Thursday, May 15, 2014

Hidden away

The view from our window of a golden morning across Carquinez Strait.
"How about Benicia?"

So we went to Benicia for our anniversary. A lifetime of living near it and this year we finally went.

There never seemed a reason to go. We are of the great through-traffic world, the one that has to get from northern to southern California, or from Sacramento to San Francisco. So we travel the major freeways — 80 to The City, I-5 or 99 to Los Angeles, 680 to bypass the clustertruck of the Bay Area to get to 101.

We are in a hurry, no time for byroads.

The road to Benicia is 780, a spur of 680, a byroad, but why go? Benicia is not on the way to anything.

Besides, Benicia appears to be no more than so many gargantuan oil tanks the color of school buses, clinging to the hills like mussels at low tide. We've seen Benicia, and it does not beckon.

Or have we? And why does it not?

Benicia, we learn, is behind the forbidding tank farm. You can see part of it from the George Miller Jr. Memorial Bridge on 680 over the Carquinez Strait, but you don't know what you're looking at. Benicia is cleverly disguised behind the thrumming menace of commerce and industry.

I'd scouted the joint months before. Doug, my swimming friend, once invited his buddies to join him in the waters of the strait, where he swims occasionally after work from nearby Fairfield.

A town exists, by God, beyond the oil tanks! An actual town with a city park and a bandstand! Craftsman bungalows and quirky architectural one-offs and Victorian mansions and shopping centers. Multiple parks along the shoreline and a bustling main street (First Street), every shop open.
(Doug may have a hard time getting us to join him again for a swim there, though. We went near sundown at low tide, and a half-mile out from shore I was creeped out to discover I was still swimming in only two feet of water, my hand scraping through the sludge as I stroked. Creatures bumped into some of us — not me! — and one squirmed out from under Doug as he stepped on the soft shallows in the concrete-colored opaque water. We think they might have been sturgeon.

(A man greeted us at the boat lunch when we came back in. He was a silhouette in the new evening. I was breathing hard with the anxiety of a tide seeming to pull me away in these strange waters with their strange creatures. The man said he lived in Benicia 20 years and made his way to the park every day. The sight of us drew him to the water that evening because he thought we might be porpoises; we were rarer even than that: He said he had never seen swimmers in that water before.)
Nancy got us room at an inn by the water, near a ramshackle boatworks that proudly flew a U.S. and California flag. We were high above a beautifully sculpted walkway, part of a trail that girdles the entire Bay Area. The walkway is terraced here and there with inviting concrete benches and stools, where the many, many dogs of Benicia led their many, many owners.

And we did what we always do: Walked, to see what we could see and discover what we were never planning to find. First Street, on closer look, is restaurants and real estate offices and antique stores and aromatic gift shops. Nothing anyone really needs, but all the businesses are open.

Benicia was an early capital of the state. I've never heard a consistent story why the capital is Sacramento; I've read the capitol building in Benicia was never big enough to comfortably accommodate the Legislature, or that Sacramento won in a battle of land and politics and pride and gamesmanship.

The capitol building in Benicia certainly is cozy, a two-story saltbox, but it would house the full Assembly and Senate. Those lawmakers, though, would have to make their own decisions and conduct their own research and be their own selves. Benicia doesn't have room for politicians' handlers.

Still, I wonder how Sacramento got to be the capital, except for the grit and obstinance of people long ago, with gifts I lack. Benicia is toward the back of the San Francisco Bay, past the northern lobe of this great harbor, called San Pablo Bay. The water is brackish here, worsened, I imagine, by the shipping that goes on here now.

Farther east as the strait narrows, the waters divide into the archipelago of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, where the rivers empty.

Even today it's not easy to wend one's way through that maze to find the dripping tendril of the Sacramento River.

Imagining the headache navigation was 160 years ago, I picture myself among the pioneers of the state, the one in the back of the crowd who, having come to Benicia, might have said, "This is close enough. Let's just stop here, guys. Whaddya say, guys, call it good?"

It's got a nice view of the head of the strait, and it's a straight shot southwest to the Golden Gate. Even I could find that.

But these folks who made Sacramento capital, they're made of stronger stuff.

Besides, you have to really like wind here. Really, really like it. The Delta Breeze that saves Sacramento on summer evenings reaches wild puberty in Benicia.

In our entire time at the inn, the flags flying at the boatworks next door never slacked, rippling full staff to the east.

Practiced lotus eaters, we knew how to get out of the wind in style, watching it push the sage-colored water of the strait into whitecaps from the many windows of our room or, better still, with an anniversary tradition we started last year: Sipping beers and watching the San Francisco Giants play on the big screen at a corner bar.

The hated Dodgers beat the Giants Saturday, but the Giants rallied back Sunday, our anniversary; a Mother's Day gift for Nancy. Our son and his girlfriend spent the day with us and gifted us with India pale ales they had just made, serious tangy beer.

At a lull in the afternoon I leafed through the 1950 Blue and Gold, the yearbook of the University of California, Berkeley. It was the best choice from the inn's near-empty bookshelf, which held three books by Donald Trump, Lee Iacocca's autobiography, some old yacht parts manuals and even older directories. Remember directories?

The Blue and Gold is huge, well designed with watercolors of the campus by watercolorist Maurice Logan dividing the sections. UC Santa Barbara's campus was just about to be built in 1950. UC Riverside was no more than an agricultural research station. UCLA was a kid brother.

I looked without success for people who might be famous or notable today. I did find many senior women who aspired to be married by June or July, or who wished enthusiastically and publicly to do nothing at all.

Then I looked over at my energetic persevering wife, who had found a rare quiet moment to read in the sunny corner of the room, who did marry me soon after college but did not gush about it.

I'm trying to imagine the colorless world that would exist if Nancy had decided to do nothing at all.

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