Thursday, July 22, 2010

Who is Bing Crosby?

There is nothing in the world I wouldn't do for Hope, and there is nothing he wouldn't do for me... We spend our lives doing nothing for each other. -- Bing Crosby

A wonderful crooner was born in Tacoma on May 3, 1903. I've long loved his melodic voice so it was pretty neat to find the home Bing Crosby was born in as I strolled through the North Slope historic district.

The large two-story home with a manicured lawn looks awfully modern so I'm sure it has been renovated and repainted over the years. But.... it used to be Bing Crosby's house! His father (Harry Lincoln) built it high on a hill that overlooks the Sound. It sits right across from the Church of St. Patrick, which makes sense since Crosby's family was of the working-class Catholic Irish-Anglo variety. A side street near the home at 1112 N. J Street is still cobblestone, though the other streets in the neighborhood are asphalt.

The house is a blueish-gray color with pristine white trim. Rose
bushes grow on the side of the house and a set of cement stairs lead to a wide porch. A bronze plaque reading
"Birthplace of Harry Lillis 'Bing' Crosby
May 2, 1904
Placed by Sons of the American Revolution"
is inset in a step.

Now, astute readers may notice the difference in birth dates. There was a long-running dispute over when Bing was actually born
because a birth certificate was never issued. His official biography and gravestone at Holy Cross Cemetery in Los Angeles list May 2, 1904, but Decca Records (the only label Bing ever recorded with) purports May 3, 1903 is his real birth date because that's what the superstar's baptismal certificate shows.

Bing's parents moved him and his seven siblings to Spokane in 1906.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Under the sea at Sunrise

“Roll on, deep and dark blue ocean, roll. Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain. Man marks the earth with ruin, but his control stops with the shore.” --Lord Byron

Sunrise Beach is a stunning hideaway that I will probably never be intimately acquainted with. It's a marine preserve on Colvos Passage, north of Gig Harbor, that seems to be popular with scuba divers. Unfortunately, I could only see the beauty above the water.

A steep, narrow trail winds its way from the dirt parking lot to the top of a hill with spectacular views, but
that's about all the walking you can get in. And since stinging nettle seems to have invaded that forest, I decided to keep to the beach.

On the other side of the parking lot, a grassy slope leads down to a sign bragging that the largest octopuses on the West Coast live there. The grass drops onto a thin strip of beach covered in smooth pebbles and bits of timber. Three wooden posts stand in the shallow water, forming a wide doorway leading nowhere. But there are sweeping views of Vashon Island, Mount Rainier, Point Defiance and the Tacoma Narrows bridge. A blanket of trees looms over the beach, sheltering those who come to sit on the logs and gaze out at the water.

The land is owned by Pierce County, all 82 acres of it. It has a 2,400-foot waterfront but several houses dotting the beach form boundaries for visitors.

Divers are warned about a unique and rapidly changing tide, which
escorts an interesting array of mini sea creatures and kelp onto the shore. I'm told there is a kelp-forested wall 35 feet beneath the water and a second wall 80 feet down where friendly wolf eels make their dens. Maybe one day I'll see for myself.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bridge of bragging rights

Praise the bridge that carried you over. -- George Colman

I was high today. High on my new job, and high on the top of a bridge that most people have only seen from the ground level. I got a personal tour of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge, which included riding a tiny elevator up a tower and climbing three ladders to reach the top at 510 feet. My ultimate destination was a small rectangle of cement where the only color was a red flashing light that warns passing planes to keep their distance and the mint green main cables that extend down the mile-long suspension bridge connecting Tacoma and the Kitsap Peninsula.

I had envisioned whipping winds and chilly temperatures but there was nothing more than a thin white mist that hid portions of the nearby homes and lent Mount Rainier an air of mystery. I could see for miles, from Mount Hood in northern Oregon to Mount Ellinor in the Olympics.

The new bridge opened in 2007 (today is its third anniversary) to ease traffic congestion and cut down on the number of collisions that further bottlenecked the bridge. It may be more modern than its infamous twin but the experience was titillating nonetheless. To the right is the tower that I stood on for more than an hour today, marveling at the abilities of man.

The Narrows is sometimes called "Galloping Gertie" because the original bridge collapsed in November 1940, four months after it opened to the fanfare of being the third largest bridge of its kind at the time. Forty mile winds twisted and turned the swaying bridge until large chunks broke apart and sank in the Sound. Shockingly, the only victim was a cocker spaniel named Tubby who belonged to a copy editor at The News Tribune. (Watch the footage here.) It was another 10 years before they rebuilt the bridge.

My adventure started in a tiny metal box (also called an elevator) with three men crammed in alongside me. The ride, which lasted roughly two minutes, was cramped and the elevator continuously creaked and shook during the ascent. Its door swung open into an enclosed area of the bridge tower and I had to hoof it up a yellow bridge to another cement tunnel. There, a second ladder took me up onto a platform where my jaw literally dropped in amazement. The tower is made of 8,500 cubic yards concrete and 2.9 million pounds of reinforcing steel. It's massive. And I was standing on top of it.

I couldn't help leaning over the waist-high cement barrier to gaze below at the shimmering waters that I had already seen were full of jellyfish and tide pools. But as beautiful as the views were, I was captivated with the bridge and the engineering feat it must have been.

I was there to write a story about sure-footed men who harnessed themselves in and teetered on a 20-inch wide cable hundreds of feet above the water. They are tasked with repainting tons of bubbles that havesurfaced and draining water that has accumulated in the pairs of suspension cables. When I asked one guy why he did it, he said it was for the "Benjamins." I think I would do it just for the view, the thrill, the bragging rights...

Link to my story to follow once it is published.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What is 10-feet, 4-inches long?

"I hate small towns because once you've seen the cannon in the park there's nothing else to do." -- Lenny Bruce, comedian

Everything in Tacoma has meaning. Hidden gems are as easy to stumble over as a crack in the sidewalk, as I discovered during a jog through Wright Park. On the outskirt of this rather large, rather busy park nestled in a historic neighborhood, sits a large rusted cannon that seemed out of place among the nearby basketball courts, botanical garden and pond where couples sat playing chess or watching the sun slowly lower in the sky.

Runners on the path didn't give it a second glance and men walking their dogs strolled right past. But something about
the splotches of blue/green color I can best describe as sea foam drew me to the 4,500-pound bronze cannon that I later learned had been used during the Spanish-American War. It rested on a four-wheeled iron platform, was secured with a thin metal strip and had concrete stuffed into the opening of the cannon about three inches in.

In 1898, it was apparently captured from Morro Castle in Havana, Cuba. How strange that it found its way more than 2,000 miles to a city park in Washington where most people probably have no idea what role it played in history. Word has it that some pranksters loaded it with rocks in 1963 and tried to fire it, hence the bright idea to silence it forever with chunks of eroding concrete.

Aside from that attempt, the cannon hasn't been shot in more than a century. At the dedication ceremony on July 4, 1900, the
cannon fired its last shot in response to a "sunrise salute" from the battleship USS Iowa, which was the first U.S. ship to spot and fire at the Spaniards, touching off the Battle of Santiago. (The 11,346-ton battleship is now at the bottom of the Gulf of Panama, where it sank in 1923 after becoming target practice for the USS Mississippi.)

The cannon has several engravings, some of which are too faded to make out, some of which I simply can't make sense of. My best guess of what it on the back rim goes something like this: N 1362 SEVILLA 23 DE JULIO DE 1784. Above that was an embossing topped with a crown.

A large brown knob protruded from the back of the cannon, about the size of an overripe grapefruit, and there were two handles in the center, presumably where some soldier had held on for dear life as the war boomed around him. If inanimate objects could only tell their stories....

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Up, up, up to see Mt. Rainier

"Of all the fire mountains which like beacons, once blazed along the Pacific Coast, Mount Rainier is the noblest." -- John Muir

Some people have been surprised that I "got on the mountain" almost immediately after moving to Tacoma. And I think, why wait? This is one of the biggest perks of living here. And so, I arrived with plans to climb the Rampart Ridge, a 5-mile loop that promised a vista with breathtaking views of Mount Rainier.

The climb started gradual enough from the Trail of Shadows. I took in the canopy of evergreens gently swaying in the breeze and the manicured forest. After 15 minutes or so, I realized my back was drenched in sweat and I was panting. Little did I know,
the trail gains 1,339 feet in elevation and I had chosen the steeper side to march up. I hunkered down and put one foot in front of the other, trying to focus on other things like whether the chocolate in my trail mix would still be edible in this heat. (It was.) Tree roots snaking across the dirt path seemed to be reaching up for my hiking boots, the same boots that served me well in Iceland but were failing me now. I could feel the beginnings of four massive blisters. Then a wooden post told me I had just three miles left. The trail evened out and I practically skipped the next 1.2 miles to the vista, swatting away mosquitoes and gnats as I went.

The vista was worth the hike. I came out of the forest and the snow-capped Mountain
was just peeking out from behind tufts of billowy white clouds that resembled cotton candy. A valley of evergreens was below and shadows danced across the hillsides to the west. I plopped down on a boulder and pulled out my trail mix for a celebratory snack. It was then that a white bird dive bombed me, snatching the bag right out of my hand. I turned to see a Gray Jay in the shrubs directly behind me, staring daringly at me with beady black eyes as I reached to retrieve my food. (After all, it had chocolate in it.) Although he invited two friends to monitor the situation and they remained inches above my head as I ate, they were unsuccessful in maneuvering me out of my hard-earned snack. Downhill was a snap (although I got two more blisters on my toes) and I asked a park ranger to suggest a 5 or 6 mile hike to complete my afternoon. But while I desperately wanted to see Comet Falls(the most popular hike in the park) and trounce through the snow, I knew my blisters couldn't hold up to a 2,200 foot elevation gain.

Instead, I settled on the 2.2 mile hike to Carter Falls and Madcap Falls because the elevation only gained 500 feet. To get there, you must cross a glacial river on a thin board with only one railing. Seemed simple enough to me. I patiently waited as a father escorted his young boy, who was inching forward and staring at the rushing water below. Then it was the mother's turn, who made it halfway before freezing (presumably in fear) and staring wide-eyed at her husband until he came and helped her across.

The hike was nothing special, although it was a treat to hear the moving water nearby. I paused momentarily at a little waterfall that could kind of be seen from a railing and then kept going, eager to reach the ultimate destination. After another mile, as I happened upon a campground, it dawned on me that the "little waterfall" must have been Carter/Madcap Falls so I turned around and headed back to investigate. I still stand by the assessment that the falls were so small and unimpressive that they aren't much worth stopping at. But by the time I emerged from the forest, all clouds had been swept away from Mount Rainier and it stood in all its glory.

End count: nine miles.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Choose your own adventure

It is not so much for its beauty that the forest makes a claim upon men's hearts, as for that subtle something, that quality of air that emanation from old trees, that so wonderfully changes and renews a weary spirit. ~Robert Louis Stevenson

The forest at Dash Point State Park offers 11 miles through which you can stroll by Cedars, Douglas Firs, Birches and Spruces, among others.
No fence separates the park from surrounding neighborhoods. In fact, there are at least six spots where residents can literally step into their backyards and enter the forest. It doesn't seem to draw a lot of foot traffic though; in four hours, I saw only three others.

Armed with a trail map from the spring of 2008, I ventured onto the Upper Loop Trail Head and immediately came across a host of berry
bushes. To my disappointment, they were not ripe for the picking. I found myself on Fern Alley and swung a right on Shannon's Shin before I hit Boundary Trail, which can actually be taken all the way to the beach for those who prefer to walk three miles rather than drive across the street.

Now, one thing to note about hiking here is that it takes a while to realize that signs marking the trailheads were a passing thought. It is not uncommon to come to a four-way intersection and turn in every direction, wondering which way is which. I learned to look up and every so often, a small wooden sign
nailed to a tree trunk would reassure me that I was on some path marked on the map. But more often than not, I felt like I was back in a "Choose Your Own Adventure" book, randomly deciding whether to turn left or right or stay on the same path.

It was that kind of careless deciding making that led me to Log Jam, which had a diamond next to it on the map, indicating it was "most difficult." Although it wound its way over a few obstacles, it was a standard trail and dumped me out on Imba, another "most difficult" that did have a
steeper incline but took me by some of the daintiest wildflowers. They were white, barely the size of my pinkie fingernail and each of its four petals had four tiny purple lines on them.

The Ridge Trail lured me to the Night Crawler, which was really just a big loop that brought me back to where I came from. I chose Paul's Trail next (because it was marked) and then the Down Hill, followed closely by the aptly named Heart Attack Hill. Enough said.

Sand beach is a big find

For whatever we lose (like a you or a me),
It's always our self we find in the sea.
~e.e. cummings

The windy road leading in to Dash Point State Park slopes down and peaks around a sharp curve to reveal -- the first sand beach I've seen in Washington!! It's just a sliver of sand, separated by a row of whitened timber from mocha-colored, compacted mud that stretches down to the Puget Sound. A creek runs a zig-zagged path through the mud where kids seem perfectly content plowing through the water, splashing cool droplets in their face.

Signs here tell visitors that clam season is closed, to beware of toxic shellfish, sand dollars are protected animals and to seek high ground if an earthquake causes a tsunami.

The beach is different than what I'm used to in Southern California. String bits of kelp blanket the sand and children chase crows rather than seagulls. Water moves quicker, too. I left my flip flops and small cooler about 10 feet from the water so I could wade out and when i looked back three minutes later, they were floating. The Sound felt tepid at first, almost like a warm bath, but the temperature started to cool the farther out I walked. There weren't many seashells and one could walk out some distance with the water barely nipping their knees.

Dash Point State Park, which I arrived at after a scenic 21-minute drive around the Sound, encompasses 398 acres and is open for hiking, camping, picnicking or playing at the beach. The shoreline extends 3,301 feet and it's most common to see bullhead, cod, starfish and red snapper.

The trailheads were across the street at the campground, near spots 23 and 87.

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Nothing graceful about Swan Creek

Adopt the pace of nature: her secret is patience. ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Patience is something I didn't have much of today. It was my first real day to explore and I chose Swan Creek Trail because a book at Barnes & Noble promised a 4-mile trek through a forest. I even double checked online, where Metro Parks Tacoma showed three pictures of a meandering creek and told me that $1 million in improvements were being made.

The 322-acre park looked like what I was after. It was close to home so I didn't have to spend much time on the jam-packed freeways. Established in 1966, hikers could travel a trail that circled a sediment pond and gain 400 feet in elevation. I grabbed my white sneakers and jumped in the car, beaming with happiness and excitement about my first jaunt outdoors.

It was a nightmare. Forget patience. I was like a tea kettle slowly gathering steam. My GPS found a Pioneer Way in nearby Gig Harbor and I went there first, taking a short drive by the water before realizing that I had been duped and was in the wrong city all together. I paid my $4 toll fee to return to Tacoma... where I was promptly stopped in slow crawling traffic on the 16. Washington may have a reputation for being cool and overcast, but today it was pushing 90 degrees and the blazing sun was beating down on my face as I sat in my convertible with the top down.

I finally made it to the 167 and veered right like my directions instructed. I was keeping one eye fixed on the GPS map as I neared Swan Creek County Park, the other eye scanning for a sign pointing me in the right direction. There were no signs and frustratingly, my map showed me driving an arm's reach from the park. After nearly an hour of zooming up side roads, trying to find my way, I stopped at the 76 gas station and asked for help. The girl behind the counter shrugged helplessly and told me there was no park here. Hopes of a relaxing day-hike had dissipated but determination won over and I turned around to find the damn park. At the height of frustration, I yanked the wheel to the right to study the map one last time and found myself in a tiny gravel lot. An old faded sign on the other side announced that here, in fact, was Swan Creek County Park.

After parking and grabbing my picnic lunch, I opened my door and caught the eye of two disheveled, unwashed men that made me feel like I had transported to a redneck region where teeth were a luxury. One taunted me with whips about how my mama must have never let me out of our "high house on the hill" before. The other just stared. I was uneasy, about leaving my car next to these men and about walking onto an unknown path where they clearly could see I was headed.

Hunger won out. I slipped on my pack and started walking, ignoring the catcalls in the background. Still uncomfortable, I stopped at the mouth of the trail where three women were playing with their dogs in a deep pool of muddy water. I sat on the bench and pulled out my sandwich, making small talk with one of the ladies who warned me not to walk too far on the trail because it was overrun with tweakers.

Lovely. I had picked a winner.

As I debated what to do with the remainder of the dwindling day, the big-mouthed creep from the parking lot showed up and seemed surprised that I had only made it this far on the trail. I nodded noncommittally and stared straight ahead, hoping he'd go about his business. But it quickly became clear that he had headed this way looking for me so I waved goodbye to the women and snapped open my cell phone, practically sprinting back to my car with him moseying right behind.

Nature did not reveal herself to me today, or share any secrets that could help me find my way. That's the thing, as Ralph Waldo Emerson reminded me. I need patience.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Too much beauty not to share

I believe that there is a subtle magnetism in Nature, which, if we unconsciously yield to it, will direct us aright. ~Henry David Thoreau

As I build a new life in the Pacific Northwest, stresses and worries and an ever-growing list of things that must be done keep me flitting to and fro.

Then I lift my head.

Everywhere I look, there is the calming green of trees, the vibrant spontaneity of colorful wildflowers, the tranquil waters of the Puget Sound and Commencement Bay and dozens of creeks and rivers I haven't put a name to yet.

I've decided there is too much beauty here to waste my time fretting over how things will unfold. And there is so much beauty that I want to share it with all of you.

And so, the blog will track my path as I discover the treasures of the wilderness and learn about my new hometown.