America I’ve given you all and now I’m obese

(my deepest apologies to Allen Ginsberg)

Well, I’m far from obese, but after a recent three week visit to the states I did manage to put on nearly 5 lbs. Fortunately, back in Spain – back to my regular daily routine – it only took me a month to return to my normal weight (of 186 lbs on a 6 foot 4 ¾ inch frame). I’ll be 40 years old in a couple of months and the ol’ metabolism isn’t what it used to be. I have to start paying a bit more attention to this kind of stuff. Ah, it’s so much fun getting older. But I digress…

All the home-cooked meals (my mother’s biscuits and gravy, blueberry pancakes, pulled pork sandwiches, fresh corn on the cob slathered in butter), the roadside diners (the massive plate of creamed chipped beef on the breakfast menu at the Keystone Diner within walking distance – Walking? What’s that? – of my parents’ house), the fast food joints (the massive bacon cheeseburger I ate at a Wendy’s in California and for Chrissake… I won’t deny it – it was absolutely delicious), the Italian restaurants in Philly (especially the linguini Abruzzi at Villa di Roma), all the new Asian restaurants in Bucks County, PA (When did this happen? I can still taste the spicy tuna and the eel sauce on that Godzilla roll from Kabuke Japanese Steak House a month later), the taquerías in San Francisco (you haven’t lived until you’ve had the alambres – chunks of beef steak, onions, peppers, bacon, rice, beans and tortillas – at Taquería Cancún), the backyard cookout my parents organized so all my aunts and uncles and cousins  and all  their little  kids I  had never been introduced to before (and whose names I have already forgotten) could see me for a few hours (and more importantly, so my cousin P’s wife C could bring me one of her “world famous – locally!” strawberry rhubarb pies)…

In the end, it all proved to be too much for my stomach to handle (and apparently, looking back at that last “paragraph”, a little too much for proper sentence structure to handle. What a mess…) God bless the doggy bag! And God bless the hotel mini-fridge! Nothing beats a cold, half-eaten burrito mojado – that would be Taquería Cancún’s special “Wetback Burrito” – at 3 a.m. to help ease the inevitable pain of the following morning’s hangover courtesy of the insanely overpriced cocktails from the bar on the 19th floor of the Top of the Mark Hotel. Oh, and just in case I ever decide to run for office: God bless the United States of America!

Al pasto burrito Cancun Taqueria

It tastes a helluva lot better than it looks

It was a different kind of eating than I’m used to in Extremadura. Sure, I regularly eat things here in Spain that make people back home physically ill just at the mention of them: morros (fried pig face), callos (tripe), rabo de cerdo (stewed pig tail). But I eat these things like a Spaniard – just a few bites washed down with a glass of wine. Then you wipe your mouth and fling your napkin on the floor so as not to stand out from the crowd. I’d been away  from  the  US  for  a couple of years and my gut was not prepared for the fact that every meal is like a training session for a competitive eating contest.

Anyway, we did do a few other things (to fill the time between meals) while we were in the US. After a few days on the East Coast getting over the jet lag we flew to San Francisco. We did the typical tourist schlep: Coit Tower, Chinatown, Union Square, Mission Dolores, Fisherman’s Wharf, City Hall, the Presidio and Golden Gate Bridge, as well as a trip to the Legion of Honor Museum and, of course, City Lights Books. (I was pleasantly surprised that Hitchcock’s Vertigo, with scenes of James Stewart and Kim Novak filmed at Mission Dolores and the Legion of Honor Museum, was an inflight movie option on the way back to Spain.)

After two days in the city Lola and I took a train an hour south to Mountain View where Z, a Spanish friend of ours, is working for a large tech company that shall remain nameless. The other day somebody asked me what my favorite part of our trip to the US was. I have to say it’s a two way tie between Book Buyers and Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve.

Book Buyers is an amazing secondhand bookstore in Mountain View. I was down on my hands and knees in some dark corner searching for an Alan Watts book for one of my students back in Spain when Lola came up behind me and nonchalantly said, “I found an old book about dulcimers.” I got my hands on an Appalachian mountain dulcimer/banjo hybrid about a year ago and have become slightly obsessed with the instrument. I’ve been reading up on the history of the dulcimer online and I’m learning how to play by watching videos on YouTube. When Lola said she found a dulcimer book I shot up so fast I lost my balance and nearly  fell down.

“Let’s see it!”

“It’s over there somewhere.”

“You didn’t bring it with you?”

“No, but it’s just over there…” She looked around, a bit unsure. Book Buyers is enormous and every square inch of the place is crammed with books. “I’m pretty sure it was over in that direction.”

I started to break out in a cold sweat. I followed her through a few aisles as she tried to remember where she had seen the book. After a few minutes I was beginning to lose hope of ever seeing it when, “Ah! It was over here!”

She led me into another corner where a massive bookshelf overflowing with sheet music and biographies of musicians and composers sagged under the weight of its contents. We dug around a bit and Lola yelled, “Here it is!” She handed me a pristine secondhand copy of Jean Ritchie’s The Dulcimer Book (Oak Publications, 1974) which had two square plastic flexi discs  (referred to in the book as “Sound Sheets”) still attached to the inside front cover. The flexi discs had never been played! Price: 3 dollars! I had seen the book mentioned online in mountain dulcimer forums as being one of the best books on the subject, but also as being a bit hard to track down. I couldn’t believe my luck.

In Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve in Guerneville, CA we spent a couple hours walking through a forest of redwoods. Plain and simple. And glorious. Just a dirt trail weaving in and out of trees that are as tall as a football field is long. The oldest tree in the park, known as the Colonel Armstrong Tree (named after the lumberman who preserved part of the park) is roughly 1,400 years old. It boggles the mind to be standing at the foot of a tree that was roughly 600 years old when the Magna Carta was issued. Two years ago, on our previous trip to CA, we walked through Muir Woods and that was pretty awe inspiring so we knew what to expect. However, Armstrong Reserve was much more peaceful and significantly less crowded than Muir Woods due to Muir Woods’ proximity to San Francisco (only 12 miles north of the city). I don’t want to get all hippy dippy New Age on you, but it really is a profound experience – dare I say, almost a religious experience – when you’re walking amongst all those massive, ancient trees.

2014-09-07 052

Armstrong Redwoods State Natural Reserve

We spent two nights with Z and his wife in Mountain View. He gave us a tour of the large tech company that shall remain nameless (it’s really not that hard to figure out) which was… bizarre. Walking through the hallways of Z’s building we passed a bunch of guys playing games on old video arcade machines and a bunch of other guys watching a football match on an enormous screen while eating pizza. Z assured me they were hard at work. As we turned down another corridor Z said, “Ice cream?” There was a do-it-yourself soft ice cream machine sitting in the middle of the hallway. I grabbed a cone and pulled the lever. I started fishing around in my pocket for some coins.

“What are you doing, man? It’s free.”

“You’re shitting me.”

“If you think this is cool, wait until we go to the cafeteria for lunch. Everything is free.”


“Didn’t you see The Internship?”


“With Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson?”

“Never heard of it, but now I’ll take extra special care to avoid it.”

In the cafeteria I was in heaven. (Talking about food again…) I grabbed a plate and stood in line for sushi. I grabbed another plate and stood in line for a burrito. Then I grabbed another plate and got some pizza. Everything was free. And it was surprisingly good food. The large tech company that shall remain nameless really knows how to take care of its employees (and their guests). After lunch we drove over to another building where Lola had an appointment. We thought about taking the bikes that are parked everywhere for employees to get around the complex, but we were too damn stuffed. We arrived early for Lola’s appointment but they were ready for her anyway. The large tech company that shall remain nameless was looking for native Spanish speakers with different accents willing to record their voices in order to help improve voice activated programs, apps, etc.

They stuck Lola in a recording studio with a list of nearly 300 phrases that she had to say into a microphone. We could watch her on a little screen, but she couldn’t see us. She was in there for about 30 minutes and we could see her start to get fidgety about 15 minutes into it. When she finished, the engineer – a big, bubbly woman with a bizarre accent that I couldn’t place – led her over to a table and said she could pick out a t-shirt for her participation. Lola was slightly disappointed there wasn’t a t-shirt that read, “I spent half an hour in a hot, stuffy, poorly ventilated recording studio at (name of large tech company that shall remain nameless) and all I got was this lousy t-shirt”.

Afterwards we went to get a coffee in an adjacent building. There was a completely functional coffeehouse in there, but no employees. It was all self service. We grabbed some coffee, some fresh fruit, some chocolate bars and bottles of water (again, all free) and sat down at a table. Then  Z  attempted to explain to us exactly what it is he does at his job, but it made absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. Complete gibberish. Then we went back to Z’s place and ate some of the jamón we smuggled into the country for him.

The following day we drove north to Sonoma where we met up with my parents. I learned something important about myself in Sonoma: apparently I’m one of those assholes who enjoys wine tastings. Then Z and his wife returned to Mountain View and we drove even further north to Mendocino and Fort Bragg with my parents. At a secondhand bookstore in Mendocino I found a couple of issues of WEIRDO from the mid-1980s for a few bucks a piece, and in a thrift store in Fort Bragg I found a copy of Black Sun: The Brief Transit and Violent Eclipse of Harry Crosby by Geoffrey Wolff for a buck!  (Put this down and go look up Harry Crosby on Wikipedia right now. Go ahead. I’ll wait…)

Lola got quite a shock at Cowlick’s Hand Made Ice Cream in Fort Bragg when she asked for a waffle cone with two scoops. She’s used to asking for two scoops in Spain and getting exactly that – two little scoops of ice cream. At Cowlick’s the spotty faced teenager working the counter managed to pack nearly half a gallon of ice cream into a waffle cone the size of a traffic cone. Lola gets stressed out about wasting food so she tried to eat the whole thing, but about halfway through she had to admit defeat. Lucky for her, she married a human garbage disposal. So I ate the rest of it, but only after first downing my own root beer float the size of a mini-van. (Lola also learned the phrase, “I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream!” at Cowlick’s so, all in all, the visit was a success.)


Bathroom curtains in our B&B, Fort Bragg, CA.

Less than three hours later we had a dinner reservation at a seafood place down by the wharf – where we watched seals playing in the wake of the returning fishing boats – and Glory be to God you should have seen the quantity of seafood tacos I consumed. And I’ll never forget the 12 beer sampler my father and I ordered to wash it all down with (and neither will the waitress who brought it to our table.) It’s a freakin’ miracle I’m still alive…

On our last day in California, on the way south to the San Francisco airport, we stopped at Jack London State Historic Park in Glen Ellen and had a look around. Walking through the House of Happy Walls and looking at the photos of Jack and his wife Charmian (what a great name) as they travelled the world together and seeing all the first editions of the books he wrote – over 20 novels, over 20 short story collections, over 20 books of non-fiction and essays, and more than 40 books of poetry – I realized that I hardly knew anything about one of America’s most famous writers. I’ve never read either one of his most famous books – The Call of the Wild or White Fang. The only London books I’ve read are:

The Road (1907): an autobiographical memoir about his time as a hobo when the US economy was in the can in the 1890s. He hops freight trains, panhandles, and spends a month in jail for vagrancy.

The People of the Abyss (1903): a first-hand account of life on the streets of London’s East End. Jack slept on the streets and in workhouses and recorded the experiences of the city’s roughly 500,000 poor and destitute. This is one of the most depressing books I’ve ever read. George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London owes a big debt to this book.

The Iron Heel (1908): a dystopian novel about the rise of a vicious oligarchy which allowed London to display his socialist views. George Orwell cited this book as an influence on his own Nineteen Eighty-Four.

The number of books London wrote is astonishing when you realize that he died at the age of 40. It doesn’t even seem like enough time for a writer to accumulate the amount of rejection letters he received (over 600) from publishers.


Jack London in 1903

London had quite an unconventional start in life. His mother was a spiritualist who claimed to be able to channel the spirit of an Indian chief. When she was pregnant with Jack, the father demanded she have an abortion. She refused. The father abandoned her. She shot herself, but wasn’t seriously injured. She gave birth and turned baby Jack over to Virginia Prentiss, an ex-slave. A short time later, Jack’s mother married a disabled Civil War veteran, John London, and brought Jack home.

There was a loud, annoying middle aged guy in the museum walking around explaining all the important moments in Jack London’s life to his wife. (As if she couldn’t just read the captions in the display cases like everybody else. Hell, that’s all he was doing!) At one point he loudly told her (now that I think about it, she may have been a bit hard of hearing…) that London had committed suicide.


“Oh? No, I didn’t know that.”

I didn’t know that, either. So I started reading all the information in the exhibits more carefully. Where the hell does it say that he committed suicide? I didn’t think it sounded right and I didn’t see anything in the museum which mentioned suicide. On London’s death certificate it states that he died of uremia which is apparently excruciatingly painful. Jack was also suffering from dysentery and late stage alcoholism towards the end and was taking morphine. When I got home I did some research (read: I checked Wikipedia) and there is some speculation that he may have intentionally overdosed on morphine due to the physical pain he was suffering.

As we walked down a secluded path to Jack and Charmian’s grave site we passed a sign telling visitors to: “Make plenty of noise while you hike so as to reduce the chances of surprising a lion.” This left me feeling a bit uneasy, to say the least. The couple’s ashes are buried under a large moss-covered boulder a few steps away from the graves of two pioneer children – David and Lilly Greenlaw. The story goes that one day Jack and Charmian stumbled upon the graves while riding around their property. The boy’s grave was marked 1876, the year Jack London was born. He felt strangely moved by the lonely place where the children were buried and asked Charmian to place his ashes there if he passed away before she did. There was a sign warning visitors of an active wasp nest in the vicinity. Sure enough, there was a massive wasp nest hanging from a tree branch over the pioneer grave site.


A short walk then brought us to the Wolf House or, I should say, the ruins of the Wolf House. The 15,000 square foot, 26-room mansion (with 9 fireplaces!) was built exclusively using materials native to the area. Construction began on the house in 1910 and was nearly finished in August of 1913 when the place burned to the ground shortly before the family was to move in. Arson was initially suspected, but nowadays the experts believe the fire was caused by spontaneous combustion. It had been an extremely hot day and linseed oil had just been applied to the cabinets and woodwork. Some of the workers had been reprimanded for their carelessness in handling flammable liquids and materials. There were oil-soaked cotton rags lying around the place. The fact that some of the windows were not yet installed, letting in lots of fresh air to feed the fire, didn’t help either. The tile roof collapsed and the interior of the house was completely gutted by the fire. The stone walls are all that remain standing. On the way back to the parking lot we passed a “Beware of Rattlesnakes” sign. Mountain lions, spooky solitary pioneer graves, wasp nests, suicide and now rattlesnakes… this place has some bad juju.

“Life is not always a matter of holding good cards, but sometimes, playing a poor hand well.”   -Jack London


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