Road Blog: The PIts

The skeleton of Bison antiquus (Ancient bison) at the La Brea Tar Pits museum.

The tourists in Los Angeles today:

1) Did not fall down on the sidewalk.

2) Went to the La Brea Tar Pits (more below).

3) Watched a painful (for us) college football game.

4) Drove up to the Griffith Park Observatory, along with a huge crowd on hard to mark the equinox. We saw lots of people, lots of lights in the city below, and no parking spaces. We shall return.

About the pits: Growing up, the La Brea Tar Pits seemed to be part of an obscure joke. Visiting today and seeing them in person — the real science growing out of the millions of fossils recovered there and how the place fits into the ancient and modern city — I wondered why I thought so.

In the 1950s, there was a Bugs Bunny cartoon, “My Bunny Lies Over the Sea,” that makes an incidental mention of La Brea. It’s something slight and before my time, so I thought I must have picked up on the joke someplace else.

Johnny Carson came to mind. I don’t doubt that he was just one of many who found something odd and out of place about the asphalt deposits right in the middle of Los Angeles and made them part of a punchline. But, having watched Carson many, many times — and given his long tenure here in L.A. — it seems likely that that’s where I picked up on the tar pit jokes.

Thanks to the Sometimes Magic Memory Machine, here’s an extended Carson riff — one bad joke after another — on the La Brea Tar Pits.

Road Blog: City of Sprawled-Out Visitors

5th Street in Los Angeles, not too far from the La Brea tar pits in one direction and Beverly Hills in the other.

We drove down to Los Angeles from Berkeley today. History was made: Kate drove the first two-thirds of the trip, her first time negotiating the Interstate 5-San Joaquin Valley raceway. (As it happens, we haven’t taken I-5 south through the valley much, even in our 30-some years driving around California together, and when we have, I’ve been at the wheel.)

We’re here to visit Thom and Megan (that’s our son and his girlfriend, if people still say girlfriend), who just moved down here. After we got to our hotel, a little after dark, Kate and I walked over to their place, which is about a mile away. We remarked, as some non-Angelenos do, that there are not a lot of pedestrians on the street, even in this well-groomed old neighborhood. We also noted that some of the sidewalks are in amazingly bad shape, pushed up by tree roots in this well-groomed old neighborhood. I managed to trip on a panel of concrete jutting up a good 3 or 4 inches higher than the preceding slab.

The fall was not graceful, and it hurt enough that I was content to lie on the curb strip for a minute before I got back up. No lasting damage beyond a couple of skinned knees. It wasn’t fun, but once I started walking again and the little bit of adrenaline or endorphins or whatever kicked in, I actually felt oddly exhilarated.

Picture above: a front walk on 5th Street, near where we are staying and not far from where I fell on my face.

Illuminating Dark Corners of the California Vehicle Code

Shattuck Avenue and Walnut Street, Berkeley.
Curious fact: Until this year, it was against the law in California to start across a street after the countdown timer started (or when the red “don’t cross” hand appeared).

That law was mostly unenforced, except in Los Angeles, where the LAPD went after people hard.

A state legislator from down there got a bill passed (and the governor’s signature on that bill) that now allows pedestrians to start across on the countdown as long as they make it to the other side — or can stop in a safe place mid-street, like a median — by the time the counter hits zero.

For intersections with the older signals — those that display the walking man or the red hand only, with no timer, it’s still illegal to begin crossing once the hand starts flashing.

‘Individual Acts of Hospitality Are Not the Answer’

I think a lot about homelessness, about what it represents in our society, about our responses to it collectively and individually, about the many encounters — with a man named Charles, instance, and with Eric, and with Perry — with the destitute and down and out I’ve had over the years. And about the meaning of personal gestures.

The New York Times just published excerpts of the prison letters of Nelson Mandela. One, to his son Makgatho, talked about effective responses to poverty:

I have been reminiscing a great deal … Those were the days when you lived a happy life free of problems and fenced from all hardships and insecurity by parental love. You did not work, grub was galore, clothing was plentiful and you slept good. But some of your playmates those days roamed around completely naked and dirty because their parents were too poor to dress them and to keep them clean.

Often you brought them home and gave them food. Sometimes you went away with double the amount of swimming fees to help a needy friend. Perhaps then you acted purely out of a child’s affection for a friend, and not because you had become consciously aware of the extremes of wealth and poverty that characterized our social life. …

It’s a good thing to help a friend whenever you can; but individual acts of hospitality are not the answer. …

This is not a problem that can be handled by individual acts of hospitality. The man who attempted to use his own possessions to help all the needy would be permanently ruined and in due course himself live on alms. Experience shows that this problem can be effectively tackled only by a disciplined body of persons, who are inspired by the same ideas and united in a common cause.

Road Blog: Chicago to West Des Moines

Part of the grain elevator complex in Morrison, Illinois, just east of the Mississippi and northeast of the Quad Cities.

I left my power cord back in Chicago, so I will keep this short. After a relaxed, not to say lazy, start of the day, we started rolling at 11. OK — that was kind of lazy.

Made our way out from the North Side out to through the western suburbs on Interstates 294 and 88. Got off of U.S. 30 to continue west at Rock Falls. Right there we had the only weather of the day, driving through a line of thunderstorms that apparently marked a cold front. It was much cooler and drier to the west — 74, for instance, in Morrison, Illinois — see above — where I stopped to check out the local grain elevator scene.

We stayed on U.S. 30 across the Mississippi, through Clinton, Iowa, and on to a hamlet called Calamus. A road sign pointed north to Lost Nation. I kept going, but pulled over half a mile on to consult an actual paper map to see what getting to Lost Nation might involve. Wandering for 8 or 10 miles on country roads, it looked like. We were not under the gun timewise — we were to meet Eamon and Sakura in West Des Moines (they were coming up from Cincinnati, part of their trek from New York to Seattle) — so I did a U-turn and headed up the backroads.

A town of 400 advertising ‘small city security with big city access.’

Lost Nation: The best picture would have been of the road signs pointing out the turn, as the town itself (population 400) proved unprepossessing in our 5-minute visit (it bills itself as offering “small city security with big city access). One wonders about the origins of the name, and the stories that have found their way into print suggest both pestilence and a fanciful-sounding Native American tale as the source.

Me, my expectations tend toward pestilence or worse. Not too far down the road, we passed a sign saying, “Limited government under God: Vote Republican.”

We stopped to see what locals advertise as the world’s biggest wooden nickel, just outside Iowa City. After that, we got on Interstate 80 for the rest of the trip west. Eamon and Sakura got to the hotel nearly at the same moment we did (they would have beaten us, but stopped by the Iowa state capitol building on the way). Then dinner. Then back to our hotel, the Sheraton, and back on the road early in the morning.

California woman with local socio-political attraction near Iowa City.

From Above: Bowknot Bend

Above, a shot from a flight from Nashville to Oakland in April 2016. I always take a window seat. I hardly ever watch the in-flight movies. The the window is my in-flight movie.

Every once in a while, I’ll actually get a half-decent picture of some dramatic piece of landscape. I was reasonably sure that this was the Green River someplace in eastern Utah. Checking Google Maps and Gmaps Pedometer, this place is 25 miles due west of Moab and 28 miles south-southeast of Green River, Utah. The perspective is looking north from just south of the bend.

Here’s the spot on Google Earth’s satellite view: www.google.com/maps/@38.6054343,-110.0189264,9139m/data=!…

Here’s a U.S. Geological Survey map of the area: www.gmap-pedometer.com/?r=6925846

Here’s a NASA Earth Observatory image, shot from the north, looking south: earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=83353

From the NASA writeup: “Bowknot was named by geologist John Wesley Powell in 1869 during one of his famous explorations of the rivers in the American West. The Green River flows south (toward the top of this image) and joins the Colorado River downstream. The combined flow of these rivers was responsible for cutting the Grand Canyon, some 325 kilometers (200 miles) away from Bowknot.”

And finally, here’s Powell’s journal entry, dated July 15, 1869, of traveling down this stretch of the Green River:

About six miles below noon camp we go around a great bend to the right, five miles in length, and come back to a point within a quarter of a mile of where we started. Then we sweep around another great bend to the left, making a circuit of nine miles, and come back to a point within six hundred yards of the beginning of the bend. In the two circuits we describe almost the figure 8. The men call it a bow knot of river so we name it Bow knot Bend. The line of the figure is fourteen miles in length.

There is an exquisite charm in our ride to day down this beautiful cañon. It gradually grows deeper with every mile of travel; the walls are symmetrically curved, and grandly arched; of a beautiful color, and reflected in the quiet waters in many places, so as to almost deceive the eye and suggest the thought, to the beholder, that he is looking into profound depths. We are all in fine spirits, feel very gay, and the badinage of the men is echoed from wall to wall. Now and then we whistle, or shout, or discharge a pistol, to listen to the reverberations among the cliffs.

At night we camp on the south side of the great Bow knot, and, as we eat our supper, which is spread on the beach, we name this Labyrinth Cañon.

‘Is Everybody OK?’

I’ve written before — a while ago — about the terrible early days of June 1968.

I’m a little puzzled that I could be reflecting on the 50th anniversary of anything. I’m like the old guy in 1968 looking back on the end of the Great War.

But here we are. Fifty years ago on this date, immediately after declaring victory in the California primary, and just moments after 14-year-old me turned off the TV election coverage and went to bed, an assassin shot Robert Kennedy in Los Angeles.

If you listen to NPR’s “Morning Edition,” you might have heard this StoryCorps segment, which features a man who came to the mortally wounded Kennedy’s aid. If you were alive at the time, you remember the photograph of that scene.

The segment brought that night and that terrible loss back in a rush. The most poignant moment: Juan Romero, the hotel worker who tried to help Kennedy, saw the senator’s lips moving as he lay on the floor. Romero says he put his head down so he could hear Kennedy’s words. He was asking, “Is everybody OK?”

The National Joy Smoke

I think we all have an idea what the national joy smoke is today. It’s not Prince Albert, in the can or otherwise.

But a hundred years ago? I just encountered the ad below while fishing around for newspaper mentions, circa 1917, of one of my dad’s uncles. The ad here appeared in the Warren Sheaf, still published in Marshall County, Minnesota — just northeast of Grand Forks, North Dakota.

The ad copy (early “Mad Men,” transcribed below) is not to be missed.

A World War I-era ad for Prince Albert tobacco.

Say, you’ll have a streak of smokeluck that’ll put pep-in-your-smokemotor, all right, if you’ll ring-in with a jimmy pipe or cigarette papers and nails some Prince Albert for packing.

Just between ourselves, you never will wise-up to high-spot-smoke-joy until you can call a pipe b its first name, then, to hit the peak-of-pleasure you land square on that two-fisted-man-tobacco, Prince Albert!

Well, sire, you’ll be so all-fired happy you’ll want to get a photograph of yourself breezing up the pike with your smokethrottle wide open! Talk about smoke-sport!

Quality makes Prince Albert so appealing all along the smoke line. Men who never before could smoke a pipe and men who’ve smoked pipes for years all testify to the delight it hands out! P.A. can’t bite or parch! Both are cut out by our exclusive patented process!

Right now while the going’s good you get out your old pipe or the papers and land on some P.A. for what ails your particular smoke appetite!

You buy Prince Albert everywhere tobacco is sold. Toppy red bags, tidy red zinc, handsome pound and half pound humidors—and—that classy, practical pound crystal humidor with sponge moistener took that keeps the tobacco in such perfect condition.

R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company, Winston-Salem, N.C.

Post-Dog Life, Continuing Adventures Of …

One of the decisions we had to make when we put Scout to sleep a month ago was what to do with his body afterward. In the past, we’ve buried our late companions — two cats, a rat, a rabbit, a budgie — in the backyard. But Scout was big enough — 50 pounds or so — that it seemed like it would be a real chore to dig a hole long and wide and deep enough for him.

When the event came to pass, our vet told us we could have him cremated individually if we wanted. Afterward, we could scatter his ashes — the coffee-can scene from “The Big Lebowski” comes to mind — or stow him on the mantelpiece or have him interred at a pet cemetery, perhaps. Alternately, we could opt for a group cremation and have his remains buried — OK, I admit that the verb I think of is “dumped” — in a common grave somewhere.

I forget what the price was for the different levels of service, but the group cremation/common grave scenario was much less expensive. With the feeling that the most important part of Scout was not his “remains” but our memories of him and the indelible mark he left on our lives, that’s the option we chose. After the wrenching experience of having The Dog put down, I didn’t dwell on where he’d wind up afterward.

But last week, we got a card in the mail, a “certification of country burial,” from Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park in Napa.

“This certificate will serve to notify its owners that the remains of Scout were interred in a country setting together with the pets of many other loving and appreciative owners such as yourself feel that their pets deserve more than the other alternatives now in practice. “Country burial” is an expression of gratitude for the unselfish devotion and companionship your pet gave you during its entire lifetime.”

A form enclosed with the certificate informs us that we can memorialize Scout in Bubbling Well’s memorial pet register, located at the base of a monument in the park, which overlooks the Napa Valley. Price: $35 or more, by check or money order. The form hastens to advise us “this memorialization is purely voluntarily and there is no compulsion expressed or implied.”

Image of the area near the country burial site for animals handled by Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park. The spot is in Solano County, east of Suisun City.

Naturally, Kate and I decided we’d like to go and take a look at the pet memorial park — which sooner or later I’ll just call a pet cemetery. Kate had looked up the address and come up with a place on Atlas Peak Road, off Silverado Trail just northeast of Napa. That meant one thing to me: It was likely in an area burned in the terrible North Bay wildfires of last October.

And sure enough, as we ascended the narrow road from the valley, we quickly encountered signs of fire — charred trees and shrubs, lots of construction activity as homes in the area are rebuilt.

The pet cemetery was obvious — the Los Angeles Times described it last fall as “an oasis in a sea of destruction” — for the manicured lawns amid a landscape that’s both burned-over and turning summer gold.

The disaster that swept the countryside also swept across the cemetery. While the “memorial garden” areas are nearly all intact, a home and office on the property burned, as did many large large trees. (The facility’s current proprietor, Dan Harberts, was among those evacuated by helicopter the night of the fire. According to news accounts, he was forced to leave their own dog behind. Somehow he survived the fire and was waiting when his people returned.)

The memorial park is clearly in a state of rehabilitation, with evidence of heavy equipment having driven across parts of the property, a small heap of burned debris in a parking lot, and a collection of broken pet headstones — broken, I’m guessing, during the post-fire recovery — lined up on a wall.

We showed up around 4 p.m. While there was plenty of traffic on the road adjacent to the cemetery, we were the only people there. No staff. No other visitors.

It’s tempting to poke fun at the many, many pet plaques and grave markers at the cemetery and their sometimes maudlin messages. We saw one for a ferret named Bandit, whose human companions averred, “He was our everything.” One memorial includes what appear to be the figures of St. Francis, the Virgin Mary and a plywood golden retriever with a wire halo. A trio of pedigreed German shepherds is buried together under matching tablets saying, “Rest until we are together again.”

It’s tempting to make light of it all, but I won’t. While my sentiments and beliefs may be different — when Kate and I talk about how we’d like to dispose of these bodies of ours when the only show in town is over, I think of sky burials or Walt Whitman — mostly, I’m impressed by how many people will go to such apparent lengths to remember these presences in their lives.

When we got the Bubbling Wells card in the mail, I was thinking Scout’s “country burial” was in the Napa area. The picture on the card looks sort of like the lowlands south of the city. The difference between that image and the rugged hillside location where the cemetery sits didn’t compute at first. But as we ambled through the property, we came across a sign devoted mostly to explaining what country burials are, where they happen and that you can’t visit the burial site because of the conditions of a land-use permit.

Of course, inquiring minds want to know just where this burial site is.

The sign, below, doesn’t quite address the precise location. In a tone that may reflect having heard the question a million times, the cemetery’s proprietors say, “In all honesty, we can tell you that your pet was buried 20 miles east of Bubbling Well near Fairfield in a lovely country setting.”

A sign at Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park explains the cemetery’s country burials.

After a diligent hour or two of searching public records, that description appears to be more or less accurate.

The site is a little southeast of Fairfield, south of Travis Air Force Base and just north of a range of low hills and, beyond them, the sloughs and wetlands associated with Suisun Bay.

Is it a lovely country setting?

This slice of eastern Solano County is one of the many parts of the greater Bay Area where one can look past all we’ve done to the place and get a glimpse of the intoxicating beauty of California Before Us. That picture on the Bubbling Well card, with the green hills and splash of wildflower gold? It shows the actual place where pet cremains are buried — nearly a cubic yard of them a day on average, coming from hundreds of veterinary and other facilities around the Bay Area. What the picture doesn’t show is the nearby highway, the trucks going back and forth to the county landfill, or the jets coming in and out of Travis; but framing is everything.

How do I feel about Scout’s ashes being out there? It’s hard to say. But he did love every minute he spent outdoors, and I suppose for me there’s a little bit of resolution for me in that.

We came across one headstone at Bubbling Well that was for a child, not a pet. It says simply, “Infant daughter of Rev. and Mrs. Wm. Harberts, July 22, 1914.”

An infant’s grave at the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park.

That set off some more diligent searching. From the history I can find, the Harberts bought the Bubbling Well property in 1961 — long after the date on the headstone. The history also suggests that the Harberts lived in Iowa or Wisconsin, not California, in 1914. They did come west in the late 1930s and lived in the Los Angeles suburb of Glendale, where William Harberts, a Presbyterian minister, was a pastor. (Lydia died in Alameda in 1960; William died in Berkeley in 1970; one of their sons, Paul, ran Harberts Sporting Goods here and was a member of the East Bay Regional Park board).

William and Lydia Harberts’s oldest surviving child, John Calvin Harbert, was born in 1915, and it was he who bought the Bubbling Well property and started the pet memorial park in 1971. It’s not clear to me why his infant sister’s headstone — and, one assumes, remains — are interred here. My guess is that the family didn’t want to leave her behind in some far-away Midwestern cemetery and brought her to Napa for reburial.

A couple of other finds regarding Bubbling Well. It’s actually the centerpiece of a fairly important piece of American documentary film history: Error Morris’s first film, “Gates of Heaven.” Roger Ebert called it one of the 10 best films ever made (surprisingly, no, I have never seen it. We can stream it now, and having been up there, we will).

Cal Harberts also got some press back in the late ’70s and early ’80s for attempting to establish his pet memorial operation as a tax-exempt religious institution, The Bubbling Well Church of Universal Love. In July 1980, the Los Angeles Times profiled Harberts and his argument for tax-exempt status.

A 1980 profile of Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park founder Cal Harberts.

“We believe any Supreme Being who puts the breath of life in you and me and these little four-legged creatures is not going to forget man’s cherished pets in the hereafter. At our church services, the congregation and I say prayers for our departed pets and for sick pets. I read from the Scriptures, recite poetry about pets, talk about the roles pets play in our lives. …

“I spend a good part of my time consoling people, telling them they will see their pets again in heaven. Organized religion doesn’t help them. They have to turn to someone. That is where the religious aspect of the Bubbling Well Pet Memorial Park and the Bubbling Well Church of Universal Love come together.”

Federal tax authorities didn’t buy it.

‘The Essence of Poverty’

A random radio mention of Tewksbury, Massachusetts, and its connection to the story of Annie Sullivan, celebrated as “The Miracle Worker” for her role in the education of Helen Keller and the blind and deaf in general, leads me here:

Anne Sullivan Macy: Miracle Worker, from the American Foundation for the Blind.

And to this quote from her biography:

The essence of poverty, is shame. Shame to have been overwhelmed by ugliness, shame to be the hole in the perfect pattern of the universe. In that moment an intense realization of the ugliness of my appearance seized me. I knew that the calico dress which I had thought rather pretty when they put it on me was the cause of the woman’s pity, and I was glad that she could not see the only other garment I had on … the inadequacy of my outfit did not dawn upon me until the woman pitied me.”

(I wound up reading the entire AFB “gallery” on Annee Sullivan. What a story.)