A Late Summer Week Off …

After months of debating and investigating places to go for the final week of vacation for the summer, we decided on half the week at the Bend house, a day at home, and four days in Cambria, on the Central California Coast. We’d considered Hawaii or Mexico, but decided we didn’t want to fly anywhere, or spend the money that both destinations are happy to take from you, once you’ve arrived. Even “all inclusive” vacations looked like a streamlined collection of your bank account. I always love going to Maui, and it came close to winning this battle, but we opted for Oregon and California trips, and were quite happy with these decisions in the long term.

The ride to and from Bend is one that I’ve written about ad nauseum in both the blogs, and loyal readers know that for some sick reason, I truly love this little 500 mile jaunt (each way). Getting into and out of the greater Bay Area is always a crap shoot, and can range from an easy, relatively traffic-free cruise, to a several hour nightmare that makes me wonder how anyone can live here. We managed to get out of the house by 8:30 on Saturday morning, and the cruise North was one of the easiest I can remember. Very little traffic, and before I knew it I’d made the turnoff onto 505, which is a short stretch of freeway that connects Vacaville to Highway 5 North. My sister Colleen refers to this road as her personal Nurburgring, as it’s usually relatively free of CHP’s, and the 70 MPH speed limit and virtually no traffic invites enthusiastic drivers to open it up a little. I still watch for gendarmes like a hawk, but this road’s pretty open and you can see forever in every direction. Slow down for the overpasses though, as they’re commonly hanging around on the on-ramps, waiting to pop some unlucky driver for daring to go 10 miles over the limit. My last ticket was for 53 in a 50, while crossing the Bay Bridge en route to a fraternity party at UC Berkeley. That was nearly 40 years ago, and I’d like to keep it that way. Don’t give them any reason to pull you over, and they won’t.

This trip would provide a “first,” in that I didn’t stop at Granzella’s on the way up OR back. It wasn’t quite lunchtime on the way up, and too early for dinner on the way home. Plus, Joe’s of Westlake was beckoning, it seemed. In general, the newly remodeled deli in Williams is a virtual magnet for me, as well as anyone else who’s ever been there.

Redding was once again the only notable bottleneck on the trip (both ways). They’re widening the highway, and it seems like a never-ending project. We moved to Bend in 2005, and it was under construction then. Just north of Redding, you start to climb through the beautiful Siskiyou’s. With Mt. Shasta looming in front of you most of the way, the ride is spectacular. You cross Lake Shasta twice, and the boaters were still out in full force in late September. But why wouldn’t they? It’s a crystal clear 90 degree day!

Off to the left as you round one of the “slow to 55” corners, the amazing Castle Crags jump out at you. Located between Castella and historic Dunsmuir, this product of glacial erosion from the Pleistocene era, is absolutely stunning. Today it’s a California State Park, and lucky hikers and campers can venture from a base of 2500 feet at the Sacramento River, to about 6500 feet at the summit of the tallest peak, exploring these majestic sheets of granite. Beautiful site, and one that I never get tired of watching.

Somewhere between the turnoff at Weed onto Highway 97 North, I had “this trip’s” big thought. As we passed the multitude of farms and ranches that occupy the high plains of Northern California and Southern Oregon, I wondered how many of these farmers and ranchers sought their profession out, as opposed to being born into the family business and staying there. Those of us who come from the “big city” tend to go to school, some go to college or beyond, and a choice is made as to “what you want to do when you grow up.” I have friends from high school who fell into the family business, but for the most part, this isn’t an option for city folk. I think this is very different in rural America, where a good percentage of the country’s farmers and ranchers were in fact born into this type of trade. And I can only imagine that they either stayed on at the family farm/ranch, or ventured into one of their own. The thought that struck me, is that I doubt that a significant percentage of people, whether they’re city or country born … actually seek out a farm or ranch as a career. In other words, from my graduating class of 600 individuals in the bedroom suburb of Daly City, California, it’s unlikely that more than a very small number have “gotten into” farming or ranching as a profession. And likely an even smaller number who stuck it out and succeeded at it. But regardless of the origin of the people doing it, or how they stumbled into a rural life of raising livestock or fruits, vegetables, trees or grains, America needs them. As a cook (and a picky one), I appreciate every bit of meat or produce that I pick up from the market. It’s actually very rare that you get a bad “anything” from your local store or farmer’s market (which I highly recommend for anyone who has one nearby). We take it for granted that our food is going to be good, clean, fresh, and something we’ll be comfortable serving friends and family. And our farmers and ranchers are responsible for this. I for one, appreciate their endeavors. And I don’t think I could do it.

We arrived at the Bend house in a record 8 ½ hours, which included lunch at Chevy’s and a couple gas and convenience breaks. The new trees are doing amazingly well, but as I write this in early October, I bet they’re starting to think about losing their leaves. This is ok, as long as they come back next year. The first two trees I planted were 50-50 in this regard. The maple survived and is thriving; the other one died a quick one-season death. All the other yard foliage is thriving, and I was actually proud of myself, having planted everything in the yard a couple years ago, and it’s comforting to see that they’re enjoying their domain as much as the home owners.

Sunday night in Bend was spent with a good collection of our friends, celebrating the life of our friends Barb and Chuck’s dog Driver, who passed on a few days earlier. Driver was a gorgeous Viszla who lived to a ripe old age along with his buddy Addie, who’s noticeably bummed with the loss of her housemate. I can say first hand that the fact that a pet lives a long healthy life is no consolation for them dying. I think particularly for those of us who don’t have kids, your pets become members of your family and their loss is huge.

Barb managed to put on an awesome dinner, and people brought some great side dishes and appetizers. Sandy Mills’ bean salad was amazing, as was Chris’ bread and dip. It truly kills me that I can’t cook when I’m up there. I have an incredible kitchen, but virtually all of my cooking utensils, pots and pans, knives, etc. are down in the Bay Area. I brought wine and a cake that I had to purchase at the local Ray’s Market. Not my style, but it would have to do. For now.

Chuck put together a photo show of his life with Barb, which was totally entertaining. And with his audience laughing at all the “old” shots of the two of them (as well as several of the guests in attendance), he segued into shots of Driver and Addie, finishing off with some great shots of Driver in his last days with them. These are great friends, great dogs, and Mr. D. will be missed by anyone who crossed his path. Simply wonderful, all of them.

After four days in Bend, it was time to return to the Bay Area. The ride back was uneventful, but the number of CHP’s was boggling. Unfortunately, this means that everyone is relegated to a slower pace, and traffic backs up accordingly. Think of what you’re doing with your radar and cruisers, guys!!

As I mentioned earlier, it wasn’t quite dinner time when we passed Granzella’s, so we continued to head south in anticipation of yet another great meal at Joe’s of Westlake. This is the local institution in Daly City that I’ve been frequenting since the early 60’s. Hasn’t changed much, and this is a good thing. Restaurants like this are interesting, because you generally don’t even think of looking at the menu, having committed it to memory several decades back. I knew what I wanted to eat, a full 50 miles earlier in the trip. Tonight would be a bowl of minestrone soup and an order of “half and half,” meaning half raviolis and half spaghetti. Add a half liter of wine and traditional San Francisco sourdough, and it doesn’t get any better.

Wednesday was a stay-at-home day, with a couple of side trips to local malls. Lunch at Max’s in Stanford Shopping Center provided an interesting high point. I’ve eaten here a hundred times, but never had the Kobe hamburger before. How could I have missed this on the menu? Oh that’s right … I try not to get things that I can cook at home, when I go out. Turns out that this is (are you sitting down?) quite likely the best burger I’ve ever eaten. Anywhere. Joe’s does an awesome burger, I do a pretty mean burger for that matter … doesn’t compare. If you have the opportunity … have one.

Early Thursday had us on the road again, this time bound for our favorite Central Coast hamlet of Cambria by the Sea. We love this area, and have been making three or four trips per year, for more than 15 years. Most of the tiny local shops have survived, but a number of them have succumbed to the downturn in the economy, and it’s a loss to the community as well as the shop owners. You take a gamble when you undertake a business of any kind, and smaller ones that are dependent on tourist trade seem to be particularly vulnerable. The same situation is true in Bend, unfortunately.


But the ride to Cambria is another of my favorites. Once you’re south of the Monterey turnoff, it’s a leisurely cruise through the farming and wine producing meccas of California. My family lived in Salinas when I was very young, although about six months was all my mother could stand of the heat and lack of bridge-playing friends. But I recall this area as being predominantly lettuce-producing, with a few other vegetables in the mix. Now, it’s everything from spices (big McCormick plant) to everything imaginable in the vegetable kingdom. And just south of there is the Monterey wine-growing region, which blends seamlessly into the Paso Robles wine-growing region. The past 20 years has seen hundreds of square miles of rolling hills become one of the biggest concentrations of vineyards in the state. A friend at Tobin James Winery commented recently that as recently as 5 years ago, he knew every vintner in the area … all 20 of them. There are over 200 wineries now, and they’re producing some of the most phenomenal wines in the state. Zin Alley produces four of my current favorites. Their signature Zinfandel is literally my favorite wine. Their Syrah is incredible, and their Port and Nerelli After Hours wines are all amazing. Denner and Jada are two new wineries that show tremendous potential. Winderful whites and unique reds and blends stand out from the crowd and will only get better as the wineries get a few years under their belts. Grey Wolf produces some phenomenal zins, whites and blends, and the friendly staff is a pleasure to interact with. Eagle Castle continues to improve, and is finally living up to the beauty of the beautiful estate-like setting. The winery appears as a medieval castle, complete with a moat and draw bridge, and featuring a huge banquet room with suits of armor on display. Quite a site.

We rented a house in the Marine Terrace neighborhood, a half block from the beach. The first day was a little foggy, but the subsequent three provided some awesome sights and sounds of the Pacific, and some amazing sunsets. Clean, roomy, quiet, great hot tub, we’ll be back.

The first night in Cambria always seems to land us at the Main Street Grill, which is a BBQ spot at the north end of town. We’ve watched this grow from a tiny take out spot, to a huge restaurant with inside and al fresco seating, large screen TV’s, and a BBQ menu that will please the most finicky of meat eaters. Dinner on the second night was up for debate. We almost always eat at The Sow’s Ear, but it had been awhile since we ate at Robin’s, so we opted to go there for our Friday night dining experience. We’ve been to Robin’s many times over the years, and it’s always a wonderful meal. They’ve been serving fresh Asian-fusion foods with the freshest of local ingredients since 1985. The menu always has some favorites such as the The Chow, which is a wok-flahsed pasta with local vegetables, garlic, ginger, and soy, with either tofu or chicken. Specials are always interesting, and again are always done with fresh local fish, proteins, and vegetables. The wine list is reasonable and features some of Paso Robles’ best.

Cambria seemed a little quiet for this time of year. September is traditionally some of the best weather of the year along the Central and Northern California coast, and this weekend should have drawn a lot more visitors than were evident. More ramifications of the lousy economy, no doubt.

Saturday was a perfect day for a ride. We turned south onto always scenic Highway 1, with the coastal community of Morro Bay as our destination. It quickly became evident that there was a fairly major bike race taking place. A few pods of riders became a few hundred, all the way down the coast. We found ot later this was an annual event called the Lighthouse Century. For those unfamiliar with bike race lingo, the “century” meant that this group of hearty riders were going to pedal a hundred miles on this warm day. Along with the riders, we passed through several micro-climates as we headed south … Cambria was in the low 60’s, but by the time we hit the booming metropolis of Harmony (population 18) it was in the 90’s. Then back to the 60’s fifteen miles later. And I thought Bend weather was unpredictable! The picture at the left is in the courtyard that leads to a little pottery shop in Harmony. I thought the blue door was an interesting contrast to the surrounding scenery.

Morro Bay has one of my favorite surf shops, Wavelength’s. This is always a mandatory stop, and I never get tired of looking at surfboards and related items. Lunch would be across the street at a little seaside dive called Giovanni’s. Our friend Dave took us here on our last trip, and they have some of the best fish and chips around. I thought it was particularly appropriate that the first boat in the harbor when we were entering and leaving the restaurant, was the Trudy S. Dave’s wife and our dear friend Trudy left us a couple years ago … way too young. She is missed by everyone who knew her. One in a million.

Back to Cambria for some relaxing time in the hot tub, an amazing sunset from the deck, then into town for dinner at Linn’s. This is a family owned restaurant and local landmark that features fresh fruits and produce from their nearby ranch, located five miles up Santa Rosa Creek Road. They’re famous for their pot pies (I had the chicken) and desserts, particularly all things ollalieberry. My fridge is always stocked with frozen pies from Linn’s, and when I get low I know it’s time for a trip to Cambria. Highly recommended for any meal of the day.

Sunday meant the ride back home, once again traversing by the beautiful vineyards and sleepy valleys of San Luis Obispo, Monterey, and Santa Clara Counties. Our vacation was about to come to a close, and it was back to work the next day. Friends and loyal readers know how much I love to drive. Not in traffic, particularly, but in open country, through mountain passes, across vast spans of mileage, I’m as close to nirvana as I dare imagine. This was a fun week. Low key, not at all stressful, no airplanes, no tourist trappings, and exactly what I wanted it to be. Now if only I could take these any time I wanted. That dream’s going to have to wait awhile.

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