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Archive for May, 2013

Summer arrives – may it not be full of fire

Walking into the sunset at Hendry's, May 27. Photo credit: Peter Conover

Walking into the fire-altered sunset at Hendry’s, May 27.

Driving around the Santa Ynez Valley this weekend, it was like a tinder box outside. The grass is too dry, we didn’t get enough rain. The days have been perfectly warm so far, but the winds are gusting in the afternoons and evenings. Soon it will be hot and getting hotter. In other words, it is fire season. A few hours after this had been discussed, there was a huge fire burning near the Santa Ynez River.

Growing up in the boonies, you figured out that summer fires were a part of Western life pretty quick. We always took a pragmatic approach. Is it far away from people and structures? Don’t worry, it will eventually get put out. Is it heading our way with variable weather conditions? OK, time to be calm and pack up the car. For us the closest scare that we ever got was the Marre Fire in 1993. That was the time that a firetruck drove up to our house at about 8 p.m. The firemen got out and knocked on the door. “Is it OK if we sleep in the truck in your driveway?” they asked. “Of course, we said, but should we be here if you are?”

The answer was heartening: “You can stay,” they told us. “We figured we’d stay here because if the wind shifts and it comes this way, yours is the only house we can save. We’ll come tell you if it’s time to get out.” The weather cooperated and everything ended up being OK. There are some advantages, you see, to building in a defensible valley pocket instead of on the top of a steep hill, where a wildfire could run up the slope and overtake you so fast you wouldn’t even see it coming.

Working at Edhat and leading our coverage efforts of the Jesusita (2009) and Tea Fire (2008), I learned some things about the absolute hysteria that some Californians attach to wildfire. Jesusita and Tea merited it – they were close to the urban periphery in the Santa Barbara front country and hundreds of homes were burned. One of my high school friends, Lance Hoffman, and his wife Carla were badly burned trying to escape from their home during the Tea Fire. I saw Lance recently downtown and he happily reported that they are both fully recovered, though forever affected.

If you were around here during the Painted Cave Fire in 1990, then you know that any fire that you can see from downtown is a scary thing. When those sundowner winds rush down the mountains, they cannot be controlled, pushing flames forward into fresh fuel at speeds as fast as cars. That’s how Painted Cave burnt all the way to Highway 101, even jumping it to do more damage. I’ll never forget driving into Santa Barbara for the first time after Highway 154 was reopened after Painted Cave. It looked like we had traveled to the surface of the moon.

Monday night’s White Fire was apparently started by a camper who decided to discard live coals carelessly near the White Rock Day use area. (Credit: Ray Ford in the SB Independent.) At the end of a camping-friendly Memorial Day weekend, the campgrounds were packed – 4000 people in the Santa Ynez Recreation Area were urgently sent home. This merits hysteria over stupidity. If you think that throwing hot coals out of a contained environment anytime of year in Southern California is a good idea, you are a giant idiot.

The great news is that the combined response teams that train all year for incidents like this – including the US Forest Service Fire and Aviation Response brigades, Santa Barbara County Fire Department, localized neighborhood response volunteers like the San Marcos Volunteer Fire Department, and interagency responders from around the county – are the epitome of prepared professionals. They plan a strategic attack, summon as many engines and airplanes and necessary, survey the resources and structures that could be threatened,obsessively monitor the weather reports, and always put human lives and safety first. When fire fighting gets really scary is when there are a half dozen fires around the state at the same time, and resources are slim.

I’m trying to figure out how to close this post without sounding like Smokey the Bear. Because bottom line – it’s true. Only you can prevent forest fires. So if you decide to clear brush or drive a tractor or have a bonfire or barbecue around these parts this summer, please be careful. It’s the idiot factor behind so many wildfires’ origins that should scare us most of all.

Miramar memories

“Cursed be he who removes his neighbor’s landmark.”

Deuteronomy 27:71

“God bless America. Let’s try to save some of it.”

Edward Abbey

Yesterday I ran down to Montecito and took a break down at the ocean end of San Ysidro Road. I hadn’t been down that way in awhile and the stretch of beach that runs down to Perko’s Point is one of my favorites on the South Coast. Of course, my favorite thing about it used to be the fenced off, boarded up, falling apart old Miramar.

When I was a very young kid the Miramar was still functioning, albeit with the quirks and fallacies of an aging property not meant to survive into the present time. My friend Shauna’s mother took us to play at the beach there one day in the mid-1980’s, and I remember being overwhelmingly impressed by the fact that they had a railcar on the grounds that had been converted to a restaurant. A place where you could eat lunch in an old train? To my young brain, already programmed to see history and antiquity as the best stuff on earth, that was a mark of an impressive establishment. I immediately decided that the Miramar must be very distinguished and awesome indeed.

I never got to eat in that railcar, but I made it back to the Miramar once before it shuttered down forever. William H. Webster was in town giving a chat to a local club. By then, it was 1995 and I was a 16-year-old newspaper intern. Covering a rubber chicken speaker luncheon featuring the only man to ever head up the FBI and CIA felt like the most important assignment on earth. He talked about the Cold War. I remember thinking: “I’ve got to get more knowledgeable about history if I’m going to do this journalism stuff.”

That fascination with history has always been rooted locally. So when I ran down to the beach Sunday and could see the gaping hole where the Miramar once was, I felt a little pang of sadness in my heart. I don’t actually curse Rick Caruso – I just wish that there could have been more opportunities to save some of those old buildings. But they were in awful disrepair and not worth anything other than pure sentiment, I’m sure. Someday there will be a very nice fancy hotel there. It won’t mean much.

Here’s a few photos I took back in November 2012.

Miramar canopy.

Miramar canopy.

Best views of any hotel in SB.

Best views of any hotel in SB.

Last call.

Last call.

Looking down the beach from San Ysidro.

Looking down the beach from San Ysidro.

For some background on the Miramar, here’s an excerpt from an article I wrote for Edhat back in 2009:

Whether you stayed for a weekend, had a honeymoon or just went to the beach and ate in the railroad car afterwards, it’s safe to say that the Miramar experience was a memorable one for over 100 years.

According to David Myrick’s, “Montecito and Santa Barbara – Volume 1”, the original property owners of the Miramar site bought 50 acres 1858 from the Community Council of Santa Barbara for $40. What a deal!

The hotel became a resort gradually when it was under the ownership of the Doulton family, English natives who maintained the resort for three generations (incidentally, they also owned Cold Springs Tavern on San Marcos Pass until 1941).

It’s not known how much the Doultons paid for their portion when they purchased the site, but they started bringing in guests around 1887, Myrick writes. The railroad had just established a route in the front yard of what was then known as Ocean View Farm, and the Southern Pacific train stopped there starting in 1892. Train fare from Santa Barbara was 10 cents.

The Doultons developed the resort from the ground up, taking special pride in their gardens and adapting to guest demands. Four cottages were added in 1901, at the cost of $4,500. There was a wharf where boats could dock, and a small golf course. Traveling salesmen sold shoes and suits at the hotel. After the end of Prohibition, one of the cottages was converted into a bar.

Boom times kept up until the 1930s, when many of the traditional clientele were hit hard financially. And at the same time, the Miramar’s classic white sand beach began to disappear. The sand movement was the result of the building of the city breakwater, which was completed in 1930.

The Doultons took the city to court over the loss of the beach, which resembles historic Waikiki in early photographs, but they lost the lawsuit. The hotel was foreclosed in 1939, and picked up by a man named Paul Gawzner, an experienced hotelier according to the Montecito Journal.

Gawzner made improvements, adding 150 more rooms in hotel-style buildings and cottages, an auditorium and the famous two railroad cars as a dining spot. Essentially, he created the Miramar that is remembered by everyone who went there over the last 59 years.

Ian Schrager purchased the Miramar from Gawzner in 1998 for $31.7 million, closed it in 2000, had serious financial problems in 2003, and went into bankruptcy protection.

Beanie Baby billionaire and Montecito mogul, Ty Warner bought the Miramar from Schrager as part of his spree of local property acquisitions in the late 1990s and early 2000s (he also picked up the San Ysidro Ranch, the Biltmore, San Marcos Golf Club, Coral Casino, Sandpiper, his own mansion near the Santa Barbara Cemetery, and the Montecito Country Club). Despite plans for a 213-room family-style resort, Warner sold the property and project to Los Angeles developer, Rick Caruso in 2006. He is thought to have made a healthy profit over the $43 million he paid.

Caruso, the developer of several major Southern California shopping malls, came into the community on a mission to overcome concerns, and charm his way into the hearts and minds of Montecito neighbors. He succeeded in getting many on his team.

A few, however, were not impressed. The project suffered some setbacks, including controversy over questionable emails before it was finally approved.

The project was approved by the Montecito Planning Commission, then appealed by the Citizens Planning Association. The appeal was subsequently denied by the County Board of Supervisors. After overcoming that hurdle, the project was hit with an appeal by Jean and Stan Harfenist and other neighbors, who expressed concerns about the environmental impacts of the project in a lawsuit and appeals to the Coastal Commission. The appeal was resolved in April 2009.

Here is the project description in the words of the Santa Barbara County Planning and Development Department: “All new buildings of approximately 385,296 gross (164,849 net) square feet, including a main building with a lobby, meeting rooms and conference facilities, back-of-house areas, and underground parking; a ballroom; a spa, a Beach and Tennis Club; 192 guest rooms; two restaurants and a beach bar; two pools and two tennis courts; new landscaping; new 10-foot high sound wall; four employee dwellings; and abandonment of the north-south segment of Miramar Avenue with approximately 36,300 cubic yards of cut and 46,100 cubic yard of fill with 10,000 cubic yards to be imported. All existing buildings would be demolished.”

Here is the link to all county documentation available on the Miramar project.

No place like home: 2013 SB Wine Country Half Marathon


When I got to the finish line of the 2013 Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon, the announcer welcomed me home.

Which was pretty cool, considering that I was crossing the line on the main street of the town where my grandmother, mother and I all grew up.

Did you know that you can’t have a baby at the hospital in Solvang? They don’t do obstetrics there anymore – they haven’t for about 30 years. Now, I imagine that if you were so far advanced in your labor that you didn’t have time to drive to another hospital, they wouldn’t turn you away. But I’ve always thought it was kind of funny that I was actually born in Solvang, while my brother had to be born in Goleta. That was OK. After my parents checked into the hospital they went for a walk on the beach.

I’m not sure what this has to do with my race last Saturday. But it was something I was thinking about, just one of the little details about my hometown that not too many people running probably know.  Like the fact that Santa Ynez, where we started the race, used to have the nickname “Buzzard’s Haven.” Or that Los Olivos, last call for the Pacific Coast Railway, was named for the olive ranch started nearby by Alden March Boyd. There’s still some phenomenal olive oil being produced in the Santa Ynez Valley – and its legacy goes back long before any grapes were ever grown here.

This was the seventh Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon, and it attracted 3,000 runners from all over the country and five other countries, too. There was a big group from Norway participating, which was really cool.

One of the things that made me really happy was to see people who lived on the route out in front of their homes or driveways to cheer us on. There weren’t many spectators, except for in Los Olivos, so the few who came out to say good job were more appreciated than usual. As I was making the turn at the flagpole I saw one of my high school track teammates, Mark Herthel, with his daughter. It was awesome to see a familiar face who recognized me right away and called out my name.

The best part about this course is that from the top of the hill at Ballard Canyon you get to fly down three miles of fast downhill. I planned my race so that I wouldn’t be too wrecked at the top of that hill and could proceed to do just that – and it worked. My pace per mile dropped about 20 seconds per mile during those three miles. There are a couple more hills before the finish, but the last two miles into Solvang were so packed with memories for me that I barely noticed them. We ran by the senior care residence where my late grandmother Marion was the director of nursing. We passed the park where I competed in high school cross country meets. Then my junior high and elementary schools, where I ran my very first mile in the fifth grade. Across the street from the Solvang Elementary campus is the house where my great-grandmother raised my grandmother Doris and her three siblings. And then that final turn off Atterdag onto Copenhagen, almost to our children’s store. I had a huge smile on my face when I crossed the line. (Thanks, announcer guy, for the warm welcome.)

If you grew up in the Santa Ynez Valley, or have any kind of emotional connection to it and happen to be a runner, too, you should do this race. It’s a little surreal to see 3,000 people out running on the rural roads of the Valley, when on a normal day you might see two or three. And I felt pretty lucky when I thought about how I grew up amidst this beauty, with the agriculture and animals, nice people and picture perfect little towns.  There really is no place like home.

Happy Mother’s Day

Happy Mother’s Day to my mom, Debbie, who runs a business, maintains a beautiful home, travels the world, raised two pretty great kids (if I dare say so myself) and is known among my friends for her effortless fashion sense and amazing pie baking abilities. Mom, you’re more famous than you know, and people think you are very cool. Thank you for coming to my race yesterday. I love you.

Let’s take a walk

“The walking of which I speak has nothing in it akin to taking exercise, as it is called, as the sick take medicine at stated hours …but it is itself the enterprise and adventure of the day.”
Henry David Thoreau, Walking

On Saturday my friends Ana and Ehsan and I decided that we needed an outdoor adventure. Credit for our particular route must be handed to Ana, who took my idea that we should drive in the car to go for a hike in the Santa Barbara County front country, like many Santa Barbarians do on the weekend. Then, I suggested, we could stop at the historically rustic Cold Spring Tavern on the way back to town. Ana had a better idea. Why not just walk to the Tavern?

If you are familiar with the roads leading to CST, then you would likely dismiss this idea mere seconds after it had landed in your brain. Ana, instead, looked at a map. An adventurous cyclist, she had ridden many loops up Old San Marcos Road, over Highway 154, up Painted Cave and onto East Camino Cielo. Upon reaching 154 and Camino Cielo she would turn down the highway for home. We could cross over and turn right onto Stagecoach Road, which would deposit us right at the Tavern’s front door just down the hill about a mile later.  So why not walk that way?

A good part of this route is parallel to the course formerly traversed by the rough and rugged stagecoach drivers who transported travelers between the Santa Ynez Valley and Santa Barbara in the 1860s. In fact, that’s why Cold Spring Tavern exists – so that said weary travelers, who might be accosted by bandits along the winding track or just sick to their stomach due to all the rocks and jolting rhythm of the stage, could have a brief respite and a tasty beverage. They could travel by rail on the Pacific Coast Railway narrow gauge to Los Olivos, but the tracks ended there. After a night at Mattei’s Tavern, they’d take to the stage to Santa Barbara, where they could board a steamer for Los Angeles at Stearn’s Wharf. Now that was traveling!

Our walk was perfectly pleasant. We scooted to the edge of the roads for cars and motorcycles and they moved over for us. We took plenty of snapshots, told a few dozen stories, and enjoyed scenic views once we cleared the cloud cover halfway up to Painted Cave. Took a short break to see the Chumash Cave paintings, stopped for every historic marker, and arrived at our destination approximately 11 miles (four and a half hours) later. It was enterprise and adventure at its finest. Then we had a lovely tri tip sandwich and a beer at the tavern while listening to some bluegrass music, and prevailed on our good friends Chris and Melika to transport us home again in one of those new-fangled automobiles.

Three Musketeers under a rock.

Three Musketeers under a rock.

Will stop for cave paintings.

Will stop for cave paintings.

She's stretching. Or singing. I'm not really sure which.

She’s stretching. Or singing. I’m not really sure which.

Ana. Always.

Ana. Always.

Fueled by Kombucha. At least, that's what the label says.

Fueled by Kombucha. At least, that’s what the label says.

The beautiful Cold Spring Arch Bridge.

The beautiful Cold Spring Arch Bridge.

Fremont and Foxen were here on Christmas Day, 1846, headed to capture Santa Barbara for America.

Fremont and Foxen were here on Christmas Day, 1846, headed to capture Santa Barbara for America.

Ehsan was telling me about Iranian government, history and politics. Fascinating stuff.

Ehsan was telling me about Iranian government, history and politics. Fascinating stuff.

A walker's reward

A walker’s reward

The quest of Ehsan is complete!

The quest of Ehsan is complete!