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2015 Apr

California Cruisin'

It was Day 10 of our three-week West Coast adventure, and we still hadn’t met the Pacific Ocean face to face. We’d skirted the Puget Sound in Seattle, sat by the Strait of Georgia in Vancouver, and hiked beside the Columbia River in Oregon. But the mighty Pacific with its rough surf and rocky shoreline had eluded us. Soon our three boys would get their first glimpse of the Pacific.

First we had to get there. After staying overnight in Grant’s Pass, a cozy town in southern Oregon, we headed west through the Siskiyou Mountains toward the coast and ran into cool, foggy weather. At the Jedediah Smith Redwoods State Park, we stopped in a visitors’ center for information about these massive trees. Nearby a hiking trail beckoned, but first we needed to change into warmer clothes. I still couldn’t get used to 50-degree temperatures in July!

It’s hard to describe the feelings these trees inspire when you see them up close. As we hiked in the quiet forest, our eyes followed the massive tree trunks up to the sky. Calm and stately, the trees evoke a spiritual mood, and we felt gratitude toward those who helped protect these trees from being destroyed.

Many stands of redwood grow on private land, including three drive-through trees that most tourists, including yours truly, feel compelled to visit. After paying an entrance fee, we drove through the Chandelier Tree in Leggett, stopping long enough to take the obligatory picture. Now damaging a lovely redwood by carving a hole in its trunk wouldn’t be allowed. In fact, a famous drive-through giant sequoia in Yosemite National Park toppled some years back under heavy snow.

Thankfully, snow wasn’t in the forecast today. In fact, the weather had warmed up, and the sun filtered through the tree canopy. Yet when we ventured out to the coastline for our rendezvous with the Pacific, the fog descended again along with a chilly breeze. We waved hello to the ocean and ate a hurried lunch before jumping back in our car and continuing down the coast. So much for gazing westward across the Pacific. 

Bustling Streets

Our next stop was San Francisco, where we’d booked three nights at the Westin St. Francis right in the heart of the financial district. Since we’d spent much of the previous day in the car, we decided to find a park in the city before checking into our room. 

After stopping for provisions and a couple newspapers, we found our way to Golden Gate Park. A cool wind still blew, bringing the ubiquitous fog San Francisco is so famous for, but we found a bowl-shaped playground on the south side of the park protected from the wind and spread our blanket on the grass for an afternoon of leisure.

While Scott, Jasper, and Ross played hide and seek with a group of boys they met, Peter and I stretched out, read the Sunday papers, and enjoyed a simple lunch of fruit, cheese, bread, and a bottle of red wine. We stayed for hours, people watching and unwinding. It was the perfect place to recharge our batteries and let the kids run wild before embarking on our tour of San Francisco. 

Travel magazines regularly rank San Francisco as the Number 1 North American city, but we weren’t that impressed. We did all the touristy things: rode the trolley from Union Square (after a 30-minute wait), walked down Lombard (a.k.a. the crookedest street in the world), ambled along Fishermen’s Wharf (surrounded by thousands of other tourists), window shopped in Chinatown (where the kids bought “poppers,” little white gunpowder pills they threw on the sidewalk), and ate in a couple of overpriced restaurants. In retrospect, it was rather ho-hum. When we left the city, we stopped just north of the Golden Gate Bridge to admire the view, but were glad to leave the busy, bustling streets behind. We’re just not city folk, I guess, and prefer wide-open spaces where we can connect with our country naturally.

Such vistas exist not far from San Francisco in Point Reyes National Seashore, a triangular-shaped peninsula that juts out into the Pacific. We spent the day there en route to our hotel in Sebastopol. Bear Valley Visitor Center at the entrance to the park lies right along the San Andreas Fault Line. After enjoying nature exhibits, we hiked the Earthquake Trail and saw fence posts that didn’t line up, visible signs of the earth’s movement. It continued to be cool and misty, but we found a grill and cooked sausages for lunch, hovering by the fire to keep warm. 

As we drove through the park, we noticed a lot of private homes and businesses on these national lands. When I asked a park ranger, she said that besides protecting the wildlife that flourishes along the seashore, the National Park Service also protects the history of the place and the culture of its people. Many of the businesses seemed to be from another time, which lent a charming ambience to this coastal region.

Wine Country

Next stop: wine country. I have to admit this was the part of our trip I most looked forward to. Not only would I be reuniting with West Coast relatives—many of whom I hadn’t seen in years—at a family reunion, but I was also anxious to see what was so special about these high-rent, wine-producing valleys we hear so much about on the East Coast.  

What I discovered is that, while these regions are indeed beautiful, Virginia’s foothills and mountains are just as picturesque. Plus there’s a certain snobbishness that pervades the region, especially in the cute, cozy wine towns with names like Calistoga, Kenwood, St, Helena, Guerneville, Yountville, Rutherford, and Napa. Sure, regular folks like you and me live around here, too, but considering the cost of living, I don’t know how they afford it.

And the wine? Well, prices were surprisingly high. I’d assumed (hoped?) to find inexpensive, quality vintages in the grocery stores, but such was not the case. And at the wineries themselves, bottles were $20+. While the wines we tasted were top notch, this region can be a bit pricey for those on a budget.

We did enjoy a visit to a small winery called Benziger in Glen Ellen, which featured a tractor-drawn tram ride through terraced vineyards. Benziger practices sustainable farming, and Chris, our guide, boasted they hadn’t used pesticide on their grapevines for decades. In the center of the vineyard is an insect garden with colorful, aromatic flowers and plants designed to attract friendly insects that prey on unwanted pests. We strolled through the garden after our tram ride, sipping on a tasty Cabernet Sauvignon in the warm afternoon sun.

In Santa Rosa we joined aunts and cousins and brothers and nieces and nephews for a family reunion. At a banquet we caught up on each other’s news amid general merry making. Another night we dined at a fancy restaurant in a private room that barely contained our noisy conversations. We said our good-byes afterwards in the waning sunlight, buzzing with plans for another gathering in another city, giving all of us a chance to see more of this great country of ours.

Peter, the kids, and I hightailed it up the coast to catch our plane in Seattle. While we enjoyed our West Coast adventure, we decided three weeks was just a bit too wearying for all of us. After landing in Norfolk, we were happy to be back on familiar ground. We agreed Virginia is in fact a sweet place to call home.

This is part of a three-part series. Visit www.tidewaterfamily.com for Parts I & II.

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and co-publisher of Tidewater Family and Tidewater Women magazines. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com