Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Eating at the Aura

Where to eat? Always an adventure. Sometimes a surprise. In Portland a great surprise.

The restaurants in Portland’s City Center are packed as Bill and I soon discovered. The noise level within them was so huge and the crowds so intense I felt like heading back to the hotel to dine on crackers and cheese in our room. But we were really hungry, so when we spotted the silver lights running vertically to the right of an unobtrusive doorway at 1022 West Burnside Street, we decided to check it out.

The Aura restaurant from the outside gives no hit of the restrained elegance within. Subdued lighting, sleek furnishings, 2 bars that glittered like crystal, and small and intimate tables, behind which a screen shimmering with subtle colors and swirling shapes. The entire ambiance of the restaurant reflected "aura:" that subtle field of luminous multicolored radiation surrounding a person and other living things.

A slender and very tall young woman wearing a hand-crocheted white dress led us to a table to the rear of the L-shaped restaurant (we learned later that her father had purchased it for her as a gift and that she felt so special when she wore it). With only a few other patrons, Aura’s had the quiet we sought; but would it have the food we wondered?

A look at the menu convinced us that Aura was a good choice. Intrigued by the appetizers on the menu, we decided to make a meal of them and asked to have them served in courses. Our waitress Danielle served each dish with such care and pleasure that we knew they had to be special.

Served with a fine Australian Shiraz, the fresh sushi crab rolls with wasabi, wilted spinach salad with pancetta and onions dressed with an exquisite balsamic vinaigrette, warm pita triangles served with roasted peppers and asparagus, humus and goat cheese, and three kinds of tiny burgers: salmon, pork, and portabella mushrooms with goat cheese delighted us. The food was delicious. So why the restaurant was so sparsely attended?

Our waitress Danielle
It was early for their usual crowd of nightclub goers, Danielle assured us, pointing to the bartenders moving into position and the members of a live band assembling behind the dance floor screen. As we talked, a friendly young man in a white coat introduced himself as chef Chad Leighton. "Such great food," we said. "This place should be packed."

Leighton replied that he hoped great food would lure a dining as well as a dancing crowd. Most people knew Aura as a place for the latter but they hoped to enhance that image. He told us that he presides over the menu offered at the popular Fish Grotto restaurant on the other side of the building as well -- both restaurants sharing ownership and kitchen.

Executive Chef Chad Leighton

We reluctantly turned down the dessert menu -- too satisfied (stuffed) with our feast of delicious appetizers. As we left the restaurant, a crowd of elegantly dressed young people had already begun to line up outside the door. Though I want to wish Aura well in drawing larger crowds, I selfishly hope they are not there the next time we return to Portland.





Monday, April 28, 2008

Riding the Portland Rails

Portland: Day One

We didn't do any research on Portland prior to our journey there. Which is actually not a bad way to travel, especially in a city like Portland with its amazing transit system of 100 bus lines, 3 light rail lines, street cars and even a cable car – for it was while using this system that we often ended up having lively conversations with various persons ranging from the intellectual young woman who directed us to Powell’s bookstore and the skateboarder who waxed eloquent about Columbia River Gorge. “Man, you gotta see those waterfalls.”

The TriMet blows your mind. Ride it within the “Fareless Square,” which covers a great portion of Portland’s City Center and the nearby Lloyd district where we were staying, and you travel free! Perhaps it is the free fare that accounts for the crowds in downtown Portland at night. (Minneapolis/St. Paul take note. It's not arena's that bring crowds to your downtowns, it's free rapid transit!)

Bill and I rode Portland's transit system by day and by night, getting along very well without our rented car as we could ride to and fro within the city and way out into the suburbs. The only time we needed a car was the final day when we took our friendly skateboarder's advice and headed out to the Columbia River Gorge to see "those waterfalls" and the scenic drive toward Mount Hood’s snow-covered peak that dominates the Portland landscape.

But, let’s get back to our first day in Portland (or rather evening which is when we arrived and headed off on our first rapid transit leap into the city). That night we dedicated to riding the transit system for the first time, met our intellectual sister traveler and made our way, as per her suggestion, to Powell’s Bookstore – the largest independent bookseller of new and used books in the world. I usually stop into bookstores to sign copies of my book, The Scent of God. Normally these bookstores have several copies on hand save for the airport bookstores where the mention of my book brings a blank stare. When I introduced myself and made my inquiry about signing copies, I was told to head to the “red section” where I would find four copies -- two used and two new paperbacks) to sign.

Juniper, the young woman at the red section’s help desk, was mightily perplexed to discover that there was only one copy of The Scent of God on her shelves -- a galley (an advanced readers’ copy) wearing the "busy" jacket (see photo below) that was rejected in favor of the final stunning book cover. She suggested I browse the store while she looked for more. "I'll page you if I find the other copies." She didn't sound too hopeful.

Browsing Powell's is like a dream of finding oneself in a home where one room opens to another and floor leads to floor and you keep exclaiming "Imagine, this is my house and I never knew it had all these rooms." From religion to travel to memoir to poetry I wandered, finally settling down in the fiction section to scan a book of Flannery O'Connor's short stories when I heard my name announced clearly over the loud speaker. "Beryl Singleton Bissell. Please come to the information desk in the red section, second floor."

Juniper had managed to locate only one more book. Having seen me screw up my face when she'd produced the first galley, she pushed a second galley apologetically toward me. "I'm so sorry, I couldn't find the two new paperbacks. They might be on hold, or their sale has not yet been logged into the system.”

My husband Bill and I had gotten separated almost immediately upon entering the store (we have different reading tastes). Thinking I'd better track him down before we both passed out from hunger, I began cruising the various floors and sections. Meanwhile, Bill, having heard me paged, headed for the "red section," arriving just after I left. So for the second time that evening my name was announced over the loud speaker at Powell's, this time so that Bill and I could reconnect at the "red section." Locating one another was a much happier finding than my book signing experience had been, especially when we both agreed it was time to eat, which launched our next adventure.

Eating in Portland . . . to be posted tomorrow.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Get thee to the Getty

Back in Los Angeles, yet still floating on Sequoia highs, I decide to visit the world famous Getty Center on a hilltop in the Santa Monica Mountains. To get there, I can take a taxi for the measly sum of $45.00 one-way, or I can take the same trip by bus for $1.00. As a Senior, I do even better . . . I get bargain rates: $0.45 for an hour and a half trip! All I have to do is walk several blocks to the LAX bus depot on 96th Street, take the Culver City 6 to Westwood and make the transfer there to Metro Rapid Line 761.

I arrive at Getty Drive, leave the bus, and hop onto a sleek tramway that makes me feel like I am a bird rising above the landscape below. The museum complex is huge, positioned around a central plaza. The buildings are clad in enameled metal; the plaza in split travertine, some blocks of which reveal fossilized aspen leaves. Huge asymmetrical archways frame panoramas of the mountain ridges beyond and the city below.

The architect, Richard Meier incorporated undulating design elements into the Getty buildings to soften the stark geometric design of the campus; a softening enhanced by the natural gardens designed by artist Robert Irwin which lead visitors along a walkway bordered by colorful flowers, trees, and shrubs that change with the season. The walkways meander around and across a boulder strewn stream that eventually cascades down into a pool with its own floating maze of azaleas.

Always anxious to learn as much as I can about a place, I took the architectural tour with a guide who shared all sorts of nifty ideas about how Meier’s concepts managed to blend contrasting yet complimentary shapes and forms into a complex compatible with the surrounding landscapes yet incorporate his preference for tightly controlled environments (note all those "Cs in this very long sentence).

After the tour, which last over an hour, I bought a chicken salad at the outdoor cafe and sat under an umbrella to relax. I ate surrounded by babies in strollers, tripping toddlers, kissing lovers, doting grandparents, and a bevy of gorgeous red-hatted black ladies in the purple outfits waltzing by to the music of their own laughter. So much activity, yet I felt wondrously alone and content in the warm afternoon sun.

I had such a good time outside, wandering through the gardens and walkways, watching groups of parochial school children in plaid uniforms and red shirts working earnestly over sketch pads that I quite forgot about visiting the numerous art collections inside. Instead I peeked over the young people’s shoulders intrigued by the variety of objects they chose to draw – buildings, scenes, flowers details, until another more boisterous group of children (followed by admonishing mamas), jostled past me and busied themselves running hither and yon in free-floating delight.

When I checked my watch I realized that I’d only one-half hour left in which to visit the art galleries. How would I explain myself if I didn't at least give them a peek? So off I dashed, working my way from one floor to the next of one gallery. I'd reached the third floor when I realized the sunglasses I'd been guarding so assiduously had disappeared. I needed those glasses. The sun was too bright without them and I'm cataract prone. My loss triggered a mad search of every gallery room as I attempted to retrace my steps. I could swear that I was rushing through rooms that hadn't been there earlier. Finally I was back where I'd begun my gallery tour and wouldn't you know, that's where I found those glasses. They blended so nicely with the black table on which they sat in the dark interactive screening room that they seemed to want to stay.

The ride back to Los Angeles resembled a crazy game of sardines -- men, women and children crushed onto seats among a swaying mass of humanity clinging to bars and handle straps as their purses and shopping bags and lunch buckets strove for space as well. A woman in front of me hummed the same two notes in quiet monotony for the entire trip. I wondered if she was claustrophobic, and if I hummed with her I might assuage the feeling of suffocation I was feeling.
At each stop, people got off and more got on to take their place. I arrived back at the hotel just as my husband returned from work.

It was still light out, so we headed to Manhattan Beach, where we walked in the sand for almost an hour. Hungry by then, we stopped at a tiny corner restaurant called Talia where we ate a not so tiny Italian meal. Meanwhile, our car, sitting alone in the parking lot, decided to spring a flat tire. It could have been worse, that tire could have flattened while we were careening down the Sierra Nevada Mountains earlier in the week. Besides, that flat gave me the chance to admire something new about Bill: his competent skill with car jack and wrench. Impressive. Compared to it, my successful foray by bus to the Getty, seemed like child's play.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Wuksachi Lodge and Grants Grove (Day 2 of Sequoia Holiday)

Morning at the Wuksachi Lodge dawned silent and tinged with gold. Bill and I woke around five, opened the curtains, pulled on a few clothes, then sat to meditate. When I opened, the snow-capped mountain towering above the trees seemed within walking distance and a spider-web shimmered in the white spruce outside, light streaking across its fibers in a gentle breeze.

At breakfast that morning, the lodge dining room was filled with families, many speaking with defined British accents and the children, all of them, incredibly well behaved. A little Asian boy with delicate features and bed-mussed hair eating pancakes at the next table made me smile as did a 10-year-old miss with the curly blonde hair eating with her giant of a father the table beyond that. From floor to ceiling, windows brought the surrounding landscape – mountains, snow, woods – right into the dining room. Our table was bathed in so much light that I could have used a pair of sunglasses, but it felt warm and welcoming after a brisk walk from our suite in the Sequoia building to the Lodge.

After breakfast, while Bill went for a heart-stimulating power-walk around the grounds, I wrote in my journal. Then I took my own more leisurely stroll, camera in hand, to capture the views from different points – a walk made merry by the song birds that filled the air with music and flitted through the trees or hopped onto the path before me. Despite the rapidly warming weather the snow was still deep around the lodge and I was surprised at how little run-off I saw; I could only surmise that the ground was so dry that it caught every drop of moisture it could.

Bill and I reconnected around 9:30, gathered our cameras and wallets, and set off to see the marvels still ahead of us along a section of the highway not nearly as precipitous as the drive up from the Ash Mountain park entrance had been. Our destination was the General Grant Grove of giant Sequoias but at the still snow bound Dorst Creek campgrounds, the Lost Grove of giant sequoias towering above us demanded we stop.

A young woman on a small electric wheelchair, whizzed past us, intent on following the sun on the cinnamon bark of the Sequoias from tree to tree. Meanwhile her husband talked to a park employee who was emptying the bear-proof garbage receptacles placed generously at many of the pull-off along the trail. Which brings me to the subject of bears. Apparently there are lots of hungry black bears in the park. That morning we’d just missed seeing a mother with two cubs stroll through the Lodge parking lot.

The Nation’s Christmas Tree – photo by hubby Bill Christ

Bill and I stopped for a lunch of teriyaki chicken and tempura vegetables on yellow rice at the Kings Canyon Visitor Center. Unusual park fare don’t you think? Afterwards, a short drive up the road took us to the largest known grove of giant sequoias--Grants Grove. Several of the most massive trees grow here, including the General Grant (aka the Nation’s Christmas Tree), with a trunk measuring 40 feet in diameter! A series of trails, some still packed in snow lead us past these immense forest lords and into one of them -- a massive fallen sequoia that had once housed an ale house within its interior!

Beryl inside the entrance to the fallen Sequoia that once served as a bar. Photo by hubby Bill Christ

We left the grove, intending to drive to Kings Canyon Lodge but the drive was so sheer and convoluted and the mountain scenery so barren that a sign saying the road was closed several miles ahead encouraged us to turn around. The outlook at Junction View, the place where we did this turning, convinced us. It gave us a clear view of ongoing S curves snaking downwards into the canyon for what seemed an eternity.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Take a hair-raising ride to wondrous (Day 1 of Sequoia Holiday)

The Sentinel -- an average giant

When we set off earlier this week for the Sequoia and King's Canyon National Parks we had no idea “where” these parks were. We knew only what the map told us: that they lay several hundred miles northeast of Los Angeles, but not that these parks are some 7,000 feet high in the Sierra Nevada Mountain Range and are reached by several hundred hair-raising S turns with precipitous drops on one side or the other. “Take a look at that view,” my hubby Bill said and I replied “Yes. Yes,” while clutching the passenger seat in a white-knuckled death grip and mentally reminding myself to “Breathe.”

Breathing was definitely easier when we were on the inside of the General’s Highway and when Bill wasn’t noting the magnificent view while racing past them! Actually, Bill drives mountain roads with skill, acquired by years of negotiating similar roads in the Colorado Rockies. Contrarily I have not been so trained or inured. And I have a terror of heights, notwithstanding that I happened to love doing the ropes course on an Outward Bound close to my 60th birthday.

The sights that greeted us when we met our first giant Sequoias, however, made potential heart-failure worthwhile. We were in awe! I felt something akin to spiritual ecstasy in the presence of these towering forest divinities with their massive cinnamon-colored trunks. We stopped to take photos of the ones we met along the way, having no idea that they were of “average” proportion with trunk diameter of only 20-30 feet. No, ahead of us, awaited the General Grant with its 40 foot diameter, and the largest tree in the world by volume, The General Sherman.

When reading about the giant Sequoias I'd somehow pictured an entire forest filled with only these massive trees. I did not realize that they exist within a varied environment with Sugar Pines, Red Firs, Western Azaleas, Sierra Laurel and the like. Nor did I realize that the cones of these huge beings were as small as chicken eggs. Theirs were not the 13-18 inch long cones of the Sugar Pines, or even the 6-8 inch cones of the Western White Pine.

The General Sherman (note the fence asking visitors to stay on the other side as the roots of these giants are vulnerable)

Standing in silence under these greatest of all Sierra trees -- many of which average 2,000 or more years in age (the oldest being estimated at 3,200 years), I pondered the historical events that had taken place while they were growing: the volcanic eruption devastating the island of Thera in Greece, the rule of the Egyptian queen Nefertiti, the start of the Iron Age, the first Olympic Games, the writing of the Hebrew Bible, the wisdom of Buddha, the life and death of Jesus of Nazareth and so on.

This man is on the wrong side of the fence. Maybe he can't read.

I felt as if I were standing in the presence sages who, if asked, could predict the future of life on this planet based on what they’d witnessed as humankind progressed from the use of iron tools to the transmission of information through the Ethernet, and nature has been simultaneously altered by our "advancement," as attested to by San Joaquin Valley smog through which we drove on our way into the Sierra's . . . smog that drifts perniciously upward into the highlands where these Sequoias grow.

The challenge that confronts us visitors to view and honor these amazing trees is that even our visit contributes to that smog. That despite our efforts to live in as green a manner as we can, the fact that we eat and heat and drive and use cell phones, carries an invisible carbon footprint.
Now that's a hair-raising thought.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune named Beryl as a "Best of 2006 Minnesota Authors." Her book The Scent of God was a “Notable” Book Sense selection for April 2006.




Thursday, April 10, 2008

Day Two: Mountain Drive and . . . Sundance

In my last blog we'd arrived in Salt Lake City and did Salt Lake City stuff. In this blog we are off to the mountains . . . driving into those amazing snow covered peaks -- one car midst a caravan of spring break skiers, off, not to ski but to see. What we did not expect was to become part of a "happening" at Sundance.

Fans of all things Sundance, we made a sharp right off highway 189 onto 92. The terrain changed immediately from desert to fir forested cliffs. It was a narrow road, which surprised me and I wondered how the many who gather at Sundance for film festivals coordinated their travel through such a narrow and "falling rocks" zone. (Found out later that the festival has grown too large for Sundance and takes place at various theaters in Provo).

The parking lot at Sundance was packed!!! Skiers of all sizes, shapes, and ages -- hauling skis off tops of cars, clipping boots, donning hats, goggles and gloves. A young man wearing a florescent vest and directing traffic, leaned in our window and asked: "Are you here for the author reading?"

"Author Reading?" I asked. Bill added "My wife's an author." "Well then," he said, "second parking lot, under the gateway, to the Tree House Room."

We followed his directions and found ourselves surrounded by elegantly dressed people moving toward a sumptuous buffet. "Your reservation?" the woman at the desk asked. We didn't have reservations, we hadn't known about this event, but we'd love to attend we told her. It seemed so serendipitous that we should land at Sundance in time for an author's reading. "I'll see what I can do," the woman replied. "We are booked solid but maybe there will be a no show."

I stood awkwardly at the desk while people with reservations filed past and received copies of author Fred Krupp's new book Earth: The Sequel: The race to reinvent energy and stop global warming. And the wait paid off! For a mere $95 per person, we could partake of brunch and program. Because we did not have reservations they could not give us a book but they gave us nameplates that he could sign later.

The price took our breath away but as it seemed so serendipitous that we should have arrived just as this event was starting, and two places were available, we made the plunge. A couple was already seated at our table (which happened to be next to the dessert table) and greeted us with a "and how is it that you find yourselves at this table?" Apparently their son, who was to have attended the event with them had decided to ski instead and we were the lucky recipients of that decision. Sandra and Robert were warm and fascinating dinner partners -- avid readers, active environmentalists, and great conversationalists.

I noticed Bill talking up a storm with the man next to him in the buffet line ... who turned out to be none other than author Fred Krupp himself. And later, while Bill was waiting in line for the mens' room, who should walk into the hallway and introduce himself but Robert Redford himself! Bill was beaming. His timing, I must say, was especially astute. I should take some lessons from him.

Krupp's talk was exciting -- far from the doom and gloom many of us have come to expect from environmentalists. Krupp, who has headed the Environmental Defense Fund for years, had exciting ventures to share with us . . . news of entrepreneurs who have developed amazing technologies to combat global warming.

As I was listening I thought that this is where the national stimulus package should have gone . . . jobs the government could have fostered by applying forward thinking and launching a full scale national initiative of environmental technologies geared toward making this nation independent of foreign oil and to our boosting our national economy.

There is more to this amazing day but that lies ahead in another blog.

Photo is of Fred Krupp signing a nameplate for me.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune named Beryl as a "Best of 2006 Minnesota Authors." Her book The Scent of God was a “Notable” Book Sense selection for April 2006.




Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Salt Lake City : Day 1


When my husband Bill booked tickets for us to meet in Salt Lake City, I thought "What's to see in Salt Lake City besides the Mormon Temple." Well, we got to see the temple all right. Lots of it. From our room at the Marriott Hotel in Temple Square, which overlooked a construction zone, we had a perfect view of the Temple complex. But there's a lot more to see than temples in Utah.

I was starving when we arrived, so we walked toward the restaurant we'd spotted on the way in -- the one with the artsy awnings that had actually gone out of business. So much for dining in restaurants with awnings. Onward. The Red Rock Brewing Company -- with its old factory warehouse style interior: brick walls, open ceilings, wide plank floors, looked inviting. Besides, it was packed which usually means good food. We managed to find a table toward the back where the decibel level was fairly manageable. Fortified with a great house brew honey light beer and a wondrous marinated onion, tomato and mozzarella cheese on ciabatta bread sandwich we were ready to take on the city.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped at the Visitor Information Bureau in the convention center to ask about the drive to Mirror Lake -- supposed to be one of the most scenic in the US. "Oh," said the man behind the desk, laughing, "that road won't be plowed until June. Do you know how much snow we've had here?" I gathered it must have been a lot.

"So, what road do we take," I asked. He pulled out a map and traced a route east along 80, then south on 189 taking 15 northwest back to the city. He also told us that Antelope Island was the place from which to view the great Salt Lake itself.

Because we were well into the afternoon by then, we decided to take the Light Rail tram up the mountain to the University of Utah, thinking to walk the historic district up there not realizing that it was several miles from the last trolley stop. So much for those plans. We'd retraced our steps back up Sunnyside, saw the trolley, but had no idea how to catch it. Noting a woman hustling along with a backpack strapped tightly to her shoulders, we asked. "Follow me," she said, and disappeared across a parking lot, then across a street, then around some buildings and down under a tunnel where we finally emerged at a far distant trolley stop from the one we'd disembarked from.

We got back in time to take the last tour of the Mormon Temple Complex. Two young well-dressed young women, one from Hawaii and one from Kenya, gave testimony after testimony from Congregation Hall through the North Building (where several floors of amazing paintings and scenarios with wax figures representing various stories from the Book of Mormon) to the blue room with the massive statue of Jesus.


Somewhere toward the end of the tour I realized that I'd lost my leather gloves and head scarf and tore off in search of it, finding them in the Congregation Hall where I must have laid them during one of the testimonies.

Enough for day one. Day two will include our journey into ski resort territory and a serendipitous visit to Sundance along the way.


The Minneapolis Star Tribune named Beryl as a "Best of 2006 Minnesota Authors." Her book The Scent of God was a “Notable” Book Sense selection for April 2006.