Monday, November 24, 2014

A Travelers Guide to Meeting New People

Just like that, our final week as camp hosts is here. Butano State Park has taken on all of the forms of a place called home. When it is sunny and warm the park reveals all of its many things to do. When it is rainy and cloudy it is easy to loathe the lack of cell phone signal and TV stations. Love it or hate it, it has been our home base for the last 50 days. Familiarity and stability are things that we don't often get on the road and they can bring lots of comfort. I don't want to just say we will 'miss' this place because it has really become a part of us. We will take this place with us for the rest of our lives and welcome opportunities to reminisce with others about it. Perhaps we will come back in 20 years and make note of all the changes and say things like, "Back when I lived here, we didn't even have cell phone signal and the Highway was only 2 lanes from Half Moon Bay to Santa Cruz."
The view from my camper door. A rainy day at Butano. 

One of my favorite parts about being a camp host is getting to meet new people. Every night we get a new set of neighbors and I head out with a cart full of firewood and greet them all. Some have everything they need and I give them a simple wave and a well wish. Others need help registering or reading the trail map and I am delighted when I actually know the answer to their question. Then, there are others who invite you for conversation. They offer you a beer or invite you to take a seat and chat with you. These are my favorite kind of campers. One of the rules I made for myself before this trip was that I would welcome any and all opportunities to meet new people and build relationships. Someone I barely know invites me for a beer and a chat? The rule says I accept. I meet someone that I feel a connection to? The rule says I pursue that connection. To people that know me, this probably sounds like something that I already do but, I have to admit, as I grow older, I often close the door when I meet new people. Anyone that has a family can understand what I mean. It's hard to give the effort needed to establish new relationships when you get older.

The other day I met a Korean fella named BJ. He has a brand new 27 foot Airstream that he pulls with his Hummer. He wasn't into talking about what he does for a living but he mentioned the terms 'biotech' and 'silicon valley' at one point and I added it all together...dude is rich. 

My first encounter with BJ was in the evening of his first night here. He came to buy wood and offered me a handshake and introduction. Jessica was off writing a warning for a campsite that had left garbage out. We have strict rules about leaving food and trash out because we are protecting an endangered bird called the Marbled Murrelet. Anyhow, I had a feeling BJ was the culprit so I was straight forward with him. 

"Are you the guy with the Airstream on site nine?" I asked. 

He nodded. 

"My wife is up there writing you a warning because you left some trash out." 

"Oh, it's just garbage bags, no garbage." He said, defending himself. 

"Yeah, pretty sure you had to have left some animal attractants out because she has been up there a while putting your stuff in the food locker." 

We went back and forth for a while, neither of us wanting to concede the argument we were pretending to not have. He finally assured me that he would take better caution with his food and I went to get him his firewood. We chatted for a bit and I learned that he was Korean so I figured the least I could do for my Asian brother was deliver his firewood for him. 

When I arrived at his site with the wood we got to some more chatting. He was drinking straight bourbon from an expensive, titanium camping mug, which I thought was an interesting choice of chalice. When not in the woods, rich people drink from crystal. When in the woods, they use $50 camping mugs. He was extra talkative, mostly because of the bourbon, but he was also alone. The rest of his family wasn't due in until the next morning. I really enjoyed the chat and I learned that he is actually a very experienced fisherman. His specialty is catching crab and he showed me his haul from earlier that day. A plastic cooler with 6 Dungeness crabs crawling around inside. He said he was gonna boil up a few later and I should stop by. I thanked him for the offer and gave him a maybe, then I headed back to my camper. 

Later that evening, the family and I were watching a movie on the camper when I heard a whisper through the window. 

"Hey Mike, you awake?" 

I opened the door and BJ was standing there. He had a headlamp on his head and in his right hand was his signature titanium mug-o-bourbon. In his other hand was a plate. On it was a fully cooked crab with my name on it. BJ was totally butt wasted at this point but he is the most pleasant drunk I have ever met. I bet this guy is the most amazing party host ever. 

"So, I brought this crab for you and your wife," he said, slurring a little, "Because she cleaned up my stuff and packed it away for me." 

He started cutting open the crab with scissors and handing me half-shells lined with crab to eat. I was totally into it and he had to suggest that I call inside and invite Jessica out. I sometimes forget to be courteous when I am being fed fresh crab from drunk Asians. Jessica came out to try some. 
"So, I was telling Mike," he said, "That since we are all from the Midwest I came to share some seafood with you. It's not walleye...people here say what? Walleye? Look at me like I'm craz...I like crab though. I got a place. Right on the coast. I been catching crabs there for years. So, that's why I bring you some crab."

He got to do most of the talking since I was fully engaged in eating the crab. He cooked it in some Creole seasoning and it didn't even need butter or anything. I was just nailing it right out of the shell and it was amazing.
"So, I just wanted to bring you guys some crab," he assured us, "Because I always eat what I catch on that day and my family isn't here yet." 

I finished eating all of the crab while giving courtesy nods to his anecdotes. He was enjoying the fact that I was enjoying the crab which, in turn, made me enjoy the whole situation that much more. As I searched among the discarded shells for traces of overlooked meat he gave a farewell wave and said we could stop by for drinks, crab and chicken. We thanked him and he headed off. As much as I wanted to head up there to get wasted with BJ and eat all of his gourmet food, I was actually pretty tired and decided to go to bed shortly after his visit. 

Me and BJ in front of his awesome Airstream. Photobomb Credit: BJ's Son

In addition to taking food from strangers, we have had a pretty eventful week here. We spent a couple days dealing with a virus the boys were passing around. The sick days coincided with a three day spell of storms and torrential downpours so the obvious play was to kick back and ride it out. On one of the rainy days we headed to San Jose. We had learned from the locals that if the weather is bad on the coast it will be good in the valley. As we popped out of the pass in the Santa Cruz mountains we were greeted with rainbows. No joke, the day went from gray and rainy to clear and sunny the minute we entered the valley. We left the coats in the car and went and checked out the Children's Discovery Museum.  

See? Sunshine and T shirts in the valley.
The park outside of the Museum features a giant Monopoly Board. I vow to come back to this park with my cousins and get a game going one day. 

We headed up to San Francisco to partake in the Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony on Sunday. It was on Pier 39 which sounds like an amazing setting for an event like this until you consider that Pier 39 is a pier. There is one way in and out, the entire thing is surrounded by ocean and the foot traffic bottlenecks the whole way. We bummed around the less crowded parts of the pier and checked out some of the shops while we waited for the show to start. 

a 60 foot tree

At showtime, we found a great spot on the second level that looked down on the stage. We threw the boys on our shoulders and watched the show which was presented by Disney. As you might have guessed, the show was like a big promo for Disneyland that encouraged kids to encourage their parents to take a trip there and experience the Magic of the holidays with DISNEY! This type of blatant marketing is something that you have to put up with if you want to see a Disney calibur show and, in the end, it's worth it. Nothing makes you feel young like a singalong with Mickey and friends. 
After the tree was lit we headed to Chinatown to have a late dinner. One of our ranger friends at the state park, Ziad, had suggested this place to us last time we went to San Francisco and we were excited to go back for a second time. The House of Nanking is BY FAR and WITHOUT A DOUBT the most delicious Chinese food I have ever eaten. I can't describe it but I am 100% confident that anyone who tries this place will agree with me. If you do try it, there will be a line and the people who are working to seat guests will be short with you. They might even come off as rude if you are one of those pain-in-the-ass people that need constant attention at restaurants, regardless of how busy they are. Wait in the line. Deal with the rudeness. IT. IS. WORTH. IT!
The seating at the restaurant is intimate. They pack people in there so tight that you may end up eating just a few inches from another party. As luck would have it, we ended up dining with a couple from Farmington, Michigan. They were on vacation and staying at the Drake Hotel right in the middle of town. The next day they were renting a car and heading to Monterey. We gave them pointers on places to stop along Highway 1 and told them about our trip to Monterey. They were both really great people to chat with and it was nice to be able to talk about home without having to define everything. We were just a table of Michiganders all sharing a meal in a far away place. They were really impressed with the way Noah and Sam behaved. We used the iPhone + Netflix trick to induce mealtime cooperation so they basically sat silently. It was all a clever trick but our dinner acquaintances didn't need to know that. 

We arrived home late on Sunday and I went straight to bed. Before falling asleep I thought about my rule. The one where I am supposed to accept invites from people and welcome opportunities to connect with others. Then I thought about BJ, the guy with the crab, and how he is a perfect example of why this is a good rule. Technically, it was BJs persistence that allowed me the opportunity to get to know him better but look at how our perception changed.  At first glance, BJ was an annoying weekend camper from Silicon Valley who leaves garbage out. As it turns out, he is a great guy with an interesting background. The world is full of kind and amazing people. You just have to put yourself out there a little and you will see them...and some of them might be holding fresh crab and some bourbon. 

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