Eric Smillie | Writer

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Eric Smillie is a freelance journalist covering art, travel, food, and culture.

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Finding water in the LA River

A mix of plants and concrete line the Glendale Narrows of the LA River

When I first started researching an article on paddling the newly-opened LA River, which ran in Sunset’s August issue, I was hooked on the story of activism and recreation working hand in hand in a way that isn’t so common. That there was an irony to turning an environmentally degraded place into an ecotourism destination made the tale seem that much more clever.

A mix of plants and concrete line the Glendale Narrows of the LA River

But that slumming, “gee-whiz, isn’t this an urban jungle?” aspect of the story is just the tip of the irony iceberg, something that California’s extreme drought has kept on my mind. The LA River in its current, channelized form is a monument to the way we tried to control nature over the last two centuries. Today, the concrete-lined river seems to be an especially bad match for the chaotic, unpredictable weather we’ve been having. By trying to control the river we paved ourselves into a corner.

A mix of plants and concrete line the Glendale Narrows of the LA River

You see, the city didn’t grow up on the river’s banks by chance. As EPA administrator for the southwest Jared Blumenfeld put it to me, “we think of the Hudson and we think of the Mississippi River; Los Angeles would not have been founded where it is but for the river.” But as the city grew, the river kept jumping its banks, flooding buildings and killing people. So, starting in the 1930s, the Army Corps of Engineers did the modern thing, straightjacketing it so that the floods would rush out to the ocean, leaving the city unharmed.

A mix of plants and concrete line the Glendale Narrows of the LA River

The problem is, the city still wants water. Today, Los Angeles gets only 11 percent of what it uses from local sources, and a major one–the San Fernando Aquifer–suffers from a plume of pollution that has been forcing wells to close. Most of the other 89 percent comes from the Colorado River, the Sacramento Delta, and Sierra snow pack. Those sources face high demand from many users and are declining due to climate change. (Here’s a cool map of water rights across the state.)

Meanwhile, enough rain falls in the 815-square-mile LA River Basin every year (on average) to meet half the city’s need. The city couldn’t, and wouldn’t want to, use all of it. But in a natural-bottom river with flood plains, a good portion of the water would sink into the ground, recharging local aquifers. Instead, the concrete riverbed collects it and flushes it away like a drain. As activist and kayak guide George Wolfe told me, “that’s fresh, free water from the sky.” If Angelenos can’t find a way to make use of it, he added, “where are we going to go? To Canada to get water? Will we push up into Oregon next? And how crazy is that?”

A mix of plants and concrete line the Glendale Narrows of the LA River

The droughts, fires, storms, and floods of climate change are upsetting the way we see our relationship with nature. We thought we could harness or bury it at our convenience. Now it’s becoming obvious that we’re still at nature’s mercy. It’s a frightening thing to accept, but it could be a hopeful one, too. By reconsidering our place in nature and trying to work with natural systems instead of against them, we may find ways to make our lives easier. That seems to be happening with the LA River, where plans are in development to return it to a more natural state.

A mix of plants and concrete line the Glendale Narrows of the LA River

The revitalization’s starting point will be an 11-mile stretch in the Glendale Narrows (the place in these photos), an area where the bottom remains unpaved because pressure from a high water table is so strong it buckles any concrete laid in the riverbed. Here, Wolfe told me, “the geology of the river saved itself. It provided these places from which the river movement is going to grow.”

This spot where nature pushed back, surely a point of frustration to engineers in the last century, has become a toehold for a new relationship with the river and a point of celebration. Now that’s ironic.


In a hotter world, wine could have legs

Snippet of a map of the western US overlaid with existing and potential future ideal wine grape conditions

What will wine country look like in 2050? I have a map of one prediction in Wired’s August issue. Wine grapes are sensitive to temperature, which makes them good indicators of global warming and a good tool for charting the warmer landscape of the future. The map uses data from this study by researchers from a number of conservation groups around the world.

The gist is that ideal growing conditions could move to higher ground, toward the coasts, and more northward, which means that, on the west coast, Washington stands to gain the most. But the state also stands to lose, because a lot of that potential new territory falls right on top of the Yellowstone to Yukon wildlife corridor. If this area becomes suitable wine growing area, more people could try to move there, setting off conflicts between development and wildlife conservation.

But don’t panic yet. Just because an area becomes suitable according to a model doesn’t mean that it will be developed. There are also ways for growers to adapt to higher temperatures in traditional wine country, so don’t expect Napa to shrivel up and die. And the model used in the article follows a worst-case greenhouse gas emission scenario, where warming gasses go mostly unchecked, which is pretty unlikely… oh, wait, never mind. That seems perfectly possible.

By the way, check out the map of Europe in the paper. The Mediterranean region is looking hot, literally. For a closer look at Europe, check out this paper.


Doughnuts go gourmet

Closeup of a small round doughnut with maple frosting and crushed pecans on a glass display rack

Is the age of the crazy doughnut coming to a close? Is Voodoo Doughnut, of Pepto-Bismol-frosting fame, old school?

Such weighty questions are weighed (in an implied manner) in my roundup of gourmet doughnut shops in the West that are turning out new pastries with high-minded seasonings.

That means flavors such as maple pecan (pictured above in a photo by Susie Wyshak) and strawberry-jalapeno jelly and cornmeal rosemary cherry and toasted coconut with ginger, kaffir lime and roasted chili. And doughnuts blasted with a handheld torch. Call them gourmet, call them fancy, call them third wave (or pick another number for that wave). Not artisan, though, that word is on a cliche watch list.

They’re good doughnuts, I know, because I ate them. But my sense is that, even if they do achieve wedding-catering status (that’s a reference to the article, you should probably open a link to it), doughnuts will still hold on to that ‘crazy pastry’ niche, too. Why, just this Friday, in honor of National Doughnut Day, Psycho Donuts in San Jose will give away free foie gras doughnuts. They look, well, crazy. In a gourmet kind of way.

A raised doughnut hole presumably filled with foie gras mouse and stabbed through with a pipette containing a black liquid that may have something to do with balsamic vinegar and topped with a slice of a green pepper.

 


Winter in Tomales Bay

Cover shot of VIA magazine, Nov/Dec 2012

It turns out that winter is a great time to visit Tomales Bay, an hour north of San Francisco. Which was a surprise since I tend to write the season off as cold and wet. But when I went there in January to research a travel story on Tomales Bay for VIA magazine’s November/December issue, the days were clear and warm. And that wasn’t a fluke. “When it’s not raining, this is the most beautiful time of year here,” a bed and breakfast owner told me, and other people I talked to backed her up. (The nights were another story, by the way. I was glad to have a warm jacket.)

With ranches on the eastern shore, Point Reyes National Seashore to the west, and oyster farms and Tomales Bay State Park in the middle, it’s beautiful country, especially when you think how close it is to the city. Here’s a view east from the Tule Elk Reserve on the northern point of Point Reyes:

Overlooking Tomales Bay, facing inland, and undeveloped land

As peaceful as it looks, this bay has been a battle ground between developers and conservationists since the early 1900s, and it still kind of is. The whole story (going back to the Coast Miwok) is laid out in this history from the National Parks Service. Things were especially hot in the middle of the century. The West Marin General Plan of 1976 slated the eastern side of the bay for a city of 125,000 people, complete with a golf course, schools, a freeway along the waterfront and man-made recreational islands in the bay. The land was worth more as building tracts than it could produce as farmland, making it tempting for owners to cash out.

As developers began to buy parcels and plan developments, conservationists strategically purchased neighboring lots in an effort to block access to the water and to likely routes for roads. Environmental groups also lobbied the government and eventually the general plan was repealed. To preserve the farmland, much of west Marin was zoned with a limit of one house per 60 acres. Between 1972 and 1975 the number of building sites in the watershed went from 1.2 million to 3,000. Great news for tourists, migrating birds and people who wanted to keep ranching, but not so great news for those land owners planning to sell.

To try to make up the difference for ranch owners, and to further conserve the land in case the zoning is ever revised, the Marin Agricultural Land Trust buys development rights from ranchers. Owners keep their land and continue working it and the trust ensures that the property will never be turned into subdivisions. Meanwhile, the region’s appetite for fancy foods—grass fed beef, organic milk, fresh oysters, small-batch cheese—seems to be opening profitable niche markets for ranchers. And it makes for good eating. Check out the story for lots of recommendations. It’s on the website (if it asks for your zip code, try a northern California one, maybe 94600) and in magazine layout in the digital edition, with beautiful pictures by David Collier.


Is a city a disaster?

Elevated highways crossing each other with train tracks below

What about those abandoned or otherwise forgotten spots that get squeezed between developments, or covered over by highways?

I’m catching up with the radio show 99% Invisible and I liked the episode about New Public Sites, a project by Graham Coreil-Allen to come up with a typology of overlooked and left over features of the urban environment. Stuff like vacant lots and traffic triangles, except that by Coreil-Allen’s definition, the former is a void or possibly a distribution pit, while the latter might be a pastoral island, a triangle crossing, or even a lost space.

There are lots more handy names there for things city dwellers look at every day, yet don’t always see. But my favorite part of the radio segment is when Coreil-Allen justifies calling these spots beautiful. I like it because they’re not places or vistas that we usually consider pretty or even interesting, except perhaps in a punk or ironic kind of way. Coreil-Allen’s definitions of these elements are a bit tongue in cheek, but he’s entirely earnest in his defense of their value. We have to love them if we want to adopt them and activate them as democratic spaces. In other words, if we want to reclaim these places from the urban lost and found bin and make them our own or put them to use, we cannot look away and ignore them.

Of course, some people might rather not to reclaim them, and I think that’s sad and a waste. Which is how I felt about the spots in my disaster tourism guide, spots that are much larger than a threshold periphery.

And what could possibly come of these places? For just one example, I just saw a great story on the Keret House, a narrow home built in the empty space between two buildings. The interior is just 35 inches wide.

Give the 99% Invisible episode a listen:


Rebuilt Raleigh Sprite bicycle

Raleigh Sprite bicycle

I rebuilt a Raleigh Sprite bicycle, one of the old step-throughs, circa 1976.

Unlike the Raleigh Record I built up, I replaced most of the old parts, and kept just a few that worked fine and had some charm, like this torn seat.

Velo Orange Triple Crankset

The biggest upgrade was swapping out the old bottom bracket and cottered crankset for a new Velo Orange threadless bottom bracket and Velo Orange triple crankset with a 170mm arm. The old ones were heavy, had a lower gear range, and I mashed one of the cotters taking them out to clean them up.

Velo Orange threadless bottom bracket installed

The genius of the threadless bottom brackets is that their two ends screw together and expand to fill the bottom bracket cavity in the frame–you don’t need to use the existing threads and you can choose from a variety of lengths. Compared to the other bottom bracket replacement options, it’s easier than rounding up perfectly-sized cotterless old stock and cheaper than going the phil wood route. I knew that if I tried to put cotter pins back in, my obsessive side would kick in and I’d end up buying a cotter press. Not worth it for a single use.

There was some angst over which length threadless bottom bracket to choose. This review was super helpful, as was this VO blog post. The Raleigh Sprite’s bottom bracket cavity measured 71 mm and I went with the 116 mm threadless bb and it fits nicely.

Here are some views of the chainline.

Raleigh Sprite chainline

Raleigh Sprite chainline

Raleigh Sprite chainline

On the second chainring, the chain is straight when it’s on the fifth sprocket in the back.

Raleigh Sprite freewheel and rear derailer

This is an all-purpose city bike, and the rider likes versatility and is no big fan of hills, so I put a megarange mountain bike freewheel with a giant granny gear on the back. The other day I was at the Golden Gate Bridge gift shop and I saw that the classy-looking Public Bicycles special edition International Orange step-through has the same freewheel on it.

Between the 34 teeth on the rear sprocket and the 24 on the smallest chainring, you can go pretty low on this bike. Edit: After being in use for a while, it’s become clear that this gear combo is overkill. A double cahinring would have done the job just fine.

Raleigh Sprite front brake

Last bonus pics: the original front brake, cleaned up just enough to keep a little patina.

Raleigh Sprite handlebars

And the handlebars.


Best brewery tours in the West

Deschutes sampler, best brewery tours

Brewery tours can get pretty redundant. Some grain, some hops, some giant tanks full of fermenting ale. I bet lots of people spend them dreaming of tasting the free beer at the end, like this guy (photo by Jessica Curtin).

I have no problem with free beer. But when I rounded up eight of the West’s best brewery tours for VIA magazine, I looked for craft breweries that offer something extra, be it a ride down the slide at New Belgium that you can see in this photo by ElCapitan:

New Belgium best brewery tours

Or a peek into the sensory tasting room at Deschutes, where trained workers take one for the team to help stay on top of quality control. It looks like serious business.

What else makes for a good tour? At the small breweries, it could be the chance to talk to a brewer or to taste an experimental brew. At a bigger operation, such as Full Sail, it might be seeing how the brewery shaves water use through an on-site treatment plant.

And then there’s the free beer. No need to change that part of the formula.


Nerd fights

Super Art Fight Winner

Seems like everything gets turned into a competition these days. I wrote about four unusual battles royale for the March issue of Wired. Artists hustle before a live audience to draw the best pictures and the winner basks in the light of glory (as in the photo above) at Super Art Fight. Do-it-yourselfers race handmade and hand-powered cars down railroad tracks while wearing period costumes at the Great Handcar Regatta. Butchers hack up a steer into valuable steaks at the Eat Real Fest. And hardy crazy people run all night and day in the mountains of Vermont with breaks to chop wood, reconstruct Lego sculptures, and translate Greek into English while standing waist deep in freezing water at the Death Race.

They say you might die during that race. For more on that, here’s an entertaining video from the New York Times:

Surviving the Death Race


Built to destroy buildings

the Institute for Business & Home Safety Research Center in action

Who says insurance isn’t exciting? In this picture, the Institute for Business & Home Safety’s new research center is hard at work, blowing a house to smithereens with 140-mile-per-hour winds generated by 105 5.5-foot fans. I wrote an article in Wired magazine about the facility and the hail bombardments, inundating rain, burning embers and radiant heat, and Category 3 hurricane winds it is subjecting buildings to—all in the name of safety and reduced insurance claims. Think of it as crash testing for houses.

Want to see the winds in action? Watch this video:

There’s another video with audio, plus more photos, at the IBHS site.

So how large of an array of fans is that, and how huge does this place have to be to fit two houses so easily? I could tell you it’s half an acre, but just look at this picture by Ian Allen:

IBHS Research Center by Ian Allen

That’s one of a series he took for the slideshow with the article. For some extra large versions, check out Ian Allen’s portfolio.


Beer’s tasting rooms

Bottles of homebrew kolsch

One of the benefits of being a home brewer (see more about that at my other site, awesomepickle.com) is that you have license to try a lot of beer, and a lot of different kinds of beer. In the last few years a new kind of store has popped up to help beer lovers discover beer’s many styles, a lot like wine bars and tasting rooms have done for wine drinkers. I wrote an article in the New York Times about five such tasting rooms for beer.

Say you want to know more about what distinguishes a Kolsch (which is in the bottles above, photo by the inimitable Phil) and a Helles than Wikipedia and BeerAdvocate can tell you? At these stores you can taste the difference. With education as their goal, they stock hundreds of kinds of bottled craft beer and keep a constant rotation on the tap. They’ll recommend beer and food pairings and they tend to be liberal with the free samples, too. But don’t tell them I told you that.


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