California dreaming – the beginning


Among the Dalai Lama’s 20 Instructions for Life, the following is a great favorite among those who love to travel:

“Once a year, go someplace you’ve never been before.”

Travelers love this quote because it seems a natural rallying cry to get in a plane or bus or car and journey someplace new, and I’m sure that’s part of what is meant. But the Greek philosopher Heraclitus of Esphesus once said “δὶς ἐς τὸν αὐτὸν ποταμὸν οὐκ ἂν ἐμβαίης“, which can be interpreted as “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

So going someplace “you’ve never been before” can mean going someplace within your own local city. It means to take a new look at things, find a new viewpoint.

And oh yes, sometimes that means going very far away.

California for me is a place that I’ve been often – I even got to live there for one short, wonderful month for work – and yet even in revisiting familiar places there, I seem to always find someplace new to see.

My first trip to the Golden State was Memorial Day weekend back in the mid-1980s. It was the infancy of the budget travel era: travel agencies were still strong, and booking travel over the phone meant you still had to go to the airport and pick up a paper ticket. Sites like Travelocity were a decade away. Bargain-conscious travelers still kept a keen eye on the Sunday travel section, and the really smart ones signed up for the new frequent flyer programs that airlines were rolling out.

People Express Airlines was offering $198 round trip fares from coast to coast, and my father thought that was a pretty good price. So after school that Thursday, my brother and I got on a flight at Bradley International, and flew out to meet our father in San Francisco. My brother, at 6’2″, was tall enough that he couldn’t bring the seat-front tray down over his knees, because People’s Express was more like Cattle Car Express, and leg room was at best a vague daydream. We balanced both of our in-flight meals on my tray (remember when passengers got fed on any flight over 3 hours?) and arrived at SFO around 1 a.m.

We spent that first night – partial night, anyway – in a $19/night dive of a hotel not too far away from the airport. We jammed a chair under the doorknob (just in case), and in the morning, there was a guy nearly-naked in the parking lot (save for his skivvies) screaming about being robbed. Let’s just say that despite some of the more (ahem) “colorful” locations our family stayed over the years in my father’s never-ending quest for the best travel bargain, none of them were ever bad enough to get him to stop searching for amazing deals.

California is a big state, and if you told somebody you only had three or four days to spend there, they’d probably advise you to concentrate on one thing, and not worry about the rest of the state. But not our family, oh no. My father was a salesman for many years. But despite spending all his time on the road, he would usually do the same on vacations: drive a lot. I used to think that perhaps secretly, in his head, he was aiming for some kind of entry into the Guinness Book of World Records. Most vacation miles driven before the rest of the family goes bonkers.

We started Friday morning by driving down the coast via Santa Cruz to see the famous Seventeen-Mile-Drive. The weather was nice in the city, but got foggy further down the coast. On returning to the city, we went to a few of his favorite places in the city, like Cliff House and Fisherman’s Wharf. I enjoyed what I saw of the city thus far.

I fell in love with San Francisco that first evening. Oh, sure, I’d enjoyed seeing the waterfront, Lombard Street, and so forth; they’re tourist destinations for a reason. But that night, we headed up to Chinatown, for dinner at the iconic Empress of China (which, sadly, permanently closed this past winter).

At the time, the Empress was different than any Chinese restaurant I’d ever been to. It was upscale, and it was elegant; it sought to present authentic Chinese food, not just Americanized chop suey. We had a table close to one of the windows, and I’ll admit I spent most of my time looking out the window at the Transamerica Pyramid, which looked close enough to touch, and enjoying the panoramic views of the sunset across the city and the bay. I know I ate soup that night, but can’t remember too much else of what I had, because I was so in love with that show outside the windows.

We headed a couple streets over to catch a cable car back to our hotel, and one of the historic cable cars came clanging down the hill towards us. Half a dozen happy, excited people dressed in black tie and brandishing champagne bottles were hanging off the side of the cable car, shouting joyfully at people on the street that they passed. I don’t know what their cause for celebration was, but that was the moment I knew I loved San Francisco: this bright, colorful, fun, magical, photogenic city.

(Related side story: In 2006, I was in San Francisco for the Browncoats Ball. I, in my magnificent gown of bronze and black, and my companion, in a full dress kilt, got on a cable car for the ride up Powell, and naturally, I couldn’t help but remember that night from 21 years before – and of course, I hoped that we were giving some tourist the same fun and happy memory that I had made on my first visit!)

On Saturday morning, we drove north out of the city, picked up breakfast in Sausalito, and had a brief stop at Muir Woods, where he told us, “I’ve seen it before. You guys have 15 minutes, I’ll be waiting here in the parking lot.” My brother and I didn’t rush, and got 25 minutes out of it.

Next, we visited a couple of his favorite wineries in Napa as we headed east during the late morning/early afternoon. I was fourteen at the time, but was often mistaken for 20 or 21. I’d been on my first trip to Europe just a month before, and guys at least three times my age had regularly hit on me, so it was no surprise that tasting room clerks regularly assumed I was of age. Back then, even though the National Minimum Drinking Age Act had become law barely a year before, being asked for ID was a rarity. Samples were more generous, too – usually full glasses – and few wineries had a tasting fee of $3, which often meant taking the glass with you as a momento. (For the record: no, I don’t recall tasting any of the wines on this trip. But I fell in love with wine country young!)

By late afternoon, we’d made it out to Lake Tahoe. He liked skiing the area; my brother and I associated it with Squaw Valley, former Winter Olympics site. It had been a long day of driving, and as we were heading down 395 into Bridgeport, the sun was just sinking behind the mountains. Golden sunlight lingered over the indigo shadows below, the twinkling lights of Bridgeport the first town of any size we’d seen in two hours.

It would be more than twenty years before I’d come this way again, and the darkness hid the beauty of the drive between Bridgeport and Mono Lake. More recently, I’ve been there twice in the past five years, and it’s a great route, especially when the mountains are rich with autumn colors.

Sunday was all about Yosemite. We drove up the gut-clutching road to Tioga Pass (I was seriously glad we wouldn’t be leaving the park by that same road), and found out we were really in luck – there’d been an extra-heavy snowfall that past winter, and this entrance to the park had just been opened a couple days earlier. We drove past cuts through the snowpack that looked like layers of a cake. The high meadows were brisk and we could see our breath in the shadows – a few thousand feet lower later, the valley floor was a different experience, warm and balmy. The iconic valley waterfalls were in prime shape, loaded by icy-cold snowmelt waters.

Yosemite is a treasure, the type of place that you hope everybody can experience at some point. But its beauty and popularity also means that as the years go on, it gets more crowded. The valley was busy then; but these days, traffic can be as clogged as city driving on summer weekends. We were out of the park and down in Sacramento by late afternoon. Our last sunset was enjoyed in the tiny hotel pool; our flight back to Connecticut left at 6 a.m. on Monday.

My father’s philosophy towards travel was to see as much as possible on trips because, as he put it, you never knew when you might pass that way again. If you didn’t, well, at least you could say you’d been there; if you did, you’d had a previous taste, and knew what you’d like to explore more. I’ve learned in my travels that this approach may not always be 100% perfect, but it certainly has colored my travel experiences over the years.

I’ve been back to California many times over the years: sometimes for work, and mostly for pleasure. No matter how often I visit, however, it never feels like the same place twice – even if I’m driving on familiar roads. There’s so much more of the world to see, I know, and I’ll get there eventually. Because even if you’re traveling to someplace new, you always will have a favorite place to visit.

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