Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Crescent City, CA

Jill's Journal: Isn’t this pretty? That’s the Battery Point Lighthouse, “built to guide lumber ships in and out of Crescent City Harbor as they carried lumber of ancient redwoods to build the city of San Francisco following the gold rush of 1849… The lighthouse is built on an isthmus and is only accessible during low tide. During high tide, the isthmus becomes an island…” (compliments of tourist literature). I think this is the prettiest lighthouse we’ve seen on the California coast. It was also one of the first ever built in California.

Our march northward continued yesterday and we settled in for the rest of the week near Crescent City, CA. We’re a mere 20 miles south of the Oregon border. This is tsunami land. The 1964 earthquake near Anchorage, Alaska caused a tsunami here that obliterated 30 city blocks of the small town, destroying 289 buildings, 1,000 vehicles, and 25 large fishing vessels, as well as taking 12 lives. More recently, major damage also occurred here in the harbor (structural damage plus the loss of 35 boats) from the residual tsunami effects of the March earthquake in Japan. It was the spot of the only U.S. fatality from those waves.

A half-mile offshore is Castle Rock, Crescent City’s own little emerald isle. It’s actually a National Wildlife Refuge, with 14 acres available to nesting seabirds (whose population on the rock was once counted at 150,000), sea lions, and seals.

Remember the “Happy Cows Come from California” commercials? This steer (am I right, Dad?) is a happy cow. Why?

Because this is his view.

Without a doubt, our Crescent City highlight has been seeing an old family friend of Rob’s. Deanna grew up in Lake Tahoe with Rob (her Mom taught him how to swim!) and was in his younger sister’s class. Through the wonders of Facebook, they’re back in touch and Deanna and her husband, Adam, and two little ones, Rowan and Tatum, just happened to be passing through Crescent City after the holiday weekend. We had a ball together! The kids played like they were long-lost buddies and the adults had a hard time tearing ourselves away after a few hours together. Deanna just happens to be a midwife (anyone who knows me well knows I think midwives practically walk on water) and just happens to be about ready to start homeschooling (very possibly using the same curriculum we do) and just happens to be a serious world traveler and just happens to be dreaming of a journey similar to ours (but in a boat!)…and well, let’s just say we hit it off! Love her! Adam is no slouch himself as a part-time boat builder and a part-time craft chocolate maker. Somehow I got no pictures of this delightful family, so I had to take a photo of one of Adam’s chocolate bars. This handcrafted, small-batch, ginger-infused chocolate is like a decadent, sinfully-rich dessert. WOW.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Skytrail Gondola and Trees of Mystery

Jill's Journal: We’ve certainly seen our share of redwoods these past several weeks, but today marked the first time we’ve been above the massive treetops. The Skytrail Gondola near Klamath, California takes passengers on about a half-mile ride each way above the trees (and up a mountain). The girls loved the ride almost as much as they loved teasing their mother about not being overly fond of heights.

The views are fantastic, even in the rain.

The Skytrail is part of the Trees of Mystery, which showcases all kinds of unusual but natural phenomenons as the tenacious redwoods adapt to their environment. One of our favorites was this, the Candelabra Tree. Note the three trees growing out of the trunk of a living horizontal tree.

“Sink down, Oh traveler, on your knees
God stands before you in these trees.” –Anonymous

I stepped back as the girls were exploring 49’ tall Paul Bunyan and 35’ tall Babe at the entrance/exit. It was as I was snapping this picture I realized with half horror and half hilarity that the girls had discovered the “anatomical-correctness” of Babe the Blue Ox (can you spot them under there?). They were most intrigued by his massive “bump” and were leaping up repeatedly to see who could slap it. I thought it was most humorous, but Rob was not quite as amused and quickly hustled them away. Life is never dull with kids. Never ever ever.

Paul Bunyan can wave and wink while he talks constantly to visitors (via a man and a microphone). He didn’t mind the girls sitting on his immense boot, much to their delight.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Twenty Questions

Jill's Journal: In a few days, we will mark what we consider the one-year anniversary of RV for 5: the day we signed the papers selling our home (which also happened to be the same day we turned over the keys and the same day we officially began living in a “trailer”). Of course, preparing for that date took many, many months and the last days leading up to it were probably the craziest and most chaotic of our lives. Somehow, everything got done. How, we’re not sure, because those last days are a haze in our memories. Adrenaline about what was to come and about the enormity of what we’d just done must have carried us through.

Happily, life has been a little calmer since then. It’s busy, to be sure, but more serene (or at least as serene as it can be with three noisy, energetic little girls whose volume control button mysteriously stopped working). Rob no longer has a lawn to mow nor flower beds to tend. I no longer have school runs, nor gymnastics, choir, and other activities for the girls. Instead, we get to focus that time on our family and on learning about the world around us. How sweet it is.

We’ve come into our own on this trip. We’re at ease with this lifestyle. We love exploring each new place. We crave the adventure and the education. Yes, it’s unconventional, but it’s our “normal” at this point. We are loving this journey.

But no matter where we go, if we share what we’re doing, people have questions – and lots of them – for us. That made us wonder about you, silent readers -- do you have questions for us? It still unnerves me to write something nearly every day and not know who, if anyone other than a few loyal family members and friends, is reading.

So, to celebrate our one-year anniversary, we’d like to know if you have any questions about our crazy lifestyle. Ask away. No topic is off-limits. The comments section is a perfect place for you to post a question or if you’d prefer to send us an email, that’s fine too. We’ll answer any questions you have right here in a few days, as well as post some of our reflections on our first year on the road. We look forward to the dialogue. Talk to us!

Wishing everyone a thankful, reverent Memorial Day

Saturday, May 28, 2011

People of Arcata

Jill's Journal: You know those hilarious “People of Wal-mart” e-mails that go around every now and then, where people snap photos of some crazy ensembles caught on shoppers at Wal-mart? Well, I should have had my camera out for more than five minutes in Arcata today, because Wal-mart’s got nothing on this town.

To be fair, there was some sort of special festival in Arcata this weekend, so maybe some of the outfits were a little more extravagant than usual. Arcata is right next door to Eureka and is Eureka’s smaller and very charming cousin. Humboldt State University is here and it is the greenest, most organic town we’ve ever been in. It seems like there’s a natural food shop or health store or co-op on every corner, plus an eclectic Farmers’ Market on several days of the week. It seems to be a liberal and hippy haven (of all ages), also evidenced by the frequent smell of marijuana smoke wafting from crowds of people.

What we like so much about Arcata is that it is unpretentious and very accepting of everyone just as they are. It is as natural as a town in Western civilization comes. We’ve never seen so many women without make-up, so many people who look like they’ve just rolled out of bed. People are who they are here – no excuses, no false pretenses. And if judging by the happy, free spirits we’ve seen during our time in Arcata today, everyone embraces that individuality. That’s something to be proud of and something we can all learn from, even if we personally won’t be wearing any pink tutus, Mickey Mouse ears, and knee-high boots all together any time soon (one of my favorites of the hundreds of awesome ensembles we saw today at the Farmers’ Market).

Friday, May 27, 2011

Samoa Cookhouse

Jill's Journal: We don’t go out to eat very often these days – it’s awfully expensive as a family of five and the kids eat better at home anyway. For us to go out lately, it has to be a special occasion or a special place. The Samoa Cookhouse, circa 1893, was the latter, best described by a placard at the entrance:
“This is the last lumber camp-style cookhouse in operation in North America. This cookhouse was originally opened as part of Samoa, one of the last company-owned towns in the United States, established by the Vance Lumber Company… Meals have been served here continuously for over (115) years. Only employees were served here until the late 1960s when it was opened to the public…”

What a treat – we had no idea what we were in for, but it was an experience we are going to look back on fondly. Here’s the soup and salad course (the barley soup was amazing). You don’t get to order at the Cookhouse. There are no menus. You simply get whatever they’re serving that night, family style. The tables are long and shared with other diners. After the bread, soup, and salad came roast beef, pork loin, baked potatoes, and green peas, a “typical” lumberjack meal. All you can eat. Come and get it.

Samoa, by the way, is a miniscule town on the barrier island of sorts across the bay from Eureka (located between the bay and the ocean). Surrounded by sand dunes and scrub brush, it’s eerily deserted and feels like the absolute furthest edges of earth (much like the tip of Cape Cod in Massachusetts – it’s so interesting how completely opposite ends of the country can have so many similarities).

Dessert came with the meal too – bread pudding. We didn’t think the girls would like it, but to our surprise, our younger two ate every single bite. Here’s my sweet baby telling me, “It was so yummy that I had to eat it all. I didn’t want to waste it.” (Apparently she didn’t feel that way about anything else on her plate!)

To borrow an expression from our Kentucky days, we left the Samoa Cookhouse full as a tick. I’ve never been a big fan of American comfort food, but this was wonderful and the great, historic ambiance and logging memorabilia didn’t hurt either. It is an absolute must-visit for anyone passing through Eureka. We’ve appreciated our time in the magnificent redwoods so much, but this really brought the history and charm of the area alive for us.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Protons, Neutrons, Microbes?

Jill's Journal: We’re getting close to celebrating one year on the road and a big part of our journey has included the new frontier (for us) of homeschooling.

As a now-homeschooling parent, I’m pretty sure I’m learning more on this second passage through preschool and first grade than I ever did when I was a kid. Protons and neutrons? I never cared one iota about them in high school science class (may poor Mr. Fritch be resting in peace), but learning about them with Madelyn in the simple book “What’s Smaller than a Pgymy Shrew?” is awesome.

And microbes? I must have tuned Mr. Fritch out (and my college professors too), but I don’t think I even knew the definition of a microbe until reading “Pasteur’s Fight Against Microbes” with Erika. Fascinating stuff.

Not only are the kids thriving, but so are we as a family. Using a literature-based curriculum has opened up so many doors and interests for these girls. The things they're learning are amazing. The things I’m learning are amazing. (Rob has a science/math/technical mind, so I doubt any of this is new to him but maybe he’ll pick up some language arts or history – ha ha! Just teasing, my dear.). Clearly, homeschooling is great for the whole family.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

A “Company” Town

Jill's Journal: Logging is a big deal in this area. I wish I could convey how massive these piles of logs are – literally many thousands of tree trunks making piles that each stretch up several stories high and together are a few football fields long. And these are not your average-sized logs. I’ll bet 20 men working together couldn’t budge a single one of them without massive machinery.

It is said an average redwood tree --not an extra-giant one, but a regular one-- contains enough lumber to build 22 substantial-sized homes.

Years ago, “company towns” sprung up around the redwoods. Scotia is one that remains. Developed and built in the 1880s by the Pacific Lumber Company, Scotia is centered around a mammoth sawmill. Hundreds of identical homes were built for employees and a town was born. Today, it remains a company town. There’s been some restructuring in the company and it was only five years ago that the company began the process of letting individuals buy the homes for themselves.

There’s so much to see in this country of ours, so many different ways of life. I love that our girls are growing up getting to see a smidgeon of what’s out there.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Blue Ox Millworks

Jill's Journal: Hidden in a corner of Eureka on the bay is the Blue Ox Millworks, a craftsman’s paradise and a school of the traditional arts. The girls and I almost skipped this today and I’m so glad we didn’t.

Eureka has the highest number of Victorian buildings per capita in the whole country and, naturally, they need repairing and refurbishing now and then to keep them in the splendor they’re accustomed. Blue Ox specializes in recreating custom molding, balusters, columns, doors, gables, gingerbread, and more. If you can imagine it, they can do it. Two sitting presidents have used Blue Ox while in office, as have two governor’s mansions, multiple historic cathedrals, national parks, foreign countries, and hundreds of private homes. The work they turn out is simply stunning.

But here’s the best part: they only use antique craftsman techniques and antique equipment. The newest machine in their shop dates to 1944. The oldest is pre-Abraham Lincoln era. Our guide showed us how several of the antique tools worked --of course all powered by hand and/or foot-- and they included names I won’t remember tomorrow like “treadle scroll saw,” “tenoner,” and goodness knows what else. My Uncle Kim would go nuts over this place. The girls were fascinated. Blue Ox even makes their own varnishes, glues, stains, paints, etc. using only natural items available a century or more ago. The “recipes” for these products are up to 500 years old.

They give back to their community as well. The founders of Blue Ox host disadvantaged youths from a community school nearby and teach them the almost-lost Victorian woodworking trade. The kids also learn blacksmith skills, pottery skills, and many other nearly lost arts. This photo is of an antique printing press, where the letters for each page have to be set individually. The youths do their school’s yearbook with it annually. The girls got to see it in action as well and thought it was “really cool.”

The best way to describe our visit to Blue Ox was like stepping into a time machine. Clearly, a time machine in more ways than one, judging from this bus.

Blue Ox also had lots of animals milling about, which always garners points with our kids. This cat was their personal favorite. And, you wouldn’t know it from the bare arms, but our high in Eureka this entire week was today’s 59 degrees for a few fleeting moments before the temperature dipped again. The girls are so sick of wearing sweatshirts and were determined to go without them today. I’m sick of it too – it’s almost June and we still randomly need our winter jackets!

Monday, May 23, 2011

Ferndale, aka Cream City

Jill's Journal: Well, it’s only taken six months (not to mention all those years growing up in this state), but I have officially found my favorite town in all of California. Ferndale is smack-dab in the middle of organic dairy country, so it’s nice and rural – just as bucolic as could be with cows and horses grazing everywhere. It’s five miles inland, so it still has the ocean air without the North Coast chill. The whole downtown is a quintessential Victorian village, so it’s easy on the eyes and full of charm. And, maybe the best part -- it has a country racetrack! What’s not to love? 

Look at this darling Main Street. Founded in 1852, Ferndale is as intact a Victorian village as can be found and I would guess hasn’t changed a whole lot since its heyday in the late 1800s. The entire town is an historical landmark. Less than 1,500 people call Ferndale home.  

Ferndale first acquired its nickname, “Cream City,” in the late 1800s due to the prevalence of Danish dairy farms in the area. In fact, by 1890, there were 11 separate creameries operating in Ferndale and the butter from the area was considered the finest in California. Innovations in the dairy industry pioneered at Ferndale include the first milk tank trucks, the first machines to cut and wrap butter, and the first cooperative creameries. Premium prices were paid for butter from Ferndale, causing the town to prosper. Residents began building extravagant Victorian homes which quickly got the moniker, “Butterfat Palaces.” 

We stopped in at the Ferndale Museum to find the nicest and most accommodating Ferndale native around. He is a third-generation Ferndale resident and so proud (rightfully so) of this wonderful town. The museum itself was a little gem, with rooms set up to feel like one is walking down a Ferndale street in the 1800s and peeking in windows. 

The girls loved the player piano most of all and the docent played them song after song. I loved this quote from Forbes, which named Ferndale one of America’s prettiest towns, “…Ferndale is a surprising trip back in time, with just enough modern quirkiness to make it unique.”

Now, a sign for a county fair may not seem overly exciting…but to anyone in horse racing, this one is. Since 1896, the Humboldt County Fair has conducted, by all accounts, a fantastic summer fair in Ferndale. The integral part of the fair – the part that pays for most of the rest of it – is the horse racing. They hold an eight-day meet in August on the tight, little half-mile track and we were told the grandstand is absolutely packed. They don’t just race Thoroughbreds here, but also Arabians, Appaloosas, and mules. The gentleman we spoke to called it the “highlight of the year” in Ferndale. The rest of Thoroughbred racing doesn’t always know what to make of the California fair meets – there’s five or six throughout the state – as it’s not exactly high-class racing, but oh man, does it sound fun. 

The little-bitty grandstand as seen from the backside. In the infield is something I’ve never seen before – a baseball diamond! The local high school is right next door and presumably uses the infield for baseball, plus track and field. 

The barns, in slightly different condition than we’re used to in Kentucky! The shedrows are covered in weeds. I was told they clean them up before the meet. Hopefully that includes a mower. You know, horse racing isn’t all about the glamour the world sees on television during the Triple Crown. The heart and soul of racing is hard-working people who love the horses and the sport. And the horses with a competitive fire who love nothing more than to run. I love seeing this everyday glimpse into the part of the sport without the spotlight. 

And here’s the craziest part…the track itself. This is the backstretch. What? Isn’t it supposed to be a dirt track? I literally stood there racking my brain for a moment, making sure the tiny sliver of information I knew about the Ferndale track included dirt and not turf. So, why in the world do I see grass? I was told they let it go all year long and simply till it up before the meet starts. Unbelievable! My racing friends will be just as astounded as I was. We’re used to perfectly manicured, absolutely pristine surfaces that are meticulously tended year round…this is a whole ‘nother world. What fun! What crazy, crazy fun.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Avenue of the Giants

Jill's Journal: “The redwoods once seen, leave a mark or create a vision that stays with you always…from them comes silence and awe.” --John Steinbeck

“The most irreverent of men, in the presence of redwoods, goes under a spell of wonder and respect.” --John Steinbeck

We had the good fortune today of driving the famous, 31-mile stretch of road known as the “Avenue of the Giants.” Originally built as a stagecoach and wagon road in the 1880s, this two-lane scenic drive winds through Humboldt Redwoods State Park. Of all the remaining coastal redwoods, one out of every five is here in this 53,000-acre park.

These towering, stately, magnificent giants really can’t be described. Pictures can’t portray their grandeur. I snapped this photo of an oncoming car to show just how immense they are. It’s like being dwarfed by thousands of 30+ story buildings, but these structures are alive. In fact, they're the tallest living things on earth.

Imagine when one of these guys comes crashing down! Here’s the root ball of a fallen redwood in Founders Grove. A crater is left in the earth and this root labyrinth is about three stories high all on its own.

Equally amazing is how many of these trees can be absolutely hollow on the inside and yet still be thriving. The girls love the trees they can walk inside.

Just over 150 years ago, when Europeans and Americans first put down roots in this area, redwood forests appeared to be endless natural resources. Hundreds of thousands of acres were cleared. Today only about four percent of the coastal redwood forest remains. That’s a staggering and sobering number.

See that high water marker, 33 feet above land? The great flood of 1964 changed this area immeasurably. This is where the original town of Weott stood along the Avenue of the Giants, but over 50 buildings and a bustling downtown were washed away. Interestingly, some of the original sidewalks can still be seen.

That 1964 flood affected the redwoods too, although they have great rejuvenative properties with a root system that is able to re-establish itself after trauma. This is the “Immortal Tree,” a tree with as many lives as a cat. Can you see the fish on the tree (well above the ax?). That’s where the water mark was from the 1964 flood. This tree also survived the loggers’ ax (they tried to cut it down and it proved too tough), plus a forest fire in 1908. At one time it was also hit by lightning, a strike which sliced 50 feet off its top. In spite of all those attempts on its life, this tree is still going strong at approximately 1,000 years old.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Old Town Eureka

Jill's Journal: Yesterday the girls and I explored Old Town Eureka, one of the last remaining intact downtowns in California and most of it on the National Register of Historic Places. What a cool place and a wonderful change from most of the rest of Eureka as seen from Highway 101, which is industrial-looking and not overly attractive.

With a population just shy of 30,000, Eureka is not a big city, by any means, but it is the largest town on the “North Coast” of California above San Francisco. With great old architecture, brick-lined streets, super-friendly people, and eclectic shops, all of it right on the Humboldt Bay, Old Town has a great vibe.

Interestingly (and this has nothing to do with the pictures), we’ve also noticed an unusually big homeless population here. In talking to a local parent at a park, he even brought it up, asking if I’ve noticed how prevalent the homeless population is and saying it’s the bane of Eureka. He told me the local laws are very favorable for the homeless and include free meals and money to spend as they please. Add in a mild climate and easy access to drugs (more on that in a minute) and no wonder even the girls noticed something was a little different here.

The Romano Gabriel Garden, which is a wall of windows showcasing whimsical folk art. One man spent three decades carving hundreds of trees, flowers, faces, and other objects out of vegetable crates and displayed them in his front yard. Eventually the wooden “garden” obscured his house, became a tourist attraction, and was featured in magazines around the world. After his death, it was moved to Old Town for all to enjoy.

Carson Mansion, the most famous building in Old Town. Pictures don’t do it justice.

The Pink Lady, just one of many lovely homes in Eureka’s Old Town.

Eureka is the heart of Humboldt County, known worldwide for its biggest crop: marijuana. There have been many documentaries done on the area and it’s well-advertised that one should never wander off the beaten path here because people guard their crops with gusto (and lots of firepower). The policemen that waited by the side of the road with us on Sunday told us that few law enforcement on the Humboldt beat dare live in the area; most commute an hour or more to keep themselves and their families safe.

We are simply amazed at the incredible amount of “garden supply” stores and other businesses that sell marijuana-growing paraphernalia, such as the water tanks shown above. Crazy. When we started this adventure, we said we'd do our best to partake in each region's highlight...however, Humboldt County's may be outside our realm! :)