Thursday, April 4, 2013

Living Out of Suitcases, or Our Whirlwind Car Trip to Two Sand States

It's nice to be home. Mrs Elliott and I just returned from a 12-night car trip. It went like this:

Day 1: We drove down highway 97 to Weed, then took Interstate 5 to Vacaville, Calif., to visit the elder of Mrs. Elliott's sons and his grandchildren. Overnighted at a Motel 6. Typical "brick in a parking lot" motel. I couldn't live there. Too crowded, too generic.

Day 2: Drove to Denair, Calif., to visit the grandchildren of the younger of of Mrs. Elliott's sons. Then to Murphys, Calif., in the Sierra foothills to tourist. Stayed at the historic Murphys Hotel, in the new building. The room was a typical modern motel room. No character but okay. However, Murphys is a popular destination with the Harley crowd which makes for a lot of noise in motel parking lots, partly due to the unnecessary noise of the machines and the drink beer and party nature of the riders. Harley riders never class up a place. But we liked the town a lot -- plenty of ladyshopping for Mrs Elliott, tons of wine tasting for Jack, good restaurants. Best fish tacos we've ever had (at Firewood). Bought several bottles of good Calaveras county wine.

Day 3: Decided to stay another night in Murphys and moved to the Victoria Inn, a nice bed and breakfast off the main street. As is normal for bed and breakfasts, the room was a bit ticky-boo and quirky. But it was quiet and comfortable. I couldn't live there -- the only music is old guys playing Bluegrass. But I could vacation there for a week or two.

Day 4: Drove to Encinitas, Calif., to visit Mrs Elliott's mother, who is in her 80s and ailing, in and out of the hospital. We stayed at a Days Inn -- another brick in a parking lot motel -- and checked out in the morning. I've lived in San Diego North county.

Day 5: Decided to stay another day visiting with Becky, which we did. We returned to the same Days Inn for a second night.

Day 6: More visiting, then a drive to Palm Springs in time for wandering up and back the main drag and some dinner. I didn't find the town very interesting, the restaurants were uninspired, the shops typical. Stayed at the Comfort Inn, which was newly-refurbished. Perfectly acceptable. I could not live in Palm Springs: too generic, didn't charm me. I've lived in stucco and sand places before.

Day 7: Drove on the I-10 to Phoenix, or more accurately to Sun City West "Geezerabad," to visit H. Bruce Miller and his lovely wife Sharon who are wintering in a nice little bungalow, or casita. They've just bought a new house down near Tucson, in Oro Valley, where they feel they will be more comfortable than in Bend. They will be listing their classic early '60s ranch-style house here this summer. Fingers crossed for an easy sale with a good price. We enjoyed a fine barbecue dinner, wines, and Bruce and I shared Scotch and cigars, all courtesy of our hosts. I slept well. I could not live in that region: another endless and character-free southland sprawl of monotonous houses and generic stores.

Day 8: Drove back to Encinitas on the I-8, a dull dull drive, to check in with Becky again, then to Los Angeles for the night. Lodging in Los Angeles is really hit or miss. Most places were either creepy and run down or too pricey for us. Several years ago we stayed at a somewhat ratty Comfort Inn, and didn't want to stay there again. We drove around the town after dark checking out one place after another, getting more and more tired. We finally decided to try the Azul Motel listed on which turned out the be that same damn Comfort Inn under new name and management. We just gave in and got a room. It was fine.

Day 9: Visited with Mrs Elliott's father and stepmother for breakfast then drove north -- north! Finally, my back turned to the southlands, the states of sand and stucco. We drove up the 101, had lunch in Carpinteria -- where we agreed we could live -- then through Santa Barbara, my town of birth, over the San Marcos pass into Santa Ynez which has grown plenty in the intervening years and is now a serious wine-growing region with nice shops and restaurants and wine-tasting places in the town. Bought several bottles of wine. Then continued onward to Avila Beach, a nice rustic beach town. Stayed at the Avila Beach Inn, which like most beachy places seems to be in a continual state of disrepair. I couldn't live there -- absolutely nothing to do, but it was quite enjoyable for the night.

Day 10: We continued northward on 101. I had hoped to visit a wine store in Paso Robles and maybe get some good local zins, but it was a Sunday and all the shops were closed in the morning. So that didn't work out so good. We continued the drive and had lunch in Carmel-by-the-sea, which, if you've ever been there, you know has more high-end art galleries and clothing stores than it has people. Then to Santa Cruz to visit my daughter who is spring breaking with her boyfriend. She goes to UC Irvine, he to UC Santa Cruz. Dinner on the wharf at a tourist restaurant. We stayed at the Casablanca Inn and Bistro, a quirky hotel above the boardwalk. The bistro was closed until further notice. The man behind the glassed-in front desk looked like John Waters and spoke to us through a grill. Mrs Elliott wanted to visit the arcade on the boardwalk where we bought a bunch of tokens, played a trivia game, a shoot 'em up fake rifles test of skill game, and a pretend you're a musician by pounding on an electronic drum kit along with your song of choice game/activity. It was fun. But the town was too crowded for me, and about that time I was getting tired of feeling sticky due to the damp and cool marine air.

Day 11: To the Napa Valley. I lived in Napa for a few years when I was a kid and liked the area. Mrs Elliott and I stopped briefly in town to buy some wines at  Back Room Wines, a wine shop with a good reputation, and they recommended that when we got into the valley to stop at Plumpjack winery for a taste. Which we did. There, we bought a bottle or two and walked out with a short list of wineries they felt were making good examples of Napa Valley vintages. We didn't know where we were going to stay, but it being an off-season Monday we reckoned we'd have options. I had been told by our friend Michael Hill to try to have a meal in Yountville in one of the five-star restaurants there, but lodging in Yountville is out of our price range and we didn't find a ladyshopping area that attracted Mrs Elliott so we continued up to St. Helena which looked all right and we got a room just down the highway at the El Bonita motel. Because we were about a mile south of town and wanted to have dinner and wine without risking a DUI, we called for a cab to give us a lift. The ride was about three minutes and the fee was $20. The taxis in the area are not a good deal. After dinner we shopped a bit then took public transport on the Vine bus back to the motel for $1.50 apiece. We felt this to be a somewhat better deal.

Day 12: Agreeing that St. Helena wasn't much of a town for our type of touristing, we shifted to Calistoga, a few miles north on the highway, got a room at the Golden Haven spa, booked spa treatments for the evening, arranged for a driver to take us around the wineries, packed a picnic lunch, and visited several very nice places, including the don't-miss Castillo di Amorosa, which is a lovely winery (though the wines aren't all that). We finished our tour at the von Strasser winery where Rudy von Strasser, the owner, gave us a tour. The mobile bottling service was bottling Rudy's wines at the time so we also got to watch a modern wine bottling system at work. From all these wineries, we bought more wines. But after all that tasting we had to dry out before our spa treatments at 7:30 so we ate lightly in the room. The spa treatments we had booked were: mud bath then mineral springs jacuzzi soak then warm blanket wrap then massage. I didn't care much for the mud bath: the sulfur smell of the natural hot springs water combined with the gritty mixture of clay and peat moss to give the impression that I was laying in a trough of hot liquid manure. I was thankful when we got out and could shower each other off. I reckon I could live in the Napa valley as it is a beautiful place, so long as I could afford it and didn't mind the horrific traffic on the highway and the Silverado Trail during high season.

Day 13: A nine-hour drive back to Bend, mostly up the I-5 then highway 97. We stopped in Weed and ate lunch at the excellent Asian-American Barbecue shop. We got home at 4:30 pm. It was uneventful.

I am thankful to be home.

What I Learned On This Trip: I know how to pack for when we are going to stay in a single location for a few nights. But this kind of travel, where one stays only one night at each location, requires a different kind of packing. One doesn't have the luxury of unpacking a suitcase and using the closets and drawers; instead, one is living out of one's suitcase. None of the places we stayed had elevators, and first floor rooms are usually the first to be booked, so heavy suitcases are a nuisance when trodding up and down stairs. I'm not quite sure how to improve on how I packed, but I will think about it.

And always bring audiobooks. Any trips where one is driving a few hundred miles a day is bound to take one through long boring stretches. We listened to all of The Bone Bed -- Patricia Cornwell's excellently-detailed and researched crime mystery, and almost all of John Grisham's The Litigators. It appears that mysteries are a nice compromise between Mrs Elliott's and my taste in reading.
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