Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bridging the Gap?

Last Friday, while I was still in the San Francisco Bay Area, I travelled through a remote section of Marin County to the Golden Gate Recreational Area. The landscape consisted of a series of chaparral-covered high peaks which dropped majestically to the bay and ocean revealing rocky isolated coves, Cape Bonita Lighthouse, Stinson Beach and Fort Cronkhite. A windy road from Hwy 101 took me to a dramatic promontory and raptor sanctuary, Hawk Hill. I stopped at the viewpoint turn-out and was treated to one most resplendent views of the Golden Gate Bridge imaginable, a dramatically different angle of the world-famous gateway than the traditional perspective I had photographed from San Francisco the week before.

Camera in hand, I stood on a 1000-foot bluff overlooking the Bay, with the ocean at my back, looking south and east, and admired the beloved span which sometimes lay shrouded in fog and then magically revealed itself drenched with intense sunlight. The scene was like an art masterpiece, a perfectly designed architectural wonder, highlighted by one of the world's most memorable skylines in the background.

After snapping a few pictures, I noticed an information board that had been installed at the scenic overlook. It related that in 1846 John C. Fremont, a captain with the Army Corp of Topographical Engineers, had been first to map this breathtaking location and give it the title, the Golden Gate. Almost a hundred years later, in 1937, the bridge was built to accomodate the needs of the ever-expanding modern world and given the name that Fremont had recorded.

I was amused by the scarcity of words devoted to the man who had probably contributed more than any other individual to the development of the West. Identifying Fremont simply as a captain was like calling Benjamin Franklin a postmaster or Abraham Lincoln a railsplitter. Fremont had been one of the greatest American figures of the 19th century. Among his many accomplishments was that he had mapped the Oregon Trail and had written the definitive guidebook called Report and Map which was published by Congress to aid the thousands of immigrants who were traveling by wagon train, especially during the Gold Rush, to California. Also, after mapping huge chunks of the Midwest, accompanied by his guide Kit Carson, Fremont had undertaken a series of four daring expeditions across hostile Indian lands in order to explore the new frontier. His expedition of soldiers criss-crossed both the Northern and Southern Rockies in search of a suitable rail route to facilitate future development and to identify important landmarks. Fremont had also mapped the Klamath Basin, the volcanos of the Cascades and the Sierras, and the location of Lake Tahoe. He was also asked by President Polk to lead his troops in the fight to take California from Mexico and incited the murder of a number of peaceful Mexican leaders and, as second in command behind Robert Stockton, attacked and conquered Los Angeles. In addition he had fought and killed Indians in Oregon. These heroic deeds made Fremont into an almost mythical figure who became known by an adoring public as the Great Pathfinder. His life became the subject of fictional tales told in numerous penny novels which were read avidly by thousands of Easterners who yearned for a vision of adventure on the frontier.

Riding the wave of such popularity, Fremont ran for president in 1856 against James Buchanan on a platform of free land for settlers and the abolition of slavery. His campaign slogan of "Free Soil, Free Men, Fremont" resonated with many of those that embraced the idea of Manifest Destiny. He also became an avid abolitionist who opposed the extension of slavery into the new lands and had the support of the New England intellectual establishment. Although he lost, he remained popular in the drawing rooms of Washington and then was given command during the Civil War of the Army of the West and later attacked Confederates in Kentucky and Tennessee. In 1864 he ran for president again, this time as a Radical Republican against a man from his own party, Abraham Lincoln, who he believed was soft on outlawing slavery and on the treatment of the rebellious South. After the war he became Governor of the Arizona Territory, then purchased a railroad, and lived to the age of 77.

Fremont's exploits remind me how far removed my life has been from those accomplishments of true explorers. The route of my daily adventure takes me safely down major highways with the aid of GPS. Along the roadside I find cozy campgrounds with flush toilets. The only Indians I really know play baseball in Cleveland. I don't worry about disease, lack of provisions or the cold. I consider myself brave when I have hiked for the day on a well-marked trail into a wilderness which is devoid of large animals. My Golden Gate has long been charted, commercialized, and serviced by maintenance crews. When I look across the horizon at the massive blue water bisected by that iconic bridge, I know the current below me is hazardous. My path is neither gallant nor formidable nor is it my place to swim across. Yet I honor the tradition of boldness of a past time through remembrance and occasional acts of courage. From somewhere within, I can hear the call of adventure, albeit it is a muted and distant tone. The wilderness is gone. Even though a camera is hardly a six-shooter or my car a trusty mount, I explore distant lands and experience the joy of conquering the unknown. With the wind in my face, I take on the challenge.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Chinese Characters?

In the two weeks I have been in the Bay Area, I have spent a lot of time among Asian-Americans. Last night in Starbucks, where I have been working on my posts, of the 24 people who were sitting at tables, relaxing in easy chairs or standing in line, 18 appeared to be of Chinese background. The city of San Bruno may have a greater enclave of Asians than other communities, but that is not saying much. All the communities here abound with people who are of Asian background. This thought was underscored on Saturday while I was driving through a residential neighborhood. I spied a For Sale sign placed in front of a home; other than the phone number, the sign was written almost entirely in Chinese.

On Sunday I ate at a renowned dim sum restaurant, the Grand Palace, a massive, tastefully decorated Chinese restaurant in South San Francisco. It was packed with families representing three generations who were seated around lazy susans which were covered with tasty dishes. The food was wheeled out to the guests on numerous large silver carts or carried out from the kitchen in sumptuous portions and served by incredibly polite women. Such fare consisted mainly of seafood such as whole fish or lobster in red sauce over noodles, or platters of Peking duck or suckling pig.

Wherever I have been, I have sensed a mood and behavior of the people which I have found surprisingly refreshing. I have been touched by the refinement and smiles seen on the faces of young people engaged in light-hearted conversation, the intensity of college students hovering over laptops as they diligently solve math problems, the banter of incomprehensible words by genteel families that appear to be tightly-knit and financially comfortable, and by a certain level of unconditional respect shown to me.

Absent were many of the traits which are often called a malaise in our society such as an undeserved sense of entitlement, a lack of commitment to the value of learning, a disintegration of strong family bonds, and a poor sense of the value of money which is exhibited through profligate spending. Curiously, I heard no one expressing opinions regarding the allegedly unique political or economic crisis which has been grabbing national, state and local headlines. These people appear to be focused elsewhere and appear too busy achieving success to feel the pinch that other groups are experiencing.

Considering that the anscestors of so many Asian-American families lived through dark times in America's past or suffered from the autocratic oppression in their former homeland, these Americans have demonstrated an amazing resilience. It is worth recalling the terrible racism exhibited toward Asians by the policies of the "Know Nothing" mayors of San Francisco or the backlash by angry racists who murdered over 250 Chinese railroad workers and their families in one night in Rock Springs, Wyoming, in 1887. Through the turn of the 19th century including the round-up and incarceration of Japanese citizens in the 1940's, American-Asians have been the object of mean-spirited people who, out of fear or jealousy, have tried and failed to marginalize these people.

As my stay draws to a close, I feel enriched by the casual friendships I have made and by the values I observed. Although I have oversimplified and generalized, I am not a Pollyanna. Shortcomings and detractions abound within every culture. Simply put, my frequent cynical view of human interaction was softened and was replaced by positive thoughts. From that standpoint, I had entered a room with good feng shui.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

On the Road Again

I am in the San Francisco South Bay again and am adjusting to this amazingly crowded suburban life. As I walked along El Camino, easily the busiest surface street on the peninsula, and which had been the main North-South highway until the Bayshore Freeway was completed, I found myself recalling the first time I rode on it in 1957. I was probably 10 or 11 and my parents were considering moving away from Chicago and were touring this part of Northern California. Our family had ridden west like so many other pioneers to see first-hand what had been called in those days the Land of Opportunity, California.

Our 1953 green Chevrolet Bel-Air had taken us across the country through what I felt had been magical landscape. I watched incredible farmland whizz by, lush forests, quaint small, towns, tall majestic mountains, until we reached our goal, the almost mythical San Francisco: the Bay, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Pacific Ocean.

Along the route across the country, I had become accustomed to seeing architecture other than I had known in Chicago, buildings which were devoid of soot-covered brick and multi-stories. I gawked avidly at the clapboard farmhouses and the wooden barns with advertisements painted on their sides such as Chew Mail Pouch Tobacco. I enjoyed the humor of every Burma Shave sign sequence along the road and was enthralled by miles of two-lane highway snaking alongside railroad tracks belonging to the Santa Fe railroad.

After briefly touring San Francisco, a city which felt alien to me because it didn't look like Chicago, my perpetually nervous mother, who always had to cope with my father's frightening, unpredictable moods, decided unilaterally that this city would be too rainy for her. The next morning we headed south through Daly City, a peculiar colony of little boxy houses, and onto El Camino. Somewhere then I learned a new word, namely "stucco." Now I saw blocks of single level, pale-colored stores and houses made of a rough substance which reminded me of the dessicated orange peels that I had ignored as they baked in the sun of my childhood schoolyard.

Since I was now in the Promised Land of my parents' dreams, I felt I was expected to love what I saw. I knew instinctively, but being a child I could never have articulated, that the environment before me violated my sense of beauty. Even the eucalyptus and the palms didn't really look like normal plants. They were occasionally interspersed among these ugly structures, but were clearly not leafy green trees that a young boy could climb like those elms whose heights I had still conquered and hid within only a month earlier at home. As we rode through Palo Alto looking for a motel, my parents may have spoken, as they often did, in glowing terms about the expected blessings of temperate weather, the daily sunshine and the gone-forever dreaded icy cold Chicago winters. Yet, even as I listened to this narrative, I believed I was expected to embrace their gloriously optimistic vision. In truth I wondered secretly how I would feel about no longer hearing the scrunch of October leaves that skittered in circles along the pavement in my former backyard and sensed regret about losing the snowmen friends that I took pride in creating each year.

Now I glance out the window of a Starbucks in San Bruno where I am typing and see the rush hour traffic on El Camino backed up at a traffic light. Originally this street was a trail for earlier people to navigate from mission to mission, and before that it was probably an ancient way created by aboriginal people to visit others or hunt game. It has been a lifepath taken by many. Today I am on that road, one of so many I have traveled to get to this point on my daily adventure. It runs in space and time through landscape that may look bitter or sweet depending on my focus.