A mini among giants

I’ll just go ahead and warn you right up front — today wasn’t nearly as exciting as yesterday. No mud baths, and no castles. So please adjust your expectations accordingly.

We checked out of the Lodge at Calistoga, and I packed up the car while Kurt took care of the bill. While packing up, I noticed a large blackberry bush next to the Mini, and it had a ton of ripe berries on it. I sampled a few before Kurt got back, and they were awesome. I tried to show them to Kurt when he returned, but he cut me off and asked me not to tell him about times when I eat strange berries I find on random plants. So if you talk to him, please don’t tell him I told you.

We stopped at a grocery store in Calistoga to pick up some provisions since we’ll be camping tonight, and then we headed into St. Helena (a neighboring Napa Valley wine town) to check out V. Sattui, the only picnic winery in the Napa Valley. It’s owned by the same guy who owns the castle, and we got coupons after our tour yesterday. In addition to the winery, V. Sattui sells food so that you can eat and drink in their picnic area (where only their food and wine are allowed). Inside is an area very similar to DiBruno Bros. in Philly — cheeses, spreads, oils, salads, panini, and other prepared foods. On the weekends, they have a barbecue area outside too. That’s where we got our lunch — tri tip sandwiches with potato salad.

We took our sandwiches to the picnic area and very sneakily poured ourselves glasses of wine from Sonoma –we opened the bottle last night but didn’t finish it. A lovely lunch, followed by a free tasting. On the way out, we picked up some awesome chocolate truffle fudge. They had free samples and, being a bit of a chocoholic, I couldn’t possibly resist.

We hit the road again, headed toward US-101, which would take us to Humboldt Redwoods State Park. On the way, before we lost cell service, we did some travel planning via phone. We’ve decided to nix Portland (it’s pricier than expected and neither of us had a specific desire to go there). Instead, we’re going to really test my camping skills by doing 3 nights near Yellowstone (Wyoming), followed by one night in the Black Hills (South Dakota). That’ll keep us in places that hold more interest for us, and still allow us to get to Chicago after Lollapalooza. So we booked the campground near Yellowstone while driving past bikers doing some kind of road race in northern Sonoma County. We also found a hotel for a night on our way there, and a campsite in the Black Hills, but we lost service before I could get either one booked.

Our drive north this afternoon included our first hitch-hiker sighting. And we didn’t just see one, we saw 3. Don’t worry, we didn’t pick any of them up — we wouldn’t have room even if we wanted to. The drive was pretty, taking us along the Eel River and through lots of redwood groves. We stopped for pictures once we reached Humboldt, which is home to some of the oldest and largest redwoods anywhere. The enormity of the trees is almost overwhelming — you can stand inside some of them. There are even some you can drive through in your car (that’s definitely on tomorrow’s agenda).

Our campsite is at the Burlington campground, near the park’s visitors’ center and right along the Avenue of Giants. When we pulled in, the people at the site across from ours said they saw my last name on the reservation card marking our site, and they assumed based on the name that we’d be arriving in a huge RV. I wasn’t quite sure how to take that. The campsites are surrounded by redwoods (including some massive stumps of former redwoods, one of which now has our initials on it courtesy of a pocketknife Kurt picked up in Santa Fe). It’s a really pretty area, and it smells great because it’s one of the first campsites we’ve encountered where campfires are permitted. In fact, there’s a large campfire for everyone scheduled for 8:30 by the ranger station. And since it’s approaching that time, we should head over to get good seats…

…and we’re back. The campfire was a hoot. It was a whole program led by a very earnest park ranger named Emily. Emily’s dad was there videotaping it. There was trivia (prizes were “a dollar,” which turned out to mean a sand dollar — Emily very sincerely apologized for misleading us when she revealed the joke). There was singing (a song with hand motions called Waddlee-Acha –one of us had a blast with that part, it couldn’t be over soon enough for the other, I’ll let you guess which was which). There was a game (kids had to eat 4 Saltines, then the first to swallow and whistle won a pencil and a magnet — had I known about the magnet, I would’ve competed too). And then there was a long but interesting slideshow about the history of the Avenue of the Giants. It was amazing how many tiny little “towns” used to exist but are completely gone now, often due to the building of highway 101 or damage done by two huge floods here in ’55 and ’64.

After the slideshow, we returned to the tent with the aid of the flashlight app on Kurt’s iPhone — that thing has some power to it! Then we warmed up in our sleeping bags and Kurt demolished me at UNO. And I do mean demolished.

Down and dirty in Calistoga

I hope you’re sitting down. I’m going to skip right over our mediocre free hotel breakfast and move right on to the mud baths, because I know that’s what you’re dying to hear about. Kurt & I showed up at the Golden Haven Hot Springs Spa this morning at about 8:45 for our 9 a.m. mud bath appointment. That is a sentence I never thought I’d type. When we arrived, I asked the girl who checked us in if she was as nervous as I was. She ignored me. I was too nervous to care. We killed about 10 minutes in the waiting room before Marta, our attendant, came to escort us back to our treatment room.

There was no beating around the bush with any fancy relaxation area or lounge — Marta led us right into a room with a mineral jacuzzi in the corner, two showers along the side, and two large tubs of steaming mud in the middle. It smelled a little bit like a farm, but it wasn’t nearly as pungent as we expected. On our way in, Marta asked if we had a camera for pictures. We were like “…um…no.” I mean, we did have the camera (we always have the camera), but who thinks about getting their picture taken in a big vat of mud? Only crazy people, right? Marta showed us where to hang our clothes, explained how to lower ourselves into the tubs of mud, and said she’d be back after we got settled in to check on us.

As soon as she left the room, I started giggling and I basically didn’t stop until halfway through the mud bath. Kurt did some giggling too, I think. The whole thing was pretty hilarious at that point. So we stripped down and tried to maneuver into our respective tubs. We followed Marta’s instructions to the letter — we perched on the edge, looked over at each other with trepidation, shrugged our shoulders, and tried to plunge ourselves derriere-first into the mud. Much to our surprise, we only sank in about an inch, and we were basically both just lying on top of the mud. The mud is a mixture of volcanic ash, mineral water from hot springs, and peat moss. The peat moss is the smelly part, but it’s what makes you float in the mud. And apparently it really makes you float. So we had to kind of wiggle down and use our hands to scoop the mud on top of us. As I’m typing this, I still can’t quite believe we did it. Once we got covered up, we looked at each other and resumed giggling. To say it felt weird would be a massive understatement. When we’d squirm around, we’d move a little deeper and the mud would get hotter. Marta had warned us not to try to stand up in the tubs, because pushing your feet down to the bottom will be really hot and you can burn yourself. Who knew mud baths could be so dangerous?

After we were covered, Marta came back in. She put cool cloths across our foreheads, offered a mud mask for our faces (which we both accepted), and covered up our shoulders with the mud (the only part we couldn’t get ourselves). At that point, I asked her how often she gets a mud bath. She said she only gets massages. She used to get mud baths, but then she realized that she hates them. Honesty like that is refreshing. Almost as refreshing as spending 15 minutes in a huge vat of mud.

Anyway, she left again, and we continued to marvel at the fact that we were actually doing what we were doing. A once-in-a-lifetime experience on a once-in-a-lifetime trip. At that point, we agreed that it was something that should be photographed. I guess Marta knew something we didn’t before the whole thing started. Surprisingly (or maybe it isn’t surprising, since so many people do this when they come to the Calistoga area), the mud bath turned out to feel really good, and it was very relaxing. You feel like you’re weightless and floating, and the warmth of the mud is comforting. I guess that’s why people have done this kind of thing allegedly dating back to Cleopatra.

When our time in the mud was up, Marta came back to explain the next step of the treatment. Before she did that, I asked if she could get our camera out of the bag, take off the lens cap, put the camera on automatic, and then take our picture. She was nice enough to jump through those hoops for us, and, as a result, we have some excellent shots of us immersed to our necks in mud, just living the dream.

The next step was to get out of the tubs, wipe the big chunks of mud off, and then get under the mineral water showers to get rid of the rest. No small task. And of course that process was accompanied by more giggling. After hosing each other down, we moved on to the mineral water Jacuzzi in the corner of the room. We were in there for another 15 minutes or so, enjoying some water with lemon and finding places where still had mud clinging to us (for example, I missed behind my ears, and Kurt missed his entire chin). Every few minutes one of us would comment on what a great story this whole thing was going to make for the blog.

The final step of the treatment came after we dried off, put on robes, and moved to a more traditional spa-type room with 2 beds. We laid down on our backs, covered with a towel, and Marta came back in to wrap us up in blankets. She put cool towels on our heads again, turned off the lights, and left us to “cool down” for another 15 minutes or so. There was calming music, a candle, and a nice scent in the room. Very relaxing. Near the end, I sneezed. Kurt immediately informed me that I had totally ruined the mood. More giggling. Marta let us know when our time was up, and then we got dressed and left.

It might be our imaginations, but we both think our skin feels smoother and healthier now, and we both felt great afterward. Although it was definitely outside of both of our comfort zones, we’re definitely glad we did it (and not just because it’s making this post an interesting read for you guys). The mud bath idea wasn’t ours – it was recommended to us by . . . you guessed it . . . our San Francisco gurus from the Washington Square Inn wine hour! Those guys really gave us some great ideas, and I’m glad we took their advice.

Everything after the mud baths will probably seem less interesting, but keep reading because we really did do one other awesome thing today. After learving Golden Haven, we grabbed lunch in Calistoga at a place called the Sarafornia Café, where the food was really good and we could tell that the locals eat there too. Then we headed out to taste some wine. First, we toured the Sterling Vineyards. The main building there is designed to look like a winery in Greece — all white, with cool bell towers — and it’s up on a hill overlooking the vineyards. To get to the winery, you take a tram (like a gondola). We tried some good wines there and got free souvenir tasting glasses.

Next, we went to Castello di Amorosa, which is owned by some famous guy here (Dario Sattui, I believe) who spent 15 years building a winery that looks like an Italian castle. It’s enormous, and the tour was excellent. Everything about the castle is made the way it would have been hundreds of years ago when castles were really being built. So no power tools, only handcrafted stones, bricks shipped from real Italian castles, handmade wooden doors, etc. It has a chapel, a moat, a drawbridge, guard towers, a 2 acre lake, 107 unique rooms, and 8 stories (4 of which are underground). Before entering, we saw some sheep, chickens and frogs, and we got close looks at some of the grapes, which are just starting to turn from green to red.

Our 2:30 pm tour was led by a guide named Georgette, and she was really awesome. She knew her stuff about the castle’s architecture and how it was built, as well as the wines that are made there. This winery doesn’t distribute its wine anywhere. You can buy it while you’re there, or you can join the wine club and have it shipped to you directly. They use wine barrels made of french oak, which cost $1,000 each, and they only use each barrel twice. Then they either sell them to visitors for $45, or to other wineries that are less discriminating about their barrels. The grapes are hand-picked, hand-sorted, and then they’re compressed (not crushed) to preserve as much flavor as possible. They say that the less technology involved and the less you manipulate the grapes, the better the wine will be.

There was a 2:45 tour behind us led by a guy named Joe. Joe was speedy and didn’t seem all that interested in being engaging (or even keeping track of all of the members of his tour group), so pretty soon he lapped us. That happened after a couple of awkward moments where he’d get his group right up next to ours and start talking about things Georgette just told us (except he was much less interesting). Georgette got annoyed and we finally took an unscripted stroll in the compression area so that he could get by us. I asked Georgette if she and Joe were going to rumble later. She laughed and said “no way, he could take me. He eats half a cow and a trough of potatoes for dinner each night.” Kurt and I were loving it.

The best part of the tour was when we went into the 4 underground floors, which basically seem like a maze of hallways branching off in every direction with wine bottles and wine barrels lining everything. It smelled great and was really fun to see. There were also some jail cells, a pit of despair, a torture chamber (complete with Iron Maiden!), and a room where an episode of the bachelor was filmed. In the largest underground room, we did a barrel tasting of a cabernet sauvignon that has only been aging for a year. It won’t be ready to sell for another 3 years, but it showed us how much of a difference the aging process makes. Georgette used a wine flute to get the wine out of the barrel (a big curved glass tube that she’d stick in, then cover the end with her finger, then it would come out full of wine — a technique I used to use myself with a straw and chocolate milk). It was pretty great.

The tour ended with us doing an extended tasting where we were each supposed to pick 5 wines. Kurt and I chose 10 so that we could each try more wines by sharing each glass. We ended up getting about 15 because Georgette just wanted us to try some others too. When tasting a merlot, she gave us chocolate chips and we learned how awesome the wine tastes when swallowed with chocolate. If you want to try it at home, take a sip of wine, swirl it around and swallow it. Then take a bite of chocolate and chew it up. When you’re ready to swallow the chocolate, take another sip of wine and swallow it all together. It’ll change your life. We had dark chocolate with a cabernet sauvignon (fully aged), and she let us try a reserve cabernet that was twice the price and twice the deliciousness. At the end we had sea salt chocolate (my new favorite thing) with a very sweet wine, and that turned out to be delicious too.

Of course we fell in love with the place and with Georgette, so we ordered a case of wine to be delivered to our apartment in October. It was the only reasonable thing to do. That makes us members of the wine club, and it means we’ll get invited to all kinds of cool events we’ll probably never be able to attend, like a medieval dinner with a joust, and a costume halloween party held in the torture chamber with a “death by chocolate” theme. Oh, and of course I got a magnet.

After that, we went to dinner in Calistoga at a place called the Hydro Grill (really good burgers, recommended by Georgette, who gave us a 10% off referral coupon), then came back to the hotel to enjoy some wine we bought yesterday, do some travel planning, and work on the blog. All in all, one of our best days yet. Mud baths and a castle — what more could you ask for?

Golden Gate to Wine country

On our last morning in San Francisco, we once again followed advice from our wine-drinking, San Francisco gurus. For breakfast, we walked about 5 feet away from Hotel Boheme’s door to try the pastries at Stella’s, an Italian bakery that’s apparently a long-time staple in North Beach. Once again, we were steered in the right direction thanks to the Washington Square Inn’s wine hour. We both had hot chocolate with life-changing whipped cream on top. I had a gigantic cinnamon roll, and Kurt had an apple pastry. Everything was fantastic, and we left with killer sugar highs. After checking out of Hotel Boheme, we caught a taxi and headed back to Mini of San Francisco to pick up the car.

Steve and his awesome maintenance team fixed the software problem, washed about 80% of the bugs off the car (the other 20% are going to require some serious scrubbing), and rotated the tires for free. We told Steve about the blog, but I’m not sure he’ll read it. He was a road tripping expert, having done the trip about 15 times with his dog when he lived in Boston but attended college in Arizona, so we were kind of in awe of him. Anyway, Steve, if you’re reading this, thanks again.

We decided to leave SF via Alamo Square, where there is a famous row of 7 beautiful and colorful Victorian-style homes called the Painted Ladies. Kurt had never seen them, and I was convinced they were in the opening credits from the TV show Full House, so we were both interested in stopping. The houses were lovely and the park across the street was great too. Like about 50 other people in the park, we took pictures. There was an old black car parked in front of one house — a Falcon, I think — and we got a shot of that as well. Sadly, I didn’t see D.J. or Uncle Jesse come out of any of the houses. From there, I took over driving and we headed for the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve decided it’s not fair for me to expect Kurt to overcome his fear of WalMart if I’m not willing to confront one of my own fears, so I’m making an effort to face my fear of driving over water. The Golden Gate Bridge looks pretty sturdy, so I felt like I could probably handle it as long as I didn’t accidentally look sideways while we were crossing.

We crossed the bridge going north, I made it without freaking out, and now I can officially say that I drove down Lombard Street and across the Golden Gate Bridge this week. On the north side of the bridge, we stopped at a vista point and took some pictures of the bridge and the city from across the bay. In the parking lot there, we saw a strange-looking license plate. We’re both getting really good at spotting and identifying license plates now (Kurt is an expert on Oregan and I’ve got all of Colorado’s variations down), so the fact that neither of us recognized this one made us think we had finally found a rare, road-tripping Rhode Islander. As it turned out, the plate was from Chihuahua, which is cool (our first Mexico plate). But RI continues to elude us.

From the bridge, we headed north to Sonoma to see what all the wine country buzz is about. We couldn’t get anyone in SF to recommend any vineyards to us — everyone we asked just said “it’s all great, you can’t go wrong.” So we stopped at one of the first spots we saw with a “tasting” sign out front. It was called Roots in Sonoma, and was actually a visitor’s center and tasting room for 3 different vineyards: Larson, Meadowcroft, and Foyt. We sampled 6 wines there (with the help of a kind of stiff, unfriendly woman whose name I didn’t care to learn). We left with a bottle of Meadowcroft’s Viognier, as well as a Sonoma magnet and a Sonoma shirt for me. Also, I got to pose for pictures on an enormous blue Adirondack chair, which made a great start to the afternoon for me!

We then headed into the town square of Sonoma, which was a really cute area full of shops, tasting rooms, and restaurants. We went to a tasting room called Sonoma Enoteca, which was a co-op of 10 wineries. We had the tasting room to ourselves there, and we were helped by Trish, a local girl in her early 20s. Although she was young and clearly still learning about the wines, Trish was engaging and friendly, and we had a lot of fun talking to her. We sampled 6 more wines there, and Kurt began claiming that he likes more complex wines than I do. Trish was interested in hearing about our trip and she loved the Mini, so we told her about the blog. She succeeded in selling us a half case of wine (6 bottles), to be delivered to our apartment when the weather gets cooler. She also gave us great tips on a lunch spot and some other shops around the square.

After tasting 12 wines, we realized the pastries we had for breakfast weren’t cutting it anymore, so we headed straight to the Red Grape for lunch. Recommended by Trish, it was a great little pizza place just off the square, and we devoured a pepperoni pie like it was our job. Feeling much more steady, we left the Red Grape and stopped at one more tasting room — this one dedicated to the wines of Charles Creek vineyards. There, we were assisted by Allen, who was extremely friendly and extremely knowledgeable. He was the first to break the news to us that no distributors of wine can ship their wine into Pennsylvania because of the Pa. Liquor Control Board’s monopoly over profits from the sale of alcohol. We thought we could circumvent that problem easily by having wines we liked sent to Kurt’s mom’s house in Marblehead, but Allen further devastated us by saying that distributors can’t ship to Massachusetts either. Disaster! Apparently co-ops and other small outfits that don’t classify themselves as “distributors” can somehow get around these rules. But larger vineyards can’t ship to us, and we can’t pack cases of wine in the Mini for the 10 or so days that are remaining on this trip. So we got a bottle of the Charles Creek “Muy Bonito” (a cabernet blend), and we’ll use that to drink away our sorrows about PA and MA liquor laws later.

After leaving Charles Creek, we stopped in an old-school candy store (another Trish recommendation) on our way back to the Mini. The shop was called Tiddle E. Wink’s, and they have a website. The store was basically too cool to even describe. Lots of vintage candy, games, and all kinds of other cool stuff. The kind of place where you could find the perfect unique present for someone who has everything. We limited ourselves to just some candy — namely, some candy cigarettes (“Lucky Lights”), baseball bubblegum, and Necco wafers. We chatted with the owner about her website and she commiserated with us about how time-consuming it can be to keep current writing a blog. (These posts don’t write themselves, people.)

Candy cigarettes in hand, we got back on the road. We passed signs for (the other) Old Faithful and (the other) Petrified Forest, and we ended up in Calistoga, where we’re staying tonight and tomorrow night. It’s at the north end of the Napa Valley, and it’s home to tons of hot mineral springs and a bunch of vineyards. We checked in at the Lodge at Calistoga (a Clarion hotel), and then headed out to find a place to eat dinner. With the help of Yelp, we picked a place called All Seasons, where we both had some really excellent crispy-skinned chicken and truffled mashed potatoes. While waiting for our food to arrive, I called a local spa and made an appointment for us to get a couples mud bath tomorrow. Yes, you read that correctly — we are getting mud baths tomorrow. And “we” includes Kurt. Stay tuned tomorrow for what promises to be our most riveting post yet!

Amy and Kurt take public transportation

On our last morning at the Washington Square Inn, we enjoyed one more lazy breakfast in bed. Fresh croissants are meant to be eaten that way, trust me. Our stay at the Inn was wonderful — the food, atmosphere, location, and conversations with fellow guests were all great, and the staff was very helpful. The only minor disappointment was that the owners of the Inn made little effort to interact with us (or even introduce themselves). Not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, but chatting with the owners was something we both thought was kind of standard at a small B&B like this.

After packing up the Mini (in anticipation of moving about 2 blocks down the street to the new hotel), we headed to the SF area Mini dealership. Sure, the Mini service people in Memphis had assured us that everything was fine, and everything did seem fine for a while after that stop. But since arriving in California, the idling has been occasionally weird again, so Kurt wanted to take this chance to have the car looked at again, this time by a service department with more trustworthy and experienced staff. It’s a good thing we stopped there, because Steve and his fellow service guys pretty quickly diagnosed the problem, thanks to a recent tech alert they had seen regarding Minis that were built when Kurt’s was. The problem was a software error, and it was easily remedied with a software update. But to confirm and then fix it, they needed the car overnight.

So we emptied out what we needed and hopped in a cab, headed for tonight’s hotel — Hotel Boheme. We were able to check in early, with the help of the amazingly friendly front desk guy, Charlie. I loved him immediately. He showed us the area on a map, recommended places to see, and gave us precise bus directions to get to our afternoon’s destination: the California Academy of Sciences, located in Golden Gate Park. Hotel Boheme is super cool. It’s on the second floor of a building that dates back to 1907, right above a pastry shop called Stella’s. The decor is very artsy/retro, with lots of cool old photographs of the North Beach neighborhood, which is apparently where the “beat” movement was born. In our bathroom, there was a picture of Allen Ginsberg with some other guys, and beneath it was Allen Ginsberg’s writing describing who was in the picture, and when/where it was taken.

Before hopping on a bus to the museum, we went across the street to have lunch at Caffe Puccini, which was recommended to us by the people we met at the Washington Square Inn’s wine happy hour the other day. They praised it for its good food and coffee drinks, and we could tell it was legit as we approached the door because there was a table of 3 older guys sitting right outside, speaking Italian, and working together on a crossword puzzle. The food did not disappoint — Kurt had penne in a really hearty tomato sauce, and I had a sandwich on focaccia bread. After finishing lunch, we went to the end of the block and caught the first of 2 buses that would take us to Golden Gate Park. We made it there without incident, and our walk to the museum took us by the awesome kids’ playground, the Carousel, and the San Francisco Lawn Bowling Club. Seriously, if there’s one of those in Philly, I’m joining as soon as we get home (and as soon as I figure out the difference between lawn bowling and bocci).

The museum, which was just completed within the past couple of years, turned out to be fascinating and very educational. We didn’t get to see the Planetarium (all of the shows were sold out when we got there), or the Extreme Mammals exhibit (ditto). But we saw an interesting climate change exhibit and examples of the biggest/smallest/heaviest mammals ever. Then we went into the 4-story rainforest, which was super cool. Lots of awesome animals, plants, lizards, frogs, bugs, etc. Including some spiders, which upset Kurt, and a huge cockroach, which upset me. That stuff was all in tanks. But out in the open, in the actual rainforest area itself, were trees, plants, birds and (best of all) butterflies. When you go into the rainforest, they warn you about checking for “hitch-hiking butterflies” when you leave. Awesome. You walk around levels going up higher and higher around the sides of the rainforest, while the birds and butterflies are just flying all over the place. It was fun, but also hot.

After the rainforest, we went downstairs to see the aquarium display, which was also really wonderful. Highlights included seahorses (which we already obviously knew about) and seadragons (which I did NOT know about, but come in varieties that resemble both leaves and weeds), getting to touch starfish, and an albino alligator (which didn’t move so I’m not convinced it was alive). Our final stop at the museum was on its roof, which is a Living Roof. From the ground approaching the museum, the roof looks like it has 4 big lumps on it, covered in grass and windows. From the top, you can see the 4 hills (one of which is the roof of the rainforest exhibit), and the plants that cover the entire roof. It’s not actually grass — it’s 9 species of plants that are native to California (including poison oak!), and the lumps are meant as a tribute to the hilly landscape of SF. The plants absorb a vast majority of the rainwater that falls on the roof, and they naturally cool the building below. It’s got all kinds of environmental benefits, plus it’s cool to look at.

When we finished up at the museum, we caught the bus(es) back to our hotel. The return trip was longer and more crowded than the trip to the museum, but it featured live entertainment in the form of strange conversations among weirdos next to us. For example, before we even got on the bus, we had a chance to stare at a real live leprechaun. Ok, not really, but the guy was wearing an all-green suede suit with a gold hat, pointy shoes, and dog he called a “service animal.” That guy was befriended by another weirdo on a bike, who had on a different but equally aggressive suit — I honestly think they were two strangers who just met and bonded randomly because they were wearing similarly strange clothing. How often do you get to witness serendipitous moments like that?

Then on the bus, more weirdos. One young weirdo announced to everyone in earshot that he wishes he could skip the next 10 years and jump right to the part of his life where he’ll be breaking world records. I’m not exactly clear on which world records he hopes to break — not to stereotype or anything, but he didn’t appear to be much of an athlete, although I could see him setting a record for dumbest faux-hawk. In an unrelated conversation, another young weirdo sitting in front of Kurt pontificated about the fact that unicorns and rainbows have no actual connection to one another, notwithstanding the fact that the average person tends to link the two. That really gave us something to think about.

We made it back to the hotel in one piece, we met Stan (the night desk guy), and we got ready for dinner. On our way out of the hotel, Stan asked where we were headed. We told him (Piazza Pellegrini, the place we found and liked so much on our first night here), and he responded by making a face (not a good one), shrugging, and saying “well, everyone’s taste buds are different.” How could you not love this guy? We went to Pellegrini anyway, and we enjoyed it again. But when we got back, I asked Stan for a list of his recommendations for next time we’re here. Stan used to be part of a Tuesday lunch club with some friends, and he’s kind of an expert on SF restaurants. While he carefully wrote out his top 5 for me, I sampled a glass of creme sherry (Stan puts together a little complimentary happy hour every evening). Coincidentally, one of Stan’s picks was also recommended to us by Bobby, the guy who drove us back from the Mini dealership earlier today. [Note that Bobby never actually told us his name — I took to calling him Bobby after the ride because it seemed like that should be his name. Bobby was born & raised in SF, and was a pro at cursing at other drivers (sometimes mid conversation)].

Anyway, with Stan’s list tucked away for future reference, we retreated to our room to work on some travel planning. Our rough itinerary required some adjustments recently because our expected arrival in Chicago was going to accidentally coincide with Lollapalooza. To avoid that, we’re adding a night of camping in the Northern California redwoods and 2 nights in Portland, OR. What that means for you is more riveting blogging. Brace yourselves!

Sitting on the dock of the bay

We don’t have much to report from this morning due to our extreme laziness. We took full advantage of the most luxurious amenity offered by the Washington Square Inn, namely, breakfast in bed. Then we took care of some blog stuff while waiting for the fog to clear. It finally cleared after noon, so we got ready to venture out, after being lightly reprimanded by the owner of the Inn for failing to surrender our breakfast tray in a reasonable amount of time. Waiting out the fog paid off, because this afternoon the weather in San Francisco was gorgeous. Clear skies, sunny, and reasonably warm. The clear skies were critical to maximizing our enjoyment of our first destination: Coit Tower.

But first, on our way out, we took 2 very small bags of our laundry to the front desk so that they could have it sent out and cleaned for us (as they told us they could do). We intended to then go to the Mini and retrieve 3 much larger bags (one of which was a kitchen sized trash bag) full of the rest of our laundry, and have those sent out as well. Never having sent laundry out to a wash and fold service before, we were clueless about critical issues like cost. When the woman at the desk saw the first two bags, she commented on how much laundry it was, and she asked us if we had counted how many shirts we had. That question elicited blank stares from us, causing her to calmly explain that you need an inventory so that you can tell if anything is missing when it’s returned to you. More blank stares. And then she told us it would be at least $10 per bag. For the small bags. Which weren’t even full. We did the math and figured that her estimate would mean that all of our laundry would cost roughly $100 to send out, so we promptly requested the address of the nearest laundromat.

With the laundry back in our room for the time being, we set out for Coit Tower. I was unfamiliar with Coit Tower until we arrived here Sunday night (we can see it from the street outside our hotel). It was built in the 1930s at the top of Telegraph Hill, and a trip to the top provides visitors with a 360 degree view of the entire city. Even the view from Telegraph Hill is amazing. The tower is only a few blocks from our hotel, but all of those blocks are (you guessed it) steep hills or steps. It was worth it, though, because when we got onto Telegraph Hill I caught my first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge. After taking some pictures outside the tower, we went inside to buy tickets. The ground floor, where you wait for the elevator, is covered in very colorful and interesting murals. The line wasn’t too long, and pretty soon we were riding the elevator up. The guy running the elevator was a riot. He recited a spiel about Coit Tower (height, cost, age, etc.) in a sing-songy voice, making it clear he’d given this talk one or two thousand times before. He always got each part of it out in 1 breath, even if it meant doing a major inhale prior to diving into the next sentence. We loved it.

At the top, we had a perfect view of everything, thanks to the perfect weather. We took a bunch of pictures, some of which will hopefully come out well assuming the glass on the windows wasn’t covered with too many nose smudges from prior visitors. We could see our hotel, Washington Square Park, Lombard Street, and both bridges, as well as the rest of the SF skyline. Highly recommended. The only minor bummer was that we didn’t see (or hear) any of the parrots that supposedly live on Telegraph Hill. But after our blue jay encounters in Big Sur, we’ve had our fill of colorful birds for now.

After walking down off Telegraph Hill, we headed toward Fisherman’s Wharf, sometimes following plaques on the ground marking the “Barbary Coast Trail,” whatever that is. The walk wasn’t bad — mostly downhill — and the first thing I did when we got there was shake my fist at Alcatraz. With that out of the way, we checked out the sea lions. I found the sea lions on Pier 39 to be underwhelming. They’re not as close, and there aren’t as many, as the sea lions we saw in Monterey. But I took a couple of pictures anyway, out of respect for the fact that they’re apparently celebrating their 20th anniversary on the Pier. Next, we walked up Pier 39 and checked out the shops and other attractions. The main event there was a magnet store (called Magnetron). Inspired by my friend Ashleigh, I have become a collector of magnets as travel souvenirs. I have no idea how many I’ve already accumulated on this trip, but nothing prepared me for an entire store of magnets. It was heaven. I found a perfect SF magnet there, and in an unprecedented showing of self control, I left the store with just that one magnet.

After poking around in some more souvenir shops, we headed to the Boudin Bakery, which has been making sourdough bread in SF since 1849. We got New England clam chowder in bread bowls for lunch, and we ate them along the waterfront. It was fantastic. The main location of the Boudin Bakery sells loaves of sourdough bread in all shapes and sizes (including a crab shaped loaf). A great memento to take home from SF for family and friends, if only we weren’t facing another dozen or so days in the car.

We left Fisherman’s Wharf and headed toward Ghirardelli Square. On the way, we stopped in the SF Maritime National Historical Park, and then walked in the sand at the Hyde Street Beach (which kind of came out of nowhere). On the beach, I found a stick and wrote our blog’s URL in the sand, which led to some cool pictures. Maybe we’ll pick up some SF readers that way. After that little side trip, we went to the Ghirardelli Cafe, where I got a ridiculously delicious hot fudge sundae. In another epic showing of self-restraint, I managed to refrain from buying dozens of bags of Ghirardelli Squares — I settled for just the free sample (caramel) that we got when we went in the store.

After my chocolate euphoria started to wear off, we headed back toward the Inn. More hills, more steps, and more panting. But the route took us down Lombard Street again, so we got a few more shots there (this time, with blue skies and sun). We stopped at the car, got the rest of our mountain of laundry, and picked up the bags from our room. Before heading to Francisco Launderette for an action packed evening of washing, drying & folding, we stopped in the lobby for a glass of wine. The presumed matriarch of the group we met yesterday was there again, this time chatting with two girls from Denmark (a lawyer and a psychiatrist/sushi chef). Tonight we learned that the matriarch was, in fact, the mother of 2 of the people we met yesterday. We also learned that she is a former gospel singer, a prison warden, and a vice principal at a school. Also, she falls down a lot, and has done so all over the world. Her son (whom we met yesterday), is a jazz musician (singer, songwriter, producer & trombonist) named Al Campos. She was thrilled to note that I also play the trombone and that I was previously a juvenile public defender (she also is a former juvenile probation officer — a real jane of all trades). The conversation was lovely once again, and after hearing her views about why small-statured women make bad prison guards, we departed for the Launderette.

I’ll spare you the details of our night at the laundromat. Tomorrow, we switch hotels and check out Golden Gate Park.

Joe Dimaggios neighborhood

This morning we got up and had a relaxing breakfast in the dining room at the Washington Square Inn. There were freshly baked croissants, cereals, oatmeal, homemade jams, fresh fruit salad, yogurt, and an assortment of teas and coffee, all served by the owner of the Inn. The food was fantastic (and healthy), and we headed out ready to take San Francisco by storm. First, we had to move the Mini, which was parked in a street spot in front of the Inn where the meters were about to kick in. We took a detour on the way to the parking garage so that I could have the quintessential San Francisco experience of driving down the self-proclaimed crookedest street in the world. Before having that experience, I got a feel for navigating the crazy hills (some of which are so steep that they have steps instead of sidewalks). We got to the top of Lombard Street early enough that there was no real line. I observed the 5 mph speed limit and made it through all 8 curves without incident. It was awesome.

After parking the car, we decided to walk back up to Lombard Street to take pictures and see it on foot. The walk back up the hills from Washington Square Park to Lombard Street was a great workout for our legs. I marveled at a woman who was making the trek in heels, and at runners who were taking the hills like they were no big deal. On the way up, we could look down the cross streets to the water, where we could see Alcatraz. I’m in a big fight with Alcatraz right now, because a few days ago when I tried to make reservations for us to take the ferry over and tour it, I learned that it was booked solid until next week. That was quite a blow to me, since it was near the top of my list of things I wanted to do while in SF. I’m able to cope with it only because Kurt assures me we’ll come back to SF, and we’ll do it next time. But I still kind of hate Alcatraz right now, so I refused to take any pictures of it when we saw it.

We walked up Lombard Street, took a bunch of pictures that are obstructed to various extents by cars and other tourists (it’s impossible to get a clear shot of anything there with the constant flow of people). We saw an old woman walking up with a cane, refusing help along the way. She made it to the top, and then immediately headed back down the other side while her family stopped to take pictures. What a trooper! We went part of the way down the other side so that I could take pictures of a really cool house with about a million purple flowers growing up one side of it, and then we headed back to the top, where there was a cable car stop. We were headed to Union Square to do some shopping (neither of us were prepared for the mid-50s temperatures that SF is experiencing right now, so we were in the market for a couple extra pairs of jeans and sweaters), and Kurt figured out that a cable car went there from Lombard Street. We were lucky enough to snag standing spots along the side, giving us the full experience of riding through town — up and down some pretty major hills — holding onto the wooden bars on the side of the cable car. It was even more fun than I anticipated, and I basically smiled and laughed the whole time (so out of character for me…). On our side of the car, we were next to an older guy who was clearly a local — he knew the cable car driver by name, and he was wearing an interesting ensemble including a tweed jacket, a straw hat, and weird brown shoes with separated toes. I would have befriended him immediately if I weren’t so busy holding on for dear life.

At Union Square, we did some shopping (and I did a lot of looking at things that I decided I didn’t need), and we had lunch at a place called Burger Bar, which is inside a Macy’s there. There’s a Burger Bar here, and one in the Mandalay Bay in Vegas — both owned by a famous French chef named Hubert Keller. We know him as a guest judge on Top Chef and a finalist on Top Chef Masters. There are all kinds of fancy burger options there, including one with lobster on top, an option to add black truffles for $30, expensive buffalo and Kobe beef burgers, and a list of very fancy sauces. We had less exciting options, but they were great burgers. The zucchini fries were tasty too. We were too full to indulge in any of the chocolate dessert burgers (chocolate with a donut bun) or the fancy milkshakes.

After lunch we did a bit more shopping, and then headed to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. The museum was enormous, with lots of cool pieces (and lots of pieces we didn’t understand at all). There was a section of Andy Warhol, which was one of my favorite parts. There was also a lot of photography — including a series of pictures of old motels along Route 66 (I just took a very similar series a week or so ago!). Among the weirder stuff, there was one work that was just 3 plain white canvases hanging in a row. No idea what that was about. On the top floor was a statue garden and a cafe. I almost got us kicked out by posing too close to a set of statues (this is the first time my penchant for posing for pictures with statues has almost gotten me in trouble). Undaunted, we formed a very sneaky plan to get another shot of me walking underneath a huge spider-like statue when the guard wasn’t looking.

After leaving the museum, we caught a bus to our hotel so that we could get ready for dinner and stop by the wine & cheese happy hour the Inn has every evening. After pouring ourselves some local wines, we introduced ourselves to a group of other people in the lobby area. They all knew each other, and it turned out that it was a sort of reunion among friends and family members who had once lived in SF but now live elsewhere. They were super friendly and welcoming, and they got very psyched to hear about our trip. We traded stories with a couple that now lives in Denmark, because they just came from Big Sur as well, and they had eaten dinner at Nepenthe. Another couple from Florida gave us some great advice about restaurants and things to do in SF, and places to visit in Sonoma and Napa. They also tipped us off about another hotel in the Washington Square area (we want to stay an extra night so that we can relax a little and fight off slight colds that we’re both trying to avoid, but the Inn doesn’t have any rooms in our price range available for Wednesday night). Talking to them was a lot of fun — one of the best parts about staying at a small B&B like this — and they told us a great new fact about the church on Washington Square. It’s where Marilyn Monroe got married to Joe DiMaggio! Apparently DiMaggio spent a lot of time in this part of SF (there’s a restaurant here named for him). Anyway, the people we met were awesome, and we told them about our blog. So if any of them are reading, thanks again — we’ll be staying at the Boheme on Wednesday, and plan to enjoy pastries at Stella’s on Thursday morning!

After the wine tasting, we headed to a restaurant called Iluna Basque. We found it on Open Table, and then figured out that it’s owned by a contestant from Top Chef Las Vegas — Mattin Noblia. So yes, today’s dining had a definite TV chef theme. Mattin was there, wearing his trademark red neckerchief. He lit a candle for our table, was in the kitchen making our food, and thanked us when we left. The food was Basque tapas (a mix of French and Spanish, I think), and we had some really interesting stuff: bacon-wrapped plums, pears cooked in a red wine sauce with warm brie, potato and shrimp croquettes, scallops with ratatouille, and mini lamb burgers. When we got our check, we agreed to add $2 on for a children’s charity, and in exchange we got our very own red neckerchief to take along with us. I’ll try to get Kurt to wear it in some pictures tomorrow.

Kurt and Amy have their heads in the clouds

This morning a very loud blue jay who lives along Nacimiento Creek woke us up early with its loud screeching, which sounded like it was coming from right on top of our tent. Annoying, yes, but it got us moving, packing, and on the road before 9. Getting the tent in its bag isn’t even a challenge anymore – that’s how good we are at this whole camping thing. Dealing with smelly outhouses is not our strong suit, however, so we were eager to get on the road and find someplace with flush toilets and soap.

We headed back along Nacimiento Road toward the coast again, and it seemed to go much faster this time. The scenery was pretty, bunnies and birds greeted us along the way, and everything was going swimmingly. Until we basically drove into a cloud. As we wound up the road to go back down again to Route 1, we reached a point where we were smack dab in the middle of a very low and very fluffy cloud. And we stayed inside that cloud for much of our ride back down the narrow, windy road. Luckily, there wasn’t much traffic at 9 am, so we just patiently waited for the next couple of feet of road to slowly reveal itself to us as we creeped along the mountainside. It was actually really cool.

Unsurprisingly, it was foggy along the coast, so the views weren’t the best as our journey north began. We made several stops today, the first one being at Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, which is just south of Big Sur Village. The attraction here for us was a waterfall that comes out of the cliffside and drops into the Pacific – the only waterfall that empties directly into the ocean on the west coast. So we parked and followed signs for the ¼ mile trail to the overlook where you can see the waterfall. Along the way, I took a picture of a pretty flower that we think is poison oak, and we took a short detour to see some type of electricity-producing water wheel thing, which turned out to be a HUGE disappointment. We were expecting a large working waterwheel, but this turned out to be a tiny stupid non-operational thing. Kurt took a picture of my face upon seeing the wheel, and it does a good job of capturing my emotions at that particular moment. I’m sure he’d love to share it with you, but I’m working on preventing that. You’ll just have to wait and see who wins that battle…

Anyway, after the dumb wheel, we went on to the waterfall, and that was certainly not a disappointment. It comes out of the side of the rock in a narrow stream, and crashes on the beach just where the surf comes in. The small beach next to it is closed to the public to preserve its natural beauty, but there are plenty of spots to view and photograph it from above. As it turns out, there is the limestone foundation of a house that once stood on the cliffs across from the waterfall – that’s right, someone lived there at one time! It must have been an unbelievable place to call home. Anyway, the people who lived there decided that the area should be made public so that anyone could see the amazing section of coastline they owned. They gave the land up to make it a state park, but in the deed they specified that the house should be torn down, and that the beach should be kept closed to preserve it. Very cool.

While checking out the waterfall, we encountered our most sophisticated stranger/photographer yet. We couldn’t find anywhere to put the camera for our patented timer shot of the two of us, so we had to rely on the kindness of a stranger. And the guy we picked was awesome – he got all into changing the zoom and setting up a good composition for the shot. We were big fans of his, and the picture turned out well despite the fact that neither of us had seen the inside of a shower in a while.

We then headed back to the car and resumed our drive up the coast. Along the way – both today and yesterday – we saw a surprisingly large number of rental RVs, mostly from someplace called “CruiseAmerica.” The idea of renting an RV and driving it along the Pacific Coast Highway would not have occurred to us, but apparently it’s sweeping the nation. And for some reason the CruiseAmerica RVs made me irrationally angry each time we saw one, so it was fun for Kurt.

Around 11 we got to Nepenthe, which is a famous restaurant in Big Sur where you can eat overlooking the coastline from high above in a place that was designed by an architect who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright. It’s designed to fit right in with its surroundings, and the look of the place is really cool. It would have been even cooler if the view hadn’t been mostly obscured by fog. Anyway, we got there before they started seating people, so we were one of the first couples seated. We got spots outside along a counter-type table overlooking the edge of the mountain. Oh, and we were under a heater, because it was in the low 50s out. Kurt got hot chocolate. I’m not kidding.

The food was good, but the best part was the blue jays. There was what seemed to be a gang of blue jays who call Nepenthe their home. They’re very bold – hopping up within a few feet of you and then giving you a serious stare-down. As a Brit sitting behind us commented, they were “downright cheeky little birds.” On the way out, we stopped at Nepenthe’s very eclectic gift shop, the Phoenix. Lots of cool stuff, including a great Big Sur magnet.

After Nepenthe, we headed on to Carmel again. We had gotten a little guide book from the Christmas shop the day before, and there were a couple things we wanted to check out on our way through town. Plus, we’re a little bit in love with Carmel. Once we got parked, we went to see the Hog’s Breath Inn (an inn, restaurant and bar formerly owned by Clint Eastwood, who was once the mayor of Carmel), the post office (in Carmel, no one has a street address; they all must go to the post office to personally pick up their mail), and the El Paseo building (where Kurt and I did some tandem posing with a really cool set of sculptures). I can’t overstate how awesome Carmel is, and what a perfect little town it is for a leisurely stroll.

Next, we hit Monterey. Although we slept there two nights ago, we never really had a chance to check it out in the daylight. So we parked near City Hall and walked down to Fisherman’s Wharf (of course, I navigated a course that took us down the wrong street – meaning a not-so-nice street headed in the right direction – but this time I figured it out en route and we adjusted to the right street after only a couple of blocks). At Fisherman’s Wharf, I had my first chance to see sea lions. I loved it – I couldn’t stop laughing, and I could’ve watched them for days. The posing, the sleeping, the stretching, the awkward walking on land, the graceful swimming in the water, the nonchalance with which they simply walk all over each other to get where they’re going – I couldn’t get enough of it.

When Kurt finally tore me away from the sea lion area, we strolled down the shops on the pier, had ice cream, and picked a magnet to commemorate the experience. We then walked back to the car, but before leaving, I jumped at the chance to pose with an enormous bear statue in front of City Hall (which is the oldest government building in California). I, of course, wanted to sit on top of the bear, which was almost as tall as I am. After circling the bear and trying to come up with a strategy for mounting it, I told Kurt it was impossible. Kurt thought it should simply involve a quick jump onto the bear’s back. But when I tried to do so, my impressive vertical leap only got me about 2 inches off the ground, which was for some reason hilarious to Kurt. Ultimately, I needed him to give me a boost, but it was so worth it. The pictures are priceless.

Back on route 1, we headed north to Santa Cruz. I wanted to check out the Beach Boardwalk amusement park there, where there is an old-school carousel with a Wurlitzer organ and hand-carved horses. And the best part is they have rings for the riders on outside edge horses to grab and then throw into a big clown’s mouth. I used to enjoy a carousel like this at Knoebel’s Grove in Pennsylvania with my family as a kid, and I was excited to ride one as an adult. The boardwalk was busy, but we got our 6 tickets ($3 total) and got in line. The line moved quickly, and we could have gotten on the first ride available, but we wanted to wait for outside seats. Kurt had never been on a merry-go-round with rings before, so I couldn’t let him miss that experience. We waited, and we landed prime outside horses on the next time around. I had a blast, and Kurt got very focused on landing a ring and then getting it into the clown’s mouth. He got distracted taking pictures, though, so we’ll have to return someday so that he can perfect his ring toss. It was a fun stop, despite the crowd of people at the park and the crowd of dirty hippies outside.

The rest of the drive was uneventful. We saw the Pigeon Point Lighthouse, a straw maze (which is exactly what it sounds like), and then finally the crowded outskirts of San Francisco. I’ve been wanting to visit San Francisco for almost a decade now, but various trips I’ve planned have fallen through for one reason or another. So it was very exciting to finally be arriving here. We had reservations to stay for 3 nights at the Washington Square Inn, a little B&B off Washington Square Park near Coit Tower and Lombard Street. On the way there, we passed AT&T Park and a lot of hills. They’re not kidding about San Francisco and hills, apparently.

The Inn is awesome – very cozy, clean and inviting. Especially the shower, which we were both looking forward to using ASAP. But since we arrived between 8:30 and 9, we wanted to find a place for dinner before all of the restaurants closed. We ended up at an Italian place called Piazza Pellegrini (we’re staying in the Italian section of SF). Our waiter was amazingly polite – he should teach other waiters how to do their job – and the food was delicious. Kurt had crab ravioli, I had hand-made gnocchi, and we shared some tiramisu.

After dinner, we came right back to the Inn to take the longest showers of our lives and enjoy a solid night of sleep in a real bed. But first, we have to pick what kind of fresh pastries we want for breakfast tomorrow.

Into the wild, California style

After an excellent night of much needed sleep, we got ready to leave the delightful El Dorado Inn. While we were packing up, I quickly perused the Guest Services Directory in the room. I fell in love with the hotel completely when I saw that the calendar of events in the directory covered January 2004 through February 2005. Of course we stopped in the office to check out, say goodbye to the guy who refused a hug, and see what this hotel’s definition of Continental breakfast is. Presumably because we got there around 9:30 (breakfast was 8 – 10), all that was left was a few small store-bought pastries and part of a mutilated muffin. I had a pastry; Kurt passed.

We decided to head south on the Pacific Coast Highway today so that we could see the drive in the daylight and get some pictures, and we were hoping to snag a campsite somewhere in Big Sur. First, we headed into Carmel for breakfast. Thanks to Yelp, we found the Carmel Belle in a little cluster of crafts stores. The poached eggs were awesome, the truffled mushrooms served with mine were dreamy, and the apple juice was real, organic, and fresh-pressed.

After breakfast, I found a hand-painted magnet at one of the shops near where we ate. The lady working in the store was a real salesperson — she almost had me convinced that I needed 5 magnets, since she was willing to give me such a great deal. Then we stumbled upon a very cool Christmas ornament shop (Kris Kringle of Carmel), where we got an awesome personalized ornament. The line we saw when we went in was explained by the fact that the owner of the shop puts names on the ornaments by hand. We patiently waited our turn, and bonded with the owner while she worked on our ornament. We left with snowmen bearing our names and a tip on a show to see when we get to San Francisco.

Before heading south, we checked out the beach in Carmel. It was chilly out, but the sand felt great between our toes and I put my feet in the (freezing cold) Pacific for the first time. From the beach there, we could see neighboring Pebble Beach. We watched lots of dogs playing in the sand and pushed the limits of a stranger’s kindness by making her take approximately 75 pictures of us by the ocean.

The morning in Carmel was lovely, but it really got exciting when we saw a car with a Hawaii license plate on our way from the beach to the Mini. With Hawaii out of the way, we only need Rhode Island in order to complete the game! My mom confirms that we never found all 50 states on any family vacations, so this would be truly momentous.

After logging in HI, we headed back down Route 1, stopping several times along the way to take pictures. It was cloudy this morning, but the sun broke through while we were driving, and the views really are breathtaking.

At one of our scenic view stops, Kurt identified some poison oak, which is apparently everywhere along the coast. We kept our distance. At another stop, we traded favors with another couple, taking each others’ pictures with the coastline in the background. The other couple was in town for a huge motorcycle event that’s taking place in Monterey and Carmel this weekend. The couple promotes Monster energy drink, and they gave us some unsolicited free samples when we parted.

Much to our disappointment, all of the campgrounds along the coast were still full. One of them, where you camp overlooking the coastline, is worth returning to (with reservations) someday. I chatted up a nice park ranger named Rick at the Plackett Creek campgrounds, and he said we might have luck inland, along the Nacimiento Creek in Los Padres National Forest. He gave us directions to 2 campgrounds there, and he told us to ask for Charlie (another ranger) if we couldn’t find an open site. Apparently Charlie knows where you can camp on super secret, unofficial sites outside the “fee area.”

Luckily, it didn’t come to that. We followed Rick’s directions and headed east on Nacimiento Road. It would actually be more accurate to say we headed up. The road was super windy and narrow, making its way higher up the mountains that make up the coastline in Big Sur. Luckily, the Mini (with Kurt at the wheel) was up to the task. We got some stunning views — for part of the drive we were literally above the clouds, so high that we couldn’t see the ocean anymore. Then we wound down along the creek, through parts of the forest that still showed damage from wildfires a few years back. We finally came to the Nacimiento campgrounds, after a 40-minute 11-mile drive.

Only 1 site was left (no. 6), so we couldn’t be picky about the number. The creek runs right alongside the campgrounds, which have only 8 sites. The fee was only $10, so aside from the night we spent driving, this will be our cheapest night yet. We impressed our neighboring campers by pitching our tent in record time (well, they didn’t exactly comment on it, but they looked awestruck). I was more awestruck by the fact that a very persistent mosquito managed to find the one tiny spot on Kurt’s elbow that was not drenched in “Deep Woods” bug spray.

There are only 2 downsides to our situation tonight. The first is the bathrooms. They’re real, roughing-it, outhouse style facilities. No sinks or showers, and they’re kind of gross unless you hold your breath the whole time. The other drawback is that we didn’t grab dinner before coming back here, and it’s too much of a daunting drive in the light, let alone when sunset approaches, to consider making the 40-plus minute trip out for food.

So dinner will be the 7 remaining granola bars, the cheddar snack mix remnants, and the half a box of Triscuits we have in the car. We have plenty of water, and for dessert — animal crackers.

And now, time to play UNO until it gets too dark, then we test out our new camping pillows.

California dreaming

Despite how tired we were after a long day of driving yesterday, neither of us got great sleep last night. We’ve decided that sleeping on folded up sweatshirts isn’t going to cut it, and we plan to invest in camping pillows whenever we next see a camping supplies store. Also, we were both too grossed out by the bathrooms to take showers at the campsite. Setting those negatives aside, the lake was beautiful in the light. We saw a large bird skimming the surface for fish, and a few ripples where fish were jumping out of the water. So it made sense that the others camping in our area had fishing gear (and even some boats) along with them.

After taking some pictures, we packed everything up (fitting the tent and all of its accessories back in the bag once again). While folding up the tent, a park ranger rode up to confirm that we’d paid for the site. I explained that we’d put our envelope in the metal box, and he explained that it was supposed to go in a white pipe sticking out of the ground. Horseshoe Bend is so high-tech! Anyway, he found our envelope so it was no problem.

We got on the road earlier than normal and stopped in Modesto for breakfast at the Velvet Grill & Creamery. Great pancakes, awesome home fries, and tasty (but expensive) apple juice. After a quick Rite Aid stop, we set out for the coast — San Luis Obispo, to be exact.

The drive through Mariposa County mostly took us through yellow hills with sporadic trees, lots of cattle ranches, and a field of sheep. Eventually we got on route 99, which provided my first California freeway experience. I can sum up my thoughts about it this way: I assume California’s Department of Transportation is broke, because that’s the only explanation for the sad state of its freeways.

We ultimately headed south and got on I-5, first stopping for gas. 2 things happened during that stop: first, Kurt forbade me from getting fruit at a little produce stand on the gas station property; and second, we finally saw a North Dakota license plate, disproving my theory that people from ND aren’t allowed to leave their state. I got so excited when I notices the plate, that I gasped loudly, which alarmed Kurt (to put it mildly). Only 2 more states to go now before we’ve seen every state (plus DC and 5 or 6 Canadian provinces).

While driving on I-5, we learned a very important fact from farmers who have placed helpful signs on their land. It turns out that Congress has somehow created a dust bowl in central CA — we assume by somehow passing a law that put an end to rain. The signs weren’t specific about how Congress accomplished this dastardly deed, although some did specifically blame Nancy Pelosi and a CA legislator named Costa. In any event, the farmers are angry but luckily it hasn’t stopped the fruit tree growers from continuing to plant their trees in freakishly straight and impeccably groomed lines.

When we got to Paso Robles, we were suddenly in wine country. Lots of endless fields of grapes, and lots of vineyards offering tastings. I controlled myself, but only because I know we’ll be tasting wine in Sonoma in about a week.

By mid-afternoon, we reached San Luis Obispo. It’s a great college town, and it has an old Spanish mission at its center. We saw the mission, took some pictures, checked out a little art museum, and searched for magnet. A guy in an art shop pointed us to the chamber of commerce, where we found my cheapest magnet yet (under $2). we then had an early dinner at the Corner View Inn, a place I found using Yelp where they offered a discount to anyone who mentioned Yelp. The food was awesome — especially the slow roasted pork and mashed potatoes I ordered. When the bill came, I mentioned Yelp. Our waiter looked confused and said he’d look into it. A few minutes later, a woman who seemed to be the manager came over and excitedly told us that we were the first “Yelpers” to come take part in their promotion. She said “I’d like to tell you that you get $100 for being the first…” (we started getting super psyched) “…but…” (why is there always a but?) “…we’re not doing anything like that.” (Devastation.)

We noticed that there was a Sports Authority across the street, so after dinner we went there searching for camping pillows (our need was pressing, because we hoped to camp in Big Sur tonight). They had more types than we could handle, but eventually we settled on some nice Kelty pillows that fold up and compress for easy packing.

We hit the road again, pillows in hand, and soon reached the coast and my first view of the Pacific. We got to the coast near Morro Bay, where a huge rock defines the coastline. The sun was getting low, so we didn’t make any stops, trying to get to Big Sur before dark. We passed through a bunch of tiny towns, the tiniest being Harmony (population 18). Several miles later, we saw an out-of-place herd of zebra, and then we saw the Hearst Castle in the distance on top of a mountain overlooking the coast (huge!). The coast was amazing, and I was glad I wasn’t driving — both because I wanted to take everything in, and because there’s not much separating the edge of the road from the steep drop to the ocean.

Big Sur is awesome because it’s mostly undeveloped, but that means no cell service and very few lodging options. Unfortunately, we were not the only people interested in camping along the coast this weekend, and it seems as though everyone else managed to arrive earlier than we did. I guess they didn’t take time earlier today to try and photograph a little lizard running around the San Luis Obispo mission like I did. Anyway, we found a depressing string of “No Vacancy” and “Campgrounds Full” signs in Big Sur. So there wasn’t much to do but keep driving.

We rolled into Monterey around 9:30, and fate sent us right into the parking lot of the El Dorado Inn, which had a long sought “Vacancy” sign out front. Actually, fate sent us in right after a big SUV pulled in. By that time, we weren’t interested in seeing the last room at the El Dorado go to a guy in an SUV, so I frantically found my flip flops and hopped out of the car before it was fully stopped. I beat the SUV guy into the office, and was greeted by a really old guy of the slightly crotchety sort who had only 2 rooms left — I picked the queen bed with a fireplace (because it was on the 2nd floor). When he said he had a room and that it wasn’t going to cost an arm and a leg, I offered to hug him. He very calmly said “that won’t be necessary, ma’am,” without even cracking a smile. He was the best! So I got the key and he said he serves a free continental breakfast right there in the office every morning. That made me want to hug him even more, but I didn’t want to push the issue.

So we’re relieved to be off the road, and the place won me over just as much as its proprietor did, even though it isn’t exactly offering the luxury we grew accustomed to in Vegas. My favorite part of the room is in the bathroom, which has an assortment of soaps, shampoos, and lotions that appear to have been taken from various other name-brand hotels. In addition, there’s a public restroom style soap dispenser on the wall in the shower. But the bottom line is the bed is comfortable, and that’s the most important thing for 2 people as tired as we are. We’ll fall asleep quickly looking at the empty fireplace, imagining a roaring fire inside it.

Letting the altitude in

Today we finally left Vegas. When we got back in the Mini, it felt like forever since we’d last been in it. Also, it was even dirtier than we remembered. We were headed for Yosemite, but when we stopped at the Shell station on the outskirts of Vegas, we didn’t realize that would be the last point of civilization that we’d encounter today. Luckily, we stocked up on road food and drinks there (while a guy in a cowboy hat played quarter video poker in the mini-mart). Those provisions came in handy later.

On our way through Nevada, we drove past the Creech Air Force Base in Indian Springs. As we approached it, we saw a weird looking plane flying ahead of us. It landed at the base, and when we drove past Kurt recognized it as an unmanned Predator drone (as seen on TV Air Force ads, apparently). Pretty futuristic.

The next town we hit was Beatty, NV, and I’m using the word “town” very loosely. The main feature of Beatty, as far as we could tell, was the Angel’s Ladies Brothel. Not only did it have a large sign out front next to a little painted airplane, it also had a huge “A” on the rocky hillside behind it. It’s a whole town, right there in that one little brothel. “A” for Angel’s, as well as for Aggressive.

Soon after that, we entered Inyo National Forest for the first of several times today. It’s huge and varied in landscape — epitomizing the catch-phrase of all national forests, “Land of Many Uses.” I found Inyo to be infuriating because Kurt saw not one but two lizards scamper across the road in front of our car, and I missed it both times. I was probably distracted by a bright light or something shiny. So unfair.

When we crossed the border into California, we had the strangely exciting experience of going through a state border inspection station. No other state so far on our travels has demonstrated any level of concern about what may or may not be coming into its borders. California, however, cares enough to stop every single vehicle. I was psyched. I turned to Kurt and said “we don’t have anything illegal in here, do we?” He looked at me like I was crazy (as usual). The nice inspection lady checked what was in the back of the Mini, asked where our trip originated (“today’s trip or the whole thing?”), and inquired about whether we were bringing any foreign produce or plants in with us (luckily we got rid of our leftover North Carolina blueberries and boiled peanuts long ago). I wanted to befriend her, but she seemed too official for an extended chat about our road trip. So I somehow managed to keep a lid on my charm.

The next notable event from today was an extended stretch of road through a valley in middle-of-nowhere California that was full of dips. There was even a sign alerting us to the dips, and the sign wasn’t kidding. It was like riding a rollercoaster, and I couldn’t stop giggling. Even Kurt had to laugh on a few of the larger dips. Whoever planned that road made virtually no effort to flatten it out. It was good times.

After the dips, on our way toward Yosemite on route 120, we ran across Mono Lake, which was unexpected and awesome. Just before the lake, we saw the site of a 2001 forest fire. A helpful plaque there explained the fact that Smokey the Bear was such a successful safety campaign that he actually HARMED forests by leading to too few forest fires. Apparently, periodic small fires are a good thing, because they clear out old, dead trees and brush. Kurt already knew all about this phenomenon, but I found it fascinating.

Anyway, on to the lake itself. A “sister lake” to the Great Salt Lake, Mono Lake’s water has almost 3 times as much salt in it as ocean water, and is also way more alkaline. It’s basically water plus table salt plus baking soda — you could make your very own Mono Lake at home! Except for the fact that you probably couldn’t make tufas at home, and they’re kind of the main attraction at Mono Lake. Tufas are strange-looking mineral deposit columns jutting up out of the ground in and around the lake. The lake was formed by a glacier and has been continuously receding, leaving tufas behind on its shores. So obviously we took pictures (including one using the timer with the camera perched on…you guessed it…a tufa), and stuck our hands in the water (very slippery and full of brine shrimp and tiny alkali flies).

The only other thing worth mentioning is Kurt’s epic battle with a very large fly. The fly began playing head games with Kurt while we walked from the parking lot to the lake, and it didn’t quit the whole time we were there. It was kind of an evil genius. The first encounter was initially undetected by Kurt — I discovered the fly chilling out on the back of Kurt’s shirt after a photography session at the first big bunch of tufas. I chased it away, but it was persistent. After stalking Kurt down the path, making him swat futilely in every direction, it backed off (presumably to lull Kurt into a false sense of security). But it kept popping up and tormenting Kurt, intermittently causing him to flail about, even going so far as to fly alongside our car when we left the parking lot.

After Mono Lake, we continued on to Yosemite, and our drive continued to take us through areas completely lacking in civilization, cell phone service, and food. But it was pretty.

We finally reached Yosemite early in the evening, and it was absolutely gorgeous. The drive takes you on winding roads up the mountainsides, and the eastern entrance to the park at Tioga Pass has an elevation of nearly 10,000 feet. We saw snow on mountains around us (not much higher than where we were) and beautiful mountain lakes. We took some pictures at one, which we’ll post when we can. We saw more deer, but no bears. On one level, that was obviously a relief. But on another level, it felt like all of the bear-related warnings and signs were a lie.

We held out some remote hope of finding a place within the park to camp, but a quick stop at the camping office confirmed that all sites were full. That meant we had to keep moving on to a private campground west of the park, which was a bit of a hike. Luckily, we came across a general store in Yosemite that had pre-packaged salads, so that was our dinner. And in the 15 minutes we sat at a picnic table eating those salads, an army of mosquitos had their way with us before we could get our bug spray out of the car. I got the worst of it, somehow ending up with 2 pretty major bites on my face. So if you notice me strategically shielding my right temple and the left side of my forehead in pictures over the next few days, now you know why.

After we ate our salads and the mosquitos ate my face, we hit the road again, heading toward some campgrounds I saw online on the other side of Yosemite (in an area infested with squirrels and rabbits rather than bears). The drive took longer than anticipated –Yosemite and its gorgeous streams, lakes, mountains, etc., go on forever. A one point we saw signs alerting us to a controlled “management-approved” forest fire. We didn’t see it, but we smelled it. I considered this to be a helpful real-life demonstration of the forest fire lesson I learned earlier today.

When we finally got out of the park, it was getting close to sundown. The first campgrounds we came to wanted $50 for a tent site, which is crazy. We passed on that and decided that if we found a hotel for a reasonable price before reaching open campgrounds, we’d take it. However, when we reached Groveland, we were informed (at both the Groveland Motel and Hotel Charlotte) that we would not find a room in “Gold Country” during “High Season” for less than an arm and a leg. So on we went.

Finally, around 10 pm, we reached Horseshoe Bend Receation Area in Mariposa County. Luckily, you can do self check-in there, picking any open campsite and putting money in an envelope into a metal box by the ranger station. There were plenty of open sites (for $20), so of course we picked C-13. We’re slaves to tradition. The site was overlooking a lake, in an area with a few other occupied sites nearby. So we tested our tent-pitching abilities by getting set up in the glow of the Mini’s headlights. Keep in mind that this was only the second time we ever assembled this tent. Also keep in mind that we were exhausted from the the drive out of Yosemite, which was twisty and turny. And finally, please remember that our meals today consisted of a small pre-made salad and various snack foods from the Vegas gas station this morning. In other words, we were hungry. In the face of all of that adversity, we had to pitch the tent in the dark. But since we’re natural campers, it turned out to be a piece of cake. We brushed our teeth in the bathrooms, which were not exactly spotless, with miniature toads looking on from the floor. Just another typical end to another run-of-the-mill day.

Given our lack of time to stop and smell the roses in Yosemite today (due to our lack of accommodations there), we already know that we have to go back with more time to spend there (and more advance planning) someday.

Tomorrow, I’ll see the west coast for the first time. I might be too excited to sleep!