Installment 3 of Eric D. Goodman’s Travel Essay Series
Remember what I said about expectations? I was blown away by Point Lomas. But Balboa Park, which I’ve read is one of the largest and most impressive city parks in the world, doesn’t quite live up to my expectations. Don’t get me wrong, it is a wonderful park full of many great museums and shops and sights and plantlife. But after being blown away a few years ago by Golden Gate Park in San Francisco, I expect to be even more blown away today. And I’m not.
Granted, I’m spending as much time hunting for shade as I walk the park as I am actually focused on the sights around me. And I entered the park with high expectations. But it’s not quite Golden Gate Park. And the San Diego Museum of Art is closed on Wednesdays?
But the Timken museum of art is as wonderful as it is small—a nice little collection of fine paintings. There’s a huge collection of ancient icons, and a good amount of contemporary classics. But the painting that most attracts me is one that is on loan from Minneapolis Institute of Arts, perhaps due to my recent visit to Spain and my fascination with the works of Goya. The painting is Goya’s Self-Portrait with Dr. Arrieta, and it is an unusual (although perhaps not for Goya) portrait of the artist on what he had taken to be his death bed as his doctor holds him up and dark faces watch from the shadows, as though waiting for him to die. He painted it after the doctor helped him, as a show of gratitude.
Kristina Rosenberg, Timken’s Education Director gives a talk about Goya and his work. It’s part of the free series of afternoon gallery talks. The Timkin is a terrific find.
Balboa Park’s Museum of Man was another interesting escape from the sun, with exhibits on Mayan stone carvings, early man, primates, Egyptian mummies, the future of man (including an official life-sized replica of C-3PO), and a temporary exhibit on skateboard art and culture.
Other highlights of Balboa Park include the Japanese Garden, Spreckles Organ Pavilion, United Nations Village and gift shop, Alcatrez Garden, the Botanical Gardens, the science and natural history museums … and, of course, the San Diego Museum of Art, which I returned to the next day, when it was open.
I’ve seen the Gaslight Quarter by evening and also by morning. It’s more lively at night, but you can get a good coffee at Café Luna in the morning.
The thing that surprises me most about today’s Gaslight Quarter visit is that the famous Yuma Building is up for sale! The handsome building is pictured right in the guidebooks—two of them I have in my car and I check to make sure I’m recognizing the right place. Sure enough, it’s got a huge “For Sale” sign draped across it’s decorative front. A hat store remains on the ground floor, so there’s one stable, long-standing renter. Might be a good buy. Wanna go in together, anyone? If you’re gonna own property in San Diego, it may as well be a famous building from all the guidebooks.
Arts and Letters (and Trains)
Downtown, I’m on my way to the one of the three buildings of the Contemporary Museum of Art. On the way from my parking spot, I happen pass the Santa Fe Railroad. My own novel in stories, Tracks, is set on a train, and it begins and ends at train stations. I’ve got to go in. I am here, after all, for a book tour—remember?
I leave some postcards and advertisements about Tracks for the train passengers to ponder, take a look around, and leave. Then, I notice the sign above the railroad tracks: “Tracks 5,” it reads.
Gimme a break! I haven’t even written Tracks 2 yet!
Of course, it’s referring to the number of train tracks crossing the way. I cross them and make my way to the two downtown locations of the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art.
Both are interesting. I tend to prefer more classic contemporary art: impressionism and such. But there is certainly some worthy work here. I happen onto a contest for young artists and even have the opportunity to vote.
The two exhibits that impress me the most are the Zodiac Heads/Circle of Animals: Gold by Al Weiwei (a collection of gold-covered animal heads on unique pedestals, each one different), and Isaac Julien’s Ten Thousand Waves, a dynamic, nine-screen video installation that weaves together stories in an interesting way. In fact, one extended sequence is set on a commuter train, or trolley, and each screen shows a different passenger watching another passenger on the train. That reminds me a bit about my own novel in stories, Tracks. A cool connection for my last full day in San Diego.
A short visit to Old Town tells me that this is perhaps where the tourists go—the Disnified version of San Diego. Not to knock it—it is worth a quick visit. But the old town center of San Diego has as many souvenir shops as it does authentic sights. Some sights include on old jail house and Western Union depot, an old country store, tobacco store, and candy shop still in operation, and a few little museums and theaters worth checking out. But feels more like the place to go for souvenirs and trinkets to bring back home than an authentic old town.
Old Town is where I try out some more Mexican food, this time at Café Coyote, voted the best Mexican restaurant in San Diego. The food was good, the atmosphere a little more chain-like than authentic despite the serenading mariachi band, but the food was actually better at the little hole in the wall, “Mexican Take-Out” in Coronado—and a bit cheaper.
Somehow I wish a little more of Old Town remained and a little less of New Old Town had been established. As I’m thinking this, strutting along the wooden porch of one of the newly-outfitted old-time stores, I receive a call from back home. My wife wants my agreement to get rid of our 15-year-old leather sofa so a new leather sofa and chair can be delivered. She’s sent me photographs by text and I agree. Nataliya wants us to be on the same page before executing the retirement of the worn furniture and the commission of the new.
“Are you sure?” she asks, knowing my affection for long-held things.
“Absolutely,” I say, because I know the old furniture is warn and has to go as certainly as the useless old shoes hidden in the attic. As I watch the sun sparkle off the studded sombreros and uniforms of a nearby mariachi band, I already miss the old sofa—the one we had delivered to our first apartment, delivered to us before our firstborn child or first house or first anything but ourselves as a couple. I’m going to miss the old furniture, just as I feel that I miss the Old Town that I never actually knew, the one that existed before the bejeweled singers and guitar players, before the souvenir shops and made-in-china San Diego souvenirs. The one I see in my imagination. I’m nostalgic that way. The new sofa and chair will be nice—San Diego’s Old Town is nice—but it will never be what was.
After my museums, Old Town, and new furniture, I meet Anna and Boris in the Embarcadro area. I had planned to stop in the third contemporary art location, but there is barely enough time to even make our final destination—we have to get to the top of the Hyatt (the tallest waterfront building along the west coast) before the sun sets!
We do, but only barely. As we’re served our first round of beer, the sun is prematurely setting into an LA-like smog along the coast. We do get to watch the sun set, but not into the horizon of the Pacific Ocean. Instead, it sets right into the smog. I picked this destination not for the ambiance or top-shelf liquor, although that was a bonus. This is supposed to be a prime location for glimpsing the legendary “green flashes” of the setting sun unique to San Diego. We don’t spot them tonight, so we plunge into our scotch flight. Macallan’s 12, 15, and 18 year scotches are all good. Funny, but the 12 tastes almost as nice as the 18.
A Prickly Morning
It’s like a needle prick, waking to the realization that my time in San Diego—my visit with Anna and Boris—has come to an end. After breakfast and coffee, we say our goodbyes and I head out. I have an engagement in LA this afternoon. But I have a little time to kill, and decide I’d rather kill it in San Diego than LA. So on my way out, I visit Torrey Pines State Natural Reserve.
Torrey Pines are the rarest pines in North America, and great care is taken to protect them. It is a pleasure to walk along the trails and witness the fragile wilderness island, surrounded by an urban sea. I drive to the upper parking lot, stop in at the visitors’ center, and head down the road by foot, taking in the pines, sand dunes, beaches, and unique contrasts of dry and wet. Some of the pines are tall and straight as an arrow; others are cultivated by the sea wind and look like giant banzai trees sculpted by the elements without human intervention. At one point, while walking along one of the trails, a horde of bees comes buzzing out of a shady tree and surrounds me and several other hikers.
“Where did they come from?” I ask, reminded of the bats in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.
“I don’t know,” says another hiker, confirming that I’m not just imagining this cloud of potential harm all around us. “But I hope they don’t get us!”
We walk calmly out of the buzzing cloud, up the trail. It occurs to me that to them, we humans are the potential harm all around them. But not here, so much, on this state reserve.
After a few hours of walking the paths, viewing the crashing waves from high plateaus, watching the waves crash along sandy beaches and rugged cliff rocks, I return to my car and begin my drive from fresh air to polluted, from San Diego to Los Angeles.