West Coastin’: Last Call

RT8_sushiIn those final days, our adventures kept us tethered close to Anaheim, cleaning our hotel rooms, gathering souvenirs, and worrying that the airport would not choose to jettison nearly a thousand dollars worth of wine (Mom’s frequent and incessant doubts, to be honest, worried me.  I imagined ourselves forced to drink thirty-six impounded bottles in the airport terminal only to miss our flight or have our stomachs pumped – whichever came first.).

At the time, we were quite content to remain within an hour of the hotel.  Mostly we focused on our stomachs, sampling local bakeries and restaurants recommended by various family and friends . . . and the internet.  I should note here that this form of research notoriously tests wills and tempers, breaking friendships and ruining meals to the tune of ‘But . . . but they said it was good!’ and ‘How can so many people be wrong?’

Advice as Tolkien writes often is a dangerous gift . . . as all courses may run ill.  Yet in the case of dining, this can be taken quite literally.  A bad meal can ruin evenings, sending the unlucky diner tumbling into the bathroom, hugging about the toilet for days.  Good advice is of course aimed to prevent this, yet even precluding sickness, the combination of high expectations, modest fare, and poor atmosphere alone may ruin any meal.

Many people have a habit of recommending hole-in-the-wall restaurants, small cramped cafes tucked away from the mainstream and thus more expensive dining halls, promising excellent fare and original tastes in exchange for unassuming environments (i.e. fly-encrusted tables and claustrophobic dining where you are practically sitting in your neighbor’s pasta bowl).  In such cases, originality and a good story or two is the true fare, not the food.  At one such diner back home, my efforts to dislodge myself from the table and visit the bathroom nearly forced the entire dining room out into the street.

I never relish throwing away money on expensive meals, yet the old maxim often holds true: you get what you pay for.

Yet as mentioned before, the driving force for this trip was food, and so we chose two restaurants recommended by friends and family back home before flying home.  In both cases, the restaurants were stationed an hour from Anaheim’s border, and so once again we boarded our Sebring for another road trip.

RT8_bakeryOur first stop gave us hope.  The Karen Krasne bakery in San Diego greeted us with dozens of freshly made cakes, pies, cookies, and assorted baked goods.  Apparently the selection constantly changes depending on the whims and moods of the cooking staff, thus no dessert menu is given; our waitress asked us to step up front and select from the gooey pastries, creamy custards, and chocolate dripped cakes.  Moreover, the entire staff was made up of well-dressed women, a charming feature for three guys on vacation.

“You guys should look in the back,” Dasad said, returning from the bathroom just as his chocolate sundae arrived layered in home-made chocolate syrup.  I dug into my own dish: shredded coconut blended with dark chocolate and molded into the shape of an evergreen tree.  Our waitress, a beautiful blonde model, smiled at three of us digging into our desserts.

“What?  Did you see them make anything?” I asked, patting the chocolate from my lips.

“No, it’s just that everyone in the back is rather . . . homely or male.  They must shuttle all the beautiful girls to the front.  Keep the . . . less than ideal staff in the back.”

“For presentation purposes?”

“Sure, helps with the elegant look, right?  If you’re running a restaurant, you don’t assign a cranky morbid waiting staff.  You get someone perky and energetic, keeps the customers happy.  Restaurants have décor, atmosphere: paint, landscapes, stained wood . . .”

“. . . basketball hoops, jungle gyms, giant rat mascots,” I added helpfully.  Jay ignored us both and stared without reserve at the bartender, drying martini glasses near the cash register.

“Shut it.  My point is why not hire attractive people too?”  Dasad asked pointing his spoon at me.

“Well, the reverse might be more accurate also,” I said, after some consideration.  “Happy competent people are more beautiful, thus more likely to serve food.”

“Perhaps.   Anyway, I’m not complaining and it’s not sleazy.  They don’t sell wings and tank tops.  The separation was just very apparent to me.”

“That’s cause you’re a perv,” I said, chewing on coconut.

“Shut it . . .”

RT8_cakesSatisfied both body and soul, we waddled outside with three slices of chocolate cake.  Our gastronomic odyssey continued.  Dasad’s cousins had made mention that a truly great roasted chicken dwelled in the heart of L.A. so after dessert we drove north to see about dinner, finding the small establishment in a small strip mall just off Sunset.  It was a little past four when we passed through Anaheim and collided with rush hour traffic into L.A.  Moreover, neither Jay nor Dasad knew where to go, and after consulting Google (Thank Heaven for the iPhone; without the maps, restaurant reviews, and Journey videos – ‘Don’t Stop Believin’ is essential for the long car rides – we would not have survived.), we located the place on the corner of what looked like a strip mall.

Parking was sparse, but we found a space wedged against the wall of the next building, adorn with graffiti and ‘Spaces for Customers Only’ signs.  We kicked coffee cups across the small lot before entering what looked like a school cafeteria: plastic neon orange seats, wobbling tables, overhead menus misspelling chicken with the number 1.  Not exactly what I imagined but honestly, having arrived, the unassuming atmosphere excited me a great deal.

“Finally,” I thought, “A genuine culinary diamond-in-the-rough, known to few, appreciated by only the culinary elite.   The perfect fried chicken . . .”

Yeah.  So the chicken was . . . well, chicken.  Nothing particularly interesting or special.  The seasoning – if any – was on par with the local supermarkets here in Maryland.  Based upon the recommendations, we had expected something extraordinary, a gastronomic masterpiece: savory chicken rotisserie, a roasted bird dry rubbed in garlic and oregano, dribbled with succulent juices, perhaps even infused with warm stuffing or berry compote.  Instead they handed us an animal one would expect beneath the heat lamp at 7-Eleven: good but hardly worth the commendation.

Our late night snack . . .

Our late night snack . . .

The meal had a similar effect on Dasad who as I recall cried aloud at the lack of hearty seasonings.   Yet last weekend, a month after returning to Maryland (our wine arrived safely much to Mom’s chagrin and utter joy) while driving out for a late evening flick (The Invention of Lying in case you’re wondering; another disappointment) I learned that online reports seem to have affected a change of heart:

“You know that chicken wasn’t that bad,” he admitted.  “In fact, it was probably the . . . best I’ve ever had.”

“You said it sucked at the time,” I countered calmly.  “That the bird had no real flavor.  That to Californians, chicken must be some rare delicacy in order for this ‘meal’ – I believe you used the air quotes – to entice so many . . .”

“I did not use air quotes.”

“Okay . . . but you did suggest KFC might be more authentic . . .”

“Yeah but . . .”

“Also if Gordon Ramsey had visited the place, he would have F-bombed the whole block to outer rims of Hell.”

“Alright already,” Dasad said, sighing behind the wheel. “I had expected more, but so many people online praise it.  We must have missed something.  Millions of people can’t be wrong . . . whoaaaa!” The car suddenly braked, veering to the shoulder as a herd of deer bounce nonchalantly across the highway

“Millions of people oppose hunting too,” I muttered as the Acura crept tentatively onto the highway again.  “Experience is everything.  My point is you tasted the chicken and left unimpressed.  I remember that much.  How can you be swayed otherwise?”

Dasad seemed to consider this a bit, diverting his attention every so often at the trees to the right of the car.

“No . . .,” he said finally. “We probably just did not order the right thing.  Like that In & Out Burger.  Apparently there’s a secret burger that’s not on the menu.  Everyone orders it, but you have to know.  We couldn’t because we didn’t.  Yet those who have tasted the burger say it’s incredible.”

“What?  Do they press two layers of paper-thin patties together?  Add more lettuce, tomatoes, and secret sauce to make the burger appear thicker?  To hide the absence of real meat?” I asked sardonically, trying to flush out my own feelings for these on-line gourmands.  Unrivaled majority support for anything only proves to heighten my suspicions.

“Either way you order it, dude, it’s still fast-food.  They don’t keep fresh ground beef stored in the freezer waiting for some knowledgeable customer to speak the secret code and unlock the invisible menu.  Pleease . . . just accept your own first impressions.  It sucked . . . deer to the left”

“See ‘em.”  This herd feasted peacefully in the middle median, potential torpedoes ready to leap into traffic.  “So what’s for dinner?”

“Uh . . . Sushi?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Good, a month after California and I’m dying for yellowtail.  The last month has been murder too.  Wanderlust has set again . . .”

“Ha,” Dasad laughed.  “Whereto now?  Montana?  Mexico?  Europe?”

“Or Japan,” I smiled.  “You know me . . . I won’t be happy until we’ve circumnavigated the globe.  In the meantime, turn up the radio.  You can hear my warbled voice until we reach the restaurant.”


And so our journey to the West Coast ended.  We’ve only opened one bottle of the wine so far – Mom learned of the cost and refuses to open more.  I’m still considering our next destination, possibly overseas or near a comic convention.  Dasad and Jay returned to their jobs in good spirits, while I returned to my laptop and my stories.  All in all it was a great time.  In closing, I wanted to post some traveling music, a song that sped up time through wine country and back down to San Diego again in our cramped Sebring.  Thankfully our caterwauls have been excluded from this version:


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West Coastin’: Daring Disney

RT7_rocksDasad, I discovered had never experienced the beautiful chaos that is the Disney theme parks.  This realization shocked me a little, as Dad has our yearly exodus to Florida planned and booked at least a year in advance (Typically, the week after returning to Maryland, growls are heard, demanding our schedules for next summer).  Visiting the familiar turnstiles and tourist-packed ‘lands’ percolate the senses the way home-baked cookies must entice wayward travelers.  The cries of children, the scent of sugar roasted almonds, and even the sight of swollen lines carried the sweet warmth of remembrance, of past adventures en mass: nearly twenty or so brothers, sisters, cousins, uncles, aunts, mothers, fathers, and grandparents.  Nearly a continent away, I walked through the park nevertheless enervated, ready to show my friends an excellent time.

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West Coastin’: Geek Out

RT6_kenwoodThe next morning after a breakfast of oatmeal and microwaved egg sandwiches, we emptied our rooms of bags and wine-stuffed boxes.  Now I mentioned earlier that Dasad had rented a Chrysler Sebring for our travels, a nice unimposing number with four doors, three passengers, and no retractable hood.  The little gray wisp of a car had wandered much of the state with us and performed admirably, but loading the car that morning, the lack of space proved quite a hindrance, much like stuffing an elephant into a clown car.

“So . . . um dude,” I asked, after loading our three wine boxes.  “Where are we going to throw the bags?”

In addition to Jay’s and my bags, Dasad had brought this immense rolling sea chest, which, apart from containing all his earthly possessions, did not fold or bend very well.  In the end we stacked everything in the backseat: suitcases, book bags, food, souvenirs, maps, and somewhere at the bottom of it all, Jay.   Leaving the hotel, I imagined our car as those station wagons you see in Walmart parking lots, stuffed to the brim with bags of clothing, Tupperware, trash, blenders, and every known species of plastic dog, bobbing their heads on dashboard mounts.

We visited Kenwood and V. Sattui Wineries to fill in those extra nooks and crannies left in our boxes, and drove back to San Francisco.

RT6_japantownNow as mentioned before, the driving force behind this trip lie with the stomach: to eat authentic Japanese cuisine and imbibe mass quantities of authentic Californian wine.  So far, so good.  Yet apart from the woman in Pismo with the Muppet-mouth, we encountered few instances that truly proved weird or unusual.  My soul thrives off that stuff, one of the reasons I suggested the Wizard World convention at the conclusion of our last cross-country trip.  Also because I like comics.  They make me happy.

As we retraced our steps from last night, I noticed a few of the streets had been closed off, barricaded for the festival.

“Look at the crowds here, dude.  It’s just like the con last month.”

“Yeah, but no sweaty basement dwellers.  The general public.  And if my eyes don’t deceive me, girls!”

“There were girls at the con.”

“The ones here aren’t dressed like Princess Leia.”

“Yeah, okay . . . so it isn’t perfect, but for authentic Japanese ramen, I won’t hold it against them.”

The street between the Kintetsu and Miyako malls, which we visited the previous night, and the NEW PEOPLE J-pop Center had been closed off earlier that morning to accommodate the expected crowds arriving for the center’s grand opening.  Long lines streamed out the three-story glass building, housing a menagerie of Japanese pop culture artifacts including manga, anime, art, cinema, and music.  An ideal locale to whet my otaku appetite, yet spying that the crowds nearly encompassed the entire block, we opted to return to the malls for lunch and some shopping.

"Soba, udon or ramen?"

"Soba, udon or ramen?"

Before finding the entrance, we walked through the street festival, sniffing at various foods and pouring through the works of local manga artists.  Dasad found a Bubble Tea stand, attended by kawaii girls in maid attire, who smiled and bowed as we slurped our tapioca.  In the town center, J-pop and J-rock bands sang and screamed (respectively), while nearby otaku tried forming mosh pits with proud parents and any curious visitor who happened by.  We found the mall’s entrance hidden behind a group of teens in Guy Fawkes masks, offering free hugs in addition to the sensation of being violated by a man in a mask.  No extra charge.

Inside we settled for a small ramen café near the hibachi grill from the previous evening.  Now for the record, Japanese ramen is good.  Very very good.  For those of you reading this, nodding your head with a Cup O’Noodles in your hands, I can only say that you know nothing.  The broth was delicious, the noodles fresh, the vegetables real.  I even splurged for a bowl of curried rice, as an apology to our waitress for trying to fake my way out of a language dispute.

“Ramen, udon, or soba?” our waitress asked.  Her accent and my bad hearing contributed to my confusion and ultimately not understanding what was being asked of me.

“Um . . .” I said scanning my menu for clues.  “Uh, I think I’ll try . . . white?  And an iced tea?”

Her eyes told me that I had guessed incorrectly.

“Uh . . .” I muttered, returning to the menu again.  Ummm . . .”  The type of rice?  Pick two sides?  Pork or tofu?

“She’s asking you for the type of noodles, dude,” Dasad clarified helpfully.

“Oh, uh . . . udon, please.  Thank you.”

She nodded and left gratefully, delivering the orders behind swinging door to spit in the white guy’s food unseen.

“You know, Murph,” Dasad chastened.  “You could have just asked her to repeat it instead of masking your ignorance.”

“I didn’t want to be a burden,” I sighed.

“So instead you made yourself a fool,” he noted.

“Yeah,” I groaned, my head in my hands.  “It’s just not in me to ask questions.  When in doubt, research.  If that fails, fumble about awkwardly until the question is repeated.  Thanks for the save, by the way.”

“Happy to oblige,” Dasad laughed.  “I just wish I remembered to pull out my camera and videotape the whole thing.  That lost-puppy look alone is like gold on Youtube.”

“Thanks,” I said, sighing again.

Ms. Teana-Lanster

Ms. Teana-Lanster

Despite everything, the food was quite good — with no evidence of our hostess’s displeasure.  We left then to sample some of Jay’s crepes and gaze at PVC figures of gun-toting ninjas.  Though hoping for some intriguing sculpture or game, I encountered nothing of interest, which disappointed Dasad some, I think, as my temperance afforded him no opportunity for ridicule.  Not that he refused to try anyway, drawing my attention to several poorly dressed heroines and loudly asking if I saw their pantsu, their panties.

“Oooo . . . black,” he squealed.  “Hey Murph, did you see these?  White and blue stripes! Kinky.”

I quickly left before my friend made his way to the adult ‘ero’ section.

In the next store, Jay drew our attention to the Japanese DVD release of the latest Miyazaki film, Ponyo.  The film had just been released at theaters with English dub, and I suggested we spend an afternoon at the theater soon.  My companions seemed eager to catch a flick; Dasad even suggesting we waste a whole day at the movies.

“A triple feature,” he said.  “After all the traveling up and down the coast, we could use a day to sit back and just relax.”

Stawberries, chocolate, whipped cream, and ice cream.  Mmmmm . . .

Stawberries, chocolate, whipped cream, and ice cream. Mmmmm . . .

It was close to two o’clock by the time we decided to leave.  The crowds continued to pour onto the streets, and even browsing through the claustrophobic aisles of the local supermarket proved slow work, like those squirrel mazes in the Ranger Rick magazines (Help Mr. Nibbles escape with his nuts to the old willow tree).  Our time in San Francisco had ended; we hopped into our overloaded Sebring and drove south.

Five or six hours later, just before reaching our hotel, hunger struck our small Chrysler, prompting us to stop at the local In And Out Burger in Burbank.  The parking lot was stacked with teenagers and other shady age groups including short old women in Cadillacs  and forty-year old accountants on motorcycles and mopeds.  Dasad felt certain we were going to die.  Or get robbed.  Or both and then sold to the local medical school for surgical demonstrations.

“Dude, I don’t think our car is safe here.”

“Don’t worry,” I said calmly.  “If anything happens, it’ll probably cascade into murder, not theft.”

“As long as no one takes our car, that’s fine.  Remember we still have thirty-six bottles of expensive wine in the trunk.”

Honestly, I had considered opening up a bottle for dinner that night, toasting our successful bounty from the north over burgers and fries, but glancing at the packed crowds inside, I thought better of it.  They might have insisted we share!

We ordered our burgers and sat down next to a group of college-age teens, discussing movie trivia, which I suppose is common among Burbank youth.  Jay came back with our food, and I dug into what was to be the worst burger I have ever eaten in my life.  At least for the three bucks I paid for it.  Admittedly, the vegetables were nice and fresh, but the meat, a thin sliver of beef, was non-existent, nearly half the thickness of a slider, nearly melting into the bun.  Thankfully I had ordered a milkshake too, and we quickly waddled out to the car left Burbank in our dust – which they probably collected, froze, reheated, slapped together with lettuce and tomato, and sold for three dollars.  Mmmmmm . . .

Next: Why aliens and humans will never breed, and Disneyland dreamin’.

West Coastin’: Popping Corks

RT4_grapesHaving arrived in Napa, we immediately passed out at the FairField Inn.  Just not from alcohol.  That was the second day.  The first day’s stupor resulted from the combined exhaustion of a long drive through San Francisco traffic, restless night’s sleep in a soggy Monterey motel, and irritation from discovering most hotels in Napa booked or overpriced.  Moreover, the sun seemed stronger in the heart of the valley, and after a busy morning watching fish and eating chowder, we needed a few hours to do absolutely nothing.  And a bathroom.  Again.

“So . . . uh, guys, I may have to use the loo soon,” I said as we left downtown Napa and its collection of occupied over-priced hotels.  “Just so . . . you know.”

“No prob,” Dasad said, now driving.  “Let’s check out Sonoma first.  It shouldn’t be that far away and I’m sure they’ll have something.  Can you hold it?”

“Uh, sure, I’m okay . . . for now.”

“Good.”

Of the many benefits derived from Catholic schooling, learning how to effectively hold one’s bladder ranks near the top of the list.  Leaving the classroom in the midst of lessons would often let loose Sister’s wrath, and so I learned to wait for hours ‘til break or lunch to slip out and do my business.  This skill has come into handy many times since: driving home early in the morning, sitting through organic chemistry lectures just before mid-term, The Lord of the Rings movies.  The trick is to focus your mind away from the body outwards, toward the world around you: simple things that do not require much analysis.  Like road signs.

“Welcome.  To.  Sonoma.  County.  Population.  Four-hundred.  Sixty-six. Thousand.”  Though typically, I only read aloud as a last resort.

“What are you doing?”  Dasad’s short drive to Sonoma after several lights and one slow-moving truck has taken fifteen minutes.

“Reading.  When the pressure gets too high I try to regain focus.  Otherwise . . .”

“Huh, does that really work?”

“. . . yes,” I muttered, calming myself.  We closed in on the truck.  “McDonalds.  Over One Million.  Served.”

“Shoot, okay.  Jay, look out for 12 North.”

“California.  AJ378K.”

“Should we head back?” Jay asked, laughing.  Something about my predicament seemed to humor him.

“Deally Lane.  Domaine Carneros.  Vineyards.  Next. Right.”

“Um . . .,” Dasad paused.  “No, we’ll be alright.  Hang in there Murph.”

“Love. That. Chicken from.  Popeye’s.”

“Better grab an empty Snapple bottle just in case,” Dasad said turning right.

RT4_vineyardFinally veering onto Route 12, we passed through a small town with a few banks and one or two small strip malls.  Dasad turned into an empty gas station.  I nearly tore my seat buckle off and, toppling from the car, walked quickly toward the station office.  The door did not open.  I tried it again.  And again.  Looking inside, I realized no one was there and that the station was probably closed or abandoned.  Unsure of where to go next, my feet carried my swollen body down the sidewalk, much like a sun-soaked legionnaire mindlessly chasing a mirage.  Faintly I heard Dasad yelling after me, but my legs ignored him for the bush in the adjacent yard.  Jay caught me before I drifted into traffic and pushed me back towards the car.

“There’s a Subway on the other side.  Come on!” he said.

“Five.  Dollar.  Foot.  Long.”  I mumbled seconds from exploding.

We parked, and I wandered inside, allowing Jay to order just in case the bathroom was for paying customers only.  Then I feigned nonchalance: “I’m going to use the loo real quick, while you’re ordering guys, okay?”  I stared at the cashier, daring her to stop me before ordering an Italian BMT.  Receiving no challenge, I rushed inside and experienced two minutes of pure bliss.

Dasad and Jay were hunched over, nearly laughing on the floor.  I just smiled and ordered my sub:  ‘Club sandwich, please, and a  large iced tea.’  Sometimes habit trumps wisdom, especially when tea leaves are involved.


The hills and valleys of Napa and Sonoma were rife with unexpected magic and beauty.  They were also hot as Hell, and with our bodies flush with wine, the cool breeze that arrived late in the day, as we toured Cline Vineyards came as a relief.  The cashiers at Cline’s likewise proved quite kind and generous with their samples, offering free tastes and ample volumes.  Walking off to join the tour, our glasses full with a subtle and delicious pinot grigio, Dasad and Jay began to waver some.

“Ugh, I can’t drink anymore, dude,” Dasad sighed.  “Anymore and you’re going to have to drag me to the car.”

We had began the morning at Sterling Vineyards, one of Mom’s favorite vineyards and lying farther up the road near Calistoga, the perfect place to begin our tour of the valleys.  In order to visit the vineyard, visitors must board a gondola which carries them to the hilltop facility and tasting center.  The whole ‘ride’ angle reminded me of Disney World and gave my imagination ample fodder to feed upon: Cask Mountain, Riesling of the Caribbean, and a stationary teacup ride, where you drink merlot until the world spins.

I suggested as much to Dasad, but he was busy practicing his Engrish to pay me any heed.

“Country rooooads, take me hooome . . . To da praaaace I berooooong . . .”

At Sterling, tours are self-guided with tasting stations scattered along the way.  We tasted pinot noir and an unforgettable white wine – whose name at the moment escapes me – taking pictures of steel vats and enormous barrels.  Occasionally we would . . .

“Me no want wahta.  Want ahss cream.”

Ahem, yes so . . . the Engrish. Throughout the drive, we encountered numerous non-native Americans, visiting or working here in the States.  As such, we played at mimicking accents, returning the favor for some sidelong glances at my Baltimore ‘O,’ hon.  Anyway it was a great way of wasting a few minutes, driving through the mostly unremarkable scenery from Monterey.  After several hours of hillsides and sun burnt grass, it grew into an addiction.  Then while walking to our rooms that morning, we passed an aging Asian grandmother in a roller, screaming at her grandchildren for Rocky Road.  It seems humor will always find a home reaffirming stereotypes.

“. . . ahss creeeaam.”

Our combined swag

Our combined swag

Returning to more pertinent matters  . . . between Sterling and Clines, while collecting various bottles of cabernets and merlots, I discovered the great secret behind Napa.  Wine tasting is much like shilling out $30 to knock over milk jugs at a carnival; you’ll win your Kewpie doll but still arrive home $30 lighter.  The scam is flawless.  At the wine bar, samples drizzle into your glass.  You sniff the liquid, taking in the rich bouquet – as instructed by the brochure picked up at the hotel lobby – and then sip, swirling the contents around your tongue.  If you’re naïve and sensible, you’ll swallow then.  Only connoisseurs taste and spit.

Your taste buds detect blueberries, chocolate, and burnt wood, just as the placard before you suggests.  Awesome!  The effects are immediately edifying: you feel intelligent, refined, aware.  Sherlock Holmes could not have detected as much in his first sip as you have.  Your server smiles.  A knowing wink.  No one else here can taste like you can.  In triumph, you buy ten bottles at a hundred dollars a pop to take home and flaunt before friends.

“Brian, taste this.  If you have the talent, you might just detect chocolate-covered cherries, mint and the subtle hint of 100-yr French oak.”

“Ugh, it burns my tongue.”

“That’s the oak!”

I wish we could admit we were not fooled by this shell-game, that we were smarter than these plaid-collared con artists, that we paid for our $5 glass of wine and left instead of filling our three boxes with thirty-six bottles of expensive wine that no one else, not even ourselves, can fully appreciate.

Well, we did not buy thirty-six bottles.  Dasad snuck two extra bottles into his luggage, totaling thirty-eight in full.  California is far richer because of our visit.

Still for all our ‘expertise’ the wine tasted good.  We bought what we liked, which in the end proved the true sounding rod.  Awards and all.

RT4_viewBack at Cline’s Vineyard, Dasad and Jay were pouring wine into my glass, when our tour group arrived.  A bus pulled up to the stone wall where we sat and unloaded.  The eclectic group of tourists mingled among the garden and chatted noisily just as a brisk but welcome blast of air drifted through the valley.  The air refreshed our drowned senses some and we watched the crowd, wondering if anyone here truly understood wine culture.  Judging from the dialects, most of the visitors appeared foreign: British, Australian, Chinese, Italian, and Korean.  Only a few held their glasses by the stem or sniffed subtle rose bouquets before gulping down their samples.  We relaxed.  They were like us: ignorant tourists but diligent alcoholics.

Our hosts circled the wall, filling up our glasses again with a sample of their red wine.  Dasad groaned, took a sip, and filled my glass again.  Jay poured it into the garden.  The tour guide talked for a few minutes about the wine, how it was one of his favorites, and how we could taste the subtle hints of apple and cherry wood, before beckoning us all to follow him through the winery.

Steadying Dasad who wobbled to his feet, I noticed a man walking by himself, a pink sweater tied around his neck, swirling his wine in his mouth and spitting into a large bush.  Ah, a connoisseur.  The man’s curly salt and pepper hair recalled to mind something about Leslie Nelson and Spartacus, slapstick and bare chests.  His locks fell long in the back, a trim but noticeable mullet that more than anything convinced me the man was foreign.

“Dude,” I said nudging Dasad, who was trying to convince the others we were Australian.

“Eh? Wot mate?”

“Take a look at that guy over there?” I pointed.  “The guy in the sandals and pink cardigan.  Doesn’t he look like Ricardo Montalban?”

Dasad stared for a minute or so before cracking up.

“KHAANN!!!”

RT4_cheeseWe stumbled . . . er walked into one of the large warehouses, behind the tasting center; Ricardo sulked off by himself to stare at the ceilings, looking devilish and European like old men in pressed suits and eye patches.  Inside large twenty-foot fermentation barrels lined the walls like giant beehives; stacks of smaller barrels sat idly on racks throughout the rest of the warehouse.  Our host offered us another sampling, merlot this time; Dasad managed to avoid the bottle by taking pictures.  I surreptitiously snapped a few myself of Ricardo, whose eyes never left the rafters: scheming warehouse infiltration and cask burglary perhaps.   Wine theft?!  Is there no end to your infamy, Khan?  From Hell’s heart I stab at thee!

We crawled out to the car – figuratively in my case, literally for the others.  Dasad threw me the keys, nearly falling asleep immediately in the back seat.  Arriving at the hotel, we pass out, our faces red from liquor and sunburn, only to awake hungry a few hours later.  Thus, we return to Sonoma for burgers and fish at Taylors, a California staple apparently.  Best fast food I have ever tasted at least.  Bellies full of fries and milkshakes, we drove back to the hotel to rest up for the Jelly Belly factory and Fisherman’s Warf.  Stay tuned . . .

West Coastin’: Rest Stops

RT3_pchAnyone who visits California must travel along Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, once in their life.  Frankly if you’re alive and own a car, the trip is required (the penalty is death if you refuse and own a convertible).  I associate it to a rite of passage, as sacred and necessary as receiving your first kiss, landing your first job, or watching your first Indiana Jones movie.

The road slips and glides around the western cliffs, hugging the steep rocky curves the way roads should and cars seldom can.  Signs advising 40mph wink knowingly as your car flies by, nearing twenty-more than safety dictates.  You look outside and gaze straight up or straight down.  Trees dapple the hills and mountains like an old man’s chin, while waves churn and crash on dark cliff walls, breaking stone with milky foam as dark clouds seem to flood the skies with sea.  As fog descends from unseen peaks, cloud and water merge.  The Pacific fades from view like the edge of an unfinished landscape.  At night fleeting wisps of light trace the folds in the peninsula, eventually swallowed by a valley or fold hidden in the darkness. We arrived in Monterey late, exhausted and hungry.

Several hours prior we had stopped for a tour of Hearst Castle, discovering the site during a sudden and expedient bathroom break.

“Damn it,” I cursed, nearly running down the streets of the small town.  “‘Bathrooms are for customers only.’  Do I have to pay admittance before I visit the privy or pay my toll afterwards?”

All of the various shops or cafes in town restricted bathroom use to customers only.  Signs posted in the windows clearly told me to ‘Go away!’ and ‘We don’t want your kind here.’ Or ‘Empty your bladder somewhere else and then come back and try our scones.  Delicious!’  All Dasad could manage was to giggle at my predicament, suggesting various walls and trees, which given five more minutes may have become enticing.   Moreover, he would not pay the ransom, citing something about terrorist demands and the outrageous prices on a worthless sea lion snow globe.

RT3_pch2Nearly jogging several blocks, Jay and I finally found the public bathroom, buried deep behind the local Texaco station: a concrete shack that at one time may have doubled for a bomb-shelter.  Still I wasn’t in the position to quibble.  Despite the notorious reputation of many gas-station bathrooms only a handful I have considered truly disgusting.  Most, though ill-suited for your Aunt Gertrude, are far more sanitary than most locker rooms.  However, in this forgotten town, nestled between two adjacent mountains off the Pacific Coast Highway, I encountered a chimera, something both unique and horrible.

Just imagine the worse possible scenario for each of your senses and you’ll grasp the general aura of this public facility.  Relieved but pale, I hastened outside, where Jay stood waiting.

“How is it?” he asked.

“Just don’t touch or look at anything.  I’d suggest breathing, but if the filth reaches your nose, you might collapse.  And I won’t be going in again to save you.”

I tracked down Dasad to the local candy store, ferreting for some home-made chocolate or sweets, yet most of their confections appeared boxed, mass-produced, or Hershey.  He left unimpressed and quite hungry; thus, we sat down at the local burger place for lunch.  After we had ordered, Jay returned from the bathroom, his face white and wet as if he had just fallen into the polar icecap.  Sitting down, he twisted his hands together, absently, I thought, until he pulled out an empty bottle of disinfectant and squirted it on his hands and face.

“It was full thirty minutes ago,” he said, massaging between his fingers.  When our burgers and fries arrived, he stared at his palms for a moment before picking them up, considering – I imagine – whether any impurities still lingered.

A nearby couple discussed their own vacation at the table nearby.  The conversation turned to their excellent visit to Hearst Castle, only a few miles up the road according to the road signs. Castles and ruins will capture the imagination of a twenty-nine year old as easily as a twelve-year-old, and without a word, we decided to take a gander.

Two hours later as we boarded the tour bus, Dasad and I came down with a serious case of laughing sickness, the kind that overwhelms your senses, making it nigh near impossible to stop.  It began just after the National Geographic film on the life of William Randolph Hearst and the construction of his home, the castle.

RT3_tapestryApart from the breathtaking scenes in European cathedrals and ruins, the whole presentation was essentially camp, recreating the publishing giant into some mythological figure rather than a human being: “There are many stories about William Randolph Hearst and his castle, but in order to understand the man and his genius, I’ll tell you my version.  It’s the one I enjoy the most.  It also happens to be the truth.”  The disembodied narrator, a supposedly sixty-some year-old pilot, could learn something about subtlety in his storytelling.  If they had concluded the film with Hearst curing cancer or turning lead into gold, it would not have surprised me.

So powerful was this performance that Dasad began channeling the man himself, squawking orders to our fellow tourists like a 1940s gangster.

“I’m William Randolph Hearst, see.  When I ring this bell, I want you Cary Grant to dress up like Little Orphen Annie, see.  And you Amelia Earheart shall dance for me.  Dance until I tell you to stop, see?  ‘Cause I’m the Hearst and while you’re at my castle, you’ll do as I say, see?  Or I’ll feed you to my cross-eyed polar bear, nyaeah . . .”

“Why are you talking like James Cagney?”

“ ‘Cause he’s old,” Dasad explained.  “Everyone back then talked like this . . . see?”

Something about that absurd logic and absurd movie that inspired it sent me rolling.  The two of us nearly crawled onto the bus, packed tight with tourists, who just stared quietly at the pair of giggling pot-addicts in the front seat.  When the bus started up the hillside, a train whistle erupted over the loudspeaker, followed shortly by the rest of the train: Chugga-chugga-chugga.  Whoot-whoot!  Chugga-Chugga. Welcome to the Hearst Castle Tour!  Whoot! Are you ready, pardners?

I looked at Dasad, red-faced and biting his fist.  After a few moments, it became difficult to breathe.

“If you guys don’t stop soon,” a lady beside me said with a smile, “I’m going to join you.  It’s contagious, you know.”

“S-sorry,” I giggled between my teeth, earnestly trying to master myself, until Dasad began muttering something.  All I heard was ‘. . . nyeah, see?’ and my willpower crumbled again.  We were no more good until the bus stopped just outside Hearst’s Roman pool.RT3_map

West Coastin’: From L.A. with Love

“The one you said was haunted?”

So having arrived in California, our first task was to get lost.  For some reason the roads leading into Disney and thus the hotel had been blocked by the Anaheim police department.  We circled the block several times, analyzing the various routes, double-checking our GPS, wondering if our room had somehow exploded and left us lodge-less for the remaining week.  On our third try, the cop moved off, allowing traffic through; Dasad and I looked at each other, shrugged, and drove on to the Disney Paradise Pier Hotel.

Upon checking in, we discovered a gas leak had closed the street when a gaggle of construction worker busied themselves with repairs at the resort.  Our concierge assured us nothing was amiss and although flammable material spewed onto the road, we were perfectly safe.  After nearly seven hours in flight and nearly one attempting to enter the resort, I would not have cared had they admitted digging for uranium with dynamite.

Now before delving into the details of our travels, I want to say something about California weather.  In Maryland, humidity can sap nearly all of one’s energy, leaving one lethargic and crawling toward the nearest air conditioner like a drowning man clawing at the sea breeze.  Yet on the West Coast, sunshine and blue skies dissipate morning fog each and every day and nearly constant breezes found us rolling down windows and anticipating long walks through nearby shops and gardens.  It’s no wonder that many of the environmental reforms stemmed from the Californian coastline; with the constant seasonal threat of humidity, hurricanes, blizzards, and floods, East Coasters have a love/hate relationship with Mother Nature, at times indifferent to whether she’s healthy or near-death.

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And Awaaaay We Go . . .

Never trust anyone who has not brought a book with them.  — Lemony Snicket

packingPacking for trips always proves a stressful time for me.  Though others might become bogged by shirts, socks, and appropriate footwear, we bibliophiles must decide on the number and type of books we can possibly stuff into our carry-on’s before we’re considered a threat to airline security.

This Saturday Dasad and I are traveling to the other side of the continent for what will prove our second major ‘roadtrip’ in the last four years.  California.  A week and a half.  One insured rent-a-car.  Dear God . . .  Other more road-weary travelers may shrug at such hyperbole, but considering my spring breaks never involved Cancun or Rio, devolving into enjoyable but group-centered family excursions, spending a week anywhere alone is quite exciting.  Needless to say, I hope I don’t drive Dasad murder-crazy.

Yet for the moment all is good.  Though preparing to pack this morning, I now face a crisis: deciding which tomes of my extensive collection to tote one-eighth the way around the globe.  Zafon’s Shadow of the Wind.  Mark Twain.  Sherlock Holmes.  Count of Monte Cristo.  Or Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie (Dagger Award winner.  I heard it was quite good.).  And then there’s my Naruto manga . . .   All I know is that I must bring something or stranded by earthquake or fire, I might find myself a little put out.

A library is like an island in the middle of a vast sea of ignorance, particularly if the library is very tall and the surrounding area has been flooded — Lemony Snicket

Ah hell . . . I’ll probably just end up bringing them all.  Worst case, I’ll try to slip a few tomes in Dasad’s bags before we leave.  He probably won’t mind if displace a few socks or jeans in the process.  The airline will simply lose it en route anyway, and then we’ll have an excellent excuse to replenish our supply (and perhaps a few new additions) at some California bookstores.  If I manage to make it back in one piece, safe travels and good perspectives to you all on your own summer vacations this year!

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime. — Mark Twain