Santa Barbara–Springtime 2017

There is a fallen tree in the road opposite the house. It is a live oak, or at least was. It blocks half the winding road which is approached around blind curves. The town or county has put red road cones around it. Day and night you hear the screech of brakes. Why is it still there? Jurisdictional dispute? Battle between governmental and home-owner obligation? To prevent potential disaster, you try to hack off the protruding limbs, which are bare of leaves and stretch like arms into the road. Live oak is very dense. The ax bounces upward against each downward stroke. You cannot cut it without a chain saw.

The tree was uprooted by strong winds driven up the hillside face. The hole left in the ground is remarkably small. There are so few roots so shallow. How did the tree get water? How did it stand upright all these years, with so shallow a footprint?

The hillsides are green, those trees not killed by the drought are green. The drought is broken, but there will be no important rain from now until the Fall. Already the sun-exposed hillsides are hinting at brown, they are tinged with gold. Soon all will be of a tan color again; the usual state of the land. Soon the same winds that sweep up the hills will carry flash fires upwards, cresting the hills, raining not water but sparks of hot ashes into the volatile dry slopes. Today the posted signs along the road say the risk of fire is “LOW” in green capital letters, indicated by a dark wooden pointer. But on the other side of the wheel is the word “HIGH” in red capital letters; soon the pointer will begin to creep upwards into the red zone.

Up the hill from the house, there are still burned posts standing guard at the top of the hill; blackened sentinels. The wire they held is fallen down at the feet of the guardians. Now there is the Spring ritual of clearing fallen trees and chaparral, raking dead grasses, removing the more obviously combustible detritus. It may help when the fires come again. Higher up the hill a newly cut road leads to a new housing site, high enough to command a view of the distant ocean with its oil derricks, and with the channel islands partly hidden by sea fog behind them. The view is as impressive as the risk. When will the time come when no one will insure such houses, regardless of the premium assessed?

Last time I was here, in the summer, smoky wafts came over the hillside and helicopters flew overhead trailing large buckets full of water to dump from the sky. There was fear of evacuation. People went outside and watered down their yards and roofs against errant embers.

As I write this, the whole house shakes. Did a tree fall onto the roof? There is no wind today, it is warm and sunny and beautiful. Birds of all sorts, unknown on the East Coast, have been chirping. Outside, the barn door is askew; an earthquake tremor. No damage; just one twitch of the earth’s skin. How can so perfect a place be such a continuous reminder of perils?

Down by the beach, there are occasional small round patches of gummy black. The signs at the fancy hotel ask patrons returning from the beach to watch out for oil leakage, to keep the sticky tar off the manicured walkways. Meanwhile the water is crystal clear off the narrow strand of sand, only occasional small boulders punctuate the coast. There is no seaweed, only an occasional shell. My host assured me there is seaweed, but none appears in my honor. Anomalously, a large king crab carcass, arms still attached, lies up-beach midst a small tangle of stone, wood shards and brush. No animal, no insects, no sea creatures are nibbling at the shell; it is either already empty or just plain unappetizing. Perhaps it is the absence of drawn butter, I think. Likely not.

There are too many thin blond people. The men are hidden by large glasses with dark lenses. For some reason, the women have their glasses pushed up over their hair lines, resting on the top of their heads. Men on expensive racing bikes, all in full gear of tight colored or black spandex, are everywhere, but mostly on the hilliest of roads, heading into the Los Padres Mountains, up and over impressive peaks into the valleys beyond where the grapes grow and the cattle graze. There are no women on bicycles, and no one knows why.

I am eating oranges from the tree out front. They are very sweet; my host complains they are not ripe. He does not remember what oranges taste like when they finally reach a supermarket in New England; if he did, he would not complain. There are no seeds. None at all. I sift the orange flesh into my mouth, tentative squeezing out the juice, alert to the feel of the seeds so I can expel them, fearful they are lurking, hidden in wait for me. There are none I find; it is a mild disappointment, I remain suspicious of the fruit and will remain vigilant the next time I eat some more; perhaps they are in conspiracy against me, all the seeds will be in the next picking.

Late one night, my third, we go downtown to pick up some Indian food to bring home. There is man, mangy and palpably malodorous, yelling about the Son of God. The older people look away, negating him. A group of teens wave back; he is oblivious. It is now that I see my first African American; he is walking down the street, doing nothing special, but he seems almost unique. In three days I have not seen anyone of color, except for the occasional Mexican gardener. I ask my host if there are black people in Santa Barbara and am told “not many.” None on the beaches either, public beaches on a Sunday. I ask if there are any slums, which in retrospect is a racist question but it slips out anyway. My host drives me though what looks like a neat neighborhood with small yards and flowering bushes on the East side of town; many toffee-colored people, some small children carrying toys, balloons. Not much of a slum, not by Eastern standards. My host acknowledges it is just a working class area, noting however that “it is thought by some to be the more dangerous part of town.” How can an area be dangerous when it is festooned with bright flowers everywhere?

We cruise the coast to the South, going towards LA. Small houses are expensive; large houses are outrageous. There is little concern for rising oceans; nothing is on stilts, new construction going on down by the water-line. In the evening, heavy traffic on the 101 heading South; wealthy folks from LA going back to town late on Sunday, leaving their beach houses after the weekend. Feels like Cape Cod, maybe the Hamptons. Likely all wealthy enclaves everywhere, I just don’t know their names; but I do know the people, the lawyers and executives and entrepreneurs and the inherited money all look the same: green bills held in white hands at the margin where the blue water and blue sky merge at the horizon.

My host shows me a few insects, winged and compact, he says they are male termites. I am a city person, I have no opinion. He has called the “pest man” and we are waiting at home for an artisan who does not arrive in his time slot. My host calls and gets voice mail. “Santa Barbara is like that, seventy percent of the time the tradespeople just don’t come.” I choose not to tell him that it is true everywhere I have ever lived; the DNA of the American service economy has its own internal clock, and it runs everywhere slowly, in spite, whenever it is called upon by people in fancy houses. It is the closest America comes to a class revolt in the face of gross disparity, as if self-respect is defined by arriving two hours late and leaving an innocent-sounding note tucked in the door: “Sorry I missed you. Please call. Joe.”

I am staying in a cabin, not in the main house. It is just as well; there are cats at home and I think they make me wheeze. But I spend all my waking hours at the house, and am spurned by the cats. The black one runs away when he sees me, except at dinner where he hops up on the table and sniffs my food. I am told there is a fat gray one also; I recall him from a glimpse during a prior visit, but this trip he is nowhere to be seen. My cabin is large and sparse and pleasant, relaxing with homey wood trim and a footed white porcelain bath top and an old-fashioned shower head overarching it. I imagine what it would be like to not go home; to just stay in the cabin, enjoy the uniform weather, own a single wardrobe geared to seventy degrees plus a sweater for the evenings; I would go to the main house to eat and be ignored by cats and have someone mail me a check each month so I could pay my fair share. It is on this latter proposition that my musing plan breaks down, for want of volunteers willing to send the requisite mail. Each night after dinner and conversation I pick up my books and eyeglasses, my cabin door key {“Please don’t lose it, we don’t have another”) and take my flashlight down the stone path, avoid the brown mounds of earth piled up by gophers my host will not eradicate (“Why? They belong here too and they don’t hurt anyone?”) and wonder briefly what I would do if all of a sudden I saw two bright shining eyes in front of me, unblinking, highlighted by my light beam. Last visit there was Bob the Bobcat seen at the top of the ridge, and on one occasion seen on a trellis and gazing into an upstairs bedroom and growling at the intrigued cats—but Bob has not been seen for some time, perhaps he has permanently moved on which may explain all the gopher holes.

I have been told of a fat snake seen crawling into some of the gopher holes, but I choose not to think of that aspect of local fauna. Particularly at night I choose to believe that local snakes are only diurnal, like the virulent rattlers on the floor of the Grand Canyon; you confidently fell asleep on the ground but sure were up like a rose-bud when the first rays of sun breached the canyon walls at dawn.

Today I ask for a tour of the University of California at Santa Barbara which, I am told, looks like an office park. I find that a disappointing thought; I rather envisioned stucco buildings fronted by flowers, with tile roofs and deep overhangs and Spanish Ivy hanging from verdant trees on a hill overlooking the ocean. As with many places, what you perceive is partly there and partly arrived there inside your own expectations. Seemingly this is not a worthy enough attraction to show to a visitor; we end up instead downtown, wandering a serious of mock-Spanish commercial arcades, where national brands of false cache (Couch) and national brands of no cache (Marshall’s) share street and arcade frontage with numerous small overpriced local restaurants. Memories here of Naples, Florida; well-dressed trim couples, in their 60s it seems, seated in groups of four in outdoor restaurants, lunching lightly, lots of salads in sight, white wine in glasses; in the walkways around the cafes and shops, the occasional startling sculpture, big life-sized bronzes: a little girl in a blue jumper conversing with her grandfather, a fat workman with a squeegee brush addressing a large plate glass window, a plaid handkerchief flopping out of his back pocket. All the everyday scenes rendered in neat bronze, no need to have the cocktails marred by the voices of children, the workman-like tones of the staff. I have been looking for a big bronze piece for my own house but they are too expensive to buy; these casually strewn sculptures, scattered around the shopping arcades for occasional effect, must cost many thousands of dollars each but, then again, with wine at $18 a glass and purses at $800, what’s the problem?

Onward to the waterfront of Santa Barbara and the long pier, built in the late 19th century, the plaque informs us, to bring trade to the sleepy town. The waterfront is inconveniently separated from the entire rest of the town by the North South throughway, the 101, and a single railroad track that seems active with horn-blowing passenger trains; poor design indeed, to get to the water you must either drive over tracks and under the highway, or walk through a tunnel. Too late to unite the city and the ocean perhaps, although one could bury the road and the train to great effect, as they have done in Boston, uniting the sea and the city and enhancing the commercial and tourist experience while so doing. Near the railroad there is the “Funk Zone,” expressly so designated; wine bars in old buildings, a few artist galleries, a boarded-up surfing museum, large skate board park in fresh concrete. The people in the bars and on the street are oh so young and oh so tan and oh so without visible means of support. A spike of jealousy intrudes as I sip a flight of nondescript wines; turns out the grapes are imported from all over California and blended somewhere outside town, not even at the tasting room. The woman pouring the wine is pleased to tell us that they have mixed in grapes not usually combined; perhaps there is a reason for that reticence.

The pier is tourist standard: long, three restaurants, souvenirs, a fudge shop, an ice cream room, and near the end, for those disheartened by the hike, Madame Rozina will read your palm. Her window also features a human head in glazed pottery, no hair, lines drawn showing the parts of the brain, labeled as to function under the system of phrenology now totally debunked. I wonder if Madame will run her bony painted fingers across my skull for an extra fiver, and I glance in: a couple of red-upholstered Victorian chairs and an old oriental rug and no person in sight. I will forgo the experience. The wide ocean is in front of me, a brisk wind eliminates any haze, and in the distance is Santa Cruz island, 24 miles off-shore, a backdrop for five or six seemingly diminutive oil cranes out in the channel. My host buys a small slice of fudge — $3.08 and here is a small white plastic knife in the bag to make it easier to share.

There are several large antique stores, one or two in each town, the kind that are cooperatives; numerous alcoves with specialized collections depending on the whim of the sub-proprietor. Here is a collection of old toys, there some wood-working tools, several cases of different colored wine and aperitif glasses. The furniture is small, mock Southwestern and mock Mexican or, perhaps, the real thing, nothing ornate or European, very West Coast. By the cash register there is a small bowl of large brass coins with a hand-lettered sign: “BROTHEL TOKENS.” The alleged purpose of each is clear: on one side is a price, on the other side the name of a bar or a hotel and a description of what the price buys you. I smile, I know they are fake in some way as they all are the same size and same color of bronze; if they were real, the tokens for Arizona and California and New Mexico would be of different aspect I am sure. But they are a collection of something and I cannot resist buying a handful, perhaps to put out on a coffee table at home in a small bowl as a conversation piece. Back at my cabin I go to my computer, and learn they are of course not real, a tourist device from the 1950s but, of course, there is a collectors’ market for them nonetheless, as there is for cigar bands, old Coke cans and bottles, the ends of fruit packing boxes. I have a coin next to me as I write this. On the front it says “$3” and has two hearts and also says in big letters “ALL NIGHT CHECK.” The obverse informs me that I may redeem the coin at Swede’s Saloon in Yuma, Arizona and it is “good for screw stogie and whisky.” I wonder if the redemption must be availed of in that specific order.

Back at the cabin, just in time to see the Santa Barbara Fire Department Crew with chain saw and rakes and brooms cut up that part of the fallen tree that blocks one lane of the road. The log parts are stacked like firewood at the edge of the road; it is unclear if they are there to be picked up later or for the taking by a passer-by. The wood scraps, leafy arms and dense foliation is picked up and thrown down the slope at the edge of the road. I am informed later by my host that this is poor form in fire-prone country; the insurance inspectors will tsk-tsk at all the dry detritus so near the houses, and perhaps demand removal or a higher premium, all by reason of something my host did not do. Would it help to tell the insurance man that it must not be a problem because the condition was made by the firemen themselves? The crew seemed to enjoy their work, the roar of the chain saw, the spray of sawdust, the tossing of the logs from one to the other for stacking, the pitching of large limbs laden with greenery down the hill. Surely more fun than one can ever have sitting at a desk. I am not sure, but I think that one of the fireman was a firewoman; the yellow work vests and hard hats disguise much, and I did not consider it politic to just inquire.

My last day dawns like all the others; sky is totally blue, sun is totally sunny, the hills above the cabin are sharply outlined with cactus and chaparral sticking up above the slope, here and there, bits of green on what is now an almost golden mat of ground grass. Birds are everywhere, seen and unseen. The doves are in pairs, white tails dancing amid the flutter of their take-offs. The quail barely fly, they scoot along the ground also in pairs, their bodies rocking like Charlie Chaplain in his Tramp movies minus the cane. I am bent over the chest on which I am packing my roll-on, stuffing dirty clothes into crevasses, trying to position my few remaining clean items so they survive the trip intact, when a mustard-colored shape passes by the window, not three feet from me. At first I think it must be the missing bob-cat, not seen for months, but this is not a bob-cat based on the length of the tail, at least as long as the body, same yellowish fur, standing straight out behind the animal, parallel to the ground. I am stunned for a moment, then reach for my camera and pull on the string to pick up the venetian blinds; the motion, perhaps the sound, attracts the animal who is now perhaps ten feet away; it turns and stares quizzically but without panic and the gaze freezes me. Then it turns slowly and is gone behind the rocks before I think to take a picture.

My host is excited; they have lived there almost three years and this is the first cougar. We go on line and there is no doubt that this is a mountain lion, not a smaller bob-cat with abbreviated tail. The computer tells us that the drought has brought the cougars down from the high canyons and there have been sporadic sightings; there is a fuzzy film clip taken by a jogger within the past three weeks, it made it onto the local TV station. I am now peeved to have failed to get a picture and some recognition. I ask my host if he will report the sighting; he demurs. “They will probably think that I want them to shoot it.” I tell him I doubt it but he just shrugs. Maybe he knows Santa Barbara better than I do….

A final lunch in a small restaurant overlooking a public beach. Outside, white caps churn the water and there is no one in the surf except one kite-sailor in a black wet-suit, zipping over the rollers on a board pulled by his sail, catching air whenever he can. Inside behind the glass wind-breaks, the lunch crowd is mixed old and young, but mostly well dressed, some of the same lunch crowd one sees downtown, the ladies who lunch. At the bar, a tattooed couple drink beer; a motorcycle helmet between them identifies them as “Daughters of Hell.” The tattoos seem strangely benign.

And then of a sudden I am at the airport; it is almost empty, laconic, a short counter, businessmen in suit jackets awaiting the delayed flight to San Francisco. I am early, going to LA to catch the red-eye East. I have lots of leeway time-wise; I do not trust the timing of airplanes, they are not so careful about my appointment schedule as I would like. The air conditioning begins to clear my nose and throat from what must be the wind-excited pollens of the many trees; I was told it was exceptionally windy and that palm trees have pollens. I asked about the trees and am reminded that almost none of them are local. My host gives me a book to read on the plane that tells the story of how trees were imported in great numbers after the gold rush, to remind those who stayed that they were not in the mid-West any more but building a unique Western paradise. I have little interest; the book is not telling me which ones make me sneeze.

Next time I am out in the air it will be in Boston. The temperature will be in the mid-40s and I gather it will be raining. I will have a clear nose and a fuzzy head from sitting in my plane for an abbreviated night as I fly East into the sun. I have that feeling that comes at the end of all vacations: had a great time, not looking forward to what is waiting for me at home, but for some strange reason the thought of going home makes me content.