In full bloom
February 20, 2012
Forget what any groundhog may have said about an extended winter, spring has arrived. At least here on the Delta. We’ve had a couple small bouts of rain, sure, but the temperatures have been slowly increasing and the days have been bright and sunny for the most part. The sun is setting noticeably later each day. If you can ignore the 40-degree chill at night, then it is hard to tell it is winter much at all.
But none of that is a surer sign of springtime here than the emergence of the almond blossoms, which usually begin to show themselves around the end of January and peak around the middle of February, just in time for one huge Pacific storm to come in and blow them all away. That didn’t happen this year, fortunately, so when Ben and Glenn struck out the morning of Feb. 12 for their annual trek along the backroads of town, there were plenty of blossoms to photograph.
Sunday is one of the best days to take a nature walk in February, when most people are off doing other things. We always chart a course through the former DuPont rail yard, which takes us past grape vineyards and the remnants of orchards that trace their roots to the 1950s. The farm laborers and railroad crews that are usually in abundance during the week were nowhere to be found on this day.
It was fun having Ben along this year. He missed last year’s walk because it coincided with a movie date he had planned with his then-girlfriend. It still isn’t exactly his favorite activity, so he passed the time texting friends on his cellphone whenever Dad was taking pictures. He also found a convenient perch on the ends of the empty container cars that were scattered about the rail yard. Normally that wouldn’t be considered a safe place to sit, but with no activity in the yard on a Sunday morning, there was no fear that a train crew would be by to start moving the cars around. That didn’t preclude the possibility of other sorts of mishaps, and somehow Ben managed to scrape his knee while hopping aboard one of the idle cars. It wasn’t serious, but the scrape bothered him enough that he decided not to press on. He called Roni and she collected him along Bridgehead Road, about a mile from home.
Down to a party of one, Glenn continued on with the walk for another three hours, venturing along the BNSF Railway line west into neighboring Antioch, across from the power plants that line Wilbur Avenue. It is always fun to investigate different areas, especially when they are in places not usually seen from the highway. Of course, much of what one finds along the railroad tracks in quite literally garbage discarded toys and clothing and bits of equipment the railroad no longer needs. Beneath the Highway 160 overpass that separates Oakley from Antioch were several tents, presumably occupied by some of the area’s homeless folks. Although none were seen on this walk, the evidence of their activity was scattered about in the form of plastic bags full of trash, cardboard boxes piled with stuff, and in one place what appeared to be a discarded living room complete with easy chair, picture books and an exercise bike. Not to say that any of this stuff was in usable condition, but it obviously had been used.
Then of course there were the trees, the real reason for the walk. Each year it gets a bit more difficult to find blossoms to photograph, because the trees are falling victim to age and development. They are tough, however, given the harsh conditions imposed upon them by suburbia, and our favorites inside the DuPont property and along the Highway 160 embankments are still largely undisturbed. The weather mostly cooperated, giving us a couple hours of crystal blue skies before storm clouds started gathering toward midafternoon. We’ll happily photograph blossoms in any lighting, but it is more fun to do it with a sunny day.
There is a new power plant under construction on one corner of the DuPont property that butts up to the rail yard. It used to be a grape vineyard before the city of Oakley worked with the grower to relocate all the grapevines to other parcels within town and the contractors moved in with their bulldozers to grade the construction area. We thought that might affect a few of the almond trees there, and perhaps a couple were lost, but mostly the project hasn’t impacted the trees that were already growing beyond the fence line. The same cannot be said for the widening of Highway 4 through Antioch, which has deeply affected the tree population. Just this week, Caltrans crews have been out sawing down the established landscaping between G Street and Hillcrest Avenue in preparation for the next phase of the widening project. It seems they always do this sort of work in the spring, right as the trees are looking their best. A pity. But we will forgive them in 2015 when we have eight lanes to drive on instead of the current congested four.
Do you like chilaquiles? (And at this moment you are probably thinking, “chilawhasis?”) Chilaquiles is a traditional Mexican dish that is often served as a breakfast item, made from stale corn tortillas, tomato sauce, sour cream, cheese, a handful of miscellaneous ingredients, and occasionally topped with meat. We had never heard of it until about a year ago, when we tried some at a local Mexican restaurant in town and found the dish to be pretty good. Then shortly thereafter we were at the New Mecca Café in Pittsburg where Glenn ordered it again and was surprised at how different the two recipes were.
He had mostly forgotten about the dish until one recent Saturday when we were back in Pittsburg and we decided to stop for lunch at the “new” New Mecca. The new New Mecca is a lot like the old New Mecca, except that the iconic eatery recently completed a huge renovation and expansion, doubling its size along Railroad Avenue. It is a destination spot for diners in eastern Contra Costa County, and finding a table on a busy weekend can sometimes be a challenge. Fortunately there was room for us, and we enthusiastically ordered our favorites off the menu. Glenn, of course, had the chilaquiles with chicken, which for a lunch item was enough food to provide three, perhaps four, meals. Needless to say, a lot of it came home with us and was dissected in various ways to get to the essence of what makes a good chilaquiles recipe.
But still the desire to compare persisted, and so it was on another of our many treks into Rio Vista in early February that we stopped in at Raul’s Striper Café for a bite to eat, and just happened to find chilaquiles on the menu. This seemed odd to us, because Raul’s is essentially a traditional greasy spoon featuring the all-American staples of hamburgers and hot dogs, steak and eggs, deep-fried fish and whatnot. But there in the middle of all that traditional American comfort food was chilaquiles. The recipe was very different yet again. This one featured a bed of slightly crunchy chips bathed in a mildly sweet sauce and topped with chicken and queso fresco.
We were now inspired to try the recipe ourselves, so we found a basic one online and went out to WinCo to pick up all the ingredients. Trying to simplify things as much as possible, we substituted a prepared red salsa for the 35 ounces of tomato sauce and spices we otherwise were supposed to mix up from scratch. Just for good measure, Roni tossed in some diced jalapeño peppers, because in a traditional Mexican dish you can never have enough jalapeños, right? We fried our own corn tortillas like the recipe suggested, and cooked it up in the oven for a Sunday night meal, a little Mexican lasagna.
Ben was a bit wary of the whole thing. “Is it hot?” he asked, worried about it being too spicy. “We used the mild red sauce,” Glenn told him before we dug in, “It shouldn’t be too hot.” Understatement of the year. The red sauce, despite its package’s promise of being mild, was indeed hot. The added jalapeños made it that much hotter. Ben had all he could handle in the first couple of bites. Glenn and Roni finished theirs, but it wasn’t easy. Next time we’ll follow the recipe before we try to get creative.
Our previously mentioned trip to Pittsburg was to check out the Pittsburg Historical Museum, which Roni was covering for a story in the Brentwood News. The weekly paper recently started circulating in Pittsburg, so this would be one of the first stories she would get to write about the town that traces its roots back to the turn of the 20th century. What better place to start than the local museum? Glenn tagged along just to check the place out, curious as to how the historical society made use of what had once been the offices of the Pittsburg Post Dispatch newspaper.
The museum volunteers have done the place proud, creating displays that in several cases rival those of much larger state-run museums. Walls inside the front display room have been painted in a detailed mural depicting various stages of the community’s history, from the coal-mining days through the war years and into the modern era. There is an entire room dedicated to Pittsburg High School athletics, featuring trophies and memorabilia of some of the storied teams and players. It is amazing to see how many NFL and MLB stars were minted in this one community. Another room pays homage to the steel mill and its huge impact on the town.
Perhaps the most moving display is the one dedicated to the men and women of the armed services. Pittsburg was once home to Camp Stoneman, which was a key staging point for soldiers heading off to the front lines in World War II. The walls are filled with photos and stories about those soldiers, many of which were lost in combat. There is a statistic on one of the displays that says about once a week a family in town lost a loved one during the war. Quite sobering.
Roni got the guided tour from one of the museum docents and was able to tour displays on the top floor of the museum, normally off limits to the public. Ah, the perks of being a member of the media. Glenn spent much of the nearly two hours there admiring the displays and learning of the history of one of the Delta’s largest and least appreciated cities. It is impressive what Pittsburg has done to reinvent itself in the more than two decades we have been acquainted with it. When we first moved to Contra Costa County in 1989, downtown Pittsburg was a sorry collection of empty storefronts, dilapidated buildings and rubble-strewn lots. It was a hot spot for crime. Certainly not the place one would think of going to spend a pleasant weekend afternoon. But some wise redevelopment guru had a vision for what the downtown could be and laid a blueprint for the good things that are happening there now.
Railroad Avenue, with New Mecca as one of its star attractions, has been spruced up. There are a couple blocks of upscale (ugh, hate that word) apartments and fancy storefronts that have gone in, surrounded by giant palm trees. A couple of blocks down is the marina, which also has undergone a makeover. It is all very pedestrian friendly. In the heart of it all, just up the street from the museum, is a statue of a steelworker bending hot iron, a tasteful salute to Pittsburg’s heritage as an industrial powerhouse during the past century. Other towns in our area are rightfully envious of the effort that Pittsburg has gone through to improve its image.
Football season reached its conclusion Feb. 5 when the Giants and the Patriots met in Super Bowl XLVI. That didn’t mean much to us, because we were rooting for the 49ers to make the big game, but that didn’t stop us from having our own little Super Bowl party, just the three of us. We stopped by Raley’s to pick up provisions to make Roni’s popular cowboy salsa, and we found some cans of prepared strawberry daiquiri mix that we decided to serve up. It was an add-your-own-spirits mix, so we made virgin drinks for Ben and then set sail with Captain Morgan for the rest of the pitcher. Yummy. The game itself wasn’t so bad, provided one wasn’t rooting for the Patriots.
Glenn went 10-for-11 in predicting postseason games, which was far better than his success rate during the regular NFL season, during which he and Ben and Glenn’s brother Sean competed amongst themselves to see who could pick the most games correctly. Sean emerged with the best record this year to recapture the so-called Surfy Trophy that the brothers have shared for the past two decades. The winner gets the trophy for the coming year, so on Feb. 11 we drove to Hayward to present Sean with his prize.
The afternoon was spent at Sean’s apartment, during which we played a long session of Guitar Hero and then took advantage of a break in the storm clouds to get in a walk at Garin Regional Park. We hiked up to the ridge and then followed the Garin Ridge Trail through deep woods that took us past oaks, ferns and ivy high above the running waters of Garin Creek. We saw at least a half-dozen newts along the trail, literally sitting in our path. If we hadn’t been looking down we probably would have crushed them, and who knows how many we did actually trample. Still, we rescued them when we could. Ben of course had to make the obligatory jokes about the Geico gecko from the car insurance commercials, because these newts really did look a lot like him.
Sean moved us along the trail quickly so that we would be out of the woods by the time it started to get dark. Even in broad daylight there was very little light beneath the tree canopy, and we definitely didn’t want to be stuck out there in darkness on the muddy trail. We emerged from the woods back onto the grassy slopes that returned us to the ridgeline, scraping thick accumulations of mud off our shoes once we were back to the paved road. You get sort of spoiled living in an area with sandy soil that doesn’t stick to your feet everywhere you go, unlike the thick clay soil we encountered at Garin.
We stuck around until almost 9 p.m., grabbing dinner from the nearby Sonic drive-in and then watching an episode of the original Star Trek series on Netflix. Ben would have liked to stay longer, but we still had to find our way home through the construction work on Foothill Boulevard and get back to Interstate 580. Despite having lived in Hayward for many years, Glenn has forgotten what it’s like to drive there, especially at night.
Sean lives just a short distance from a BART station, and we told Ben that he could take BART out there to visit sometime. A few months ago that might have seemed a daunting proposition for him, but lately he has been getting the hang of riding on public transportation. Having a girlfriend will do that for you. Many is the time he has wanted to get together at his girlfriend Alexis’s house, but the Mom & Dad Taxi Company is on strike. We suggested that he learn how to take the bus. That wasn’t an appealing idea to him, at first, until he realized that it wasn’t any more difficult than knowing the schedule and coming up with the fare. At $3.50 a round trip, that’s not prohibitive.
Ben knows that the ultimate solution is to get his driver’s license so that he can eventually get a job to afford a car, insurance and gas money. Or get a girlfriend who lives closer to him. He took his driver permit test near the end of December, but missed the cut by just a few questions, so he is studying up and building courage to retake the exam, hopefully soon. Meanwhile, the sidewalks are still safe.