Generally, I like to work my RV trips to a theme — following the Oregon Trail, visiting all the California Missions, or retracing Lewis and Clark’s journey backwards. But often, a big part of my trips is trying to find a way out of California. One of the few drawbacks to living in California is that it’s not easy to leave, especially if you want to go East. You have three basic escape routes. The first —Interstate 80 through Sacramento, then to Tahoe and Reno —is only possible at certain times of the year, at least if you don’t want to brave a blinding snowstorm, one of which just hit the day I left.
Your next choice is 101 which dumps you off smack in LA, and you’ll have to drive the entire length of that urban sprawl to get east. My default in recent trips has been the I-5 which goes through the middle of the Central Valley and a whole lot of nothing but large agribusiness farms. To get east, you veer through Bakersfield and out to the Mojave Desert. Besides the lack of scenery, the drawback for me is going over two mountain passes, the Pacheco Pass in the North and the Tehachapi Pass in the South.
It was time to change things up. That’s when I hit on the idea of going down CA-1, which we in the North call The Cabrillo Highway and, in the South, they call the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH). For about ten minutes I imagined the sunsets I’d see from the dramatic heights of Big Sur. Then I remembered the last time I’d driven this route it was a white knuckle, windy, two lane road with the southbound lane looking down on a sheer drop into the Pacific. Driving my camper van, Buffalo Soldier, which is not the most nimble vehicle, through Big Sur suddenly didn’t seem worth the sunsets.
So 101 became the route. As you get to the South, 101 occasionally merges with the tamer parts of CA-1. I could enjoy the sunsets and Pacific views with none of the terror.
As I meandered down the 101, I was reminded anew what a pretty drive this is — at least once you get south of Silicon Valley. Most of the drive is through small towns, farming and ranching country. With a few incongruous thing like the San Ardo oil fields which despoil a huge hillside area and seem to be pumping dangerously close to the Salinas River. I’d have snapped a picture, but one of my few quibbles with the 101 is that there are relatively few places where you can pull off and get some snaps.
Seems everyone who has ever lived in California has a favorite memory of the 101. A few friends texted me wanting pictures of specific things. A friend who is a former surfer wanted to know the state of the waves. As if I would know. Wet, I guess. The most hilarious request was from a friend who graduated from Cal Poly and wanted me to check if the cowboy statue in front of McLintock’s Saloon and Steak House in Pismo Beach still had his head. Seems it was a favorite pastime of the Cal Poly boys back in the day to shinny up this three story statue, which is carved from one giant tree, and cut the head off. I’m pleased to report that Cowboy McLlintock still has his head.
My stop for the night was Morro Bay, specifically Morro Strand State Beach. Although the campground is right near the beach, I found I was prohibited from a beach walk as the Snowy Plover were nesting.
With no beach rambles on offer, I did the next most popular thing to do at a campground. Just putter around, sweep out the rig, build a campfire, and cook some dinner.
I would brag about my mad fire making skillz, but it’s all down to having an ingenious foldable charcoal starter. I can get some coals started that then start my wood fire perfectly.
Clearly I had a much better technique than the guy in the next campsite. He was dousing his wood with an entire bottle of lighter fluid. Perhaps as a distraction from wondering if Fire Bug was going to ignite his entire campsite, car and self, I started people watching the other campers on this unseasonably cold and windy beach.
Seems I was the youngest person there. By decades. And the only one with a van. The few other campers all seemed to be in their eighties, sleeping in ratty tents, and sporting equally ratty wetsuits and surfboards.
It suddenly hit me, these old surfing geezers were exactly the age Moondoggie and The Big Kahuna from the movie Gidget would be. No not the Sally Field Gidget, but the 1959 movie with James Darren as Moondoggie and Cliff Robertson as The Big Kahuna. Clearly they’d gotten tired of how their old stomping grounds of Malibu had gone Hollywood and moved up to Morro Bay. I can’t tell you how well they were tackling the waves, but they were spending some serious elbow grease waxing their boards. So they weren’t just dilettantes.
My next night’s stop was Buellton and the Santa Ynez wine country. I headed off to the tiny Western town of Los Olivos, which is basically four streets lined chock-a-block with wine tasting rooms. I bucked that trend and did an olive oil tasting.
The winners, according to my palate were the Arbequina, which was very light and fruity, and the Lemon infused olive oil which had a wonderfully fresh citrus taste. My least favorite was the truffle infused oil. I love truffle, I love olive oil, I’m not sure I love them together. Besides, truffle oil seems to go off pretty quickly. So if you buy a truffle infused oil, you’d better be prepared to drizzle it on everything every day before it’s gone by.
Next stop was Fess Parker Winery. Yes, THAT Fess Parker of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone fame. Apparently Fess Parker was a savvy businessman who put all his money into real estate and land. He originally ranched up in the Santa Rita Mountains, then realized wine was becoming a cash crop and founded his winery. I should note that he had a lot of money to invest because he was one of the few artists who got royalties out of the notoriously tight-fisted Walt Disney. Yup, every plastic Davy Crockett flint lock rifle and every Daniel Boone lunchbox yielded royalties to Parker that he wisely invested.
But lest you think this is just another celebrity winery, Fess Parker’s son Eli kicked it up a notch. Training at premium wineries in France and the US as well as studying at UC Davis, Eli Parker has been winning awards and snagging Winemaker of the Year awards for a while now. Still, I was sorry to see how the expansive tasting room has changed. If you are a fan of the movie Sideways, you’ll recognize the old rustic tasting room as the place where Miles chugs wine from the spit bucket. I’m sorry to say, that old tasting room — complete with dozens of pictures and artifacts from Fess Parker’s glory days has been swept away. Now the tasting room is very elegant, but there is barely a trace of Fess Parker.
I guess I can sympathize. What if you had achieved a status as a premier and award-winning winemaker but were still playing second fiddle to a guy in a coonskin cap? But still. Did he have to do away with the glasses etched with a coonskin cap? I treasured one for years until someone broke it. I was hoping to buy another, but alas, they are no longer being sold.
Sadly, the fancy-schmancy tasting room doesn’t come with especially competent staff. There couldn’t have been more than 15 to 20 people in the whole place. But the staff of six (that I could count) seemed flustered. One person told me curtly that she couldn’t possibly give me a tasting as they were “slammed”. Really? In our tiny winery we’ve easily done a tasting for more than 20 people with just Andy and myself serving. Instead, I bought a glass of one of their Pinot Noirs that I hadn’t yet tasted and sat unobtrusively on the patio. Which allowed me to hear how the staff was doing the bare minimum for those that were allowed to taste. Sort of at the level of “Here’s our latest Pinot Noir. It uses Pinot Noir grapes. We think you’ll like it.” Jeez, at our winery, you get Andy romancing every vintage and me telling funny stories about how I got a mouse and a deer drunk in the early days of our winemaking.
If I were in the market for a job at another winery, I’d have a word with Eli Parker. But he’d have to get me a glass etched with a coonskin cap. That’s my dealbreaker.
Finally, I capped the evening at the famous Hitching Post II restaurant — which was famous long before it was featured in the movie Sideways. It’s worth noting, at the risk of the scoffing of my Southern friends, that California has a rich tradition of barbecue. California barbecue descends from the Spanish colonial tradition of barbacoa which involves cooking on an open fire of California oak. It’s a “dry” barbecue, with no sauces, just a baste with oil and vinegar and a dusting of spice rub. In the case of the Hitching Post, that is their Magic Stuff, which I still can’t really identify, bur I’m told it’s a simpler mixture than you’d think: maybe just salt, pepper and garlic.
And there you have it, a post as meandering as my trip down the coast. Maybe as I start heading east this trip will start developing a theme.