Figs, hobbits, and housebikes in Davis, CA
A rambling account of Colin's short visit to Davis, CA, and links to places of interest, including where to find food and shelter. Also, notable are an encounter with two housebikes and a visit to the Davis Domes.
I'm happy to write the first non-facetious boosterism article for this site. It is not quite a real boosterism article though, as I do not live there now, but the info here may help if you are thinking about going there.
About five months ago, hating where I was living in San Diego, I daydreamed of visiting Davis, CA—a U.S. city that I had heard had been planned for years with bicycles in mind. I later hatched plans to escape to San Luis Obispo, which I did, and then went to San Francisco. Davis is only about an hour and 16 dollars' train ride from Berkeley, so by the time I'd violated my vow of stability so much as to go to San Francisco, and then on a joy ride with my parents and sister to Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite, I had to stop by Davis before returning to the south.
I arrived 10 p.m. on Sunday August 22, 2004, after taking the free shuttle bus from Tuolumne Meadows as far as I could, walking 12 miles, three of which were straight down, catching the $10 Yarts bus from the madhouse of the Yosemite Valley floor to Merced, and then a $30 bus/train Amtrak route to Davis.
The train station in Davis is right in downtown, and as I walked out to where I thought there would be some fields to sleep in, I was amazed at the number of bicycles and the number of people scooting around on them, especially after another train arrived. There were also all sorts of bike tunnels and ramps, many of which were elaborate. The vehicular activists might be apoplectic. There is a highway near Davis, though unlike in San Luis Obispo I don't think it cuts the town in half. I ended up spending the night in a grassy, automatic sprinkler-free field sort of close to that highway.
In the morning I got up and began heading back towards the walkable downtown, and on the way I found a calimyrna fig tree. Heaven. San Luis Obispo was the first place I've been where I realized I could go around eating figs off trees. I walked back and forth across that town trying to find all the fig trees. By the way, here's a place to buy bulk figs. I hardly found any Calimyrna (I used to call them calmyra, until just now) trees, and if I did, most were still too green to be good. I had found many more black mission figs, until now. I stood by that tree and ate many hard, dried figs, and a few fresh ones.
Walking further, I noticed some commuters, one with a bike, waiting to catch the express Yolobus into Sacramento. I walked over the highway on an overpass which seemed to have a bike lane on both sides, but for a sidewalk I had to cross to the other side. I had been in a sort of suburban location (non-mixed-use zoning, box-store malls), but the housing was noticeably denser—mostly attached houses, rowhouse like, organized around bike trails as well as parking lots.
I walked around the downtown a bit, picking up literature, before making my way to campus (UC Davis). I lay comatose on a bench by the music department for a while reading through the stuff I'd collected, finishing off the last of the figs, resting from my short night. Recovering, I visited the campus library, which impressed me. I didn't like the campus art, which seemed permanent, consisting of large eggs with ears, eyes and a nose, in various orientations. One interesting view on campus from near the front of the library lets you see a bit of the highway through the glassed-in entryway of a building at one end of the view corridor. There is also a good-sized duckpond.
Happy with what I'd seen of Davis (it was a place worth returning to), I contemplated catching the next train to Berkeley, but on the way back to the station, I decided to try to find the Davis Food Co-op, as I'd seen some their ads in the papers I picked up. And parked by the side of the food co-op, near the railroad tracks, were two housebikes. I think I'd seen a housebike back in 1998 when I visited Arcata for two weeks, thinking about living there. Or maybe I'd only seen the picture that is on the cover of Auto-Free Times issue 11. I signed and put two of my business cards in a place where they would be noticed on the bikes.
I hung around there long enough that Devin emerged from one of the bikes and I asked if he was in a talkative mood, and he was. He let me crawl inside his house, and I was amazed at how cool it was, since Brian Campbell had taken the shady spot. But the RMAX 1-inch insulating material Devin's box was made of, plus the heat shield on the roof kept it pleasant inside. He also showed me how he made a lamp, several of which could be combined to make a little stove, from machined aluminum, that he filled with vegetable oil. A very small bit of oil, maybe three tablespoons it looked like, would fill the reservoir that Devin said would let the wick burn all night.
Devin said he was Campbell's apprentice, and that he'd been living in his housebike for three months. He said Campbell had been in Davis for two years, and that they'd decided that weatherwise, cheap bike parts wise, and flat terrain wise, Davis was the place for them to be. For food, apparently the co-op they were currently parked next to had plenty of leftovers. Actually, I added that part about flat terrain. Devin assured me Campbell could manage SF-steep hills on his bike.
Devin told me I should go back over to campus and check out the Davis Domes. He gave me general directions and said that anyone in the vicinity should be able to help me find them. Hiking back to campus, I stopped by the city swim pool and found out about the masters swimming program, and I was able to take a needed shower. I also stopped by the city hall, where there is a real-life version of the high-wheeler bicycle that you see in the city logos.
Walking back towards where the domes should be, out the back of campus, I saw what looked to be an organic farm on the other side of a fence with one or two workers in it who looked like they belonged to the twelve tribes. Following that fence I came to part of the Davis Sustainable Ag program. We didn't have much to say, but I did ask if I could harvest some figs from the massive calimyrna tree. They did say yes, but I'm not sure if they wanted to encourage me. They were not picking the figs and the ground beneath the tree was covered in fermenting figs. Eating them was like eating wine.
Back the other way I found the domes, and more figs. Eventually a dome resident, Gabriel, appeared. I gave him some carfree cards for his friends studying transportation, and he said I should collect some figs from their trees, as they could not keep up with them. I'm giving this document the ecovillage label because of the domes, and also because of the great gardens of the other student housing co-ops.
Laden with figs, I began to make my way back to the train station. On the way I passed some of UC Davis's student housing co-ops, and went to visit one of them, passing through a luscious garden surrounded by fruit trees with some peppers, and I think figs, set out to dry in the sun. I gave a wiry guy in overalls at the Agrarian Effort co-op one of the carfree cards to put on their bulletin board.
I managed to catch the 5 p.m. train to Berkeley, where I went to visit David Ceaser (of carfreecity.us), who had just moved back from Mexico. Later that day I visited David and Gus Yates and Gus's wife, and one of David's friends, while they were planning the local carfree day events. It turns out that Gus had lived in Davis for a long time before moving to Berkeley to be more in the middle of things. The house the Yates' chose is in an ideal location for still being in a city with cars...
I'm glad to have visited Davis, and if I had relatives there, maybe I'd go back for longer.
Davis vs. San Luis Obispo
I spent two months in SLO and less than a day in Davis. So don't take this too seriously. SLO has a roaring highway through the center of town. It has a good school, but it is not as good or as rich as Davis. The parking lots of the frat houses near the CalPoly campus don't have enough room for all of the residents' Ford F-250s. The CalPoly campus has some new housing that while high-density, is horribly car-centric. Progressive culture has a strong foothold in SLO, but in Davis, the Domes date from the 70's, I believe. Davis has a massive co-op that is the main natural food store. SLO has a small coop, and the main natural food store is a corporation (New Frontiers). Getting from the downtown to the college campus as a pedestrian is reasonably pleasant in Davis—they are close. Downtown to CalPoly in SLO is only tolerable because you can walk illegally along the railway tracks, away from the F-250s. The effect of the highway in SLO may be pronounced because of the beautiful surrounding hills—up in the hills the highway is all you can hear. Davis is flat. Davis is also only a short though expensive train ride from a capital of carfree activism in the US, Walnut Creek (or maybe Berkeley). And Davis has been planning for bicycles for years, where SLO has been doing so only more recently.