A beautiful view of the still-industrial Islais Creek in San Francisco, with the double-decker I-280 in the background. Although so much in San Francisco has changed and industrial zones are disappearing, I am heartened to see the area still has some of the character the drew me to it several years ago.
I was nominally in the area that day to see artists and their work at Islais Creek Open Studios.
The ride back from NAMM is usually an uneventful straight shot up I-5 from Los Angeles towards San Francisco. But I found myself making good time, and in a mood for a bit of exploration – not to mention an opportunity to rack up more routes on my Highway☆ app – so I decided to try something different. I decided to follow California Highway 99 as it splits off from I-5.
CA 99 takes a more easterly route than I-5 and connects to the major towns and cities of the Central Valley. A stretch in the northern part of the Central Valley was featured in our recent CatSynth TV Episode 99, but the southern part largely remained unexplored outside the immediate vicinity of Bakersfield (where it intersects CA 58). So much of the highway was new.
That southernmost section was, to put it bluntly, rather sad. The road is narrow, bumpy, and crowded. The landscape was dotted with a mixture of fields, run-down housing developments, and strip malls. And the sky was smoggy with an unhealthy yellow hue. But the afterglow of our most successful NAMM show to date along with the spirit of exploration gave a level of joy to the experience. At Visalia, I decided to turn off and head west onto California Highway 198.
If 99 was a bit of a cluttered and bumpy mess, 198 was the opposite: a pair of smooth straight lines cutting through farmland with sparse development. It began as an expressway but soon turned into a full-on freeway in Kings County as we headed toward Hanford and then on to Lemoore, where we intersected with Highway 41 in a major interchange. A few years ago, I had seen it from the perspective of Highway 41 and mentioned it a post at that time.
There is something strangely fascinating about the island of small towns sitting at the northern edge of dry endorheic Lake Tulare. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but it is strong enough to inspire a story line and possible writing project that I work through in my mind when I have trouble sleeping at night. We will see if anything comes of it.
Past Lemoore Naval Air Station, 198 narrows to a small two-lane route, and becomes significantly less interesting. My mind shifts to the story on the radio about people whose altruism goes to extreme lengths, including a man in India who founded and nurtured a growing community for people with leprosy while putting himself and his family (including two young children) at risk; and a couple who kept adopting more and more children while having less time and attention for their older biological and adopted children. These drives can be seen as incredibly caring and generous, but I also wondered if they were a bit pathological – indeed, the seeming lack of concern for others affected as they pursued their extreme altruism seemed to be mark of a sociopath.
Heading west on the narrow section of CA 198, we approach Interstate 5 again. This is, however, a spot infamous to north-south travelers for its offending aroma. It turns out the infamous small at the Coalinga junction of I-5 and CA 198 comes from the gigantic Harris ranch and feedlot. It only got worse after turning north onto I-5, but soon enough it was behind me and a not-too-long road to San Francisco remained ahead.
See more of California and many other fascinating places in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
There was a brief period of respite at the beginning of August between the end of the Outsound New Music Summit and the start of a new job. Time was tight, so there wasn’t time for an extended odyssey in the deserts of southeastern California. But the north coast, specifically Humbolt County and the area around Eureka, were well within range for a two-day trip. I have never been that far north on the coast. I got an Airbnb in Eureka. I researched a mixture of industrial and natural spaces for photography and exploration. I even got a new lens for the big camera. And early on Saturday morning (or at least early by CatSynth standards), I was ready to go.
Eureka is a direct shot up US 101 from San Francisco, about a four-hour trip in good conditions. It’s a major freeway up to the border between Sonoma and Mendocino counties, and then a mixture of an expressway and a two-lane road through the redwoods, with spots of freeway near major towns.
I never made it to Eureka.
The beginning of the trip was enjoyable and largely uneventful – and the Russian River gorge section after crossing into Mendocino County is spectacular. North of Ukiah, I felt like I was actually transitioning into exploration, as this was somewhat novel territory (technically, I had been as far north as Legget in 2013, but that was in the evening and rushed). Once CA 20 joins with 101 north of Ukiah, the combined route begins a long, steep grade into the hills. It is here where things started to go a bit wrong. The temperature gauge on the car, usually quite steady, suddenly shot up beyond the red “H”. This is definitely not good. I shut off the air conditioning and things calmed down a bit as we got into the new Willits bypass, a Super-2 limited access highway. North of the bypass, 101 becomes a steep windy road through the woods; the temperature gauge shot up again. This was definitely not good. I limped back to Willits to give the car a break and figure out next steps.
I’ve been through Willits a few times, but never really stopped there. The little downtown has some cute old brick buildings. But I had no time to play – I needed to find a repair shop. Nothing showed up in Yelp as open. I probably should have called AAA at this time, but I did find an open shop in Ukiah, so I limped back. I drove conservatively, with the windows open, the vent fully open, and one eye on the temperature gauge.
I was relieved when I finally pulled into Tony Lopez Automotive. It was out a strange little industrial side-street south of downtown. Tony was clearly not pleased to have someone wander in with car trouble just as he was getting ready to close, but he was also chivalrous and ready to help out a damsel in distress. We got the car cooled down; and after a bit of diagnosis, he identified a small but pernicious radiator leak. The diagnosis took some time, and while I was sitting I noticed a rather interesting pile of old car parts. I snapped an iPhone photo, which became a Wordless Wednesday featured a couple of weeks ago.
I regret not grabbing my better camera out of the car to get a higher-quality image, but it was not my priority at the time. And I do like the abstract quality the pixelation provides. Tony did notice the fancier equipment still in the car, though, and it sparked a conversation about my writing and photography and about this site. I wonder if he has checked it out.
Once things were ready, I left town – I would have loved to stay, but I was eager and anxious to get home. I also left Tony Lopez a glowing Yelp review. If you on 101 in the vicinity of Ukiah and need auto help, please patronize his shop and tell him that Amanda from San Francisco sent you.
The trip back to San Francisco was sad but uneventful, and in this case uneventful was good. I didn’t record the trip back on Highway☆, but here is the exact same trek that I did record on a short but happier trip in July.
The engine temperature stayed within an acceptable range, and it was fine over the next few days in San Francisco, but the radiator definitely needed to repaired ASAP. This experience also cured me of any sort of “fun with highways” wanderlust for a while and I have remained close to home since then (except for μHausen). But the bug is starting to come back, and I might have to start exploring again. I might even make it to Eureka one of these days…
See more of Northern California and many other fascinating places in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
We at CatSynth love traveling and exploring our adopted home state. This includes day trips from the Bay Area as well as longer adventures. But one thing remains a bit of a challenge. For much of the state, the main highways are primarily north-south, with very few east-west routes. One chooses one of the long-haul north-south highways, California 1, US 101, I-5, California 99, or US 395 and is pretty much locked in with only a few options for efficiently traveling east to west. There is I-80 in the middle north, California 152 or California 46 from the coast through the Central Valley and California 58/I-40/I-15 further south.
North of Sacramento, east-west travel becomes even more difficult, with routes like California 20 and California 299 being relatively rural and windy for much of their length. The end result is that most of our trips – especially single-day trips heading north – are forward and back along one of the main north-south routes unless we have extra time or necessity to use the smaller east-west roads.
This north-south bias can be seen in an almost self-similar way when zooming in on the extended Bay Area. South of San Francisco, there is California 1, I-280, US 101, I-880, I-680 and then not much at all until one gets to I-5 in the Central Valley.
In the North Bay and wine country, a similar pattern appears with CA 1, US 101 and CA 29, with another large gap until I-505 and I-5. We have made use of east-west roads like CA 128 to get between them as in our recent wine-country trip that featured Elsie the Library Cat. But this is a long detour.
This north-south axis may be frustrating at times (especially the further north one gets), but there is nothing particularly sinister about it. It’s all a matter of Calfornia’s geology. The interface of the Pacific and North American plates that give us our reputation for earthquakes also lead to long bands of north-south mountain ranges and valleys. The Sierra Nevada may be the most dramatic, but it is only one of several that form vertical stripes, with the Central, Sacramento, Salinas, and Napa valleys in between. The San Francisco Bay can be seen as another such valley in a way, with shallows bounded by high hills running north-south.
The exception to the “north-south rule” can be found south of the San Gabrial mountains and into the desert. From Los Angeles and San Diego, one can easily travel east-west to the desert towns and to the Arizona border on I-10 and I-8, with a network of other east-west freeways in between. It is definitely a different experience traveling down there once one gets over the Grapevine or the Tehachapi Pass and into the southern realms. As for the rest of the state, there is no escaping the geographic reality, so it is best to embrace it, and even enjoy it.
I found myself back again in Napa Valley wine country a couple of weeks ago. Specifically I was in St. Helena to meet Elsie the Library Cat. I am not a morning individual, but Elsie apparently is, so at the early hour of 7AM, I headed up from San Francisco, crossing two bridges before exiting the I-80 onto Highway 29.
I have written about traveling through the Napa Valley on Highway 29 before, specifically in a post from 2007. Once again Highway 29, multiplexed with Highway 12, was a parking lot south of the city of Napa, so I was once again able to snap a photo at almost the same exact location. It was quite theraputic to do so, chasing away some of the demons of 2007, which themselves chased out the demons of 2000. The road has been upgraded into a better expressway, and Highway 221 (just a short connector to downtown) is now signed.
The traffic thinned out north of Napa as the road narrowed north of Yountville. Here the landscape is dotted with modest vinyards and over-the-top mansions and tasting rooms. Finally, I arrived in St. Helena, my favorite town in the region. I pulled into the library parking lot around 9AM, just in time for my visit with Elsie.
Elsie is a very sweet cat, and quite playful at times despite her advancing age. With her black coat, she reminded me a bit of Luna, though Elsie has mismatched-colored eyes compared to Luna’s emerald green. She and the staff of the St. Helena Public Library were great hosts and extremely welcoming of me and my video project. If you haven’t already seen our CatSynth TV feature on Elsie, you can watch it here.
It was still relatively early when I finished at the library, so I headed to the main street in town for brunch – a protein-heavy heuvos rancheros and some additional coffee seemed like a good idea after the morning video shoot and before heading out for wine tasting.
My main winery destination was Flora Springs, also in St. Helena. In 2014, I had come here for both wine tasting and a photo shoot – you can see one of the photos in this old Wordless Wednesday post. I had selected it because of the modernist architecture and interior design, but I enjoyed the spicy bold reds as well. Plus they have a patio that is lovely on a warm afternoon.
The same qualities that attracted me to this winery four years ago were in play again – the modern style and bold red wines. I particularly liked the Trilogy red blend and the Holy Smoke single-vinyard cabernet from Oakville. This visit was also featured on CatSynth TV.
Having enjoyed a full glass of both the Trilogy and Holy Smoke along with tastings of the standards, I decided I shouldn’t do anymore tasting for a while. But I still wanted to some more exploring. So instead of heading straight back south, I turned east onto Highway 128 in Rutherford towards Lake Berryessa, with the goal of finally completing the route. (Yes, I am weird that way.)
The narrow but well maintained highway took us out of the valley and into the hills to the east, winding our way through several canyons. The central towns of the Napa Valley were largely spared from last fall’s devasting fires, but here along Highway 128 one could still see some of the scars from the Atlas Fire. The green wooded hillsides were periodically streaked with bands of ashen gray and bare trees. But even within those bands, one could see bits of green. Some of these were trees that were spared during the fire, which jumps from one tree to another, as well as new growth replacing the burns. It’s amazing to see how quickly nature bounces back, especially compared to human development. It will take a bit longer to replace the homes, wineries and other businesses, and the mental and emotional scars may never heal.
Eventually, the highway aligns to the southern shore of Lake Berryessa, an artificial lake created by damming the Putah Creek. It’s quite large and major center for water recreation. I was just there for the visual aspect – I was particularly curious to see the “Glory Hole.”
The Glory Hole, which as also featured in a recent Wordless Wednesday post, is an internal spillway for the reservoir. When the lake gets too full, the water drains out through it like a bathtub. This happened in 2017, and must have been amazing to see.
We followed the highway down from hills into the Sacramento Valley, where it ends in the town of Winters. I had stopped here on the way to Portland a few weeks earlier, so had already shot some video. But that one is still a work in progress…
See more of California’s Napa Valley Wine Country and many other fascinating places in our Highway☆ app, available on the Apple App Store and Google Play Store.
Facebook has been in the news quite a lot of late. None of it for good reasons. But buried amidst the articles on data privacy and the Cambridge Analytica scandal I found the story “Welcome to Zucktown. Where Everything Is Just Zucky.” in The New York Times. Basically, it discusses Facebook’s plans for a new community adjacent to its Menlo Park campus, with housing, shops, and such.
As seen in the above screenshot from our Highway☆ app, Facebook’s campus is at the remote northern edge of Menlo Park, straddling the Bayfront Expressway (California Highway 84). Even by the standards of sprawling Silicon Valley campuses, this one is isolated, with access primarily by car or company busses. The proposed development, which is formally called “Willow Village” (Facebook dislikes the nickname “Zucktown”) would be to its east, between CA 84, Willow Road (unsigned CA 114) and University Avenue (unsigned CA 109), and adjacent to the neighboring town of East Palo Alto. While ostensibly an open community with public access and some affordable housing units, it is clearly being designed for Facebook employees. And although the benefits of living close to work – and cutting down on commutes – are abundant, there is a difference between living near work and living in work. And that is why it touched a raw nerve with me. One of my main critiques working the industry, besides the subtle but rampant sexism, is what I call forced togetherness. In the culture of many tech companies, it isn’t enough to do good work every day or even work long hours. There is tremendous pressure, implicit or explicit, to be socially present at all times, to treat the company as one’s community, one’s “life”.
Forced togetherness comes in much smaller ways than planned communities of coworkers. At a previous job of mine in 2014 at a tiny startup, everyone ate lunch together almost every day. Ostensibly, it was supposed to be Monday, Wednesday, Friday, but it quickly became clear that Tuesday and Thursday were expected as well. One day early when I politely passed on lunch – and was looking forward to going out by myself for a little bit – the CEO seemed perplexed and kept trying to offer one option after another for ordering lunch in. I had to finally just say “Look, I’m a big girl, I can feed myself!” This was met with some quiet and awkward laughter. It’s not that lunch was mandatory, but there was a social expectation, and implicit coercion, that eating together was the right thing to do.
I have come to look for red flags in this regard. In my current job search, another very small company reached out to me with an interesting opportunity. But they were located in Redwood City. I have more than once stated I would sooner move back to New York than take another job on the peninsula – but I played along and politely explained that I prefer to work in San Francisco proper, but did they have flexible or remote work options. I got the following reply.
We do not do remote. It hinders the culture of the company we are building and we love hanging out with each other.
There are many good reasons that some companies require employees to be on site. But what this message told me was that the policy was based not on a business or practical necessity, but on a virtue, a belief that this is how people should be. It says they are more interested in a culture based on “hanging out with each other” than on “getting things done.” It says that to succeed in that culture, one must be someone that they like to hang out with. And this suggests how cultures of forced togetherness go beyond just wiping out the boundaries between work and the rest of one’s life, but also how the monoculture of Silicon Valley is perpetuated. If one is looking for “people we love to hang out with”, one is probably going to hire people that share a similar set of backgrounds, styles, and personalities. Hence, we find bands of mostly young men of white, Indian, and East Asian backgrounds who perpetuate college dorm life into their post-collegiate adulthood.
Of course, these are just simply two anecdotes, along with the concept writ large in Facebook’s Willow Village. I hope to dive deeper in these phenomena in future articles for the “Forced Togetherness Fridays” series, along with some positive stories of how things can go right instead of wrong with only a few cultural changes. And I welcome thoughts from others as I move forward, either sharing your own stories of forced togetherness in the workplace, or even counter-arguments in its favor. Until then, I plan to enjoy some quiet time working hard, by myself with just my cat for company.