Sunday, October 6th, 2013

The very best thing about staying the night in a hotel on the last day of your vacation, in case I haven’t said it enough, is getting a good night’s sleep on a real bed, then a hot shower, and finally not having to clean up the mess you make. Not that we make a huge mess, it’s just that I get a real bang out of not having to clean up the bathroom. I’m easily amused.

One of the worst things, and sometimes the very worst thing about staying in a hotel is the complimentary breakfast in the morning. I’m grateful that most hotels offer one, because it means there will at least be coffee, but at a lot of the hotels I’ve been to they barely make a token effort, and at a few the effort has been not just wasted but actually seems to have been counterproductive. One place we stayed at had nothing but multicolored kids’ breakfast cereal, spotted bananas, and a tray of soggy doughnuts.

But most of them at least have a waffle iron, which I’ll always line up for because it makes probably the safest food in the place, and also because waffles. Who doesn’t like waffles? Stupid people who don’t know how to properly butter them, then drench them in way too much syrup. I like banana slices on top of mine so I can pretend I’m eating something that’s good for me, but I’m okay without the banana, just so long as I have enough syrup. And by “enough,” I mean the whole damn pitcher of syrup. Don’t even ask if I’m done with it. That’s the one thing majorly wrong with the waffles that come with the complimentary breakfast at hotels: those teeny-tiny little plastic cups that the syrup comes in. I have to open at least five or six just to get a corner of the waffle damp enough so I can start eating.

Our cab ride to the airport was positively batshit crazy. It wasn’t supposed to be a cab ride, for a start. The hotel advertised that they had an airport shuttle that would pick us up at the front door and deliver us to our airline check-in desk. There was even one of those double-wide shuttle buses parked right outside the window of our room, so naturally we assumed that’s what would meet us at the curb after checkout shortly after eleven o’clock. While we were waiting at the curb, though, an all-black minivan, with the oddly incongruous name of the Yellow Cab company painted across the door, pulled up to the curb, and out of the driver-side door popped its Asian-American driver. Remember Egg Shen, the wizard slash bus driver in the movie Big Trouble In Little China? This cab driver was Egg Shen’s spitting image.

“You going to the airport?” he asked us.

“Well, yeah, but we’re waiting for the hotel shuttle,” we answered.

“To the airport?” he repeated. “You going to the airport?”

“Is this the airport shuttle?” My Darling B asked him.

“To the airport, right,” he confirmed.

“So, just to make sure, ah – how much?”

There was no charge. It really was the airport shuttle. Egg was a contract driver who came with his own transportation. The shuttle bus parked out front of the hotel was apparently just for show.

Egg loaded our bags into the back of his van and, after we climbed into the passenger seats, he took off down the road like he was driving the getaway car for a bank heist. Then, while he was evasively weaving through traffic at high speed, his cell phone rang. He casually flipped it out and started jabbering into the bluetooth earpiece sticking out of his right ear while almost, but not quite managing to keep the van between the white lines of whatever traffic lane he may have believed he was driving in. When he was done with that call, he picked up his cell phone and made another call, and then another, talking with who I can only presume was his dispatcher. He kept up a constant patter with his caller as we approached the airport and hardly missed a beat as he made a dramatic entrance by swerving at the very last moment through a gap between a couple of concrete Jersey barriers. I was sure he’d gone too far, maybe even gone past it and would have to find another gap, but he was just as sure – well, turned out to be a bit more sure than sure that he was going through it. I clenched my teeth for the impact that never came. When I opened my eyes, we were parked curbside and Egg was getting out to unload our bags.

I should note that we were smugly self-satisfied all morning about the fact that we were able to pack all the crap we’d collected during the past fortnight into our luggage. That sweet smugness quickly evaporated when we tried to check our bags at the airline counter and were told by Edward, our very helpful agent, that our check-bag was twenty-five pounds overweight. We could pay the overweight charge and check it as is, or we could slip out of line to redistribute our belongings among our carry-on bags if we liked.

“How much is the overweight charge?” My Darling B asked, just out of curiosity, I guess, because I knew she had no intention of paying it.

“One-hundred dollars,” Edward informed us brightly with his best, most professional smile.

So we stepped out of line, dragging our overweight bag to the empty end of the airline counter, cracked it open and laid it, open-faced, on the floor, then stepped back and rubbed our chins in deep thought. Kidding. We pretty much gutted it without thinking much, gouging great big wads of dirty clothing out, collecting all the printed matter in a heap, then divvying up the souvenirs. If you’re thinking that “souvenirs” might be a euphemism for “beer,” you know us too well. The biggest troublemakers were three full twenty-two ounce bottles of high-gravity beer, or “bombers” (thank goodness I didn’t slip and call them that in the airport), and an empty sixty-four ounce flip-top growler. Once they were safely parked, we stuffed the wads of clothing back in basically as padding.

Because we were at an unused station at the airline check-in counter, I laid the suitcase on the scale as we stuffed everything back in, keeping one eye on the readout to make sure we didn’t go over the magical hundred-dollar limit. When we were within a pound or two, we would try to latch the bag shut, fail and have to re-shuffle the contents a bit, try to latch it again, fail, re-shuffle, and repeat until those latches finally clicked shut. Then we had to find a place in our carry-on luggage for all the stuff that was left over. It was pretty simple, really: What we absolutely had to take back went in the bags, and anything else made a one-way trip to the garbage can. Done.

After checking our bag and shuffling through security in our stocking feet, we hiked to our terminal, found our gate and let out a deep, exhausted sigh, wondering what to do with the next couple hours we had before our plane boarded. Lucky for us there was a bar next to our gate where we could not only soak up a couple Bloody Marys, the drink that has become traditional at the beginning and end of each of our trips to the farthest reaches of these United States, but there were also electric outlets close by so we could plug in our phones and live-blog our little party to all our Facebook friends.

The last glitch in our trip home was that we weren’t seated together on the plane and no amount of sweet-talking from My Darling B could get the good employees of American Airlines to rearrange the seating assignments. I sat directly behind B, so I entertained her and my fellow passengers during the four-hour flight home by doing things like sticking caterpillars down the back of her dress and dipping her pigtails in the inkwell.

California Day 10 | 6:00 pm CST
Category: food & drink, travel, vacation | Tags: ,
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Saturday, October 5th, 2013

Another change of plans – not that we ever had a solid plan to begin with, but when we flew out to California, the rough idea was that we would stay in a hotel in San Francisco for the first two nights. Then, after we rented a camper, we would overnight at state and national parks as we drove north up the coast and south back down to San Francisco. We believed this was extraordinarily clever of us, because state and national parks are cheap. Yeah, when they’re open.

We scoped out all the parks along our route so we could easily find a place to stay no matter where we ended up on a particular day. And we even stuck to our plan for the first couple days, but we can sometimes be kinda inconsistent, and then there was the government shutdown thing. Actually, I’m going to blame it mostly on the government, just out of spite. Why not? But according to the plan, we were going to camp right up to and including our last night in California, somewhere near San Francisco, then get up in the morning, clean up as best as we could, drop the camper off and call a taxi to the airport.

Well.

After getting a good night’s sleep on a real bed in Chico, we talked it over for, oh, maybe a solid two or three minutes, and discovered that we were both of a mind to get another good night’s sleep in a hotel in San Francisco, preferably one that was close to the airport. We could drop off the camper as soon as we got there, spend the rest of the day in the city, be guaranteed a hot shower in the morning and head straight to the airport. Done deal.

But before we left Chico, we had to off-load a whole bunch of glassware that we’d collected along the way as souvenirs. A wine glass here or there doesn’t seem like much, but altogether it weighed a shit-ton and took up way more space than we had in our suitcases. Not a problem, though. We, in our cunning little minds, had already anticipated this. We found a UPS store in a strip mall in Chico, stacked all our glasses and bottles on the counter and asked the guy to send it back to our little red house in Wisconsin.

He seemed puzzled by our request. Not because we asked him to put stuff in a box and have it delivered, but apparently because of the shear volume of stuff. It was obvious that this was the first time anyone had ever asked him to do anything like this. It took him ten or fifteen minutes to wrap his head around the project before he began to arrange the glassware on the countertop, fitting them together like puzzle pieces. Then got out his tape measure to see if he had a box big enough to hold them. When his first try didn’t satisfy him, he rearranged everything, measured it again, shuffled a few pieces around and re-measured, et cetera forever and ever. Honestly, I didn’t expect it to take as long as it did. I figured we’d drop it off, he’s say “fifty dollars” or whatever, we’d pay him and that’d be it. When he was finally confident that he could pack it, he rang up an estimate of a hundred twenty dollars. We were visibly deflated, but by then we’d been standing there watching this guy for about an hour, and we knew we weren’t going to get it into our bags, so we paid him just to get the hell out of there. And that’s how we ended up with a collection of the most expensive wine glasses and beer glasses ever purchased by anybody anywhere.

Finally on the road again, B searched teh intarwebs for hotels while I drove back. She could do that because we set up our phones to be wifi hot spots. It was an arrangement that worked really well: B could navigate by keeping one eye on the little blue dot that crawled across Google maps as we drove down the road, or she could open a browser window to ask The Google where we could get a cold beer, a hot meal, or camp supplies, or even try to find out what the hell that big ugly animal in the road was, and so on.

B found a hotel that was not only close to the airport and offered a complimentary taxi ride, it was also about fifty yards from a bus stop and B could book a room on-line. Score! As we got closer to the city, we pulled over at one of those do-it-yourself car wash places to clean out the van with a giant super-suck vacuum cleaner, then went on through Oakland and crossed into San Francisco across the bay bridge. With B navigating from the right seat, finding the hotel was quick and easy.

After checking in and dropping our bags and assorted junk in the room, we drove across town to drop off the van. This was B’s first visit to the part of town called Dogpatch, mostly abandoned lots and warehouses that were slowly being taken over by growing businesses. We were supposed to leave the van in the lot behind a warehouse and drop the keys in a drop box, but the keys were attached to a fob that was too thick and wouldn’t fit through the slot. Funny, they didn’t mention that when they gave me instructions for returning the van. Somebody else must’ve noticed that before. I tried calling but there was no answer, so we left the keys locked in the van and walked back to the nearest streetcar stop.

A Flight of Beers at the Thirsty Bear brewpub, San Francisco CA

There were a couple of brewpubs in the city that we had pegged to visit: Our first stop was the Thirsty Bear, because B said they had the world’s greatest nuts. It had something to do with the way they were glazed. I thought they were okay, but give me a dish of roasted pistachios and I’m pretty happy with that. A dish of nuts wasn’t going to hold us over until we got something else to eat, though, so B asked for a plate of fried olives stuffed with duck sausage. I like to try new things, and I like just about anything with duck in it, but that sounded to me like the cook was just trying to be weird. Nothing weird about the beer, though. That was just tasty.

beer and fries at Southern Pacific Brewery San Francisco CAOur second stop was Southern Pacific Brewing somewhere in the heart of what must have been the industrial center of the city. The brewery itself occupied most, if not all of a former warehouse and was surrounded by other warehouses that have not been altered much since they stopped being warehouses, if they ever stopped, except that maybe one or two had a new coat of paint or a new fence topped by freshly-strung razor wire. We saw very few other people as we wandered the streets looking for the brewery, and I got the unsettled feeling that we were in a part of town that we should not have been in, but B kept telling me to relax as she pointed us down one street after another, The Google guiding us to our destination.

Southern Pacific was on a dead-end street; a casual stroller would never find it. In spite of its location, it appeared to be one of the most popular hangouts in the district. A block away, I got the impression that we were in a mostly-abandoned part of town, but as we turned the last corner we were suddenly swallowed up by a converging throng of smartly-dressed people heading in the same direction. They were almost all young people; B and I both got carded at the door. It’s been a long time since that’s happened. It’s also been a long time since I’ve been to a bar where Devo was playing on the stereo.

The place was packed, inside and out. Even so, B somehow managed to snag a table on the patio. It was a beautiful night, just warm enough to relax under the stars with a couple glasses of house-made heffe and pilsner and a basket of fried noshies to share between us.

It was fully dark by the time we left. Getting back to the hotel didn’t seem like much of a challenge at first: We had to walk maybe five or six blocks to the nearest bus stop, and the rest was virtually automatic. The streets around the brewery seemed even more deserted than before, though, and we saw nobody except for the occasional axe murderer hanging out in a doorway, or serial killer pushing a grocery cart stacked with body parts. B told me I was being paranoid, but she was walking as fast as I was.

We cooled our jets for a little more than an hour at the bus stop, watching every bus but the one we wanted whiz by, one after the other. When our bus finally showed up, it was twenty minutes late, or at least I think it was. The schedule apparently wasn’t worth much. After a thirty-minute bus ride we jumped off and discovered that we had to walk a block and a half to our hotel. Not too bad, but not as close as we thought. Whatever. It was still a good day.

California Day 9 | 6:36 am CST
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Wednesday, October 2nd, 2013

Woke up this morning, rubbed the sleepers from my eyes, tumbled out of the van and went staggering up the road to the office-slash-general store to get a cup of coffee.

Halfway back to our camp site I slowed to a stop as I caught sight of B standing just outside the van, binoculars in hand, getting quickly back into the van and closing the door behind her.

Turning to see what she might possibly be looking at that would make her seek the safety of the car, I noticed an elk standing among the trees. Then I noticed a couple more elk just beyond the edge of the treeline. And then, finally, I noticed there was a whole freaking herd of elk slowly making its way through the field just beyond the edge of the RV park. Okay, so I missed them at first. I bet you’re not exactly Old Eagle Eye before you’ve had your coffee, either.

We found out later that they come though almost every day. And they’re used to having lots of people around. They weren’t in the least spooked by us, and a few of them came startlingly close as they made their way through an open field to the trees on the other side.

elks

Elk, by the way, are huge. You don’t realize just how big they are until one of them is close enough to spit in your eye. Or stomp you like the bug you are.

After the excitement was over and we had all our crap packed up, we hit the road to look for some breakfast. On the way, we stopped at the entrance to Redwood National Park to take a few selfies with the notices that the park was closed due to the federal government shutdown. I was on vacation, so why did I care? Oh, I am so glad you asked. Because: Of all the places in California I’ve wanted all my life to visit, Redwood National Park was in the top five. This was my third visit to California, but only the first time I was close enough to the park to stop by. And what happens? The doot-brains in Washington get into a pissing contest and shut down everything, even the parks. When the feds shut down a park, they don’t just tell the guys in the Smokey hats to take the week off. No. They make the rangers set up sawbucks to block the entrances, then stand outside them and turn away visitors. No trees for you! Natural beauty is off limits this week! Thanks, federal government, for availing yourself of yet another opportunity to reinforce my opinion that you’re a sack of bastards.

You know what? We camped in one of your goddamn campgrounds anyway. Up yours!

government shutdown

Actually, I’m getting ahead of myself. We stopped at Antlers the last night we camped in California and found three or four other campers at the site who said all the forest rangers packed up and left when the feds shut everything down. Before they left, though, they told the campers that what they didn’t see, didn’t happen. The bathrooms were open and the lights were on, so we slipped thirty bucks under the door of the office and stayed for the night. The photo I took of My Darling B expressing her outrage at The Man for shutting everything down was too good not to share it with you at this point in the story, though. Now, back to Wednesday.

We had breakfast at the Palm Cafe and Hotel in Orick, and it was amazing! Their hospitality was top-rate from the moment we walked in the door. The host greeted us right away and showed us to a table by the window in the morning sunshine where he poured us a couple mugs of hot coffee and made sure they never got cold the whole time we were there. B zeroed in on the biscuits & gravy, her very favorite thing to order any time it appears on the menu, and she was very happy with the freshly-made biscuits and generous portion of gravy she got. I had a stack of the fluffiest pancakes I’ve ever been privileged to stuff myself silly with. We were both well and truly serensified by the time we climbed back into the van to hit the road.

Welcome to OregonFrom Orick we went straight north, or as straight as the twisting road would let us, planning to make as few stops as possible until we got to Crescent City to fuel. We made a hard right turn onto State Highway 199 out of Crescent City and crossed into Oregon shortly afterwards, making a big loop just over the border through the town of Grants Pass before heading south again.

Grants Pass, by the by, is probably not a place that you’ve ever heard of but was made famous, or maybe infamous, by the initiation of Tony Roberts into a club known as Mountain Man Anonymous in 1993. To become a member of the club, Tony let one of the club members try to shoot a one-gallon fuel can off his head with an arrow. The arrow went a little south of the mark. “Surgeons removed the arrow from Anthony Roberts’ head by drilling a larger hole around the tip at the skull’s back and pulling the arrow through,” the AP story explained, which has to be the single most ewww-inducing sentence ever printed in an Associated Press news item. I used to carry it around in my wallet for years so I could read it to people just to watch them squirm.

We did not plan to go to Grants Pass just so I could be in the place where this happened; it was just a lucky accident.

We made one stop at Medford to visit the Apocalypse Brewery, but they weren’t open, darn it, and didn’t open until four o’clock, too late for us to hang around and still make it to the show in Ashland we were headed for, so I can’t say anything about their beer, too bad. If you go looking for it, it’s really hard to find because it’s at the back end of a business park in what looks like a U-Store-It unit. Don’t give up until you check behind the fast-food store.

Caldera Brewery Ashland OROnward to Ashland where, after driving all freaking day, we stopped for a much-deserved beer and some food at Caldera Brewing, a brewpub in a cavernous metal barn where hundreds if not thousands of beer bottles are lined up on shelves up the wall. I spent way too much time searching them to see if I could find two that were alike, then gave up after the food arrived.

Before heading into town to see the show, we checked in at Glenyan campground, an old KOA that still has the easily recognizable teepee-shaped front office. I still feel a happy little twinge of nostalgia whenever I see one of those. My family used to stop at KOAs whenever we went on our annual winter camping trip to the warmer climes of the southern states. A lot of the campsites at Glenyan were occupied by big RV trailers, most of them with pop-outs and most of them more or less permanently affixed to the property, making the tightly-packed grounds seem even cozier, but we were there just to stay the night. All we wanted, really, was a place to park and go to sleep. They let us use the rec room to charge our phones and tablets even though everything else was shut down or turned off, so bonus points, Glenyan, and thanks!

The show we were going to see in town was Cymbaline, just one of the many shows being staged at the Ashland Shakespeare Festival. We picked Cymbaline because we hadn’t seen it before and because it was presented on their Elizabethan stage, an open-air theater encircled by the audience seats, sort of like the old Globe Theatre in London. Figured that would be a more authentic Shakespearian experience, somehow.

There was a stage just outside the theater where a local and apparently well-loved band was performing a few of their own numbers just prior to the start of Cymbaline, so we hung around outside the doors to see what they were like. I’m not sure how to describe their music without resorting to clichés like “drug-induced” and “hippy-dippy weirdo with a side order of dissonance.” I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I can’t say it bothered me, either. Mostly, I was just bored with it. Not so the gathered crowd; they lapped it up and cheered for more, which made me feel as though I was somehow missing something. I kept listening for it, whatever it was, but I never got it.

Because the theater was open to the weather, naturally it rained on us. Quite a lot. We had seats right up front by the stage, which would have been the greatest if they hadn’t been out in the middle of the open roof. “I’m sure it’s going to stop any minute now,” B kept saying to me, as we were slowly being soaked through to our bones, and once or twice it did seem to be letting up just a bit, but then it would start coming down again, and of course it seemed like it was coming down a little bit harder, but that was probably only because we were already wet, chattering and miserable.

We eventually found an usher and begged him to change our seats for a couple in the shelter of the balcony, which would’ve been great if we weren’t already sodden as disrags, but since we were, we slowly froze all the way through to our cores as the first two acts played out. At intermission, we ducked out to the car, cranked up the heater as high as it would go and headed back to camp where we huddled together in a tightly-knotted ball under the quilts. I didn’t start to feel warm again until just before daybreak.

California Day 6 | 8:06 pm CST
Category: brewpubs, food & drink, restaurants, travel, vacation, yet another rant | Tags: , , , , , , , ,
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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 CST
Category: brewpubs, food & drink, restaurants, travel, vacation, wine | Tags: , , , , , , ,
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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 CST
Category: food & drink, restaurants, travel, vacation, wine | Tags: , , ,
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