Monthly Archives: April 2010

Spring in Central California

I always look forward to car trips in California’s diverse landscape. Barnaby and I left Palm Desert on Tuesday morning in the blazing sun, and even though it’s only mid April, the temperature probably made the high 80’s before sunset. Driving along the San Andreas Fault through Banning west toward L.A., the temperature dropped so much that by the time we hit the San Fernando Valley, it had begun to rain and was barely 50 degrees. An hour later, in Santa Barbara, the sky had cleared and we entered the all-encompassing green of springtime in the Central Coast.

Barnaby and I have always had a soft spot for that stretch between Santa Barbara and Mendocino, particularly the area around Paso Robles and Templeton. I know a lot of people prefer Cambria, the foggy little beach town just south of San Simeon, but give me green slopes dotted with ponies and oak trees, and I’ve found paradise. It never struck me before this trip how similar this area is to Tuscany. Having just gotten back from Italy my memory hasn’t lost those images of rolling hills, endless rows of cypress trees, and vineyards. If I ignored all the fast food joints and tacky developments, I’d almost think I was back in rural Italy. Certainly the Central California Chambers of Commerce are capitalizing on that similarity. There’s even an abundance of cheap and very drinkable local wine, a fine place to visit less than a days drive from Idyllwild.

Perhaps there are too many vineyards. Our local friends tell us about the huge glut of grapes, not lucky enough to be used for wine, that get destroyed every fall. And most of those grapes have been irrigated with that one resource we Californians don’t like to talk about: water. We discovered a lovely Zinfandel during this visit that is not only from “old vines” but is “dry farmed” or not irrigated. These dry vineyards have a distinct look of fat gnarled trunks and are missing all the bracing and trellises of normal vineyards. The grapes themselves have a richer, more complex flavor that carries over into the wine. All this for under $6 a bottle makes one think these growers are getting some tax deductions and other subsidies from the government that we mortals aren’t privy to. This is confirmed by all the fancy trucks and luxurious wineries popping up at every corner. Alas, I digress.

You can’t come to El Paso de Robles without talking about the oak trees. You Easterners have no idea how lovely a California Live Oak is in all of its glory, which I might add, is year round because it’s an evergreen, or at least several varieties are. One of my favorites, the Engelmann Oak, will actually become dormant in extended periods of drought. The grey green leaves that normally curl toward the ground to direct any rain, even dew, downward toward the roots, will drop, and the tree will look dead until the rains come again. The contorted grey bark and jagged shape of the Engelmann looks like it’s right out of a Grimm fairy tale. Generally they don’t live in groups like Aspens and Cottonwoods – they’re loners, or perhaps arrange themselves in small groups. Oaks can live on very little rain, but have a nasty habit of letting go of heavy limbs, sometimes killing people when they’re watered, or if it’s too dry for too long. I could romanticize about California Live Oaks for pages, but I’ll stop myself and say only that Paso Robles and the surrounding communities are beautiful. I say a little prayer every time I visit that it won’t be overdeveloped and destroyed like so much of California. Ah — that is THE difference between here and Italy: greedy, shortsighted development.

But now, we’ve left the Central Coast and are driving through the San Joaquin Valley. A two lane highway of semis and long distance travelers pass endless miles of almond trees in perfectly manicured rows, until you’re interrupted by the unmistakable perfume of orange blossoms and those rows become an orange grove. Even this part of California has its special beauty for me, especially when I get hungry. I couldn’t find any almonds in Italy no matter how hard I searched.

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Down memory lane

Sometimes you don’t have to travel very far from home to have a completely different experience. Last night, Barnaby and I loaded the car to the brim with instruments and dogs for a quick trip to Northern California and Oregon. We only got as far as Palm Desert but it was worth the stop. My sister Lorna works for the Palm Springs Follies and when we got into her car to go for some dinner she had to move one of the Follie’s headdresses from her backseat. On our return, after a couple glasses of wine, I wanted to try it on. My normally sedate, 85 year old Mom had to get in on the action:

We were impressed — the thing probably weighs 20 pounds and it’s been a long time since we’ve practiced our posture by walking around with a stack of books on our heads.

Speaking of girly stuff — here’s another photo this one of my sister from 1969. Wow. We forgot how beautiful youth was — okay, so I wish we knew then what we know now.

Stay tuned.


Earthquakes, Seders and my ongoing love affair with the iPhone

Probably the best thing about traveling is coming home. Nothing excites me more than planning a trip — making reservations, packing a bag and hitting the road. But every time we drive down that long dirt driveway, dodging rabbits, pot holes and deer, my heart warms and happiness fills me. We don’t have to be home for long when we get the itch and start planning another trip. This time we were home for about three days. The conversation always goes something like this: Barnaby waits until I’ve had at least one cup of coffee then says “I know we just got home from a trip, but its been a long time since we’ve been on a car trip. How about in three weeks we …..”. In the meantime, I clean up my desk, try to catch up on chores, and more importantly — do a lot of socializing.

This past weekend was especially social because of the Easter holiday. I have always wanted to attend a Passover Seder. Even though I have a lot of good friends that happen to be Jewish, I’ve never managed to get an invitation, and believe me — I’ve begged! The big Idyllwild Seder is so full even the Jews can’t always count on getting in. So this year, before we left for Italy, I went to my can-do friend Elaine and asked if she could help. “Of course we can have a Seder! No problem. Louie and Vic can do all the cooking, Louise will bring the Manischewitz, and Summer will bring chickens and root vegetables.  We’ll have matzo ball soup, gefilte fish (my dreams are coming true), pot roast — it be will a Kosher smorgasbord”. And it was. We were a little unorthodox with the timing since we had it on Saturday night long after the beginning of Passover, but it was delightful. My dear friends, though Jewish, were a little rusty with the ritual and had to constantly refer to their Passover Haggadah (that’s the manual for the Seder). Lou recited the prayers in Yiddish, Vic in Hebrew, and Summer in French while the rest of us waited for Louise to translate. We had so much fun we decided to make the Saturday Night Seder a tradition.

On Sunday, we had a more traditional Easter feast starting with lots of colored eggs, chocolate and champagne. My sister Lorna has a new cat named Tyson. He was adopted and came with that name  and since he’s a big boy we figured he was named after the boxer. But he spent most of the day laying on the Easter eggs, we decided he was probably a chicken in his last life.

On Sunday afternoon we were shaken by the biggest earthquake I think I’ve ever felt — a 7.3 centered in Mexico just south of our Palm Desert locale. Although it seemed to last forever, the only damage was to Lorna’s nerves.

That brings me to the love affair. You might think that after almost 3 years I would be getting used to my iPhone. But it continues to amaze and entertain me. My latest and favorite aps are Pano and Hipstamatic. Both are camera aps and both better to see than hear about. This first one was taken on Easter at my mom’s with the ap Pano. That’s Summer and Mike talking to Barnaby. Lorna is in the kitchen making a feast. Not sure where my mom is at this point. Pano makes panoramas using your iPhone camera. Then Monday, I met the crazy girls at Aroma for lunch and more iPhone fun. This next one was taken using the ap Hipstamatic. You can pick from several different lens and film options to make images that resemble old Instamatic shots.

This is Debbie and Karen. We’re all having love affairs with our iPhones. They didn’t know I was taking their picture or Debbie would have made a face, and it probably wouldn’t be pretty.

I’ll sign off for now, but I have to include one more photo from the Pano ap. It’s a little frightening, but I think it really sums up where those lunches can go at times.

Ciao!