Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Hiss Golden Messenger at The Crepe Place

Weeks ago, I saw that Hiss Golden Messenger was scheduled to perform on November 10th at the small Santa Cruz venue, The Crepe Place. It seemed like it could be an ideal winter show: a spare acoustic performance by frontman M.C. Taylor whose songs have questioning lyrics that are ideal for this season when thoughts turn inward.
What I and the dozen others experienced at Hiss Golden Messenger’s performance was something far different but equally suited to the season: a bunch of crockpot country funk songs seasoned by a full band including the stellar Scott Hirsch on bass and a ripping Phil Cook on guitar and organ. The set was surprisingly hearty and sustaining like a good stew or chili.
At times, the band had shades of J.J. Cale’s sly guitar grooves. Near the end of their set, the group did a version of Waylon Jenning’s superb country classic “Lonesome, On’ry and Mean” in their unique style. The show ended with the band getting in the crowd and playing their song “Drum” with Taylor instigating the crowd to sing the lines: “Take the good news/ And spirit it away.” It was a truly powerful and communal experience.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Behind the Scenes of Moon Santa Barbara & The Central Coast

In many ways, a guidebook is as important for what it leaves out as what it includes. There were a few places I went while doing research on Moon Coastal California and Moon Santa Barbara & The Central Coast where I thought, “I travel here so you don’t have to.” Of course, these disappointments, near misses or just plain unworthy places are not included in the books. There are so many worthwhile attractions, restaurants, parks, recreation activities, bars and more in the regions covered in these books that there is no reason to lead a reader to a place that is not up to par.
One example of a spot that did not make the cut for inclusion in Moon Santa Barbara & The Central Coast is a place of lodging in an agricultural town outside of Ventura. There are a few worthwhile sights in this area to warrant coverage of the region in the guidebook, but I would never recommend one establishment that I spent one painfully fearful evening in.
There was a major sign that the motel, which had a couple of almost glowing reviews on the Internet, would not be book worthy as I walked towards an ambitious tower-like building where the lobby was located. The sign was actually a sign: a banner haphazardly hung up on the building that announced rooms were available at nightly, weekly, and monthly rates.
When I walked into the motel’s shabby lobby, there was also something else that made me skeptical of the handful of positive Internet reviews of this motel that I had found: every corner of the room had a security camera perched in it like a quiet, malevolent spider. It was a crowded holiday weekend with all of the other area establishments booked up, so I checked in with the night desk lady anyway even though she was busy attacking some leftovers with a fork.
Up the stairs and down a hallway lined with a shabby, faded rug I went to the doorway of my room. The door was a slab of crappy wood that was strangely too small for the doorway it was in. Even worse, I noticed that the wooden door had been chipped away near the doorknob by someone I’m guessing had been trying to break into the room.
Luckily, my key worked, and the door swung open to reveal a room that looked like it would have been considered run-down a couple of decades ago. The furniture was rickety and appeared to have been purchased at an old elementary school’s garage sale. I knew that it would be unwise to see what was under the bed or under any of the furniture so I sat on the edge of the bed and turned on a device that a millennial would never be able to identify as a television.
When hunger struck, I turned off the giant, thick screen TV and walked out in the hallway. I moved towards the staircase and passed by two young men in sleeveless white T-shirts. Every part of their exposed bodies—including their necks—were covered in sinister tattoos of snakes and daggers.
After passing them, I turned to look back at them to see if they were really as stereotypically evil looking as I thought they appeared at first glance. Surprising to me, they had stopped walking too and were looking towards me while whispering.
I continued on but was shaken. Thankfully, the Mexican restaurant next door to the motel was quite good and a couple of Coronas soothed my nerves.
By the time I got back to my room, I was eager to get the evening over with so I could move on to better accommodations the next day. I turned on the ancient TV and lay down on the bed with all my clothes on.
I turned off the lamp on the battered nightstand and looked over towards the door. Since the door was smaller than the doorway, the light from the hallway came into the room from all sides. But as I looked at the doorway something caused me to suck in my breath and hold it. The bottom of the doorway darkened due to the presence of an individual standing right outside of my room in the hallway.
Eventually, I started to breathe, but the light under the doorway was still blacked out by someone who was standing ominously just feet and a crappy piece of wood door away from me. After what felt like the length of a thriller film, the shadow in the doorway finally left. Maybe it was just someone standing and texting right in front of my door? Or maybe it was one of those sinister tattooed guys standing there preparing to chisel away at my battered door so that he could get in my room and rob a stupid out-of-towner?
I thought about my options. I was in the middle of nowhere, and every other lodging option in the area was booked for the holiday weekend. My fear subsided, and I realized I was wiped out from traveling.
I got up from bed and opened the single pane sliding glass window of my room. I looked down 10 feet and realized I could survive a jump from this height if necessary. I left the window open.
Then I sat on the edge of my bed and looked toward the doorway. I stared for a half hour, and another shadow didn’t appear.
Still, I dragged all of the battered furniture in my room including the TV stand in front of the too-small door as a precaution. If someone broke through the flimsy door, they would stumble over the hill of furniture, waking me up before they could reach me and stab me with a knife. By then, I reckoned, I would have jumped out the open window and run to my nearby car.
I didn’t sleep well, but I slept and checked out early the next morning. I didn’t get stabbed that night, but you will still be unable to find any mention of this establishment in Moon Santa Barbara & The Central Coast.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Behind the Scenes of Moon Coastal California

While researching and writing Moon Coastal California, I explored all 900 miles of the California coast from San Diego to Crescent City. A lot happened during those months on the road that informed the write-ups within the book. The book covers such a large area that memorable experiences have sometimes been distilled into just a sentence or two. For instance, the book's entry on The Lost Coast's Usal Beach (pages 301 and 302) is just two paragraphs long, but a lot happened during that evening when my friend Shane and I visited there.
Reached via a mountainous dirt road, Usal Beach is located in the Lost Coast's Sinkyone Wilderness State Park. The remote expanse of dark sand was everything a Northern California beach should be. Looking back towards land, the bluffs rose like giant sleeping animals, and the massive trees bristled above them. Pelicans dropped into the ocean like large stones. 
Inland from the beach, there are 35 primitive campsites. Shane and I chose one and set up our tents for the evening. After listening to a superb North Coast pirate radio station by our campfire, we called it a night and went to sleep in our respective tents.

Fzzzow. Fzzzooooow. Ffffzzooooooowwwww. I woke up to the the sound of gunshots near our campsite. Outside the full moon seemed to shine down on my tent like a spotlight.

What time is it, I thought reaching for my cell phone.

“3:03 A.M.,” it glared at me ominously.

In the distance, I could hear Shane snoring in his tent. Then ffffzzzzzzoooooooowwww. I grew up around hunting and guns, but this shot sounded cold, metallic, evil. It also sounded like the shooter was coming closer. I sat up in my tent, and I felt as alone as I’d ever felt in my life.

Fffffffffzzzzzzooooooowwwww. Shane suddenly stopped snoring. “Did you hear that,” I whispered to him. Even if I’d drunk a whole pot of coffee, I wouldn’t feel this awake.

“Yeah, I heard that,” he said. “It’s not good.”

We both lay still in our tents. I began thinking about why someone would be firing a gun this late. It could be drunken rednecks, but there was no drunken shouts or laughing. No loud country music or Skynyrd blaring. Maybe the shooter was trying to scare off a bear or an elk?  But only a shot or two would probably be needed to do that.

Ffffzzzoooooowww. Another shot. I started thinking of survival. In the tent, I felt as helpless as a fish caught in a net. Someone could just walk up and blast the tent with bullets and that would be it. I thought of getting into my car, but then I realized a shooter would look there after the finding the tent empty.

My mind was telling me I should drag my sleeping bag into the woods.  I could sleep there without being as paranoid. If we were hearing the sounds of a madman, he’d check the tent and cars first.

“Want to meet outside,” Shane called out.

“Yes,” I said softly.

I scrambled outside my tent and soon Shane and I were standing out in the moonlight. Though we were in the open, it felt good to have someone around.

“What if it is someone walking around popping campers,” Shane said echoing what I was thinking.

I shivered uncontrollably. It was not because of the cold outside.

“I did bring this for bears,” Shane said and slid the handle of a pistol out of the pocked of his hooded sweatshirt. It was somewhat reassuring but it didn’t vanquish all of my fear.

We got into his car. Shane sat in the driver’s seat with his hand fingering the butt of the gun like it was a lucky coin. I sat in the passenger seat and tried to look outside the rapidly fogging windows.

Around 50 feet away in the woods, a light appeared. Ffffzzzoooooowww. The light was gone right as the shot rang out. It was like it had been blasted out of existence. Farther away, a car alarm went off.

“We need to get out of here,” he said.

The task of packing up and driving out seemed pretty daunting. We were still not sure what was happening out there. Maybe the lateness of the night had simply caused our minds to wander to their darkest corners.

If there was a shooter, we’d definitely be vulnerable by packing up. Also, instead of fleeing from whoever it was, there was a possibility that we would drive right up to the individual on accident. Also the thought of driving the twisty mountain road back to the highway was very daunting in the dark.

“We are not going to be able to sleep here,” Shane reasoned. “It will be torture if we don’t get out of here.”

He was right. Even if our darkest thoughts were incorrect, a night in this isolated campground sounded like an awful prospect at this point.

A few seconds later, we were cramming our half taken down tents into our respective cars. I slid the cooler into the back of my vehicle, and Shane tossed our sleeping bags into his backseat.  I looked one last time at the glowing embers of the campfire, which looked like a giant highlighter had left its fluorescent mark on the land.

Shane drove out first, and I followed. We passed a lone, still raging campfire with a small tower of flame. In the trees beside the fire, a dark figure looked up at our late night procession. Both Shane and I quickly hit the gas to get out of the area as soon as possible.

Exiting the campground, our cars spiraled up and out of the beach area to the ridge above. It reminded me of the time I went skydiving, and the plane corkscrewed into the sky to get up high as fast as possible for the jump.

I sipped from a cold cup of coffee that was still in my car from the day before. I cranked up a mix CD so that I’d have some company. The taillights of Shane’s car were as reassuring as my childhood nightlight.

My mind wandered on the drive. What was going on in the campground below us? A shoot-out between rival pot farmers? A domestic disturbance turned ugly? Luckily, my body kept driving, and my car seemed to magically follow Shane’s taillights like a bullet whizzing toward the red light created by a rifle’s laser scope.

As I reached the bottom of the mountain and turned onto the paved road below, Usal Beach felt like a half remembered nightmare. Later, while fact checking my entry about Sinkyone Wilderness State Park, a state park ranger told me that locals would often camp out and spend their evenings there blasting their guns into the night sky. That information informed the last sentence of my Usal Beach write-up in Moon Coastal California.


Friday, November 7, 2014

Hello there, Welcome to my blog! I should have created one of these things a while ago to write about what I love including traveling, music, the outdoors, water recreation, and more. First, here’s a little about me. I grew up in the fine state of Virginia surrounded by history, rivers, and friendly folks. After securing a bachelor’s degree in English from University of Mary Washington, I spent years exploring the Western U.S. before moving to the wild Big Sur coast of California. During my time in the Golden State, I have worked at the Big Sur Ranger Station and been a staff writer for the Monterey County Weekly. I have also contributed article to National Geographic Education, Via Magazine, Relix Magazine, East Bay Express, and more. My current passion is authoring guidebooks for Moon Travel Guides. The past few years, I have traveled all over California to discover the best attractions, restaurants, hotels, campgrounds, hiking trails, and more for Moon Coastal California, Moon Santa Barbara & The Central Coast, Moon Spotlight Cambria and San Simeon, and Moon California Road Trip. On this blog, I will be writing about my projects, travel experiences, life experiences, the latest in arts and entertainment along with anything else that pops into my head! Be sure to visit my website www.stuartthornton.com for more information about my books, articles, and events.