Thursday, January 31, 2013

Valley Ford to Bodega Bay

View from cottage porch, Bodega Bay, California

There is no one at the motel office desk. There is only a hand-drawn sign:


We walk around back and are greeted by a woman who appears to be in her fifties. She is smoking a cigarette and could be a character from Golden Girls. Her voice is Bea Arthur, but her disposition is Betty White.

A basset hound toddles at her ankle as she moves about the yard.

“That's Barney,” she says by way of introduction. “He won't bite.”

I reach down and offer the back of my hand, a non-threatening gesture. Barney responds with a disapproving bark.

“It's the hat. He doesn't like hats.”

My Portland Beavers cap has become ubiquitous on this trip. If Barney doesn't like my hat, he doesn't like me. This is his territory, so I respect the decision.

After checking into our cottage, I ask about dinner options. Barney's mom has a few suggestions, the easiest of which is the Sandpiper next door.

“You'd better hurry, though. It's open till 8, but sometimes they close up early.”

There are places closer to downtown, but those involve driving. She does mention one restaurant just down the hill that might work.

“Can we walk there?”

“Well, I wouldn't recommend it. Especially if she's getting dressed up. But if you do, head down this road here, take the second right, then cut through the fence...”

I nod my head. It sounds complicated.

“But I wouldn't recommend it.”

Sandra and I settle into our cottage, which overlooks the water and is as old school as its keeper. It's a tiny room with tile floors and a wooden porch that we share with our neighbors.

Bodega Bay's population is shrinking. The 2010 census had it at 1,077, well down from 1,423 in 2000. Much of Alfred Hitchock's The Birds was filmed here. Originally settled by the Russians in the early-19th century and called Port Rumyantsev, it is now a quiet town that feels far removed from everything. When non-Californians think of California, they do not think of a place like this, although the same can be said about most of the state.

After a brief respite, we stroll to the Sandpiper. Sandra has flat bread with pesto, goat cheese, and bay shrimp. I have fish and chips, and a Lagunitas IPA. We share a bowl of clam chowder. We are seated at a window overlooking the bay, next to a table full of commercial fishermen talking about the day's haul and dreams of a brighter future.

Back at the cottage, we open the half-empty bottle of Merlot we'd bought in Paso Robles and sip it in plastic cups while gazing at the water below from the porch. One of the many advantages of summer is that the further north we travel, the later the sun sets. We are rewarded with the gentle hues of twilight, what Sandra calls “Parrish time” after the palette favored by famed painter Maxfield Parrish.

It has been a long second day. Hard to believe that tomorrow night we still won't be out of California. But we'll worry about that after getting some sleep.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Point Reyes Station to Valley Ford

Where we've been so far; not the exact route, but close enough for government work

In fact, my calculations are correct. What confuses me is the town of Valley Ford, where we stop to buy Rainier cherries at a roadside stand.

For reasons that escape me, I now think we are an hour from our destination. We have traveled 24 miles on a slow road since our last stop, when you will recall I thought we were an hour from our destination.

This is not how time and space work. In my defense, I am easily confused.

The cherries are sweet and juicy; we make a vow to stop for cherries whenever we see a roadside stand. In the coming days, we will see several roadside stands. We will stop for precisely zero of them.

On the bright side, our drive just got a lot shorter.

* * *

Well, that wasn't much of a story, so let's take this opportunity to get caught up on anything you might have missed so far:
Also, inquiring minds want to know: What are your favorite places to visit along the California coast?

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Mountain View to Point Reyes Station

Point Reyes Station, California (via Wikipedia)
San Francisco is a mess. A beautiful mess, splattered with traffic. We spend an hour inching our way from city limits, through Golden Gate Park and the Presidio, to the Golden Gate Bridge.

We pass several gas stations but do not stop. The highway is congested enough that it will be difficult to get back on after refueling. We can buy gas later, right?

The park is a vague sprawl of trees beyond the car in front of ours. We crawl through the MacArthur Tunnel and then onto the freeway that will take us across the bay. Today's high in the city is 67 degrees, and there are few clouds. Most of June is like this, except for scattered freakish days where the temperature jumps into the 80s.

The view from the bridge overwhelms. To our right, Alcatraz and East Bay beyond. To our left, the mouth of the Pacific that stretches west to Japan. The vast ocean whose shores we will hug over the next several days.

Hundreds of people walk across the bridge, but what do they know about it?

The Golden Gate Bridge spans 1.7 miles and rises 220 feet above the bay. Construction began in January 1933 and was completed in May 1937. Eleven men died in the process.

For years, Chief Engineer Joseph P. Strauss received sole credit for this architectural feat. Strauss wrote poems about the bridge, including one titled “The Mighty Task is Done” that begins:

At last the mighty task is done;
Resplendent in the western sun
The Bridge looms mountain high;
Its titan piers grip ocean floor,
Its great steel arms link shore with shore,
Its towers pierce the sky.

It continues in this vein for several more stanzas. The man liked his bridge.

His bridge. Yes, about that. The other fellow responsible for designing the Golden Gate Bridge was a University of Illinois professor named Charles Alton Ellis who didn't receive formal credit for his contributions until 70 years after the bridge opened (and 58 years after Ellis died). Seems Strauss and Ellis had a falling out, with Strauss claiming the bridge as his own and writing clumsy verse, and Ellis getting nothing.

After crossing, we return to CA-1 and its serpentine path over the Marin Hills. Each switchback reveals a new view of the bay and points beyond.

The sky is clear enough that we can see San Jose to the southeast. Further west, a peninsula juts out. It's either Santa Cruz or Monterey. The smart money is on Santa Cruz, along the north shore of Monterey Bay, but one never knows.

The road eventually descends toward the coast. Mt. Tamalpais State Park is lush with grass and trees. Bolinas Lagoon is summer home to Great Blue Herons, Great Egrets, and Snowy Egrets.

We are in Coast Miwok country. We are in a land without gas stations.

The plan was to visit Point Reyes National Seashore, but it's a good haul from the highway. Given our gas situation and the late hour, we skip it, stopping instead at nearby Point Reyes Station. Gas costs $4.45 per gallon here, as opposed to $3.87 in San Francisco; it is money gladly spent.

Assuming my calculations are correct, we will reach our destination in about an hour. But you know what they say about assumptions.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Prunedale to Mountain View

Somehow I find myself far out of line
from the ones I had drawn
Wasn't the best of paths, you could attest to that,
but I'm keeping on.
–Poi Dog Pondering, “Thanksgiving

Swinging out west allows us to miss San Jose. It is a fine city, with a funky old ballpark where I once saw former Padres pitcher Scott Linebrink make his California League debut (he struck out 10), but it is crowded and best avoided today.

We will hang a left on CA-85 to Cupertino, then another on I-280 (Junipero Serra Freeway; those Padres keep following us everywhere). But I miss the second left and we end up in Mountain View.

Signs appear for US-101, which becomes Van Ness Street in San Francisco, three blocks from the end of the Pride Parade. Of all the roads in California, it is the one we are trying to avoid.

We take the first exit, Shoreline Blvd., and find the nearest parking lot so I can consult the map. GPS? Please, I want to get where we're trying to go.

It would make for a nice change. First Prunedale, now Mountain View? Who's driving, anyway?

Meanwhile, the parking lot is attached to something called the Computer History Museum, which turns out to be exactly what you'd expect. It's only 10:30 a.m., so the museum has been open for a half hour and is uncrowded.

Admission is $15 well spent. Two hours is not enough to explore this place, and I scribble notes as we gawk at ancient machines and read about pioneers in the field. What results is a jibberish manifesto of bullet points:
  • Babbage Difference Engine No. 1
  • Herman Hollerith, Joseph Marie Jacquard
  • Atanasoff-Berry Computer
  • William Shockley & “Traitorous Eight”
And so forth down the page. The hope is that I'll remember to look up Konrad Zuse or Project Whirlwind at some later date. Which I do, if only to say that I did:

According to Wikipedia, Zuse invented “the world's first functional program-controlled Turing-complete computer” in 1941–something called the Z3. Whirlwind, built by MIT for the U.S. Navy, was “the first computer that operated in real time, used video displays for output, and the first that was not simply an electronic replacement of older mechanical systems.” Parts of this machine, which used 5,000 vacuum tubes (my 100-Watt Marshall guitar amp uses four), are on display at the museum.

One of the last rooms is dedicated to video games, from the consoles of my youth to whatever the kids are playing nowadays. Atari 2600 and ColecoVision are represented, as are several generations of Sega and Nintendo machines.

No Intellivision, which probably absorbed more of my childhood than anything else. I'm not sure how I got my mother to buy me one of those back in the day. She is a literary sort, so maybe it helped that George Plimpton, founder of the Paris Review, was their TV spokesperson.

A personal favorite was Utopia, a precursor to the SimCity type games that became popular toward the end of the '80s. It was complex and enjoyable. You could play it hundreds of times and never get the same outcome.

There are a few working games in this room. One is the classic Pong, which Sandra and I play. The controls are clumsy by today's standards, and Sandra beats me with ease.

Sure, blame the controls.

Frank Black once asked, “Whatever Happened to Pong?” It's right here in Mountain View.

Also here? Good restaurants. We stumble onto Sushi Tomi, which serves delicious bentos for $13. Grilled saba, beef teriyaki, ahi sashimi, shrimp and vegetable tempura, miso soup.

Although this may not have been the best of paths, we're happy we came. But now it's almost 2 p.m., and we've got 120 miles of slow driving ahead of us.

We again seek the guidance of Junipero Serra, or at least his freeway. Back en route to San Francisco, all is well, at least for the moment.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Paso Robles to Prunedale

Prunedale, California (via Wikipedia)

Today is a day of wrong turns, but we don't know that yet. It's 4:30 a.m. and I'm working on an article about Colorado Rockies center fielder Dexter Fowler. It begins well enough:

I stare at Dexter Fowler in search of inspiration. Not at the actual man, of course–that would be awkward and inappropriate–but at his statistical record.

Doing my crazy thing.

At 6, I wake Sandra. After a quick hotel breakfast, we check out and return to the highway.

Sandra has brought her iPod on this trip. We listen to ambient music and what is probably called alternative rock, then to podcasts she thinks I might enjoy.

Yesterday we tried a beer podcast that pretended to be informative but was really just three kids getting drunk and swearing. They were awesome in their own minds.

This morning is better: NPR's All Songs Considered and an episode of Chris Hardwick's Nerdist featuring guest Brent Spiner, who played Lt. Cmdr. Data in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Hardwick's approach to interviewing is unique in that he seems to care about the questions he asks and the answers he receives.

It works. People respond. They have actual conversations.

Months later we will see him chat with actor John Barrowman live in San Diego with similar results. Hardwick's command of the stage and audience will not fail to impress.

* * *

The plan is to stop at Salinas, as we did on our last jaunt this way. Cannery Row author John Steinbeck was born there. So was former Padres outfielder Xavier Nady. We used to watch him at Lake Elsinore; he and the rest of that 2001 Storm team were a force.

Once, after a Padres game at Qualcomm Stadium, I took the trolley back to my car at a park and ride. I stopped somewhere to eat, then got back on and saw a couple of kids goofing around on the trolley. One of them spotted my Storm T-shirt, pointed, and yelled, “Yeah, Storm!”

I smiled and gave the thumbs up, then resumed staring out the window. The kid looked familiar but I couldn't place his face. Later, while disembarking, I realized it was Nady and his pal Sean Burroughs on their way home from the game.

We miss Salinas and continue to Prunedale, which we've passed dozens of times and never noticed until now, when we inadvertently take the off-ramp into town (the mind wanders; I'm probably still wondering how we missed Salinas).

That's roads for you. They pass by stuff that you never notice.

Prunedale boasted 17,560 residents as of 2010. We see four of them at the Burger King, where we stop to use the restroom and buy a soda.

Toward the end of our 24-minute stay in Prunedale, as I ponder how to get back on the highway, Sandra flips through the free hotel newspaper. She discovers that today is San Francisco Pride Parade and that its route coincides with ours.

We've been to the San Diego Pride Parade a few times and had a blast, but our schedule is tight. Besides, we saw a parade yesterday, so we consider alternatives.

Although the East Bay route might make more sense, we're hoping to have lunch at a recommended Burmese restaurant in San Francisco. It's far enough west of the parade to be feasible, and we devise a plan that will swing us further out west to CA-1.

This assumes that we make no further wrong turns. But it's only 9:15 when we leave Prunedale. We've got all day to make mistakes.

* * *

Questions? Comments? Leave 'em here or at our Facebook page.

Monday, January 14, 2013

San Luis Obispo to Paso Robles

Firestone Walker's Reserve Porter Ice Cream Float, Paso Robles, California
You can find happiness almost anywhere along the Central Coast. Hang a left on CA-1 out of San Luis Obispo to get to Morro Bay and its famous rock; tiny Cayucos; and Cambria, gateway to Hearst Castle. Or stay further inland on US-101 for Atascadero, Templeton, and Paso Robles.

Sandra and I take the inland route. Last time we came this way, two months earlier to give a talk and sign books in the Bay Area, we stopped at Atascadero.

We dined at a cozy, family-run Thai restaurant (the unfortunately named but delicious Thai-riffic), enjoyed a Stagetown Stout from nearby Figueroa Mountain Brewing Company back at the hotel, and had Stumptown Roasters Peru Cecovasa with breakfast in the morning at Bru Coffeehouse before continuing north.

Actress Minnie Driver lives near Atascadero. Former big-league pitcher Chuck Estrada attended high school there. If you like quiet and understated, it's a cool place to spend the night.

We drive past and continue to Paso Robles, where we've stayed many times: Downtown, a short walk from the farmer's market and several fine restaurants; near the freeway at a motel filled with ATV-riding, bad-beer-drinking, loud-noise-making folks.

Tonight our destination is at the very north end, off CA-46. It's an odd enough location that I'm convinced I've made a wrong turn somewhere along the way.

CA-46 is familiar. Go west and you end up near Cambria. Go east and you run into CA-41 at Cholame, where James Dean was killed in a car accident in 1955 at age 24. There is a humble plaque beneath a tree near the location.

We visited it once, years ago, and then drove back along Bitterwater Road, which took us through some remote areas. Maybe not as remote as along CA-247 between Lucerne Valley and Barstow–there was the occasional farmhouse–but relatively untouched by outsiders.

It was a gorgeous country drive until we were attacked by pebbles. With faces. Bugs, actually. Thousands of them, piling up on the windshield.

Their wings continued to flap because of the car's movement, which made them look alive. Running the wipers didn't help. The dead bugs just kept staring.

I don't want to run into bugs again. Just as I'm about to turn around, the hotel appears. Next to a winery.

Oh, it's one of those places. I saw that in a movie once.

We check in, and there is a reception. Free wine? Okay.

Smiling people in pastel sweaters mill about, exchanging tales of the day's winery conquests. We are the youngest people here. We are not young.

The woman serving the wine greets us.

“Did you visit any wineries today?”

“No, we just got in.”

“Are you visiting any tomorrow?”

“No, we're leaving early.”

Awkward silence. We have come for the beer, back where the actual town is. We keep this to ourselves and smile, like everyone else does.

“Would you like red or white?”


Sandra orders the white, and we sip while dodging the smiling sweater people. After a brief rest, we head to Firestone Walker Brewing Company, in an industrial park off US-101.

The place is packed. Without reservations it's an hour wait. Or you can sit at a “common table” and share a meal with strangers right away.

Americans hate doing this, but we are hungry and gladly subject others to our eating habits. The 20-seat table is three-quarters full when we arrive. There is a merry din.

Within minutes we are the only ones there. Sandra and I are dining together, by ourselves, at a table built for a king. Fish and chips, washed down with a pint of Pale 31. This should happen more often.

We finish the meal with a beer float. Remember the beer milkshake from Steinbeck's Cannery Row, set just up the road in Monterey? This is like that: A giant glass of Reserve Porter over vanilla ice cream, as satisfying as the day itself.

The evening draws to a close, and we ponder tomorrow's drive into points unknown. Who knows what surprises it will bring?

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Santa Barbara to San Luis Obispo

Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, San Luis Obispo, California
We are searching for something sweet to eat. This is kept as vague as possible, to maximize our options.

The main drag in San Luis Obispo is Higuera Street, which always calls to mind Teddy Higuera, although that is probably just me. The street is named after a local family, not the left-handed pitcher from the late-'80s/early-'90s. This is where we are headed.

I don't think of Robin Ventura when I'm in Ventura, although I do think of former Padres minor-leaguer Paul McAnulty when I'm in Oxnard because that's where he's from and he's an old favorite of mine from his days playing at Lake Elsinore.

While the mind is busy drifting, we reach the heart of San Luis Obispo. Another mission-turned-college town, it is smaller (around 45,000 residents as of 2010) than Santa Barbara, its neighbor 100 miles to the south.

The baseball connection runs deep. Hall of Fame shortstop Ozzie Smith attended Cal Poly SLO. So did former big-league pitcher and current San Francisco Giants broadcaster Mike Krukow, who later opened a restaurant here.

Others who have called San Luis Obispo home include Jon Anderson of Yes, Peter Buck of R.E.M., and Jack Kerouac (Southern Pacific Railroad brakeman, writer, and baseball fan). But these are relatively recent developments in local history.

The 1772 on the front of Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, pictured above, represents the year Father Junipero Serra founded the mission and the town. The mission remains active today, offering daily Catholic mass.

The town also remains active. It is easy to get lost in its shops, as we do while visiting our usual haunts–Phoenix Books (where I once bought an old Baseball America Almanac), Boo-Boo Records, Tom's Toys.

Tom's is to blame for a deck of tarot cards based on the national pastime–Five of Bats, Ace of Gloves, the unfortunately named Manager of Balls–that still sits on a bookshelf back home. The cards serve as an ineffective reminder that just because you can buy something doesn't mean you should. They also trigger fond memories of San Luis Obispo, so the purchase wasn't all bad.

One such memory is that of a colossal farmers' market that engulfs downtown every Thursday night. There are worse ways to spend a summer evening than sitting on a curb, wolfing ribs slathered in barbecue sauce, listening to music and the chatter of thousands. We miss it this time.

What we don't miss is a place on Nipomo called Batch. It specializes in homemade ice cream sandwiches built to spec. They are sweet and oozy and utterly unnecessary. One is plenty for both of us.

We leave town satisfied and continue north. The forecast ahead is promising: Mostly sunny, with a 100 percent chance of beer.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Ventura to Santa Barbara

Summer Solstice Parade, Santa Barbara, California
Thirty miles is not enough distance between stops, unless that's how far it is to Santa Barbara and lunch is calling. Another of Father Junipero Serra's mission towns (the mission was founded two years after his death), Santa Barbara is famous for its Spanish Colonial Revival architecture and burgeoning wine industry.

The architecture resulted from reforms introduced when rebuilding the city after a June 1925 earthquake. The wine came later.

Although grapes have been a part of the landscape since the time of Serra, modern winemaking didn't begin until 1962. The industry took off in the 1990s and received an additional boost from the 2004 movie Sideways, which chronicles the misadventures of a lost soul from San Diego and his old college buddy, who spend their days stumbling about area wineries.

We are not lost, we are just having trouble finding State Street. The main artery of Santa Barbara eludes us as we zig-zag along tree-laden, one-way avenues, admiring red tile roofs.

An easier way is to ride the Pacific Surfliner here, eat lunch at one of the beachside cafes, and then return home. It takes all day, but as a friend once noted, Telegraph Brewing Company is less than a mile walk from the Amtrak station. What's the hurry?

If you catch the 6:43 train from Solana Beach north of San Diego, you'll be in Santa Barbara by noon. Take the 4:35 train back, and you're home by 10 p.m. Spring a little extra for business class to get a seat upstairs, extra leg room, and free snacks.

But that's a different trip. Now we are driving. After several near misses, we turn a corner and see the wall of people that is State Street. It is closed to traffic because today is the summer solstice and there is a parade. I hate a parade.

Coming to see this is no more a part of the plan than is stopping for salads at D'Vine, but life is full of happy accidents (“Buenaventura”) and here we are. Sandra orders the ahi–perfectly seared, raw in the middle–while I enjoy the more thoroughly cooked but equally delicious grilled salmon.

The parade happens. This is a college town near the beach. Spectators show off tattoos, piercings, and crazy hair. They wear Dead Milkmen and Evil Dead T-shirts. They are beautiful, smiling and laughing and clapping their hands as motorless floats pass.

Participants are no less beautiful. There are roller skaters, pirates, and mermaids. There are giant cartoon animals: A penguin, a pig, a flamingo, an owl that turns its head 360 degrees. There are Brazilian drummers, dancing girls with pink headdresses, marching bands. Who could hate this?

Our tight schedule means we must leave too soon. The street behind us remains in a state of organized chaos, music blaring, people cheering and laughing. The bustle distracts us and it isn't until we are back on US-101, maybe 20 miles north, that we realize we have forgotten something important: Dessert.

Thursday, January 3, 2013

San Diego to Ventura

Harbor Cove Beach, Ventura, California
Leaving San Diego at 6:09 a.m. would be a curious detail to remember if not for my obsession with documenting everything. Or as Sandra more delicately puts it, “Do your crazy thing.”

The lagoons and houses along I-5 north to Los Angeles have an orderliness about them, a rhythm. The freeway skirts sandy beaches and rolling hills, impressing those not jaded by having driven it hundreds of times.

I barely notice them while plotting ill-advised schemes to avoid the inevitable traffic. Camp Pendleton, whose Marines keep Orange County from spreading into San Diego, buys us a little time. So does a quick stop in San Clemente for a soggy, fast-food-chain breakfast sandwich.

One possibility would be to hang a right at San Juan Capistrano. There, the Ortega Highway transports folks across the Santa Ana Mountains to Lake Elsinore and I-15. It's tempting, but it shoots us toward Las Vegas rather than California's central coast. How bad could traffic be?

* * *

Today it is slow but moving. This isn't like trying to get from Azusa to Culver City during the LA Marathon when I-10 is closed. There is no 3-hour slog through the streets of South Central. But that was 20 years ago, let it go already.

This morning the city is a relative blur en route to Ventura, an hour to the northwest. Incorporated in 1866, its full name is San Buenaventura, after 13th-century theologian and philosopher Giovanni di Fidanza–better known to history as Saint Bonaventure.

The pedestrian-friendly downtown, which features a variety of boutique shops, would be an ideal spot to stretch our legs if not for a wrong turn that sends us toward the ocean. Signs for Channel Islands National Park look promising (“Buenaventura” literally translates to “good fortune”), so we follow them past another armada of shops to Harbor Cove Beach.

There is no time to catch a boat out to the actual islands, only for a stroll along the still-sleepy beach. High wispy clouds punctuate a crisp blue sky. A few surfers, birds, and dogs dot the land.

One man catches clams or crabs. Another, a fisherman, is assaulted by a kid running naked in the sand. The fisherman quickly spots the kid's laughing parents, then returns to his business, occasionally tossing scraps of fish to hovering seagulls.

The breezy salt air and endless blue on the horizon are hypnotic. It feels like we could stay forever. If you'd have said we'd leave after 90 minutes to go watch a parade, I'd have called you nuts. But I'm just the driver, what do I know?