Thursday, October 3rd, 2013

All night Wednesday and into Thursday morning it rained two kinds of rain: normal rain and acorn rain. We were parked at a campsite under an oak tree, y’see, and it was autumn, so every time the wind came up even just a little bit, the roof of the camper was pelted by a hail of acorns. It was like trying to sleep inside a snare drum. And yet, we still managed to sleep somehow.

After checking out of the campground, we went back to Ashland to look for a place to get some breakfast. There’s a kind of trendy coffee shop in Ashland called Mix Sweet Shop. We knew it was trendy but we like trendy so we went there anyway, ordered some sticky sweet morning rolls and a couple big mugs of coffee. After filling our bellies and warming up on java, we both decided we’d have to give it rave reviews, just like all the other Yelpers, but at the same time we felt a little underdressed in our rumbled sweatshirts and blue jeans, like maybe we should have been wearing yoga pants or spandex running gear.

We had to spend one more night in the wild, and B wanted to make s’mores over a camp fire, so we stopped at a local co-op before leaving town to pick up picnic food, marshmallows and graham crackers. B was – how shall I say this without getting pelted by rotten cabbages? – a happy camper.

Then we went in search of more vineyards. And we found, oh, a few: Dana Campbell, Grizzly Peak, Thistlecroft, and Bella Fortuna – but they were all closed, apparently because it was too early in the morning or too late in the season. But when we pulled up in front of Weisinger vineyards they were just opening the doors to their tasting room, so we hung around there for a while, sampling their wine and buying a few bottles of the ones we liked best. Bonus points to Weisinger: They ship wine, and they don’t care where you bought it, so we dredged all the bottles out of the bilge of our camper and brought them inside, where they packed everything up, took down our address and promised us we’d get our wine delivered to our door. And we did, all in good shape, a little more than a week after.

Mount Shasta Brewing Weed CA

After that we hit the road and drove for a while, crossing over the border into California as far as the town of Weed before we stopped at the Mount Shasta Brewing Company to stretch our legs and maybe quaff a beer or two. Because it’s in the town of Weed, Mount Shasta has adopted the motto, “Try legal Weed,” which apparently attracted the attention of the feds and almost got them shut down until the story made national news and popular opinion swung in favor of the brewer. Now they put it on all their souvenir t-shirts and hats.

From there we went a bit further on to the Dunsmuir Brewing Works to get a bite to eat and another lovingly-crafted microbrew. We would never have found this place without GPS; it’s all but hidden in a small storefront building that looked like maybe it was once a gas station and still kinda looks a lot like it’s shut up and abandoned. Good thing we made the effort to find it, though. Their ploughman’s platter filled me up in the best way: salmon that was smoked in-house, sausage, shrimp, peppers, two kinds of cheese and a hot demibagette with butter. B had an elk burger, perfectly grilled medium rare. And, of course, beer.

It was getting late by the time we hit the road again, so we drove up to Lake Shasta to look for a camp site. We wanted a camp fire that night but the first place we stopped was way back in the woods & had no fire rings. The next place, Antlers RV Park, was in Shasta-Trinity National Park – still closed by the feds, remember? BUT it appeared to be open. We checked one more place that wasn’t as nice, then went back to Antlers after stopping at a gas station to fill up the tank and grab a bundle of firewood. It was open! There were four or five other campers there, and they said that before the rangers left, they could stay as long as they wanted. So we slipped thirty dollars under the door, picked out a nice camp site not too far from the bathroom (it pays to plan ahead) and built a roaring fire that burned long after the sun set. We had one bottle of wine set aside in the camper that we popped open and shared as dusk deepened into night and all the stars came out. Turn out that toasted marshmallows are delicious with Sangiovese.

California Day 7 | 8:13 pm CDT
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Tuesday, October 1st, 2013

Humboldt Redwoods State Park CA

Tuesday morning we managed to pack up all the camp stuff and take a shower without the benefit of coffee. One of the challenges of camping is testing yourself to the extreme and finding out what you didn’t know you could do, like getting out of bed without an alarm clock, communicating a coherent thought before coffee, or taking a shower outdoors.

Okay, the showers weren’t technically outdoors. There was a bathroom outbuilding, the kind that’s pretty standard at just about any state park: unpainted cinder block construction with no windows, unless you count the screened-over vents between the tops of the walls and the edge of the roof as windows.

This is going to sound really weird, but actually I enjoy a hot shower a lot more when I’m standing on a cold slab of concrete in a shower stall made of cinder blocks. I don’t especially like the part before, when I have to very carefully hang everything up so it won’t get wet or dirty; or the part after, when I have to step gingerly through cold puddles of water as I’m trying, and failing, to dry myself off. Why is it you can’t get yourself completely dry when it’s cold outside, anyway? I wish I’d paid more attention in physics class. Whatever. That part in the middle, when I’m standing in a spray of scalding hot water while I’m surrounded by cold and more cold, is just golden. I don’t want to do it often, but when I get to do it, it’s bliss.

After the chores were done and all our gear was packed up in the van, we hit the road in search of coffee. We combined the high-tech and old school methods: I used my Mark One eyeballs to scan the roadside for any sign of a coffee shop or diner while My Darling B searched teh interwebs on her tablet. After driving a few miles up the road, success! We pulled in at a campground at Westport, because every private campground’s going to have a coffee maker in the office, right? And as a matter of fact, they did. The nice woman at the desk gave us two piping-hot coffees in tiny little cups but didn’t have any lids for them. It turns out that you can’t drink coffee in your car if the cups don’t have lids. You think you can hold the cup steady, but you can’t. Physics again. Science is such a bitch.

We had quite a few miles to put behind us that morning, so we pulled to the side of the road, guzzled a couple mouthfuls of coffee, dumped the rest and went on.

Chandelier Tree Leggett CAOur first planned stop of the day was the world-famous drive-through tree park, although, as we found out later, there isn’t one world-famous drive-through tree park; there are about a gojillion world-famous drive-through tree parks. The particular one we picked out of the guide books was the Chandelier Tree near Leggett. And I didn’t drive through it, because it didn’t look like the van would fit. I got the front end in before I chickened out. If it had been my car, though, I wouldn’t have hesitated to put a few memorial dings in it. After snapping the obligatory vacation photos of the tree, we visited the gift shop to buy a souvenir post card.

Our high-priority destination that day, the one we got out of bed for, was The Avenue of the Giants, a road that runs parallel to State Highway 101 but up the opposite side of the Eel River. It’s twisty and narrow and you really can’t go any faster than about thirty miles per, which is great if you’re a tourist but not so great if you’re driving a dump truck and you’re trying to get to the construction site up the road through all the tourist traffic. These were big dump trucks pulling a dump-truck trailer, and the drivers had no qualms at all about tailgating. Ordinarily, I would have gone all passive-aggressive and slowed down to twenty-five or twenty, but because I was on a stress-free vacation and it was a sightseeing day, I pulled over to the shoulder every chance I got to stop to gawk at the big trees, take snapshots and, not incidentally, let the dump trucks pass.

We passed several hours winding our way up The Avenue of the Giants until, about halfway up the road, we finally came to the Avenue Cafe in Miranda, where we could sit down for the first meal we’d eaten since the plate of macho nachos we gobbled down at Silver’s in Ft Bragg the day before. The gal who took our order at the register warned us that it was lunch hour for the local high school and the place was going to be chock-full of teenagers in about fifteen minutes. She wasn’t kidding. They started to line up at the front door right after we sat down at our table by the window, and they were there until just before we left. Nice kids, though. It’s not like they were any trouble. There were just a whole lot of them in a tiny little restaurant. And a pretty great place to eat, by the way. I had the Philly cheese steak sandwich and can recommend it. Ate the whole thing, even though it was big enough to feed two people. B had jalapeño poppers, her very favorite appetizer, and a gigantic calzone that she couldn’t finish. Wimp.

Back on the Avenue of the Giants, we eventually got to the place all the dump trucks were headed to, a stretch of road that was all dug up. We had to double back and find a bridge to cross over the river, which happened to be at Meyer Flat, which happened to be the location of the River Bend Winery, which happened to be a winery B wanted to visit. We spent close to an hour there; the owner was pouring the samples and he liked talking about his wines.

A little further up the Avenue of the Giants we pulled off to check out the visitor center because they had one of those cross-sections of a redwood log with labels pointing out rings that corresponded to the beginning of the industrial age, the signing of the declaration of independence, Columbus’s discovery of America, and so on. Speaking of which, why is Columbus still the discoverer of America? I thought it had been proven six ways from Sunday that at least three other famous explorers discovered America before he did. I think it’s about time to re-label the redwood rings, don’t you think?

Founder's Grove, Avenue Of The Giants, California

Just up the road from the visitor’s center, we pulled off at Founder’s Grove to hike the loop trail and gawp at some big, big BIG trees. One of the biggest was nicknamed “the Dyerville Giant” because it was between 360 and 370 feet tall when it was still standing. Unfortunately, it’s not standing any more. It got knocked over by another falling redwood in a storm, and when they both hit the ground there were people in San Francisco who stopped what they were doing and said, “What the hell was that?” I took quite a few photos of it from various angles, up close, farther away, panoramic, but none of them captured the sheer size of this monster. Unless you’re standing right next to it, feeling like a bug, it’s size doesn’t register. The best I could manage was a photo of My Darling B looking like a pixie at the foot of the giant.

On to Fortuna, the home of Eel River Brewery, America’s first organic brewery but, even more important, home to some of the most delicious beers we sampled on this trip. We got a flight of a dozen beers, a sample of all the beers they brewed. Yum. And the pub itself was a lot of fun, too, and clearly very popular. Every table had a big basket of salted-in-the-shell peanuts. You were meant to shuck them and throw the shells on the floor, as everybody else was doing. If you tried to pile them neatly on the table, the waitress would just sweep them off with the back of her hand when she brought you your beers, or stopped by to ask if you needed anything. We passed a leisurely hour or so there before we moved on to Trinidad.

We were hoping to stay overnight at an RV park called Sounds of the Sea. When we got there, the lady who came out to check us in looked around and asked, “Where’s your unit?”

“Oh, we just have the camper van,” I told her, waving in the general direction of our conveyance.

She gave it the hairy eyeball. “We only have spots for RVs,” she informed me in a tone that suggested I was not of the body.

“Well,” I offered, “all we need is a place to park it for the night. We don’t even need hookups.”

She looked at me like I was talking crazy talk.

“Or if that’s too much trouble,” I went on, “I can just look for another place.” I thanked her for her time and excused myself.

As I was climbing into the driver’s seat B asked me what was going on. “They don’t take our kind here,” I told her, starting the engine.

“Our kind?”

“Hobos who camp in vans.”

Driving just a little further on, we came to Elk Country Lodge. Three guesses why they call it that. Hint: There was a real live elk in the driveway when we drove in. Just standing there, looking majestic, surrounded by tourists standing just outside their cars taking pictures. Signs in the office warned us that elk often wandered through the campground, and that we should give them plenty of room because they are wild animals. Some people need to be told that. Actually, some people need more exposure to wild animals and, if it results in a little natural selection, so much the better.

Elk Country RV Resort turned out to be a great place to stop for the night because we had the campground almost to ourselves. Not that we wanted to stay up all night blaring music on the radio and dancing on the roof of the van or anything like that; just that we liked the peace and quiet. As the evening closed in, we popped open a bottle of vino we bought during our drive up the Anderson Valley, and sat in our camp chairs snacking on the noshies that were still left from our visit to the farmer’s market. When it was finally too dark and a little too cold to sit outside, we retired to the laundry where we surfed the internet while washing underwear. It doesn’t take much to please us.

California Day 5 | 8:03 pm CDT
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Monday, September 30th, 2013

We woke up Monday morning with a deep, gnawing craving for coffee and no way to make it, something the guys who converted our van into a camper overlooked. A Mister Coffee in place of the sink in the back would be a huge improvement, I would think. Meant to leave them a note about that but I’m pretty sure I forgot.

After packing up, we left Hendy Wood Campground to search for a coffee shop or a diner open for breakfast but couldn’t find one within a stone’s throw of the campground, so eventually we settled for the boiled coffee they served at a roadside general store in Navarro, good enough to hold us over until we stopped for breakfast.

Navarro River Redwoods State ParkWe were traveling the road to the coast up the Navarro River valley. The road was narrow and winding, and redwoods grow thick and tall on both sides. This is the Navarro River Redwoods State Park, probably the longest, thinnest state park we’ve ever visited. On the map, it’s a long, green strip just a little wider than the road. It might have extended to either side of the road only as far as we could see, but while we were driving through it, it seemed as though we were deep in a primeval forest. Well, one that had an asphalt road laid through it, but still. We pulled off to the side of the road several times to crane our necks upward and gape in slack-jawed wonder at how tall the trees were. We found out later that these were just the babies; the really big ones were up the road further.

We stopped for breakfast at the Little River Inn, a hotel and restaurant on the coast just south of Mendocino that the friendly lady at the Lone Oak winery recommended to us, one of the better tips we got on this trip. It’s a beautiful place and obviously very popular; there were a lot of people in the dining room for breakfast who drove there just for breakfast. The main dining room’s got big picture windows looking back into the forest, and the small dining room that we sat in had a view of the coastline. Most of the rooms are strung out along a long porch that overlooks the coast, too. It’d be a beautiful place to stay the night.

After breakfast, we drove on just a couple miles to Mendocino, a hippy-dippy crafty town where we wandered from shop to shop for about an hour. The touristy part of town is just a few blocks facing the coastline and all the shops are crafty. It’s like being in a Ben Franklin’s that’s as big as three or four city blocks.

Point Cabrillo LighthouseA little further up the road I pulled off to see the Cabrillo Lighthouse on a whim. I had never heard of it before; we were on our way to Fort Bragg to see Glass Beach; but lighthouses always look so romantic and lonely and historic that I couldn’t just drive past the road sign pointing the way without thinking to myself that I would always wonder why hadn’t stopped, so off we went.

I had the impression in my mind that it would be right off the highway, because we were within eyeshot of the coast; I could see waves and water from the road, and the sign didn’t say it was miles away, which it turned out it was. We went humming along a twisting backroad for so long that I started to feel that maybe someone had played a joke on us with that road sign, until we came to the parking lot where we had to leave the van and take a mile-long hike through tick-infested grassland to get down to the rocky point where the lighthouse stood. Really, there were signs everywhere warning us to stay on the path or be ravaged by ticks. I couldn’t stop myself from glancing left and right off the path, my eyes searching the more prominent grassy patches for exsanguinated corpses.

The lighthouse is a museum now but, sadly, you can’t go up the stairs to the light and stand by the rail to get a view of the coast. You can get dangerously close to the rocky cliff’s edge to take a selfie while the breakers undermine the ground beneath your feet, though. After reviewing the exhibits explaining the history of the lighthouse and the people who tended it, we opted to return to the parking lot up the road that we could have driven down to get to the point but somehow overlooked. Not that we regretted it. It was a beautiful day and we poked our heads into an outbuilding stuffed full of aquariums filled with starfish, snails and crabs, and I toured the house where the lightkeeper lived with his family.

The day’s biggest letdown was Glass Beach, really the only tourist destination we had planned to make on this leg of the trip. It’s advertised as a magical place where glass from thousands of broken bottles has washed up on the shore, then were pounded into multicolored pebbles by the waves. In all the tourist books, it’s described as one of the must-see places along the northern California coast, but either we couldn’t find it in spite of detailed signage and well-worn pathways, or years and years of visits by sticky-fingered tourists have resulted in the disappearance of all the glass. We looked up and down the beach for any sign of glass, but could find only sand, rock and kelp. No joy.

Glass Beach, Ft Bragg CA

Our visit to Ft Bragg started with a dump truck driver who didn’t know how to drive through a roundabout and nearly ran us over. Welcome!

Further down the main drag of Ft Bragg we stopped at the much-anticipated tasting room of North Coast Brewing, which is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays. Make a note. The gift shop at the brewery was open, though, and the nice lady there tipped us off to a restaurant in the harbor where their beer was served, so we went there for beer and a menu item called “macho nachos,” a plate of nachos so big it takes a busload of macho men to eat it. Or two hungry middle-aged travellers. We demolished that thing.

Just a little further up the road, we stopped at the Pacific Star Winery, perched on the cliffs over the ocean where breakers that appeared to be about a hundred feet tall crashed ever so picturesquely against the rocks. The gal pouring samples of wine said they had a big storm the day before that churned the sea up a bit. Before that, it had been flat as milk on a plate.

Stayed overnight at MacKerricher State Park, where we could hear the surf crashing all night long, and I do mean crashing; it sounded like a continual train wreck out there, and it seemed to get louder as the night went on. After hiking all day in the fresh air through tick-infested meadows and along the glass beach that wasn’t there, we were tired enough that it didn’t matter, and slept just fine.

Pacific Coast

California Day Four | 6:30 am CDT
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Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Yesterday was the fifteenth, and every month on the ides our favorite liquor store hosts a wine tasting and gives a fifteen percent discount on all the wine in their store that isn’t already on sale. It’s not hard to explain why Star is our favorite liquor store.

I’m not snooty about wine, or maybe I am, but only to the point that I won’t spend ten bucks on a bad bottle of wine when I could spend twenty to get a good one. It wouldn’t have to be a really good one, although we have been lucky enough to find one or two at that price, but it does have to be good enough that we would want to buy another bottle someday … or even the same day.

And I’m finally reaching the point in my knowledge of wine where I can answer when My Darling B asks me, “We can get one more bottle. What are you thinking?” And instead of saying, “The one with the kangaroo on the label,” I can answer, “I think that nice Australian Syrah from New South Wales would be perfect.”
We brought home a big basket of wine to replenish our cellar and broke open a bottle of tasty Gewurztraminer to drink with the scrummy Creole stew B made on her furlough day. Bliss!

(We don’t really have a wine cellar. It would be nice, but we don’t. We have one of those tinker-toy wine racks, a great find at a garage sale, that we put up on one of the shelves in what I rather grandly call the brewery. We don’t have a brewery, either. But it seems to be the corner of the basement all the alcohol in the house gravitates to.)

fifteen on the fifteenth | 9:24 am CDT
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