Friday, February 5, 2016

A SoCal Sojourn

I have never fancied myself a weekend warrior. I have always been more of the quit my job, pack my life in the back of a small car, and hit the road for an indeterminate amount of time kind of traveler, but one can’t reasonably do that without some preparation. Facebook “On This Day” reminders teased me about my prior adventures, stirring up a wanderlust froth that I could no longer ignore.
Rora and I packed up the car and hit the road for a weekend trip through SoCal.  We left first thing in the morning, freely flying down the freeway past throngs of commuters jostling in traffic driving in the opposite direction.  There are few feelings that elicit such a sadistic pleasure as heading off onto vacation and looking across the concrete barrier at the stressed out faces stuck in an endless line of cars, all with the goal of making it to their cramped offices.
        As we shed the suburbs and headed into the farmland south of San Jose, the rolling hills greeted us with an endless expanse of green, a display of gratitude for all the rain that El Niño had drenched us with over the prior weeks. We had a short ride to our first stop at Pinnacles National Park and we were there before much of note happened.
        We had decided to stop at Pinnacles as a practice hike for the much more difficult hikes we will be doing in 6 weeks in Hawaii. We pulled into the park and stopped by the visitor center to check in and grab a map.  We decided to climb the high peaks trail and then wrap around the peaks through the valley on our way back.  This loop would be a 9-mile hike with around 1,600 feet of elevation gain, significantly less elevation than we will be facing in Hawaii, but I had little desire to climb the same trail twice simply to accomplish comparable elevation gain.
        The short drive into the park was fairly unremarkable as national parks go, following a shallow creek to the base of the peaks. We pulled up to the trailhead and got our stuff ready for the hike. An older couple came in an SUV, jumped out, and hit the trail just as we were starting. They were only a little ways ahead of us and when we got to where the trail split, they headed down the flat portion to the left, leaving us to climb the high peaks trail alone. The beginning of the trail strolled gently alongside the same creek that we followed on our drive to the trailhead.  

        Without warning the trail turned a corner and we abruptly began our climb. It seemed unfair for the trail to start so easy and then spring a nearly vertical section on us. I quickly found I was more out of shape then I had assumed as my legs cramped up within a mile and I struggled to pull myself up the steep edifice. If this is a sign of anything it is that I really need to work out more, or at least sit on my ass less than 14 hours day. The only good part about a steep ascent is that you find yourself near the top fairly quickly.

I don’t know what it is about expansive views that so captivates the soul, but the view laid out below us at the top was breathtaking, although my breath had left me somewhere around mile two, so that metaphor may be better suited for a less strenuous endeavor. The green hills that we had driven by on the way to the park now surrounded us, their grassy veneer stretching out to the horizon. The trail at the top headed along a ridge lined with old trees and bramble that obscured the view for a time until finally releasing us into an ancient battle field of rocks, thrust out of place by the slow power of the earth. Giant boulders stoically balanced on pillars of stone, overlooking the world below them, waiting for the day they will tumble to the ground with the destructive results that such an event would inevitably wreak.

We hung out amongst the boulders as much an attempt to rest our legs and lungs as to take in the magnificent sites around us. An old man sat perched on the top of one of the boulders, mediating or possibly just napping while sitting up, which seemed like a tempting idea, but we still had seven miles to conquer so we pressed on down into the west side of the park.
The hike down was far more pleasant, and I could finally take in the view without my legs attempting to separate from my body and run back to the car without me. The western side of the mountain was filled with more of the rock structures, the massive formations rising up along the side of the trail, making one feel small and insignificant, as giant natural objects are known to do.
Without too much trouble, aside from my sidestepping of the trail and nearly tumbling to my demise, we made it back into the valley and began our long hike back to the car. The trail was as most trails are- long, flanked with trees, and covered in bobcat poop, or at least what I surmised was bob cat poop from my extensive training as a scatologist. Eventually the trail splits giving one the option to head into a cave or… actually, I don’t even remember what the other option is because who wouldn’t take the cave route?
We headed down a short, suspiciously under maintained trail. After scrambling over and under a series of boulders we came to a gate. The gate was open, although the sign on the gate seemed ominous at best. The trail into the cave followed along a creek and presented us with only one option- walk through the creek into the pitch-black darkness of the cave. We attempted to scramble along the walls to save ourselves from having to get wet, but after what can only be described as a foolishly bold endeavor, we decided the only way we would make it through the cave was to ford the creek.
See, the gate is wide open! 
To be fair, right now you are probably imaging a significant amount of water, or cold discomfort for your narrator and Miss Rora. In reality the water never was more than knee deep and, albeit chilly, not uncomfortably cold. After making our way to through another rock obstacle course we found ourselves at an apparent dead end. Behind us was the soaking path we had just endured and ahead of us was, well, seemingly nothing.

We searched around for a couple minutes, exploring some options before Rora discovered a small opening in the rocks that had an arrow on it. It was evident when they said cave trail they were not joking. So we went down into a dark wet hole hoping that we were headed in the correct direction. The sound of rushing water greeted us in the blackness, and we considered turning around, but I can’t do anything without putting my life unnecessarily in peril and the hike thus far had presented few options for danger, so I pushed on. Rora, who apparently trusts me more than she probably should, followed me into the abyss and soon we found ourselves in a cave with no sign of light in either direction.
The darkness taking hold of Rora.
        The rushing water grew louder and louder, echoing off the wall and convincing me that a torrent of water was destined to an appearance at any moment. After a time, I could finally make out light coming from lower in the cave and we were able to crawl deeper. A little further and we were presented with a beautiful sight. Pouring out from a crack in the rock was an underground waterfall. The slightest bit of light that made it into the cave illuminated the waterfall as if it were designed that way. We stayed for only a moment as we were now not only tired and sweaty, but wet and dirtied with the guano and cave debris we had just clambered through.
Can one take a worse picture of an underground waterfall? Why yes, because this is the best I had!
At this point we had given up trying to stay dry and just walked up the creek to the exit gate, which was locked. Now, I’m not entirely sure how this all came to be- if the rangers had decided to lock both gates while we were inside, or if they thought to themselves that no one would be foolish enough to climb into a cave filled with water. But here we were, presented with a locked gate and little likelihood we would be turning around and climbing back through the cave.
Rora didn’t miss a beat, climbing the fence before I had even realized what happened. I followed suit and we found ourselves standing in a creek without any apparent trail around. I pulled out the map, which informed us mercifully that if we followed the creek, eventually our trail would cross through it.
The rest of the hike was uneventful but took what seemed like hours to conclude. When we finally reached the car, all the other hikers were gone. We jumped in the car and headed south, to our next destination, dinner and sleep.
Route 25, which takes you to the east side of Pinnacles, is a narrow winding road that was nearly empty. In the entire 90-minute drive from the park till we met back up with 101, we saw five other cars. What we did see, and what I hope to one day understand, is thousands of bottles scattered across the farmland near Bitterwater. Seriously, if you ever find yourself on this route, which judging by how alone we were is unlikely, look for the bottles. I promise you they are there, thousands of them, liberally dispersed across miles and miles of pastures.
The rest of the drive went by without anything of note, either because I was exhausted or because nothing of particular note exists along the route. Either way we found ourselves pulling into Santa Maria just after the sun had disappeared into the ocean. We pulled up to our hotel and quickly showered and got presentable enough to go out for dinner.
Rora had a craving for sushi so we headed to a hole in the wall sushi joint down the street. It was filled with a smattering of locals, the atmosphere much more local pub than sushi restaurant. A group of firefighters sat in the middle of the room scarfing down platefuls of food. The bar was filled with a vocal group of guys who you’d be far more likely to find at a sports bar than using chopsticks.
We sat at a table next to the window and waited for our waitress. She asked if we were there for the all-you-can-eat menu. Now, this is a concept I have never encountered outside of a buffet, but here we were, worn out and famished from our day and we are presented with the idea of unlimited sushi! Without too much thought we agreed we would take the “All You Can Eat Sushi Challenge,” which was not a real thing, but when one reads the words “All You Can Eat” one is instantly aware you are now registered in an eating completion.
We ordered three rolls and some sashimi. The rolls took somewhere in the ballpark of an eternity to appear in front of us, but when they finally did we spent little time cleaning the plate, ordering new dishes while our mouths were still full. Fully in the game, we continued eating as if we were being timed, which again, for emphasis, we were not. The next set of food came down and disappeared from the plate before the waitress had even set the plate down. But now we found ourselves in eater’s purgatory- without anything to consume, our stomachs started to work on the food we had just shoveled in. By the time the next two rolls appeared we were both stuffed.
Now, I’m not one to waste food, but I’m also not one to torture myself simply to finish off a plate. However the menu explicitly said, “order responsibly, you will be charged for any uneaten food,” making this not a decision about wasting food, but about wasting money. We paced ourselves, trying desperately to eat the rolls, hoping that our stomachs would make some room for two more rolls. It became evident we were going to have to suffer for our eager ordering. We tenderly worked our way through the rolls before eventually giving in with only a couple pieces left. We assumed the restaurant wouldn’t be terribly overzealous in upholding their policy and we were correct. We paid and waddled out to the car, the steering wheel digging into my stomach for the drive back.
We slithered into our hotel room and passed out, eager to sleep and get an early start on the next day.

Off to Solvang
I awoke early the next morning refreshed and ready to head out to the next adventure, but Rora was still asleep so I took care of some of next week’s business and patiently sipped on my tea. I decided to turn on the TV, mainly for the nostalgia of it. I haven’t had cable in a couple years or in fact for most of my adult life. I flipped through the 39 channels to discover that a third of them were talking heads getting all worked up about a variety of issues from the financial markets to what moronic thing one of the presidential candidates had done. Did you know Chris Christie is running for president? Because I honestly did not. See, you can learn things from cable news!
Eventually, I settled to flipping between two different reality shows about people living in bum fuck Alaska. Admittedly, the producers were trying their hardest to make drama out of some homesteaders building a corral (Spoiler: the one guy use to have to build corrals with his angry dad and thus hates corrals and horses in general) but both shows fell flat on providing anything resembling entertainment. Luckily, Rora was up and ready quickly and we were able to hit the road earlier than I had anticipated.
        We were headed to Solvang, just a short half hour trip through more rolling farmland, although the large pastures now gave way to vineyards that adorned all the hills. Few agricultural endeavors produce such stunning scenery as the neatly laid out rows of vineyards. Solvang is a small town founded in 1911 by a group of Danes who traveled to California to establish a Danish Colony and today sports many buildings with Danish inspired architecture as well as shops and restaurants that offer the wares and tastes of Denmark.
        The town was just waking as we pulled in, the streets still nearly empty as we parked and walked to get breakfast. It was nice to see that even the newer buildings had gotten into the Danish spirit, even if some of their attempts were somewhat half-assed. We took a seat next to the window at a pancake house that promised Danish-style sausage and pancakes. The place had a decent balance between being touristy and yet still functional for the locals. The menu had some gimmicky Danish cuisine but was mostly filled with the normal offerings of a dinor, at a very inviting price.
        We, of course, ordered the Danish offerings, as one ought to do when they will be spending half a day in a city so self-obsessed with their Danish heritage. The pancakes were large and very flat, more crepe than pancake, but it was delicious and more importantly stuffed with a generous amount of Danish sausage.
        After breakfast we walked around town where almost no one was out and about. Most of the shops were just opening up as we walked down the street. For no particular reason we continued past downtown and towards the edge of town. A large Spanish-style building stuck out behind some trees and we decided to head over and check it out. It turned out to be Mission Santa Inés, one of California’s 21 Missions established by the Franciscans along the Pacific Coast, and we decided to indulge in the self-guided tour of the property. The mission was founded in 1804, although the tour made it clear that the building had had its fair share of destruction since then, with much of the current structure being rebuilt in the 19th century.

The tour was incredibly informative, and I particularly appreciated the honesty the tour gave as to why the Missions were created and how much credit they gave to the native populations. Two facts that I remember specifically is the native Chumash tribe had built a dam that was used to supply water to the Mission and that they also actively excavated and used asphalt as a construction material. Also, unrelated to native populations, the vestments of the clergy were made by nuns out of dresses that were donated by rich ladies.

The tour concludes in the main worship area, a massive room adorned with beautiful artwork. We spent a good deal of time looking around the space before moving out into the gardens. The gardens are much smaller than they originally were now that the mission doesn’t have to farm all its own food. But they are well maintained and include a small cemetery. It was in the cemetery where we had a strange revelation. Is restoration really a good thing? The Mission has gone through extensive restoration work in the last couple decades that seems, in my opinion, to be covering up the history of the place. But it’s theirs to restore and overall the entire property was an interesting find.

We headed back downtown through a small gate at the rear of the property. We really had no business in Solvang except to see the town itself so we just wandered around aimlessly checking out all the town had to offer, which is to say a slew of shops that sell tacky shirts and hats that say things like, “I’m their leader, which way did they go?” They also had a Japanese restaurant and so many ice cream vendors one has to question how they all manage to stay in business. Needless to say, but I’m going to say it anyways, the town quickly lost its mystique and I found myself eagerly wanting to leave. Rora wanted to walk around a tad longer and thankfully found a shop where I could entertain myself by buying varieties of cheese and tea. Not that those have anything to do with Denmark, but considering the other options, I found the store pleasant.
        After cheese shopping Rora finally also had had enough of the town and we hustled back to the car and left fake Denmark behind us. On our way into Solvang that morning we had passed a farm that offered an interesting opportunity to feed their livestock so we headed to there to see what it was all about. It was only a short drive past perfectly manicured pastures with horses that probably cost more than a nice car. But soon we shed the elegance of the estates and found ourselves at the farm.
        We once again were one of only a couple cars in the parking lot, an advantage to traveling to places midweek in January. The girl inside gave us a dustpan full of food and sent us out to the animals. We walked down a short hallway and popped up right along a fence, the creatures peering at us with their giant eyes, the largest of any land animal. In front of us stood a pride of 9-foot tall ostriches. I feel like I must have seen ostriches before but I have no recollection of it, and I surely don’t think I would forget this. Their feet look more like a dinosaur foot than any bird foot you’ve ever seen. We decided to skip the large birds for the gentler and more adorable baby ostriches and emus.
Dinosaur feet!
        If we want to continue on the dinosaur tangent you have to see an emu’s head; it couldn’t look more like a dinosaur, and the sound they make is like a rumbling growl. Now, one argument can be made that the depictions of dinosaurs I have encountered in life are based off these birds. Still, no one should be afraid of spiders taking over the world- it’s clearly these giant feathery monstrosities that will one day be hunting us for sport.
        I had to experience the ferocity of the big ostriches so I saved some food to take back to them. I will tell you, this is a terrifying experience, a mosh pit of sock puppets aggressively attacking the dustpan in my hand. They finished off the rest of the food in no time. Rora and I hung out for a little longer, taking pictures and listening to the ridiculous growling noises of the emus. I never did figure out why there is an ostrich farm in the middle of California; I have to imagine that it’s more elaborate than a giant feeding safari.

        After a while a large group of children showed up and ruined the tranquility of the place so we headed back to the car and off to our lodgings for the evening.
Off To Rome
        Due to exquisite planning by yours truly, our short trip to our lodgings was in the direction home, slightly cutting into the next day’s drive. The drive went by quickly as we retraced our steps across the interminable farmland to the three or four, certainly no more than five, horse town of Los Alamos.
        A flowing stream of water coursing down the town’s main street greeted us as we pulled up to our destination. Just down the street a road crew had the pavement opened up and were pumping water out. This certainly explained the flooding. After getting our things arranged we headed inside.
        We were staying at the Victorian Mansion Bed & Breakfast, a striking divergence from the places I usually find to lay my head on the road. Behind the mansion laid the damaged remains of an old yacht, a striking contrast to the elegant building that stood in front of us.
        As we approached the mansion a peppy young girl popped out from a door, evidently having spotted us coming up the driveway. She started explaining the boat behind us- apparently it is going to be turned into a suite at the B&B, but barely got into her explanation when she abruptly realized she had never introduced herself and awkwardly abandoned her story for a proper introduction. She was visibly overwrought, which she quickly explained was because the B&B was currently without water. I reassured her that the men seemed to be finishing.
        She took us inside and we dropped our bags off at our room before she gave us a tour. We started upstairs where a big room was draped in dark wood with swaying lanterns hanging from the rafters and above the fireplace a giant mural depicted an epic sea battle. Our host informed us the canon that made up the base of a coffee table was an authentic 750lb relic.
        The room across the hall was a whole different world. Off to Paris we went. The faux windows looked out over the city of lights. A green spiral staircase led up to a loft where the bed was. French doors opened out to a small patio.
       It’s probably evident by now that The Victorian Mansion isn’t a standard bed and breakfast. The mansion contains six themed rooms, each with hand painted murals and an assortment of unique adornments in each suite to solidify the immersive theme. The boat outside is planned to be the 7th, the Castaway Suite.
       We headed downstairs to see two more rooms. One was decked out in a wilderness theme, each wall covered in a mural depicting a different season, with a stained glass window that apparently has a secret message than can only be seen in moonlight. This was the Gypsy Suite and the bed was contained in a massive wagon. The other was a 50’s theme, with a projection screen set up so you could lay in the Cadillac bed and watch movies.
       Our room was on the second floor along with a room we were unable to see as it was occupied by a couple who had checked in earlier in the day. The missing room is an Egyptian theme, and according to our host it is the most popular room in the mansion. Each room had a door that represented the world you were about to enter. It gave the entire building a mystical feeling, like each door world magically transport you to another place and time, and the attention to detail within the rooms continued in that spirit when you entered.
       I guess I should mention that Rora has an unhealthy obsession with Rome. I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone with such an extensive knowledge of Roman facts, especially when it comes to some guy named Julius Caesar. So we had chosen to stay in the last room,the Roman Suite. Murals on the wall depicted sights of ancient Rome, columns stuck out of the wall giving the impression we were standing in a temple. The bathroom was hidden behind a bookcase, and the bed was a hand carved roman chariot. Roman music played on the stereo system, completing the ambiance.

       In an effort to get the most time out of our suite and to compliment the attention to detail by the artists who created the room, we brought our own food for a Roman-inspired meal. We hadn’t eaten since breakfast, so we decided to have an early dinner. We pulled out a selection of cheeses, bread, and olives, and devoured everything in a matter of moments, washing it all down with a bottle of wine. We explored the room some more, attempting to spot Nero merrily playing his fiddle in the mural of Rome burning. We failed in this task, which after a few other thorough examinations was clearly the fault of the painter, not myself.


       The water was still off so we decided to head out and explore the town. It was just before sunset as we walked around town. Everything was closed so we just walked, looking in the windows. Surprisingly this small town, which is fairly isolated as things go in California with the nearest neighboring communities being a dozen or more miles away, seemed to have a thriving main street. The street contained what seemed an excessive amount of wine shops, although considering this is a town of under 2,000 residents, I’d argue that one wine shop would be sufficient. The other shops were small boutique selling antiques or local artwork.  
       It was clear from the shops that the town experiences a decent amount of high end tourism, but only the Victorian Mansion, with its 6 rooms, and one other well-groomed motel with 20 rooms, serviced the town’s accommodation needs. I find it hard to believe that a max of 50 or so guests could sustain such a collection of boutique shops. Obviously I was missing something, but to be fair it was midweek in the winter, not exactly the high season for tourism in wine country.
       We continued to the edge of town, which is to say about three blocks, and turned around. It took all of five minutes to find the opposite terminus of the business district, where a dusty restaurant stood as the last outpost of artificial light throughout the valley. The restaurant served the interesting combination of dinor cuisine, burgers, shakes, fries, and Mexican food. I found this fascinating but didn’t have any stomach left for a bite. The restaurant also sported a set of signs stating “Home of World Champion Steer Wrestler Luke Branquinho,” although it didn’t specify if they meant the town of Los Alamos or the restaurant itself; I suppose it could always be both.
       Back at the mansion we decided to spend some time outside, grabbing more wine from our room and heading out to the front porch where we sat and talked as the last bit of sunlight disappeared behind the mountains. As we finished our wine, two massive winged creatures flew by the side of the porch. My gut instinct, being forever off target, was that they were large bats, even though I knew full well that such sized bats would not be found in Southern California. We decided to see where the creatures had gone. Leaving the safety of the porch we ventured towards the back of the mansion. There in a giant, gnarled old tree sat two magnificent barn owls, their pure white bodied betraying them in the darkness.
       The owls found us interesting enough to continue screeching at us as we tried to get a closer look, but eventually they grew tired of this and flew off into the darkness. With the owls retreat the stars took front stage, shining bright in the dark sky free from the light pollution of any large cities.
       We decided to retreat back to our suite. When we walked in, we could hear water running in one of the other suites. Excitedly, we hurried upstairs and discovered the water was back on for us as well. We instantly started filling the marble Japanese soaking tub in the corner of the room. It took at least 15 minutes, which seems in hindsight like a short period of time, but seemed like it lasted somewhere approaching an epoch while we stood at the edge, eagerly awaiting our relaxing soak.


       We stepped into the tub and then immediately back out, as the water was near boiling. It took an additional few minutes of mixing in cold water to get the temperature to something less than skin melting, although these minutes were solely the fault of yours truly. Finally, with a couple additional bottles of wine and what remained of our stocks of food, we sunk into the water, looking out the window into an adjacent tree and waiting for our owl friends to return.
       I can’t say with any certainty that the owls did not make an appearance for everything after the first bottle of wine has forever vacated the reachable portions of my memory. At some point I must have dried off and stumbled across the room into my chariot bed, although I am just working backwards from the evidence that when I awoke at half past five with a dry mouth and a pounding headache, I was in bed. I grabbed a remaining chunk of bread and washed it down with a surfeit of water.
       The next day we awoke fairly early. I personally don’t sleep that much on the road, my mind too interested in exploring the new lands. This is a striking difference from my at-home self, who would be happy to stay in bed up to 20 hours a day. The mansion serves breakfast to the rooms at whatever time you designate. We had foolishly anticipated sleeping in, so we were forced to eat the remains of bread and cheese scattered around the room until breakfast arrived.
       I’m convinced you’d find little value out of me describing how we packed our stuff and got ready to head back home, so I will spare you.
       After breakfast we got in the car and began the drive home. We had just one stop planned for the day, and it was only a half hour up the road. We arrived in Pismo right as the day was beginning to warm up, and traveled down route 1 to the Pismo Butterfly Groves. We have both visited this place a few times, but somehow each time it is still captivating. Thousands of butterflies hung off the eucalyptus trees they love so much. It was already very warm and the butterflies were celebrating by flying around, which seems like a given, as butterflies are fairly well known for flying, but each time I have been here it has been much cooler and the majority of them clung to the trees, unwilling to venture into the frigid air.
       A group of school kids arrived and we took that as our sign to head off. We hit the highway with the goal of making the three hour drive go by as fast as possible; in just two days we managed to fit in a cornucopia of activities, and now we were exhausted from our fun. The drive home went by without incident, just a couple dozen highway patrol men trying to make the state some money and an equal number of hawks hanging on power lines looking for their next meal.

Rora's Trip Breakdown

  1. My theory on the expanse of bottles in the pastures was a rodeo or concert or some other large gathering that was never cleaned up after. Andy surmised that drunken farmers had tossed their empties while they were mowing the fields. What do you think?
  2. Beware all-you-can-eat anythings. I’m overly frugal and always need to feel like I got my money’s worth. There is nothing more disgusting than masticating a piece of mediocre sushi for three minutes because you’re too full to swallow it.
  3. Because America is a melting pot country with a pretty mixed cultural heritage, there are a lot of small towns with foreign roots. There are also towns that pretend to have foreign roots but are just a tourist trap. I have been to both. Solvang is the former and actually has some older, authentic buildings to prove it, but with all of the modern shops and boutiques, it almost felt more touristy than the latter (I’m looking at you, Leavenworth).
  4. If you like birds, I would highly recommend checking out the Mission Santa Inés. In the garden there, I saw at least two species I had never seen before. I definitely spent more time looking at them than I did at the church, much to Andy’s chagrin.
    Cedar waxwing

    Red-breasted sapsucker
  5. Speaking of birds, they turned up in the most unexpected places on this trip. I would recommend keeping binoculars in your car if you have a pair. I have stupidly never had mine with me when I needed them most. Not only did I miss seeing the owls up close, but the stars were perfect for gazing on this trip.
  1. Like I mentioned before, I am extremely frugal, so the idea of spending nearly $300 on a hotel room was painful to say the least. In this case though, it was completely worth it. The quaintness of the B&B combined with the atmosphere of the room was a great experience, and that bathtub was the bomb.

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