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Raven's Quest, Three Years On

on landmark-hunting in California
by whiteraven13
December 20, 2006

BookCrossers with very long memories might recall that, almost three years ago, I published an article about Raven's Quest, an attempt to visit all 1100-plus California state historical landmarks and leave a BookCrossing book at, or in honour of, each one. (There are somewhere around 1040 separately-numbered landmarks; however, several of these are thematic, which means that more than one landmark shares the number, or they include several different structures as part of their listing. Being somewhat obsessive, and having a lot of books to pass out, I opted to try to find all the individual listings.)

The Quest arose from the ashes of an attempt to tour the American southwest on a motorcycle that broke down spectacularly about three days before I was due to leave. With the energy left over I hatched the idea of both Raven's Quest and Markeroni.com, a site where one could log one's visits to historical markers and historic landmarks. Back in 2003, I had no idea how far these two activities would lead me.

Three years later I'm the author of a fresh new travel book with ideas for many more. I've rediscovered a passion for riding, writing, and history. I count myself beyond lucky that I'm able to indulge in, and combine, all three! I've traveled thousands of miles, many of them solo, to log landmarks in Canada, England, Scotland, and nine different US states -- but it's the local mini-adventures that keep me going in the between-times.

On the 22nd of October 2006, I finally did my hundredth Raven's Quest release.

I'm fond of Hallowe'en, and chose 31 October 2003 as the date I would do my first visit. I procrastinated until such a point as night fell, when it abruptly became too late. I'd taken a long break from riding and was only just starting to get the hang of things; I was very cautious and nervous back then, and every trip needed careful planning and consideration in order to ensure that I didn't overextend myself. That included riding in the dark. I went the next day instead.

My bike, Arnie, didn't really help matters. He broke down every few weeks, developing heart-stopping bouts of backfiring and attacks of only firing on one cylinder (the bike is a V-twin, which means that in effect half the engine wasn't really working.) He finally ground to a halt one sunny afternoon in May 2005, belching a cloud of grey, smelly smoke. The bike ensured that I took long breaks between trips and missed more than one scheduled event or road trip. Eventually, sadly anticipating the demise of this beloved vehicle, in March 2005 I bought a second bike, a 1400cc monster that I called The Beast. We skirted around one another at first, dubious as to who was actually in control, but now, 20,000 miles later, we are partners in crime...or adventure, and his name has changed to the more affectionate Beastie.

Since I figured that I'd eventually write a series of books about the Quest, I decided to restrict my hunt to a specific geographic area: the eight California Bay Area counties, plus Monterey and San Benito. I thought that doing so would give me a better sense of how things fit together. This area is at the heart of some very interesting history -- Gaspar de Portolà, trying to find Monterey, went too far and found the San Francisco Bay instead. I learned that Palo Alto was named for "el palo alto", or the "tall tree", where the expedition ended; there is a nice little history park there and a couple of plaques. The tree, incidentally, is still there. It's quite tall.

California landmarks, in the beginning, were designated willy-nilly. This is quite evident from the number of landmarks assigned to Portolà's campgrounds, often without so much as a plaque and certainly nothing left to see (unless you count the beautiful California coastline!)

From landmark #770 or so, more stringent criteria were applied to the designation process. Additionally, I have heard that the State Historical Resources Commission is now considering a re-look at the older landmarks to see if they are still worthy. I'm hoping that they won't tear down the plaques if they aren't, because I still get a thrill every time I find a new one and their familiar curvy shape has, at times, come to signal the end of a long search!

The matter of what constitutes noteworthy history is entirely subjective, of course, and part of the pleasure is that individuals and groups spearhead the campaign to get certain places designated. When I first discovered that a garage -- the one where Hewlett and Packard first tinkered -- was a state landmark, I laughed out loud. Being British, accustomed to ancient burial mounds and crumbling castles, a simple garage seemed a pitiful contrast! But after finding plaques, state and otherwise, that highlighted the development of Silicon Valley, I got the idea. It wasn't the garage, nestled in a quiet and affluent neighborhood, that was important; it was what went on there. I dropped off a copy of "The Hewlett-Packard Story" there. "Silicon Valley Boys" quotes the text of a different plaque, so I matched book to marker and left it at the site of the first commercially practicable integrated circuit, near the empty office of a former dot-com.

I started off trying to theme all my releases, but it quickly became apparent that doing this required more storage than I really had, and I also concluded that my catch rate wasn't going to be very high if I carried on leaving oh-so-serious non-fiction books around. I've found that non-fiction of most kinds is best left to crossing zones, and have taken to leaving mass-market paperbacks, stories that the average joe might enjoy, out there in the wild instead. Over time, I've become less inhibited about releasing books, too. I used to agonize over whether or not I should leave them, whether they'd be found. I used to sneak around, hoping nobody would see me, and if I thought the place was too remote I'd leave it somewhere nearby "in honor of" the landmark. Now, as a variety of companions will attest, I just toss them there and walk away; I've had some lovely "middle of nowhere" wild catches, perhaps because a book on a trailhead really stands out!

I don't usually take a picture, unless for some reason it's a delightful pun or a special anniversary. My 50th book, for example, was "Dave Barry Turns 50". My 100th book was a rescue from the Toronto convention's buffet-o-books; I left it atop the 325' high Campanile tower at UC Berkeley. It was called "Markers".

I've fallen afoul of officious docents in missions and museums, and have admired beautiful churches and schools and homes alongside perfect strangers with better attitudes. I've been outdone by a woman in her late 50s, touring the endless historic trails around Monterey. I've squee'd with delight to find, near a remote marker on Old Santa Cruz Highway, the rusting remains of an old Model T Ford, being swallowed up by ivy. And I've ridden round in frustrated circles, dripping sweat, trying to find roads that don't exist.

Since 2003 I've gone from a cautious novice to an experienced rider -- though I find that the more I learn, the more I have to learn about riding. I remember my delight as I crossed the Golden Gate Bridge for the first time, reconsecrating myself, in a way, as a long-distance rider after an absence of many years. Discovering history, learning my sport, I have discovered myself -- what I can and can't do, what I should and should not do. (Crashing my bike on a foggy highway 1 and being knocked off my bike on the outskirts of Berkeley both count as "should nots".)

My catch rate? I have no idea. In the beginning I didn't take particularly careful notes about which books went where, and in some cases I did mass releases instead of individual releases, such as when I peppered the KOA at Petaluma with books during my club's motorcycle rally. I do know that on the latest trip, where I left some twenty books behind on or near the Berkeley campus, I had five wild catches, and I think that's a record. Lately I've started logging down BCIDs in a worksheet, and saving catch notifications in a folder. I know that one of those Petaluma ones ended up in Malaysia, via Amsterdam! No doubt, many have ended up in lost-property...but I'm sure that many more have brightened somebody's day. And isn't that the whole point of BookCrossing?

I seriously doubt that it will take me another three years to get the next hundred. Unexplored San Francisco has over eighty landmarks awaiting me; I sense a nice weekend away in my future. We have workable weather in our California winters, which means that trips out and hunts in November and December are a distinct possibility. I look forward to the next hundred, and the next, and the next. I have at least ten more lots of "the next hundred" to look forward to, and you of course can expect to read about them!

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