Thursday, February 12, 2009

Rural California Above the Bay Area Bustle

I figured it was time to take a break from unpacking and rearranging my furniture. On Tuesday, I was out at Moffett Field, taking my parents grocery shopping at the commissary on this former Navy Base, and from the field you had a clear view southward of Mt. Hamilton, which had a nice little covering of snow. Atop Mt. Hamilton is Lick Observatory, one of the world's great astronomical observatories, now an adjunct to the University of California. Ah, said I, I feel a road trip coming on.

A photo of Lick Observatory on 2/11/09 from what it calls its Hamcam.

My father was always interested in astronomy, and once, when my sister and I were really little, the family went up to Lick Observatory on Mt. Hamilton after supper one evening. We must have been really young, because I think we went up the mountain in our jammies, and put on coats and shoes when we arrived. It was summer because it wasn't cold up there and we had daylight as we drove up. Later that night, I remember falling asleep in the back seat of our huge Chevrolet as it gently rocked us down the twisty road from the mountaintop to the valley and home.

Yesterday I went on the Lick Observatory Web site and learned that the building is no longer open at night to the public, except for special events in the summer. But it is open during the day to visitors, and there are tours until 5:00 p.m. I decided to start out after 9:00 a.m. to miss the South Bay commuter traffic.

Highway 130, the Mt. Hamilton Road, is at the southernmost end of the Santa Clara Valley, a few miles south of the city of San Jose. The suburbs have sprawled down historic Alum Rock Road and out to the highway turnoff. But then the world out the car window really begins to change.

There aren't too many places to snap a photo on this highway so I took advantage on any turnout I could find.

California has 38 million people and has an economy that is among the top ten in the world. It is a state that is as big and as rich as a nation. But in the foothills of Mt. Hamilton at the edge of San Francisco Bay there are no longer millions of people. There are acres and acres of land and only a handful of human beings.

A lonely farmhouse on the Mount Hamilton Road.

It is absolutely stunning to take the hairpin turns of the road built a century ago for the wagons that carried the original equipment up to the observatory. Stretched out below are the millions of people in the valley that spawned Google and Yahoo and Netscape and HP and Intel. And here, as the road winds upward is the rural California of old. At the turnoff to Highway 130 the sensor on my car's exterior said the temperature was 50 degrees (F) but as I climbed up the mountain the temperature dropped to 43(F). The top of Mt. Hamilton is only 22 miles from San Jose, but it is more than a world a way: it is also a different micro climate.

What a beautiful world so close to San Francisco.

I saw a coyote slink across the road and edge around a group of cows in a field. I saw several hand-lettered signs offering firewood for sale. And I finally relaxed on the drive after the long days of moving stress. You have to concentrate to negotiate a road like Highway 130. There are almost no turnouts and in several places it seems there is only room for one car as you go around blind curves. I noticed a restaurant halfway up the mountain that I'd like to come back to some evening. What a spectacular view it would have of the lights below.

My morning was almost perfect. But it ended in a surprise. I was within a few miles of the summit when I reached this sign:

The clouds ahead that obscured the top of Mt. Hamilton must have been producing ice and snow and the road wasn't safe ahead. The mountain is above 4,000 feet and the forecast had said there might be icy weather at those elevations. Hard to believe when it wasn't even raining where I sat just a few miles from the summit.

I turned the car around and headed back down into the valley. I wasn't really disappointed. It had been a restful morning, and I looked forward to coming back another time. And I had discovered that it was all about the journey, not the destination. Just like life.

You can glimpse the Santa Clara Valley and the Bay between the trees.

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