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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 …

One Comment leave one →
  1. Therese Berkowitz permalink
    July 12, 2018 2:21 pm

    Highway 1 has always been one of my favorite stretches of road in the US. Steve liked to call the 17-mile drive the 17-dollar drive. I insisted it was worth it. And Hearst Castle always seemed so glamorous. Perhaps we’d seen Citizen Kane too many times. I always love reading your Hamster and the Highway pieces. They are just wonderful little travelogues that trace your relationship along with the adventure. נסיה טובא
    תרז

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