Plays and pleasures, May 2003

2: The road back, through Descanso Gardens, the Santa Ynez Valley, and Figueroa Mountain     

NEXT DAY, MONDAY, we began the trip home with a visit to Descanso Gardens to see the roses, in full bloom and heightened color because of the recent rains. We spent an hour or so admiring the roses and iris in their little corner of the garden, say two acres or so, about the size of a normal city block. Photos of the Descanso roses

The gardens are in a quiet northeastern suburb in the San Fernado Valley, convenient to Burbank and Glendale, and they attract a quiet clientele, especially on weekdays: groups of elderly women; elderly retired couples; younger women apparently tending children.

While Lindsey was otherwise occupied I amused myself eavesdropping on a conversation outside the café, where five quite large very white-haired women were talking about the Dutch, apparently from some personal experience.

"They keep to themselves," one of them said. "They won't let their daughters marry anyone but another Dutchman. I think that's wrong."

"Wrong, and stupid," another agreed; "and I know, because I'm Dutch myself, you know." I wondered where her husband was.

THEN IT WAS TIME to hit the road. We'd decided to look for wildflowers on Figueroa Mountain, on the basis of limited research on the Web. That meant driving up past Santa Barbara, and that meant stopping for lunch at the legendary Super-Rica, Julia Childs's favorite taco joint, where you eat at rickety picnic tables in a shed, and the salsa is flavored with epazote, and the tacos are in fact tapa-sized and very good indeed.

And then we drove on up coast past Buellton and turned east on highway 154, stopping at the little town of Los Olivos for a coffee and some information about the road up Mt. Figueroa.

That turned out to be a fine drive, ascending from about 900 feet, where the valley is studded with oaks ultimately to over 4,000 feet, in mixed conifer and hardwood forest opening out onto dry Los Padres Mountains vistas, steep and angular mountainsides covered with grey salvias, yuccas, and rock, the south-facing sides, when there's water enough, blooming with poppies, lupins (blue, yellow, and white), wallflowers, Indian paintbrush, goldfields, tidytips and God alone knows what besides.

We saw perhaps four other vehicles on the dozen miles up to the peak on Figueroa Mountain Road, and fewer yet on the dozen miles back down, on Happy Canyon Road, closing the loop. At one point on the way down the road fords a cross-stream, and the view up and down, into groves of cottonwood, alder, and sycamore, reveals the source of the name: this must have been a happy canyon indeed, back when one traveled on foot, or horseback at best. Figueroa Mountain photos

On the way back down a couple of miles of the road are unpaved, but easily driven even by our low-slung Camry. At one point we rounded a curve to find three young men with rifles standing alongside a clumsy-looking van, one taking photos of the others. "You want me to shoot all three of you?," I asked; "Nah, we already did that, with the self-timer," came the reply. "Good thing this isn't Mexico," I joked back, "you look like bandidos!"

Back down on the valley floor we had returned to horse farms and vineyards -- not as many of the latter as I'd expected. We drove past the town of Santa Ynez, bypassed by a through road mainly serving on of the casinos that seem to be littering the landscape -- a building that aspires to a certain amount of kitsch style, completely contradicted by the massive threestorey brutist parking structure behind it, the entire complex out of place in a little oasis of alders and cottonwoods.

We had dinner at an Italian joint in Santa Ynez, one of the two Zagat-listed restos in the area open on a Monday night: I had a porcini risotto,twice as big as I could handle, and Lindsey had pasta in a home-made Bolognese sauce, and the wine list gave up an inexpensive Italian offering to counter all those central coast heavyweights.

Our motel was in Solvang, that even kitschier "Danish" town. But it was a cheap motel, only $42.50, quiet and pleasant, with all the basic amenities including, next morning, coffee and a pastry at what Lindsey found an authentic Danish bakery just across the street. A man who looked like a 1950s banker was speaking Danish to a younger woman seated with him near the doorway; a rather large couple or two were scattered elsewhere in the room, which looked like a set for a screen biography of Hans Christian Andersen; the two waitresses were, distractingly, latina and Japanese, cute in their pert Danish red-and-white waitress outfits.

Then we set out looking for more wildflowers. The road took us through the Santa Rita Valley, fifteen miles or so of rich protected bottom-land, out to Lompoc -- "Loam Poke," the girl at the motel had called it -- a discouraging sprawl of shopping malls and overly wide streets whose only visible means of support is a penitentiary and the enormous Vandenberg Air Force Base, which hogs all the elbow of coastline where California straightens itself out to run north-south again, after the confusing east-west shore of the Santa Barbara Channel.

We should have stopped off to see Mission la Purisima Concepcion, because it is off the beaten track, and perhaps therefore (like Mission San Antionio to the north) protected from over-commercialism, but we were home-minded by now. We did, however, leave Highway 101 at King City, taking county road G-13 (hitherto untravelled) through the dry rolling hills up into that fine tranquil hidden valley stretching along the foot of the Diablo range -- the scarp of the San Antonio fault.

WE WERE BACK ON California 25, a favorite road lying midway between the much more travelled highways 101 and 5. This adds an hour or so to the trip, but you rarely meet a soul. If you look away from the pavement, the telephone lines, and the really quite negligible fences, you'd think you were in the middle of the 19th century. Lupins and poppies again, lush fields of grass (and, it's true, alfalfa), a farmstead every five miles or so.

Here we pulled onto the shoulder to nibble at that delicious loaf of raisin-fruit bread from the La Brea Bakery and to admire the red-winged blackbirds sunning themselves on the barbed wire and reflected on our luck at living in country so like the surroundings -- and then, a bit regretfully, continued, through Paicines, back to the discouraging sprawl of gated "estates" turning the fertile lettuce-fields of the Salinas Valley into more miles of commuter heaven, I suppose. From there it's hardly more than an hour, if there isn't any traffic, to Chez Panisse, if you're going that way, or Zuni, if you're not; and then we're home again, and looking forward to the next trip.

Back to part one: To Los Angeles for theater, food, friends, and gardens

rev. May 2003      Other travel writing