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Buck O’Neil, Roy Campanella, and a Surprising Twist of Fate

July 12, 2018

In a Fog

July 12, 2018

Maybe it was because we’ve been on so many road trips and think we know what we’re doing. Maybe it’s because this was such a short trip. Maybe it was because I was very busy at work until a couple of weeks ago. Whatever the reason, I did much, much less research and advanced planning for this trip than I’ve done in the past. In fact, until a couple of weeks ago, I had only the vaguest outline of what there is to do along US 1. And today’s the day it almost came back to bite us.

Late Tuesday night I realized that much of the plan for Wednesday was not really a plan at all. Whereas I typically have a document populated by the addresses, hours, and prices of various attractions, my itinerary for today had the information for Hearst Castle and then a foggy list of the names of towns we’d be passing through.

So late last night Sam and I did some hurried research and planning. We discovered that some of the towns I listed (San Luis Obispo, Ventura, Malibu, etc.) don’t really have much worth stopping for. Another, Pismo Beach, had something that’s a must-see at just about any time of year but the summer (a Monarch butterfly hibernating grove) and something else cool that takes much more time than we had available (ATV rentals at a vast expanse of sand dunes right on the ocean). Also, we found out about the elephant seals.

With our freshly minted expertise on California’s central coast, we cobbled together a pretty good itinerary. The only problem was the Anaheim Angels. Sam has never been to an Angels game, but because our trip was ending in Los Angeles I somehow never even considered Anaheim (which is slightly southeast of L.A.) as part of the equation. It so happens that the Angels would be playing at home at 7pm Wendesday, but Anaheim is a 7-hour drive from Hearst Castle. I told Sam that making it to the game was a long shot at best, and that even if everything broke just right, we’d miss at least the first half of the game, if not more. But I promised him that if we managed to make it to Anaheim with a few innings left in the game, we’d go.

Despite our newfound clarity, we still woke up Wednesday morning in a fog. Literally.

San Simeon fog

Nonetheless, we made it to Hearst Castle about 20 minutes before our tour (I had reserved tickets online the night before), so the person who checked us in bumped us up to a tour that started 10 minutes earlier. We had only been awake for an hour and already we were ahead of schedule! Even better, our tour was less than half full, which made everything slightly easier and more pleasant.

The tour begins with a 15-minute bus ride from the welcome center to the castle, which climbs hill after hill on the massive estate, which was originally an undeveloped 200,000 acre ranch owned by William Randolph Hearst’s father, and which today is owned and operated by the Hearst Corporation. (The family donated the castle and auxiliary buildings to the state of California back in the 1950s, but Hearst uses the land as a cattle ranch. Seriously. You can buy genuine Hearst Corporation beef at a grocery just down the road.)

Hearst cattle

Future Hearst beef

The bus ride was narrated by Alex Trebek, who explained all of this in a prerecorded mini-history of Hearst and the castle. When we reached the steps of the castle, we met our flesh-and-blood tour guide, James Wog, who was a character to say the least.

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James walked us around the outside, showing us the outdoor pool, the gardens, the cottages, and the many, many ancient statues purchased by William Randolph Hearst to decorate ever inch of the place. Then we finally went inside the main house, known as Casa Grande, where we toured the sitting room, the dining room (which inspired the set designers for the Harry Potter movies), the smoking room, the billiard room, and the movie theater before being released into the wild. Sam and I wandered over to the tennis court and the indoor pool before hopping onto a bus back down to the welcome center (and gift shop, of course). Through it all, James Wog regaled us with tales of Hearst’s parties, eccentricities, famous guests (Charlie Chaplin, most often), and extramarital relationship with a Hollywood starlet. (After noticing how many young children were on our tour, he winkingly said that Hearst and the actress were “partners” so as not to offend.)

As you might expect, everything was gorgeous, lavish, opulent, ostentatious, and exquisite.

We took the basic tour, but there are several others offered, including one that focuses on the kitchen and nearby cottages, and another that goes upstairs to some of the 68 bedrooms. But Sam’s interest in opulent old mansions lasts only about an hour or so, so one tour was enough for us. Besides, we had other places to be.

One of the things we discovered in our hasty research is that, just four miles up the road from Hearst Castle, there’s a beach that’s been taken over by elephant seals. In 1990, about 200 seals suddenly showed up on this particular beach, and every year the numbers increased. Now there are approximately 17,000 elephant seals who make the beach their home, and they can be seen there resting, feeding, barking, and fighting all year, though the summer months tend to have thinner herds.

San Simeon Elephant Seals

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From there Waze told us it would take 2.5 hours to get to our next stop, Santa Barbara. We were enjoying the drive immensely, soaking up the continuously fantastic scenery for over an hour, but then we hit a couple of snags. First, as we passed through a town called Morro Bay, Sam suddenly remembered that an aquarium called The Jewel of Morro Bay is the setting of Finding Dory. Feeling adventurous, I reset Waze to take us to the Morro Bay aquarium, but then I wondered if the movie was based on an actual place or whether we’d end up disappointed by a random and otherwise meaningless small-town aquarium. Sam decided to look it up, and according to the Internet (which is, of course, never wrong), the aquarium in the movie is actually based on the Monterey Bay Aquarium we had been to a day earlier, not the one in Morro Bay. Which is odd, because the movie aquarium looks nothing at all like the real one and the real one doesn’t even house the kinds of aquatic animals that were Dory’s main costars. (No beluga whales, for example.) So we were a little disappointed but mostly we were baffled by how the movie was based on something without resembling it in any way, and we drove through Morro Bay without stopping.

A bigger problem happened a little further down the road. At one point, US 1 met up with US 101, and the two roads became one for a bunch of miles. But when they split up again at Pismo Beach, Waze told us to stay on 101. I decided to disobey, choosing instead to follow US 1 through downtown Pismo Beach as it hugged the coast while 101 veered slightly east. After all, we came here to drive down the coast, not to get from point A to point B as quickly as possible. The Hamster agreed.

Of course, this turned out to be a mistake. What Waze knew but we didn’t was that, right after Pismo Beach, US 1 becomes a local road that also cuts east away from the coastline, taking us past miles and miles of industrial farming equipment. Gone was the beautiful scenery, and gone was the 2.5-hour drive time. Our decision to be purists added about 30 minutes to our trip, little to none of which was picturesque or particularly enjoyable. We would’ve been better off taking the 101 shortcut.

Eventually, about 30 miles north of Santa Barbara, the two roads met up again and got close to the coast again, and we happily zoomed the rest of the way, having learned the hard way to trust Waze.

Until late Tuesday night, my only knowledge of Santa Barbara was that it was the setting for the TV shows Three’s Company and, more recently, Psych. Turns out it’s not just full of single roommates and murder-solving fake psychics; it’s a fun beach town with a great pier, ample free parking, and the most unusual courthouse I’ve ever seen.

The Santa Barbara pier is one of those enormous piers that extends a few hundred feet out over the water so people can stroll, fish, or just enjoy the views. A lot of towns along the central coast have similar piers, but there are several features that make the Santa Barbara pier (officially known as Stearns Wharf) better than the others. For starters, a handful or restaurants and shops line both sides of the pier, making it a more worthy destination. And secondly, you can drive your car directly onto the pier and even park there for free (for the first 90 minutes, anyway)!

The other thing we wanted to do in Santa Barbara was to visit the county courthouse. I know this sounds ridiculous, and in any other county in America is would be. But the Santa Barbara County Courthouse is widely considered one of the top attractions in the city, and for good reason. In addition to its unusual architecture, the courthouse features a clock tower observation deck with 360-degree views of the ocean, the mountains, and the entire city in between.

Santa Barbara County Courthouse

Unfortunately, our research did not reveal the fact that the tower closes at 4:45, and we arrived at 4:46. A sign in front of the elevator told us we couldn’t go up, but we were undeterred and took the stairs (it’s only five flights up). Sure enough, we were able to walk right up unimpeded and enjoy the views. And as we did so, people continued arriving the entire time we were up there (a few by elevator), so we didn’t feel bad about sneaking up to see it.

Santa Barbara

At this point it was just after 5pm, and we were still three hours from Anaheim, which would have put us on a good pace to attend most of the Angels game, but we were going to need dinner, which we knew would slow us down significantly. In a perfect world we could’ve just eaten at the ballpark, but Angel Stadium doesn’t have kosher food, so that wasn’t an option. Lucky for us, the only kosher restaurant between San Francisco and L.A. is located in Oxnard, about halfway between Santa Barbara and Anaheim.

Anyone who keeps kosher knows that Herzog is the biggest (and probably the oldest) producer of kosher wine in the world. For the public, their state-of-the-art production facility in Oxnard includes a tasting room and a top-ranked restaurant called Tierra Sur, and that’s where we had dinner.

We figured that if dinner took an hour, we could still make it to the game for the last two or three innings. As the day progressed Sam was increasingly insistent that we do so, even as I kept reminding him that it was a longshot and would probably not work out.

Unfortunately for Sam, dinner went much more slowly than we anticipated. I planned to skip appetizers and jump straight to the main course, but a off-menu special of braised and then breaded and fried beef cheek nuggets got us both excited and we ordered it without even thinking about what effect it might have on the Angels game. But it wasn’t the appetizer that did us in. It took almost an hour for our main dishes to come out. The waitress and maitre d’ apologized along the way (apparently a slip-up in the kitchen wrongly got the preparation of our order stuck behind a few others that came in after ours), but meanwhile the Angels game was moving at a much faster pace than normal, and any hopes we had of getting to the game were officially sunk.

On the plus side, dinner was incredible. It was great just to not be cooking at a public picnic table for the first time all week, but every thing on both our plates was perfection. I had dijon and herb crusted lamb loin with roasted radish and apple, toasted pecans, horseradish creme, fennel, charred pea tendrils, and white wine honey espelette. Sam had a black Angus boneless ribeye with roasted purple potatoes, green and yellow beans, and sautéed kale. It may have taken a long time to arrive but it did not take long for us to devour, and our very apologetic waitress took away two very clean plates when we were done.

She also told us that dessert was on the house. We ordered a really interesting-sounding baked Alaska made with banana cake, and a few minutes later the waitress brought out the dessert we ordered and an additional chocolate tart, just to apologize further. Then another waiter came over to set our baked Alaska on fire. Sam’s disappointment about the ballgame quickly morphed into delight over flaming dessert.

Tierra Sur at Herzog Baked Alaska

By the time we got back into the car we were both absolutely stuffed. It was 8:15. I had no idea what to do next. We’ve been to Los Angeles so many times that we hadn’t planned to do anything there this time around, other than grab lunch tomorrow before heading to LAX to fly home. There was nothing left on our itinerary. I also had no idea where we would sleep, because I had researched places in Anaheim but now that the ballgame wasn’t an option it seemed silly to drive all the way to Anaheim just to sleep.

We decided to sleep in Anaheim anyway,, on the extremely unlikely chance that the game went into extra innings and we might still make it there before it ended. For some reason Sam still held out hope that it would work out, but the closer we got to the ballpark, the clearer it became that our luck had finally run out.

We listened to the game on the radio in the car, and as it continued toward its inevitable end without delay, Sam started getting upset, and increasingly insistent that we try to get into the ballpark, even if it’s just for the last out. As we drove past the exit for Disneyland, we could see (and hear) the Disneyland fireworks, but even watching a fireworks show from Interstate 5 didn’t distract Sam from the task at hand.

[As a side note, I will say that the fireworks absolutely distracted me. The loud boom that accompanies each burst is exciting when you’re watching a fireworks show, but when you’re driving 70 MPH and racing against time and trying to placate an agitated boy and trying to concentrate on the road, sudden loud booms are NOT WELCOME. The sky did look pretty, though.]

We got to Angel Stadium with one out in the bottom of the ninth, but I couldn’t get into the parking lot because there was a steady stream of cars coming out. (The Angels were losing 3-0 and had only two hits all night.) That’s when I got an idea. I found a place to pull over within view of the ballpark, and I told Sam to go run to the ballpark while I waited in the car, so that he could at least touch it and maybe take a selfie with it behind him.

Angel Stadium

He was thrilled. The game ended moments after he got out of the car, but it didn’t matter. He had to talk his way past a few security barriers just to get to the outside walls of the ballpark, but he didn’t stop there. He then managed to charm a particularly skeptical security guard into letting him take a couple of steps inside the stadium–just so he could say he was inside the building–by telling him the whole story of our road trip and our delayed dinner and everything. Twenty minutes later, an elated Hamster found his way back to the car. He can’t honestly say he attended a game here, but technically he now counts it as a stadium he’s visited.

The funniest part of the whole saga is that Angel Stadium is really nothing special. It’s a nice enough place to watch a ballgame, but it’s no cathedral, and if I were ranking my favorite ballparks this one would be in the bottom 10 without question. But the boy (sort of) got what he wanted, and while all of this was going on I managed to book a free room in a shockingly nice Comfort Inn that’s five minutes from the stadium.

Tomorrow we will sleep late, get lunch in L.A., and head home. This was by far our shortest trip, but we managed to pack a whole lot of fun, adventure, and exploration into four-plus days. We definitely didn’t get everything right (I didn’t even tell you about our unsuccessful quest for plastic shopping bags), but most things broke our way. With the exception of a brief squabble this afternoon as we were leaving Santa Barbara, we got along better than we have in months, which is part of the magic of these trips. We had a few deep conversations in the car, and a bunch of silly ones, and we truly enjoyed being with each other.

In the novel The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho, a secondary character tells the protagonist a story about a boy who is given a spoonful of oil and told to carry it through a beautiful castle. He emerges from the castle without having spilled a drop, but he was concentrating so much on the spoon that he didn’t notice the beauty of the castle. Then he is told to walk through the castle with the spoon a second time, but this time to pay more attention to his surroundings. He becomes so enamored with the castle’s beauty that he ends up spilling all the oil and emerging with an empty spoon. The story is meant to be a parable for life, with the spoonful of oil representing our daily responsibilities and the castle representing all the pleasures of life. The moral of the story is ultimately the theme of the novel: many people will tell you that life is a journey, not a destination, but that’s terrible advice. Life is about both the journey and the destination. Each one is equally important. If these road trips Sam and I take had no destinations and we simply drove around aimlessly in a car together for several hours every day, we would definitely have some fun but we’d also get frustrated. On the contrary, if we simply teleported from one fun destination to the next, we’d have a great time in each place but we’d miss out on all the private jokes, the silliness, and the important and unimportant conversations that organically arise during those hours in the car. A truly fulfilling life, just like a good road trip, needs balance between both. As Coelho puts it, “The secret of happiness is to see all the marvels of the world, and never to forget the drops of oil on the spoon.”

Till next time …

The Long and Winding Road

July 11, 2018

Today we drove the most exciting and breathtaking section of US 1. (We also spent just as much time driving on other highways, but I’ll get to that later.)

We started the day with an hour-long drive south from Santa Cruz to Monterey. (We also spent most of an hour driving north to Monterey, but I’ll get to that later.)

Monterey is a cute seaside town known mostly for its bay and its aquarium.

Monterey Bay Aquarium Monterey Bay Aquarium

Despite rave reviews online, Sam and I were both largely unimpressed with the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It was nowhere near as robust or creative or fun as the National Aquarium in Baltimore or the New York Aquarium, or even the Tulsa Aquarium, and we were in and out in little more than an hour. Still, it had its moments. For one, it takes advantage of its location right on the water by offering several balconies with gorgeous views of the bay.

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Other highlights included our introduction to the bluespotted jawfish, a small bottom-dwelling fish that uses its mouth to dig out a little cave home beneath a rock, spitting the rocks out at the cave’s entrance. Don’t worry, I got it all on video.

 

We also had a sudden urge to take off our shirts when we saw the octopus tank, but a sign above the tank kept us in line.

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Oh, and there was also a live outdoor performance explaining the history of the city and the aquarium. Thanks to a woman in historical costume, we learned that, during and immediately after World War II, Monterey was known for as the sardine capital of the world, thanks to its booming sardine fishing and canning industries, but overfishing led to the disappearance of the sardine population within just a few years. By 1950 the city’s canneries were all shuttered.

Monterey Bay Aquarium

 

Today the buildings that once processed all that fish have been converted into retail space, with all sorts of tourist-oriented shops and restaurants populating the neighborhood still known as Cannery Row.

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Just south of Monterey is the famed PGA golf course Pebble Beach. US 1 passes right by the golf course, but for $10.75 per car you can turn off the highway and onto a 17-mile private road that cuts through the community and the golf course, providing stunning views of the course and the white sand beaches and the ocean, sometimes all at once.

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Back on US 1, we drove about 25 miles down a winding coastline on the edge of cliffs that plunged right down into an ocean so blue and gorgeous that the sky must have been jealous. This took us to Big Sur, a region loaded with beaches and forests and state parks. Our first stop was the iconic Bixby Bridge, which did not disappoint.

Bixby Bridge, Big Sur

 

From there we headed to Pfeiffer Beach, a private beach just beyond Big Sur State Park, but as we turned onto the private road that would take us there we were stopped by an employee who was blocking the road and turning away all visitors because the parking lot was full. It was about 3:30pm, a time of day when many beachgoers tend to head home, so he told us we could check back in 15 minutes or so and maybe by then some folks would leave and we’d be allowed in.

We gave up and headed further south to our next destination, but before we got far we came upon a gas station and stopped to use the bathroom. By the time we got out, we decided we would give Pfeiffer Beach one more try, and sure enough the road was open and we were allowed in. To get to the beach we had to drive two miles down a narrow, winding, rutted road, but once we finally got to the end we found parking with no trouble, changed into flip-flops, and made our way onto what might be the most unusual beach I’ve ever visited.

I guess you could say it was a … wait for it … Big Sur prize.

An enormous rock formation split the beach into two smaller beaches, but years of waves and salt had worn a hole through the rock, making a kind of doorway for water to come through. Other large rock formations a bit further out had similar natural arches as well.

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Meanwhile the sun was bright and hot but the wind was so strong that we were quite cool, and the incredibly soft sand was cool to the touch as well. When we put our feet in the ocean we were shocked by how cold it was. (I’m guessing it was somewhere between 45 and 55 degrees). We had a great time wandering around different parts of the beach, seeing the rocks and arches from different angles, watching the waves smash against and through them.

A few more miles down the road was yet another state park (Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park, to be specific). This park is not very big but it has a picnic area and a cool waterfall, so we figured it was worth a visit and would also be a good place to have dinner.

A short path leads from the parking lot to an overlook where we were able to see Mcway Falls, a 60-foot waterfall that drops directly onto a beach that looks more like a tropical lagoon. If I had seen it in a movie I would have thought it was too perfect to be real, but there it was before my eyes.

McWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State ParkMcWay Falls, Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park

 

Back in the picnic area we had an early dinner of hanburgers, and we were back in the car just after 6pm.

Our next stop was Hearst Castle, the massive and gaudy structure built decades ago by magazine magnate William Randolph Hearst, but it’s a couple of hours further south in San Simeon, so the plan was to get to San Simeon tonight and tour the castle tomorrow morning.

Under normal circumstances, we would have continued south down US 1, but about 16 months ago a massive fire did so much damage that a 60-mile stretch of US 1 just north of San Simeon has been closed ever since. To get around the closed section, drivers have to head about 15 miles east and take US 101 instead, and then head back west to US 1 once they’re past the closed section. That’s not terribly inconvenient–unless you happen to be in Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park with no cell reception and you didn’t think to check your route in advance. I had a strong suspicion that I had to head back north a little ways on US 1 to get to a road that crosses over to 101, so that’s what we started to do. Seven or eight miles later, we still had no reception but we came to a restaurant/inn and I pulled in so I could ask for directions. An employee there gave me some good news and some bad news. The good news was that I had guessed right and I did indeed need to head north in order to cross over. The bad news was that I had to drive much further north than I expected–all the way back to Monterey!

A few miles later, cell reception returned and Waze confirmed what the guy at the restaurant had told me. Luckily, it was still relatively early in the evening, so we had time to do all that driving. I had been driving much of the day and wasn’t really looking forward to another 3.5 hours in the car, but it went quickly, and by 10pm we were checked into a decent motel in San Simeon, just a few miles from Hearst Castle.

It was a long day of driving (almost 300 miles altogether) and we were exhausted by the time we got to San Simeon, but there were so many extraordinary sights and fun experiences that it was a good kind of exhaustion. As I write this, Sam is already sleeping soundly, and is probably dreaming of detours, picturesque waterfalls and bridges, beautiful beaches, seaside golf courses, and rock-spitting fish. I just hope he doesn’t flash the octopus.

Variety Show

July 10, 2018

 

Pelican

What a fun, eclectic day we had!

The first full day of our trip started with a quick trip to a Safeway to pick up a few supplies that weren’t practical to bring from home. Specifically, bread, vegetables, drinks, and propane for the grill. Then it was time for fun.

It’s purely coincidence that last summer’s road trip ended in San Francisco and that’s where this one started. The Pacific Coast Highway starts much further north, but San Francisco is the most reasonable starting point to fly into from New York, and it’s the beginning of the best stretch of the California coastline, so that’s where we started. Because we spent a few days touring the city last summer, we didn’t plan to stay in SF very long this time around, but there was one important thing we wanted to do before we left town.

Tickets to Alcatraz sell out weeks–even months–in advance, especially during the summer, and last year we got shut out because we didn’t plan far enough in advance. As soon as we nailed down the dates for this year’s trip we bought tickets to Alcatraz so we wouldn’t miss out a second time.

The trip starts with a somewhat industrial ferry ride that nonetheless offers fantastic views of the city and of the prison. On a sunny, clear day like today, if you can ignore the ugly boat you’re standing on and the people crowding you, it can be breathtaking.

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Upon arrival on Alcatraz Island, an enthusiastic Park Ranger (It’s a National Park, after all.) began a welcome speech that included some basic background and history of the island and the prison, but Sam and I were eager to separate ourselves from the crowd that came over on our ferry with us so we ignored the ranger and walked directly up to the prison, which sits at the top of the island. Along the way we met a friendly seagull.

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Sam remarked that the seagulls in San Francisco are much prettier than the ones back home, which is true, and which also gave me the opportunity to make a terrible/fantastic dad joke. I told him the ones at home are called seagulls because they fly over the sea, but the ones at Alcatraz are different because they fly over the bay, which makes them bagels. I’m sorry. But I’m a dad; stupid puns are in my nature.

Anyway, the audio tour headsets take you through every part of the prison and explain in detail several high and low points of its history, all narrated by former guards and inmates. We fast-forwarded through a few segments but most of it was fascinating, especially the stories of unsuccessful escape attempts.

Alcatraz

A typical cell at Alcatraz

I toured Alcatraz with my wife 18 years ago, so it wasn’t exactly new to me but I had forgotten most of the details and the stories. This time around I was especially fascinated by the relatively tiny size of the recreation yard and by one particular detail in the kitchen.

Alcatraz Prison Recreation Yard

That tiny patch of grass in the back was a baseball field, but it’s barely big enough to be the infield

Alcatraz kitchen

The knives in the kitchen were kept in this case, which has a black silhouette of every knife so that guards could tell at a glance if any were missing.

Sam soaked it all up and had a great time. He also spent a ton of time in the gift shop, which is far more extensive and interesting than most National Parks gift shops, but also quite expensive, so after about 20 minutes of shopping he ended up with a pen.

Once we were back on land it was time to say goodbye to San Francisco once again and make our way over to US 1. As soon as we got onto the highway the scenery changed and around every turn was a stunning vista of ocean and beaches and cliffs. It was, in a word, extraordinary.

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There are so many beautiful beaches along the way that it almost doesn’t matter which ones you stop at because there’s no wrong choice. We planned to make our first stop at Montara Beach, about half an hour south of San Francisco, but the public parking lot there was closed for repaving, so we drove a little further to Half Moon Bay, where we touched the shoreline to officially make this a coast-to-coast trip.

Half Moon Bay

If you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, you know how much Sam and I love lighthouses, so it should come as no surprise that our next stop was at one of the best-known lighthouses on the California coast: Pigeon Point.

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Sadly, the Pigeon Point Lighthouse is literally crumbling, and a multi-year restoration effort has kept it closed to the public, but you can still get pretty close. In fact, you can even sleep in the lighthouse keeper’s quarters for a very reasonable price, which was very tempting. But we still had many hours of daylight and lots more adventure ahead of us, so after a brief visit we moved on.

It was a little after 5 p.m. when we got to Santa Cruz, so we headed straight for the Mystery Spot. There are mystery spots scattered all over the country, and we’ve been to a few of them. Some have weird echo effects, some have magnetic fields that mess up compasses, and all of them are pretty cheesy and barely worth the trip. The Mystery Spot in Santa Cruz claims to have all sorts of odd effects, including making people tilted, making people taller or shorter depending on where they stand, messing up tree growth, and more. It’s tucked deep into a relatively young redwood forest, which gives the whole place the eerie quality of being in the dark even during bright daylight. The guided tours focus mostly on the 17-degree tilt that the mystery spot forces on all who enter, but Sam and I immediately realized that the reason we were all standing at a tilt was clearly due to the mystery spot being on a steep hill, rather than to some supernatural phenomenon. The center of the mystery spot is conveniently located inside a cabin that is supposedly more than 60 years old but is clearly much newer than that and is built on an extreme slant so as to maximize the optical illusions necessary to amaze and entertain gullible tourists.

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Nonetheless, our tour guide was enthusiastic and hilarious, and despite our skepticism Sam and I had a lot of fun.

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By the time we left is was after 7, so we stopped at a cute little picnic area to make dinner. However, the only other people there were a group of 6 or 8 men who were so extremely sketchy that we got back in the car and drove to a different picnic area a half mile away. Once we got settled, dinner was great. It was only hot dogs, but the setting was pretty and the weather was fantastic and there’s just something about our road trip cookouts that makes us happy.

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We got to our motel at about 8:30, and on past trips that would’ve been it for the day. But Santa Cruz is known for its boardwalk amusement park, so we headed out again for some nighttime fun.

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I don’t know if this is just a New York thing or if it’s more universal, but finding an excellent parking spot on the street in a particularly crowded place always feels like an enormous victory and instantly puts me in a fantastic mood. I was expecting to park in an expensive lot at the boardwalk but we lucked out by finding a parking spot on the street half a block from the boardwalk. What a gift!

Our good luck continued when we found out that, on Monday nights, all rides are only $1.50 (instead of the usual $3-$7).

One of Sam’s favorite things to do is play carnival games. I hate playing carnival games because I never win them and they’re over so quickly that it’s not even fun. But we were both in great moods, so I quickly gave in and I let Sam pick a few games for us to play. We did terribly at knocking down milk bottles and at a couple of other games but we both did OK at a beer-less version of beer pong, and we each won a tiny plush starfish.

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We decided to go out on top, so we abandoned the games in favor of the rides. I know a lot of people love crazy amusement park rides that throw you in all directions and make you sick, but Sam and I generally like the calmer ones. Our first looked like a Ferris wheel but as we stood in line watching it go we realized that it was a psychotic version where the wheel turns much faster than usual and the pods can spin completely upside down if you lean too far. We decided to give it a try anyway, and even though it was a little wilder than we usually like, it was a lot of fun and when we weren’t panicking it gave us great views of the whole boardwalk.

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After a couple more rides we ended the night with bumper cars, which was not only lots of fun but happened to be right near our parking spot.

When I write blog entries I usually try to come up with some kind of underlying theme to tell the story of each day, but today nothing really matched or connected. We had fun of so many different kinds in so many different types of places that there’s no common thread tying the story together. It was just a really enjoyable day.

Arrival

July 9, 2018

Welcome to San Francisco

Today’s purpose was not to actually do anything, it was just to get us to San Francisco so that we can start our trip in earnest.

It’s weird to start a road trip by flying, but this is our second year in a row doing so, and I guess we’re getting used to it. And everything went roughly according to plan. There were minor hiccups with our flight and our rental car, but they got worked out, and we ended up snug in our hotel room at about the time we expected to be.

The most exciting part of the day might’ve been the repeated announcements throughout San Francisco International Airport paging a passenger named Pyamorn Sassathorn. I’m sure I’m spelling that wrong, and I would be happy to apologize to Mr. Sassathorn in person, but considering how hard it was for the airport to locate him, I doubt I’ll ever have the chance.

Tomorrow is a big day, as we have to do a bit of grocery shopping in the morning and then we have a pretty packed schedule as we start making our way down the coast.

It’s midnight here but I’m still on NY time, which means it feels like 3 a.m. Sam fell asleep the moment his head hit the pillow, and I’m about to do the same. Looking forward to tomorrow!

Road Trip 7, US 1

July 8, 2018

“So where are you guys going this summer?” I’ve been getting that question, often in exactly those words, pretty often over the past month or so.

In a word, the answer is California.

More specifically, we’re going to be flying to San Francisco tonight and then driving a rented car down the Pacific Coast Highway (US 1) to Los Angeles, where we’ll ditch the car and fly home. I know, I know, you’re disappointed. Most people are when I tell them we’re spending only four days on the road, driving only 600 miles. Most of our road trips have lasted 3-5 weeks and taken us through a dozen states (or two). A four-day trip through a single state? That’s The Hamster and The Highway’s equivalent of a trip to the grocery store.

But we’ve been to so many places that we just don’t have any really big trips left to take. There are still some pockets of the country we’d love to see–the Florida Keys, the Alamo, a few National Parks–but at this point it makes more sense to see them in small, targeted bursts.

Besides, we don’t take these trips set records or to impress anyone. We take them so that we can do things we’ve never done, see things we’ve never seen, and spend time together. We’re going to do a lot of all of those things over the next few days. I hope, like always, you’ll come along with us. It’s going to be a fun ride.

Buck O’Neil, Roy Campanella, and a Surprising Twist of Fate

November 21, 2017
Dodgers Ball Package


A couple of months before Sam was born, I went to Kansas City with a friend to see a Royals game and visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The game was fun, and the ballpark was surprisingly beautiful, but the highlight of the trip was the museum. As we walked into the museum, we saw the legendary Negro Leagues player and manager Buck O’Neil giving a private tour of the museum to a man in a suit, whom we later confirmed was a Missouri congressman. We stuck close to them for the next half hour, successfully eavesdropping a private tour from Buck. We tried to thank Buck afterward, but he got swarmed by other people and we never got the chance. The guy who rang up our purchase in the museum gift shop had watched the whole thing, and he gently chided us for being too timid and missing our chance to meet Buck.






A few years later, the outstanding sportswriter Joe Posnanski wrote The Soul of Baseball, a wonderful book about Buck that made me especially glad I had mooched a tour from him and especially sad I had not actually met him.


When Sam was 9, our first father-soon road trip took us through KC, so of course I took Sam to the museum. By then, Buck was no longer with us, but I told Sam all about him and about the private tour I had stolen from him 9 years earlier.


I only told you that story so that I can tell you this one:


In 1952, my father was a 10-year-old boy living in Brooklyn, which of course meant that he was a huge Brooklyn Dodgers fan. Like most players on the team, the Dodgers’ All-Star catcher (and eventual Hall-of-Famer), Roy Campanella, lived in Brooklyn, too. “Campy” was something of a do-it-yourselfer, and took it upon himself to rewire his house, which necessitated many trips to a local electrical supply store and many conversations with the electrician behind the counter at that store. The guy behind the counter was my grandfather, who wasn’t a big baseball fan but knew who Campy was because everyone in Brooklyn knew who Campy was.





When Campy finally finished all his rewiring, he came back into the store to thank my grandfather and offer him a thank-you gift. My grandfather politely declined, but when Campy insisted, Grandpa mentioned that his 10-year-old son was a big Dodgers fan. Campy said he’d come back eventually with an autographed baseball for my dad. Days (or perhaps weeks) later, Campy popped into the store again and handed Grandpa a ball autographed not just by Campy, but by the entire 1952 Dodgers team, including future Hall-of-Famers Duke Snider and Pee Wee Reese, and even Jackie Robinson.



1952 Brooklyn Dodgers Autographed Baseball

From top to bottom: Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Preacher Roe, Roy Campanella, Clem Labine, Duke Snider




A few years later, Campy was in a terrible car accident that left him paralyzed and ended his baseball career. He died in 1993.


For decades, Dad kept that ball in its original package (pictured at the top of this post), tucked away in his sock drawer to come out only a couple of times to show off to me and my little brother, the comedian Steve Hofstetter. Steve and I used to jokingly argue about which one of us would eventually end up as the ball’s owner, but when Dad died there was no argument. We agreed to settle ownership down the road. Meanwhile, because my brother moves around a lot and I already had a pretty impressive collection of baseball memorabilia, I’d be the custodian of the ball until we figured out ownership.


Thanks to a series of seemingly random events, that arrangement will be coming to an end soon.


Campy’s birthday was a couple of days ago (November 19, to be exact)–he would have been 96. Former MLB pitcher and current TV broadcaster Rick Sutcliffe tweeted something about Campy’s birthday, and my brother tweeted back, telling Sutcliffe the story of Dad’s baseball. Sutcliffe retweeted the story, and Sutcliffe’s retweet was read by … wait for it … Bob Kendrick, the president of the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.


Bob immediately reached out to my brother to say that he loved the story and WOULD LIKE TO DISPLAY DAD’S BALL IN THE MUSEUM!


We haven’t worked out all the details yet, but the basic plan is to let the museum display the ball, along with its origin story, as a long-term loan.


I will soon be headed back to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum for a third time to finally thank Buck O’Neil, if only karmically, for the incredible visit I had more than 16 years ago. I only wish Buck–and Dad–could be there with us.