Wandering and Wine in Central California

The Golden Hills were emerald green. No Oz reference here – that’s just the best description of our St. Patrick’s Day weekend in Monterey and Paso Robles.  Even before the flood event of March 5 (see The Swamp Comes Home – Navigating the Blowers), we  had decided to spend part of spring break visiting J’s family in the Monterey area and my BFF in Paso Robles.  But, given the events of March 5, a date that shall live in infamy,  the timing was awesome. Awesome being a word I really don’t like and rarely use, but it fits the bill for this occasion.

So off J and I and our one personal item each went to MCO for our 7:50 am flight to LAX and on to Monterey. The 737 MAX debacle was in full throttle but we figured we were safe as we were on the 800 series (or was it 900) – in any event not the one that had plunged nose down on two prior occasions. You can imagine my comfort level when, just as I turned on my phone while taxiing on the LAX runway I learned that ALL MAX planes were immediately grounded. I figure we were some of the absolute last passengers to fly on that plane.

But that bad karma was about the last bad karma on the whole trip. Brother-in-law S met us immediately on arrival in Monterey – and knowing our hiking obsession – took us right away to an odd stretch of no mans land near the Ryan Ranch and in the general area of Ft. Ord.  Apparently there’s an ambitious development plan for the area, but no one has come through with any money, so as of now there are wide, interconnected dirt trails running up hill and down valley, through mud puddle and thicket, that culminate with a grand panorama of the Pacific. What better way to greet the west coast.

Family and friend activities took up much of the next couple of days, but with one new first for me – a driving range! I have not hit a golf ball that isn’t on a miniature golf course for well nigh 30 years. But our hosts insisted and the next I knew I had two buckets of balls and a club in hand. J thought I should use something like a chipping wedge but that seemed way too lightweight, so I picked the driver. And I have to say – I enjoyed it! I found it extremely zen – in the same fashion as yoga or playing Jenga or hard rock scrambles. And that little crack of the ball when you hit it right – priceless.  My shoulder paid for it the next couple of days but it was worth it.

It was then time to turn our eyes south and make for Highway 1. It had been quite a while since J and I had done that drive, and there have been numerous mudslides and fortifications built since then.  We happened to be in California at the time of a so-called “Superbloom” and the hillsides were blanketed with golden poppies and pink blooms. And instead of the classic California yellow brown, the hills were as green as Ireland.

After stopping at Nepenthe, a family favorite, we turned inland to Paso Robles, one of California’s less known but equally fabulous wine growing areas. My BFF and her husband have recently branched out from the legal profession to invest in a 12 acre vineyard with farmhouse.  Right now it’s filled with newly planted grapevines, but there are big dreams propelling those little buds.

What better way to start that part of the trip than a soak in a natural mineral spring hot tub with a bottle of champagne.  Don’t need to say much more than that.

Shale Oak Winery

The next day involved lots of wanderings – but I’m afraid they were mostly by motor and not by foot.  After a lovely lunch at a winery, we started to explore some of the lesser known spots in Paso Robles.  My absolute favorite was Dunning – you drove along a narrow winding road between two mountains, among ancient oaks to arrive at a clearing like a fairy glen. The winery was in a hanger like structure, and there was a tasting room, and a few small cottages where you could stay overnight. The wines were absolutely classic, and the gold light filtered through the oak trees made it feel like a place you could happily stay for a very long time.

We wrapped our trip the next day with brunch at a place that looked exactly like an old Howard Johnson’s (except the prices were anything but).  The omelets were huge and the waffles cradled in whipped cream.

Fortified, we embarked on the three hour drive through the oh so emerald hills to LAX for our flight back to the swamp.

Arrived at our house hoping beyond hope the flood would be a thing of the distant past. Not so much. The blowers were going strong; our poor old wood floors continuing to suffer the indignities of suction cups and tubes and drying mats. But at least we’d had five days to remember you don’t literally have to live in the swamp.

California – Swamp or Summit?



Swamp or summit? I’m never quite sure in California. There are sloughs by the coast and mountains running down to the ocean. At any given time you can be at sea level or a couple of thousand feet up.

Perhaps that’s what makes the Monterey coastline so confusing, yet compelling. In North Carolina, where I grew up, there are three clearly marked ecosystems that every elementary school child learns – the Coastal Plain, the Piedmont, and the Appalachians. For me that easily broke up into beach vacation, home, or mountain vacation.

California isn’t that simple. And our large collection of family and friends out there adds to the complexity. At one moment I’m back in my twenties hanging out with my law school roommate and her now husband. At another point I find myself the mother of a 25 year old and a 22 year old. And other times I’m hearing news of an old friend of the family who’s now 94.

But in the midst of this I did manage to squeeze in some training and hiking, especially needed as our Orizaba trip inexorably draws closer. Thanksgiving Day started with a yoga class for some of the ladies – daughters A and S (who have rebelled against being called daughters 1 and 2 in this blog), my sister in law L and niece G (who actually goes by G and therefore has no hope of anonymity here). The males of our house party, including husband J, brother in law, and S’s boyfriend P (whose visit was a stop on a cross country driving trip back to New Orleans), showed no interest whatsoever in kicking off their turkey extravaganza with yoga. The class was in Carmel, in two of the most crowded studio rooms I have ever been in. There were a lot of “oms” and some live singing and it was a bit odd to have to do tree pose literally arm in arm with our neighbors, but all in the spirit of Thanksgiving.

Managed to follow that with a 5k run up into the hills of Monterey. If Florida offered something like that I’d never have to climb the stairs again.

imageFriday’s training consisted only of braving Black Friday crowds at the local Macy’s. A tradition that has been with us for many years and shows no signs of dying. I guess we did get in a quick walk before the annual post Thanksgiving party at yet another brother in law’s. Oh, there was a visit to the local Elks Lodge (great cocktails), but that’s another story.

imageBut on Saturday we did manage, with assorted friends and family, to hike a few miles around Point Lobos – possibly one of the most beautiful spots on the California coast. I’ve written about it before – https://fromswamptosummit.com/2014/12/01/point-lobos-summit-in-the-sea/ – and it hasn’t changed. For some reason we have had spectacular weather the last two trips. The deep blues and greens of the ocean are enhanced by the mystery of the brown kelp beds, which suggest an underwater secret city lurking below.

We always bookend these trips, it seems, with early morning flights, and before noon east coast time on Sunday we were winging our way over the snow capped, jagged peaks of the Sierras back to Orlando. Those are clearly summits. But no more so than getting spend time with family and friends.



Point Lobos – Summit in the Sea


Point Lobos Thanksgiving Day, 2014
Point Lobos
Thanksgiving Day, 2014

Point Lobos is like a summit turned on its side, lying on the deep blue bed of the Pacific. This Thanksgiving, as almost always, the husband and I made the trek to and from Florida and California on the busiest travel days of the year – Wednesday before Thanksgiving and Sunday after – to meet up with daughters one and two and an assortment of brothers, sisters, cousins and friends in the Monterey area.

One tradition has always been a Thanksgiving Day excursion of some sort. It used to be what we called sand sledding on the large sand dunes that overlooked both highway and ocean near aptly named Sand City. Kids and adults alike would zoom down the steeply angled dunes on pieces of cardboard – usually wiping out somewhere before the bottom, only to clamber back up and try it all over again. Thanksgiving didn’t seem complete without sockfuls of sand that would appear in odd places for several days after.

As the children got bigger and the adults creakier, sand dunes shifted to hikes. We’ve done several at the Garland Ranch. During one of the first, daughter one (and possibly daughter two) and I managed to get separated from the rest of the contingent, and spent an extra couple of hours wandering lost through the chaparral. Finally we saw a rather dressed up family whose outfits clearly showed they weren’t off for a long distance hike and we were able to follow them back to civilization. Another hike – when we were training for Kilimanjaro – was up in the Soberanes Canyon – and by up I mean steep! For some reason I had brought hiking boots, but no hiking appropriate jacket, not realizing how cold it would be. A common mistake when going to California. I ended up wearing my black Michael Kors raincoat for the whole thing. I’m not sure whether I cut a dashing figure or looked like some eccentric character out of a vampire novel.

This year we returned to Point Lobos. Just south of Carmel, near the start of Big Sur, the spectacular coastline between Carmel and Santa Barbara. Trails wander through coastal woods, and lead to cliffs that manage to be both rocky and sandy at the same time. Cypress trees are silhouetted against an open skyline, and out in the ocean rocks form classic arches that create pathways for the waves to pool and then crash. Along the route, numerous white sand beaches nestle between the cliffs.  They are only reachable by rickety wooden stairs that wash out in every storm of any significance.


image image

These hikes aren’t really for training and they aren’t even really to see or experience anything new. What makes them special is our family and friends, many of whom we only see once a year. We’ve been to these spots together any number of times. But as each year passes, the lens I view them through changes. The daughters launched into their twenties; the nieces with babies and boyfriends. Yet despite the ever growing cascade of years — the pelicans are still in flight; the sun glints off the water; the flat silver half dollar of the ocean is tossed by the roar of the waves. Still a peak experience, of sorts.