January Days South in California
©Charles Shere 2001
for Richard and Marta 
1: The Road to Ojai
2: Bombay to Brentwood
3: Downtown Los Angeles
4: Pasadena
5: Barstow to Death Valley
6: Bishop, Mono Lake and Tahoe
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Richard and Marta Pierce, Death Valley, 2001
Marta and Richard Pierce, Death Valley, Jan. 2001

1: The Road to Ojai

Come in late January, I told them, we always have a couple of beautiful weeks then. Friends from Verona wanted a California vacation, and we were going to spend it with them.

They came the first two weeks, of course, and it was raining raining. San Francisco was cold and miserable, but it didn't matter that much to me; I was spending two days at MacExpo and the rest of the time in museums and restaurants. The Anderson Collection was the big draw, the SF Museum of Modern Art almost entirely filled with it, first-rate examples of late 20th-c. American art, and only the frustrating installation of the sculpture -- all lined up, impossible to see in the round -- to interfere.

We ate at Zuni, of course (anchovies & parmesan; gnocchi; morbier & walnuts), crowded but enjoyable for its quirky cut-up of the upstairs dining rooms into a series of small nooks where talk is possible, and the food is both dependable and enterprising. And we discovered the new Citizen Cake, new to us at least, really good coffee and pastries and bread -- if we'd only known ahead that they serve light suppers too. And what an intriguing wine list!

Then the sun broke through as we left a Saturday morning for the south. We took our favorite road, Highway 25 south from Hollister, through an inland valley lost in the Coast Range, following the San Andreas Fault south to its capital, Parkfield. But recent rains made the Parkfield road unthinkable for our low-slung Camry; we'd never have negotiated the fords. So we took a road I hadn't been on in years, Peachtree Road I think it's called, basically  and extension of Highway 25 on south, beyond the Coalinga cutoff, ultimately turning into Indian Valley Road and coming out northwest of Paso Robles.

The drive took most of the day, with time out for sandwiches on the roadside. Richard, who is obsessed with sculptural form, was entranced with those rolling brown-grey California hills, so biomorphic, Arps on the horizontal. Since leaving the depressing housing tracts of Hollister we hadn't seen a soul -- not a car or pickup truck on the road, no hitchikers, no houses save the occasional farmstead, every eight or ten miles.

From Healdsburg to Hollister there's nothing but pavement and housing, and the new "developments" -- what a word for it! -- are obscene, three-car-garage ranch houses set so close their side yards are permanently shaded, their back yards barely big enough for a barbecue and a small pool. But from Hollister south you'd think you were in the late 19th century. Where was the population pressure? Where the Wal-Mart, the traffic jam, the fast food?

The road winds gently following watercourses along the west edge of the scarp. The colors are muted here, even during the rainy season -- this is a dry year, and this country never does get much rain. It's cattle land, and you can imagine how the Spaniards must have loved it. The land is gentle and beautiful. I want it to be 1890; I want to saddle up, a bedroll behind me, coffee and beans tied on, and follow a herd, nothing on my mind but the weather.

Well, in a sense, that's just what's happening. The Veronese are in the back seat, Lindsey is on my right, the miles unwind behind us; each curve reveals another pleasure ahead. I'm proud to be Californian, fifth-generation on one side, and think often of my father, an immigrant from Arizona and a vagabond, and how he'd have loved this country too.

Paso Robles brought us back to reality, of course, but it wasn't so bad, and didn't last too long: we were in San Luis Obispo before you knew it, putting up at a cheap and comfortable motel at the top of the main street (Villa Motel, 1670 Monterey, 805 543 8071), and walked down to Buona Tavola for what turned out to be one of the better dinners of the trip. The Italians crossed another must-do off their culinary checklist: an American steak. They liked it, because it wasn't cooked in the American style at all: Buona Tavola is, of course, an Italian restaurant.

We walked a bit of the town next morning, looking into its improbable double-sanctuary Mission, where a loopy flute-guitar duo was apparently improvising some easy-listening Christian pop-rock to a Sunday morning crowd of a dozen or so. I suppose a century ago there'd have been one room full of natives, the other of missionaries and settlers; and some will say those were worse days, the natives exploited and murdered by the invaders. Listening to the music I wasn't so sure.

We hit highway 101 soon, but got off the highway at the Santa Ynez Valley and climbed up the marvelous back road to Santa Barbara. There was snow on the low mountain ridges northeast of the valley, and the lookout revealed a landscape more than usually memorable, partly for the snow, partly for the preparation the day's drive had given us. By now we were famished, and I wasn't sure there was a place in Santa Barbara I wanted to try. I asked a stranger at the viewpoint, and he recommended the old stage stop just a mile or so up the road, Cold Creek Tavern, and we stopped though it was crowded, and went inside to sit in a warm busy room with a huge stone fireplace, the air scented with burning pinyon, and had a bowl of good red chili and a glass of wine.

It was local color at its best. I'd explained to the Veronese that the Santa Ynez Valley was Reagan country, describing his horseback rides and mindless machete bushwhacking as if I knew something about it. But this stagecoach stop was a bonus I hadn't anticipated, a collection of weatherbeaten shacks, a long friendly bar, lanky friendly efficient waitresses, set among stones and pines and ramshackle implements and ruins on a tight bend on the narrow road that used to be the stage road into Santa Barbara.

The Mission was disappointing, of course. It's cleaned up and cordoned off. You can't go exploring its cloister any more, and there are far too many tourists crowding its parking lots, and the garden, which wouldn't have been at its best anyway in January, had been largely converted to irrelevant lawn. So we didn't linger, but drove on south, then across the back way to the Ojai Valley, which our Italians knew nothing about.

The reason for the detour was to introduce them to our friends Jim and Lisa, who live in "town" now but continue to tend their orchards of avocados and citrus. Lisa is descended partly from General Fremont and partly from an Italian family some of whom are still in the old country, so it seemed logical to make the introduction; and both are so engaging, humorous and dedicated to what they do -- agriculture, food, music, computers, reading, painting -- that the visit was a high point. We went out to the orchard, of course, and walked around, kicking the rich fragrant mulch Jim gets from the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department -- I joked about the syringes that turn up occasionally -- and ate our fill of specialty tangerines and grapefruit, and then drove on to Santa Monica, arriving not too late for our first El Lay meal.

Motel: Villa Motel, 1670 Monterey St., San Luis Obispo CA 93401; 805-543-8071; 800-554-0059

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