Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Portland, Episode 1

I knew a bit about Portland prior to arriving, as the hub of sustainability in the States, and as a case study for what can be achieved through considered city planning - integrating a public and bike centric approach to transport planning with defined urban design guidelines and the setting and enforcement of an urban growth boundary. Perhaps just as poignantly I also knew Portland as the hipster capital of the US.  

Driving into Portland on the eve of the Memorial Day long weekend I felt very much to be heading the wrong direction as locals flooded out to the areas I'd just driven through.  Wishing to throw myself into the experience I'd indulged and booked myself into the Ace Hotel (that's me with the small dog in my satchel) for 2 nights. The hotel is a converted factory, sparsely appointed, with a sustainability theme running through its offering, from the snacks in the room, the continental breakfast (all local Oregon produce of course), to the free cruiser bike hire and sign in the lift indicating you'd already be at your floor if you'd taken the stairs.  This is great except the hotel exudes a cool aloofness that if I'd flown in for a fashion shoot for the weekend (as often occurs) would be fine, but as a solo traveller trying to work out a new city it wasn't overly helpful.

What was helpful however was the free bike, if there's a way to see Portland it's by bike and the hotel had provided a finely tuned cruiser. The prominence, or pre-eminence given to biking is clear in the numerous dedicated bike lanes (including dual bike lanes, with the slower lane indicated by a more upright cyclist) and the way drivers give way to you as you pedal along.

Prior to heading out I'd consulted my source of obscure city events, Couch Surfing, and happened on the City Repair Village Building Convergence, a 10 day period occurring while I was in town, where close to 40 community projects across the city are undertaken.  The projects range from public art and community gardening and permaculture to de-paving activities, and are run in conduction with lectures and workshops on a range of practical sustainability skills. 

Heading across the Willamette River into the Hawthorne and Belmont areas I was interested in checking out at least one of the projects. These areas had a similar feel to inner north Melbourne and the sights ranged from ballerinas dancing to a tuba band outside a cinema in the afternoon sun, a blocked off street with a street vendor selling local Portland brews to a fence made entirely of bike frames, although I sense this is just a normal Portland afternoon.  On my way back to the city I stumbled across one of the City Repair Projects, a neighbourhood community gathered to paint their intersection with a giant sunflower.  

There were at least 30 people of all ages all painting away from the neighbourhood as music played from one of the houses, a great community feel. What impressed me about the projects is that they were right across the city, not confined to specific areas that are more likely to undertake such projects, the variance in the projects being undertaken and the desire of the community to use the these physical projects as a means of building community spirit, both within the local area, but also across Portland.

While I did a bit of riding that day, in general I'm not really doing much exercise on holiday, so the next morning I rose early on a Sunday, feeling a bit worse for wear having seen the very well supported Portland Timbers FC play the night before (who knew soccer was the popular in the US), and headed to Washington Park, an inner city park of extensive remnant forest to undertake hiking yoga.  Yes, hiking, and yoga, all in one. At first I was keen to do what read like an only in America experience. But it's actually a great way for someone who is out of town to see an area of the city they don't know, while undertaking yoga at set clearings in the morning sun along the way. I certainly felt significantly better an hour and a half later once I'd finished.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Californian Redwoods

Leaving Mendocino behind and moving onto Highway 101, I was keen to spend the next few days exploring the Californian Redwoods.  The Californian Redwood is both the longest living tree, up to a maximum of 1,800 years, and the tallest tree, growing to a height of approximately 120m. The trees once extended from south of San Francisco to south west Oregon, but are now predominantly found in protected reserves in northern California.  

The largest of these is the Humboldt Redwoods State Park and access is primarily through a 32 mile scenic drive referred to as the Avenue of the Giants.  The road winds its way through the reserve and dotted along the way are numerous trails and camping locations.  It's an awe inspiring experience to be walking through the groves of Redwoods and it was sunny and mainly still when I reached the Avenue in late afternoon.  I spent several hours driving, stopping and walking through the forest and enjoying the varying sights and sounds.

The next morning, after an evening in Arcata, I was keen to visit more Redwoods in the Redwood National Reserve further up the road nearer the border with Oregon.  It was however pouring with rain and when I reached the Information Centre I had to wait between showers to dash inside.  The guide pointed out a few scenic drives and felt that I could still go for a walk as beneath the canopy it would be predominantly dry.

Heading off for these location I hadn't gone far before spying a bedraggled if colourful looking hitcher in the gloom.  Despite previous advice to the contrary I slowed down and picked up Casey from Texas (or Casey Smiles as he refers to himself) who would accompany me for over the next 400 kms, or 6 hours to Eugene, Oregon (yes, there's town called Eugene), before I drove on to Bend.

After lamenting not being able to find the real America in Mendocino, I, by chance, had a hitcher who could provide as good an insight as any as we sped through forested highways north. Luckily Casey was good company and I learnt during our journey that Casey was supporting a 15 month boy and, as he couldn't find regular work in Oregon...and likes to keep moving, hitches to northern California and other parts of the country for manual labouring work for week at a time before returning to Bend. The financial crisis has closed a lot of the mills in Oregon, in turn closing off one of the main sources of employment.  

Hitcher Casey
The underlying poverty in Oregon means a lot of his employers pay him in food stamps that the Government had in turn provided to them.  As Casey likes to be paid in cash he hitches to various parts of the country seeking work. I noted to Casey that I'd being amazed by the number of trailer parks and camp sites in this part of the world, and Casey indicated that with the current financial situation it was becoming increasingly common for families who'd lost their house to live and reside out of an RV in a camp site or trailer park.  Over the course of the drive I also learnt useful tips like which hikers not to pick up (apparently those without packs are usually angry nut bags who aren't travelling anywhere and should be avoided), and that the Ford Mustang is the preferred car of Mexican drug dealers in these areas and often targeted by police...and therefore not a good rental.

I farewelled Casey at a petrol station in Eugene and had appreciated the company on a long drive.  My last leg of the day was across the Cascade Mountains to Bend and the final surprise was when the rain turned into snow and I found myself driving through a blizzard.  Pretty surreal experience and I was glad to finally roll into Bend.

Thursday, 24 May 2012

The road less travelled

So I've been travelling for 3 days and it feels good to be out of the city into the wild far reaches of northern California and, now Oregon.  I always feel the road less travelled offers greatest rewards, and as I have time up my sleeve, I've opted to take the scenic route wherever possible.  

Prior to hitting the road however my first conundrum struck when the car rental lady, seeing I was a guy on my own, enquired as to whether I'd like to upgrade the very sensible non descript Nissan sub compact I'd selected online, teeny weeny by American standards but quite normal for Europe and kind of mid sized for Australia, to a Ford Mustang for just an additional $8 per day.  For a good 30 seconds or so I stared at the picture of the Mustang, the boy inside me urging me to go for the Ford, but the environmentalist (bit hard to blog about sustainability driving around in a Mustang for 18 days...), budget conscious and sensible older me putting up a solid argument for the compact.  In the end the compact won comfortably, in part because I was nervous already about driving on the wrong side of the road through San Francisco and the Ford looked like it wasn't going to smooth out the experience.

Crossing the Golden Gate Bridge, the fog cleared, the sun came out and the temperature rose.  The classic rock of the 70's, 80's and 90's, which seemed to be on every channel, suddenly made a lot more sense as I headed up the scenic Highway 1. 

The Highway hugs the northern Californian coast and winds in and out and up and down rocky outcrops, densely forested areas and open pastures.  The scenery is stunning at times and seems like an endless Great Ocean Road.  I stopped for lunch in picturesque Jenner (popn. 136), checked out Fort Ross (southern most outpost of the Russian land holdings in America around the 18th century) and then rolled into Mendocino just after 6pm, about 200 kms and 8 hours after I started (the road less travelled may not however be the fastest...).  The radio options had gradually declined until I was left with the Christian channel (1 verse), country and western (3 and a half songs), and the baseball channel (rest of the drive).  I think baseball plays the same role in American society as a cricket does for ours, it's on, but no one is really listening, it's very good to drive to in that respect.

Mendocino (or Mendo as everyone called it) is a small little town with colourful painted wooden American style buildings and wide streets perched on a piece of land that juts into the sea, with the land behind and adjacent swathed in dense forest.  I'd read there were a range of accommodation options available, and after an unpleasant previous nights sleep in my dorm sharing a bunk with a large, hairy, y-front wearing, flatulant Latino businessman, I decided to upsize to my own room.  I was drawn to the Didjeridoo Dream Time Inn and Meditation B&B given the Australian reference.  Checking in I enquired as to the Dream Time name to the floaty lady at reception.  She wasn't sure, but thought it might be something to do with Australia, ah ha.  I then asked about the meditation aspect, to which I was informed there was someone who was thinking about doing this, but she couldn't anymore.  

Heading out for dinner to the local pub I sat at the bar and was soon talking to the chap next to me, a tall Jesus like fellow in a robe. Tul Khoo (a name of Tibetan origin, although he hails from Wisconsin dairy farming stock, so I suspect this may not be his birth name) runs music and spiritual events around Mendo, with his forthcoming event being Enchanted Forest.  We spoke for an hour or so and I indicated that I felt I wasn't seeing the real America being in San Francisco and now Mendo.  Tul replied the real America is at home watching TV, eating rubbish food and driving big pick ups, so I wasn't missing out on much. Coincidently it turned out Tul was also staying at the Dream Time, so after a few beers we headed back and he introduced me to Charles the ageing hippy owner. After a brief introduction to Charles and having spoken to Tul I understood why it didn't matter that no one knew why the place was called Dream Time, or that the meditation lady never appeared, in Mendo these are just trivialities and people just seem glad to be living there.

Next morning there was a delicious communal breakfast (highlight being the brown sugared bacon with pecan nuts) where all guests gathered around one room and chatted.  I sat next to a retired guy with a snowy white beard and binocs, who I took for a twitcher.  Striking up conversation he indicated he'd never been to Australia, but his great uncle had who was into mining.  This twigged my memory of a documentary I'd seen about US President Herbert Hoover and his time in Western Australia setting up mines in Kalgoorlie in his early years around the turn of the last century. As such I asked if his great uncle was former President Hoover, to which he replied he was.  He was surprised I knew of President Hoover's time in Australia, and that there was a documentary on this, and I was surprised to be sat at breakfast with the great nephew of President Hoover.  His wife then introduced herself and invited me to stay with them if I end up making it to Santa Cruz.  I think I will towards the end of the drive, so will be looking them up.

I left Mendo about midday, having also bought a postcard off the former photographer for the Grateful Dead just after breakfast, reflecting on the array of characters I'd encountered in the 18 hours I was in town.  I could have stayed for a week or so, it had a very relaxed and welcoming atmosphere, but I was keen to head to the Californian Redwoods up the road.  

Monday, 21 May 2012

Golden Gate Park

It's been a pretty hectic schedule since I've been in San Francisco, it's a great city and there's so much to see and do.  Two of the recent highlights have centred around Golden Gate Park, a large (think two hour walk across) rectangle of revegetated land to the west of the city that leads to the Pacific Ocean.

Yesterday was the annual Bay to Breakers run, a 12km run that in Australia would have had people training for weeks, decked out in lycra and the latest runners.  In San Francisco it's more of a walk and the emphasis is on the outlandishness of the costume, or lack thereof, and drinking.  At the end of the event the majority of 'competitors' wend their way through Golden Gate Park on the way to the beach. There was a moment yesterday I was watching some of the 40,000 strolling by, mentally thinking; superhero, chewbacca's, cactus man, penis, muppets...  A very San Francisco experience I think.

At the other end of the spectrum, although also in Golden Gate Park, is the Californian Academy of Sciences.  The closest a science nerd could come to reaching nirvana in this life (not that I would know).  Hiring a pushie from the centre of town I headed out again today to Golden Gate Park.  The building itself is fascinating, with over 2.5 American football fields of native grasses planted on a roof shaped to reflect the numerous hills of San Francisco.  The green roof moderates the temperature of the building meaning it is passively ventilated, requires no cooling, with only minimal heating required.  The energy required for the heating is augmented by a canopy of solar panels that surround the building.  Significant consideration has also gone into the materials selected through the building, such as the use of second hand denim for insulation, and the approach to water conservation.

Inside there's a raft of aquariums built into the building and aquatic environments, from marine to estuarine and swampland.  Combined with the numerous aquariums that split differing levels is a three level atrium with differing butterflies and plants from around the world.  I think the most gratifying aspect however was the level of excitement on the numerous schools kids I shared the visit with today.

Tomorrow I head off after being in San Francisco for a week, to start a four day drive north along the coast through the Californian Redwoods to Portland, stopping at small coastal towns along the way.  I was unsure whether to head north or south initially, but as I've spoken to people they've been very positive about Portland and the north, that and well, it's the subject of Portlandia.

Saturday, 19 May 2012

So you think you can paint

One of the challenges I've set myself is for someone to agree to let me surf their couch while travelling.  So I've set myself up a profile on couch surfer (yes, I also realise there's AirB&B).  To date I've learnt that a), there's a lot of men seeking men in San Francisco and b) you need a witty and engaging profile and be verified by as many people as possible so that the surfee doesn't get freaked out by the surfer.  I'm not at this stage yet (the verifications), but looking at the activities on the couchsurfer website I saw a free evening during the week, 'So you think you can paint', where there's an array of canvases put up and you can paint away with cheap beer etc.

I was keen to check this out and headed downtown.  The CS website indicated 11 people attending, so I thought it'd be an intimate affair and we'd stroke out chins and wonder at the creations forming in front of us.  I've only really painted one thing in the past 20 years, this being my skateboard when I was 19, so was looking to rehash that design.  Unfortunately (or fortunately), the event was open to all and sundry, and all canvases had been taken by the time I arrived.

I quickly realised after a number of moments that my skateboard motif probably wasn't going to cut it and headed to the bar.  At the bar, and in my constant search for material I met a lass who runs a sustainable design festival twice a year, the Urban Air Market.  The idea is a market solely based on integrating sustainability considerations into mainly fashion designs, this can range from considerations regarding the type of dyes, to the type of fabric, or base material of the product.  Another potential story in my ongoing quest for material.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Fog central & Han Solo

After a frustrating start to my journey which involved me purchasing a new ticket for the Melbourne to Auckland leg I landed in San Francisco.  I've only been here for a day and a half but there's plenty to like  about the place, although for late spring, it's really cold as a dense fog has enveloped the city since I've been here.

A Foggy San Francisco from Alcatraz

I've already met up with a local though who works in sustainability for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission in the hunt for suitable stories for the documentary.  While nothing jumps out at the moment, we did discuss an interesting proposition that the people of California will be voting on in November.  

The Hetch Hetchy Dam currently supplies the vast majority of the water to San Francisco and surrounds and is of such high quality and captured high in the catchment, that it needs minimal treatment or pumping.  The Dam was formed through the flooding of a valley 100 years ago in Yosemite National Park, and was in part to ensure San Francisco had sufficient water so that should there be another earthquake induced fire the city would have sufficient water.

There is now a concerted campaign to drain the Dam and restore the valley to its former state through the Restore Hetch Hetchy campaign.  The water currently supplied though the Dam will be replaced by a series of smaller dams lower in the catchment.  Water from these dams will be of lesser quality and require treating and significant pumping beyond that currently required.  In addition the hydroelectricity currently generated by Hetch Hetchy will be lost.  

The debate has effectively pitched two sides of sustainability against one another, the conservationists who wish to restore the natural values of the valley vs those concerned with climate change and their desire to minimise growth in emissions.  In our discussion over lunch it became apparent it's a complex issue and the part that astounded me is that the public will be asked to determine this...which accounts for Harrison Ford being engaged by the Restore campaign to garner support. It provides an interesting contrast to Australia with our wave of desalination plants constructed over the past few years and the minimal public involvement in these decision making processes.  It begs the question as to the 'appropriate' level of involvement of the public in making these complex decisions when even the environmental community is divided. 

Monday, 14 May 2012

Tony drops in

As I'll be travelling on my own for the first few months I thought I'd pack a companion in a young Tony Montana.  Not only will Tony's steely gaze come in handy in tricky situations, but his five recorded messages will no doubt add inspiration when I need it most. Imagine my delight then when my colleagues, with similar thoughts no doubt, created this eerily similar farewell card.  Coinkeedink, I think not.  

On other matters I've been practicing my video skills and this was shot at Port Melbourne at per the title

Thursday, 10 May 2012


Hello, welcome to my blog where I'll be recording and posting my thoughts as I traverse the globe.

Over the next seven months I'll be leaving my humble St Kilda abode, seeking positive stories of individuals, organisations and corporations embedding sustainability in their daily lives and businesses, before attending the Rio Earth Summit in June and following the fortunes of Melburnians at the Summit, before continuing my slow wander around the globe.  It won't be all work however as I'm here to relax as well, so there'll be plenty of holiday snaps and musings as well.