California Adventures: Tilden and the Campanile and Other Things in My Backyard

I don’t have some big trip planned for this year, or not just yet. I am a planner, and I make lots of lists to get my darting thoughts in order as a matter of course, so I gave some thought to this around the beginning of this month. If I write something down, it’s more likely I’ll make it happen. So I take list-making at the turn of the year very seriously, and it felt telling that I couldn’t think of a particular international destination I wanted to work towards. This is not to say I won’t be over the moon if I end up in Thailand or Amsterdam or Italy or Mexico (again, again, please), but it’s not the priority right now.

A big part of this is because I live here now.

Two green hills and the San Francisco Bay, leading to the horizon on a sunny day

Ok, I don’t actually live in Tilden Regional Park. But I do live a mere six miles from it, and I’d never been up it until yesterday. I was somewhat aware of it, but I had no specific plan to go to it, except in the vague way that I kinda want to go everywhere ever, if you ask me and I answer honestly.

This picture is the best I managed. The reality of it was much better, one of those moments that I find really reassuring, to remember that cameras can’t get everything, at least not as I wield them at this point in my life. What’s obscured there by the haze was an unfolding of the horizon before us, distinct layers delineated by barges and rolling hills and cities before cities and other large shapes that brought to mind the word leviathan. Apparently, with the haze, the view was not at its greatest advantage, but I was very happy with it. I am collecting hills and views as I live here: the peek of the Bay Bridge as I crest the hill before I get to my apartment; the collection of San Francisco all piled on itself from the highest point of Mountain View Cemetery; the broad spread of the cities along the bay from Indian Rock Park; and now Tilden. I fruitlessly took a few different pictures, shifting and bracketing, but I’m just going to have to go back another day. Drat.

The same little trek contained this: a very popular blue whale, perpetually lounging outside of the Lawrence Hall of Science, which is very close to Tilden (and, to my newbie eyes, all part of the same winding hill full of Stuff). Next to it was a giant spiral of DNA that is so much more enticing to climb than I would have expected. I was wearing a pencil skirt and tights and still clambered up both. To do otherwise would have been wrong.

Looking out from the rail at the edge of the whale-containing plaza, I saw a grand tower that looked like it might be part of a church. “What’s that?” I asked. So the next order of business became finding out. Down we drove, winding and winding, the tree-covered hills giving way to research labs and other big, very square buildings.

Coming down this way, the full collegiateness of UC Berkeley comes up hard and fast. I’ve been to Berkeley. I have had beers and Indian food, I have bought a used book, I have seen some amateur storytelling. I’ve been to the Bowl more than once. I’ve had some Berkeley in my life. But I’d never seen the university, and that was a mistake. My companion had never been up the Campanile, it turned out. I didn’t know what a Campanile was, it turned out. (Hint: it’s that big grand tower I’d spied from on high.)

And it holds cantillons, of course. Its real name is Sather Tower; Campanile is a nickname because it resembles the one in Venice. This one has 61 bells, and a little speech in the ascending elevator will inform you of the layers of gifts that furnished this full complement. (Bells can be a very big deal, it turns out.) A little electrical outlet in the elevator control box lets the elevator operator continue playing phone chess while he escorts tourists and other randoms up and down the tower.

Carillons require a player. We did not get to witness this, but based on the quick BONG from one of the regular, automatic, thrice-daily rings, I don’t think I want to witness it from up there. It did, at least, lead to one of those nice moments where a bunch of strangers go from startled as hell to laughing in relief in that particular communal way.

It’s $3 to ascend. It’s really worth it. It’s kinda extra great if you go in tandem with someone, and your pair contains one new arrival and one knowledgable person who just hasn’t had this particular experience yet.

You do not have to conclude your day at the Sacred Wheel, a cheese shop in Temescal that might be literal magic, but I do strongly suggest that you do. Any day will do, cantillon-containing or not. Ask for the perfect goat cheese to put on a chocolate chip cookie, then get a couple pickled eggs (choose from four flavors) before you go out the door. Even if you do not encounter the cheese wizard of Temescal, you will be doing just fine.

I did.

A Million Years Ago in the Pacific Northwest

Cherry blossoms and a path on the University of Washington campus

Ok, more like two.

In the way of travel fast and slow, I’m seeing what it looks like when spring awakens in this new place in which I find myself. We have blossoming trees here too, though they’ve been de-petaled somewhat with the buffeting rain of early and mid-March. I’m watching spring, and I can’t help but think of Seattle, where I spent my last eleven springs.

The University of Washington fountain and Mount Rainier

I was relieved when I realized I was falling in love with something about the Bay Area – anything about the Bay Area. We never do think we can love again, do we? Not until we do. How many loves do I get? I feel myself unfolding in Oakland and think enough. We get enough, if we’re lucky, and I seem to be.

University of Washington quad and blooming cherry blossom trees

These pictures are from my final quarter at UW, as I wrapped up my UCD certificate, counting down my last few weeks on campus. I knew I was coming to the edge of something, but I didn’t know what. I wouldn’t for another year.

I’m glad to be where I am. Seattle and I didn’t have an acrimonious end; instead, it was the boredom of one person overstaying. But I see people’s pictures of the UW quad on Facebook, the trees exploding in pink flowers once again, right on schedule, and I see my old world moving forward without me. And I move forward here.

I finally got my California driver’s license. My old Washington license has a picture of me at 21. As I sat at the DMV and waited to prove myself, I looked at the old picture and found that I don’t look remarkably different – more round-faced then, I suppose. I was wearing my magic green shirt, the uber-flattering v-neck that featured in some of my senior pictures. A beaded necklace I made myself. My hair at some in-betweeny length. (It’s usually at some in-betweeny length; that hasn’t changed.) I tried to see myself in me, and I asked myself what my 32-year-old self would say to 21-year-old me given the chance. Would I avoid this guy or go to Paris sooner or adjust certain expectations? Would I have pursued programming sooner? What would be useful advice that I could have acted on then?

In the end, I decided that I’d tell young me two things.

  1. There’s a really great therapist downtown, and it might be good to get started sooner than later.
  2. Do not trust your dad. Even if everyone else does.

The rest? It all happened more or less as it needed to.

Eleven springs, a million blossoms, a fresh start, and nearly no regrets. Not bad.

Young plum blossoms at a farm in Santa Margarita, California

I took this picture a couple weekends ago; some things don’t change. I probably have a hundred-plus pictures of blossoming trees on my computer at this point. You might see five percent of those, if I catch up with my travel writing backlog.

In the meantime, I keep on as I have been. Even on a ranch filled with antelope and goats and zee-donkeys, there I am, camera in hand, looking for the right way to show you a flowering tree.

Wherever I go, there I am.

The Stars My Destination

Long-exposure photo of stars and the horizon in Santa Margarita, CA

After driving for a long time on long country roads, black expanses set off by glowing yellow markers on either side of miles-long double yellow lines,

Long-exposure photo of a field at night in Santa Margarita, CA

it is a pleasure to get where you’re going, to walk in a darkness illuminated by the sounds of crickets and shifting pigs, to walk away from the porchlight to the faint glow in a gently hazy sky.

Ranch cabin at night in Santa Margarita, CA

To find a friendly fence post, to do three- and 15- and 30-second exposures (in roughly the opposite of the order of the photos here) and get a dreamy preview of what awaits you in the morning.

I miss the stars. My one non-city night in Sweden and Copenhagen was overcast, so no stars then either. But tonight, and perhaps tomorrow? I’ll remember the constellations that are too often, for me, swept away by light pollution.

It took two hours to get out of the Bay Area via the interstate. These stars are won.

Other People’s Childhoods: On Visiting Fairyland

The entry sign to Oakland's Fairyland

My first time in Oakland, I biked past Lake Merritt with Amy. Trailing behind her and freaked out about the passing cars, poor cyclist that I’ve always been, I only just managed to catch the sign for Fairyland, unlikely colors glowing over the lake’s rippling surface. I thought quickly of Breakfast of Champions*, which only made the sight weirder. When we stopped later, I asked her, out of breath: what – no, seriously, what – is this Fairyland that’s on the edge of this lake in the middle of Oakland, a town I was only just starting to dispel my stereotypes about.

As I remember, she said, “Oh, that,” with a little smile. “We’ll go next time you come.”

I was here once more before I made it there, but made it there I did.

A cottage at Oakland's Fairyland

Here’s a thing about Fairyland: adults can’t come in without a kid. This is for safety, I’m sure. However, it also keeps it an entirely earnest venture, I think. And that’s part of both its wonder and wonderfulness. I wandered Fairyland for a couple of hours on a darkening August night, and it wasn’t enough. I want to, as I have joked/”joked” many times this summer, borrow a child and get to spend a little more time there.

Reading library at Oakland's Fairyland

There’s a natural echoing feeling between Fairyland and Disneyland, but Fairyland came first in this chicken-and-egg situation: Walt Disney toured it and several other theme parks when seeking inspiration for his own, a million times bigger and grander than Fairyland could ever be on its own little plot of lakeside land. But Disneyland’s size means it can never have what makes Fairyland so wonderful to me. Amy told me that there’s an annual painting party to keep it up. And that surprised me – considering the nature of most attractions trafficking in fiberglass and cartoon characters, I expected something a little rundown, illuminated for others by the light of their memories of beautiful days when they were five or six.

But no. Fairyland was, is, and remains beautiful, and beautifully devoid of irony. It is what it is and does so earnestly, which is something I admire a great deal in both people and places.

The chapel at Oakland's Fairyland

I got to go to Fairyland without borrowing a child for an afternoon. It turns out that my season in the Bay Area was perfectly timed: almost perfectly in the middle of it was Fairyland4Grownups.

Three hours, once a year. Money goes to keeping admission low for local kids; attending adults get to wander the park and enjoy complimentary beer.

The annual adult’s night is a Thing. A wonderful, wonderful thing. And so is dressing up for it.

Revelers at Fairyland4Grownups

I was fortunate enough to notice this tradition as I walked by the line on the way home from school. Doubly fortunately, I brought something costumey to wear in my tiny travel trousseau: my Auntie Mame caftan cape thing, all flocked peacocks and beads and fringe. I got to join in the fun at least a little bit. I didn’t bring as much joy to the world as the woman in the purple feathered headdress or the full-on ren faire-clad folks, but I brought a little fabulousness to Fairyland. Not that it needs my help.

Mushrooms at Oakland's Fairyland

When you walk through Fairyland, you get to be submerged in something a little magical.

Wizard of Oz puppetry at Fairyland

Like seeing dozens of adults quietly, respectfully watching this wee puppet show, acted out by small felt figures to a recorded soundtrack. They change the show once a season. Someone’s job is to make or revive a season of shows, four each year.

Playing card guards at Fairyland

These guys. Painted every year. They are perfect.

Fairyland path

And then, to my regret, night started falling. Fairyland is only open to grownups between 7 and 10, and I hadn’t gotten there until 8. So I took as many pictures as I could in the fading light, the place becoming absurdly pretty during that quick blink of the magic hour.

Smoregasms

But I found a way to console myself.

Smoregasm menu

Because this is an event in the Bay Area, by law there must be food trucks. I started with this – it’s actually Multiple Smoregasms, but I only had one because 1. there are diabetics in my family, and one can only muck about so much, and 2. $6. I had red velvet, dark chocolate, and Guinness + chocolate. Small; mighty; worthwhile.

Smoregasm constructionAnd each made to order by people who’d gone to some length to make every aspect of this as beautiful and perfect as possible. (They do weddings more often than events, they told me, but do this night at Fairyland every year.)

Dessert dispensed with, I walked past piles of fried chicken, tacos, and succotash only to end up getting… pizza. I was hungry, it was ready, and I was very happy for it. I also got in a half-hour line for stroopwafel, one you could fortunately wait in via text. I felt my own insta-nostalgia of being in Amsterdam in November, where the stroopwafel comes in packs of ten in crinkling cellophane bags, and you place it atop your steaming tea so the caramel inside becomes soft and gooey. It is perfect, and when I saw the sign, I immediately knew I would be giving them money too.**

This was a little different than my beloved Amsterdam convenience store multipacks, but not nearly as much as I expected. They let me sub cheese for bacon in their Figgy Piggy, making it a Figgy Cheesy, and so, once I’d finished my dinner and hung out in the grass with friends for a while, I was summoned to pick up my fig-cheese-caramel stroopwafel, something which sounds mildly abhorrent but is actually exquisite. I talked to the guy making it, enjoying both his top hat and his (in this area) unlikely southern accent, and he kept remarking, with some admiration, “This is gonna be decadent.” It was.

I dispensed with my third course of the night fast, and then I was mildly nauseated and ready for another wander.

Fairyland bait shop

Where the light allowed, it was even prettier at night, particularly at this tiny village.

oakland-fairyland-laundry

I wandered along winding sidewalks that threaded between tiny houses, few of them much taller than my knee. A complete labor of love.

Tower at Fairyland

This melancholy fellow was well above me, though. If it’s Pinocchio, he gets punished more at Fairyland than in the usual telling.

Looming statue at Fairyland

And some of it grew wonderfully eerie at night, minus sunlight and full context.

Dragon at Fairyland

Earlier in the evening, I watched a guy trying for a good minute-plus to get just the right selfie with this dragon near the entrance. Inside its nostrils were two plasma balls; its eyes moved when you pulled the tongue-strap back and forth.

And then it was ten, and the nostalgic drunks by the whale and on the astroturf-covered hill and dancing to incongruous music among Wild West-style buildings had to go. The staff looked a little wild-eyed as we left, finally done once again with this weird annual ordeal. Apparently beer-fueled adults are more daunting than throngs of ecstatic children. I’m not sure I’d agree, but I haven’t had a job corralling people in a long time.

Fairy and constellations at Oakland's Fairyland

This fairy and these constellations were tucked in the ceiling next to the ticket window, impassively watching as yet another group exited. And, to my amazement, I didn’t hear a single sly word: no one trying to be clever, no shitty irony. Just people quietly filing, figuring out what to do next en route to the parking lot or their awaiting Lyfts. Like the park, the crowd was surprisingly earnest. I saw and heard nothing that made my soft heart feel hurt on the place’s behalf.

Fairyland isn’t something people feel lukewarm about. Shortly after getting to the Bay Area (nearly two months ago now, wow), I went to roller derby and spotted a surprisingly large tattoo of the Fairyland logo on a woman, right where her neck met her shoulders, the colors and lettering vividly and accurately depicted. And when a friend visited recently (hi, Amity!), we were talking about the part of her childhood she spent in Alameda. I asked her about Fairyland, and she sighed and smiled. “Fairyland,” she repeated back to me, her voice dreamy. Fairyland is serious business.

I still want to borrow a child and go back to Fairyland, ideally a patient one who doesn’t mind me stopping and taking a million pictures, the way my company that night allowed me.

And so now, when I pass the part of the park where the trees are a little thin and I can see a brightly painted, 10-plus-feet-tall stack of books peeking through the leaves, it won’t just seem incongruous. It will seem wonderfully unlikely, lovingly kept, and a well-regarded beacon of memory to the many, many joggers circling the lake.

I get it. And I’m grateful I got to go.

P.S. They only do this particular event once a year, but there are other adults-only/adults-allowed events here and there. Another one is coming up on September 25: Drawn Together, which combines local art and Fairyland, SIGH. I won’t be here. If you can, though, I really hope you go.

*I tried to find the illustration Vonnegut did of the FAIRY LAND in the book, but it is apparently a vastly less popular scan than his asterisk asshole illustration from the same book.

**When I travel in a regular way, my non-lodging money mostly goes to museums, postcards, and food. In my time in Oakland and San Francisco, it’s similar. I bring my lunch to school most days, so on the odd occasion that I want to eat something beautiful without feeling like a bad unemployed person, I usually go for it. Examples include San Francisco burritos, a fine veg burger at 21st Amendment on a very hungry day, and Thai noodles for lunch about once every two weeks. It helps that I get at least a couple quite good free meals each week at tech meetups. Tech meetups: never buy t-shirts or dinner again.