The most lovable airport?

I had a love/hate relationship with O’Hare Airport in Chicago, where I grew up. On the one hand, even as a child I saw it as a gateway to adventure, the portal that you passed through if you wanted to get not only to other places in America, but also Paris! Tokyo! Bombay! (as it was known in my youth). On the other hand, O’Hare was a monster — busiest in the country (before Atlanta passed it up), hard to get to, hard to navigate.

Since then I’ve come to know and hate other monster airports; London’s Heathrow and New York’s Kennedy spring to mind. But I’ve only come to love one: our own Lindbergh Field (more properly: San Diego International Airport). Sure, it’s not very international, and people have been moaning for decades over its inability to expand. But I love how close it is to my house (just 20 minutes when traffic’s good). I love its splendid setting. I’m almost always happy when I’m there: setting off on a journey or picking up a loved one or knowing that I’m safely home again.

As if all that weren’t enough, the “Terminals to Tarmac” tours offered by the airport authority have made me like the place even more. They’re free. To take one, all you have to do is sign up online (and be able to take off a couple of hours on a Thursday afternoon or a Friday morning, the only times the tours are offered.) I first took the tour back in January of 2008 and learned a lot that I didn’t know then. With the expansion of Terminal 2 almost complete, I was grateful to join another of the excursions last Thursday afternoon.

Jim Payne (photographs by L. Stephen Wolfe)

Once again, our tour guide was a highly knowledgeable airport staffer — this time a veteran named Jim Payne whose day job normally involves negotiating with airlines. At the commuter terminal, we all piled into a “VIP tour” bus with him and drove to Terminal 1, where we disembarked and strolled through the terminals on foot. Then we got back on the bus and drove most of the perimeter of the airfield, along roads that normally are not open to the public.

Once again, I learned a lot. Perhaps most fascinating was Payne’s contention that if the runway had been angled just 10 degrees to the right, it would be long enough to accommodate much bigger and heavier aircraft. Moreover, he claimed that it was set up as it was (decades ago) to avoid just two private buildings.

This highly detailed model of the airport, created by a couple of employees, has been moved to a prominent spot in Terminal 2.

We learned that tankers bring all the jet fuel to a dock downtown. Then it’s piped along Harbor Drive and under the field to a tank farm on the east side. Two millions gallons of the stuff can be stored there  — only enough to fuel four days worth of planes (which on average burn through 800 to 1500 gallons an hour).

One disappointment was that was didn’t get to see Terminal 2’s new food court, which is located on the far side of security. Nor did we go into the new USO facility, which Payne described as being almost sumptuous (and the largest of its kind in the US). But other parts of the expansion were accessible and impressive, most notably the new outdoor check-in facilities at the west end of Terminal 2.

Passengers can even check in their baggage at the new outdoor check-in stands.

 

The view from the new upper-level Terminal 2 Departures section -- also a great place to pick up arriving passengers in the afternoon, when things are always slow.

Payne shared plenty of other interesting tidbits, including the facts:

— that Southwest accounts for 37% of Lindbergh’s traffic.

— that the commuter terminal looks headed for extinction, because the airlines aren’t ordering any more turboprops and small jets — the only ones that can physically fit into that space.

— that planes have to take off to the east about 3% of the time — and almost always because of fog.

For me the sweetest moment came when we were driving around the field, and our bus driver called out that we were about to see something cool. He stopped the vehicle, and we watched as an Alaskan Airlines jet roared in our direction. Just as it was about to pass, the wheels lifted off the tarmac. We were closer to the take-off than you can get anywhere these days. It stirred a faint memory of watching planes take off from O’Hare when I was a child, and it still felt thrilling.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Destination: Barrio Logan

On my last visit to the Public Market in Barrio Logan, I came away dazzled by the potential of the enterprise and delighted by the plans to expand to daily operations by the summer of 2013. Today I learned that that expansion has been delayed.

Catt White

But there’s still a lot going on, both at the Main Street site and elsewhere.

I was visiting Barrio Logan with a group organized by the San Diego Professional Tour Guide Association. At the Market, Catt White, one of the two owner/organizers, greeted us. She explained that she and her business partner, Dale Steele have “retooled” their thinking about the best way to develop the 92,000-square-foot complex. For a while, the Market Hall will continue housing a farmer’s markets Wednesdays (11 to 1:30) and Sundays (9 to 2), with the plan still being to expand to permanent vendors and daily operations, but probably not until the spring of next year. In the meantime, White and Steele will be developing other sections of the property.

In a courtyard that adjoins the central hall, several small cottages will be renovated for retail operations: an electric bike vendor, a yoga studio, a bakery, a sandwich shop. One of the cottages also will be earmarked for an resident who’ll be charged with growing vegetables, tending goats and chickens, and composting on an “urban farm lab.”

Finally, White says this adjoining empty land will serve more farmer stalls, and outdoor dining facilities.

The partners have begun renting a huge adjoining shed for various events (a sit-down wedding dinner for 40; a Teach America reception for 75), and White says they expect “pop-up” restaurateurs to lease it for a month or two at a time. Nearby,  White and Steele will transform former office space into a commercial kitchen that they’ll rent out and use for community educational events.

 

Apart from the Public Market, the tour included two other memorable food stops. One was the 36,000-square-foot Northgate Market that opened last December. The 37th in a chain of grocery stores started 25 years ago by an Anaheim family named Gonzalez, it’s a bright and lively place with a distinctly Hispanic flavor. Our group whizzed through it, but I want to return for more leisurely inspection. The deli, meat, and produce sections looked particularly enticing.

We paid a quick visit to the Ryan Brothers cafe and roastery across the street, about which I’ve already enthused here. Then we wound up in Chicano Park, whose murals recently have undergone a major renovation. Artist Salvador Torres (one of the park’s leading muralists) was on hand to share some of the history and make a pitch for a cable car to be suspended along the Coronado Bridge (a variation, or so it appeared, on the pedestrian and bike tube idea that’s supposedly being pondered by county officials.)

That sounds like a very cool idea to me. But whether or not it gets built, there’s more and more to visit in the shadow of the bridge.

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A Market in the Making

If you walk into the new San Diego Public Market, which just opened September 12 in Barrio Logan, you might feel a twinge of disappointment. I did, when Steve and I visited just as the place was opening this morning. The gap between what the founders envision and the current reality is substantial. But even a short stroll around the premises made me want to withhold further judgment — to wait and see how it all develops. I think the market could become a magnet for both city residents and tourists alike, and if it does, it could vault Barrio Logan into the ranks of the city’s hottest neighborhoods.

What the entrepreneurial food mavens Catt White and Dale Steele envision is an indoor space that will rival some of the world’s great urban food markets: think Pike Place in Seattle or London’s Borough Market or La Boqueria in Barcelona. Already, close to 60 farmer’s markets operate throughout San Diego County, but none is a permanent fixture. Even the best (Carlsbad, La Jolla, Hillcrest) only exist for a few hours on a single day of the week. White, who manages farmer’s markets in Little Italy, Pacific Beach, and North Park, and her business partner Steele dreamt of a giant food hall, open every day and showcasing not only fresh produce but also theatrical displays of cheese-making, salami-curing, bread-baking, chocolate-tempering, coffee-roasting artisans at work. They reportedly tried for years to find the right spot (at one point targeting, but failing to secure, the former San Diego Police Headquarters next to Seaport Village) before deciding to renovate a 92,000-square-foot warehouse at 1735 National Avenue, just a few blocks from Chicano Park. To raise the $92,000 they would need for permits, equipment, and contractors, they launched a Kickstarter.com campaign last month. In just two weeks, they not only reached their goal but went on to secure a total of more than $146,000 from almost 1,400 supporters.

For the moment, it’s just a farmer’s market, open only two days a week (Sundays and Wednesdays, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.).

Moreover, the former warehouse is cavernous, and while dozens of vendors were present this morning, there’s a lot of empty space. It’s not crackling with activity, and that’s what initially made me feel let down.

But, strolling the aisles, I found avocados, oranges, pomegranates, apples, grapes, pluots, plums, peaches, chickens (from two vendors), eggs, passionfruit, dates, jam, figs, limes, apples, squash, celery, greens, cheese, honey, peppers, flowers, several suppliers of olive and avocado oil, crackers, soups, dips, sushi, lemonade, crepes, Carlsbad mussels, eggplants, breads and other baked goods, gourmet tamales, natural pet supplies, beauty products, woven baskets, handmade soap and bath products, and more — in short, just about anything that you could need to get dinner on the table.

Surely lots of downtown residents will begin flocking here in short order.  From the East Village to the warehouse is just a short stroll, if one that not many people currently make. As the spaces fill in and the market becomes a true landmark, it’s easy to find that tourists will be drawn here too for a taste of the local bounty.

 

 

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Military Diego

The Voice of San Diego is turning its fact-checking eye on an interesting question: is it true that San Diego has the largest military concentration in the US? The question isn’t easy to answer, as the term “military” can include both uniformed and civilian employees. VOSD is still trying to dig up numbers for the civvies.  But reporter Keegan Kyle has already come up with an answer about the active uniformed muscle based here.  San Diego does appear to be first by a long shot: 92,597 men and women, compared to the next closest contender, Norfolk, Virginia, with 55,098. Camp Pendleton holds the largest number — 34,782, followed by the Naval Station (17,035), the Navy’s Amphibious Base on Coronado (10,515), North Island Naval Air Station (7,980), the Marines at Miramar Air Station (7,816), the Marine Corps Recruit Depot (6,560), Navy Hospital (3,824), the Navy’s Anti-Submarine Warfare Training Center (2,008), and the relatively measly Naval Supply Center at the foot of Broadway (just 320. How do they survive the solitude?).

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Program this one into your GPS

Maps help me get to where I want to go and see where I’ve been. But they can do much more. The extraordinary new Map and Atlas Museum of La Jolla serves as a reminder that they can also conjure up political dramas and illuminate paths to conquest; remind us of just how wrong human beings can be and how splendidly they can render their delusions.

This world-class collection is hidden. At least four times a week, I go to the gym in the Merrill Lynch building at 7825 Fay, a block off La Jolla’s main tourist drag. Often I have coffee on the lower level. Yet it took me 17 months to discover the map museum — tucked behind the elevator and open only from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesdays, Thursdays, and the first and third Saturday of each month.

The limited hours belie both the stature of the collection and the generosity of Michael Stone, the financier who built it. Starting about 20 years ago with an idle purchase at a country fair, Stone since has acquired some 600 items (including atlases), of which 250 or so are displayed in the La Jolla facility. These range from a copy of what’s considered to be the first map ever printed (in 1472 – a primitive representation of the Earth) to a cheerful 1958 Southern California tourist map highlighting the region’s “Roads to Romance.”

The Roads to Romance

Some items are breathtakingly rare, such as the 1493 Basel edition of Christopher Columbus’ letter describing his voyage to the new world. Only the second edition of his report included a map, and only two copies of that volume are known to survive. One’s displayed here.

The museum owns one of only two known versions of the first published Gold Rush map. Near where it’s displayed, a stand-alone case holds a map of one of Benjamin Franklin’s surveys, for which Benjamin Franklin himself cut the woodblock and which he printed. An entire wall presents documents created during the two centuries in which California was believed to be an island.  A few steps away is the 1816 first edition of John Melish’s map of the United States, widely considered to be one of the most influential maps in U.S. history – America’s  Manifest Destiny made tangible.

Manifest Destiny 1816

Not all the museum’s holdings depict the New World. One gallery (the elegant “Purple Room”) highlights maps of Europe, the heavens, and the Holy Land.  The adjoining “Yellow Room” showcases maps of Africa and Asia, including a black and white engraving depicting the route from Nagasaki to Edo in 1724. Some items in the collection are less serious. I found the map-in-a-suitcase once toted by some door-to-door San Diego real estate salesman to be particularly endearing.

The museum’s director, Richard Cloward, says one of the museum’s most popular maps is the whimsical map of San Diego created by Jacinto “Jo” Mora to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the (long-defunct) Marston’s Department Store.

Detail from Jo Mora's Marston map

Cloward says the museum will mount a special exhibition of Mora’s work in the fall, while a 2013 exhibition will celebrate the Gold Rush. Admission to all this is free, and if you have a group of five or more that wants a special tour outside the regular hours, you can arrange that – also at no cost.

Cloward says Stone’s deepest wish is for people to better appreciate the wondrous history of cartography. As much as the next person, I like using Google Maps on my computer and mobile devices. I even appreciate the crude but useful maps of my GPS. But I salute Stone’s magnanimous impulse: the creations at the Map and Atlas Museum constitute an altogether different realm of human achievement. They deserve to be not just appreciated but celebrated.

 

 

 

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Cartoon caper

Comic-Con was in full swing at the San Diego convention center, but for real-life immersion in a graphic-novel-style comic adventure, seeing the Saturday night lucha libre match in Tijuana was at least as satisfying.

The sport and the subculture surrounding it have been around for more than 50 years, and I’d heard how outrageous it could be. But I’d never been to a match. What made me think of going Saturday was that Derrik Chinn was leading one of his Turista Libre excursions there. I’d learned about Derrik only recently, to my chagrin. An Ohio native, he worked for the Union-Tribune for a couple of years, then was let go during one of the mass terminations at the paper in 2010. But he’d moved to TJ in 2007, and in 2009 started doing offbeat tours that are now a major source of his income. His website describes his mission as being to introduce foreigners “to the highlights locals know and love…. No narco warfare. No strolls down hooker row.” No bull fights or donkey shows.

Derrik Chinn

The Lucha Libre expedition was a tad pricy ($35/person) but less daunting than trying to figure out the ticket buying and transport on my own. Seventeen people had signed up, and Derrik waited for us all in front of the UETA duty-free shop just north of the turnstyle leading into Mexico. Most of the group looked to be under 35 (Derrik’s 31), except for Steve and me and a 50-ish South African expat and former actress turned novelist. Derrik led us across the border and to a liquor store (where some folks stocked up for the evening). Then we piled onto a battered bus owned by a husband and wife team, Benjamin and Pilar.

Derrik’s not one to overburden his guests with touristic factoids. Instead he passed out jello shots that he’d made from Kool-aid and (I assume) vodka, and I have to say they were greeted much more warmly than any travelogue would have been. When we arrived at the municipal auditorium (on Boulevard Aguacalientes) about 20 minutes later, the group was in high spirits.

Inside we studied the tantalizing array of masks for sale. (My flashy red choice was only $5.) Though the theoretical start time was 8:30, when we took our seats high above the ring (general-admission ones for 100 pesos, or around $8, included in Derrik’s price) around 8:45, the first match was just getting under way. For a while, the profusion of exotic snack items distracted me: roasted corn, both on the cob and shaved off it, served in big cups; steamed tacos; gigantic chicharrones; tostilocos (which Derrik describes as “the city’s very own fruit-nut-nacho-lard salad”); and much, much more.

But the “wrestling” action was even more compelling than the crowd and comestibles. The lucha action bears almost no resemblance to the La Jolla High School wrestling team’s prim maneuvers (my only previous exposure to the sport).  I’d expected it to look fake but found that was only half correct. If the outcomes are pre-determined, and parts of the matches are choreographed, the wacky violence has unexpected dimensions. It’s cartoonish: bodies slam into the drum-like ring floor with thunderous booms; the wrestlers hurl each other out of the ring to smash into the floor below; they stomp on each other; fake slaps and punches and agonized reactions to being kicked in the balls. But as the evening wore on, I found myself gaping at the astounding athleticism of this mayhem – fighters caroming off the ropes to launch themselves in aerial ambushes, fighters leaping off the corner posts onto their opponents’ heads – and holding my breath. Surely small miscalculations must sometimes be fatal.

I would have liked to learn more about the fighters’ personas and rivalries, the unfolding plots and sub-plots. (“It’s basically a soap opera for men,” was Derrik’s pithy summary.) The costumes intrigued me too — Power Rangers, Kabuki, Halloween night at the disco – those and more seemed comprehensible to the fans (if not to me.) All I really got was the most basic structure of the melodrama: four matches escalating into greater and greater chaos. Two fighters in the first match. Four (on two teams) in the second. Six in the third – by which point they were grabbing folding chairs from the audience and smashing each other over the heads with them. They were hauling out huge plywood boards and building structures on which to pulverize their opponents. By the end, when headliners “Dr. Wagner” and “Silver King” faced off against “L.A. Park” and “Super Parker,” it seemed the evening had devolved into anarchy, with fighters savaging the referee and chasing each other through the auditorium, the hooting, cheering spectators scattering at their approach.

The party for Derrik’s tour goers didn’t end when we spilled out onto the boulevard. Benjamin cranked up his bus’s sound system, and there was dancing in the aisles as we jounced through the city’s dimly illuminated streets.  At a red light, Benjamin himself engaged the brake, grabbed Pilar, and salsaed until someone pointed out that the light was green again. He dropped off some of us near the border crossing, before ferrying others to the centro for more carousing.

Earlier in the evening, Derrik told me that the luchas take place most often during the summer months. He’s a fan and wants to schedule outings to them regularly. But they’re hardly the only trick up his sleeve. His website documents dozens of activities that he has organized; the creative variety fills me with admiration. He’s taken gringos to the Tijuana wax museum. To the city’s longest-running swap meet. To sample Mexican microbrews and street food. To experience art and circuses and soccer.

This coming Saturday he’s hosting a day-long seafood sampling orgy. A week later, his destination will be El Vergel, which he bills as Baja’s largest waterpark. (“Big-ass beers rimmed with chile and chamoy. Tambora bands, corn on the cob on the grill, Tecate eagle fake tattoos, a Tarzan rope.”) Popotla beach is on his calendar for August 11, and then two weeks later an outing to the Tijuana Fair.

Two weeks ago, I vowed to get down to Tijuana again, sooner rather than later.  With a resource like Turista Libre, that suddenly seems easy.

 

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The Mexico Next Door

It was always a truism: Border Mexico wasn’t the real Mexico. What made places like Tijuana most obviously not-Mexico was the throngs of American and other tourists who overran Avenida Revolucion and warped so many aspects of the city’s commerce. The currency was US dollars. The pandering was to American appetites.

For years, I liked both the real Mexico and the otherworldly border zone. I traveled widely in the former, and I frequented the latter. During the early 1980s, I went to TJ at least weekly, for language-practice sessions with a Mexican friend and to report on various stories for the Reader. My friend Jim Holman, the Reader‘s publisher, lived in the infamous Zona Norte for a while. Later, he and Claudia and their firstborn moved into nicer digs. They professed to love living in Tijuana.

It’s hard for me to remember when my TJ visits tapered off — probably once I had kids myself. Steve and the boys and I did enjoy several adventures over the years. But then the World Trade Center attacks in September of 2011 ratcheted up the paranoia about border security, and the lines coming north, never good, became hellish. The fear took a harsh and immediate toll on tourism. I remember dining in TJ one night with out-of-town visitors in 2003 and feeling stupefied by the number of shuttered storefronts on Revolucion. A few years later, escalating drug violence further discouraged border-crossing . It took a long time, but the thought finally struck me: maybe it was too dangerous to go there.

Since then Tijuana’s violence has subsided, however. So Saturday night, Steve and I ventured south again. We assumed it would take less time to cross back into the US on foot than in a vehicle. So we rendezvoused with 6 friends at the transit center in Old Town and caught the 5 p.m. trolley for San Ysidro. (Day passes cost $5.) It filled up, but we all got seats, and it’s an interesting ride, if a long one — just short of an hour.

After disembarking, it took about 20 minutes to make our way to the clattering turnstile that’s the gate to Mexico. We sauntered along the once-bustling pedestrian street that leads to Avenida Revolucion. Now it’s mostly deserted, save for a few pharmacies and gift shops and bars. Just beyond the giant metal arch that marks the north end of Revolucion, the street scene grew livelier. Along the block angles south over to Constitucion, I felt transported to some prosperous and authentically Mexican city in the interior. But we soon cut back to Revolucion, where the ratio of failed to operating businesses increased again. I’ve read estimates that tourism has plunged somewhere between 60 and 95% —

and there’s nothing like a walk here on a Saturday night to drive those figures home. On the other hand, the avenida felt vastly more Mexican than the Revolucion of my youth. All the signs were in pesos. Where hawkers once sang out near-incessant invitations in languages ranging from English to Chinese, only a handful greeted us, and a few of them looked like they couldn’t believe their eyes.

We’d wanted to walk and experience the street life, even though we knew this meant we’d have to miss out on the city’s more acclaimed restaurants, located in the river district. But this decision didn’t leave us a lot of dining choices. We found the old standby Chiki Jai (across 8th Street from the long-defunct Jai Alai palace) open and serving a few customers but in a space that looked small and tired. A block away, at the corner of 8th and Madero, we’d looked for a place called Mexico Lindo, which sounding promising in a Lonely Planet listing. But it had turned into a simple juice bar at some point. At last, we headed back to that other hoary favorite on Revolucion, Caesar’s (founded in 1927 and the much-touted birthplace of the Caesar salad.)

Today Caesar’s includes a stylish tapas bar, but we wanted to sit at a long table together and found seats in the narrow, softly lighted room next to the vintage bar. I ordered a combination of carne asada, cheese enchiladas, and chile rellenos, and when the food finally arrived after what felt like a small eternity, my spirits fell. The components looked like they’d been plopped on my plate without a thought to their appearance. Still, everything tasted great, and my companions raved about their roasted meat and fig-stuffed chicken and seafood entrees. With the tax and tip and goodly amounts of alcohol, the tab came to about $28 a person.

A van big enough to carry all 8 of us back to the border set us back $30. The most menacing part of the outing — getting through US customs and immigration — turned out to be a waltz — no lines of any sort, no stopping, save for a perfunctory swipe of our passports. (We speculated that for some reason, the imminent Mexican national elections had discouraged tourism even more than normal.)

We had plenty of time to catch the 10 p.m. northbound trolley, which got us back to the Old Town parking lot shortly before 11. If we had endured a multi-hour pedestrian snarl at the border, the adventure would have ended with a sour taste. Instead, it felt like a painless way to escape to another country. Steve and I resolved to do it again soon .

 

 

 

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Oily delights

For all the passion and publicity that’s been showered on locally grown food, I’ve been struck by something missing from the farmer’s markets in San Diego County: olives grown here and olive oil processed from them. This has mystified me, considering that the first olive trees in North America were planted in San Diego. A hundred years ago, this area was reported (by the Los Angeles Times) to be the largest producer of olive oil in the United States. What happened?

My recent visit to the Temecula Olive Oil Company ranch provided some answers. Temecula, of course, is not in San Diego County, but it’s so close to that border (on the Riverside County side) it’s no wonder people blur the boundaries. The drive from Pacific Beach to Temecula’s Old Town takes about an hour; the olive ranch, in the Aguanga Valley, is another half hour or so to the east. It’s an idyllic place, at the foot of rugged mountains that were still bearing patches of snow on the day I visited. Besides the groves of exuberantly healthy looking olive trees, wildflowers, grapes, and other plants appeared to be thriving in the intense sunshine.

General manager Thom Curry in the pressing room

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thom Curry, the ranch’s general manager, led me and other visitors to a shaded patio where he held court. He explained that his wife Nancy and her sister had started the company around 2001, with the aim of producing some of the world’s finest olive oil. To that end, Curry had won certification from the International Olive Oil Council as a Master Taster; he sits on the California Olive Oil Council’s Taste Panel. He told us that the vast majority of imported oil sold as cold-pressed and extra virgin is neither, but rather an indiscriminate blend of oils from all over Europe. In contrast, olive oils that truly do meet the international standards taste extraordinary. We confirmed this by sampling several of the Temecula products — a light, buttery tasting oil made from black late-harvest olives; a stronger tasting one (more grassy and peppery) made from green olives collected early in the fall, plus several oils infused with wonderful flavors: basil, blood orange, roasted garlic, hickory smoke, and habanero pepper. Some we mixed with artisanal vinegars also produced on the ranch: vanilla/fig balsamic, pomegranate balsamic, and others.

We didn’t dip these in bread but rather drank them out of little cups, which seemed less strange after Curry pointed out that olive oil is actually a fruit juice (the fats skimmed off the juice of the fruit of the olive tree). It’s extra virgin if that fruit has been been pressed within 24 hours of picking; if no heat is used in the pressing process, the best flavor results.

I asked Curry about the disappearance of olives from San Diego’s agricultural bounty, and he pointed to a couple of factors. When the Panama Canal opened in 1915, imported Italian oils became much more competitive. A more recent blow came from the olive fruit fly, which infests the fruit with worms.

After visiting the ranch, I found a 2008 article published in the Journal of San Diego History that told me much, much more about the rise and fall of the San Diego County olive industry. Local horticultural historian Nancy Carol Carter presents evidence that the first olive plants were brought to the New World (Peru, specifically) in 1560, and by the late 1700s Thomas Jefferson was among those touting the wonders of olives. Contrary to popular belief, Carter believes Father Junipero Serra didn’t bring olive trees to California, but rather one of his successors at the San Diego Mission (sometime between 1784 and 1795). Oil from them was being pressed by 1803, and by the 1860s, oil made from olives picked in San Diego, San Fernando, and San Gabriel was being compared favorably with Italian oil from Florence. In the years that followed, olive boosters and would-be profiteers promoted the trees as agricultural gold mines. Reading Carter’s account of all this reminded me of subsequent California bubbles involving eucalyptus trees and Internet stocks. Gullible would-be growers “placed trees in the wrong areas, gave them poor care, improperly pruned, or planted varieties not fully tested,” writes Carter. Many failed; some on a grand scale.

Out at the Temecula ranch, something very different is obviously going on. Curry described an approach to controlling the olive fly that seems post-organic — involving not just the avoidance of pesticides but also a deep understanding of the ecology of the trees and their pests, along with close attention, and a multi-pronged approach to intervention. It also helps, the general manager acknowledged, that the flies die when temperatures approach the 100-degree mark. Apparently that’s common throughout the summer.

I’m not sure I’d make another trip to the ranch in that heat, but Curry’s description of the cooler harvest activities sounded so enticing, I’ve marked my calendar to check in September on what’s happening when. I also don’t have to go that far to buy the oils. Retail outlets sell it on Cedros Avenue in Solana Beach and in the Fiesta de Reyes in Old Town.

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A Bee Adventure

I understand that colony collapse disorder — the mysterious plague that’s wiped out half of America’s bee colonies over the past half dozen years — is a continuing problem. So it’s nice to hear a tale like the one my friend Leslie Venolia related the other day.  She was in a bedroom of her home in Carlsbad, when through the open windows she’d heard a buzzing sound that she recognized to be a swarm of bees. Out on the patio, her teenage soon Tate got up from doing his homework; he pulled the family dog inside.

The swarm looked “like an old-fashioned model of a molecule,” bristling with energized particles, Leslie said. After a while the colony began to hover around the front of the wisteria arbor that’s just outside Leslie and Craig’s back door. Worker bees zoomed in and out of the undulating mass.

Leslie and Tate soon realized that the bees seemed uninterested in their presence, and they resumed their activities: she planting tomatoes, he working on his AP European history homework. The next morning, the colony was massed more slowly, but it was clear the bees had settled in.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“I wish I’d known how to make the place less hospitable to them as they were arriving,” Leslie later commented. (Truth be told, the shade of that blooming wisteria  seems like paradise to me, and I’m not surprised it would entrance bees too.) But she did know enough know to call Brother Blaise Heuke, the septuagenarian Benedictine monk who’s the resident beekeeper  at the 140-acre Prince of Peace  Abbey in Oceanside. Leslie had heard about him over the years but never met him. Over the phone, she learned that he doesn’t respond to calls to remove bees from indoor or inaccessible locations (e.g. chimneys), but he agreed to pay a call at Leslie and Craig’s house.

The next day, she sent out this e-mail update:

“Brother Blaise took one look, said “that’s a pretty good size hive with a queen,” and decided to shake them out of the wisteria. He knew I wanted to watch (and I assumed he’d tell me to go in the house to watch through the sliding door), but he told me just to stand a
ways off (about 10 feet?). He put his gear on, put the tarp down, set the ladder on top, climbed up, quickly shook the bulk of the swarm into the cardboard box with its frames, and wrapped the whole thing up in the tarp (to catch the stragglers who’d fallen outside the box).

He said it was a peaceful group; if they’d been angry his mask would have been covered with riled-up bees trying to get at him, but there were none. He sprayed the others who returned with a light soapy solution. It was about 10 minutes from start to finish. When I asked how much I owed him, he said “you can just give me some money to cover the gas.”

Leslie had read that he’d lost all his bees at some point, and she asked if this year had brought any encouraging developments. The monk “told me he’s had almost no honey for the last 10 years, though he’s tried to re-establish the colonies each year (at the cost of $4000 per queen!) Each year the bees seemed fine, then died at the two-week mark. He made a variety of changes — different boxes, steel tops (like patio covers) over the hives, different sorts of bees and more, to no avail. Wondering if the 4 cell phone towers nearby had anything to do with the problem, he walked around the abbey property with his cell phone, found a spot with no coverage, and set the bees up there.  All has been well since they’ve relocated.  He said a power company representative chided him after an article in the North County Times reported his experience, saying, ‘Blaise, you have only a high school education and you think you have enough expertise to suggest this?'”

If all goes well, Leslie says Brother Blaise should have honey from her bees within about two months.  I wish them well!

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The Big Bad Pigs

San Diego tracking guru Barry Martin

I’ve been intrigued by wild hogs ever since reading a 2005 New Yorker article by Ian Frazier about the animals and their destructive habits. So when I heard that the San Diego Tracking Team and Western Tracking Institute would be holding a training session about the local feral-pig menace, I couldn’t resist attending.

Meadow torn up by the feral pigs' tusks

Held March 24 on a private ranch in Descanso (about 40 minutes east of San Diego just off Interstate 8), the session proved mesmerizing. It was led by Barry Martin, who founded the tracking team (and about whom I wrote a San Diego Reader cover story that ran in 2006). Barry explained that the San Diego trackers, working with the Nature Conservancy and several government and nonprofit agencies, have accepted a mission the likes of which has never been done before anywhere else in the country: namely to survey as much of the county as possible in an effort to pin down where the pigs are congregating. The aim will then be to use that information to wipe them out.
There’s plenty of incentive for doing so. Big swatches of the ranch where we met bore ample evidence of how brutally these animals can ravage the land – plowing
into it with their tusks in search of acorns, roots, and other porcine provender. Environmentalists are concerned that this activity may sabotage regeneration that has occurred since the big 2003 And 2007 wildfires. They also worry that the pigs may hurt
threatened and endangered species and spread disease.
Although someone at the training session mentioned hearing of a wild pig population that once existed around Lake Henshaw back in the 1960s, those animals apparently never spread, as has the current crop. Ed Zieralski, the UT San Diego reporter who first reported on the situation back in 2007, has written that a small herd of 30 to 40 Russian pigs were raised in pens on the Capitan Grande Indian
Reservation (next to the El Capitan Reservoir) and released around 2006 to
start a hog-hunting program like others that exist around the US. But the
population exploded, and by some estimates close to 1000 pigs now are ranging
as far north as Mt. Palomar, beyond Warner Springs in the east, and below I-8
to the south.
Martin stressed the urgency of containing those animals before they reach Riverside County in the north or Baja in the south. But none of the training session focused on killing and eating the animals. By all reports, the feral hogs can be quite delicious. Hunters already can get permits to shoot them. The problem is that
the animals are smart, and once they feel threatened, they become nocturnal and they stick to the most inaccessible reaches of the backcountry.

Pig scat

Hence the need for the tracking. In the recent training session, we found and studied the pigs’ droppings (studded with undigested acorn shells). We tried to memorize their tracks, and we looked for coarse hairs in a flattened spot on the ground where they may have been wallowing.
The track of the elusive feral pig

Most of us were so swept along with enthusiasm for the project that we volunteered to participate in the tracking outings. Those are supposed to continue until November. I hope to be among them on at least some occasions.

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