Laughlin, Nevada

Every once in a great while, I’m allowed out of the house on my own. I know that’s a surprise to you, but there are times when the Queen has friends over and she wants a presentable house. That means I have to go away while her company is here. Since I’m doing Anne a ‘favor’, I can usually parlay it into an overnight trip that I call a photo shoot. One of these freedom nights was last Tuesday, but at the last-minute, her friends had to postpone, and she was already in the truck before I could get out of the driveway . . . Doh!

My friend Deb asked if this was an anniversary trip to which I replied, “What? When is our anniversary? Yeah, that’s it! It’s for our anniversary.” So, it was something I had planned all along.

Whenever I have a chance to get away, my first thought is to head for a body of water. After all, that is what we miss in the desert. I’d hop on the first plane to New Zealand if I could afford it, but that’s out of our budget. What we can afford is a cot at the YMCA . . . or something close to that. With those constraints, there’s always Laughlin, Nevada.

Colorado River Valley from the Black Mountains.
On a rare rainy day, the lower Colorado River Valley holds the communities of Bullhead City in Arizona, and Laughlin on the Nevada side of the river.

My parents were the ones that introduced me to Laughlin. In the late ‘70s, they had a second home in Bullhead City, the town on the Arizona side of the Colorado River. My dad kept his boat there for a while, and we would manage to ‘drop in’ while they were in town. We’d spend days fishing and water skiing on Lake Mohave, and in the evenings, we would take the water taxi across the river to one of the three casinos on the Nevada side. I have fond memories of those times. Good times never last however, and my parents eventually got rid of the house and boat.

There are several reasons for me to make a quick trip to Laughlin. As a fisherman, both Lake Mohave and the river below Davis Dam offer good angling. However, I never remember to pack my gear for a one night trip. Although I like the craps table, I am averse to wasting money. It used to take twenty bets to lose my bankroll, but now that the tables have a five buck minimum bet, I’m done in four rolls. So, I don’t spend much time in the casinos. There are the buffets with rows and rows of various foods, with people who make you look skinny by comparison. However I favor quality over quantity, so we avoid them. I guess the best reason for Laughlin is that now that the Queen and I retired, we can take advantage of the twenty-five buck midweek hotel rooms. You can’t stay at the YMCA for that price.

The cheap rooms have a downside too. As we strolled along The River-walk connecting the casinos, we noticed that most of the patrons were at least our age; silver-haired seniors and an abundance of canes, walkers and wheelchairs. All of the casino floors were empty with many of the tables covered. The prime restaurants only open on the weekends. The hustle, bustle and excitement you would expect from a gambling hall was missing. Then, it dawned on me that the only people who had time for a casino on Tuesday were retirees; everyone else had to go to work . . . duh!

Thumb Butte
In the Black Mountains above Bullhead City, Thumb Butte looks like the universal indignant gesture of ill-will.

There’s one last thing that fascinates me about the area; it’s the geography. That section of the Colorado River Valley runs between the Black Mountains in Arizona and Nevada’s Eldorado Mountains. Neither range I consider tall, but they’re at the north-eastern reach of the Mojave Desert and get very little rainfall. That means they are subject to wind and temperature erosion. They are rocky, jagged and very rugged. Almost impenetrable.  As a matter of fact, Interstate 40 makes a 20 mile detour along the Santa Fé railroad tracks, around the Black Mountains between Needles and Kingman. The next upstream river crossing is 60 miles north at Hoover Dam and then its 180 miles more to the bridge at Marble Canyon. At the turn of the 20th Century travel was even worse. There were no bridges between Needles, California and Moab, Utah. Everything in between is hostile, desolate and in my opinion, the most beautiful terrain on earth.

Black Mountain MIne
An old mining claim near Union Pass in the Black Mountains.

As a photographer, I see the Black Mountains as a choice place to shoot pictures. It has ragged peaks, soaring spires and interesting shapes. They’re passed by in favor of the more famous canyons the Colorado cuts through. Because of its relative closeness, I’m intrigued at its beauty and if I can figure out how to best capture that ruggedness, I may have to take it on as a future project. Hey, it’s an excuse to get out of the house.

Till next time . . . jw

Yuma Again

Queen and I did our quarterly dentist run early this week. I’ve already talked about Algodones, so I don’t want to discuss the border town again, except to say that the weather has grown much warmer and the snowbirds that flock to the western Arizona counties have grown thin. The lines at the Customs Station are nil. We were able to get on the road home by 2:30 yesterday.

Today I want to talk about a couple of Yuma bright spots. There aren’t many, so when I find one, it’s a pleasant surprise. Yuma has a Marine base and in winter when the snowbirds arrive, its population triples . Other than that, most people only get off the interstate to top off the gas tank on their way to San Diego (or back).

If our dental visits call for lab work, we’ll book a room in a chain motel. Most of them include a (so-called) breakfast. Generally the fare consists of packaged microwave rubber omelets, assorted cold cereal, fruit, waffles (if you’re lucky) and/or toast and bagels. At best, it’s airline food, but it saves having to walk across the street to Mickey D’s. That’s what we did until our last trip when I convinced Anne to forgo the buffet for Brownie’s Café.

Browies Cafe
The place ain’t swank, but the place is always crowed and the food is old-fashioned good. Locate on South 4th Avenue off Interstate 8.

My first meal at Brownie’s was on a solo trip to Yuma. While exploring south 4th Avenue one morning, I spotted the large Café sign and thought that it would be really good or really bad, so I stopped to find out. The packed parking lot is usually a good sign. I stopped again with Jeff on our photo trip to the Salton Sea a couple of years later. After two more meals with Anne, I’m convinced it’s a gem right out of The Twilight Zone.

It’s a counter diner from the 1950s. The back dining area, crowed with tables and booths, is always filled with patrons, but on weekdays, you can usually find an open table. As you look around the room, you’re assured that this isn’t a campy place nostalgically decorated; this is the real thing and has probably been this way for thirty years. The building and the decor have been there for a while and they show wear. To put it bluntly; this is not a shiny new place. If that’s a key point of yours, go somewhere else.

In the table’s center are four beige half-inch thick industrial ceramic coffee cups. When you turn one right-side-up, the wait-staff instantly fills it without asking as they deliver the menus. The menu nothing fancy on it; instead there are all the items you’d expect. The plates are not large, but the food is properly cooked, just as you ordered.

My favorite is the Walt Kammann Sausage and eggs. The sausage is from a local butcher that has made it for over fifty years. It’s similar to a brat but spicier with flavors like linguica (Portuguese sausage) and lots of  fennel like you find in Italian sausage. The sausage is a point of pride in Yuma.

Yuma Mural
Anne checks her cell phone by one of the murals at Yuma Landing.

North of Brownie’s on 4th Avenue is a place called Yuma Landing with a Restaurant of the same name. I had always assumed that the name came from nautical origins, probably from Colorado Steamboats or something of that sort. I was mistaken. When we stopped to look at a monument, I found out the name comes from early aviation. In 1911, pilot Robert Fowler landed the first airplane ever in Arizona on that site. He was on a cross country trip flying a Wright Model B biplane which he completed in Florida forty-nine days later. The place has a plaque, a statue of Mr. Fowler and a couple of cool murals. It’s a big deal for Yumans . . . probably because nothing else interesting has happened in Yuma since.

Till then . . . jw

Los Algodones, Baja California

The Queen and I took time out of our busy schedule to make our quarterly dentist visit this week. Normally you’d think that would take maybe an hour or two at the most. For us, it’s more of a commitment than that. As seniors, our dental insurance is nil to none, so upon recommendation of a couple of friends, we found a good dentist in Algodones . . . Mexico, and that means an overnight journey to Yuma. Both of us got an addatoothtome, so on the first appointment was for a root canal and then an impression to send off to the lab overnight. The next day was for fitting the crown.

It’s been an abnormally wet year for us here in the desert, so when we left Monday at daybreak under a cloudless blue sky, we felt as if we were wasting a good work day. The rains kept us cooped up all weekend while we have outside projects we’ve put off for dry weather. Instead, we were on the road for three hours for an appointment at 11:00 am.

As the sun came up we saw patches of fog, something we rarely get. The evening breeze pushed the ground fog to the base of the low ranges like they were door-stops. The dark hills popped out of the strands of white. South of Quartzsite I couldn’t take it anymore and pulled off the road to snap a shot as we passed through the KOFA (King of Arizona) Wildlife Refuge. Even so, we made it with time for breakfast before our appointments.

Ground Fog and KOFA Range
A rare sight in the desert is ground fog, but after a cold rain it collects at the feet of the low ranges. Here a ocotillo is foreground to the fog at the KOFA Range

Los Algodones is a retirees’ equivalent of Disneyland. The downtown commerce area is an eight block square along the east bank of the Colorado River. It’s an extremely tiny border town when compared to Juarez, Nogales, Tijuana or even Mexicali; sixty miles to the west, yet it’s still a Class A border crossing. That’s because of the large amount of foot traffic. There is some vehicular traffic crossing there, but most people pay the six dollars to the Quechan tribe to park in their huge parking lot and walk across.

The dominant feature is a multi-story steel beam structure like an unfinished building. It’s been unfinished since we first visited some twenty-five years ago and most likely won’t be different in the next twenty-five. Then there are the hustlers. Unlike Tijuana, they’re not trying to get you into one of the girly clubs (of which there are none); they’re working for the dentists, eye doctors, pharmacies or liquor stores. That’s right; the doctors got pimps. After you wander the town a bit, you realize the town is a medical amusement park. Within a block you can get glasses, a tooth implant, new hearing aids, a sombrero, and have a margarita for lunch while you’re waiting for the lab.

As a younger man, I never would have gone to a doctor in Mexico. I had heard the horror stories of shoddy work and surgery disasters, so why the change of heart now? It’s a combination of economics, a referral and desperation. We need dental work, but couldn’t pay what the local dentists where charging . . . even with insurance. So, if I had a problem with a tooth, out it came. After retiring and hanging out with other like-minded geezers, we heard some good stories and then got a couple of strong referrals.

On our summer trip, I broke two crowns, so when we got back, we scheduled an appointment to investigate. As we sat in the tiny waiting room, people our age surrounded us claiming our dentist was the best. The first exam was simple consisting of digital x-rays, tiny cameras, and some poking and prodding. Within fifteen minutes they printed out a chart of my mouth showing the work that I needed including the cost by tooth. Then they went over the x-rays and photos so I could clearly see what they were talking about. After that, they cleaned my teeth and then I was done . . . $25.00. When we left the office, we both had our charts and it was our decision about which teeth to work on and when to do it. All of the prices were less than what our co-pay would be in the States.

As always, the devil must have his due. What you save in money, you pay with time. I already pointed out, the waiting room is crowded with patients that are loyal . . . to a fault. Your 11:00 am appointment only means you’ll be seen sometime after that. If you need to see a specialist, they call an escort to take you there, where you can sit in another waiting room that always has one less chair than people. If you’re lucky, the TV has Discovery Chanel in Spanish, otherwise it will be CNN. If your visit requires replacement parts, the lab will have them ready tomorrow, always tomorrow. If you count on getting back on the road at a decent hour, give it up. You will only have enough time to grab a Big Mac at the Yuma Mickey D’s before the three-hour drive home in the dark.

Western Arizona is one of the weirdest places on earth. It’s all low-lying Sonoran Desert dominated by creosote bushes, Palo Verde trees, and an odd saguaro here and there. It also gently slopes downhill towards Yuma, the lowest place in the state. It’s also the warmest and driest part of the state, both winter and summer. No one lives there.

Yuma Crossing
All of the historical travel routes crossed the Colorado River within 300 yards of this spot. That includes the ferry, railroad, the first Ocean to Ocean Highway (US 80) and the current freeway (Interstate 8).

While driving to Yuma in September, we counted twenty-five empty RV parks along the road. Quartzsite, the halfway point of the trip, was a ghost town with most of the stores closed. On Monday’s trip they were all packed to the brim with people from Montana, Alberta, Idaho, Saskatchewan, Washington and British Columbia. They all come down to the warm desert and camp out under the stars. Except for an occasional Costco run, they never go into Phoenix and the Phoenicians aren’t aware that these people are out there. After all, who goes to Quartzsite? The campers also go to Algodones for doctors, prescriptions and booze.

On the Immigration Service Website, it says that the Algodones Customs Station averages over two thousand pedestrians a day. I’ve been there on days where you could walk right into the custom-house and be on your way two minutes later. This week there were over four thousand people waiting in line to cross the border. The line curled back from the custom-house and several blocks down the street. For over an hour we marched a step or two at a time, while chatting with our neighbors and carrying one bag of prescriptions and another containing one bottle of Kahlua or tequila.

Towards day’s end, the street vendors grab an armload of goods, abandon their stalls and make their way to the line waiting at customs. They form a gauntlet imploring you to buy a poncho, sombrero or a giant carved wooden turtle. On your other side, old women dressed in black hold a swaddled infant and offer Chiclets for spare change. They move on if you smile and softly say, “No. Thank you.” If you dare feel the lace or try on a hat, you’re dead meat until you agree on a price. Being a Baby Boomer, I can tell you that they’d really make a fortune selling street tacos and Margaritas to-go along that exit line.

Till then . . .

jw

Congress – Arizona

Here’s a final list of numbers from Fritz’s trip meter.

  • 12,079 total miles driven
  • 329.21 total hours the motor was running
  • 37 mph – the average road speed
  • 18.3 mpg – Fritz’s average miles per gallon for the trip

To put that in perspective, twelve thousand miles is just short of half way around the world. It’s about a third more that the 9,000 on Fred’s itinerary, but he based his number on point to point distances. We made a lot of side trips. My original budget proposal was only 7,000, based on a Google Maps trip to Fairbanks and back.

Yesterday’s drive went just as I imagined it. We left Bakersfield at 7:30 and stopped in Tehachapi for gas and coffee. We hit the I-40 Bridge over the Colorado River at 12:15, and then stopped for lunch in Kingman at 1:00. That’s how I called it in my earlier post.

Lunch Break in Kingman
We got to Kingman at 1:00, just as I thought we would.

We had a leisurely afternoon drive down US-93 and were home by 4:00. I wanted to brag that we made the trip without hitting a moose (there are none to hit), and that I came home without a cracked windshield. I also wanted to say we drove half way around the world without incident, but I can’t, because as we say around here, I just made the newsletter.

When we pulled up in front of the house, our neighbors, John and Reenie greeted us with waves from their front porch. Then I started to back The Ritz into the drive and around the house and deck. That’s a big u-turn pushing the trailer backwards. I did it on the first try, but it wasn’t lined up perfect, so I pulled forward to straighten it out . . . and ran over the plastic stanchion that holds the water and electricity for one of our hook-ups. Instantly we had a nice little fountain in the back yard.

The Ritz at Home
All we wanted to do was to park the trailer in a place to unload easily. To get it there, we had to back it around the house in a U-turn.

John went across the street and retrieved a water-valve shut-off wrench and we turned off the main. Since the temperature was near the century mark, we unloaded all the wine into the cooling house. Then I unhooked the trailer and made a mad rush to the hardware store to get a cap and some PVC glue, so that we could at least turn the water back on.

Broken Stanchion
The stanchion holding the water line and electrical outlet, lays shattered on the ground.

I made it before they closed and after getting home, I cleaned up the broken pipe and glued the cap on. Satisfied that the repair was good, we then turned the water back on, only to find that I broke the PVC pipe under the concrete base. The whole thing needs torn up  and replaced. So we’re waiting for the plumber to come this morning.

In the mean time, we’re living with water buckets from the John’s spigot, and bottles of drinking water we had stored in the freezer. It’s a challenge for sure, but it’s good to be home.

On another note, you’re probably interested to find out about the rest of the gang. You may remember that Fed, Deb and Sally wanted to spend more time in Canada. About ten days after we did, they crossed the border (without inspections). Then they recreated Patton’s March down the east side of the Cascades and Nevada and got home a couple of hours ahead of us.

So I guess this means, this chapter in our lives has come to a close. I have a newsletter to write sometime this weekend. If you’re a subscriber, I apologize. I guess I’ll do a follow-up of the trip. But this will be the last post about our trip to Denali. I’ve had fun writing these for you, but I’ve run out of topic and I don’t know what else to talk about.

What do you think? Have you had enough of us, or is there another subject to cover? I’d like to hear from you.

jw

Bakersfield – California

One must atone for their sins, I guess. I suppose that’s what we’re doing in this RV park five miles east of Bakersfield. We piddled around at the beach as long as we could. We got up late, repacked Fritz, moved boxes around and even filled up a propane tank. After Anne said goodbye to the Pacific and got in the truck, we had to leave Morro Bay behind.

Since today’s segment was only 144 miles, we arrived at 1:30. The park has over 300 spaces and was essentially empty, but the check-in people put us next to the Clampetts. They sell the place as camping in an orange grove, but the trees are too young to give any shade, and that’s what we needed when we got here.

Bakersfield Campsite
With the hot sun beating down, the first part of set-up was getting the air conditioner running.

We chose this park because . . . well, they had space for us. I also thought the heat wouldn’t be as bad in the San Joaquin Valley. The very first thing we did after parking the rig, was to plug into the power and fire up the trailer’s air conditioner. The weather page says it’s only 96°, but our little indoor/outdoor thermometer reads 104°.

After waking from a two-hour nap, I got up to take a shower. I must admit that the ones here are the absolute best we’ve seen for the last three months. There’s enough space that you can turn around in them and they have a generous size private dressing area. One thing that park owners need to learn is that there are never enough hooks in these facilities. Even in this one, there were only two, but the bench was large enough to make up for it.

We stopped here because I want to make the long trip across the desert in one day. Tomorrow we’ll get an early start. We’ll climb out of the San Joaquin over the 4000 ft Tehachapi Pass and out onto the Mohave. If all goes without incident, we should cross the Colorado River around noon. It’s at least another hour to Kingman, where we’ll stop for food. There’s a decent BBQ joint there called Rednecks. We discovered it when my parents lived there. I still can remember my dad trying to slurp down those ribs without his false teeth. I miss them.

Tehachapi Pass
The low part of the ridge between the south end of the Sierra Nevada’s on the left and the Tehachapi Mountains on the right is the 4000 ft pass that leads to the Mohave desert . . . and home.

After that, we’ll take US 93 down to Congress. We should lay eyes on the old homestead in time for cocktails on the front porch. With all the storms we’ve read about, I wonder if it’s still there. I’m looking forward to sleeping in my bed tomorrow night.

jw

Cambria – California

We indulged today. We rationalized that since this was our last real vacation day before heading for home, we’d make the best of it. I don’t know how the day could have been any better.

Today started out by trying to make reservations for tomorrow night, Friday . . . Labor Day Weekend. We tried every combination that we could think of, but all the places on our route were already booked for the weekend, except the KOA, and they wanted a minimum of a three-day stay. So we planned an alternative route.

Solvang
Solvang is a Danish community in the San Inez valley and is a big weekend tourist attraction.

We had planned on swinging by Solvang, a Danish tourist town north of Santa Barbara. It was purely for medicinal purposes I assure you. The only thing we needed were pastries called Danish Waffles. They look like a flattened hot dog bun. They’re two sweet phyllo pastries glued together with a creamy filling that has a touch of raspberry jam for a tart flavor. They’re addictive, and there’s only a few places in California to buy them. Two of them are in Solvang.

We left at 11 for the eighty mile trip down for lunch and we got to the bakery at 12:15. Anne and I split a sandwich (the bread was sourdough made fresh in-house this morning, yum!) and for dessert, we split one of the waffles. There is no graceful way you can eat one of these things without it exploding all over the table, the car, the bed . . . where ever. The crumbs are everywhere and they’re too good to leave, so you wind up sucking them up from the table-cloth. Oh, I must warn you that these things are about 1400 calories apiece.

Queen Anne Eats a Danish Waffle
There is no graceful way to eat a Danish waffle. The sugar phyllo dough explodes when ever you take a bite.

We ordered another half-dozen to go (Anne’s already tossed back a couple, they’ll never make it home) along with a bucket of Danish cookies. We had time to make it back to Paso Robles, hit a couple of wineries and still make our five o’clock dinner reservation in Cambria. We pulled it off even after driving down the old creek road.

One of the wineries we  always stop at is York Mountain. As readers of my newsletter already know, this place holds a lot of memories for me. It is the oldest vineyard in the area dating back to 1889. My original visit was with my first wife on our honeymoon in 1968. I was hooked then and have returned regularly.

York Mountain Rebuilt
The new owners of the York Mountain Estates have carefully crafted a new cellar using the original hand-made bricks and capturing the essence of the historical building.

The last time Anne and I were here, the original cellars were badly damaged in an earthquake and the state condemned the building. I was saddened that the owners had sold the property and that the historic building would be destroyed. When we stopped today, it surprised me to see a different but very familiar cellar being readied for the public. New owners have taken over the property and they didn’t want to lose the building either. They painstakingly disassembled the cellar, brick by brick, then numbered the bricks. They built a steel reinforced concrete structure and covered the new shell with the original bricks (in their original  sequence). The new cellar has some modern touches to it, but it brought tears to my eyes to see how lovingly they captured the feel of the original. As for the century old redwood tree, planted by the York brothers . . . it’s alive and well, looking more stately than ever next to the new building. Bravo!

The Old Creek Road
On my first visit to Paso Robles and Cambria, the only road that crossed the mountains was Vineyard Road, and it was this old neglected tree-lined back-road. Along the drive, you cross the ridge and see the ocean twenty-two miles away.

Dinner was wonderful. Anne had her favorite rack of lamb and they even had my favorite; duck breast served in a cherry-port wine reduction. On top of that, we splurged on a bottle of Cabernet that we sampled yesterday. Somehow, I even managed to get through the dinner without spilling red wine on the white table-cloth.

We learned a new trick yesterday and after dinner we used it. After leaving the restaurant, we stopped at the town liquor store. There, we found most of the local wines we liked at a discounted price. We picked out a bunch of bottles that we liked at the tasting rooms and saved about 25%.

So we had a good day. We wined and  dined, laughed and enjoyed each others company. We deserved it . . . for tomorrow will be in Bakersfield. It’s not the armpit of California, but you can certainly smell it from there.

jw

San Simeon – California

This was an easy day for us because we acted like tourists. I guess by definition, we are, but because we hang out here so often, it seems like the place belongs to us. Even with all the traffic we saw today, by California standards, the place was deserted. If you want real California traffic, go to Disneyland.

The day started off with a long hot shower. If you don’t RV, you’re probably not aware that campsites provide showers for their guests. If you have one of those battleships on wheels, this isn’t a problem. Your shower is as big as the one at home. If you have a little trailer like ours, you need to use the one provided by the camp.

Ocean View Garage
I love old neon signs, so when I saw this, I ran across the street to shoot it. It turns out the garage restores vintage cars . . . and signs.

The parks we’ve stayed in lately have quarter showers. You put a quarter in and you get three to five minutes of spray. It takes a minute for the hot water to get there, then another minute to fiddle with the knob. Today, the showers were free, so I could stand under the nozzle until my skin turned pink and my fingers wrinkled. I’m sure that Queen Anne shaved her legs, because I could clearly hear her swearing back at the trailer.

Anne Checks out the New Movies
It’s been three months since Anne’s been able to see her movies, so checking out the new films at the local theater was a must.

Being tourists for us means walking around the towns and checking out the shops, galleries and restaurants. It’s been three months since Anne has had access to her movies, so checking out the new movie posters at the local theater was a must stop for her. In Morro Bay, there’s an outstanding store that sells sea shells (that’s even hard to type). Anne wanted to buy some to use as decorations in our house and she went nuts. It was like the comedy bit in the movie The Jerk. “All I need is this one. That’s all. And maybe this one, just these two. I probably need to have this also . . . ” She has three credit card transactions from that store.

Elephant Seals at War
This is what Elephant Seals do in between naps.

After that, we drove north past Hearst Castle to visit the Elephant Seals. It’s a stop we always make when we’re here. Normally they’re trying to sleep in the sand and the only movement you see is an occasional sand toss. I’ve photographed them several times, but it always looks like a bunch of dead bodies on the beach. Blah! Today, one of the big males must have stepped on the others flipper, and that started a big testosterone contest. They snorted and barked at each other for a couple of minutes, then flopped over and fell asleep again.

We spent the rest of the afternoon in Cambria, a small town south of San Simeon “where the pines meet the sea.” It was a tiny village when I first visited in 1968, and now it’s a large village. Fortunately, the cottages and summer homes are hidden among the trees. We walked the streets until the shops closed, then headed back to The Ritz where The Queen fixed me a gourmet meal of canned tamales. Someday, I’ll need to show her how to turn the stove on.

Harmony Creamery
Thew Creamery Coop in Harmony.

Tomorrow we will be heading over the hill for our last day of vineyard hopping (don’t worry Jane, there’s plenty left for you). We scoped out a couple of new labels to try, and there are some old favorites that keep us returning. After a day of that, we’re having dinner in a Cambria restaurant that we discovered today. After a day of wine tasting, maybe I’ll work up the nerve to drive Fritz down the hill on the old back road. Just for old time’s sake.

jw

Morro Bay – California

So I lied about today’s destination. This morning when we planned out our day, someone on this bus whined about staying at the beach. We checked our RV Park resource guide and the cost was less here than in Paso Robles. Besides, as we drove down the 101, the temperature there was over a hundred. It was thirty degrees cooler when we arrived at the beach.

I didn’t get to play Steve McQueen in downtown San Francisco, but I do think I launched the truck and trailer a couple of times today. To bypass bay area traffic, we took the I 680 along the east side of town. Boy, does that road need some repair. The truck traffic has crushed the pavement in the right lane, and in California, the law restricts trucks and cars pulling trailers to the slow lanes. We hit some bumps so bad that Anne woke up and asked if we were back in Alaska. It wasn’t till we made it past San José that the road improved.

We were in Salinas by lunchtime, so we stopped at the Costco for a hot dog lunch. While we were there I picked up another bag-o-socks so Queen Anne won’t have to do laundry till we get home. There’s enough of everything else in the closet to get us through to the weekend.

Morro Rock
Morro Rock is the icon that marks the southern terminus of the central California coast.

When I talked the other day about Mendocino being our favorite place north of San Francisco, this stretch of coast is my absolute favorite. Maybe that’s why I’ve returned so often over the past fifty years. I think this is where the Pacific Coast Highway is at it’s best, and I believe that William Randolph Hearst, Ansel Adams, and Edward Weston would agree with me (were they alive to do so). They all had homes here.

The Dunes at Morro Bay
Wind patterns in the Morro Bay Sand Dunes.

PCH turns west at San Louis Obispo and picks up the coast here at Morro Bay. It provides some of the most beautiful coastal scenery as it passes through, Cambria, San Simeon, Big Sur before it reaches Carmel. It’s 120 miles of breathtaking scenery without a stop light. You should experience the drive once in your life, and drive it in a convertible, not your fifty foot motor-home.

Mom Wants Yet Another Picture.
While out for a beach walk, a young mother tries to get her kids to pose in front of Morro Rock.

We’re going to avoid going home for a couple of days. We have a couple of nostalgic restaurants we want to visit again. I never grow tired of photographing this place and I never seem to do a good enough job at it. Then of course, there’s the central coast wineries that we love so much. We’re not in a rush and we’ll be home soon enough.

jw

Calistoga – California

We arrived at Calistoga, a town at the head of the Napa Valley, just after lunch. When we normally look for our RV park, it’s conveniently on the highway and usually there are ample signs directing us to it. Not this time, because it’s at the county fairgrounds and everybody knows where it is . . . except us. We had to use the GPS and our tablet to track it down.

We finally found it, but no one was in the office to check us in. We weren’t the only ones either. The sign on the door said the office was only open from 10 am to 4 pm, with a smaller clock thingy that said somebody would be back at noon. It was already 1:05. Fortunately, one of the other guests used her cell to get a responsible person knew about reservations. After passing the phone around, we got our assigned camping spot. It’s right next to the half-mile dirt track, outside turn four. They’re hosting non-winged sprint cars and modifieds running over Labor Day weekend. I asked Anne if we could stay, but she only communicates with eye-rolls lately.

Hawkes Vinyards
Hawkes Vineyards in Anderson Valley was a pleasant discovery for us today.

As you would expect for wine country, Calistoga is a cool little town. I only associated the name with the mineral water bottled here, but this area is like a little Yellowstone. There are hot springs, mineral and mud baths and even a fake geyser . . . in fact, Geyserville is the next town up the road. The town was a tourists attraction well before Charles Krug planted his first grape-vine.

Duckhorn Vineyards Tasting Room
We picked up a nice bottle of Chardonnay at Duckhorn Vineyards.

We made a point to stop in Napa Valley because it’s the Mecca of California wines, but it’s not the only wine growing region north of San Francisco. Today, for example, we drove through Anderson Valley, Alexander Valley, but not Sonoma Valley which is behind us over the ridge. Even within Napa there are several wine districts, like St. Helena, Rutherford, Oak Knoll and Napa. They have slightly different soils and micro climates that affect the grape’s taste.

Silver Oak Wine Fridge
At that moment, Anne turned to me and said, “You have a table saw, you could make this..”

Now for the bad news. I think that Napa vineyards have become primadonnas. We’ve stopped at vineyards in Washington, Oregon and this morning, Anderson Valley. The day’s of free tasting are gone. Washington wineries will charge you a fee from 5 to 15 dollars to sample their wines. If you choose to buy a bottle, they waive the fee. Oregon’s sampling cost is more, but they still don’t charge if you buy something. Napa valley is absurd. Here the fees are 25 to 35 dollars for the tasting and that is independent of your purchase.

Beaulieu Vinyards Tasting Room
How could you possibly be allowed to park a dirty Porsche out side of a tasting room?

So are the wines that much better? Well, . . . they are that much more expensive. In Washington and Oregon, expensive reds were 40-50 dollars a bottle. Here, a bottle of reserve can easily cost over $100.00. That’s way out of our price range, and since we had to pay-to-taste, we didn’t feel guilty about not buying any.

Here comes the million dollar question; Don’t wines that cost more taste better? To my palate, the simple answer is no. The stop we made in Anderson Valley was a small vineyard and they don’t bottle enough to distribute in stores. I preferred their forty dollar bottle over one we tasted costing twice the price.

We’ve found that we like tasting in lesser known areas and growers. Sometimes you get swill, and then at least you know what you don’t like. Other times you find something that will make your socks roll up and down. and it’s a bargain. After all, that’s what you really want, value for your money.

Tomorrow, we’ll wait for morning rush to subside and head down to Paso Robles. That’s a place we’ve had great success in restocking our empty wine rack. Over dinner, I tried to convince Anne that we could take the 101 across the Golden Gate Bridge for a photo-op, then through downtown San Francisco and try to recreate scenes from the movie Bullet. Can you imagine the thrill of launching Fritz and The Ritz five feet into the air? She just rolled her eyes.

jw

Mendocino – California

Mendocino is probably our favorite town on the northern California Coast. I’m not sure why, because it doesn’t have fancy architecture we found in Eureka. Instead it’s loaded with white cottages and buildings with simple clapboard siding. It has more of a New England feel, which is why so many films and TV shows (Murder She Wrote) were shot here.

Mendocino From Across the Bay
Mendocino is probably the most New England town west of the Mississippi.

The town is on a coastal headlands above the Pacific. There isn’t a safe harbor so the local fishing fleet is in nearby Fort Bragg. There aren’t any wood mills or other heavy industry. The town seems more of an art  community. There are several galleries showing really nice local art, and the streets abound with posters for music and art gatherings.

Mendocino Volenteer Fire Department
What photographer in his right mind would pass up a red door on a white building?

Mendocino and the surrounding countryside offer plenty of inspiration. You can climb down the cliffs to the beaches on either side of the town and swim in the caves and grotto’s sculpted by the ocean. If you’re not into aquatics, you can just make space among the driftwood and listen to the waves breaking on the rocks while enjoying a bottle of Cabernet.

Church Back
A local church from the alley.

I could easily live here . . . but I’d need to pick better Power Ball numbers. As you can imagine, living in paradise isn’t cheap. Land sells for a premium and most of the buildings have historical significance. If you were able to find a place in town, there is an extra problem. As you walk through town, you’ll notice these odd-shaped towers. In Alaska, they could be bear proof food storage, but here, they supply your water pressure. Even in paradise, you gotta flush.

Garden Bench
A thoughtful gardener has provided a place to stop and smell the flowers.

Tomorrow we move on to Calistoga, located at the head of Napa Valley. It’s only three hours from here, but we want to get an early start. There’s wine to taste, and this is serious business.

jw