Wednesday, July 2, 2014

June 30-July 2: Salinas and Monterey

We slept late. We took our time getting ready for travel. We walked the pups. Yes; we lollygagged.

Evolving to a travel style that reduces the number of miles per day has definite benefits. Since we only had about 180 miles to log, Monday was an easy travel day.

Leaving Flying Flags, we cut through beautiful downtown Buellton (it’s only a couple of blocks) and hopped on US-101 heading north. We were traveling familiar territory, since we’ve been visiting this area since the late-1970s. It did feel strange to be headed north, as our past travels have generally had us coming to this area from San Francisco or thereabouts.

After some rolling hills, we cruised past Santa Maria, Nipomo (we’ll get to Jocko’s for steak next time!), and Arroyo Grande before catching another glimpse of the Pacific at Pismo Beach. From there, the highway turns back inland, and we were soon passing the little college town of San Luis Obispo and on the lookout for the vineyards that would tell us we were closing in on Paso Robles.

Continuing north and inland, we soon leveled out in the southern end of the Salinas Valley, “The Salad Bowl of the World”. Vines were still visible at times, but this area is really known for veggies. As we passed the brown NPS signs, I made a mental note to research Pinnacles National Park (“America’s Newest National Park”!) for a future stop (Spring or Fall appears best). Before we knew it, we were entering Salinas, our “home” for the next few days. We hopped off the 101 on the south end of town and were soon parked at the local Elks Lodge, overlooking the municipal golf course.

This is the third or fourth time we’ve stopped at this Lodge, and we were surprised – and pleased – to see signs of life! The Lounge was open in the afternoons and the hall was rented out for what looked to be a wedding. Excellent! We were disappointed with ourselves that we were so wrapped up in our own “stuff” that we didn’t get over for a libation, but we’ll get ‘em next time!

We didn’t actually get much done on this stop. I think we both needed a little time to decompress after the whirlwind of activities and emotions surrounding our stay in Lompoc. A little “chill out time” was definitely in order.

And, speaking of chill, the weather certainly cooperated, with lots of low clouds and fog and temperatures barely breaking the mid-60s. Like many of California’s valleys, the Salinas Valley is cooler at the north because the river flows from the south and ends near Monterey. Especially in the summer, warm air rising in the central and southern parts of the valley pulls cooler air into the valley from the Pacific like a funnel. The area around Monterey and Salinas tends to be stuck under low, thick clouds, even if it’s completely sunny 5-10 miles further inland. For those of us escaping the Arizona heat, this was quite welcome.

When we stopped here in the fall of 2012, I’d wanted to make a day trip over to Monterey, but we didn’t get around to it. This time, we actually did. It’s a short drive out CA-68 from Salinas, past Laguna Seca (motorsports and golf), and into Monterey. It was a ”gray day”, as they often are this time of year, but there were still a few tourists out and about, snapping photos.

Kayaker getting ready to launch from the public beach in Monterey

Remembering those lost...

Geri wants a water feature like this back in AZ. I'm sure the HOA will have no problem with that!

Cannery Row wasn't actually called that until after the Steinbeck novel...

There were lots of interesting flowers...

...and "grasses" growing along the beaches and pedestrian walkways.

We walked down Cannery Row, poked around in some shops, and eventually made our way to their version of “Fisherman’s Wharf” (much more true to its name than the one in San Francisco). Our destination was lunch at LouLou’s Griddle in the Middle, showing our Food Network tendencies (“As seen on Triple-D”!). We waited a minute for a table outside, only to be told they could only serve beer and wine inside. OK, we waited again for a few minutes for a table to clear.

Lunch was decent, although nothing spectacular. If we’d made a special trip just for lunch, I would have been disappointed. Since we were in Monterey anyway, it was fine. We shared a shrimp appetizer (as Akiko Katayama would say, “too oily”), Geri had Crab Cakes (“Too much salad; not enough crab”), and I had Abalone Sliders with Sweet Potato Fries (“Put that on the ‘done’ list”). Nothing was bad, just not great. Like most of the places we’ve ever tried because we saw them on TV.

Since we had some time to kill after lunch, I let Google be our guide, and it led us to a little wine shop/tasting bar a few blocks away. We were the only ones in there, so we ended up chatting with the clerk while tasting and selecting a few if-you-buy-something-from-the-shop-the-tasting-is-free bottles to take back to the coach. All in all, it was a pretty good day.

Memorializing Cannery Row characters
Now, many people know that Salinas is the birthplace of author John Steinbeck. Since I managed to get through my years of schooling without reading any of his “classics” (or at least without any lasting memory of reading them), this fact has never driven me to explore further. There are several sites that could be visited, including the National Steinbeck Center and John Steinbeck Library in Salinas and, of course, elements on Cannery Row in Monterey, but I chose to let sleeping dogs lie at this point. Someday, maybe I’ll feel the urge…

Back home, we finished our relaxing and did our preparation for tomorrow’s travel.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

June 27-29: It’s the law: You must wine...

Who are we to ignore the fact that we’re in Wine Country? Of course, for us, we can make almost anywhere we are into Wine Country.

Friday night, we almost made it to Jocko’s up in Nipomo (about 30 minutes away) for steaks, but logistics coordinating with other family members, not to mention a lack of reservations at a place known for wait times measured in hours, conspired against us. Fortunately, we’ll probably be passing this way in the Fall on our way back to Arizona, so that was only a minor disappointment.

Especially since we were only 3 minutes away from another of our favorite steak places, the Hitching Post in Buellton. We’ve been going to this place for decades; Kathy was the one who introduced us to the place back in the late 1970s. Back then, it was a quieter time. Since the restaurant was featured in the movie Sideways in 2004, crowds have been larger, noisier, and more “touristy”. Without reservations, we were able to secure a couple of spots at the bar after a short wait and were soon elbow deep in great steaks and a bottle of their renowned house Pinot Noir.

On Saturday, we headed back toward Lompoc to make a stop at Foley Estates Winery, one of Geri’s favorites. In “the old days”, we would have identified several wineries to visit, mapped out a route, and made a day trip of it. These days, we pick one, maybe two, and tend to settle in. In this case, we did the standard tasting at Foley and ended up buying a couple of glasses of what we liked best. We skulked out a spot at one of the outside tables and settled in. We invited other wine drinkers to join us and met some new people. We relaxed and enjoyed.

We made plans to meet Cherie on Sunday afternoon at the “Wine Ghetto” in Lompoc. This area, “behind the Home Depot”, is a small industrial park that’s been almost completely taken over by small wineries. Since Cherie is the “local expert”, we let her be our tour guide. She led us through four tasting rooms before closing time, all within walking distance of each other. What an awesome place for winos!

This was a wonderful way to wrap up our stay. We’re back on the road tomorrow…

Friday, June 27, 2014

June 26-27: Celebrating Kathy in Lompoc

As mentioned in a prior post, our first stop in this summer’s travels was quite bittersweet. Geri’s only sister, Kathy, passed away in late May after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s. Family and friends gathered in Lompoc from across the country at the end of June to celebrate her life and spirit.

The first order of business was a family get-together on Thursday night at a local restaurant. It was wonderful seeing everyone again or meeting a few for the first time, especially since, like many families, the geographic spread is wide. Folks traveled from other parts of California (Orange County and California City), Washington, Indiana, Ohio, and Kentucky. All four of Kathy’s children were there, as were all of her grandchildren, most of her great-grandchildren, and even her great-great-grandson.

On Friday, family and friends met at the Lompoc Cemetery for a nice service and placing of the ashes. It was simple, inclusive, and informal. Kathy would have approved.

After the graveside service, everyone adjourned to the local American Legion for visiting and remembering. Kathy was member of this legion post (Lompoc is an Air Force town, located in the shadow of Vandenberg AFB) and a past officer of the Ladies Auxiliary. Several people, us included, brought pictures of various vintages for everyone to share.

Some of us then spent a little time at the local wine bar where Debbie (Kathy's daughter) and Cherie (Debbie's daughter) both work part-time. We finished out the day at Kathy’s old house, where we had more food and conversation before heading back to our spot in Buellton, about 15 miles east of Lompoc.

Sadly for the family members gathered, they were also grieving for Ron, Kathy’s first husband, who passed away in Ohio in mid-June. We were able to express our condolences, as they were making plans to travel east in a few weeks for another celebration of life…

Thursday, June 26, 2014

June 25-26: Go West, Old Man

We’ve done this trip before, so it was an easy drive from Peoria to Buellton, CA. We finished up with the last minute activities around the house right on schedule around 12:30 PM, before the temperature hit 105°. We were soon tooling down the AZ Loop 101 highway and making that big right turn onto I-10 West for Los Angeles. It was a pretty uneventful drive in spite of the strong winds and high temperatures. We ran the generator the whole way to keep the air conditioning going, and I was watching the analog and digital gauges carefully, as this was our first long drive since the engine problems of last fall. Everything ran fine, although it did seem like tire and engine (oil and coolant) temperatures ran higher than usual. With outside ambient temperatures near 110°, this was probably within the “normal” range.

After a quick fuel stop in North Palm Springs, we reached our first night’s destination, the Morongo Casino. We’ve stayed here before, so we know our way to the RV parking area, which is well away from the I-10. It’s roughly half way to Buellton in Santa Barbara County, and makes a great stopping point on Day One of any trip this way, since we always leave midday.

We got a reasonably good night’s rest and were ready for travel early on Thursday morning. The only tricky part of this segment is looping around LA. No matter what, there’s always some kind of traffic to be patient about. The toughest part is that there aren’t any good places for a “rest stop” for much of the route. “Merlin, you’ve just got to hold it” only works for so long.

Our route took us west on the I-10 to the 210. This is a relatively new (less than 10 years) segment of freeway, and isn’t fully designated as “Interstate” yet. The easternmost segment is CA-210. Once it crosses I-215 or I-15, it changes to I-210, which runs through the Foothills north and west of LA, all the way to I-5.

All this “new” stuff was apparently too much for our PC-based GPS navigation system, since it couldn’t seem to understand how the roads connected. It wanted us to take I-215 north and I-15 south, about 25 miles out of our way, just to travel on I-210. When I refused, it actually gave up, posting a message that it was unable to develop routing. That’s even worse than listening to “Off route. Recalculating…” for miles. This may be the last year for the PC-based system, as Google Maps and even Siri on my phone can do better.

We ran into the expected traffic on I-210 near Pasadena, but it didn’t last for long and we were once again back to cruising speed. Things got a little slower as we climbed from Pasadena up to Pacoima and Sylmar on I-210, then used the Truck Lanes on I-5 up and over Newhall Pass.

Soon, we made the turn onto CA-126 just past Santa Clarita and were able to find a turnout for that much-needed pit stop. From there, the rest of the drive was clear sailing on a familiar route: CA-126 to Santa Paula and US-101 near Ventura, our first peek at the Pacific, US-101 “North” (it’s really northwest then almost due west) through Carpenteria, Santa Barbara, and Goleta to Gaviota. There, we made the big right turn inland, through the tunnel, past the CA-1 cut-off for Lompoc, and up into the Santa Ynez Valley and Buellton.

It didn’t take long for us to get settled at our destination, Flying Flags RV Park, where we usually stay when we’re in the area.