Lunch on the Front Porch

It’s raining this morning, a steady gentle shower that’s driven the outside temperature down to 73°. That’s the lowest reading I’ve seen on our outside thermometer all month. The rain postponed our morning walk until it let up. We made it through most of our route before Queen Anne felt a couple of drops and began screeching, “I’m melting.” By the time we made it back to the house, the point on her black hat flopped over into her face. I’m afraid that she looked like a bit of a cartoon.

It’s been a decent monsoon season so far. We’re getting rain every other day. There’s enough to fill Lake What-A-Muck-A until the waters lap onto the pavers out back. The ground is damp, the saguaros have plumped again and some of the cacti have begun to bloom for the second time.

There’s enough moisture coming up from Mexico that the thunderheads form over the plateau behind the Weaver Range each afternoon. We watch them as they boil in slow motion until they anvil out and spread in their direction of travel. As the hot air rises down here on the desert basin, it acts like a vacuum, sucking the thunderstorms off of the mountain. Here at the house, with our views to the horizon, we watch as the lightning and rain cells pass to the north and south of us. But sometimes, we’re in the path. It’s like playing dodgeball while standing still.

Thunderhead Over the Weaver Range
Each afternoon, thunderheads form above the plateau behind the Weaver Range.

First, come the outflow winds which can gust over 60 mph. That’s why we keep the tree out front trimmed up, so the wind can blow through the top canopy instead of breaking off limbs or blowing the tree over. In the neighborhood, we’ve had nearly a half-dozen century agaves bloom, with a 20-30 foot phallic center shoot. The Christmas tree like stalk gives the wind enough leverage to rip the roots of the four-foot blue agaves right out of the ground.

Skull Valley Monsoon
Monsoon clouds move down from the Bradshaw Range in Skull Valley.

Following the wind is rain. Sometimes it’s only a drop or two that leave spots on your dust-covered car. Other times it’s a gully washer and the streets fill like rivers. Out on the desert floor, the washes run with fast-flowing muddy red water; those are the flash floods that are dangerous even if your miles downstream. Every once in a great while, Mexico sends up enough moisture that you get a long-lasting gentle rain, like today. It’s slow enough that the ground has time to absorb it.

Mesquite Pods
Ripe pods on a mesquite tree will be dispersed in the winds of a monsoon storm.

Conveniently, the rains usually arrive in time for sunset cocktails, and we sit out on one of the covered porches while enjoying a glass of wine. It’s a popular summer past time in Arizona. The temperature drops 10 to 20 degrees below the century mark. The lightning show is always spectacular and can last for hours. With a stiff breeze and the moisture; it’s pleasant outside, besides you have to hold down the furniture somehow.

Mesquite and Monsoon
A mesquite grove is about to get drenched in an afternoon thunderstorm.

It ends abruptly. Shortly after the rain stops, the sweltering black top evaporates the last of the street’s water like hot sauna rocks. The wind dies and the humidity closes in. When it becomes intolerable, you retreat back into the air conditioning, if the power’s still on. There’s time for a TV show before watching the weather. It’s important to find out how the rest of the valley fared before calling it a night.

Till then … 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

Willamette Valley – Oregon

I want a job where my sole responsibility is visiting wineries and tasting the varietals they offer. I think I’d be good at it, and I promise I wouldn’t spit anything out. Who am I kidding? Like any job, it would be a drag after a while, but it would be fun until my liver gave out.

That’s how Queen Anne and I spent the afternoon, and ‘they learned us’ a thing or two about Oregon wines. Most of the wineries in the state are in the Willamette Valley, a broad river valley that stretches from Eugene to Portland. The west flank has a low coastal range of mountains and the Cascades separate the valley from the high deserts to the east.

View From Erath Vinyards
The four tasting rooms we visited were an area known as the Dundee Hills. Although we stuck to four, we could have easily worked the area for a week.

What grows well here is the Pinot Noir grape, because of the weather and the soils. When you visit a tasting room, you may sample one of these or one of those, but a half-dozen Pinots. Two of the four places we visited had two bottles of the same wine, but only the vine location or the year set them apart. Although they had the same general taste, their personalities were distinct. Choosing which to buy was a matter of personal preference, both were excellent bottles of wine.

Willamette Farm House
There are gobs of photogenic things to shoot in the Willamette Valley. In this case it was an abandoned farm-house along the back-road.

Another fun thing about visiting tasting rooms is the presentations. The large vintners have lavish gardens and a showroom full of ancillary things for sale. The smaller growers may only have a room at the back of the farm-house. Production size is not a good indicator of the quality. The better known labels do offer bottles not available in . . . say, Costco. They have labels marked ‘Reserve’ or ‘Private Reserve’ which are low volume hand crafted wines. Our experience has been that these bottles are substantially better than what you would buy off the shelf.

Pine Grove
Only in New Zealand have I seen crop forests planted as dense as here. It’s so dark inside the grove, I wouldn’t be able to shoot without a tripod.

So much for the fun part . . . back to work. Tomorrow we will be on the move again. This time to Grant’s Pass in southern Oregon. We’re only going to stop for a night and the next day we will head to the coast and Eureka, California. Anne and I never actually visited the town, although we stayed nearby. We’re excited to check it out.

jw

Silverton – Oregon

Capital Theater
Sunday evening, we went to Yakima’s old town to find a place for dinner. As we sat at our table, I noticed this theater across the street and went outside to shoot it and particularly, the restored painted sign on its side. Since it was cloudy out, the shot came out OK, but bland. When we finished dinner, the sun dropped below the cloud’s edge and lit the place up, so I decided to re-shoot the scene. However this time there was a group of young women doing a photo shoot of their own, so I included them into my composition.

After a wonderful day of sampling Washington wines yesterday, we continued on our journey south this morning. Our route took us down the east side of the Cascades till we reached the Columbia River. After crossing the bridge into Oregon, we drove through the ever windy Columbia Gorge, where even on a Monday, there were plenty of wind surfers skimming the white-capped river. Then, just short of Portland we turned south through the Willamette Valley.

Hydro-Electrical Dam on the Columbia River.
There are several dams along the Columbia River that produce gobs of electricity. Although they cause their fair share of ecological problems, it was the power these dams generated that made it possible to produce aluminum on an industrial scale. Aircraft industry used that aluminum to build the planes that helped the allies win WWII.

We’ve stopped in Silverton, a place we’ve visited before more than a fifteen years ago. It’s a couple of miles north of the 45th Parallel; the halfway line between the north pole and the equator. When we were last here, Silverton’s downtown was a cluster of empty historic buildings waiting for re-purposing. Now, they’re filled with boutiques, restaurants, and antique shops. It was fun to walk the couple of blocks trying to find someplace for dinner, but it was Monday, and most of the businesses were closed.

Downtown Silverton
An example of the carefully restored buildings in Silverton.

We chose Silverton because it’s a convenient base for exploring the vineyards of the Willamette Valley, Oregon’s wine country. It’s going to be a rough day tomorrow, because we have to sit down and whittle the list of stops down to six. That seems a good number for us to taste without getting our taste buds confused.

Sllverton Mural
A new mural is being painted on a blank wall of a Silverton Building.

After we leave here on Wednesday, we’ll head toward south Oregon then make our way over to the Pacific Coast. We want to spend some time along the coast before we go through the Sonoma/Napa Valleys. As much as we’d like to add some of those bottles to our collection, they may be out of our budget. There’s no harm in finding out, is there?

jw