Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Touring the Watts Towers

"I had in my mind I'm gonna do something, something big."

                                                   Simon Rodia


Although the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles will be remembered for the horrible race riots that occurred here in the the 1960's, people are beginning to associate Watts more and more with a renaissance of the arts.  Art galleries and music festivals are bringing the tourists back, and Watts Towers has become a gathering place for creativity and vision.  When my travel buddy and I toured this amazing art site a few weeks ago, we were joined by fellow art lovers from Germany and France.

Watts Towers is now on the National Register of Historic Places, but in my mind, it's not just a national treasure, but a global one.

These spires were the creation of one man and one man only--an Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia.  What makes a man, at the age of 42, spend the next 34 years of his life building such a crazy vision?  A construction worker by day and an artist by night.  Every free hour he spent building, welding and plastering.  He collected over 100,000 pieces of china shards, broken mirror pieces, rocks, shells, soda bottles, anything that caught his eye, to create a mosaic masterpiece.  Then in 1954, when he was done, he deeded his property to a neighbor and walked away, never to return again.  It's an obsession and a madness, yes, but also a brilliant piece of outsider art.  Man can create beauty in the most despairing of places. 
Not only are the spires all architecturally sound with flying buttresses and solid masonry, the artistry in the mosaic work is very beautiful.  Rodia used a technique called pique assiette where he embedded his shards quickly into drying mortar.  While I was more fascinated with this aspect of the towers, my travel buddy kept shaking his head at the engineering feat.  "One guy.  One guy did all this!" he kept repeating.  There are pictures inside the museum of Rodia climbing high above the ground to add another set of rings.  He was steady and fearless.

You can view the towers outside the surrounding fence, but to get inside for a closer look, you must take a tour.  Believe me, it's worth it.  The docent gives you an in depth biography of Simon Rodia's life.  He carried this vision with him to the states from his childhood in Ribottoli, Italy.  Similar (much smaller) spires used to sit on the shoulders of men as they paraded the streets during festivals.  Maybe.  Maybe not, I thought.  I think life had just become boring and sad.  A failed marriage.   A cookie-cutter house in a poor man's neighborhood.  The tragic death of a brother.  

  I begin this post with a quote of his:  I had in my mind I'm gonna do something, something big.  It is a reminder that all of us can think BIG.  No matter what.




Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Monday, March 24, 2014

Walking the Slot

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park



I walk far behind her on the narrow ledge of a Badlands trail.  We are on a quest.  A magical mystery tour to find an hallucinogenic beauty within these barren canyon walls.  We are on top of the world.  Then below.  In the hot sun.  Then the cold shadows.  We must hold our breath to squeeze through the gaps.  The Slot is a maze built by Mother Nature for the delight of her children.  On this Monday morning, my sister-in-law and I have this Wonder to ourselves.  We are in awe of its beauty, but also of the energy surrounding it.  We feel young. Once again.

Finding this place is not easy, even though it is one of the most popular hiking trails in the park.  A ranger at the Visitor's Center gave us very precise directions and he was right on.  From Christmas Circle in Borrego Springs, California, drive southwest on Borrego Springs Road and then turn left on Route 78.  "Go exactly 1.5 miles and turn left on a dirt road called Butte's Pass.  Park at the end of that road.  The Slot's just below."

I felt elated that we were the only ones out here.  Yesterday the trails were packed.  Today, they are empty. The weekend warriors are gone.  Now working behind desks in San Diego offices or maneuvering the freeways of L.A. that criss-cross each other like the warp and weft of a concrete carpet.  It seems like a miracle such a place, unspoiled by pollution and noise, exists only a few hour's drive away.
The light filters through the cracks above us, creating an alien world of orange and lemon light.  As we reach the end of the narrow wash and are hit with the hot white sun, we finally meet another pair of hikers.  We nod, say a few words, and hike on.  Our quest is not yet done.  We follow a jeep trail and then head back up the canyon to our car.  I finally say what I have been thinking all morning, "There is no place else I'd rather be."

My sister-in-law agrees.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Shopping in Julian

Although Julian, California, is famous for its apple pie, this small town just an hour's drive from San Diego, is a great place to shop for gifts and clothes.  My sister-in-law and I managed to drain our bank accounts a bit.  I went crazy over all the hats, but because there were so many to choose from, I ended up buying a lightweight summer sweater instead, which Mimi models below.  I love the color blocking.
Mimi's colleagues were professionally trained and lured us into their stores, one after the other.  I must confess this is one reason I love traveling with female companions.  They have no problem keeping up with me and prodding and poking around every single item in a store.  Shopping is always on my itinerary.  Mimi has pointed out that I only buy clothes now when I travel.  It's kind of fun to look in my closet and say.  "I got this in Cambria.  This is Temecula.  And this in Gunnison."

My closet is full of souvenirs!


Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Julian and Apple Pie

After two days of hiking in the Anza-Borrego State Park and sweating off two pounds, my sister-in-law and I decided we could afford to splurge on a big slice of apple pie.  Hikers had raved about Julian, so off we went, up the windy road to this tiny town in the Cuyamaca mountains.  Population:  1,500.

And man, oh man, was that pie good!  I had the natural, no sugar added plain apple pie with a cup of joe.  The apples were juicy and sweet; the crust, flaky and thick.   My hiking buddy had the boysenberry-apple crumb.  We exchanged bites, but went back to our own, eating in silence.   The pie was gone way too fast.  "Should we go for seconds?"    Very tempting, but we resisted.  We sat back and sighed, happy and contented as two over-pampered cats, sitting in the sun.


The Julian Historical Society has posted bronze plaques in front of many of the restored buildings.  The town was founded in 1869 by two confederate soldiers from Georgia who came out west to begin a new life and hopefully, to get rich from gold.  While most of these little towns were abandoned once the Gold Rush ended, this town remained alive due to a different kind of gold--the golden apple kind.  The 4,000 ft. elevation and rich soil made it a perfect environment for growing apples.  The variety and quality of the apple crop spread far and wide.  During the early 1900's, even when the town went "dry", its saloons remained open and prosperous.  Apple cider proved to be a satisfying substitute for whiskey.

  Even on a Monday afternoon, the bakeries and shops were filled with people.  We drove back down the mountain to a nearly empty Borrego-Springs.  Obviously, the most popular trail in this neck of the woods is The Apple Pie one!