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MY LIFE WITH PLANTS: Do you know the way to San Jose?

By Jim Bishop.

In August of 1979, I loaded up my lime green Ford Galaxy 500 with my few worldly possessions and potted jade plant and set out from Austin Texas for San Jose California. My mother joined me on the drive. We took the Southern route of Interstate 10, then I-8 and Highway 1 up the California coast. We stopped for gas somewhere west of the Marfa Dry Line (Google it) and got odd stares from the gas station attendant as we stood with our arms outstretched and let the dry desert-breeze remove the last vestiges of Gulf Coast humidity. After 12 hours of driving we made it to El Paso. We'd never been to this part of Texas and had no idea that a mountain range went through the middle of town. The next day after a quick visit across the Rio Grande to Ciudad Juarez we continued west through the sage brush of southern New Mexico, through the giant rocks of Arizona, past Tucson to Casa Grande, Arizona. The monsoon season was in full swing. That night the rugged desert mountains were lit by jagged bolts of lightning striking the peaks. The next morning we took a side trip to Pacheco Peak State Park. It is all you imagine the Arizona living desert to be - rocky jagged peaks covered with a saguaro forest and a plethora of other desert plants. There were even semi-wild burros wandering around between the unbelievably tall cacti. Even though I was dreaming of California, the short desert experience left a big impression on me. I’ve wanted to return for closer look for decades and by the time you read this I’ll be doing just that on the Pacific Horticulture Tour of Tucson.

Interstate 8 east of the Laguna Mountains

After crossing the Colorado River, we assumed it was a straight, flat shot to San Diego. We were surprised by the giant sand dunes west of Yuma, after which I noticed I was pushing more on the gas and felt we must be climbing. Finally we started passing through the large piles of boulders on the backside of the Laguna Mountains and thought surely this must have been where the opening scene of the movie "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World"(1963) was filmed. As we came over the crest the hills started turning green and we got our first look at another plant community we were unfamiliar with -- chaparral. I noticed an abundance of bushes covered with dry looking white, pink and rust colored flowers. It would be many years later before I would learn that this is California buckwheat, Eriogonum.

We continued on past the I-8 trailer parks punctuated by giant palms and finally into San Diego. We stopped for lunch at the Jack in Box in Ocean Beach and marveled at a bike rider with a surfboard under his arm. We headed through Mission Bay Park and somehow ended up climbing the metal tower at Vacation Village (now Paradise Point) and gazed over the tropical gardens of the resort. From there we headed to La Jolla and wondered what had happened to the flat topped pines along La Jolla Boulevard. I now know they were Italian Stone pines (Pinus pinea) and grow this way naturally. We didn't understand the skinny gawky Washingtonia palms that line Prospect. We followed the signs up to the top of Mt. Soledad and stared in amazement at the view. Then we followed a road back to the freeway and again wondered what was wrong with the big open structured, grayish, pines that line the road (Torrey pines). In Texas, a drive to the beach means crossing miles of flat and swampy land before finally reaching the barren Gulf beaches—nothing like the gorgeous coastal scenery of Southern California. Dur sure weren't nuttin' like dis in Texas.

We ended the day in Newport Beach and stayed at college friend's apartment in Newport Beach. We were startled awake at sunrise by a horrible noise that sounded like an out of control lawn mower...but the apartment overlooked a large parking lot of the business next door, no grass there, but there was a huge dust cloud. This was my first encounter with the very unusual practice of blowing around the dust with a leaf blower. Who invented this noisy smelly monstrosity, and other than waking everyone up and coating my car with dust what purpose did it serve?

We packed up and headed north. I learned that the thick hazy air along the coast wasn't smog but was the "marine layer" and it would give way to sunshine by noon. We drove towards Santa Barbara under a very grey sky and saw little more than the freeway and lower part of steep hills where the 405 joins the 101. We knew nothing of Santa Barbara, and passed through without stopping. By the time we got to Gaviota, the sun was out and we could see the large mountains rising out of the ocean. We stopped at the Gaviota Pass rest stop and were impressed by the large gnarled California sycamores with white trunks with big noisy leaves being blown by the fierce winds in the pass. The large oaks looked a lot like the live oaks of Texas with odd bark. A sign on one said they had evolved thick bark to protect them from fire. Fire? Everything seemed so cool and green. We headed on through the rugged and jumbled hills of Central California. We took a quick side trip through Solvang. How odd...California had "theme" towns. We couldn't decide if this was cool or just weird. It was explained away as the impact of Disneyland on California. This would be trumped a short time later by a quick visit to the truly weird Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. I had to see the men's room urinal where I confirmed that the facilities were as promised a rock waterfall. Other than some of the odd architecture I found, and still do, that this area is one of the most charming, beautiful and uniquely Californian areas of the state.

The next morning we headed north on Highway 1 and entered another of California's unique landscapes. We stopped for a tour of Hearst Castle.It was more than just a little overwhelming. I kept thinking of the movie "Citizen Kane" , the Patty Hearst kidnapping and the free food distributions that her father had done to meet the Symboinese Liberation Army (SLA) demands for her release. The SLA had been wrong. I would have negotiated for the Castle in exchange for Tania's freedom. California certainly had a lot of odd contrasts. Still the architecture and grounds helped cement my view that everything in California should be Mediterranean.

We continued north through Big Sur and all the beauty of Highway 1. By the time we reached Monterey, where we planned to spend the night, it was dark. We did not understand California tourism and had no idea a reservation was a must for motel room on a Saturday night in August. We tried every motel in Salinas and along the 101 and finally near midnight ended up sleeping on a sofa bed in the conference room of the penthouse in the La Baron Hotel in San Jose. In odd twist of fate, 4 years later this would also be the same hotel I would spend my last night in San Jose before moving to San Diego.

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