Image source: Disney
  • Gravity Falls (2012-2016) on Hulu

California is certainly well represented in our entertainment media; however, within this very large state of mine, I feel that Northern California is woefully under-represented.

You may balk at that idea––San Francisco gets a lot of attention in movies and television. While true, there is still almost 400 miles of state above our fair city on the bay, inland as well. This “other” Northern California is very different from the rest of the state––it’s forested with redwoods, gets snow during the winter, and relatively sparse of population. As expected, the more north you go, the more Pacific Northwesterny it becomes, too.

My wife and I spend a lot of time in this area, driving around and hiking, camping, and––during winter––letting our dog roll around in the snow. In addition the peaceful solitude, the region carries an air of history crossed with mystery. Hiking often reveals abandoned barns or the red, rusted skeletons of machinery whose purpose has long been forgotten. You can find abandoned train tunnels to walk through, feeling wintry temperatures in the pitch black during the middle of summer. All of this speaks to a lost society, places once bustling with intent and productivity but, in the loss of that, become overgrown and hidden by time.

You can find strange things in the open wild of Northern California, such as the abandoned Iron Mountain Sno-Park off the Mormon-Emigrant Trail near Kyburz, California. Photo is the author’s.

Not to mention that what society survives out there is incredibly quirky. It’s like the residents revel in the otherness that shrouds this part of the state. From the Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz to gigantic carved totems of Paul Bunyan in Westwood to, you guessed it, the sprawling ghost town of Bodie in the Eastern Sierra Nevadas.

I say all of that because the Disney XD show, Gravity Falls (though we watch it on Hulu), captures that exact strangeness of Northern California––and then adds things like ghosts, gnomes, and other cryptids. Also, a bit of conspiracy, time travel, and science-fiction.

Despite the fictional town of Gravity Falls being set in Oregon, the show’s creator, Alex Hirsch, has said that it has been inspired by his time as a youth in Oregon as well as his summers growing up in Northern California and places like the Mystery Spot.

source: Disney

The basic premise is that the pre-teen twins, Dipper and Mabel Pines, are sent to spend the summer in Gravity Falls, Oregon with their great uncle (or “Grunkle”) Stan Pines who runs the somewhat shady tourist spot “The Mystery Shack.” From there, hilarity ensues.

The show, with its mixture of X-Files, Twin Peaks, and Spielbergian family drama, hits so many of the right notes with me that it takes a lot of willpower to not binge through its two seasons. What I especially love is that, despite its wackiness (a wackiness that––unlike a lot of other animated series––has a premise that allows it), it’s a show about the affection and friendship between the main characters. Even when it gets far-out-weird, the themes are consistent and there is a narrative and emotional throughline in each episode, revealing an impressive level of craft and care.

Obviously, it inspires me to approach my own work with as much attention and thought as Hirsch did, but it also makes me think of this strange part of the state where I live and have access to and gives me a desire to get back out there.


Image Source: EMI/Elektra
  • Queen (1973) by Queen

My great Queen listening journey came to an end this month. For the uninitiated, a friend who is not a fan of Queen challenged me to name five good Queen songs not on a greatest hits collection. Of course, I couldn’t, which made me realize that, while I know their hits, I called myself a fan of the band without any real knowledge of them.

Bolstered by the goal, I decided I would buy a Queen album per month, to give myself a good chunk of time to become familiar with each album and its songs.

I knew I wouldn’t be as much of a fan of their early progressive stuff, so I skipped the first album entirely and started with Queen II, which I did not like at all. It wasn’t until their fourth album, A Night at the Opera, where they actually started asserting their unique personality as a band and create solid albums, which––generally––I argue they continued through the rest of their career (with only a few missteps).

Last month, for me, was their final studio album, Made in Heaven, cobbled together from outtakes and final, desperate vocals from a very ill Freddie Mercury. I realized, however, that I wasn’t done. I needed to go to their first album to actually bring the experiment to a close. In a way, I found it fitting, albeit strange and accidental, to end this trek with their very first album.

Image source: EMI/Elektra

In hindsight, I actually wish I had started with Queen instead of Queen II. Sure, it is more of their progressive, floaty, sword-and-sorcery, indulgent sound, but it’s an album comprised of club songs––so, the songs are tight, rehearsed, and workshopped to please and energize a crowd. It’s with Queen II that they took more advantage of the studio, taking what personality they established on the first album and make it bloated and masturbatory. There are some neat studio tricks on this album, but mostly it’s just a band rocking the eff out and it’s delightful, especially in the face of what I was expecting.

From the very Black Sabbathesque “Sons and Daughters” to the very fun fantasy of “Great King Rat” there are some hints of what Queen will become in tracks like “Liar,” “Jesus,” “Modern Times Rock ‘N Roll,” and “Doing Alright,” but even then it’s hazy and vague; whispers coming from behind you.

The band really is a compilation of four different and talented songwriters who, somehow, coalesce into this unique sound called “Queen.” Like many first albums, Queen is a snapshot of a band full of talent but with no idea of who they are––and what that means in the context of this band is that they are also four songwriters figuring out their individual voices.

Coming to this album at the end of a listen-through of their career, I can’t help but listen with a snarky smile, knowing where they will go and how they will get there…tempered a bit by a pang for the tragedy to come, as well. Listening through Queen, their talent and ability come through clearly, and while it’s sloppy and a bit try-hard, I can’t help walking away wishing them the best going forward.