Monday, July 31, 2017

Point Reyes and Drake's Bay

It is 308 steps down to the
lighthouse, and 308 back up!
One of our recent day trips was to Point Reyes National Seashore which is about an hour's drive north of San Francisco. We had never been to this area before and were not disappointed with the beautiful views there. Even though it was a weekday, there were plenty of people visiting. There is a nice visitor center there, but really, the star of the show here is nature. Plenty of walking and very little in the way of services. The highlight of the visit is a walk down hundreds of steps to the lighthouse. Unfortunately you have to walk back up!

So what does this trip have to do with history? Well, it's not about the lighthouse, although I do love them. If you look at a map of Point Reyes (Google Maps will do), you will see that the point wraps around a body of water named "Drakes Bay." Remember the story of Sir Francis Drake from elementary school? From 1577 to 1580, Drake and his ship, the Golden Hind, sailed into the Pacific to raid Spanish shipping, with the full
Waysides at the visitor center tell the
story of Drake's stay in California.
consent of Queen Elizabeth I. On June 17, 1579, Drake sailed into this bay on the northern California coast to make repairs to his ship before continuing across the Pacific ocean and eventually home. Drake and his men stayed for thirty-six days and by all available sources had pretty good relations with the local Miwok. Oh, yes, and he claimed the land for England. A brass plate that is believed to be made by the crew was later found in Marin County, along with other archaeological evidence to support journals kept by members of the crew.

The cliffs along this bay supposedly
reminded the English sailors of home.
On the day we visited, the only beach goers on this fairly remote beach was a number of elephant seals. So as not to disturb them, the humans didn't mingle. Regardless, it was a bit of a thrill for me to come to this place. First, there are very few places where you can go in California to see what the area might have looked like when Europeans first arrived. The remoteness of this seashore makes it one of the few. Also, Drake claimed this area for England nearly two hundred years before the Spanish would found a settlement on land that would become California and forty years before the English started colonies on the east coast.
The only visitors to the beach on the day
we visited were some elephant seals.
This makes Drake the first European to claim lands that would become any part of the United States.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Back Over There

Yes, I know I have been a very poor blogger this spring and summer. It's not that I've stopped being a history fanatic. It's just that I'm in the middle of learning how to be a math and science teacher! I know, can you believe it? Last year I taught social studies at a continuation high school here in the central valley of California. As you might have seen in the news, there is a definite shortage of math teachers. There was a need at the alternative education high school where I teach and I have a math and science background from my undergraduate days (35 years ago!). So I stepped up, or stepped in it, depending on how poorly I do teaching math and science during the next school year. However, I still made time to read some history, so here's a recommendation for you.

Book R & R: "Back Over There" by Richard Rubin.

Back in 2013 I read Richard Rubin's first book on WWI titled "The Last of the Doughboys" and really enjoyed it. In that book Rubin described interviewing the last few remaining WWI veterans who were still alive (must to most people's surprise). In "Back Over There," the author goes to France and tours the battlefields of the Western Front of World War I. Both of these books are very timely since we are currently in the one hundred year anniversary of the war.

I have to admit that I am jealous of Richard Rubin. You can tell by his writing that the author truly enjoyed his research. One of my favorite things to do is to walk a battlefield. In "Back Over There" Rubin travels on his own to the ground where battles of the "Great War" happened, not just American Expeditionary Forces but also our allies, the French and British. These battlefields are near the French border with Belgium and Germany, in many cases what is today and was then, in rural areas dotted with small farming villages. Often he makes contact with locals who know the history of the ground as well as any park ranger would at a National Historic Site in the United States. But the majority of the fields that Rubin walks are not protected national parks. They are farm fields where people continue to find artifacts, typically in the form of unexploded ordinance. The interesting thing about Rubin's trip to France is that while we have largely forgotten the battles and sacrifices made by our soldiers WWI, but other nations have not. They continue to That is evidenced strongly from Rubin's description of the formal remembrance ceremony at Belleau Wood to his interactions with the locals who drop what they are doing to take Rubin on a tour of a battlefield near where they live.

"Back Over There" is an enjoyable read with good pacing. The author seamlessly switches back and forth between historical background and travel narrative. He provides self-deprecating humor in describing his poor French language skills and the occasions where he gets lost looking for the spot where a particular event happened. These are two things that everyone who travels can relate to. So you see that this book is both historical and travel narrative. During this 100-year anniversary of an event that changed the course of history and our standing in the world, "Back Over There" is a good book to read and reflect on. Find out the sacrifices made by us, and more so by our allies. Ask yourself why other nations honor and remember, and are still grateful for what past generations of Americans have done, but we seem to have forgotten.