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.