Thursday 22 August 2013

The Beat Generation

Current Location: San Francisco, California

Leaving City Lights with a new copy
of "Howl" by Allen Ginsberg. First
 published in 1956, it was the
 subject of an obscenity trial. The
 case was dismissed.

I walked on the banks of the tincan banana dock and
sat down under the huge shade of a Southern
Pacific locomotive to look at the sunset over the
box house hills and cry.
Jack Kerouac sat beside me on a busted rusty iron
pole, companion, we thought the same thoughts
of the soul, bleak and blue and sad-eyed,
surrounded by the gnarled steel roots of trees of
The oily water on the river mirrored the red sky, sun
sank on top of final Frisco peaks, no fish in that
stream, no hermit in those mounts, just ourselves
rheumy-eyed and hungover like old bums
on the riverbank, tired and wily.
Extract from Sunflower Sutra by Allen Ginsberg
Click the link below to hear Ginsberg read it:

It must have been 1970 and in Auckland I was pretty cool. I knew this because I had the clothes to prove it. Flower power and Haight Ashbury were almost over on America's West Coast but the influence of the Beat Poets was still strong.

On the footpath in Jack Kerouac Alley.
The outfit was bought for work – bottle green trousers, high waisted and with flares. They were teamed with a paisley shirt with a paisley tie which did not match. There was meant to be a bottle green jacket too, but my pay packet would not stretch that far. When I went back a week later, bottle green had sold out and I had to settle for mustard – let’s make that puke. I had platform shoes and my hair was scruffily long.  My beard was reminiscent of a dog with mange.

City Lights Bookstore, North Beach
I wore the outfit to court and joined the other reporters on the press bench. As the court stood for the entry of the magistrate he ran a jaundiced eye over the room. Finally his gaze settled on me, and with the assuredness of a man in charge of his own court he addressed everyone. “I see we have been joined by a Spanish waiter today.” The courtroom erupted in laughter – except for me.

It was about this time that I was mixing with excellent company – a couple of anarchic colleagues who had introduced me to the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Gregory Corso and others. And I had also stumbled across Jack Kerouac’s novel, "On the Road" (also, now a 2012 film directed by Walter Salles).
The third floor of City Lights

Jack Kerouac

Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac.
I’d taken to carrying a copy of Ginsberg’s poems in my pocket, ever hopeful that I would find an audience (especially one with a wistful and sympathetic female) who would be prepared to listen to the work of this remarkable man – a leading member of the Beat Generation. I don’t think I ever found that audience and it was probably just as well – when it came to reading in public I would have been much to shy, and anyway to be really, really cool you had to be writing and reading your own poems.
Ginsberg's Olivetti typewriter in the
 Beat Museum.

Poetry reading in Jack Kerouac Alley, outside City Lights
All this is a long way of explaining that I have been fan of the Beat Generation for more than 40 years. Now in San Francisco, I have had a chance to revisit their lives and their work.

Ginsberg in later years.
The first stop was an exhibition of photographs by Ginsberg, currently running at the Contemporary Jewish Museum. Most of the pictures were shot on a cheap camera he bought at a pawn shop, and show the young writers that defined a generation.
Next was City Lights Bookstore, co-founded by Ferlinghetti in 1953, and still in its original location on Columbus Ave, North Beach. Inside are three floors of the kind of books you will never find in the chain operated bookshops of today - with titles such as “Counterculture Colophon” and “National Insecurity - The Cost of American Militarism”. And then there was the intriguing one called, “Why Marx was Right”.
Neal Cassady - on whom Kerouac based the
central figure in his 1957 novel, "On the Road".
While Judy searched for a travel guide downstairs (the guidebook selection is somewhat limited) I climbed the creaking stairs to the top floor and there it was – a whole room devoted to poetry.

Now – two days later – we’ve made a second trip to North Beach to visit more literary landmarks. I enticed Judy with the promise of coffee at Caffe Trieste, where Francis Ford Coppola is said to have drafted “The Godfather”. But I lost her along the way, which gave me a great opportunity to return to City Lights. Then it was on something called the Beat Museum, a decidedly tacky assortment of not very much – books, photos and a few dusty items of memorabilia, for example Ginsberg’s Olivetti typewriter.

Later we visited Kerouac’s love shack, where he holed up with Neal and Carolyn Cassady in the early 50s as he hammered out the first version of “On the Road”. Jack and Carolyn became lovers, until she kicked out both him and Neal (Kerouac used Neal as the central character in his novel “On the Road”).

Mural in Jack Kerouac Alley
These days the old haunts have been gentrified, and tourists on organised walking tours are guided around landmarks, including nearby Chinatown. But poetry is still in the air - with street readings and City Lights marking its 60th anniversary with a number of special events. It’s a reflection of the influence that Ginsberg et al have had on American culture, poetry and music, through the decades.    

Wednesday 21 August 2013

Coming Home to San Francisco

San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge moments
we begin cycling over it.


Current Location: San Francisco, California
Total Distance Cycled: 14,609 km
Time on the Road: 15 months 10 days 
Most Difficult Hills in the U.S.:San Francisco

“That’s a bullet,” said Judy the Stoker as she peered at something lying on the edge of the roadway.
“No, it’s not,” I said taking a wild guess at what it might be. “It’s just the end of a ballpoint pen, the writing end. Take a closer look if you don’t believe me.”
Judy let go of her end of the Beast of Bridgwater and the heavily laden tandem lurched back down the impossibly steep San Francisco street until I yanked on both brake levers.
Judy stepped off the sidewalk oblivious to the FedEx truck bearing down on her. The driver stopped and waited patiently. “You’re right,” said Judy. “Ballpoint, but let’s not spoil my moment of drama.”
We were making our way to our hotel – a rare treat for us in a western economy – near the Tenderloin district where the baddies do sometimes resort to violence and yes, shoot rival gang members in turf or drug wars in broad daylight.
Down the other side having avoided pedestrians
and all the other cyclists.

Warning - Stay Away

We were feeling more sensitive than usual because just a couple of hours earlier we had stopped for coffee and chatted to a group of delightful locals about their city – that is until we mentioned where we were staying. They checked the address on a cell phone then all joined in to warn us away. “People get shot there,” one said. “I implore you,” said another, “don’t stay there.” And then they offered alternative locations.

Local Geography - Failed

Well intentioned they may have been but their local geography was not up to much. We remained nervous until we stopped outside the Fitzgerald Hotel and found ourselves surrounded by tourists, backpackers, restaurants and hotels. The Tenderloin has a justified reputation but we were several blocks away and immediately felt at home.
Our last campsite before hitting San
Francisco - Haypress campsite at the
end of Tennessee Valley Rd, just nine
kilometres as the seagull flies from

At Haypress we met Erin (left) and her Mum Kendra who were proving you can have a nice time camping without bringing along a giant RV - recreational vehicle. They shared a tiny one person tent for the night
and gave us blueberries and came up with a great list of things for us
to see and do in San Francisco.

Comfy - like Old Slippers

And it’s been like that ever since. San Francisco is the first U.S. destination that has felt truly comfortable – perhaps it’s the liberal politics or the gay friendly community that reminds us of a bigger version of Ponsonby, Auckland.

It's a small world. As we cycled into San Francisco, 13-year-old Eliah
pulled up and said hello. We had first met him four weeks before while

 he was cycling down the Pacific Coast with his Dad, Bart. He's a
 plucky kid and it was a pleasure to see him again. He was off to do
 some soccer coaching to help raise money for a school trip to
 Or it could be that San Francisco – like Auckland – is built on the water and has a landmark bridge, in this case the often fog-shrouded but spectacular deco-style Golden Gate. And on top of that, there’s the sailing – a Kiwi boat is in the Louis Vuitton challenger series at the moment which leads up to the America’s Cup next month.  
Oracle came out to play, and to show off.

Emirates Team New Zealand
with Alcatraz in the background.

Luna Rossa may have struggled so far , but there's 
not too much looking wrong here.

We are also feeling at home because we are meeting New Zealanders. In particular, one of Judy’s oldest friends arrived from Auckland on the same day as us.

Out On the Town

We have been wining and dining, and the other night New Zealanders outnumbered Americans as we celebrated the birthday of a Kiwi expat.
Ian - old friend

Donald -Chef  Extraordinaire

Roger - host and pavlova maker. John on the right.

As for the Tenderloin, we have felt no need to spend time there although I walked through it in broad daylight today. No-one fired a gun but it did look a bit grungy and I sensed it wouldn’t be a good place in which to linger late at night. No-one took the slightest notice of me, and I did not find anything that resembled a bullet.    
Dave Earl - bluesman on the streets of San Fran.
A house on the brink on the coast north
of San Francisco. Several others were
also being lost due to erosion.
Near Fort Bragg.
It's called Stillwater Cove, and while the bay below us was sheltered,
a fresh, cold wind had us snuggling into our fleece jackets.
Judy at Stillwater Cove.
The armoury at Fort Ross, a Russian settlement built in
California from 1812 on to provide food for the Russian
American fur trading company which was operating in
Window and wooden chest, Fort Ross.
Linda - birthday girl. John (left), Ian and Kerry.
Ian and Donald.

150-year-old St Teresa's Church, Bodega, California. It featured in the Alfred Hitchcock film "The Birds"
which scared the daylights out of most of us impressionable youngsters who saw it back in the 60s.

Thursday 8 August 2013

Redwoods Versus Kauri

These are baby Redwoods in comparison
to some which grow over 90m (379ft) high.


Current Location: Fort Bragg, Central California
Total Distance Cycled: 14,215 km
Bike Squeaks: two - Mike's saddle, the other untraceable at present.

Dear Auntie Agatha,*
Kia Ora from Northern California where for the past week or so we have been among the region’s giant Redwood trees. We know you have always been fascinated by them and how they compare to New Zealand’s Kauri, and as we had promised to write about them – here goes.
The superlatives that have been used by others to describe these trees are well chosen, if often used. There can be no question about their magnificence – not only in their height but also in their delicacy. And there are so many of them – from the Oregon state line to Monterey County. They are overwhelming.
So high you could be at risk of falling
backwards as you gaze skyward.

A quiet moment in the "Avenue of the Giants".

We’ve been able to enjoy them on several quiet walks, especially in the “Avenue of the Giants” where we were joined by our American friends Chuck and Barb for a few days.
The best time to see them is in the late afternoon, when the sun’s rays stretch out and occasionally single trees are highlighted – lit as though by a powerful spotlight in a giant art gallery. The forest silence is overwhelming, and seems to quieten us humans too as we stand in awe. The pools of light sometimes highlight a spray of leaves – narrow and tiny, each leaf only a couple of centimetres long.
And then there are the fallen giants – where the shallow roots have given way to wind or age and the trunks have come crashing down – “widow makers” for any lumberman foolish enough to stand in their path. Even the bases of these fallen trees stretch well above us, and after 40 or 50 paces we have grown tired of trying to walk through the undergrowth to measure how high these trees once stood.
Chuck inside the burned out trunk of a
Redwood. The trees' bark lacks resin and
enables most of them to resist fires - this
tree was still alive and growing.

Tiny, delicate - the leaves
only a couple of
centimetres long.

Judy (left) and Barb go walkabout.
Lit by the late afternoon

Average maximum girth of a Redwood is around 8m (26ft) 

As for comparisons with the Kauri – I’m sorry to have to report that the Redwoods outreach our Kauri by a country mile. Redwoods can grow to 90m (379ft) or more, compared with the Kauri’s 50m (164ft). But the Kauri wins hands down when it comes to girth, more than 16m (52ft) compared to the Redwoods’ 8m (26ft).
Either way, both Kauri and Redwood are magnificent trees and it’s not surprising they have been plundered over the years – the Kauri for shipbuilding and the Redwoods for railway ties and trestles and now the building industry. Next time you are in Rotorua, it might be worth checking out the height of the naturalized Redwoods at Whakarewarewa – apparently they grow faster there than here because of the more even rainfall distribution during the year.

Barb and Chuck have now headed home to Minnesota and we are heading south again.

We are back in the hiker/biker sites of the state campgrounds where we stay and surrounded by cyclists of varying ability, determination and intentions. There are the short haulers riding south from places like Seattle in Washington State and Portland in Oregon to San Francisco and the mid rangers like us riding from Vancouver BC to the Mexican border. Occasionally there are the long haulers – who’ve started in Anchorage, Alaska and are riding home to Mexico or have their goal as the bottom of South America.
Tourist traffic in the "Avenue of the Giants".
Forest fern
Today we met two British cyclists making the rare trip north, against the prevailing wind on this coast. They started in Bariloche, Argentina, and after nine months are still going strong and enjoying the easy travel in this part of the U.S. Tonight we are camped next to a solo long hauler who is planning to sell his excellent tent and buy one which will allow him to watch the stars through the roof as he cycles south to the bottom of South America.

Redwood timber milling

Left to right: Mike, Chuck, Barb and Judy. We first met Chuck and Barb in
Thailand, then again in Cambodia. They made a real effort to travel from
Minnesota to join us in Northern California and it was a delight to
see them again.

Just for you, Auntie Agatha. This deer was outside a house
in (would you believe it) Bambie Crescent, Shelter Cove,
on California's Lost Coast.

Bambie goes to the beach.

Last night we were joined by two short haulers – Carter and Stefan, both American and both in their 20s – who turned up dirty and smelly and entertained us with a lively discussion on the environment. Both are opposed to plans to complete the controversial Keystone XL pipeline which will bring oil from Canada to Texas. But then Carter moved on to tell us  how, when he wasn’t cycling, he jumped freight trains to get around the country. He explained the most difficult part was trying to gauge the right moment to jump off the slowing train, and the most dangerous part was the jump itself.
We asked if many others rode the trains the way he did and he said yes, there were – people forced to take the risk because they didn’t have the money to pay for fares. As he talked, we heard an echo of the past – of dustbowls and the Great Depression and the songs of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. After a few minutes, Carter stood up and reached for the guitar tied to the back of his bike. He broke into a song about the railroad, hitching trains and a young man who ignored the advice of his mother and father. Carter’s voice was strained with emotion, and he fumbled a couple of chords but suddenly we were there – sharing a different era but also one that has clearly not vanished altogether. 
So Auntie, that sort of brings us up to date. Hope you are well. Please give Ginger a pat from us and an extra spoonful of Jellymeat. We hope that kink has gone from his tail after Uncle Alf ran over him in the driveway.
Love from

Mike (The Captain) and Judy (The Stoker)
PS: Have added a few other photos. The deer were kind of cute, and maybe Uncle Alf should sell the Nissan and buy a vintage car.
*Auntie Agatha is a fictitious character.