Friday, June 24, 2005

California: high expectations

Sunset on the California coast;  Katie in Sequoia National Park

The vast difference in the urban-rural economies was drive home to me this past week on a visit to California.
My comfortable income in Montana seems insignificant when I compare it to what I see my social, educational and professional peers making in the Golden State.
I’ve been staying in the central California valley in a nice development of the Sacramento River delta country known as Discovery Bay.
It is a planned development about an hour and a half’s drive east of San Francisco and near the old port town of Stockton.
I’ve been blown away by the cost of housing here. I couldn’t find a house in this entire development of nearly 10,000 people that is under $635,000. The average seems about $750,000 and many of the small, waterfront lots are going for $600,000 to $1 million! These are not castles, certainly not as elaborate and as upscale as some of the much lower priced houses under construction in Berkner Heights in Great Falls, for example.
Construction is booming and new upscale bedroom communities east of San Francisco and surrounding Sacramento are eating rich agricultural land.
I can’t imagine how young working families, even with two incomes can afford these prices.
Those who get into these homes seem trapped on a grim, interminable rat race treadmill.
Where does quality of life fit into this equation?
I’m reminded that these folks are buying this specific lifestyle, their dream, not mine. What may look scary to me is something for which they eagerly strive.
Even though Great Falls housing prices have spiked into the $130,000+ average range, young people still have a chance to buy them.
High expectations
My quality of life standard includes ready access to uncrowded wild lands, what with the proximity of the Bob Marshall complex, the Front, our island mountain ranges and the wild Missouri River breaks country so close.
This trip included a first-time visit to Yosemite National Park.
We made a mid-week visit, hoping to avoid the legendary crowds.
When we reached the so-called “valley” with sights like Half Dome and El Capitan and Yosemite Falls, those hopes were dashed.
We found traffic jams that rival anything I would see leaving a ballgame or concert in Chicago.
We found it difficult to get near trails in this valley to do any hiking. The old lodges and visitor center were overrun with these crowds. Vast parking lots were insufficient to take all the cars and tour buses, so in some of the spots with the more sensational views were found cars double-parked.
The Park Service responded with shuttle buses to sites in the valley and these parking lots. The buses were packed, but so were the walkways, the streets, the trails…..everything!
The scenery rivals anything I’ve beheld in any national park, but so do the crowds.
I found it so uncomfortable, that we got out of this valley as quickly as we could.
The next day we tried the more remote Hetch Hetchy valley to the north and found crowds about as large as we might encounter in Glacier Park’s more popular trails like Grinnell Lake or Iceberg Lake. We liked the scenery nearly as much as the valley and had more comfortable elbowroom.
Getting there much of the fun
Craters of the Moon in Idaho
On the way to California we stopped by the Craters of the Moon National Monument near Twin Falls. We marveled at this otherworldly landscape of cinder left by lava. This is a long one-day drive, but worth it for a long weekend.
Before Yosemite, we went to look at the giant trees in Sequoia National Park. Instead of lingering in this park, which also has impressive crowds, we decided to try the nearby Kings Canyon National Park. We were amazed to see how this spectacular country, built around the South Fork of the King River, had so few visitors. We visited Bryson Cave, a rare cave of marble, passed gushing waterfalls on the road, and never once felt crowded by traffic or other tourists.
All this was against a backdrop of some day trips in Great Falls in the week leading up to this monster trip. I picnicked in Widow’s Coulee Fishing Access Site on the Missouri River one day, and bicycled to Ryan Dam and visited the conservation district’s Crooked Falls wild area along the way. There are helpful vegetation and wildlife displays on this path.

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