California Road Trip (2005)

When I received the invitation to my nephew Colin’s wedding, I asked my friend Dana if she wanted to join me for a road trip in California. She’d never been to my home state, and agreed immediately. We would start in wine country with a stay at a hot springs, then drive down the coast with various stops. I’d drop her at the airport in Long Beach to fly home while I went on to Temecula for the wedding.

Dana considers what champagne to try first at Mumm

Wine Country

As I drove us up to the gatehouse at Harbin Hot Springs, Dana looked out the car window and said, “It’s clothing optional.”

“I told you to read all about them on the website.” Really, I hadn’t intended to surprise her. I’d suggested she read about the place and let me know if she wasn’t comfortable going. Yeah, the words “it’s clothing optional” had not come out of my mouth at the time.

I knew about Harbin from a friend who’d spent a day there a few years before. It’s a place for thoughtful retreat, simple living, and mind/body rejuvenation. Yoga and other classes, and the cafe, are not clothing optional, but all the pools and sundecks are. The complex has dorm-style housing, camp sites, and a few private bungalows, one of which I had reserved for two nights.

Passing the nude man who’d caught Dana’s attention, I drove us to the office where we checked in and received directions for parking and to our bungalow. It was a charming cottage with a single queen size bed and a bathroom covered in brightly colored tiles and stones. We relaxed for a bit on our private patio with glasses of wine, and then decided to go to the pools.

Dana spotted the On the Way to Harbin geocache

Wearing swimsuits.

Dana at the crossing of two historic trails

We settled with towels and books on a couple lounge chairs by the recreational pool. It was not crowded, but everyone else who was there was nude. I felt distinctly out of place, as if everyone who looked at us knew we were “newbies.” I hate being a newbie.

We got into the pool where a guy was swimming leisurely laps. I floated. I dove. I took off my swimsuit.

And I felt wonderful.

After that we visited the warm pool with it’s venerable overarching fig tree hung with crystals. Next to that, the hot pool–with water direct from the hot spring–was housed in a quiet grotto. I found it just too hot to tolerate. Dana did a little better, but we both retreated to the warm pool.

Petrified tree
Calistoga from the hills

We had stopped at Trader Joes and bought some bulgogi beef and salads for dinner. Harbin has a kitchen for guest use in one of the dorm buildings. But we hadn’t realized, or had forgotten we read it, that it’s a vegan kitchen. We made do with the salads and ultimately had to throw out the beef due to lack of refrigeration and opportunity to cook it.

The next day we drove through Calistoga and Napa and visited wineries. As the driver, I had to work hard not to over-taste. Driving back up to Harbin in the afternoon we stopped and found the On the Way to Harbin geocache.

Golden Gate in the June Gloom
The Sutro Baths ruins provide great views of Seal Rocks.

We’d tried and failed to get dinner reservations at the French Laundry, so we’d booked the Culinary Institute of America (CIA) instead. We’d been to the CIA in New York and knew what to expect. The student-prepared meal and student service were both great.

Golden Gates

We were off to San Francisco the next day, taking a roundabout route via a petrified forest. The views of vineyards from the hills around Napa were spectacular. I knew San Francisco would provide quite a contrast, so I wanted to savor the tranquility.

“Quick, get your camera out.”

It was early afternoon and I was driving through Sausalito, getting close to the Golden Gate Bridge. Dana scrambled and captured some shots of the big, orange structure as we crossed it.

Crowded cable car

We found our hotel in town, then set out to explore. I took us out to one of my favorite places: the ruins of the Sutro Baths and the overlook of the Pacific and Seal Rocks. Then we found parking near Fisherman’s Wharf and explored there, fitting in a cable car ride and a visit to Lombard street.

By the end of the day we were weary, our feet sore. After a glass of wine in our hotel lobby, where there was a social hour, we wandered back out and found a nondescript restaurant for dinner. I was disappointed that I hadn’t thought to book us someplace great, but on the other hand, I was tired enough that I might not have enjoyed it.

Rooftops of Winchester House

Bidding farewell to San Francisco, we headed south to San Jose. I’d shown Dana info on the Winchester House and she wanted to stop. I visited when I was in college and remembered it being interesting, if a bit kitschy. We both enjoyed the tour. Our stop for the night was Santa Barbara, where we visited the waterfront and found a restaurant in town, but did not have time for much more.

The coast north of Malibu

We drove on south along the Pacific Coast Highway, once again enjoying the scenery. We stopped briefly in San Luis Obispo, browsing in a bookstore of all places just to get a break from the road. Then we stopped again north of Malibu to look at a marker for El Camino Royal and take in the view of the Pacific coast.


Dana greets the Pacific Ocean

Finally we reached our hotel in Marina Del Rey. We walked north into Venice, taking in the human circus that is Venice Beach. I directed us to The Sidewalk Cafe, an institution where I’d enjoyed many breakfasts when I lived here. I was sorry not to find the map of Venice Beach that I’d drawn for Jeffrey Stanton years before available in the attached bookstore. I also didn’t find Jeffrey with his tricycle selling postcards on the Oceanfront Walk. Must have been an off day for him.

The Sidewalk Cafe
Dana finds a match

After lunch we walked out on the sand to dip our toes into the Pacific. I make a point of doing this whenever I visit LA. It was Dana’s first time touching that particular ocean.

On the way back to the hotel I guided Dana out onto the rocks of the marina main channel, telling her about how many times I’d sailed out this way. We watched boats coming and going, Dana allowing me to wallow for a bit in memories.

In the morning we drive to Hollywood and visit the hand and footprints outside of the Chinese Theater. Dana enjoys seeing who her hand matches: Rita Hayworth!

And then we go on to Long Beach airport where Dana departs to fly home while I go on to Colin and Liz’s wedding.

Temecula vineyards
Gloria and me

Family Affairs

But first, I drive through Corona to visit with my other sister-in-law, Gloria. My brother David had passed away a couple years before, and I had not seen Gloria since his funeral. She was in the slow process of reducing their joint belongings to what she really needed so that she could move to Colorado near her daughters. We had a lovely visit, reminiscing about my brother and my mother. Gloria had been, and will remain in my heart, an angel when my mother was in the final stages of her life. Gloria stepped in and managed mom in a way that we children simply couldn’t manage, emotionally. All while caring for her own mother who lived with them at the time.

Ralph, Barbara, and Colin at the rehearsal dinner

From Corona I drove down to Temecula, a town that I thought of as a roadside attraction from childhood drives from Riverside to Camp Pendleton to visit my brother David the marine. Who knew it had become a wine mecca. Not as established and famous as its northern cousins where we’d started this trip, but wine country nonetheless.

The Groom’s family ready for the main event

Colin and Liz had selected a vineyard for their wedding. My brother Ralph, his wife Barbara, their daughter Meghann, and their retriever Skye, had offered a bed in their room in a nearby motel. [Attentive readers will think they know Meghann from a trip to France in 2004. But you do not. Both of my brothers’ daughters are named Meghann. Yes, it caused some family upset, but that’s a story for another time.] It was a busy room, but large enough to not feel overcrowded for a short stay.

The rehearsal dinner was a fun evening at which I met the bride and re-met Barbara’s sisters and brothers, who I had not seen since we were all children and young adults, and their spouses.

The next morning I found a nail shop for a manicure, because my hands needed it and to give my relatives some space. We met back up for the wedding on a lawn at the vineyard.

As always, it was hard to leave California for New York the next day. But even so, I realize that it’s no longer the California of my childhood and youth. So what I miss isn’t there, and I can visit it in my memories any time.

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