10 September 2009

California (iii), 28-29 May

Many muttered curses here. I've just looked at my watch and it's already 5:30 pm. So much for the idea of finishing this post before it's time to make dinner. Or rather heat up dinner, since tonight we're having another Waitrose meal, half a Peking duck. All I need to do is julienne some vegetables to put into the Chinese pancakes.

For the record—my record if we're ever back this way and I'm tracking our previous itinerary—the last California post saw us leaving the Westin Hotel in Long Beach, making our way via Sal the Garmin satnav rather than yours truly, to Highway 1 and the coast. I'll interpolate here the welcome news that one of Michael's presents for his Sept 16th birthday is another Garmin that will be guiding us along the Atlantic margin of France in a few days. Thank god! I can't say there will be no arguments in the rental car, but there won't be as many.

On the freeway (105) one of the idiot lights starts flashing a tire pressure warning. Michael had driven over a wooden board at one stage and images of nails piercing rubber immediately surfaced. But a kindly mechanic reinflated the tire (he was reluctant to accept even the $5 we finally forced on him) and the problem disappeared.

Hwy 405 took us to Route 10 south of Malibu, which becomes Hwy 1, sea and beach on left, steep bluffs on right. New apartment complexes are built right into the hillsides, just waiting for another of the landslides that have already left huge scars. Malibu is still funky, beach shack after beach shack lining the road, with the occasional posher home where two or three of the shacks have been combined into an upmarket residence.

When we stopped at the red conglomerates below to obtain the obligatory sand sample, a cyclist came up to us to report that we should have a look for owls nesting in the rocks. We got talking, as one does, and he happened to comment when we mentioned we had been staying in the Philadelphia area, that his niece, Seychelle Gabriel, had won a part in a film being made there. Turns out this is a big movie, directed by M. Night Shyamalan, with the sound stage in an abandoned 180,000-square-foot building formerly owned by the Budd Company, my dad's employer for his entire working life. [Amusingly, our informant had only heard the word "Budd"; like Michael forty years ago he assumed this was "Bud" the beer manufacturer not an engineering company.] Scenes in The Last Airbender, released next summer, were also shot at a Philadelphia Electric Company power plant, another family connection since Dad's brother John worked for PE and his son Chris still does.

We then passed the lush campus of Pepperdine University, with lovely houses (faculty?) nestled into the low hills next door. This manicured site must surely house dorms like those in this photo essay by TIME. Do take a look: it's amazing how life has changed for students in at least some colleges these days. http://www.time.com/time/photogallery/0,29307,1838306,00.html

Beach shacks were now disappearing and real estate prices were obviously rising. While there was still a feel of that maverick independence—free spirits going as far west as they could and stopping at the water's edge—we were moving into the part of Malibu where the stars hang out. Apparently Sting's house rents for $25,000 a month. We didn't spot any famous faces, but what I was looking for were enviable properties. Here are a few glimpses of the homes and gardens we saw when Michael indulged me by turning off the coastal highway into a residential neighborhood, amazingly green so near the beach. I'm surprised I wasn't carted away as a potential stalker when I quickly leapt out the car, camera in hand, at various driveways. I think it would be worth clicking on some of these to see the details, but maybe you had to be there. If I had a spare million or ten . . . but perhaps not. We also fell in love with the ambience of Santa Cruz a few days later.

Our first real stop of the day was Santa Barbara, a favorite destination back when we lived in Westlake Village for about eighteen months during Iain and Kate's elementary school days. After driving through the agricultural stretches of Oxnard and Ventura, we came to the town the migrant workers we saw picking berries probably rarely if ever visited. There were a fair number of shops and restaurants clearly beyond our means, too, but the purple haze of jacaranda in bloom was for everyone.

Nonetheless, I managed to acquire two blouses and a belt from Chico's, one of the few chains I know where I'm always likely to find outfits I covet. Searches in a huge, beautiful Borders and a smaller Barnes & Noble failed to turn up copies of Sand—so close to the shore, too, in the state where it was published. Sigh. What we did find in the former was a display of books boasting a quintessentially Californian sign: BUILD YOUR BEST BEACH BODY. We'd need to start with the series on another table, Eat This, Not That.

Lured by my favorite four-letter word in the window, I also bought a stunning lapis lazuli necklace on the main drag for $37, a knockdown price that proved it was indeed a SALE. In a kitchen shop we picked up a vacuum popper jar opener for Ri (anyone who doesn't have one of these should make it a mission--simple, inexpensive, and brilliant, far better than any of the other devices I've bought over the years). We wandered into Bitterman's for lunch, an NYC-style deli that proves you don't have to be Jewish to make a great pastrami sandwich; the Chinese family running it served a simple but delicious meal.

On the way to the Ballard Inn in Santa Ynez Valley, our most extravagant 40th anniversary treat other than the Jim Denevan feast from Kate and my parents, we stopped at El Capitan State Beach for more sand and then drove straight through that capital of kitsch, Solvang, a real blot on the landscape. We arrived at the inn just in time for a complimentary local wine tasting with cheese, salami, and fresh fruit. We were careful not to overindulge, because the meal that night was to be prepared by a cook who had recently won a glossy magazine challenge to be ranked as "Ultimate Chef, Central Coast."

In the unlikely event that you've made it this far, Kate, here's something for you. We chatted over wine and snacks to a very pleasant Californian couple. The wife, originally from England, worked for Citrus College (only in the land of fruits and nuts!) and the school offers a highly respected one-year certification in sound engineering that prides itself in placing students in jobs. Here's a link: http://www.citrusarts.org/ra/studio.html. It may not be LIPA, but then few colleges are.

Now two photos of our "Vineyard Room," most of the furniture not bentwood but bentvine. What fascinated me most about the room, though, was not the decor but the guestbook. Many Californians are unembarrassed about gushing and there was example after example of this, passionate declarations of love on honeymoons, anniversaries, pop-the-question weekends. However, there was one cryptic entry written in December 2008 that was a mini-story all in itself: "I am married—but not to him. We had a grand time here! Happy holidays." I'm sure they made more use of the needlepoint cushion reading "Do Not Disturb" than we did.

Dinner was everything we had hoped, Budi Kazali's great food washed down with a bottle of very good wine, a 2006 Flying Goat Cellars pinot noir from Dierberg Vineyard in the Santa Maria Valley. You'll need to enlarge this menu to read it.

The pairings of flavors on each dish were stunningly imaginative, including the Tahitian vanilla bean crème brulée and the intense passion fruit sorbet/coconut tuile we had for dessert. Of all the courses, I'd have to pick Michael's pork belly as the most surprising delight, even more of a standout than my soft shell crab with shredded papaya salad and chili aioli (a special not on menu). The pork was meltingly tender and unlike anything we'd eaten before.

While Michael sipped his double expresso and black muscat dessert wine, we amused ourselves by listening to a merry and articulate Texan woman at a table for ten. "We had dinner with Jackie Asbury tonight," M. announced when we got back to our room. Jackie is a friend in Dallas who could have given Ann Richards a run for her money had she ever decided to go into politics. Amazing memory for names and connections. Back in Plano days, I used to get out a pencil and pad whenever I was chatting with Jackie on the phone, since there was no way I could give my husband a faithful account of the conversation without notes. I can't remember now whether it's east or west Texas she hails from, but I've never met anyone I'd rather have sitting next to me at a social function. "There's no comfort in a crowded graveyard." "He was behind the door when they were handing out_____ (name your virtue)." "Never saw a hearse with a luggage rack." I'll have to dig into my commonplace book for more sayings I first heard from Jackie, all relayed with her characteristic deadpan wit.

But—yet again—I digress. The next morning we gobbled our cheese omelette and sourdough toast (nice touch: chopped herbs scattered around rims of large white plates) before we set off for Oceano to meet Kevin, a thirty-something firefighter who is an expert on the dunes there. He had come across throughthesandglass and, when Michael mentioned in the blog that he was heading for the California coast, offered to take us on a tour. Our rendezvous point was the Rock & Roll Diner on Railroad Street, a local landmark.

The dunes are extraordinary, vast expanses of sand that Michael can do far more justice to than I (http://throughthesandglass.typepad.com/through_the_sandglass/2009/06/california-sands-the-dunes-of-oceano-1.html). I see the photos I've chosen very much overlap with his, so I'll just leave them here unannotated. It's almost 11 pm and I've promised to be in bed within fifteen minutes.

Kevin is an advocate for nature, but not the sort of purist who would respond to an ad I saw in Central Coast Magazine for "natural soap" crafted in a "solar and wind powered yurt studio." He speaks poetically about the region he loves ("draperies of monarch butterflies in Pismo eucalyptus") but also comments, "Give me a box of sand and a hammer and I'll show you how I'm destroying the dunes." This latter remark was in reference to his belief that a small area of the dune system should remain open to off-road vehicles. His stance is controversial, but we were impressed by how reasonable and low-key his advocacy is. He is far from the party-animal and Hell's Angel bikers of popular imagination. He admits "yes, we have a footprint," but his aim is to keep that footprint minimal while still enjoying the freedom to ride. The videos in his Facebook albums are exhilarating even for a tame soul like me.

Below is Michael tucking into the famous clam chowder served in a round sourdough loaf at Splash in Pismo Beach. Without Kevin to guide us through the commercial center as well as through the dunes, we would have missed out on another memorable experience.

We say our good-byes and promise to send Kevin a DVD of the Japanese film Woman in the Dunes. On the way to Monterey we stop at a Spanish mission in San Miguel (shown below), pass some nodding donkeys that remind us of There Must Be Blood, and completely fail to find any wineries like Wild Horse that don't entail a major deviation from our route. When we stop to fill up with gas, we're almost blown away by the wind. Kevin was right when he told us that the lack of sunshine on our Oceano trek represented a trade-off. In the morning along the coast there's little sun, but also no wind; in the afternoon it's sunny but windy. All those sandgrains on the move would have been a real challenge. For the functioning of our cameras as well as for us.

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