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?

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