It’s 11 p.m., and the temperature is 71 here in Berkeley.
That late-night warmth in mid-June would not be news in Chicagoland, where I grew up (the current temperature at Midway Airport, recorded at midnight CDT, is 78) or most of the rest of the country outside of the Pacific Northwest.
But here, 71 degrees as we move toward midnight is unusual; and reminiscent, though we don’t have midwestern humidity, of growing up in Chicago’s south suburbs.
Somehow, my parents grew up without air conditioning. We didn’t have it, either, in our house on the edge of Park Forest. It seemed impossible to sleep on really warm, humid nights, though I’m probably forgetting that fans helped.
Our dad would go to bed early; our mom was a night owl and would have some late-night TV on. Johnny Carson, maybe, or “The Late Show” movie. She’d let us stay up if it was too hot to sleep. If the night was oppressive and sticky, she’d have us take a cold shower to cool off.
Thinking back, Mom didn’t get her driver’s license until after our last summer in Park Forest. The next June — 1966, when I was 12 — we moved out to a new house built on an acre lot in the middle of the woods we had lived across the street from. It was like a jungle out there in the summer — green and moist and full of mosquitoes and lots of other wildlife.
Things changed once we moved out there. We had air conditioning. One unit upstairs, one downstairs. Outside, it might be dripping. Inside, it was miraculously cool and dry — a different world. I imagine the electric bills were staggering compared to what they had been at our old place.
Then, too, Mom had her license. Every once in a while, she’d invite us out on a late-evening jaunt — to the grocery store, or just to drive.
So: You’re going to drive down to Los Angeles from the Bay Area on a Friday. To avoid a heavy commute leaving the traffic-strangled San Francisco region — East Bay to be more specific, and Berkeley to be even specific-er — you choose to leave at which hour:
b. 2 p.m.
c. 4:30 p.m., into the teeth of the usual P.M. freeway shitstorm.
If you chose c., you and I think think differently, because I didn’t quite choose to leave at that hour, but leave at that hour I did.
I checked traffic maps before rolling out, and there were long stretches of red and darker red all along the best (actually only) escape routes. No worries, I thought — I will take some side and back roads to make my way over the hills to Interstate 5.
So, I took 580 east through Oakland to Castro Valley, where things were jammed up for the climb over the Dublin Grade to the Tri-Valley area. I could tell from the maps that 580 would be even worse going through Dublin and Livermore and on over Altamont Pass, so I thought I’d use an old cycling route over Palomares Road to Highway 84, which goes through Livermore from Fremont.
Palomares was great, once I found it. Not fast, because it’s a real back road that winds and twists constantly as it climbs the hills and then descends to Highway 84.
Highway 84 was a brilliant idea, though it was bumper to bumper for a long, long way into and through the townlet of Sunol. After that it opened up, and I had just normal non-freeway traffic through Livermore — time now 6:30, or two hours into the trip — and onto Tesla Road and up the last set of Coast Range hills into the Central Valley.
Lots of people use this as an alternate route to the miserable slog on 580 over Altamont, but everyone moved at a spritely pace up the steep, winding road over the top and down into San Joaquin County. In fact, some drivers crossed the line between spriteliness and recklessness. I saw a couple of cars cross the double-yellow line to pass a slower moving vehicle on a nearly blind downhill curve. Well, no one was killed. This time.
Corral Hollow Road, as it’s called on the San Joaquin County end of the road, hooks up with Interstate 580 at a point where it has diverged from I-205 and is usually just screaming along. The speed limit is 70 mph, and if I’m going 75 I feel like kind of a slow poke. But more of that in a minute.
I probably hit 580, which joins Interstate 5 about 10 miles further south, at about 7:20 p.m. It was dusk, and it didn’t make sense to shift over to whatever scenic routes I might devise. The bucolic portion of the drive was over.
If I have myself time — something I never do — I probably would stay off I-5 as much as possible. The side roads going down the San Joaquin Valley are many and, at this time of year, and especially after all the rain this year, beautiful. The countryside is green and welcoming in a way you can hardly imagine if you only see the place in the brown haze of summer or the gray of winter.
The other reason one might stay off of I-5 between the Bay Area and L.A. is that it’s one of the most stressful driving experiences you can find. Speed is part of it. If you’re driving 80 — yes, I know, that’s over the posted speed limit, but still quite common — you really have to be on top of your game.
But it’s not really the sheer speed that gets to you. It’s the varied speeds on the two lanes from the Tracy area down to the bottom of the Grapevine.
I-5 is the major truck route between Northern and Southern California. Trucks have a dramatically lower speed limit — 55 mph, and they seem to stick close to it. That means you have a mix of high-speed four-wheelers mixed in with some very slow moving 18-wheelers. But that’s only the beginning of the issue.
Many of my fellow motorists are driving at 70 or so — some just above, some just below. That’s fine. They may live longer, happier lives than the likes of me. But here’s the thing: They aren’t content to drive their rational 70 mph in the right lane of the two lanes available. No. They would much, much rather cruise at their comfortable, non-threatening pace in the left lane.
Yes, it’s true that there will be slower traffic they need to pass. For instance, the trucks I just mentioned. And then they will need to use the left lane. But the notion of completing the pass in some sort of expedited fashion — taking note of traffic approaching from behind, for instance; not getting into the passing lane before you need to; maybe speeding up a little to complete a pass (a technique I was taught in driver’s ed); and then moving over again (another driver’s ed lesson) — is not one that is widely shared based on the behavior one sees on the highway.
The net effect last night was that whenever the river of left-lane traffic encountered an obstacle — a truck or series of trucks in the right lane, say — the left lane would bunch up and slow down, with lots of nonsensical tapping of the brakes as the flow of traffic went from 75 mph, say, down to 60 or 65. It was kind of like NASCAR in super-slow motion.
The rules of the road, I-5 Edition, seem to be these:
–If you see any traffic ahead in the right lane — even that little speck out there in the horizon — you’ll be catching up in five or 10 minutes. Better get over to pass.
–Life is easier in the left lane. You don’t have to worry about getting over to pass. And why is that guy on my bumper?
–Drive with your brights on — all the time. It helps you see the gestures the driver in front of you is making.
–If the slower jerks in the left lane won’t move over, accelerate — accelerate with extreme prejudice — and pass them on the right. And do it over and over and over again.
And in conclusion let me say: No — I am not on a crusade to change the way the rest of the world behaves, there are serious flaws in the way I do things on the road — speeding, right-hand passes — and I don’t give enough credit to all the people I see who do behave in a rational, courteous way.
To complete the trip narrative, though: I got to L.A. in one piece, arriving at our downtown hotel at midnight after following the Apple Maps directions — which at one point involved exiting northbound 110 at Dodger Stadium and doing a U-turn back onto the southbound ramp — and getting lost briefly on surface streets.
Anyway. Here I am. Today’s travel will be on public transit.
I can hear the rain pounding down right now, just as it has been for much of the last few days and for most of January.
Our modest electronic rain gauge shows we’ve had 4 inches of rain in the last five days and 9.5 inches since Jan. 7; that’s 9.5 inches in half a month. I am a lousy record keeper, but I know we’d had about an inch and a half or 2 inches this month before Jan. 7. So we are looking at 11 to 12 inches of rain so far this month. Which I call a lot.
The current month’s record’s from Berkeley’s “official” weather station on the Cal campus aren’t available (the most recent available through the National Climate Data Center are from November; I’ve failed over the years to figure out how to get more current numbers from the folks who monitor the station).
But to double-check my half-informed guesstimate, I asked my friend Pat, whose boyfriend Paul is a weather geek with his own home weather station, how much rain they’ve seen at their place up in the Berkeley Hills. The caveat is that their place is at an elevation of 900 feet or so and is likely to get more rain than we do here at 120 feet above sea level in the Berkeley flats.
Nonetheless, here’s Pat’s Sunday afternoon report: 13.05 inches total rainfall since Jan. 1 and 4.59 inches over the past five days.
And one other cross-check, this time from a spot that I know is significantly wetter: Tilden Park’s Vollmer Peak, at 1,905 feet the highest point in the Berkeley Hills. The state Department of Water Resources reports readings from a gauge on the peak. It shows 16.5 inches for the month so far and 4.9 over the past five days.
I’ll declare it confirmed: What people have been seeing all over Northern California and the Bay Area is true in Berkeley, as well — we’ve had a very wet January. Although … not the rainiest we’ve ever seen in these parts.
Berkeley’s official weather record goes back to 1893. According to the precipitation data maintained by the Western Regional Climate Center, Berkeley’s rainiest January occurred in 1916, when 16.54 inches were recorded at the campus station.
Because the record for that month is incomplete — five days are missing — the January 1916 record is not officially considered our rainiest January. Instead, almost-as-soggy January 1911, when 15.99 inches fell, is listed as our January maximum. Huh — one could question the logic in that.
Either of those months — January 1911 or January 1916 — would qualify as Berkeley’s rainiest month on record.
Assuming I’m correct and we’re in the 11- to 12-inch mark for January rain, this would mark Berkeley’s 14th January with 10 inches of more or rain. And it would be the rainiest since 1973, when 12.47 inches fell.
An end of year image: the golden fans of spent ginkgo leaves — my favorite Berkeley street tree, at least in deep autumn — and some unidentified purple petals.
Nothing profound intended, but: The gold leaves signifying the departure of one year. The splashes of purple perhaps signifying there is something beautiful in the season as we turn the page into a year that many already see as inauspicious.
Happy new year, whatever comes. We’ll have lots to think about and talk about.
Every once in a while, we have recourse to Craigslist to unencumber ourselves of some surplus piece of furniture (“What’s that futon still doing here?”) or other once-loved possession (“When’s the last time you rode that bike?”).
For me, the best part of the Craigslist experience is writing the ad. I’m not sure the writing really matters — I think an item’s three top characteristics are price, price and price — but it’s a challenge to try to turns something recently ruled to be terminally unwanted into an attractive must-have.
I’m getting ready to write an ad for a chicken coop and run we want to sell. In the process, I read a couple of my old ads. Here’s one that was fun to write. The item moved right quick, though the buyer failed to comment on the quality of my prose:
Ikea Henrik student desk, $60
An Ikea classic that may or may not have been named after a famous Scandinavian literary figure. This desk played a prominent role in a student’s career at Berkeley High School and may even be partly responsible for his successful completion of studies at the University of Oregon.
–Classic Ikea design: a Scandinavian thought this up. ‘Nuff said.
–Classic Ikea construction: manufacture of this item caused minimal rain forest destruction
–Conforms fully to U.S. and international safety standards, including Newton’s laws of motion
And check out these extras:
–Desk chair may be comfortable for hours on end
Plus: We will consider delivering this item right to your home.
(And we’ll note one flaw in this stunning piece: The computer keyboard tray lacks a stop and may slide all the way out if you’re unwary.)
We’ve had .42 of an inch so far today (it’s 1:30 p.m. daylight-saving style) to go with the 6.48 over the past nine days.
The rain has prompted me to return to an old wet-weather routine that Kate and I have called, in a nod to a favorite writer and a favorite series of articles in The New Yorker, “the control of nature.”
When we moved into our house in April 1988, it was noted in some document somewhere that there was a sump pump on the premises. I found out where the pump was and why it was there the following winter.
Our house has a crawl space. Our lot is on a slope paralleling the course of Schoolhouse Creek. The stream itself has been moved underground, but as we found out one very wet December day a little more than 10 years ago, too much water arriving all at once can, along with a clogged storm drain upstream, bring the creek back above ground.
Water appears less dramatically in our crawl space, and that’s why there’s a sump pump down there.
Usually, a murky pool will gather in a spot that’s been excavated to allow access to the crawl space. Sometimes, as in deluge that arrived early the morning of New Year’s Day 1997, the space will start to fill. That was the one and only occasional the pump, installed in a little concrete well built around our floor furnace to keep the heater from getting flooded, turned on.
Perhaps one reason the pump hasn’t been more active is because I try to keep the crawl space drained when I see water gathering there.
Control of nature requires gravity and a garden hose. I take the full hose, stick one end of it into the watery crawl space. Then I run the hose down the driveway — 30 to 40 linear feet and 3 to 4 vertical feet — to the street.
I set the hose running last night about 9 o’clock. It’s still running. How much water has come out of there in that time?
I tried to calculate the rate by measuring the flow into a 1-cup measure (yes — this has the possibility of introducing a large error; but let’s just agree I’m not being perfectly scientific). In four trials, the cup filled up in about 6 to 7 seconds. Based on that, I figure somewhere between 32 and 38 gallons are draining out every hour. And that would put the total for the 15 hours or so the thing has been running at 480 to 570 gallons. Which is more than I would have guessed.
While I’m poring over state and federal databases and pondering what it would be like to live through a year with 145.9 inches of rain (Cooskie Mountain, in the King Range of southern Humboldt County, in 2006) or a month with 43 inches of rain (Gasquet Ranger Station, on the Smith River in Del Norte County, December 1996) or 42 inches in nine days (yes, it happened: Bucks Lake, Plumas County, in January-December ’96-’97), let me record what we have actually seen here in Berkeley the last week or so:
Friday, March 4: .46 inches
Saturday, March 5: 2.61 inches
Sunday, March 6: .50 inches
Monday, March 7: .46 inches
Tuesday, March 8: 0
Wednesday, March 9: .13 inches
Thursday, March 10: .87 inches
Friday, March 11: .46 inches
Saturday, March 12: .99 inches (and counting)
That’s a total of 6.48 inches in nine days, as recorded on our cheap, semi-dependable (it’s very close to neighboring totals reported on Weather Underground) Oregon Scientific wireless rain monitor.
A pretty rainy spell, the rainiest this winter by far.
Among the slow-motion trends we observe in our corner of Berkeley is the proliferation of white elephant items left on the streets — everything from ratty furniture to unwanted books to antique all-in-one office machines (complete with manuals) — with signs saying, “Free.”
It’s not that the stuff is all garbage. Kate and I found a kind of abstract art print in decent condition a year or so ago and brought it home and hung it up. Maybe that’s more of a statement about relaxed taste than artistic merit, but we felt it was worth the effort to pick up and carry home and didn’t change our minds when we took a second look at the thing.
For the most part, though, what you see out on the curbs and at the end of driveways is crap of dubious utility. It’s stuff put out on the street with the hopeful delusion that even though your dog finds the old couch repulsive, someone out there would be happy to have it. They would welcome the chance to fumigate and reupholster it. After all, it’s free.
Every once in a while, though, someone dumps their castoff item in the public right-of-way with a note that seems to say, “Who are we kidding? This is junk, but we’re leaving it out here for the amusement of you, the passer-by. Maybe you’ll even take it away.”
Witness the item above (and attached message, below), a dated piece of office equipment with a topical note appealing to those who wish for the days before everything we do could be captured on a server somewhere and preserved forever.
It isn’t exactly a New Year’s Eve tradition, but the last few years Kate and I have wound up spending a good part of the last day of the year outdoors. The last couple of years, we took walks up onto local ridges with wide vistas and clear views of the sun setting on 2013 and 2014. Today was a little different: We did something of a public service outing, with the goal to pick up trash along Lagunitas Creek in Marin County. Beyond being a beautiful stream through the redwoods — a forest regenerated after the area was clear-cut in the 19th century — Lagunitas Creek has one special claim on the region’s attention: It’s home to a run of endangered coho salmon. We actually heard, and saw, a couple of the big fish on a little-visited stretch of the creek. And there was plenty else to see too in the forest: ferns (like the one above) and moss and fungi galore. There’s a slideshow of the day’s expatiation here: Lagunitas Creek, New Year’s Eve. The day’s haul: about 10 pounds of crap. The only semi-exotic object we captured was a single Nike flip-flop. Beyond that: beer bottles, beer cans, some candy wrappers.
And, that’s it for 2015. Have a fine 2016, one and all.