Kim Weir

Host, Up the Road

Kim Weir, a former NSPR news reporter, is editor and founder of Up the Road, a nonprofit public-interest journalism project dedicated to sustaining the Northern California story. She is also an active member of the Society of American Travel Writers. North State Public Radio’s Up the Road program is jointly produced by Up the Road.

Zengame / Flickr

The Hearst San Simeon State Historic Monument on the coast just south of Big Sur ranks right up there with Disneyland as one of California’s premier tourist attractions. Somehow that fact alone puts the place into proper perspective. Media magnate William Randolph Hearst’s castle is a rich man’s playground filled to overflowing with artistic diversions and other expensive toys, a monument to one man’s monumental ego and equally impressive poor taste.

William Randolph Hearst was quite a wealthy and powerful man, the man many people still believe was the subject of the greatest American movie ever made, Orson Welles’s 1941 Citizen Kane. These days even Welles’s biographers say the movie was about the filmmaker himself. Still, there’s something to be said for popular opinion.

Jenny Marek / U.S. Department of Interior

We continue exploring Southern California’s Channel Islands this week, this time the five islands that make up Channel Islands National Park.

The discovery in 1994 of a complete fossilized skeleton of a pygmy or “dwarf” Channel Island mammoth meant big excitement. Scientists think this miniature species, just four to six feet tall, descended from woolly mammoths who swam over from the nearby coast during the Pleistocene.

Fuangg Photos / Flickr

We continue visiting Southern California’s Channel Islands this week. Privately owned Santa Catalina Island, once owned by William Wrigley, of chewing gum and Chicago Cubs fame, is the only truly populated island among Southern California’s eight Channel Islands.

Populated by humans, that is. Many of the rest are inhabited by, or surrounded by, such rare, endangered, and endemic species of animals and plants—endemic meaning, those found only here. So rare is Channel Islands biology that scientists describe the Channel Islands, collectively, as North America’s Galápagos, a reference to those islands in time, in Ecuador, where Charles Darwin demonstrated the evolutionary process of natural selection.

Dave Mathhews / Flickr

This week we head up the road to Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay, unofficially known as The Rock, where countless bad guys did their time in the former federal prison there.

Visiting Alcatraz is like touring the dark side of the American dream, like peering into democracy’s private demon hold. At Alcatraz, freedom is a fantasy. If crime is a universal option—and everyone behind bars at Alcatraz exercised that option—then all who once inhabited this desolate island penitentiary were certainly equal.

John Loo / Flickr

We continue touring California’s islands with a visit to Angel Island, a state park that’s also part of the Bay Area’s Golden Gate National Recreation Area.

Now is a perfect time to visit Angel Island, given the political dramas being staged along the southern U.S. border and their wrenching human consequences. This is hardly the first time in U.S. history that nativist sentiments have reached fevered political pitch. Something quite similar once happened here, at a facility still sometimes known as the “Ellis Island of the West.”

Eric Davis / U.S. Fish And Wildfire Service

To kick off our California island tour, this week we head up the road to visit the Farallon Islands some 30 miles west of San Francisco’s Golden Gate. These wild granite islands and sea stacks, distance geological relations of the Sierra Nevada, are also known by mariners as the Devil’s Teeth Islands, out of respect for their deadly shoals. Many ships have run aground in these unfriendly, roiling waters. Native Americans from around the Bay knew them as the Islands of the Dead, where the spirits of the dead could abide.

But life—abundant, wild, sea-going life—is the defining feature of the Farallon Islands, which Bay Area natives also knew.

Bon Doran / Flickr

This a perfect time for heading up the road, what with fewer fellow travelers, fall colors, and cool weather that’s not yet wet.

For autumn road trips, California classics include Hwy. 1 along the coast, just about any stretch from Santa Barbara north, and U.S. 395 along the eastern Sierra Nevada, from Mammoth to Lone Pine to Lake Tahoe, with so many stunning stops in between. 

Bruce Fingerhood / Flickr Creative Commons

 

We head Up the Road this week into the heart of the State of Jefferson and its once—and possibly future—capital, Yreka, and then continue on toward Oregon. It’s a good trip, one to work up a plan for, given that far northern California and southern Oregon also comprise the State of Jefferson, which almost came to be in the 1940s.

There’s something profoundly different about a place proud to be in a constant state of rebellion. That place would be California, which has generated more than 200 different independence proposals since statehood in 1850. The first serious attempts to break away came from thoroughly dissed Los Angeles, still a dusty cow town when the streets of San Francisco were almost literally paved with gold, after the gold rush.

Darron Birgenheier / Flickr

“Lonely as God and white as a winter moon.” That’s how 19th-century writer Joaquin Miller described Mount Shasta, California’s most majestic mountain. So it still is.

Shasta is California’s fifth-highest peak but more impressive than any other—perpetually snow-covered, glowing orange, pink, and purple at sunset, casting shadows on the lava lands below. Sometimes clearly visible from as far away as 150 miles, close up Shasta is more obscure, mysterious.

Tosh Chiang / Flickr

  

 

We head up the road this week in search of cool once again. To the mountains this time—lonely Lassen Volcanic National Park, fully accessible only in summer and early fall.

But do cultivate a better sense of direction than the park’s namesake, Danish immigrant Peter Lassen. According to a journal entry by his friend, Gen. John Bidwell, Lassen “was a singular man, very industrious, very ingenious, and very fond of pioneering—in fact, of the latter, very stubbornly so. He had great confidence in his own power as a woodsman, but, strangely enough, he always got lost.” This almost led to his lynching on at least one occasion, when he confused Lassen and Shasta peaks while guiding a party of immigrants westward, taking them more than 200 miles out of their way. Oops.

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