I woke up early to move the car for street cleaning, then I joined my friend for breakfast at a local favorite restaurant of hers. I had no particular agenda for sight-seeing in Long Beach, though Lorah had said nice things about the Queen Mary. It just so happened that my friend has a shop on board the Queen Mary, so we spent the morning poking around the ship, and I discovered that my old-camera-that-had-been-lent-back-to-me-after-I-lost-my-newer-camera was just about completely dead. (Oh darn.)
Next, we visited the Korean Friendship Bell, a bronze bell in a beautifully-painted pagoda overlooking the Pacific, which Korea gave us for the Bicentennial. There is a youth hostel next door, which I would check out next time I may decide to visit Long Beach, if I did not already have accommodation. We drove further along the coast, visiting the Wayfarer’s Chapel, which is a beautiful glass church on the coast, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. We arrived during a wedding, as this is a very popular venue for weddings, so we couldn’t enter the chapel, and the lady at the visitor’s center advised that visits are best planned for odd hours–11am, 1pm, 3pm–since weddings are scheduled on even hours.
My original plan had been to take off in the evening and drive about four hours to Las Vegas, and crash at either of two youth hostels I had found online, or perhaps a hotel room, since accommodations are cheaper in Vegas during the week. But I changed my plans to join my friend for a late night of clubbing in Hollywood. Having no particular agenda and an evening to kill, we moseyed further along the coast, and my friend decided to give Santa Monica a shot. We found a parking spot near the beach, and noticed a movie theater. We were just in time to catch “The Namesake” which is a movie we had both wanted to see, and which we both enjoyed.
Afterwards we strolled along the beach, catching the sunset. We then embarked upon several hours of groovy carousing in the Southern California style.
Despite a mild hangover I managed to pull out of Long Beach fairly early, fortified by bananas, Odwalla, and later a McDonald’s breakfast sandwich and coffee along the way. I arrived in Vegas with the intention of at least having a late lunch on the strip. But I had absolutely no plan, and the place was crowded and confusing and hard to navigate. Nevertheless, I pressed on, found a parking spot at the MGM Grand, and after some fruitless wandering, found a buffet that might have been a good deal had my agenda not been merely to eat quick and hit the road.
I figured Friday the 13th must be a good time to at least say I gambled in Las Vegas. On my way out of the buffet I counted to 31 as I walked, and stopped at the slot machine nearest me. I puzzled over the thing a bit, inserted $20, pressed the button just over 100 times, ejected a receipt, and cashed that at the teller for $25.50. This made the buffet a better deal, in my mind, but the truth is that what I mostly lost in Vegas was driving time. Oh well.
I pushed North into Utah, making good time. Just after dark I stopped for gas in Elsimore, UT and inquired about local accommodations. The lady suggested a likely-cheap place the next town up the road. I was feeling pretty tired as I hadn’t slept much the night before, and the car has this disquieting habit where the AMP light will come on and the headlights start to flicker while driving downhill a long ways. I figured that if the car was to break down, I’d rather not deal with that in the mountains of Utah at night.
But, after a bit of relaxation at the gas station in Elsimore, a bit of coffee, a bit of chocolate . . . I took off down the road, feeling better. I wasn’t sure what I would do, but when the exit for the motel came up I kept on the highway, past the sign that promised no services for 100 miles, and into a few fairly uneventful hours of mountain driving. I missed out on what is probably some gorgeous scenery, but I managed to keep the car running safely through the night through the mountains, despite the flaky electrics. At one point I had to pee really bad so I pulled over and stepped off the highway, and was struck at the vast array of stars in the sky. That made the whole adventure worthwhile.
I pulled into the Lazy Lizard Hostel at Moab around 12:30. I felt bad about waking the guy up for a $9 dorm bed. He was way out of it and told me to just take any top bunk in a particular dorm room and we would figure things out in the morning. That I gladly did.
It was a rough night at the Lazy Lizard on a thin mattress with a thin pillow. I tossed and turned and just as I was getting my sleep on right my roommates began to stir in noisy ways so that they could get a start on the day’s rock climbing. Americans are not accustomed to the ways of youth hostels, and these guys loved to rifle through their luggage and tromp in and out, leaving the door open. I got up several times throughout the morning to shut the door. At one point I sat up awake waiting for one of the last guys to finish his noisy morning rituals and make his way out of the room. He greeted me and asked if I was a climber. When I told him no he expressed a sentiment that I was probably a nice person anyway, and he was gone, and I rested well a bit longer.
Probably around 0800 or 0900 I made my way out of bed, downstairs, apologized for waking the guy up in the middle of the night, and gave him $9.80 (tax, you see) and bathed. I packed up the car, looking forward to a breakfast in town, some hiking, and some scenic driving. I turned the key in the ignition and where the car usually makes a confident rumbling sound to get the engine purring I heard a click.
The battery wasn’t dead, but perhaps it was weak. I got the cables out and bummed a jump off a fellow traveler. Nada. A bit longer? No.
Could be a bad battery. The hostel guy suggested the auto parts store was a twenty minute walk into town, and the maintenance guy might be going that way in a while and could give me a lift. I said I wanted a hike anyway, so I walked down the highway for not more than five minutes and bought a new battery. The battery was much larger than the one I purchased last year, but I figured bigger is better. The folks at the store lent me a crescent wrench to get the new battery swapped in.
I had thought to stow the battery in my backpack, but the battery was too large, and needed to be carried level, and besides it was heavy enough to possibly damage or destroy the backpack that has been my long-time companion around the world. I carried that sucker, taking breaks every hundred feet or so to switch arms . . . a guy was packing something in his pickup truck along the way and he offered a ride, which I politely declined . . . it is not that far. A bit farther and another guy offered another ride in his pickup truck. I accepted, and was dropped off in front of my car.
I extracted the old battery, stowing it on the floor in front of the passenger’s seat, and installed the new battery, all charged and ready and–click.
“Well, I took an auto shop class twenty years ago . . .” offered the hostel guy. He took a listen to the click. The starter solenoid goes click. Well, you could try replacing that . . .
I walked back down to the parts store and easily carried back a starter solenoid. More work with the wrench and nada. Dang.
So, I asked a couple from Oregon about the mechanic they were waiting to hear back from. They said the guy had been really busy and might not be able to figure out there car today and the woman had figured out Greyhound tickets so she wouldn’t have to miss work on Monday. Gee. I wandered down the road a bit to what looked like a service station where the guys were working on Jeeps. I explained my plight. The guys said they did Jeep rentals and only knew how to service their own fleet. The more mechanically-inclined fellow affirmed that yes, start with the battery, then the solenoid . . . he recalled that with Fords often if the current from the battery is too low then the solenoid wont send any current to the starter . . . anyway, there’s a really good mechanic a little ways down in a big yellow building, and in front of him is another mechanic who is also pretty good.
So, I wandered down the road. Both mechanics were closed. I sighed and wandered back towards the hostel, figuring that worst-case, Moab isn’t such a bad place and the hostel should be cozy for a few days. I badly needed coffee and so stopped by the roadside espresso stand just a little ways down from the hostel. The guy working in the stand was friendly and asked how everything was. I replied that things were good overall, but I had to figure out my car problem. He suggested another guy that might be helpful just a few doors the other side of the hostel, and explained what he called “an old redneck trick” of climbing under the car and shorting the terminals on the starter to get a car started. That sounded worth a try, maybe. He didn’t know if his friend would be open, but he might be. He gave the guy a call and left a message, “but that doesn’t mean he’s closed.” My coffee was on the house.
I walked over there and the guy looked pretty closed, which was easy for me to accept, the kindness of the guy at the espresso stand had buoyed my spirits. I wandered back to the car, and poked around a bit. The wires coming off the negative terminal have always been a bit gnarly, so I cleaned them up a bit and gave the ignition another try and the beast started!
So, I rolled down to the auto parts store and waited a decent while to return the old battery. (I figured the big new battery a worthwhile investment, anyway.) While I was waiting I ended up talking to this other guy about the various symptoms–for example, the alternator light was on as I left the car idling. He suggested I hit it with a piece of wood and see if it started to whine. I banged the alternator with something and yes, it started to whine and the light went out. “That doesn’t mean its bad,” something about setting it to a known state because the indicator light needed a baseline or something. After we had concluded our respective business he had me follow him over to his shop, where he hooked the alternator up to a load tester, which verified that things looked good.
Well . . . I had missed my opportunity for a hike, but I could still have a meal and a scenic drive to Silverton. I popped into the Moab Diner with my maps to consider my itinerary options over a meal. The hostess assured me that a waitress would be right with me. I pored through maps and double-checked calculations, pondering some alternates . . . everything looked good and nobody had yet taken my order. I put my maps away, looked around. I tried making eye-contact with a few waitresses but they all seemed harried and uninterested. I calculated how much time I would need to order and eat and get out of there in order to make it to Silverton before sunset. I figured 3:45 would be my “drop dead” time and five minutes of being ignored later, I finished my ice water and headed out of town, stopping at the espresso stand, where a lady was now working, left a generous tip, and drove off into some beautiful beautiful breathtaking wonderful beautiful scenery. With my failing camera. That’s okay: some things are for my own eyes.
It was a good trip down UT-46, which became CO-90, but no gas along the way until I stopped at Naturita. There I found a green dinosaur logo and stopped at an old-school pump at a Sinclair station. The station was with the convenience store, and I asked the lady at the cash register is $3.05 per gallon was expensive by Colorado standards, and she explained that she hadn’t been beyond the neighboring town since Christmas, so she had no idea. Cool!
I pushed on and down US-550 South from Ouray, where I calculated I had enough time to make Silverton before dark . . . and I drove up, past signs advising of curvy roads, avalanche zones, and speed limits between 10 and 30 MPH much of the way. Up and up twists and turns and curves and well-plowed snow and ice, and freezing water streaming across the road way. Occasional wild animals and oncoming cars, nobody passed me and I passed nobody. Much of the time it was me, the car, and a blue-gray sky going on twilight. Where the scenery of the afternoon had been beautiful, the scenery of early evening was transcendent. It felt very much as if I had drove clear up into some special realm where we mortals are allowed to tread only in times of fair weather, and with great caution. My experience of the road between Ouray and Silverton was this: sublime.
I pulled in to Silverton, which looks every bit an old west mining town with very broad streets. There was snow piled along the streets, and it was nice to be visiting with a proper Winter. I couldn’t figure out the street signs but managed to find the Silverton Inn and Hostel without much trouble. I parked in front, walked right in, studied the notes left to would-be visitors explaining guest cards and rates, toured the available rooms, picked a bed, filled out a card, and took a key. I stopped down the corner where the guy admitted he would have been closed an hour ago, but that he would “make hay” and although he was out of most of his toppings he managed to make for me a delicious pizza, which I enjoyed in the company of his other customers, whose primary interest was skiing. There was further discussion of the guy’s need to sell the property we were on, which included not only the cafe we were enjoying but the energy-efficient house he had built behind it, because he was moving to New Mexico. I then dropped by the bar one block over, and for two or three dollars enjoyed good beer in the presence of a colorful cast of relaxing locals.
I turned in early and slept a good, solid, comfortable Winter sleep on a firm $20 bunk.
I wanted to get down to Durango, about an hour away, in enough time to catch the day’s scenic excursion ride to Silverton and back on the Durango and Silverton Railroad, before pushing on to arrive in Pueblo. I took a nice hot shower, then packed and loaded up the car. I was concerned at the ice on the windshield, and I without a scraper, but that concern was backburnered because the car didn’t start.
I figured I’d revisit the problem after I had grabbed a cup of mind-enhancing coffee.
I grabbed my travel mug and headed toward the cafe where I had dined on pizza last night, and encountered a lady who explained that that guy usually opens around noon. I walked over to the main street and up a couple blocks and grabbed some coffee and a muffin at a bustling shop full of snowboarder duuudes.
I hustled back to the car, and the same lady from earlier passed by, and I asked about mechanics. There were a couple in town, but they were closed today. You could knock at their house, and they might help, but it is probably better to let them alone. I agreed that I like to have my weekends off, too, and as much as I’d like to spend the evening with the family in Pueblo, I figured that I could get a lot of reading done and rest easily another night in this quiet little mountain town. Maybe I could track down the train station and welcome the steam train as it arrived in this old snowy mountain town, which could be a lot of fun even if I didn’t get to ride.
All the same, I fiddled with the wires some more, but I couldn’t do much without even the most basic tools, so I wandered toward the highway were there looked to be gas stations, where I might find a brief diversion, and possibly even something useful.
I found someone useful. The guy at the Citgo admitted that this was the first weekend of the season that they were open for weekend service, but that he wasn’t a real mechanic, just the weekend warrior. (The owner / mechanic’s son, it turns out.) He said he had a few ideas that might help, but that he’d have to close the shop for a few minutes . . . I wandered back to the car and a bit later he pulled up to the hostel, cleaned up my ugly battery wires, noting that the one terminal had been overtightened and cracked, so let’s put on a new one . . . explaining that you only have to tighten the terminal to the point where it doesn’t move on the post . . . doesn’t start? Okay, so, you did the right by the battery, and the solenoid, so yeah, its looking like a bad starter.
Sure, he could order a new starter and get it replaced during the week, but in this situation, sometimes you could tap the starter a few times with a hammer, and then he crawled under the car on the muddy street, found the starter motor, tapped, got out of the way, and I successfully started the car. He explained where the starter is, and that it looks like a cylinder, and in my case, a very rusty cylinder, and that I could tap it myself if I had to, but that at this point, the starter is likely about to fail completely . . . it might work fine, the tapping trick might work a few more times, but most likely I’ve got just a few more starts, if any, before the thing fails completely and leaves me stranded somewhere. We figured that I might as well keep the engine running and get to Pueblo as soon as possible, where the starter could be replaced under favorable conditions. He reminded me that you don’t actually have to stop the engine to fill the tank . . .
I beamed as he modestly basked for just the briefest moment in heroic glory. I got the sense that he might be most content to account the incident as a good deed, and waited just a moment more before I inquired as to whether and how much cash he should charge for his time. He figured about fifteen or twenty dollars. He then, as I figure it, very quickly considered my circumstances versus my poverty . . . computer guy from San Francisco . . . not working . . . going to see Dad . . . nice old clunker . . . is going to need a starter . . . stayed at the youth hostel . . . and set the charge at $15.
I headed down the road, and there was still a chance I could make Durango in time to catch the train, maybe, and I thought over whether it would be worth the risk if I could, and concluding that yes, if I made Durango in good time I would risk stopping the car if I got to ride the train, because even if I got stuck, I would have had a good time for my trouble.
At any rate, I was still on the highway at 10:00, when the train was set to leave. Several minutes later I noticed some smoke on the horizon . . . I slowed down and listened out the window . . . yes, that was the train coming toward me, parallel to the highway!
My last camera, a Canon S100, died at around the same time as Grandma Howard, so I gifted the-camera-I’d-taken-round-the-world to my Grandma to take with her in her coffin to her next life, which makes me inclined to see changing-cameras as epochal. It had been a weird twist of fate to have been in the Midwest at that time, which allowed me to visit her in the hospital just before she entered hospice, and which allowed me to drive back up to Michigan for her funeral not long after. I was pretty broke that summer, working in the cafe in Champaign, and it wasn’t until I was back at Mom’s house and living on Unemployment Insurance that I dared to buy my Canon S400, which I badly wanted for a trip that Yayoi arranged for us: we drove together in my car to Boston so she could check out a job fair. That was the first road trip that I took with a woman who, when I returned to professional work, I invited to live with me. Later, we would marry, move to California, and become separated. I took a third professional job in San Francisco during the divorce process, and shortly after the divorce concluded, so did my most recent job.
So, you will pardon me if I read extra significance into these last photographs and bust into personal metaphor; As the day began, the trip to Durango looked unlikely, but with some outside help, I was pleasantly surprised to be on the way. I was warned that stopping to catch this train was risky, but I decided to take the chance and try for the ride. It proved to be a long shot, and I ultimately missed the full experience, but I am glad I made the effort, because I got close enough to be reminded of my own love for what I had pursued. I don’t regret the near miss, and I know better than to blame anyone. What I do know is that I really dig trains, and that at the next appropriate opportunity, it will be my privilege to buy a ticket, hop into the cab, and work to keep the fire stoked for a prolonged ride through beautiful country. (And until then, I will work for a better understanding of the whole darn thing, to avoid or at least tackle nasty surprises on the next trip.)
So, I rolled through Durango without stopping, and turned East onto US-160. Since I hadn’t stopped to ride the train, I was ahead of time, and perhaps the natural beauty of the mountains on my final leg was further enhanced by mid-day light, as well as my own hunger from not stopping for food, and my eagerness to pull into Pueblo sooner-than-expected, to see Dad and Gwen. That was a good ride, and a homecoming that did us all some good.
This time I am in a moving truck toting possessions of me and my lady to our new place in New York city, where we intend to live for one year for her work. She’s already out there, so it is just me, a 16′ Budget truck rental, and some $3 wifi access at a Motel 6. Hot diggity!
I have made this trek before, with and without my worldly possessions. This time through I own a crazy smart phone which is recording the trip via GPS, and I can upload progress to Google Maps, for all my friends and evil stalkers to see. I can send you a link: just shoot me an e-mail.
I am very happy with the Budget truck. It is a no-frills affair: the radio is just a radio. It has two power ports. I could gripe that it doesn’t have cruise control, but that might actually be a “feature” to keep the fool at the wheel alert. Best of all, it is a Ford, so I already know the dashboard!
This Motel 6 isn’t shabby either. I inquired at a casino just down the road, figuring room rates would be subsidized by gambling, but no. The Motel 6 is less than half the price and has all I need: a decent bed, toilet, shower, air conditioning, a desk and Internet access! (Oh and a TV.) They claim the lowest rates of any national chain, so I’ll have to research what they have down the road.
Ah yes, and as for work: I have received permission to work remote for my San Jose-based employer. As for my old apartment, which I love, a friend fell in love with the place and signed a lease. I left some furniture behind and some e-waste which I have to sweet-talk her into toting downstairs on a weekday, where San Francisco will collect it for free. Another blessing was the help of a trio of college friends who helped load the truck. I treated them to pizza and beers afterwards and we reveled in the pending home ownership of two of our friends. While this recession is hurting many folks, others who have been priced out of the housing market are finding their prudent patience rewarded.
Time to settle in for the evening so I can get on the road good and early tomorrow. The Motel 6 charges $3 for the wifi access, which is just the perfect price for a guy who’d like to kill an hour before bed!
I don’t narrate my life any more, whether for good or for ill. Well, maybe . . . I should try a weekly update. This has been working well at work, anyway.
Saturday, 21 November
On Friday I took Mei out to dinner, since we were going to not see each other for most of a week. We went to an Indian place up near the Kips Bay theater, where we then saw “Where the Wild Things Are”. I think the first time I saw that book I was impressed with its style, and so my Mom thought I liked the story and read it to me a bunch, but I always thought Max was kind of a spoiled brat. At the end of the movie I mumbled to Mei, “if my son pulls that crap he is not getting any chocolate cake.” When asked if he’d get any dinner, I responded that I wasn’t so sure. I wonder if the kid might have some blood sugar issues such that missing dinner may be a bad move.
Saturday morning, Mei was up early to go to work. I slept in a bit, and treated myself to brunch at Teddy’s, which served me two eggs, fried potatoes, Canadian bacon, rye toast, fruit salad, orange juice and coffee for $8.25. Now, Cheryl’s has some tastier food, so I’ll take Mei over there, but if it is just me, I stick with the cheaper, hearty meal.
I went home, washed the dishes and relaxed a bit, until around 1400 when I rode up to Penn Station to catch the 3:45 to Chicago. Now, a plane would have been faster and cheaper, but now that I live in New York, I can “afford” the relative luxury of a train ride home. The train was pretty full, and a guy named Don sat next to me. I got the modem working on my laptop and caught up somewhat on Internet reading. At Albany they took our engine off the train and shunted a series of cars from Boston onto the front. This was exciting to me, so I shot some dark, blurry video from the passenger area.
I treated myself to dinner in the dining car. Lamb shank, half a bottle of wine, dessert, coffee, and conversation with a cute college couple who were switching to the California Zephyr in Chicago, arriving in Emeryville on Tuesday to enjoy Thanksgiving in Santa Cruz. Robin the Film major and Miru the Art History major. They’re both minoring in Making a Living.
Despite ample legroom and a glass of Scotch from the Cafe car, I tossed and turned a great deal. (more…)
Today marks the completion of the 40th trip of this body around the local star. A momentous milestone for the resident being. I spent the weekend with my wife and son, riding the train down to Santa Barbara and back, a pretty little beach town where we visited the zoo and ate ice cream together.
Most likely, I’ll be around another 40 years, or more, but really: who knows? Every day I wake up with my health and my loved ones is a blessing.
The trip has been good. Tommy did pretty well, and the scenery along the way has had a lot of that intense emerald green the dry parts of California get after some good winter rains. The view along the coast near Santa Barbara is worth the long train ride.
I am grateful to be alive. I am grateful for my family. I am grateful for my friends. I am grateful for my job and ability to earn a living. I am grateful to be living at what honestly seems to be a very promising time in the history of our species. Life will not always be so great for this being, and in time, my life will end. I am grateful for the time I have had, and the time I have yet, and that I get to experience a little part of our collective adventure.
Upon my return to work this week, one question was on the tongues of polite colleagues: “how was Alaska?” I start to explain that I didn’t experience much of Alaska because I spent the week on a cruise ship, which involved a fair bit of eating, drinking, reading, taking pictures, and trying to keep Tommy amused. I don’t trouble these nice people with too much detail. After all, there is now a blog post for those who care to know too much. Welcome to the verbose answer.
Part I: Cruise Ship Life
This is what Alaska looks like from a cruise ship.
Last week the family went on a cruise aboard Holland America’s MS Westerdam. The ship went from Seattle up the coast of Alaska and back. From that vantage, Alaska is days and days of unpopulated, beautiful vistas, floating by as you dine on an endless buffet, and catch up on reading as friendly Indonesians bring reasonably-priced drinks. The ship has something like twenty bars, a casino, a jewelry store, an “art gallery” and a modest library with absolutely no books about modern cruise ships, but various board games with missing pieces. This idyll is punctuated every day or two by our collective descent, like a plague of locusts, onto remote little towns who have decided to augment their fishing and lumber industries with tourist entrapment. “Diamonds Cheaper than on the Ship” touted several stores adjacent to the port in Juneau.
“I don’t know why Juneau has so many diamond shops,” said our driver. “Diamond isn’t even our state gem stone. You know what that is? Jade! Now if you look out to our right as we go over this bridge, you’ll see a bald eagle …” We were riding a bus out to a shore excursion where we got to ride a wheeled cart pulled by sled dogs. This was fun: you get about six tourists on a cart and a dozen or more eager dogs pull us around some roads on a loop in the woods for not more than a mile. Our musher was a guy from Michigan who explained that the hardest part of the year is driving his dogs up from Michigan, but now that tourists would pay to ride the cart the mushers could just stay up North for the Summer. His concern is that the dogs do best around -20F, so when they pull tourists around on wheeled sleds at 50F he wants to make sure they don’t work too hard and keep hydrated.
I spent a lot of my time keeping Tommy entertained. As a lady explained to the grownups about sled dogs and the annual races we got to pet a friendly dog and wander over by the musher’s camp. When the lecture was done the puppies were brought out and fondled. After the hot chocolate we got on the bus back to port. “If you look out on our left you’ll see that same eagle in the same spot.” It turns out that bald eagles spend a lot of time sitting up high enjoying the scenery and contemplating their next meal. As a cruise ship passenger, I felt I could relate.
Homo sapiens caring for its young on a cruise ship off the coast of Alaska.
Part II: Glacier Bay
The high point of the cruise, in my opinion, is when the ship sails up glacier Bay and spends an hour or so floating in front of a giant glacier:
The passengers took turns meandering on to the front deck to take pictures. Even Tommy wanted a cut of the action.
Tommy takes a picture of the glacier. Camera and wardrobe supplied by Mom.
As we floated away from the glacier I caught some of a talk from a Park Ranger about how 300 years ago Glacier Bay was more of a Glacier Valley populated by Tlingit people. But then the Little Ice Age caused havoc world wide, and the Tlingit recorded that the glacier came down through the valley at the speed of a running dog. The people ran to their canoes and evacuated. Eventually, the glacier reached the ocean. Upon contact with salt water the glacier then dried back up the valley, scraping away the ground and all evidence of Tlingit habitation, leaving what we now call Glacier Bay.
Enter John Muir. You have probably heard of him. His interest in Yosemite led him to Glacier Bay, on the idea that Yosemite may have been carved by glaciers, so he should go and study them. It was some rough adventure, and the Park Ranger digressed into a tale of how one day John went out to check out the glaciers, alone, except for one weird little dog who insisted on following him. The day consisted of a lot of jumping across crevasses and the dog kept up, until on the way home, as it was getting dark and cold, there was a crevasse that was too wide for either to jump, but there was a narrow ice bridge about ten feet down. John pulled out his axes and made it down one side, scooted across the ice bridge, and pulled himself up the far side, and looked back at the dog.
The dog looked at John, looked at the crevasse, and then began wailing. John persuaded the dog to calm down, then patiently explained that he had to try the crossing, as the only way to make it across was to try, and that if he failed to make it across that at least his bones would have a nice resting place. The dog thought it over, managed to climb down and across the ice bridge and back up to John, and they were then such BFFs that John published a book.
“Hush your fears, my boy, we will get across safe, though it is not going to be easy. No right way is easy in this rough world. We must risk our lives to save them. At the worst we can only slip, and then how grand a grave we will have, and by and by our nice bones will do good in the terminal moraine.”
–John Muir to Stickeen
It came to pass that Glacier Bay came under the protection of the federal government, which was well and good until the Tlingit came to note that it was an ancestral homeland, and the administrators of the time didn’t know what to make of that. So, after the Park Ranger spoke, a Tlingit woman came on stage to tell her own story.
The story began with an introduction to Tlingit culture. They identify by moiety, clan, and tribe. The moiety is interesting because you are either Raven or Eagle, you inherit your moiety from your mother, and you are required to marry a person of the opposite moiety. I haven’t done the logic here but it is understood to function as a system to limit in-breeding, which is a valid concern for a tribal people living at the edge of the Earth.
Anyway, her real story was of the time of forced assimilation. Her Grandmother died young, so on the pretext that a father can not raise his own children, at the age of six she and her siblings were relocated and scattered to live with families across the continental United States and thereby leave their barbarian ways behind them and become modern civilized folk. At the age of eighteen the lady’s mother returned to Alaska, where she knew nobody. She found a job and in time a nice fellow courted her, but she did not wish to marry because she did not know where she came from, or what her clan was. They conferred with elders who viewed the union as acceptable and they adopted her into a clan. In time, she learned of her birth clan, and that is how the woman speaking to us explained that due to her mother’s story, she identified with two clans.
Sitka is an island with no road connection. You arrive and depart by water or by air. Our modern cruise ship pulled up to a wooden dock on a gravel lot with piles of shipping containers. We walked on up to a little gift shop from which a fleet of buses ferried us into the city center. Our bus driver was apologetic that he didn’t know much to say about Sitka as he had been flown in from Juneau just the night before, owing to a local shortage of bus drivers, but he shared a factoid or two he had had a chance to pick up from Wikipedia. Once we got to town we had 45 minutes until another bus would whisk us on a tour to see raptors, salmon, and bears. (Oh my…) Adjacent to the bus terminal was the public library where Tommy made friends in the children’s area while his parents availed themselves of free wifi.
Oh, you were wondering: the ship has some slow, expensive wifi which we did not use except to look at the New York Times which sponsors the ship library and is therefor the only “free” site on the ship’s wifi. I don’t know if this is by design or by an oversight of the firewall configuration, but there’s no “ten article per month” limit. This is more Internet then you really need for a week at sea. More Internet that you really need on land, in all honesty. The ship is also equipped with a mobile device tower, but as with every town we stopped at in Alaska, there was no free roaming for T-Mobile.
I had to carry Tommy out of the auditorium because he was getting excited and we had been cautioned not to freak out this magnificent bald eagle, which Mommy photographed.
The Raptor Center is for rehabilitation of injured raptors, particularly bald eagles. Behind the raptor center was a nice trail with bear poop on it. It led to a stream where we figured out that dark spot in the water was a huge mass of salmon. It was all very pleasant but our time was up and we walked back up the trail, one eye out for bears, then we were off to …
… the Fortress of the Bear! Which is a refuge for orphaned bears, situated in what look to me like retired water clarifiers. Groovy stuff.
Finally, to the Sitka Science Center, where they study the life cycle of salmon and run a small hatchery operation. Since messing up the ecosystem mid-way through the last century, the state has since developed a system of hatcheries which annually release something like a billion fry a year, so there will always be plenty of tasty fish to eat. Adjacent to the center was a stream fairly choked with salmon who were returning to spawn. Someone asked if they were good eating, and the kid giving the tour explained that no, the flesh of the fish swimming upstream was already decomposing as at this point all metabolic energy they have is dedicated to the mission of spawning. The fish could still be used for animal feed and the like but no, you wouldn’t want to eat them.
Part IV: Ketchikan
A view from our cruise ship of three more cruise ships and the ever-present tourist trap fixture: a diamond store.
Daddy managed to send some postcards.
Tommy acquired a bag of blue kettle corn.
Mommy acquired some souvenirs and saw some salmon.
After the rigors of Ketchikan, Tommy is spent.
Part V: Cruise Ship Operations
I signed up for a tour of ship operations. Thanks in part to the fiber content of swiss-style muesli and a devotion to coffee, I had to excuse myself mid-way through the early-morning bridge tour, but the “hotel operations” portion of the tour was sufficiently fascinating. I was able to fill in the gap from my “bridge tour” by attending a separate talk from the Captain. If you really want to see the bridge and engines, this guy has you covered.
The ship is basically a collection of massive diesel generators. They burn a cleaner gas near shore and cheaper bunker oil at sea. The generators supply electricity to the guest facilities, the galley, and finally, to the ship’s engines, which consist of a pair of azipods mounted on both sides of the bottom rear of the ship. The azipods can rotate 160 degrees each, which combined with a set of bow thrusters, give the captain plenty of ability to park a ginormous cruise ship at little Alaskan ports. The captain noted that at 11pm when the galley shuts down, the power available for the engines goes up, and the speed ticks up a notch.
We started at the galley, which is massive. There are a handful of restaurants on the ship, and the food is all prepared in the galley, which is strategically located for quick service. If you’ve seen an industrial-sized kitchen before, then you know what’s up.
The galley. Huge. Stainless. Spotless.
Next, the bakery, which is compact, maybe the size of a two-car garage, yet still supplies the entire ship with fresh pastries throughout the week. We saw the alcohol storage room, and so of course mimosas were served.
Drinking alcohol is a favorite activity on board cruise ships.
We saw dry stores–they pointed out “the most important fuel on the ship”–a pallet of rice.
The Indonesian and Philippine crew collectively consume 500 lbs a day of rice. Any less would assure mutiny.
There is a small refrigerated room labeled “Coffin Store” which it turns out normally stores flowers–the ship has two florists–but should any of the thousands of people on board the ship expire prematurely, flowers are removed from the Coffin Store until there is enough room for the newly deceased. If the dead are capable of appreciating anything, I like to think they share my admiration and respect for the elegant efficiency of keeping the Coffin Store pre-loaded with flowers.
B Deck is under water, so you’ll see waterproof doors, and you can tell you are on a ship. You see nothing like this in guest areas.
After stores, we saw the waste management section. The ship generates an amount of waste comparable to a small city, with less room to store it. Everything that can be recycled is separated, shredded, compacted, sealed, stowed, and then sold at port when possible. Retired linens are converted into rags for cleaning the engines, and the oily rags from cleaning the engines are sealed into casks which I assume are disposed of properly. Organic (food) waste, at a rate of 3 cubic meters per day, is released into the ocean at night while the ship is chugging along. The organic waste is released in 1cm cubes so as not to attract seagulls into forming an entourage behind the aft staterooms.
During the Bridge Tour the Captain noted that waste water from the toilets is used for ballast. This makes the “wet sewage wastes” cask all the more mysterious.
There’s a mess for ship’s crew and another, larger, more aesthetically appealing mess for the Indonesian and Philippine crew, where the bulk of the ship’s rice is consumed. We had to wait until Friday prayers were completed before we could see the latter mess area, which makes an attempt to remind folks who are at sea serving well-off Americans of the life and vibrant color of their home land. Whether the canteen decor does anything for morale I do not know, but I reckon the ritual use of a clean laundry bin filled with prayer rugs helps more than a few lonely souls keep their spirits up.
The mess hall decor tries to remind the staff of home.
Later in the tour we breached American etiquette to learn a bit about the salary on board ship. One assumes the money is good enough to convince folks to leave home, typically for ten months at a time. We were informed that stateroom attendants, after tips, can take home $1,500-$1,800/mo. It was noted that stateroom attendants make considerably better money than other staff, especially compared to, say, a porter, whose job is mainly to carry stuff around.
Checking up on the Internet, the average salary in Indonesia is about $1,200, and the median is about $750. Kitchen Staff average $90/mo, and a Waiter $300/mo. A Call Center job around $700/mo. The World Bank ranks Indonesia as “lower middle income” … I’m not sure I will ever have gotten my head and my heart around the disparities of our world. I reckon it is better that I never do.
We visited the ship tailors, whose main occupation is in keeping the staff properly attired. The hotel laundry has a lot of busy men and machines: washers, dryers, hospital-grade sanitizers, automated presses for pants and for suits. The dry cleaning is … look, in all honestly the wonders of the laundry were pretty much lost on me, save for the existence of a $400,000 machine about the size of our living room that folds sheets. There is a separate laundromat on the ship for the staff to do their own laundry at no charge.
Part VI: Victoria
The night before our return to Seattle was a stop in Victoria, Canada. Before our arrival the captain made a ship-wide, long-winded announcement in his thick Dutch accent, explaining that overnight, they had a problem with one of the azipods, so they had to stop it, turn the ship around, turn the azipod back on, then resume course. But they hadn’t been able to make up the time so we would arrive in Victoria about 45 minutes late, and this is why he was deeply apologetic to those whose shore excursions would consequently be rescheduled or canceled outright.
Nobody cared to see our passports. I grabbed some Canadian cash and we rode a double-decker bus into town, which resembled France. As it was around his bed time, Tommy fell asleep on my shoulder and I got to carry him around town. We bought some chocolates and I took a seat near one of the buskers down at the waterfront while Mommy took some pictures. We later strolled around the kiosks at the waterfront and Tommy managed to awake in time to catch site of a food truck containing an industrial robot serving ice cream. If there is one thing every parent knows about Canada it is that children are entitled to any robot-dispensed soft-serve ice cream that they can spot.
At one point the robot encountered some imperceptible difficulty, and three humans instantly appeared to render technical support. Among other things someone had to fiddle with the robot’s computer, which is a Japanese version of Windows XP.
We took a taxi back to the ship. Nobody cared to see our passports.
We have young children, which makes travel expensive and cumbersome. I traveled alone, arranging my flights in order to minimize disruption to the family routine. Thus, instead of flying through Long Beach airport, I went through LAX, on Southwest, because the flights worked out to allow me to participate in morning drop-off and return to San Jose to be picked up just after the baby finished Daycare.
The conference was held at the Queen Mary, which is a classy 1930s era cruise ship now moored permanently at the Port of Long Beach. Lyft gave me a discount on a direct ride to the Queen Mary, compared to a shared ride, so I took it. The driver was a Kenyan, who told me that the countries of East Africa were making steady progress towards open borders and economic union. He explained that the Chinese were building a network of passenger railroads in the region. He was in town for a while to help his brother with some personal affairs, and in the meantime he was able to make some money driving for Lyft. The car, he explained, was rented through Hertz or somesuch, who had arrangements for Lyft drivers. He said the rate wasn’t great, but it suited his needs better than buying his own car.
I arrived in time to catch the opening afternoon session. Jason Roberts, an IT Guy living in Houston, shared stories of his unorthodox methods of community improvement. He is an inspiring guy and these are some notes I scribbled down:
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing.”
A typical response to folks who want to promote outdoor activities is that the idea might work better in some other city with a more agreeable climate . . . but “not here.” For example, in Houston, it is really hot. So, he cited the above proverb and then shared pictures where people manage to enjoy the outdoors in all kinds of weather, including New Orleans, which I guess might be hotter than Houston. As a man who recently discovered the miracle of Rain Pants and how they can make a bicycle commute decently comfortable in the rain, I agree.
He arranged to get the kids in the local school punch cards: each day they rode their bike to school, they got another hole punched in their card. He didn’t mention any rewards for filling out a card, but he said this simple program got a lot of kids riding to school.
He detailed several instances where instead of waiting on the city to conduct a traffic study, &c. to put in a crosswalk or a bike lane, folks in the community would build their own such infrastructure. White duct tape is an excellent stand-in for white thermoplastic. They did some illegal street narrowing and then hosted a festival, making sure to invite the mayor.
“Break every law possible; document it; invite the mayor”
“Wear an orange vest.”
I can vouch for this. When I encounter vehicles obstructing the bike lane, I place a flyer under the windshield, hand a flyer to the driver, and if there’s been a lot of violations that day, I tweet a note to the local police. On more than one occasion, folks have come back to their cars in a panic, assuming the man in the bright yellow jacket slipping a paper under the windshield is a cop.
betterblock.org details his efforts and ideas, and wikiblock is a resource for 3D printed furniture, which can be used to provide street furnishings on the quick and inexpensive. His topline advice:
1) Show up at every community/organization meeting. Meet the folks who are out for civic improvement. 2) Give your idea a name, a logo, and a web site. 3) Set a Specific Date in the Near Future: say there’s a meeting in 2-3 weeks and the objective is to build something within 2-3 months. Having a deadline forces action.
I next attended a session on the Nuts and Bolts of Planning. I noted that California Cities are required by the state to have a General Plan for the next 20-30 years and that the General Plan is composed of various Elements, like the Housing Element, which are each revised every several years. Then there are more specific Specific Plans and zoning standards . . .
I did appreciate learning that “Euclidian Zoning,” where zoning is separated by use (Residential vs. Commercial, &c.) was not, in fact, a reference to Geometry, but a reference to a court case where one of the parties was named Euclid. An alternative to Euclidian zoning is to define the allowable form of buildings without prescribing their use.
I sought a late lunch. Dining options are limited on and near the Queen Mary. I finally settled on an overpriced cheeseburger, which was dry, and had an egg that had been thoroughly fried, so the yolk did not run. This was sad. After this I drifted back to the conference, hearing a bit about the basics of CEQA, the California Environmental Quality Act.
Finally, on my third attempt at check-in, the staff of the Queen Mary agreed that my room was at last available, but first they had to hammer away on the computer for several minutes and take my keys in the back. It wasn’t personal: the place was filled up and everyone’s check-in was an exercise in patience. I suspect the place is run by folks who are more excited at the prospect of managing a historical ship than they are with efficient hotel logistics, or the correct preparation of overpriced cheeseburgers.
The room was spacious, by the standards of a contemporary American hotel built near the freeway, and especially in comparison to my limited cruise ship experience. Not all of the ship is in use as a hotel, and I assume they took the higher-class rooms for this purpose. On a modern cruise ship, a patio seems standard fare, but in the 1930s all you got was a porthole. Because all of the room lights are on a single switch, I used the porthole as a night light. I was charmed by the vintage desk that folded flat against the wall.
I considered skipping dinner, by subsisting on some dry chicken skewers, vegetables, and cheese from the networking event. The wife suggested I find a way to town and I found that there is a free bus that departs every fifteen minutes. I hiked up Pine Street a ways, past the light rail that was closed for reconstruction. I found an inexpensive but tasty Indian kebab place which seemed a good choice because last time I was alone roaming the streets of a foreign city at night after a conference, I was in Dublin, where they were also building light rail, and where I also ended up eating inexpensive Indian food.
The return bus was delayed, so I signed up for the Razor scooter service. The app made sure I was wearing a helmet, as everyone who rides a rental scooter always does. I felt a little shaky at first but got the hang of it, and before long I was back at the Queen Mary for under $5. The app warned me that I shouldn’t park in forbidden zones: apparently, the area around the Queen Mary is forbidden, but if you park next to the ship you’re okay. Other scooter services do not have this restriction.
The Razor scooter was the nicest I tried during my trip: the deck is wider, and the tires are fatter than the competition. My only grouse is that the handles are lower than is comfortable for a tall guy like me.
Upon returning to my room, I opened the door and heard a young boy sigh or mumble. This was most likely one of the ghosts who reside upon the Queen Mary. I concede that an alternate possibility is that when I opened the door, it created negative pressure in the room, and the air made a funny noise squeezing through the porthole.
Although the walls on the ship are thin, and engines no longer muffle the neighbors who inhabit the ship’s various astral planes, I slept well. Throughout the morning, my brain adjusted to the idea of inhabiting a cruise ship while not feeling the movement of the sea.
Breakfast was rich in protein, and I chatted with a Planning Commissioner from Solvang. He explained that they were working to fix up the business district, which I have heard is a Swedish-themed tourist town. He hoped they could get an Apple Store since the nearest is a 40-minute drive. An Apple Store strikes me as an odd thing to wish for. I tried to adapt my impression of a glass cube to Old-Timey Sweden Town. He explained that the building codes would continue to specify a particular architectural style, but some of the run-down hotels could be replaced with nicer amenities.
Later the notion of autonomous personal passenger aircraft came up. The same Planning Commissioner was excited at the idea that people would prefer to own a private plane, maybe a sporty cherry red Jetsons car that could take off from the back-yard heliport, take them directly to work, then return home to park. Someone suggested the FAA might be slow to embrace this vision. Another suggested that folks might be happy to trade off the safety implications for the incredible convenience. I shared a criticism I have seen of the Boring Company, which so far hasn’t seemed to account for safety. In the hyper tunnel, a wheel may come flying off someone’s private car. The vehicles behind would have to break at eight times the force of gravity. The result could well be a Lithium Fire in a tunnel which has no emergency access, that kills a few hundred people, and burns for a week or two. People might accept that as the price for convenience, even if a government regulator might find the idea to be insane.
The morning session covered the legal powers and obligations of Planning Commissioners. The big idea to understand is that there are contexts where Planning Commissioners help to set policy, but that much of the time, Planning Commissioners are tasked with reviewing projects and applications within the context of the policies. You may not like what you see, but the job isn’t to approve of things based on personal opinion, but because the plans comply with policies.
There was also a fair amount of the Brown Act, which is always a concern for any public official in California. We touched again on avoiding closed meetings, where a quorum of a public body ends up discussing an issue outside of a public meeting. The bottom line is to make the decision-making process open to the public at large, to disclose any meetings, typically with an applicant, that have taken place, to provide a fair process, and not to demonstrate bias in decision-making.
The next session was the relationship between the Planning Commission, City Council, and city staff. The City Council decides what policy should be, and the staff determines how to achieve that policy. The Planning Commission serves in between, giving advice on policy to the City Council, and deciding whether applications which the city staff have worked on comply with the policy.
Next, I attended a panel discussion on Building Density.
If you have a single family neighborhood, of one and two-story homes, an apartment complex at 4x the density doesn’t mean four to eight-story buildings. An apartment building fits units closer together than single-story homes, and the units are usually smaller than comparable single-family homes. Scott Lee, from Livermore, showed a housing complex developed there at a higher density, that ran two and a half stories, with the height stepping down further towards the neighborhood. The development was an example that we see in Sunnyvale sometimes, where the middle of the building is a parking garage, and then the housing units are built around the garage so that, from the street, all you see is housing. He called that style a “Texas wrap.”
Peter Noonan, of West Hollywood, then dove deep into the economics of providing higher density housing to accommodate mixed incomes. My notes may not be accurate here, but West Hollywood has been pretty successful at rent stabilization, and they require new development to provide 20% of units to be affordable to families at 80% of the Area Median Income. (Many jurisdictions have had some success at providing housing at the market rate, and for the poorest residents, while missing targets for middle income.) He explained that their inclusive housing requirement triggers State Density Bonuses that permit developers to build additional units, which means that West Hollywood’s Inclusionary Housing Requirement ends up forcing developers to build more market-rate units than they would otherwise.
He then went on to illustrate how building denser developments brings down the per-unit cost of building new housing, which is critical to our ability to meet the housing needs of California’s residents.
Lunch was good. The salads came wrapped in a shaved cucumber. The chicken was somewhat dry but came with a sauce. The dessert was a form of Black Forest Cake, of which, thanks to a couple of Folsom Planning Commissioners, I had three servings. I chatted with a Yuba City Planning Commissioner. They are housing refugees from Paradise, and she shared word of another town that is housing refugees, that has sought a share of Paradise’s Property Tax revenue, in order to pay for the increased city services from housing Paradise residents. Our mutual feeling was sympathy towards the plight of a town that needs to cover unavoidable new expenses, but less sympathy for the strategy of trying to shake down a town that is in crisis.
There was a Survival Guide for using Twitter and Social Media. As my city’s resident Tech Savvy, Scooter-Renting, Millenial-by-Proxy Planning Commissioner, I went ahead and tweeted my notes. Here is the thread:
So, what has two thumbs and likes to geek out on the methodology of studying the Environmental Impact assessment on traffic flow? This guy!
Let’s talk internal combustion. When a vehicle is moving along at a steady rate, the engine helps to keep the wheels turning, and a relatively modest amount of energy to maintain speed. When a vehicle stops, the engine has to burn more energy than when it is cruising, because the wheels aren’t helping the engine move. Thus, if you want to maintain air quality, you need to design streets to keep cars moving. Therefore, the traditional approach to measuring the Environmental Impact of traffic is a metric called “Level of Service” (LOS) which measures the delay imposed on traffic by different types of development. As development increases, you can mitigate negative impacts on Level of Service by adding more lanes of traffic. Once you run out of room for building roads, any further development incurs a negative impact on LOS that cannot be mitigated.
What could possibly go wrong with this approach?
LOS is a recipe for sprawl. Adding a new greenfield development on an underutilized country road has no negative environmental impact as measured by LOS. Building denser in town where there is no room to add more lanes means the project’s Environmental Impact is Significant and Unavoidable.
Over time, the LOS approach becomes self-defeating. To keep traffic moving, we need to limit the density of development, which means people have to drive further and further to avoid getting stuck in traffic, so they spend more time stuck in traffic.
Because the right-of-way of the roads is built out to support only motorized vehicles, the population density is too low to support mass transit, and the commutes are long, the population loses opportunities for Active Transportation, and the death rates from sedentary lifestyles increase. (Note: in my experience, an e-bike can help make longer-distance commute through The Sprawl more possible, if you can find a sufficiently safe route.)
California has mandated a switch to evaluate Environmental Impact by measuring Vehicle Miles Travelled (VMT) which is cheaper to figure out. First off, if a project is near public transit, the VMT impact is “less than significant” because folks can take the bus. Overall, if a project is going to shorten or reduce trips, it has a favorable Environmental Impact. A greenfield development outside of town where folks are going to have to drive everywhere for jobs and services is going to have a negative evaluation in terms of VMT.
As our development shifts to VMT evaluation, we should be able to save money on road infrastructure, shorten commutes, and improve health by reducing automobile collisions and making Active Transportation a more practical option.
Next, we learned to Make Findings that Stand Legal Challenge. This can be summed up as “show your work” and when making findings, cite policies and explain how a project complies or does not comply.
That was too easy. How about a session on City Finances? I think this session might have gone down better with a beer, but Michael Coleman dove right in.
Thanks to Prop 13, Property Taxes are fixed at 1% of assessed value, and can not increase faster than the Consumer Price Index. The assessed value is reset to market value only when the property is sold. This is why one neighbor’s property tax might be $300, while the young family next door owes $20,000. Also, California has to offset its inability to fund government through Property Tax with high Sales Tax and Income Tax.
Prop 13 also provides an incentive to cities to approve new development, since new development pays property taxes at a contemporary rate, and also contributes substantial fees to cover infrastructure and services.
He also explained that the long-term decline in Sales Tax revenue has less to do with e-commerce and more to do with a broader cultural trend of spending money on services instead of goods. Sales Tax applies only to tangible goods, and not to services. So, there you go.
Then, he dropped a truth bomb on those of us who favor higher-density residential development. On the one hand, higher-density developments bring in more revenue than lower-density properties. But, the costs of providing residential services to the larger population can incur an overall budget deficit. The tax revenue from a family in an apartment comes out to less than a family living in a single-family house, but both families need the same city services.
This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t build higher-density housing, but we need to be mindful of the impact on City Finances and balance development with other, more profitable development. (I love “Mixed Use” residential-over-retail, myself.) In the longer term, I like to think that California’s approach to funding government will evolve to the needs of higher density living.
Then there was an explanation of how the lack of a Vehicle License Fee replacement means that annexation and incorporation of cities in California are no longer fiscally viable. Without risking anyone’s sanity trying to explain it, I think it is enough to understand that that problem exists, and that you should support AB 2268.
After trying to understand the implications of the VLF backfill on incorporation and annexation, I decided to take the free bus and a rented scooter over to the Yard House and have a beer, and a cheeseburger with several fellow Planning Commissioners. We had a chance to talk about each other as people instead of the vagaries of government policy. The cheeseburger was juicy and delicious, and I took that as representative of how much better Thursday had gone than Wednesday.
The conference breakfast was a slight improvement on the day before, featuring home fries instead of hash browns, and granola-yogurt cups in addition to the eggs-sausage-bacon-pastries spread. I ate two servings at breakfast, the second one to serve as lunch. They tried to do a Q&A during the breakfast, which didn’t go so well because breakfast is also an excellent time to chat with people at the table. Much of the discussion at the table centered around how the Q&A wasn’t working well, and that this year’s conference had more challenge to it than previous years, because they had fewer rooms available for sessions, because they had had to move hotels at the last minute because the original hotel had construction going on.
Then it was time to go downstairs for the legislative update. We braced ourselves, as the California legislature has 2,700 bills to consider this year. That sounds like a lot, and Jason Rhine, of the League of California Cities, reassured us that this is indeed a lot for a non-election year. 200 bills focus on Housing and Land Use, and another 500 bills are placeholder “spot bills” which will be filled in by their sponsors as the process rolls along.
There was mention of the CASA Compact, which is a policy collaboration in the Bay Area, but most of its suggestions apply to the state in general. (CASA is a whole topic unto itself.) Here are various incomplete notes that I took:
AB 275 is looking to limit new developments to not more than 20% single-family homes.
AB 1279 seeks to identify “high resource” communities, with good schools, plentiful jobs, and mostly single-family homes, and in those communities grant developers “by right” approval for affordable housing projects of up to 100 housing units up to 55 feet in height. This would help bring lower-income folks into more upscale and exclusive towns.
SB 4 would allow up to four-plexes on empty lots near transit, and an additional story of height.
SB 50 is Scott Weiner’s bill. Last year he introduced the controversial SB 827 which did not make it out of committee. This is the sequel to that bill, which would up-zone around transit, put limits on Single Family zoning, increase density based on form, which I understand as “you can build the building to the size allowed in the zoning code, and house as many families as you please, so a 6-bedroom McMansion could just as well be a three-plex.” SB 50 would limit or eliminate parking requirements, and introduce additional Density Bonuses.
Jason Rhine noted that this year, Scott Weiner chairs the committee, so SB 50 would likely make it to a floor vote, and Democrats are generally reluctant to shoot down their colleagues in the same house. Upon arrival in the Assembly, some negotiation could take place. Most of the bills in process are consistent with Governor Newsom’s ambitious goals for housing production, so he’s likely to sign them.
SB 330 would declare the state to be in a Housing Crisis until 2030. During this period, there could be no downzoning, no (new?) parking requirements, no increases to impact fees, no (new?) fees for affordable housing, no housing moratoria, no new design standards that increase construction expense, and no limit on the number of conditional use permits. The gist of this being that for the coming decade, we will make it somewhat easier to build.
AB 11 would bring back the Redevelopment Agencies that were axed during the Financial Crisis.
SB 5 would allocate up to $2 billion for redevelopment.
ACA 1 would be a ballot measure to reduce the threshold for bonds for affordable housing and infrastructure to 55%.
SB 128 would reduce the threshold for EIFD bonds to 55%. (Enhanced Infrastructure Financing Districts . . . wonky enough for ya?)
AB 68 and 69 would repeal the minimum lot size requirements for folks who want to build an ADU. (Sunnyvale has a minimum lot size of 6,000 square feet, so my lot is 300 square feet shy of being allowed an ADU.)
AB 36 is a “spot bill” for “tenant protections” and may be the vehicle for enacting some form of statewide Rent Control this year. This would probably be more permissive than traditional local rent control ordinances and focus mainly on limiting the year-over-year increases that can so easily force long-time tenants from their homes on short notice.
AB 1110 would increase the notice period for rent increases. (You get more time to prepare to pay more rent or move.)
AB 1483 would require cities to post all of their fees on their web site.
AB 1484 would not allow a city to charge a fee not posted on their web site.
AB 891 would require cities over 330,000 population to provide Safe Parking areas for people sleeping in vehicles by 2022.
The last session of the conference was on Land Use and Emergency Preparedness in our new age of increasing disasters. I made a note that 30% of California housing stock is at the Urban Interface Area and that this area is seeing 40% of the growth of housing stock. I then noted “emergency preparedness is YIMBY” as I think it was Eric Nickel, Santa Barbara’s new Fire Chief, who was explaining that folks concerned with fire safety would prefer transit-oriented development in town over sprawl.
As my town is not in the Urban Interface Area and I am already a fan of transit-oriented development, my thoughts drifted to trying out LA’s transit infrastructure to get to the airport. Google was saying 2+ hours by transit compared with a 40-minute Lyft, so I left the Emergency Preparedness session to enact my own study of alternative transportation services in the LA area.
I could have taken the free bus, but I thought I should try a non-Razor scooter. There was a Lime nearby, but some hipster snatched it up before I could get to it. Then I saw a Bird. I signed up, deposited $10, and took off. I made it a couple blocks and just started up the overpass over the water to the main part of Long Beach when the scooter slowed to a crawl and stopped entirely. I laughed at the thought that it lacked the power to bring me up the hill, but the app reported that in the space of two blocks the battery had gone from 20% to empty. I had killed the Bird.
I walked up over the bridge, probably faster than any scooter could get me uphill, and picked up a Lime scooter on the other side. I really appreciated the height of the handlebars! I took it a block or two, and the ride seemed to get bumpier and bumpier. The wheels were either too small or damaged. The ride was awful, so I ditched my tall boy at a rack of Razor scooters, and rode a wide, thick-tired Razor the rest of the way to the bus stop. There was one block with a steep uphill, and the Razor managed to drag me up that hill. Near the end, it had slowed to such a crawl that a tortoise passed me up, with a comment on the side about my lazy character. I couldn’t help but grin at my own absurdity.
Ordinarily, a transit ride from the Queen Mary to LAX is a reasonably straightforward shuttle bus to train to train to shuttle bus. Unfortunately, the Blue Line that runs to Long Beach is shut down for repairs. In its place, I took a free bus, which very slowly made it to the stops served by the Blue Line. The trip counted as scenic if you’re the sort who appreciates a look at lower-income residential and industrial neighborhoods adjacent to freeways. After Martin Luther King hospital we passed a Denny’s, and I got off at the Rosa Parks Metro stop. I didn’t see any ticket machines, so I followed everyone else through the open fare gate and past the sign that said we needed Proof of Payment.
I caught a Green Line train toward the airport. It was the most overtly drab utilitarian train I can remember riding. It felt like Ronald Reagan had tried to describe Socialism and the designers built to his specification. I appreciated the huge windows, which afforded an excellent view of the highway, as we zipped efficiently along to the Airport stop, where we all went down to wait for the bus.
There was nowhere to buy a bus ticket, and no fare posted, just that you needed to have proof of payment for the Green Line. Of course, since it is an airport shuttle bus, everyone got on and off at both doors, and nobody bothered about proof of payment. The end result is that had I not bothered with the scooters, my trip from the Queen Mary would have cost me nothing, aside from the risk of a fine. (For what it is worth, I also experimented with an alternate bus along the way, and so paid $2 of the $1.75 standard Metro fare, so my conscience is clean on that account.)
The flight home was delayed a bit, but my family picked me up at the airport, and we had Birthday Cupcakes when we got home.