Thursday, August 27, 2009

The night the lights went out in San Benito

Power outages aren't that uncommon of an occurrence. In the most extreme cases, when the lights go out in a section of town, we wait half an hour or so, and the power pops back on -- with every electronic device that has a clock flashing a reminder that it needs to be reset. Tonight's power outage was different. Apparently caused by a wildfire in neighboring Monterey County, this outage plunged the entire county of San Benito into darkness, from what I could tell. It was a surreal scene. In my nearly 30 years of living in Hollister, I have never seen the entire town fall into darkness like this. Families on my street gathered outside as the sun fell. It was sort of a step back in time before there were televisions and computers and other such distractions. In my house, candles and flashlights illuminated our living room during homework time. When we realized that our sons and I were really hungry and we had no way to prepare food, I had the bright idea to drive to Gilroy for some Panda Express. The ride also gave my boys a chance to finish their homework by the inside light of the car. Nearly every business that had been open when the power went out had to close. A few traffic signals remained on, but the streetlights were out, making for hazardous driving conditions. As we pulled out of town and headed north on Highway 25, the view to the south over town was something I thought I'd never see. The only lights were the headlights of people either heading home from work or heading out to see if the rest of town was in the same predicament. After eating dinner in Gilroy we noticed the lights in Hollister pop back on, once again throwing off the familiar glow in our valley. The outage was inconvenient, but also an interesting occurrence. My kids thought it was cool and the four of us spent a nice night together, not staring at a television, but having a nice talk and dinner together in the car. In the end, the blackout was an illuminating reminder of how my family brightens my life. (photo courtesy of Crystl's Photostream at

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Historic parks may really be history

Friday's edition of The Pinnacle reports the somber news that Fremont Peak and the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park are expected to be among the 100 or so parks forced to close because of the state's budget problems. As I write in this week's column: "The periodic Friday closure of the Hollister DMV has been inconvenient; the upcoming one-Wednesday-a-month closure of the San Benito County courts will slow the wheels of justice; but news of the potential closure of Fremont Peak and the San Juan Bautista State Historic Park is downright sad." The official news about specific park closures is expected to be released on Labor Day, which unfortunately will be Californians' last chance to enjoy some of our beloved parks before they are shuttered for who knows how long. The closure of Fremont Peak and the state historic park would be a double-blow for San Juan. My column references the impact park closures had on a small, touristy, San Juan-type town in Arizona. It foretells a scary scenario of lost revenue and diminished visitors. Let's hope there is a last-minute reprieve for our local state parks. It's a long shot, but we can hope. For a reminder of the value of the park, check out Tom Steinstra's recent story about Fremont Peak in the SF Chronicle.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Short(s) and to the point

As I awoke this morning and turned on the television, I was so (not) proud to be a journalist when NBC's "Today" show broadcast a story about Michelle Obama's shorts. Not just that our first lady wore a pair, but asking the hard-hitting question: "Was it appropriate attire for the wife of a president?" Apparently, Mrs. Obama caused a bit of a stir when she recently de-planed from Air Force One wearing -- gasp! -- shorts! True, she's an active, fit, 40-something woman who was on vacation with her family at the Grand Canyon; but how dare she, really! Our country is used to its first ladies wearing shin-length dresses or ball gowns, not everywoman shorts. For goodness sakes, it's not like Michelle was wearing Daisy Dukes: they were mid-thigh jean shorts. The story, and the accompanying piece at, didn't actually name names of the people who were offended by the shorts, so this is one of those stories that is more about eliciting a reaction than reacting to a real issue. However, Today's Web site did run a poll asking whether people thought Mrs. Obama's fashion choice was "fine" or "inappropriate." As of the writing of my post, 83 percent of the nearly 203,000 votes cast chose the first option, which also used the words "People are overreacting!" What struck me is that 17 percent of respondents -- or nearly 35,000 people -- agreed that "the first lady should be dressed more conservatively." My guess is that they really were voting for the option: "The first lady and her husband should be more conservative, politically," though who's to know for sure? I like that we have relatively young, hip people in the White House. They dress up when it's appropriate, but they also dress down like 40-somethings with two kids do all around this country. Next week on "Today": President Obama spotted wearing sandals. Is impeachment next? (photo courtesy of collabratude's Photostream at

Friday, August 14, 2009

Where am I? Fresno?

"I love Fresno" is a phrase not many people who haven't lived in the Central Valley metropolis will ever utter. I spent my college years there; I proposed to my girlfriend there; my family goes back there a few times a year to play miniature golf and eat at one of our favorite restaurants. I'm a fan of Fresno. Trouble is, Fresno is foggy most of the winter and smoggy most of the summer. Days are gray when it's cold and brown when it's hot. There are a few in-between days, but the town is a place of extremes. I was reminded of the good old days in Fresno today as smoke from the 5,000-acre-plus Lockheed Fire blew into San Benito County on strong westerly winds. Within the span of an hour, a blue sky day became brown and miserable. My eyes were irritated and my throat burned. Football conditioning at San Benito High School was cancelled because coaches didn't want athletes breathing in the unhealthy air and dozens of calls to local authorities asked if there was a fire in our area. Driving home from school, I couldn't even see the Diablo Range. It was like being in Fresno again, where residents tend to forget they live at the foot of the Sierra Nevada range because its so often shrouded in fog or blurred by smog. The predictable afternoon westerly breezes off the ocean are nature's air conditioner for Hollister, but today those breezes became a smoke machine. (photo courtesy of Richard Flink's Photostream)

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Drain the Ocean says Hollister is creepy

In case you missed it, or didn't stick it out through the first hour, the National Geographic Channel program, "Drain the Ocean," spends a good two minutes talking about how creepy Hollister is. Those of us living here already knew this. The program, which debuted on Aug. 9, is a fascinating look at the Earth's geology using computer animation to show what the ocean would look like if they were drained of water. Fifty-six minutes in, right after a discussion about the geology of Iceland, the narrator brings us to Hollister. "This small town straddles one the faults, so we can see its affects," he says as we see David Schwartz of the United States Geological Survey walk by a Victorian home just north of Dunne Park. "We're in Hollister, California. We're standing on the Calaveras Fault," Schwartz says, as viewers are shown pictures of sidewalks and curbs left askew by the creeping nature of the earthquake fault over which they lie. "We can actually see the affects of that slow movement on the streets of Hollister." Yes, things move slowly around here, but at least our townfolk aren't creepy. "This is geoglogy in action," the narrator continues, but is hasn't created any spectacular landscapes." They film crew obviously missed Vista Park Hill, the underutilized geographic feature on the north side of town. At least the program showed there are more things rumbling in our town than just bikers. (photo courtesy of Hitchster's photostream)

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Saturday's not alright for the library

As an update to a recent post, I learned today that the San Benito County Free Library is expected to soon stop offering Saturday hours as it tries to cope with a reduction in staffing mandated by a county-wide furlough edict. The irony is that the library is as strong and popular as ever, having added nearly 600 card holders this year and offering a place of refuge and resource to job-seekers and knowledge-seekers alike. Check out my story in this Friday's edition of The Pinnacle for the full story. Also in Friday's edition, I write about how the county courthouse will follow the state Judicial Council's mandate and close every third Wednesday of the month in order to deal with the state's budget crisis. Judge Steve Sanders says this means that a few unfortunate arrestees will likely spend an extra day in jail instead of having a preliminary hearing that could have bailed them out of jail or set bail.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Lunch steals a pizza my heart

An easy way to get me to open an e-mail is to include the words "best pizza" in the subject line. That's what happened last week when a Pinnacle newspaper reader sent me a message with the title "Best pizza in San Benito County." Since I live in San Benito County and I love pizza, the e-mailer had me at "best..." The messenger may have a financial or familial interest in getting me to visit La Pizza Bella/Mama Cass's Kitchen in the tiny hamlet of Tres Pinos, south of Hollister on Highway 25. I didn't ask; and frankly, I didn't care. He took a gamble by recommending it to me, knowing that I could "pan" the thin crust pizza or give a "thin" criticism of the pan crust pizza in the newspaper or on this blog. Well, after bringing my parents, wife and oldest son to the joint on Friday, the e-mailer's gamble paid off. It was a unanimous five-for-five endorsement of the hole-in-the-wall joint, which I actually passed up on my first time through town because I missed the A-frame sandwich board that announces its presence. Owner Cass Spencer's menu features the standard pizza options -- Hawaiian, combination, vegetarian -- along with some unique varieties: Pinwheel (made-to-order with a choice of three specialty combinations on one pie); and taco, which features three cheeses, refried beans, seasoned ground beef, red and green onions, olives, red and green bell peppers, grated cheddar cheese, and diced Roma tomatoes. The menu also features sandwiches and hamburgers and create-your-own combos. Our choice on this day was the Pizza Lunch Special, which at a mere $5.99 included a very large side salad, unlimited beverage and a one-topping pizza that was closer to a medium than the standard personal size. After we finished our salads at our outdoor table (it was a little too warm inside), we sampled the deep-fried chicken raviolis, which, along with the marinara dipping sauce, were a crispy, warm, tasty treat. My wife, who often eschews garlic in her meals, loved the flavor the garlic bits gave to the raviolis. Then, when our pizzas arrived, we were surprised to see that each pie was encircled my more garlic bits. The hot pizza with the melting cheese and the aromatic garlic combined to a create a taste sensation that if it is not the best in the county, is right near the top. Mama Cass's Kitchen is located at 6851 Airline Hwy., Unit D in Tres Pinos (it's on the left side of the road just past the gas station). For details, call 628-3900. For another review of the menu, check out the Melissa Good Taste blog at (photo courtesy of

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Balancing the library's books

In a town with no bookstore, if you don't count the local Target, the San Benito County Free Library serves an immensely important role in Hollister. More than just a place to check out books, it is an education center, a community gathering place, a computer lab for residents who don't have such access at home. Like many other public entities, however, the local library is bracing for harsh cuts brought on by the trickle-down effect of the state's budget woes. In the most recent issue of the Friends of the Library newsletter, Librarian Nora Conte warns patrons of "the probability of cuts" as county supervisors discuss next year's spending plan. Conte encouraged library advocates to attend this week's county budget meetings to encourage elected representatives to spare what they can. "We may have to cut programs and days open to cope with cuts," Conte said, adding that ideas such as raising book fines "will have no significant impact" and employee furloughs have already taken a toll. Every department needs to bear its share of budget cuts in tough financial times like these, but let's hope the progress the library has made under Conte doesn't get shelved. Check out the Aug. 14 issue of The Pinnacle for an update on how budget talks may affect the library's services in the coming year. (photo courtesy of Colby Gutierrez-Kraybill)

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Yosemite offers the bear necessities

Here is a sample of this week's column in the Friday edition of The Pinnacle. The full column is available online.

My sons discovered a new kind of theme park this week, one that despite never really adding new attractions still brings people back year after year.
It’s called Yosemite National Park – note how there is no corporate sponsor before the name; crazy concept.
The park is about two hours closer to my hometown of Hollister than is Disneyland and only costs $20 per car to enter – that’s $5 per person in my family. There is no mall outside of its gates and no fireworks show at night. And darn it if my teens still didn’t have fun.
My wife and I were anxious for our boys’ first reaction to seeing Yosemite Valley, which becomes visible as you turn one of the many road bends leading to the park. Our first glimpse of the massive granite slabs of El Capitan on the right and Half Dome in the distance drew an astonished, “Wow, that doesn’t look real,” from our oldest son and knowing smiles from his parents.
When we jumped out of the car at Inspiration Point, just past the end of a long tunnel (in which I had to honk, at the boys’ request), we stopped to capture the iconic photos of the valley – huge granite rock faces framing a dense forest canopy that from our vantage point conceals the tens of thousands of visitors who scurry around its floor.
In my car, we’re always on the lookout for wild animals. It’s one of those car games designed to keep the kids occupied during a long journey. As we wound our way through the mountains and down into the valley, we only saw birds and squirrels – nice, but nothing too exciting.
Once in the valley, that all changed.

(Read what happened next by clicking on this link.)

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Hollister bar makes Chron Top 5 list

When one thinks biker bars in Hollister, Johnny's Bar & Grill surely roars to the top, with its painted cutout of Marlon Brando at its San Benito Street entrance and its wall-sized mural of other biker scenes on its southern alley side. Legend has it that the rowdiness of Wino Willie and his Boozefighters led to an exaggerated report in Life magazine which then inspired the 1953 movie The Wild Ones, featuring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin. But in a July 31 San Francisco Chronicle article titled "Five Great Biker Bars in the Bay Area," Johnny's wasn't mentioned. Another Hollister establishment, Whiskey Creek Saloon on Fifth Street, was ranked the third best biker bar in the region. The article notes that the "dive bar" is a "hopping spot" during the annual Hollister Bike Rally, which didn't formally take place this year. "Weekend karaoke nights are a huge hit," the article states, "with some patrons ZZTop-ping ZZ Top themselves." The story lets us know that Whiskey Creek starts serving flowing beer, if you will, at 6 a.m. and offers "one caveat: Even if you really have to go, avoid the restrooms at all costs." I guess that advice goes for any establishment in which patrons start drinking at 6 a.m. One caveat (from me) for Hollister residents and Whiskey Creek patrons: be on the lookout for so-called "Seensters," the apparently hip, young "see and be seen" party people who hit up cool spots like SF clubs and -- perhaps now -- Hollister dive bars, then Tweet about it. (photo courtesy of Andre Banyai)