June 24, 2015
Wednesday morning started early since we knew we had a long day ahead of us. Of course, the hardest part was going to be simply getting out of town. By this point, we’d learnt to (kinda sorta) trust the googlemaps GPS system and it said surface streets were our best bet for getting out to Santa Monica and the PCH as quickly as possible. Of course, in this case, at 8am on a Wednesday, “quickly as possible” was a relative term and we were looking at about an hour to get from the Hills to the start of the California State Route 1. Not a problem. As Styx famously said we “have no place to go and all night to get there.” Well, not
exactly true, in that we had a rough destination, we had to be in San Leandro by Thursday night but really, we could afford to take our time.
So we finally made it past the world famous Santa Monica Pier sign, where Route 66 ended (or started depending on your direction and destination but for some reason it always seems to be people going west) and started up the Left Coast. There are certainly quicker ways to get to the Bay Area, and the Bay Area was our ultimate destination. Rasa had dreamed of seeing San Francisco since she was 5 so this particular stop had been our list since the beginning (not to mention seeing AAron and family). So yeah, there were faster ways, but none nearly as beautiful.
As we drove, the Pacific Ocean was on our left and I made Rasa promise to tell me if she wanted me to stop and take pictures. We did, several times. And except for getting slightly lost in Oxnard while trying to find a place for breakfast, the ride up was fairly uneventful. Our first real stop of the day, though, was coming – Hearst Castle.
I’d told Rasa a bit about it, how it was (maybe) the basis for Xanadu in Citizen Kane and that fascinated her. I’d been to the Castle once before, maybe 15 years ago, so I was excited to see it again. We got there in the later afternoon and went to check on the tours. There are four different ways to see the place, but one was already sold out for the day. We decided on two different tours to see different parts of the house and our timing was perfect so we could watch the Imax film (this was new since I’d been there before, as was the whole visitor center/ticketing office area) then job across the way to catch the bus up to the first tour.
The house, as always, was amazing. Over our two tours we saw the main areas of the lower floors, including the dining room, the game room (with pool tables), library, Hearst’s private rooms and office, several guest rooms, and the private movie theatre. The outdoor pool was drained for repairs but the indoor pool was full of water and you had to walk through the pool room to get to the bus back down. We also had a fair bit of time to wander the grounds and take pictures, look out to see, and talk about old Hollywood (a topic I’ve been fascinated by lately and might want to use as a back drop in a story).
By the time we got back on the road, it was getting late (and slightly chilly). The sun was still up but wouldn’t be for long. We made a quick stop to see some sealions on the shore and then headed into the scary part of the drive – the twisty, windy 70 miles or so between where we were and Carmel. I love this drive. It’s fun, even if it’s slow. And it’s beautiful. There are some brilliant views as you cut around the switchbacks (for Rasa, really, I was focused on the twilight drive and not falling over the cliff and plunging several hundred feet to our doom). Needless to say, we survived without to much tumult.
We had decided we’d stop and spend the night in Monterey before moving on in the morning and this proved slightly problematic as there were no available rooms. Every hotel we stopped at was full up. Interestingly, I’ve had this problem every time I’ve made an impromptu overnight stop in Monterey. Eventually we found a place (and the less said about it, the better), and crashed out
June 25, 2015
In the morning, we got out of our motel as soon as possible and headed into Monterey proper. We knew the aquarium was part of our plan, but we wanted to drive around and see a bit of the coast. One of the fun things about this whole trip for me is seeing these places I know so well through the eyes of someone who has never seen any of it. Even something so simple as the difference in coastal geology was cause for wonderment. And the coast in Monterey was some of the most beautiful we’d seen.
At first we thought about taking the 17 mile drive but I didn’t remember it costing money before and we just couldn’t justify the expense when the scenery we could walk to for free was just as nice. So that’s what we did, we parked and walked and enjoyed the scenery for a while before heading back and to the Aquarium.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium is one of my favorite places. As a fan of underwater things, this is a great facility to see everything. Their permanent exhibits are great and when we were there, the two exhibits in the rotating spaces were on the psychedelic nature of jellyfish and then one on cephalopods – which are my absolute favorite sea creatures (Just check out that logo on the right). There are several larger tanks with bigger fish that are great to just stand and contemplate, almost zen-like. Every time I go to one of these places it makes me wish I wasn’t so freaked out by water and was more comfortable while diving. Ah well…
Leaving Monterey, we got in touch with AAron to make arrangements. It was determined we would stop in Santa Cruz for dinner before heading into San Leandro which would give us a chance to avoid at least a little bit of traffic. Our meal ended up being the recommended Pleasant Pizza, a by the slice kinda place with a surf theme in the city center, just across from a cool little bookstore. It was a nice break to sit and rest for a bit and just enjoy the scenery.
The ride from there to San Leandro was uneventful and by the time we got to the Buchanan’s we had a surprise waiting for us… my folks! Okay, AAron had told us they were coming but still it was nice to see them. We knew they were going to be in the area and we had decided on spending the Friday with them to drive up to see the Redwoods (originally we were going to go to Muir Woods, but we wanted to go where you could drive through the tree instead) so we all said hi and bye, made plans for the morning then they left to their hotel, and we retired to our guest room.
June 26, 2015
After an AAron made breakfast, Rasa and I piled into Mom and Dad’s car and we headed north to Leggett and the Drive-Thru Tree Park. The ride itself was nice, again noting the various changes in scenery as we ascended into the mountains. We passed an outdoor festival of some sort and some nice small towns before hitting the small tourist attraction.
And tourist attraction is exactly what it is. It’s a privately owned wilderness area where the road has been carved up to and through a 315 foot tall Coastal Redwood. Evidently this has been an attraction since the mid-30s and really, that’s all there is to it. There is a gift shop, sure, and you are in the middle of a grove of other impressively tall trees (yes, Rasa was actually impressed) but after driving 3 or so hours to get there, if we spent more than 45 minutes I’d be surprised. And yet.. totally worth it!
The drive home was just as nice as the drive up. We stopped for lunch in Willits, enjoyed some catch-up conversation and we made it back in time to catch Teddy at her gun club practicing (which thrilled my dad to no end!).
June 27, 2015
The big day was finally here. This was the day we were going to finally go into San Francisco. AAron had asked if we wanted an in-depth tour or a general look at everything. We said a general look at everything — and he delivered!
We started at Haight-Ashbury, ground zero for the 60s. We walked around, saw some shops and took some pictures. At one point I looked over to Rasa and she was crying. “What’s wrong?” I asked.
“Nothing,” she said. “I don’t know why I’m crying.” And yet, here it was, the culmination of a dream. She was someplace she literally never thought she’d ever see in person. Who can blame her if it was a little overwhelming, huh?
Our most excellent tour guide next took us through Golden Gate Park and along the outskirts of the Presidio (and I’m sure he’ll let me know in the comments below if I get the order wrong since it was a month ago) we stopped at a beach and at a view spot where we got nice look at the crown jewel of today’s adventure – the Golden Gate Bridge herself.
The Bridge was our next stop. AAron drove across to the Marin County side and dropped Rasa, me and Teddy off while he and Kirsten went for a coffee. The three of us were going to walk across the 2.7 kilometers. There was a slight trick to this since Rasa is slightly afraid of heights, so we stayed on the inside with few looks over the edge. Even though I’d been the San Francisco before, I’d never walked the span, so this was something new for me. It was a blast (and not just from the chilly wind coming in from the ocean side). When we got to the opposite end, I insisted we get buttons reading “I walked the Bridge” (Rasa not so much with the souvenirs) and then, meeting up again with AAron and Kirsten, we headed off to another attraction I’d never seen, Coit Tower. Naturally, we went via Lombard Street, the crookedest street in the world!
Coit Tower is in interesting place. It’s not nearly as big as it seems to be from a distance. When you look at the SF skyline, the prominence of the tower seems to be because of its location at the top of a hill (kinda like the white church in Kaunas). Due to the whole fear of heights thing, we didn’t bother with going to the sop of the tower, instead admiring the famous murals on the inside and getting a nice view of the Transamerica Pyramid (something else Rasa had put on her list of things to see). We also had a great view of Alcatraz from there but decided we weren’t even going to try to get out there this trip (good thing, too, since it was all booked up due to lots of tourists in town for the Pride festival).
We followed this with lunch at Ferry Building then off to that most San Franciscan of things – a cable car ride. Again, AAron and Kirsten decided to leave this one to us kids so we waited in line for about an hour to take our seat. Once on the car, it started off pretty packed but as the route progressed, there was more and more space until, with only a few stops to go, I noticed there were a couple of openings available to ride on the running boards and hang off the side so I grabbed the girls and brought us forward. It was only a few stops, but I felt it was needed to insure the true cable car experience.
By this time, we were getting close to dinner (we were going to meet up again with my parents at a dim sum (as has been pointed out below, it was actually tapas) place called Cha Cha Cha in the mission district) but before we went for food for the body, food for the mind was in order – and that was to be found at Borderlands Books. Borderlands is a spec fiction bookstore (and cafe) which made headlines over the minimum wage issue. They were in danger of closing but hit upon a sponsor plan and Teddy happens to be one of the sponsors. And as luck would have it, that night they were hosting a sponsor event that night and, yadda yadda yadda, we were all invited as Teddy’s guests. So after dinner we headed back to the store where we shopped a bit and I actually got to meet a long time on-line friend (strictly by accident – I had “checked in” that I was there, she saw that and found me).
We said bye to the folks and made our own way home. We were going to be on our own on Sunday.
June 28, 2015
We decided to see the one major SF attraction we missed — Pier 39/Fisherman’s Wharf. At the suggestion of Kirsten we decided to take the ferry across the bay, rather than BART, and it was a good choice. We drove in to Oakland and took the boat across directly to the pier, where we indulged in clam chowder in a sourdough bowl and just general sightseeing.
As we were walking down the street, though, we got caught up in a sales pitch for a boat tour about to leave. We couldn’t resist and climbed aboard the “Amigo” for an hour long boat ride which would take us underneath the Golden Gate Bridge and around Alcatraz – again something I’d never done before. It was a wonderful trip, if a bit cold and wet, but hey, that’s San Francisco, right?
Just before we got on the boat, we got a message from Nicolette. She was feeling better and was in SF for Pride! We made plans to meet up and she joined us for lunch once our tour had finished. It was great to see her again, healthy. This really was turning into a trip of lost friends. After we said goodbye to Nicolette, we wandered a bit more, then headed back to the pier for our ferry home. An AAron-cooked dinner was awaiting us, as were guests Connie, three of her kids and Geoff, a friend of theirs I had met on my previous trips and with whom I’d become friends over social media.
Basically what awaited us that night was the kind of family meal you hear about but rarely get to experience. It was great food and lots of laughter and sharing of stories (and music and TV shows). It was to be out last night in the Bay Area and it was a great one.
June 29, 2015
Waking up with the gang as they all headed off to work, we knew we were in for a long day of driving. We had decided the best course of action would be to head over to Phoenix (about 750 miles away) to spend some time visiting with Troy and Katie and their kids. Back when I was married, AAron and Troy were they guys on my side holding the chuppah and every time I was in the states, I tried to see both of them.
The trip itself wasn’t terribly interesting aside from when the GPS took us on a weird detour for about 20 miles and then when Rasa started noticing the cactus along the side of the road. “Those are just growing there?” We listened to books and talked and had a relatively quiet day before getting in to Phoenix about an hour ahead of an electrical storm (which we watched from the safety of Troy and Katie’s backyard).
June 30, 2015
We had a lazy morning before deciding what we wanted to do for the day. There were a few options on the table but coming from the cold of the Bay Area to the over 100 degrees of Phoenix, we thought something inside would be good. This led to us going to the Butterfly Wonderland. The idea here is that you walk into a huge “rain forest” type room where there are over 2000 butterflies hanging out. The rule is the same as at a strip club – they can touch you, but you can’t touch them. In other words, if the little insects wanted to land on you, that was their prerogative. You, however, were not allowed to catch or hold or entice in any way. Seems legit. They also tell you not to be upset if they don’t land on you. Maybe they’re just not feeling it.
Today, though, they were. Especially with Rasa. There was one in particular who not only landed on her, but decided her shirt was the best place in the world to lay eggs. 9 of ’em in all! The rest of us all had a few close encounters but Rasa won this round. We collected the eggs (the worker said they weren’t viable) and gave them to Katie for her 1st grade classroom.
A short ride after and we were at Changing Hands Bookstore, a cool indie book shop (can you sense a theme to our travels?). We spent a bit of time wandering the stacks and chatting over lunch before heading back to the air-conditioning of home.
The evening was spent talking writing with Troy and then dinner at a little place where Troy and Katie were treated as visiting royalty. Again, this is the kind of day which vacations home are made for – reconnecting with old friends, seeing new sites and just engaging in being around people you like.
July 1, 2015
We could put it off no longer. The time had come to head to Vegas.
But first… a stop at another friend’s place. My friends Ernie and Emily are both amazing writers as well as being smart and funny. On our way out of town we were able to stop and see them for a chat and a coffee. It was great to catch up as I hadn’t seen them in years. Plus, Emily is now working for the National parks and since Rasa is fascinated by cactus, Emily graciously donated a book about the plants to the educational cause!
We left as Ernie headed off to work and again, were in for a long day of driving.
Now, one of the things we had talked about and dismissed from our list of things to see in the US was the Grand Canyon. As Rasa is afraid of heights, it seemed like a silly thing to go and look at a huge hole in the ground where the primary purpose is to look down and gawk at the splendor of the depths of nature. We’d thought about the Painted Desert and Petrified Forest but that was a bit to far out of our way. And yet…
As we headed towards Vegas we saw the signs for the West Rim of the Canyon – the one on Hualapai land. We debated for a few minutes but again, since we didn’t have to be in Vegas at any specific time we decided to stop and check it out. We were glad we did.
Granted the cost is a bit exorbitant, over $40 just to walk in the door and an extra $40 if you want to walk on their “skywalk” – a glass floored walkway which extends out over the canyon (which sounds cool but you’re not allowed to take pictures), but the views at two of the three points along their sightseeing path are worth it. The first stop, Hualapai Ranch, is interesting as a faux old west town with a small zoo and the head of the horse riding trails, but there’s no view of the canyon from there.
The other two stops, though, Eagle and Guano Points, are spectacular. You can really see the full glory of this natural wonder. We took lots of pictures and even got Rasa to stand relatively near the edge and do a little hiking. As I often say, “fear is not a good enough reason to stop you from doing something” and she proved it. While it may have frightened her, seeing the canyon was, I think, an amazing experience.
Leaving there, we had one more stop to make before reaching the folk’s place… Boulder Dam.
The approach to the Dam now leads to the big bypass bridge which is impressive, but might be even more so if you could see where you were. You can’t. I mean you know you’re on the bridge, but the walls are high enough you can’t see anything. Which meant we had to double back so we could actually cross over the Dam proper. We were too late in the day to take a tour and the main parking areas were already closed so I just dropped Rasa off to look around and take some pictures while I turned around and then came back to get her.
Since it was still light out as we left the Dam area, I decided we could make a couple more “vista point” stops to see the Colorado River and Lake Mead. At the lake, lightening was peppering the sky and a rainbow appeared so we took that as a good sign. And by the time we actually got into Las Vegas, the sun was going down so we could start to see the lights as they came on.
We made it home in the early evening, but after the long day we were hungry so the folks treated us to a meal at Cici’s, a pizza buffet, before heading back for a good night’s rest.