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Variety Show

July 10, 2018



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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