold from the Mother Load was housed from 1855 until 1874.

Walk to the end of Commercial Street to the corner of Montgomery and observe the topography around you, it’s really flat. Now, instead of cement at your feet imagine a sandy shoreline, deconstruct the buildings, move the people away, and un-pave the streets.  In front of you is a bay with several dozen wooden sailing vessels anchored in the shallow waters. Why then is the shoreline located 3/4 of a mile from where it is today? To find out walk to the Wells Fargo Bank History Room – a treasure box for those curious about America’s Gold Rush history.

As you enter the glass doors it is hard to miss the refurbished Abbot-Downing “Concord” Stagecoach – the same kind you see on the Wells Fargo TV commercials. You can get up close and see the details in the woodwork. It is hard to believe that 9 people could have been stuffed inside – and another 9 on top! At the history room, you can also see beautifully crafted precision scales for measuring gold, solid gold nuggets, treasure boxes and photographs from the Gold Rush time.

Kids can ride a Pony Express exhibit and have their photo taken as the newest Pony Express rider. On this exhibit, they have a mochilla, a unique looking saddlebag designed to fit over any saddle and that could be easily transferred between riders. The mochilla could carry up to 20 pounds of mail in four pouches. People often do not think of San Francisco as being on the Pony Express route, but it was the final destination of many of those letters. It is amazing to think that these letters made a 1,966-mile journey by horseback from Missouri to California in just 10 days!

Upstairs you can sit in the body of a stagecoach and listen to an account from a rider who traveled by stage to the west coast. Just listening to this audio makes a person very appreciative of our modern conveniences. Also upstairs are a number of letters and photos from the mid to late 1800s. I personally enjoyed a drawing called the “Birds Eye View of San Francisco” (shown with the abandoned ships in the foreground) which illustrates the hundreds of ‘ghost ships’ that choked the waterfront of San Francisco. Here is why the shoreline is not where it used to be; as the ships anchored in the bay hundreds were abandoned as sailors jumped-ship and traveled to the gold fields in search of fortune. As the number of ships grew this ‘graveyard of ships’ became new real estate and created the foundations of buildings, wharves, and streets as the city grew to fill in the shallow bay, entombing the ships that brought so many to these shores.

Leaving the museum and walking just a few short blocks back on Montgomery, past Commercial Street to the corner of Clay Street is the Transamerica Pyramid Building. Make a quick walk up Clay Street to view a plaque marking the final station of the Pony Express.

At the Transamerica Pyramid Building look up and appreciate the unique architecture of this 48 stories tall skyscraper. It’s hard to imagine that during the Gold Rush, as the bay lands were filled, a building called the Montgomery Block once stood here. It was reportedly a hangout for famous names as Mark Twain, Jack London, and Robert Louis Stevenson. One story about this place tells how Mr. Clemens (Mark Twain) met a hulky and red-headed firefighter who intrigued him and the two became friends. The firefighter was named Tom Sawyer.

On the eastern side of the skyscraper is a lush area known as the Transamerica Redwood Park. It is a pleasant oasis of trees, fountains, and greenery in the middle of the city. Enjoy a sculpture of six children running and playing called, “Puddle Jumpers.” The sculpture’s message about jumping is reinforced by nearby frogs which are in honor of Mark Twain’s book, “The Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.”

Keep an eye open for a marker about two saloon dogs who were inseparable friends. They were named “Bummer and Lazarus” and the two roamed freely in the 1860s.

The park was a good place to rest before continuing on with the next section of the Barbary Coast Trail – into the heart of the old Barbary Coast. Today, an area of upscale establishments and businesses, it was once a place of “too many men, too much gold, and too little civilization.”

>> Continue with Part 4: Barbary Coast

Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.

Walking San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail – Chinatown: Part 2 of 7

The Barbary Coast Trail is roughly 4 miles in length and takes visitors through several of San Francisco’s colorful neighborhoods while exploring the city’s past and present.

At the corner of Grant Ave. and Bush St. stands a portal known as the Dragon’s Gate. It marks the entrance to the Chinatown neighborhood. Sitting on either side are two mythical lions, each about three feet tall, which guard against unwanted spirits. English speakers often refer to these guardians as ‘Foo Dogs.’

Continuing up Grant Avenue a visitor will notice an abundance of the color red on storefronts and signage, the color symbolizes good fortune and joy.

It is easy to spend much of a day in Chinatown investigating the stores and businesses that offer teak, jade statues, colorful fabrics, porcelain, teas, spices, and a variety of foods.

Barbary Cost TrailAt California Avenue stands two pagoda-topped iconic buildings known as Sing Fat and Sing Chong. These buildings were constructed after the earthquake and firestorm of 1906. They were built to reaffirm the Chinese presence in the area after the tragedy.

Across the street is the Old St. Mary’s Cathedral. The cathedral was constructed between 1852 and 1854 just a few years after gold was discovered and San Francisco.  The foundation was shipped over from China. Inside are some informative displays about the building’s history.

Just outside the cathedral, a street musician played “Oh Suzanna” on an Er Hu. This is a curious looking instrument with just a neck and two strings that are played with the bow.

A short distance north on Grant Avenue I made a left turn at Sacramento Avenue making sure to follow the Barbary Coast Trail markers embedded in the sidewalk. At the first right was a colorful street known as Waverly Place.

Barbary Cost TrailEntering Waverly Place today you would not guess it once had a very lurid past with madams, sing-song girls, opium dens, and even open warfare between various criminal groups. Today, the street is adorned with colorful balconies, residences, and businesses. A number of people passed me carrying bags of grocery bags filled with vegetables. A short way down the street were the unmistakable sounds of rhythmic drumming coming from the rooftop of a building. This was the Tin How Temple, the oldest Taoist Chinese temple on the west coast. The drumming was empowering; the large drums beat in unison, changing rhythms as one single unit, the low deep vibrations could be felt in your chest.

Crossing Washington Street and just a few paces away are Ross Alley.  The small and dark alley was slightly claustrophobic. More locals passed by with small bags filled with food items. At the end of the alley, a crowd of tourists had gathered outside a fortune cookie factory. I had to take a look.

The fortune cookie room was long and skinny, and several people worked near an industrial-looking machine. A man greeted people by placing a flat, golden-colored wafer about three inches in diameter in everyone’s palm. These were flat fortune cookie rounds. The commotion of people and boxes made viewing the machine a little difficult, but it appeared to have a number of pancake-like impressions that were turning on a large flat wheel. Apparently, from one side a dough mixture would be dolloped onto the tiny hot mini-skillets which would rotate and disappear into the machine to be quickly baked, on the return trip the baked rounds emerged to be grabbed by a woman and in a quick hand-fold-motion she inserted a small paper fortune to give the cookie its shape.  At this point, another tour group had gathered in the alley and began to pour into the store. I squeezed my way back into the alley. At that moment, a neighboring barber came out of his shop. He greeted the tourists then quickly ducked inside. A few seconds later he emerged with an Er Hu and played several quick tunes. The crowd applauded and he received a number of tips. In a flash, the tour group disappeared in the sea of people on neighboring Jackson Street and the alley was again quiet.

Jackson Street pulsed with activity. It was packed with locals shopping, people talking on cell Barbary Cost Trailphones, trucks honking to get by on the street and storeowners coming out of their shops to talk with customers who pawed through boxes that lined the storefronts. Restaurants in the area had large and colorful pictures of food in their doorways and one store had cooked ducks hung in the window. A woman at the street corner shoved a lunch coupon in my hand and pointed to a nearby restaurant. The images on the coupon looked tasty but I had to continue onwards.

Barbary Cost TrailArriving at Portsmouth Square a large crowd filled the tiny park and there was little room to pass. A speaker was passionately advocating, at times in English and Chinese, for democracy and the freedom of religious practices in mainland China. The gathering was held under the gaze of the Goddess of Democracy located in the Portsmouth Square, a smaller replica of the 33ft (10m) tall statue that was created during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

As the loud event ended and the crowd disappeared back onto the streets Portsmouth Square silently revealed some its old secrets; now stone and metal markers previously unseen became visible. This small patch of space is central to the story of California for many reasons but one is the most significant.  It is here, in May of 1848, that Sam Brannan first showed his gold to a curious crowd. His story of easy money unleashed the American Gold Rush.

>> Continue to Part 3: Gold Rush City

Quoted Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.

Walking San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail – Part 1 of 7: Downtown

Walking San Francisco’s Barbary Coast Trail is a fun and active way to explore this historic and beautiful city. The trail is roughly four miles in length and meanders through several colorful neighborhoods and districts.

You can follow the sidewalk markers along the entire length, but to really unlock some of the stories use a guidebook. I found, “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon, an invaluable tool.

I started the trail at the majestic Old United States Mint located at the corner of 5th and Market Street. This “Granite Lady” is reminiscent of an ancient Greek temple, it is a grand and massive stone building with 6 Doric columns gracing the front entrance. The Old Mint was built in 1874 and at one time “held a third of all the gold reserves in the United States, making it the Fort Knox of the West.” Old MintToday, the great doors of the Old Mint are closed, but the Mint is undergoing a renaissance of sorts and may soon reopen as a premier cultural and historic center for the city.

Crossing Market Street was Hallidie Plaza and the cable car turnaround. The Plaza is named after Andrew Smith Hallidie who is considered the father of San Francisco’s Cable Car system. Here a small section of track turns on a circular disk and allows the trolley to return the way it came. Two empty cable cars were queued along the track, an operator allowed one cable car to move forward onto the turnaround, a release switch was thrown and several operators began to physically push the trolley 180 degrees on the track until it stopped. Then the cable car pulled forward a few feet to a boarding area and a group of about twenty passengers climbed aboard. They were off.

Union SquareJust ahead is Union Square, an open area consisting of several acres. On this sunny day, the square was alive with an art fair featuring colorful paintings and etchings. Everyone was friendly and the artists were eager to talk with prospective customers. In just a short time I heard half-a-dozen different languages being spoken by tourists, it just reinforced that San Francisco is a world-class destination for people from all over the world. At the plaza’s periphery was an outdoor café serving coffee and sandwiches. The cafe patrons were enjoying the sun, working on laptops, reading, or just having a good conversation with friends. Some young kids were playing and jumping off a small ledge into the arms of their parents. Among the visitors was a young man playing a large wooden flute. After a few minutes, he was approached by several young travelers who appeared to be from Europe, he showed them the flute and later showed them several Tai Chi movements. The square was restful and energetic at the same time.

The pleasant setting seemed distant from the controversy of slavery that was passionately debated at this location in the mid-1800s. At that time southern sympathizers were advocating the new state of California secede from the Union and join the southern cause. Thomas Starr King, a Unitarian Minister, and charismatic speaker with “extraordinary eloquence and spellbinding oratory” drew large rallies to the square. His speeches are greatly credited for rousing the public and keeping California in the Union. Union Square takes its name from these pro-Union rallies.

Barbary Coast TrailOn the western edge of Union Square a  large American flag waves over the doorway of the Westin St. Francis Hotel. The hotel was built in 1904 and has been graced by celebrities and the powerful ever since. In 1975 there was a failed assassination attempt of President Ford. There is still a small bullet hole above the hotel’s door.

Dewey MonumentThe centerpiece of the plaza is a large white Corinthian column that rises 97 feet over the square. This is the Dewey Monument; atop the column is the statue of a tall woman holding a raised trident and a wreath, symbolizing the people the monument honors. This monument commemorates both Admiral Dewey’s victory in the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898 during the Spanish and American War and to President McKinley who was killed in office by an assassin in 1901. The woman who modeled for the statue, Alma de Bretteville, has a rags-to-riches story of her own; by being born into poverty and later becoming one of the wealthiest women in the state. Some of her later accomplishment include building the Palace Of the Legion of Honor (a fine art museum in San Francisco) and being instrumental in the creation of the National Maritime Museum at Aquatic Park, which is a destination on the Barbary Coast Trail.

Just east of Union Square is the quiet Maiden Lane.

Maiden LaneToday, Maiden Lane is a clean well-lit street with cafes and outdoor seating. However, in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the maiden in Maiden Lane referred to the numerous prostitutes who “naked to the waist hung out of the narrow wooden shanties” in an attempt to entice patrons inside.

Walking through the now gentrified alley, the sound of Italian Opera was in the air. At the corner of Grant Street, a man was standing – his arms outstretched in song. This was the Tenor of Maiden Lane and according to his brochure has performed on the street since 1998. He apparently chose this spot on Maiden Lane because of the acoustics. I listened to his performance for some time. Walking north his voice echoed off the building for several blocks. Listening to such wonderful music was an elegant way to end this section of the Barbary Coast Trail.

Ahead was the ornate Chinatown Gate guarded by two statues, the mythical Chinese lions, called “Foo Dogs.”

>> Continue with Part 2: Chinatown

Learn more about the Tenor of Maiden Lane:
http://bayentertainers.com/robertclose.htm
Reference: “Walking San Francisco on the Barbary Coast Trail” by Daniel Bacon.

A Peek Inside San Francisco’s Ferry Building and Marketplace

SF Ferry BuildingExploring San Francisco can be colorful and fun experience. But, where should a person start? We decided to start at the beautiful Ferry Building on the waterfront shown in the center of the photo with the spire-like clock tower.

For this trip, we traveled on the underground rapid transit system known as BART, to the Embarcadero Station. As we exited our train we walked to the escalator and were carried several stories up onto busy Market Street. Our first view was the dominating iconic 230-foot clock tower located at the end of the street- this was the historic Ferry Building, a center for shopping and the Terminal for traveling by ferryboat to various locations on San Francisco Bay.

Viewing the century-old structure I was startled by a loud clang. A historic and beautifully refurbished streetcar, stuffed with riders, clamored down the street. On the sidewalk, there was activity and energy: women with shopping bags glided past, well-dressed business folks marched by having conversations via their ear-phones; sightseeing tourists moved slowly and the areas near street vendors became bottlenecks on the sidewalk as they looked at the items for sale. Some of the tourists were being entertained by a person singing on the corner, while others looked curiously at a man making some cool music by using common household items like rubber cans and buckets as percussion instruments.

SF Ferry Building Clock TowerThis artery of shoppers, business people and tourists stopped briefly at a pedestrian crossing. The light changed and allowed this pulse of people to cross the busy Embarcadero street and move toward the Ferry Building at the base of the clock tower.

Inside the building, a mass of people moved in multiple directions; some traveled directly through the building to the ferry boats outside, others grabbed a bite to eat, a few greeted friends, while others just enjoyed the experience.

The building was well lit. Above us was the vaulted ceiling that covered the length of this 660-foot long structure. This Grand Nave was a continuous skylight that allowed sunlight to stream into the shopping stalls below.

Many of the stalls were tiny, but they offered a bounty of artisan and locally produced items. An olive oil company offered samples of tasty herb infused oils, a meat company sold delicious slices of salami, baked bread was being made and sold by the armful, and a local pottery shop marketed beautiful pieces of its craft work. Some families enjoyed hot tea in a tea shop while couples and business associates closed deals over enticing glasses of red wine at a wine bar.

A man walked past, he was holding a sandwich of freshly made bread – the ingredients were precariously stacked – almost ready to explode from between the bread halves with his next bite. The sandwich looked delicious and I could only imagine how it tasted. The temptation was strong but the family decided our desire from such a sandwich could be satisfied on the return trip. We had much to see, though for the rest of that day I thought of that sandwich and how good my own sandwich would taste.

blog_20110226_img3Later that afternoon we returned to the Ferry Building we sought out the sandwich maker. Unfortunately, being the end of the day they were sold out. My tummy voiced a deep sounding and disappointed grumble at hearing the news. My daughter, also feeling hungry, tugged at my sleeve and suggested we buy some bread at one store, meat from another and cheese from a vendor. It was a grand idea. All of us scrambled in multiple directions and returned in several minutes, each with our food treasures. We ate not so much a sandwich but a walking picnic as we explored the back of the Ferry Building and enjoyed some great views of the San Francisco Bay and the Bay Bridge.

A couple of times during the week outside the Ferry Building a Farmer’s Market blooms and locals can buy locally grown fresh produce, locally grown meats and a host of other goods – but that is another exploration.

As we walked back to the BART station the afternoon sun had created long shadows over the city. The man who had used the household items as percussion instruments still had onlookers and was still going strong as he drummed to his own beat.

Be a Savvy Customer at the Park Gift Store

National Parks represent many things – including the best of America. When families visit a gift store in a National Park they expect products that are well-made, durable and above all, safe. Sadly, some products at park gift stores do not represent the best of America. Like other places where you shop you need to be aware of what you are buying.

Here are several tips to help the savvy customer when visiting a National Park gift store.

Product Labeling

The savvy customer should know about product labels. Product labels are important because it tells you critical information about the product you will be buying – or what you will be buying for your child. Parks are family destinations; park gift stores should sell products that are made to safety standards that protect children.

For example, consider a Junior Ranger backpack. Backpacks, parks and kids go together, but are all Junior Ranger backpacks sold in park stores safe for kids? Just because it is sold in a park gift store does not mean it is safe, or a well-made product. What information would a savvy parent look for?

First, look for a hangtag. If you do not see a hangtag be very concerned. Let this absence of information be a big flag that waves a ‘be cautious’ warning in your mind. Such an absence means the park’s gift store does not have your best interest or safety in mind.

Second, if a hangtag is attached look for these key pieces of information:

  • In what country was it made?
  • What materials is it made from?
  • Who is the manufacturer?
  • Who is responsible?
  • Is there a web address to learn more about the product?
  • If a product states “Made exclusively for” and does not list the above information be concerned.

Third, look for a permanent label. Permanent labels are sewn inside backpacks and state who made it, where it was made, provide a unique identifier, and a web address or similar so customers can reach the manufacturer. Providing such a label is more than just identifying these key pieces of information, it is also the law.

An Act called the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA) requires that products “designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age or younger” must meet certain rules for product safety including: acceptable levels of heavy metals like Lead, toxic chemicals as well as proper labeling to inform consumers about what they are buying. A permanent label is required in case of a recall and to help parents identify the product if it is determined to be unsafe. Both manufacturers and importers must comply with the Act for all products. As a savvy parent look for a permanent label as it demonstrates the manufacturer shows a higher degree of professionalism in their work.

Obviously a hangtag or permanent label might not be feasible or reasonable for some products; a book does not need a hangtag, but it still has information inside the first pages about who published the book, who is the author, and where it was made. Every product should have supporting information so customers can learn about it, but most importantly, help them identify who is responsible. Any product that does not include such information should never be bought by the park’s gift store in the first place and should never be offered for sale.

Sadly there are products, including Junior Ranger backpacks, being sold in National Park stores that omit or ignore the most basic product information as required by the CPSIA.

Transparency and Good Faith

The savvy park gift store customer will seek out products that offer transparency and good faith.

Transparency does not mean you can see through the physical product, rather you can see into the business processes and decisions that made the product. Transparency is about businesses openly disclosing information and being forthcoming. This can help customers know if a product supports ethics or values important to them like:

  • Was this product made not using sweatshop labor?
  • Was this product made with materials that are safe?
  • Will this be safe for my child?
  • Does the vendor publicly say who tests their products for Lead, Phthalates or other chemicals?

Good faith means ‘honest intentions.’ Some park gift stores focus so heavily on making a profit they do not effectively research the vendors who supply them with products. This means a savvy consumer will have to make up the difference in trying to determine if a product, or its manufacturer, has made a good faith attempt to make their product safer. Visit the website of the manufacturer, what does it say? A lack of information is also a clue. Here are some other tips:

  • Does the manufacturer follow any international standards like the ISO-9000 quality management standards, or the SA-8000 standards for minimizing sweatshop labor? What about other standards?
  • Does the manufacturer have any third-party green business certifications?
  • Does the manufacturer use a third-party forensics lab to test their products and do they post the results online?
  • If a manufacturer makes everything under the sun at low prices, but cannot document any of it, or state where it is made, or how – you should be concerned.

It is the responsibility of any manufacturer to, in good faith, continually work to improve their products so they are safer. As an example, I had a conversation several years ago with a vendor who made textile products and sold them directly to park gift stores. We were both exhibiting at the same national conference that park store buyers frequent. This vendor roughly stated their textiles did not need to list country of origin or list what materials it was made from because the Federal Trade Commission excluded this particular item from the Textile Fiber Products Identification Act. Regardless if this was legal or not, such a reason demonstrates a lack of good faith (honest intentions). At the show the vendor sold a lot; because he hid behind the law he could keep costs low. Unfortunately, many park store buyers just saw a low price point and did not look at how transparent the vendor was or if he was operating in good faith.

Sadly, there continues to be a myriad of products (mostly promotional items that are sold at low costs and made overseas with questionable labor) that continue to be sold at park gift stores. Many of these promotional items cannot demonstrate or communicate they have transparency or good faith intentions.

Know About the CPSIA

Savvy park gift store consumers should know about the CPSIA. Any product “designed or intended primarily for children 12 years of age or younger” must meet the rules of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). This means anything designed or intended for kids 12 or under – including Junior Ranger backpacks – must comply with this law. Become familiar with this law:

» Learn more about the CPSIA
» For an overview check out the Interpretation and Enforcement Of Section 103(a) of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act
» Learn more about tracking labels on child products

Report Unsafe Products

A savvy park gift store consumer will report unsafe products. The CPSIA law has now had several years for manufacturers to enact processes to become compliant. The act was passed in August, 2008, there is no excuse for a manufacturer or a park gift store to say ‘they did not know.’

If you know of an unsafe product report it to the Consumer Product Safety Commission at this website.
» https://www.saferproducts.gov/CPSRMSPublic/Incidents/ReportIncident.aspx

Walk the Talk

Until all park stores walk-their-talk it is up to you, the customer, to be informed, to ask basic questions, to demand and be willing to pay for safe well-made products.

A Park is What it Sells

National Park gift stores have hard-working people who want to represent the best of America. Sadly, some decision makers do not represent the best of America and allow for bad or unsafe products in these stores. Be a savvy customer and look for product labels, transparent business practices, and good faith actions. Be informed about product safety laws, report products that are unsafe, and most importantly, ask questions.

Quoted Source: http://www.cpsc.gov/about/cpsia/sect103policy.pdf

Eight Tips for Visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium

Monterey Bay AquariumA visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California can be a treat. Families will enjoy the many treasures of the ocean with exhibits that inspire, educate and astound. Whether it is the 28-foot high kelp forest exhibit, the touch pools, mesmerizing jellyfish (shown) or seeing the ever-favorite sea otters it is a wonderful place for kids of all ages.

The aquarium is such a great place that it is often packed with visitors. If you appreciate your ‘elbowroom’ a little planning can go a long way. Here are eight tips to help make a visit to the Monterey Bay Aquarium more enjoyable:

1. Go Off Season
Summer is the ‘high’ season, but if you can visit during downtime you might have the aquarium mostly to yourself. Consider visiting during October; the weather is generally pleasant, and most tourists are focused on the upcoming Christmas Holidays. Another good time is during the winter season when most families are reluctant to get outside. If summer is the only season you can visit the aquarium consider some crowd management techniques and visit mid-week or early/late in the day.

2. Visit Mid-week
Weekends are very busy, but Tuesdays and Wednesdays generally have fewer visitors to the aquarium. A staff member suggested that Wednesday was the best day to visit any time of year, but in the summer Wednesdays can still be busy. The photo shows a diver cleaning the glass in the impressive Kelp Forest exhibit with a handful of onlookers silhouetted in the foreground. When you visit during downtime you can better appreciate all of the exhibits without the crowds.

Monterey Bay Aquarium
3. During the Day Visit Early and Late
Regardless of the time of year avoid the bulk of crowds by visiting in the morning for an hour just after the aquarium opens then return later that afternoon several hours before it closes. You can always stamp your hand as you leave the aquarium to return later that day.

4. Walk and See the Sights
A good number of people who visit the aquarium just explore a small area in Monterey called Cannery Row. Make it a point to see some of the sights in Monterey and the neighboring Pacific Grove. Better yet, just go for a nice walk. A pleasant and visually delicious walk along the Monterey Coastal Trail takes you from the aquarium to Pacific Grove – priceless views without the expense.

5. Bring Money – Parking is Expensive
Avoid the shock of arriving in Monterey only to learn that parking will cost you at least $10 to $15 a day. Driving around trying to find a cheaper space in the area is often not practical, frequently wastes time and on busy traffic, days will lead to stress. Once you find a spot, grab it and start your day – having the family time is more valuable than grumbling about paying for parking. If you park on the street at a meter bring a roll of quarters (or two). Several local garages and parking lots are located near the aquarium but these can fill up by 10 a.m. on busy days. Parking in Monterey can be expensive so plan for it.

6. Munchies Are A Must
Bring some munchies to stave off that mid-morning or afternoon hunger. When you are ready to eat the aquarium has a café/restaurant and the surrounding area offers a number of places to eat. I have never been disappointed eating at the Sea Harvest. It has good food at reasonable prices. The Sea Harvest is located opposite the city’s public parking garage by the exit, just look for the big bluefish on their sign. 598 Foam Street, Monterey.

Monterey Bay Aquarium
7. Consider a Family Membership
It is easy for a family of 3 to drop $75 just to enter the aquarium. The money is well spent as the aquarium is a world-class experience. If you are staying in the area for several days or will visit on several occasions, consider a family membership. The membership pays for itself in two visits and you have the benefit of entering the aquarium at a side entrance to avoid lines. Plus you receive a 10% discount at the aquarium’s gift store.

8. Stay Overnight in the Area
If you are staying overnight consider staying in nearby Pacific Grove about a mile and a half from the aquarium. It has some nice places to stay, like the Bide-A-Wee Inn and Cottages. Look for places that offer rooms with a small kitchenette and breakfast in the morning. The small downtown area of Pacific Grove has cozy cafes and a coffee shop where you can relax on a couch and enjoy a good book. During the summer and over major holidays lodging prices in the Monterey area can double or triple from their off-season rates so plan ahead and look online for deals. If you are really budget minded try the Monterey Hostel only several blocks from the aquarium. Reservations are recommended at the hostel any time of year.

To learn more about Monterey Bay Aquarium visit:
http://www.montereybayaquarium.org

Walk Among the Bellowing Elephant Seals at Año Nuevo State Park

A visit to Año Nuevo State Park along California’s central coast is a must for active families.

Seals can be seen at Año Nuevo throughout the year, but in the wintertime, the beaches are packed as males battle for mates and females give birth to pups. The size of this gathering makes it one of the largest mainland breeding colonies for northern elephant seals in the world. What makes this place especially fun is that visitors can get up-close with these amazing creatures.

Elephant seals are curious to behold; at first glance, they look like giant sausages on the beach, when they move it is similar to the way Jello moves when giggled. The males have large elephantine-like noses which give the seals their name. Some of the males are huge – they can weigh up to 5,000 pounds and be 15 feet in length! If you are curious how heavy 5,000 pounds are, it is roughly the same weight as 16 football linebackers! These giant seals might look slow moving but when provoked these undulating masses of blubber can move a speedy 25 feet in several seconds.

Possibly the most unusual feature about elephant seals are their bellowing vocalizations. At best, it sounds like a deep guttural burp mixed with low-frequency popping noises. You can hear moms, pups, and males here.

The seals spend much of their life at sea traveling great distances, sometimes swimming an astounding 5,000 miles before resting on land.

The elephant seals were once thought to be extinct. The seals have a lot of fat on their bodies, and at one time their fat was a hot commodity as a fuel source for oil lamps. In the 1800s as whale populations diminished from over hunting a new source of prevalent, easy-to-obtain oil was sought. The large, slow-moving (slow at least on land) elephant seals were an easy harvest. Their population soon plummeted and the seals were thought to be extinct on the California coast. Fortunately, a small group survived in Mexico; this population, thought to be less than 100 individuals, was eventually protected and their population slowly grew.

In the winter months, primarily in January and February, the males battle for control of harems and mating rights. When two males challenge each other they loudly slam their massive bodies into one another sometimes raking teeth across their opponent’s body. It is common to see males with bloody scars and lacerations on their heads and fronts.

During December through March, access to the breeding area is only available through guided walks. These docent-led groups consist of 10 to 20 people and are led every quarter hour. You can easily make reservations online. On the day of your appointment check in at the visitor center to confirm your arrival. Then make your way to the staging area, which is about a three-quarter mile walk. At the staging area, you will be introduced to a docent who will guide you into the protected breeding area. This walk takes about an hour and a half. Afterward, enjoy a walk back to the visitor center, or explore a nearby beach and trails.

The docent lead tours are held rain or shine. Bring layered clothes, a sun hat (or rain gear) and plenty of water.

Año Nuevo is located a 45 minutes drive south of Half Moon Bay, California.

To learn more and make reservations:
http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=523

A Day Exploring the Waterfalls of Big Basin Redwoods State Park

blog_20101230_img6Winter can be a wonderful time to visit Big Basin Redwoods State Park in California.

We arrived at 10 a.m. (December 29th) and parked across from the old log building known as Big Basin Headquarters. The temperature outside was 44 degrees and the damp air was crisp. The morning clouds had dissipated and sunlight streaked through the forest canopy onto the ground below.

Surrounding the headquarters were goliaths – redwood trees that were 4, 5, and 6 feet across. One tree appeared to be 8 or 9 feet at the base. Even though I have visited here many times I am always impressed by the size and grandeur of these magnificent trees. But, today my family was here to see other sights – three magnificent waterfalls: Berry Creek Falls, Silver Falls, and Golden Cascade.

We made sure our water bottles were full before crossing over Waddell Creek and onto the Skyline-to-the-Sea trail that would lead us to the waterfalls. The winter rains had made the forest green with color. The forest was quiet, peaceful and restorative.

After an hour or so of walking through the redwoods, the sounds of rushing water could be heard. The creek next to us, Kelly Creek, was alive with water and small cascades. Everything around was green and moist. The redwoods towered above us. The only sounds we heard were our breathing and our footsteps on the ground made gentle gushing noises as we walked on the damp trail. The cleanliness of the air was a joy to breathe! Something small at the side of the trail moved ahead of us, it was a newt that was slowly traversing the fallen logs and fern fronds.

blog_20101230_img5At the Timms Creek trail junction, a fallen redwood had created a natural bridge (shown). Big Basin Redwoods State ParkWe rested and played here for a few minutes then continued on. Soon, a rock overlook along the trail let us peer down onto Kelly Creek – a myriad of small white cascades dotted the creek, large brown boulders sat among ferns and broad-leafed plants and a color chart of green moss dotted the sides of trees.

The trail descended and crossed over a small footbridge. In a few minutes, we rounded a corner – ahead of us were the Berry Creek Falls.

These 65-foot falls drop vertically – plunging abruptly into a valley of redwoods and moss. To say this is ‘picturesque’ is an understatement.

We enjoyed the view then continued to a viewing platform about three-quarters the height of the falls for a direct look (shown is the view from the platform). For ten minutes we had this view all to ourselves. Then several other hikers arrived, they deserved the same tranquility we just enjoyed, so we moved on.

Big Basin Redwoods State ParkThe trail continued upstream for about twenty minutes. Small cascades danced in the creek and gurgles of water made curious sounds as pools emptied over steep rocks. Here we saw a huge, bright yellow, banana slug about seven inches in length next to the trail. We had seen several banana slugs on the trail but this was by far the largest. The sound of falling water was coming from just up the trail.

Silver Falls began to appear through the redwoods. These falls were slightly hidden by the mass of trees, blog_20101230_img4but it was easy to see the white and frothy ‘silvery’ water as it poured over the top and dropped a wonderful 60 feet or so into a pool below. A series of stairs on the trail wound up the side of the valley to the top of the falls. At the top was a single cable handrail (shown in the photo). The trail was a little slick so we proceeded with caution.

In just seconds we were at the Golden Cascade. These were actually two cascades; at the base was a vertical fall of about 15 feet, just above it was a much more impressive drop. I am not sure about the height, but for perspective notice the blog_20101230_img3person in the photo (top right, wearing a red vest).

We enjoyed a well-deserved snack in this tranquil place then continued on our hike back to the car. Although it was an hour before sunset it was close to dark when we arrived at the parking area. These are some deep valleys and the trees are very, very tall. It can become dark quickly in the redwood forest.

I like to visit between rainstorms when the weather grants a two to three-day rest between showers allowing the trails to harden up a little. Seeing these waterfalls in the winter (and spring) are spectacular. The summer is a great time to visit too, but the streams have less water and sometimes can become just a trickle of water as fall approaches.

On our wintertime day hike, we passed only 14 people on the trail! The loop took us about 6 hours to complete and required roughly 11 miles of hiking – it is strenuous. This is a hike for families with older kids.

Big Basin Redwoods State Park was established in 1902 and was California’s first state park.

Big Basin is located a one hour drive from Saratoga, California and roughly half an hour from the town of Boulder Creek. The entrance fee is $10.

To continue your own explorations of Big Basin Redwoods State Park visit:
http://www.parks.ca.gov/default.asp?page_id=540

Finding Solace and Fun at Asilomar – a Refuge by the Sea

Asilomar State Beach and Conference GroundsFamilies can find solace and fun along the rocky shoreline, living dunes and restful lodging at Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds in Pacific Grove, California.

The word Asilomar means ‘refuge by the sea’ and this beautiful place represent its name well.

The State Beach area offers many sandy coves to explore, fascinating tidepools and rock bluffs. The two-lane Sunset Drive provides a number of car turn-outs for those wishing a quick look. However, to maximize the experience take the entire family out to explore the one-mile trail that hugs the shoreline. Do not be surprised to see the head of a sea lion or harbor seal popping to the surface looking inquisitively back at curious humans.

Asilomar State Beach and Conference GroundsAt the southern end of the trail visit a beautiful beach area, or cross the road to enjoy a half-mile meandering boardwalk through picturesque dunes. Immediately a visitor recognizes the dunes look different from other coastal areas; it does because only native plants grow in this protected area. Once the native plants that grew here were almost lost, but through many years of replanting and stewardship the dunes today are an ecological masterpiece of native plant restoration.

A forest of beautiful Monterey pine trees greets visitors as they exit the boardwalk. Here sits the conference center and grounds with: a lecture hall, meeting rooms, overnight lodging rooms, and dining Asilomar State Beach and Conference Groundsfacilities. These structures fit nicely into the landscape and are dotted throughout the trees. Many of the buildings were designed by the famed architect Julia Morgan; she embraced an architectural style “to bring people back in touch with nature, and thus restore balance, health, harmony, and happiness.”

Deer are a common sight along the side paths at the conference center.

Brochures about the Coast Trail, the Living Dunes, and Julia Morgan’s Architecture can be obtained at the Front Desk of the conference center.

Sunset Drive can be very busy with sightseers during the summer and on weekends. The morning and sunset hours can be especially beautiful along the beach.

Reference: Julia Morgan’s Architecture Brochure

To learn more about Asilomar State Beach and Conference Grounds visit these web addresses:
http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=566
http://www.visitasilomar.com/

A Look Inside the Oldest Continuously Operating Lighthouse on the West Coast

blog_20101224_img1At the southern end of Monterey Bay in California is the picturesque Point Pinos Lighthouse. Since 1855 it has helped those at sea find their way. Families are welcome to explore Point Pinos, the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the west coast.

The lighthouse consists of a small, two-story house. Rising above the roof is the multi-prism Fresnel lens (pronounced fray-nell) that projects the light many miles out to sea. Unlike many lighthouses that sit at the water’s edge, Point Pinos is located a several minutes walk inland.

During my family’s visit we rounded the front of the building and were reminded of the rainstorm that was approaching from the Pacific Ocean. A strong and cool wind was blowing and dots of horizontal rain patched our clothes.

A man with a white beard welcomed all of us into the warm and cozy building. He was a volunteer docent, but was dressed as though working at a lighthouse was his profession. He could easily have walked out of the late 1800’s.

As he closed the door the blustery outside wind immediately ceased. The house was noticeably solid and well built. The walls were roughly a foot thick and had been constructed with a granite core; the building’s outside had been covered with wood and was whitewashed.

The main floor included three rooms and an old-time bathroom with a gravity feed water closet. A living room was refurnished with furniture and décor.

Moving to the second level we ascended a steep spiraling staircase. Here were two rooms: first was a refurbished bedroom of the lightkeeper, the second bedroom offered a glimpse into the history of the area during World War II when soldiers were stationed here to help protect the coast from possible enemy attacks.

A visit to the third level, with the Fresnel lens, was unfortunately off limits to visitors and we could only peek up the spiraling stairs … very curious about the lens we could not see.

Returning to the main floor we explored some side stairs that led to the basement. The basement was made with the same rock as the house; it was obvious this entire building was stoutly constructed and looked as though this place would survive any calamity. As we stepped into this cozy underground space another docent greeted us as. She was very eager to share her knowledge and gladly answered our questions.

The ClockworksA well-machined series of gears, levers and weights sat inside a Plexiglas display. This curious looking machine was an original ‘clockworks’ timing mechanism that allowed a shade to move around the light, giving the light a characteristic ‘light signature.’ The docent picked up a large wrench, inserted it into the machine and gave it a good turn. Immediately the weight raised and the gears began to rotate. Above the machinery a large polished metal shield quietly turned briefly blocking the light from our view.

A display about the Fresnel lens showed how the use of simple glass prisms can help a small light be seen very, very far away. The light bulb used in the lighthouse is about the size of an adult’s thumb, yet the Fresnel lens allows this light to be seen 17 miles (27 km) out to sea!

As we left the lighthouse the damp wind blowing off the Pacific greeted our faces. Looking across the ocean swells of 12 to 15 feet (12.6 -13.5 m) were rolling into the shore less than a quarter of a mile away. Even from this distance it was easy to see spray jumping into the sky as the waves pummeled the rocks. Dark clouds were on the horizon and a gray ribbon of rain was falling in the distance. If I had to be on a ship, I would want nothing more than to make it safely home – and would be comforted to see this beacon of light from the Point Pinos Lighthouse.

For more information visit:
http://www.ci.pg.ca.us/lighthouse/default.htm

The suggested donation is $2 per adult and $1 per child. Donations are for helping to repair the lighthouse.

Standoff at the Amish Bakery

One morning Grandpa announced that he was hungry for pecan pie. His eyes doubled in size when he purred the words ‘pecan pie.’ He knew of an Amish bakery about 30 miles away that made excellent pies, cookies, bread, pancakes, eggs, grits, and of course no Oklahoma country breakfast would be complete without bacon. He looked at his watch then rubbed his hands together with enthusiasm, his eyes widened again as he exclaimed, “They are still open for breakfast!”

Driving thirty miles just for breakfast seemed extreme and a waste of gas, but Grandpa had spoken. Our morning drive took us through town and out in the eastern Oklahoma countryside of prairie and gently rolling green hills. Cows dotted many of the fields like pecans on hotcakes. Grandpa’s 30-mile drive was not so much about breakfast, as it was spending time with family while enjoying some beautiful scenery.

Within half an hour we arrived at a small and simple building located at the edge of a dusty farming town. Inside was a large sparsely furnished room filled with a dozen well-worn tables. A small wooden cross was the only item displayed on one wall, two walls featured framed pictures related to farming and cattle. On the fourth wall were the register and several racks filled with baked items. Next to the racks was an unkept bulletin board with postings of local church events, carpentry work, horses for sale, and bulletins about veterinary services. The folks eating breakfast worked in the livestock and farming industries. Sitting at one very long wooden table, which was set slightly apart from the main dining area, were several modestly dressed Amish families. They were speaking in hushed voices.

At the far end of the dining room, just under the cross, was a large yet utilitarian buffet cart. Inside were golden waffles, fluffy scrambled eggs, thick slabs of bacon, and medallions of freshly made sausage. Adjacent was a smaller cart containing bins of large biscuits and what looked like real gravy – not the fake stuff. At a side table was a bank of pitchers that housed milk, orange juice, coffee, honey, jams, and cream. All of the food, with the exception of the juice and coffee, had been produced locally on farms and prepared fresh.

As Grandpa and I served ourselves the kitchen door quickly swung open and a thin muscular man wearing an apron came out to re-stock the food trays. He was carrying a large bin of waffles. As the door swung back it provided a glimpse into the kitchen, inside were several women hard at work, they were dressed in simple garments that harkened back to an older age. I said to the man, “Good morning.” He said nothing, only politely smiled and nodded as he took inventory of the food and restocked what he could before returning to the kitchen.

A large font hand-written sign on the buffet cart read, “Do not waste food. Take only what you can eat.”

As we found a table we passed two grizzly-sized men eating their breakfast. These men reeked of a hard day’s work and a no-nonsense attitude. They were dressed in dirty jeans, worn flannel shirts, and appeared to be returning from a work shift rather than starting their day. One man was using a fork as a stabbing implement rather than a utensil for eating. The other man chugged a glass of milk, the glass appeared tiny in his massive hand. Instead of speaking they used grunts and low tones. These were intimidating fellows.

After cleaning their plates they swaggered to the buffet and restocked with copious quantities of sausage, biscuits, and gravy. Ten minutes later the two prepared to leave, but a good supply of food remained on their plates. As they gathered their jackets and started to stand a young Amish girl of about 12 years, who helped at the restaurant, approached and politely chided the two for taking too much food. She only said, “Food is a gift.” Then motioned with her hand to the sign posted on the buffet. One man was still chewing, and at hearing the interruption he stopped for a second then slowly continued his bite – unsure how to react.
he glanced over and read the sign. The girl crossed her arms and pinched her mouth to reinforce the point. The two giants glanced at each other. A few tense seconds passed – it was a standoff! Nobody moved. Then she slowly began to tap the tip of her foot on the floor. At that moment some unseen boundary was crossed because fear now appeared on the men’s burly faces. One man respectfully said, “Yes Ma’am.” He sat down, quickly followed by this friend. The girl thanked them and returned to her duties. The two cleaned their plates, bused their dishes, and left a respectable tip in the church donation jar.

In another part of the bakery, Grandpa had scoped out the pecan pies that were on display. He had identified the pies that were still warm. Then he asked a young woman at the register for her help. She told him in great detail about the number of pecans in each pie, the number of eggs used, the crispiness of the crust, and the density of the filling. Two pies were in the final run-off; both had been baked early that morning, each flaunted a crispy crust and were golden brown on top, they also had a wonderful aroma. He wrung his hands together over and over. The decision was too much so he bought both pies.

One of the pies was enjoyed with relatives at a family dinner. The other pie was enjoyed with Grandpa over the course of two evenings as we told stories and laughed.

Visiting Sequoyah’s One Room Log Cabin

Sequoyah’s one-room log cabinSome of the most interesting places are located just a short drive off the main road. Sequoyah’s one-room log cabin in the beautiful forests and hills of eastern Oklahoma is just such a place.

Sequoyah is known as the inventor of the Cherokee’s nation’s written language. He built this cabin in 1829 shortly after his move to what is present-day Oklahoma.

Sequoyah was born about 1770 in Tennessee to a Cherokee mother and non-Indian father. Sequoyah was intrigued by “the fact that white men could convey messages by the use of writing or ‘talking leaves’…. Sequoyah came to realize that the Cherokee language is composed of a set number of reoccurring sounds. With this insight it was possible for him to identify and create a symbol for each sound, thus producing a syllabary rather than an alphabet.” After 12 years of work, in 1821 he completed the Cherokee syllabary.

The drive to the cabin takes visitors along some beautiful country roads. The first thing you notice when you enter the grounds is the air – it is clean, moist and just makes you feel good. The next things you notice are the well-maintained grounds followed by how solid the buildings are constructed. It is obvious this is a well loved and appreciated landmark.

Sequoyah’s one-room log cabinThe cabin is actually preserved inside a modern building. After opening the door of the outside building you enter a single open room; at the center is a hand-hewn log cabin, along with the walls, are displays about Sequoyah’s life and his work. What is nice about this exhibit is that visitors can actually step inside his cabin for a close-up view of the period furniture and items that would have been in his life. Unlike many places that hide stories from the past behind cold glass, this landmark is open, inviting and warm.

The people working at the landmark were all friendly.

Sequoyah’s cabin is located about 6 miles northeast of Sallisaw, Oklahoma, on State 101. The cabin and grounds are open Tuesday – Sunday. Check the website for hours. Admission is free.

The cabin is preserved as a National Historic Landmark.

A special ‘thank you’ to Arethia Stann for her introduction to this great place and a tour of the surrounding countryside. Wado, Arethia!

For additional information visit:
http://www.okhistory.org/outreach/homes/sequoyahcabin.html

Reference: “Sequoyah’s Cabin” brochure.

Get Up Close to Art and Artifacts of the American West at Tulsa’s Gilcrease Museum

blog_20101213_img1Just north of Tulsa is a great museum with the art of the American West and artifacts from the Americas.

This is the Gilcrease Museum. It is a pleasant day trip for families curious about western U.S. history and the artistic traditions of Native Americans.

During my visit, several favorite exhibits included: amazing paintings of ‘the West’, displays of Native American headdresses and clothing, and portraits of the men and women who helped shape the frontier. What really impressed everyone was the ‘Kravis Discovery Center’ on the lower level. This small research area houses many smaller items from the museum’s collection. Here are beautifully crafted arrowheads of all shapes and sizes – including some gorgeous and rare Clovis points, ancient pottery and ceremonial items.

Afterward, grab a bite to eat at ‘The Restaurant at Gilcrease.’ Request to sit by the large glass windows for views of the picturesque Osage Hills. The menu offerings are simple, yet varied and very tasty.

blog_20101213_img2Parents will enjoy touring the various gardens that surround the museum. Kids can burn off some energy at nearby Stuart Park, just a quick walk away. Here you will find many carved woodland animals hidden along the trail. Visitors will also find a number of bronze statues on the museum’s grounds that are fun to visit. The image above, located at the entrance to the museum is the ‘Sacred Rain Arrow.’ The life-sized ‘Pioneer Woman’ sculpture can be discovered while exploring the nearby trails.

The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed on Mondays and Christmas Day. Admission is $8 for adults and kids under 18 are free.

Visit Gilcrease online:
http://gilcrease.utulsa.edu

A Good Family Hike in Eastern Oklahoma’s Redbud Valley

Redbud ValleyA short drive outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma is the 220-acre Redbud Valley Nature Preserve. This preserve has a great deal of scenery packed into a small space: woodlands, prairie grasses, a creek, springs, small caves, and rugged looking cliffs.

Families will enjoy the main loop trail that takes about an hour and a half to complete. Kids will especially enjoy the many small caves and overhangs in the cliffs area.

As your family explores look for what really makes this place special – many of the plants traditionally found further west on the prairie and much further east in the Ozark Mountains can be found here in this preserve. Think of Redbud Valley as a unique spot, between the prairie and the Ozarks, where these plants live.

A small visitors center is onsite. Flush restroom facilities and picnic tables are located near the parking area. Admission is free. Redbud Valley is open from 8 am to 5 pm Wednesday through Sunday. From Tulsa drive east on Interstate 44 to the Hard Rock Casino on 193rd E (also known as Hwy 167). Go North on 167. Drive 2 miles to Redbud Drive, make a left. Drive roughly 5 miles until you reach the parking area.

For more information about Redbud Valley visit:
http://www.oxleynaturecenter.org/redbud.htm

Explore a Log Fort at Oklahoma’s Fort Gibson

blog_20101207_img1When people think of a log fort from the 1800’s they might envision a large square-shaped structure made with an outside wall of sharpened logs to keep out attackers. Watchtowers at the corners of the fort keep a lookout over ‘untamed’ lands. Inside the fort are soldiers cooking, cleaning, writing letters home and maintaining weapon readiness. In a modestly furnished room officers are engaged in negotiations with local peoples, trying to keep the peace while projecting American interests on the western frontier.

If you have ever wanted to explore such a place – you can at the Fort Gibson Historic Site in eastern Oklahoma. Fort Gibson is a great place to explore; kids will enjoy the cannon in the plaza while Mom and Dad can peek into various rooms and quarters that are refurbished with period furniture and equipment. During your visit check out many of the surrounding buildings in the area, many are from the 1840s -1870s.

Fort Gibson is not known for one particular historical event like some forts in the west, rather it had a long service that affected many events in U.S. history.

blog_20101207_img2Some of the people who walked the grounds at Fort Gibson greatly influenced American history especially leading up to and during the Civil War, including: Robert E. Lee (General of the Confederate Army), Jefferson Davis (President of the Confederate States of America) and Zachary Taylor (General and 12th President of the U.S.).

In 1824 the site for Fort Gibson was chosen because it is strategically located at the confluence of three major waterways in the region: Grand, Verdigris and the Arkansas Rivers. At the time it was the most western fort on the American frontier. The fort’s mission was “to protect the nation’s southwestern border and to maintain peace on the frontier, particularly between the feuding Cherokee and Osage.” After the 1830 passage of the Indian Removal Act, the fort “became increasingly involved in the removal of eastern tribes to Indian Territory.” The Fort also provided troop deployments to Texas when Americans in Texas were rebelling against Mexico. During the Civil War, the fort served as a Union base of operations. For more blog_20101207_img3than sixty years the fort served the country until 1890 when the site was abandoned. After the abandonment, many of the buildings fell into disrepair. In the 1930s much of the log fort was rebuilt and many of the surrounding buildings repaired.

Today, what is the most fun about Fort Gibson is that it is not a glitzy tourist destination – it offers visitors an honest and refreshing ruggedness not found in many historic sites. If you want a real treat to start a conversation with a volunteer to hear some interesting stories and learn more about the people who lived and worked at Fort Gibson.

Source:
Oklahoma Historical Society Encyclopedia: Fort Gibson

For more information visit:
Oklahoma Historical Society Encyclopedia: Fort Gibson
Oklahoma Historical Society Military Sites

Seeing Bears Along Lake Tahoe’s Taylor Creek

blog_20101020_img1Autumn at Lake Tahoe offers beautiful vistas, vibrant colors and the rare opportunity to see Black Bears along a creek catching spawning Kokanee Salmon.

Recently some relatives, visiting from overseas, made a trip to California and included a side trip to beautiful Lake Tahoe. We suggested they see the Lake’s sights in October during a tourist ‘down time’ when the weather is still warm and the summer crowds have disappeared.

The relatives were not disappointed by their visit. One trip particularly amazed everyone in the family from age 3 to 67.

blog_20101020_img2Walking next to Taylor Creek, at the southern shore of the lake, they saw vibrant red colors moving in the clear and cold water. These were spawning Kokanee Salmon. Then hearing some nearby splashing in the creek they looked up and saw a mother black bear and a young cub wading in the water. They were surprisingly close so everyone backed-off a little to allow the bears their space. The bears were catching fish to build up their fat reserves for the coming winter. Several good pictures were snapped including the picture of this young bear devouring a just caught salmon.

blog_20101020_img3Taylor Creek is a picturesque mountain stream that flows into the southern waters of Lake Tahoe. The nearby U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center at Taylor Creek is a great starting point to learn about the Kokanee Salmon and this wonderful area. The Rainbow Trail is a short hike and very good for families with young children. Make sure to visit the underground Stream Profile Chamber for an up-close and fish-eye view of Taylor Creek.

To continue your own explorations by car drive past the “Y” in South Lake Tahoe drive three miles north on Highway 89 to the USFS Visitor Center. To learn more about this area online, and an annual Kokanee Salmon Festival held at the area, visit the USFS website.

Six Distractions That Can Trip-up Your Day Trip (Hike) Plans

The day has arrived! After a long work-week, you finally have a free day to venture outside, to have fun and go exploring. That morning, you have the best of intentions to make it out early. But, things keep distracting you. Finally, much later than anticipated you make it out the door. The rest of the day you are in a sour mood. What were some of the distractions? Can they be prevented?

Here are six common distractions that can trip-up your day trip plans:

1. TV. Do you really need to turn on the TV? OK, maybe you need to hear the weather report to help plan your day, but that should be it. Even the smallest amount of channel surfing can suddenly consume an hour. Do you really need to watch that 1960’s sitcom about trekking in space for the 200th time? No. Turn off the TV and boldly go outside!

2. Computer. Do you really need to log in and remotely check your work email? Do you really need to chat with friends or watch a video? Ninety-nine percent of the time the answer will be ‘No’. A computer is a great tool that, if allowed, will distract you with entertaining videos of cats playing the piano or dogs riding a skateboard – don’t turn the computer on. The email, videos, and computer will be around later that evening after you return from the real entertainment – being outside.

3. Telephone. Let the answering machine get it. Without fail a friend or relative will always call about 15 minutes before you plan to leave. This is a huge distraction. Keep your answering machine employed by letting it do its job and answer the call. Call your friends and relatives back after you have returned. Best of all you can tell them about your rockin’ time outside.

4. Bills and Paperwork. Unless the paperwork is absolutely critical it can wait until you return from your refreshing outside. Better yet take care of that stuff the night before.

5. Domestic Life: The laundry, dishes, lawn, garage, trash, groceries, vacuum, broom, mop, duster etc. will be a siren song – distracting you from continuing your outside odyssey. Ignore them. Get out of the house and enjoy your day. Sometimes you just need to step away so you can return to deal with the house.

6. Clutter. Clutter is possibly the greatest and most powerful of all distractions. Clutter is the miscellaneous stuff that ends up in piles on the desk, unsorted things in the corner of the closet, things that have some purpose but you’re not sure what. Do you the own the clutter or does it own you? Go on your hike and think about it. The answer might surprise you.

Six Actions to Help Your Next Day Trip (Hike) be Successful

Day trips are great ways to get away from the rat-race. But, with busy schedules and family life, a quick day trip is not always easy. Frequently the littlest of things can get in the way and become chores, hurtles even headaches. Plan for these little things so they don’t become problems.

Here are six actions you can do to help your next day trip be successful:

1. Gas Up the Car the Day Before
Starting the day with an empty gas tank can set the tone for the rest of the trip. Avoid this headache and gas up the car the day before.

2. Outfit Your Daypack the Day Before
Preparing a daypack the morning you leave can be a chore – especially when young kids are involved. Something small will always be left behind and become a big headache. For example, do you want your three-year-old to realize her Teddy Bear was not packed when you are half-way up the trail? Avoid this situation and outfit your daypack as much as you can the day before.

3. Plan Your Food/Munchies Earlier in the Week
“What are we going to eat today?” Asking this question the day of your trip might lead to a headache – or even an empty tummy. Plan what you want to eat earlier that week. Use the evening before to set out any (non-refrigerated) munchies on the table where you can see everything. If cold items will be used on your day trip place it one location in the refrigerator. The next morning it is easy to grab all of your food and go.

4. Water + Hydration = No Headaches
A lack of water on your day trip isn’t just a figurative headache; not being well hydrated can lead to being a severe literal headache. Reduce the chances for dehydration, or a forgotten water container, by filling up water bottles the evening before you leave. Place them on the table with your other staged items so you can see everything.

5. Lighten Your Load with Ice
Carrying too much stuff in a backpack can be both a headache and a back pain. Lighten the amount of stuff your carry by seeing what can be used for multiple purposes. A favorite of my family is to freeze small bottles of water a day before the trip. The next day it is packed into the backpack with the food. The food stays cool while the ice slowly turns back to liquid. Later in the day, the cool water is good to drink.

6. Involve the Kids with Planning the Day Trip
Even parents who communicate at a stellar level with their children can still hear their kids say the morning of a trip, “We are going where? Today!” Avoid these gnarly headaches by involving the kids as much as possible before you leave. Get the ‘buy-in’ from all family members and have everyone help plan and prepare what is needed for the day trip.

The Often Overlooked, Yet Curious Hospital Rock

blog_20100904_img1People visiting Sequoia National Park often overlook the Hospital Rock area. To many visitors it is not a destination; rather it is an unusual name on the map that lies between the Foothills Visitor Center (at the south entrance of the park) and the popular Giant Forest with its massive sequoia trees.

If you have the time check out Hospital Rock – it is a curious place. One of the first things to notice is the location; it is in a transition zone between the drier foothills and the mountainous region above. The highway also reflects this transition; after following the Middle Fork of the Kaweah River valley the road turns sharply at Hospital Rock and begins a steep series of switchbacks and a climb of roughly 4,000 feet.

At the parking area is a large, smooth monolith that people might think is Hospital Rock – it is a good place for kids to play, to sit and enjoy a sandwich, maybe wave ‘hello’ to people driving by – but this is not Hospital Rock. Nearby are several picnic tables and an interpretive display. At the display, you read about the Native people, the Patwishas, and get a glimpse into their lives within this area. The display introduces Hospital Rock and the petroglyphs; apparently, the designs were made before the Patwishas settled here. Finally, it tells about this place’s unusual name, Hospital Rock, which was given when a trapper received medical care for a gunshot wound in the 1870s.

Just across the road is a small sign that reads, “Hospital Rock” and behind it is a house-sized boulder. It is odd how this massive stone was there all the time – but was not easily seen.

This great stone is oddly shaped – it appears to have been cleaved, part of it leaning over to one side from the main form. The cleaved area is flat and has been used as a large canvas for petroglyphs, ancient drawings, and shapes that have been carved or etched into the rock. Several steps in the rock allow visitors to get a closer look. Many of the rock ‘drawings’ are somewhat faded and streaked by mineral runoff and time, but some a very visible.

At the backside of this rock are several overhangs and caves that provide great places to explore and play for families.

Nearby is a short paved trail leading down to the river. After a short walk of just a few minutes, you arrive to see white and tan colored boulders strewn in the riverbed as blue, white and emerald colored water moves quickly downstream.

Exploring the area around Hospital Rock reveals something curious, even mysterious – whispers of an old story are here.