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Closing Out the 'Closed Tour'

Updated: Sep 2, 2022

Saturday, 6 August 2022, Elk Grove CA

After a two weeks in nature, I now faced two days of sampling urban parks, dedicated to history. The San Francisco Bay area contained a large handful of NPS sites that I'd never visited (and a few that I had), so I had enough to keep me busy.

I headed out early, making it to John Muir National Historic Site at 9:30, half an hour before opening time.

My book helped me pass the time, and I was first when they opened the doors. First order of business: see if my reservation for a tour to Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial still held. "I signed up for a Port Chicago tour, but never got a final confirmation. Can you tell me?"

The ranger shook his head. "Sorry, but the memorial is on an active naval base, and they had to close to the public today. You can try again next week."

I'd expected that closure, but I had plan B ready. I started my visit to Muir's park by viewing the park film. My knowledge of Muir hadn't extended much beyond his accomplishments in getting National Parks established. I never knew that, in his early years, people considered him to have a talent for innovation and invention that could rival Edison's. Unfortunately - or fortunately, for the conservation movement - a factory accident nearly cost him an eye. As he recovered, he realigned his priorities, and when healed, he left his industrial career behind to walk from Kentucky to the Gulf of Mexico, writing his first journal along the way.

A year later, he showed up in California, seeing Yosemite Valley for the first time. Conservation now filled his life for years, pushing the novel notion of preserving wild spaces. Eventually he moved on to the San Francisco region, settling in as the manager of a fruit ranch for a wealthy doctor. Before long, he wed the daughter of the doctor, taking over the ranch when his father-in-law died.

The Father of Conservationism could not stay rooted for long, though. His wife eventually convinced him to pass off his orcharding duties to return to his conservation work.

The Historic Site preserves the orchards that sustained him, along with the mansion he inherited from the doctor.

The NPS offers a self-guided cell phone tour of the grounds, and one can tour the mansion. I wandered through the house, which featured decorations from the time Muir lived there. I took special note of his study, which he called his 'scribble den,' with papers scattered about.

Ahh, finally I can say my desk emulates that of a noted writer! (I doubt Sue will see the parallels.)

I rejoined the cell-phone tour as I left the house, entering the orchards. The ranger had told me that the peaches were ripe, and that visitors could harvest one or two, no charge (honor system to not ransack the grove). Sure enough, I found a couple worth picking - juicy and delicious.

Muir studied many subjects, but had an affinity for trees and forests. Sequoias particularly resonated with him, as he worked tirelessly for the protection of these giant plants. For a reminder of his beloved trees, he planted a Sequoia within view of the house. That tree still grows, more than a century later.

On the far side of the park, the Martinez Adobe still stands, a monument to the original Spanish settlers of this area.

In 1775-76 - as hostilities erupted on the Atlantic Coast - Lt. Col. Juan Bautista de Anza led 240 pilgrims on an expedition up the coast to the remote colony of Alta California. The Spanish (and later Mexican) land grant system parsed out thousands of acres to families moving to the new land. The Martinez grant contained 17,000 acres - 27 square miles - stretching from today's town of Martinez to Pinole over ten miles to the west.

Don Vincente Martinez (whose father commanded the Presidio of San Francisco) constructed this adobe-brick house around 1849. Four years later, he sold out. For years it then operated as a cattle ranch, until it found its way to the hands of Muir's father-in-law, who sold the cows and planted fruit trees. The adobe structure hosts bi-lingual exhibits illuminating the story of the Anza expedition - but it is closed at this time due to structural damage. Another instance of my 'closed tour'.

When I returned to the Visitor Center, I noticed a docent for Port Chicago sitting at a table, eager to tout her park. (John Muir, Port Chicago, and Eugene O'Neill parks are all managed through this Visitor Center.) Since I couldn't travel to the Port, I could at least discover its story.

During WWII, shipyards kept busy outfitting our Navy ships. In the segregated Navy, black soldiers got assigned the perilous task of loading munitions - 1,000 pound bombs, depth charges, incendiary bombs. Neither the black workers or their white officers had any special training for the task. The soldiers grew increasingly apprehensive of the dangers of their work.

On the night of July 17, 1944, the ship E. A. Bryan was almost full, and crews would load Quinault Victory next. At 10:18 p.m. a tremendous explosion filled the air, followed quickly by a second blast that blew apart ships, piers, cars - and people. Sailors a mile away were thrown about. When the dust cleared, 320 people - or what little remained of them - lay dead. That number included 202 African-American loaders - nearly 1/6th of all African-American deaths during the war..

The surviving officers received 30 days leave... but the loaders were quickly transferred to Mare Island Naval Shipyard, and on August 9 were told to get back to loading munitions. Initially, 258 soldiers refused, too afraid to load. When threatened with a firing squad for mutiny, 208 begrudgingly went back to work. The other 50 faced history's largest mass mutiny trial.

In the end, the 50 lost their trial, getting sentenced to 8-15 years. Once the war ended, the Navy granted clemency to them. Though the Navy never overturned the sentences, their mutiny highlighted the injustice of segregation in the military. This helped lead to President Truman officially ending that policy in 1948.

The docent mentioned that this story resonated with her since her father had served in that theatre of the war, and witnessed the harm that policy caused. I thanked her for the detailed description of the events, then moved on to hear about one of America's premier playwrights.

The house where Eugene O'Neill resided while writing his most honored plays (now preserved as a National Historic Site)

lay inside a gated community with no space for public parking. Thus, you need to reserve a free ticket on the shuttle bus that takes you to and from the house (except for Saturdays, when no reservation is required). I had a reserved a spot for Sunday, but since my Port Chicago visit fizzled out, I opted to see this site today.

As I reached the shuttle station, the farmer's market there was closing. I wandered through the emptying aisles, checking out the variety of veggies and fruits offered. Knowing I could not eat enough strawberries to make it worth purchasing a pint, I passed them by.

I took a seat at the bus stop, pulling out my book to pass the time. Before long, a mother with her three teenage daughters in tow wandered up. "Is there where the bus to the Eugene O'Neill park stops?" she asked.

We chatted while waiting for the bus. She was on the tail end of a trip, and decided to add another NPS site to her list (she proudly revealed that she's seen 120+ over the years). They had a bag of strawberries they'd just bought, and shared one with me - so sweet!

The shuttle bus delivered the five of us to the Tao House, which reflected the O'Neills' fascination with Oriental culture - deep blue ceilings, red doors, tiled floors, Chinese furniture.

The bus driver/tour guide urged us to explore the house and wander the grounds, and ask them any questions we may have. The Tao (translated as 'The Way') House remained furnished as it was when the O'Neills lived there, and where Eugene wrote his most celebrated plays, such as The Iceman Cometh and Long Day's Journey Into Night.

Outside, the house sat in the foothills above the San Ramon Valley. On one side, views extended over the valley;

the other butted up against wooded hills.

An outbuilding, left over from previous owners, serves as a stage where the park services stages one of his plays during the Eugene O'Neill Festival every September.

I took special note of his memorial to his beloved dog Blemie, who served as the couple's surrogate child. When the dog died, the O'Neills buried him on the property, giving him a large headstone.

Eugene also penned Blemie's Last Will and Testament, which is excerpted here:

I, Silverdene Emblem O'Neill (familiarly known to my family, friends and acquaintances as Blemie), because the burden of my years and infirmities is heavy upon me, and I realize the end of my life is near, do hereby bury my last will and testament in the mind of my Master. ...

I have little in the way of material things to leave. Dogs are wiser than men. They do not set great store upon things. They do not waste their days hoarding property. They do not ruin their sleep worrying about how to keep the objects they have, and to obtain objects they have not. There is nothing of value I have to bequeath except my love and my loyalty. These I leave to all those who have loved me, especially to my Master and Mistress, who I know will mourn me the most.

I ask my Master and my Mistress to remember me always, but not to grieve for me too long. ... Let them remember that while no dog has ever had a happier life ... now that I have grown blind and deaf and lame, and even my sense of smell fails me so that a rabbit could be right under my nose and I might not know, my pride has sunk to a sick, bewildered humiliation. ...

I would like to believe that there is a Paradise. Where one is always young and fullbladdered. Where all the day one dillies and dallies. Where each blissful hour is mealtime. Where in the long evenings there are a million fireplaces with logs forever burning, and one curls oneself up and blinks into the flames and nods and dreams, remembering the old brave days on earth and the love of one's Master and Mistress. ...

One last request, I earnestly make. I have heard my Mistress say, "When Blemie dies we must never have another dog." ... Now I would ask her, for love of me, to have another. It would be a poor tribute to my memory never to have a dog again. What I would like to feel is that, having once had me in the family, she cannot live without a dog! ...

One last word of farewell, dear Master and Mistress. Whenever you visit my grave, say to yourselves with regret but also with happiness in your hearts at the remembrance of my long, happy life with you:

"Here lies one who loved us and whom we loved". No matter how deep my sleep I shall hear you and not all the power of death can keep my spirit from wagging a grateful tail. I will always love you as only a dog can."

You can find the complete will at

And that wraps my day in the 'burbs! I finished with a drive to Elk Grove, to spend a night with an old friend I'd recently reconnected with after 30 years. We spent the evening talking, seeing where life had taken each of us, reminiscing about times gone by. The night refreshed me, preparing me for tomorrow's finale, my Long Day's Journey Into San Francisco.

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