It’s difficult to say anything new about California. Part of me doesn’t even want to try. I just want to sit here with my freshly made memories, enjoying the feelings without putting words to them. But the more I do that, the more I want to tell you about my trip and how it was so nice, how Matt made me feel so loved that I actually started crying with happiness. Normally I like to do my crying at the end of these trips, when I start to dread the part where we go our separate ways. But this time I had dry eyes when we said good-bye, and instead I left my tears behind on a pillowcase in Paso Robles.
The thing about California is that it really is as wonderful and magical as everyone says it is. It doesn’t matter if your trip fits all the California clichés—in fact, it’s almost better if it does. It means you’ve had the California Experience, a delightful combination of mountains and palm trees, sunshine and wine-drenched afternoons, enough walking to stretch your legs, and relaxation deep enough to turn you into a human-shaped blob of JELL-O®. So yes, like everyone else who has ever been there, I like California. I will sing its praises. I will believe that a few days in the wine country of Paso Robles is worth several hundred dollars in plane fare and a day’s worth of groggy jetlag. I will even offer a few helpful pointers, should you find yourself uncertain about what to do while in California. This is by no means a comprehensive list; I won’t even make any promises about its usefulness. But I think it’s good advice, and I don’t mind filing it away in this nice white space for the next time I head to southern California.
* Fret not that a day of cranky, jet-lagged, fuzzy-headedness means you are going to have a miserable time in California.
I was very, very happy to see Matt in the Los Angeles airport. But I was also very, very tired from my long journey, and we still had a long drive ahead of us. So I let him steer me out to the rental car, and I nodded when he told me I had to keep him awake during our drive up the coast. We creeped out of LA, then we drove and drove and drove. My butt fell asleep during the ride, but the rest of me stayed awake—just barely. There’s nothing more frustrating than being too tired to enjoy a long-anticipated vacation with one of your favorite people. Worrywart that I am, I actually started to wonder if this meant I didn’t really like Matt any more. His company was apparently no match for my exhaustion.
But then we stopped in a little town and got ice cream, and that made me feel better. Later we made it to San Luis Obispo, where we’d be spending one night before heading north to Paso Robles. I almost fell asleep in my plate of pasta at dinner, but somehow we made it back to the hotel without Matt throwing me over his shoulder and carrying me.
The next morning, after oatmeal and a shower, we hit the road again and I felt good as new.
* When hiking in Morro Bay State Park, try not to fall off the mountain.
I really love being outside with Matt. He’s good for walking or hiking or even just sitting. When he was planning this trip, Matt discovered that Morro Bay State Park wasn’t too far from our driving route, so we took a little detour into the park so that we could enjoy some nature together. The views in the park are spectacular. It sits on a mountainside that looks over and down into Morro Bay. Inside the bay is a mountain-shaped rock called Morro Rock. The rock likes to play a little game of striptease with the fog; sometimes you can see just its top when the bottom is shrouded in mist. Other times you see patches of the rock as fog creeps eerily around it. The effect is spooky and surreal.
Inside the park, Matt and I first hiked up to the top of the mountain. The hiking path led us up, up, up to a panoramic view of California: mountains, trees, coast, sea. There was even an estuary, and Lord knows you don’t see one of those every day. Then we hiked down, down, down to the bottom of the path and started walking along a much tougher path. This one was narrow and rocky, a ribbon of land carved out from the plants that threatened to claim it as their own once again. The path wasn’t the terrifying part. The terrifying part was the near-vertical dropoff that lay just a foot or two from the path; we were literally walking on the edge of the mountain. Matt walked ahead of me, picking his steps carefully, and I followed behind nervously, trying not to let my eyes linger downward too often. The farther we followed this path, the less it resembled a path until finally we hit a rocky incline—I think there was even a tree growing in the middle of the path here—and Matt said, “You know, I’m not even sure this is a hiking path. This might be some kind of goat trail.”
A goat trail! Damn, those goats must be tough. So we turned back—Matt leading the way again; I was way too scared by this point to be trusted not to fall off the mountain—and slowly made our way back to the car. Then I could breathe again.
* When you first meet the Pacific Ocean, take it with you.
Morro Bay is adjacent to the Pacific Ocean. I had never met this ocean, but I was pleased to make its acquaintance. After our hike, we stopped at a beach to say hello to the ocean. The day was cool and breezy, but the sun was warm and we were enjoying ourselves. The beach was crowded with pelicans, who eyed us curiously. We trudged toward the ocean, waves rolling toward us, until I broke into a trot and discovered that the Pacific Ocean is shockingly cold! I shrieked as the ocean soaked my sneakers and socks, leaving me drenched and sandy. I didn’t really mean to run into the ocean; it just sort of happened. So I squished around in my wet sneakers until we got to the Paso Robles Inn, where, thankfully, there was a pool and a hot tub waiting for us.
* When visiting California, don’t forget your bikini. Or if you do, be sure to buy a new one that makes you feel like a movie star.
It sounds silly, but it didn’t really occur to me that I should bring a swimsuit with me. Matt planned this trip; all I did was show up. I knew that we’d be visiting wineries and perhaps having dinner at a fancy restaurant, but I was not aware of any plans to sunbathe or relax poolside. I was embarrassed not to have anything appropriate for the pool, but what better place to buy a new bikini than California, land of sun, sand, and swimsuits?
We stopped by a little oceanside surf shop to peruse their swimwear. I love bikinis—they always come in such beautiful colors and patterns, and I love how free I feel when I put one on. There’s something extra-special about buying such sexy clothing with a man you like. Matt makes me feel good, and wearing a bikini with him around makes me feel even better.
My style when it comes to trying on clothes tends to be fast and brutal. Anything that doesn’t fit well: NO. Anything scandalously revealing: NO. Anything too baggy: NO. Anything too tight: NO. Luckily, bikinis, with all their adjustable straps, are rather friendly to women of many shapes and sizes. A woman just has to dig deep to find the courage to wear a bikini. In front of other people. In public. It’s a tall challenge, I know, but the more women who do it now, the more likely I’ll be able to do it when I’m old. In the hot tub, Matt and I saw an older woman—probably a grandmother, in fact—who wore a bikini without the slightest hint of self-consciousness. She was tan, Matt observed, which meant this wasn’t the first recent occasion she’d worn a bikini. Her body wasn’t beautiful according to our conventional ideals of beauty, but she wore that bikini with such joy that it made us both happy.
In the surf shop, a very nice clerk assisted me, fetching different sizes and even picking out a suit for me to try. She handed me this gorgeous blue and white suit with strings in all the right places; it looked so good that I had to take it home with me. It matched me, with my very white skin and my very blue eyes, and later Matt would tell me that it matched the hot tub too, which made me laugh. I put the suit to good use: Matt and I would spend the rest of our time in California rotating between the hot tub, the wineries, and a lovely restaurant in Paso Robles called Villa Creek.
* Be sure to try the almonds.
We found a cute little cheese shop in town that sells Marcona almonds. We came in for the cheese, but the shopkeeper's almonds won my heart. Big, buff-colored, buttery, and crunchy, these almonds are in a class of their own. I didn’t even know there were different kinds of almonds, but I sure am glad we found the Marconas. We ate them plain, and I had some for breakfast on the morning we left Paso Robles. I imagine they’d be good in any dessert that really showcases almonds, like a plain butter cookie studded with Marcona almond pieces, or a peaches ‘n’ cream parfait topped with chopped almonds. But I might like them best plain, eaten with Matt by my side.
*Even lightweights can enjoy winery tastings.
I will freely admit that I am a total lightweight when it comes to alcohol. I drink very little, mostly because I prefer dessert when left to my own devices. But whenever Matt and I hang out, I drink wine with him, and I like it. I was excited about visiting the wineries and tasting so many delicious wines, but I was also very nervous about my low tolerance. I knew I could taste and spit, like so many pourers in the tasting rooms do, but that felt uncouth to me. Instead, I tried to taste everything, but as I felt myself nearing my limit, I tasted in tiny sips, just enough to sample the wine, and I poured out the rest.
The tasting room visits were really, really fun, even for a wine novice like me. I learned that even after tasting lots of red wines, I still prefer whites. I learned that there are certain flavors that emerge consistently from a particular winemaker’s style. For example, almost all the wines we tasted at Barrel 27 were peppery and hot, which gives their wines a certain boldness that demands reckoning. At Eberle, most of their red wines had a smoky, complex flavor. I’m not sure I’d ever tasted smoke so clearly in wine prior to visiting Eberle. I think I liked it—it could be fantastically delicious with the right cheese or a richly flavored bean dish.
* Take the wine cellar tour at Eberle.
Every half hour or so, the kind folks at Eberle invite guests down into the wine cellar, where all the wine-making magic happens. Sitting twenty-five feet below ground, the cellar (also called a cave) is cool and quietly busy. You get the sense that something really important is going on down here. Our tour guide led us through the winemaking process, from grape-picking to fermentation to barrel-aging to bottling. It’s impressive, the amount of care that goes into a bottle of wine. My favorite factoid was about the sustainability of the cellar: four years after it was completed, the winery had saved enough money on electricity to pay for the cost of constructing the cellar. That little tidbit of information makes me want to raise a toast to Eberle!
* Let the beauty follow you home.
California is so visually stunning that it’s a little overwhelming. It seems that everywhere you turn, there’s another mountain, another hillside vineyard, another heartbreaking sunset. Sometimes the fog creeps in and obscures all that beauty, but maybe that’s necessary to prevent you from overdosing on pleasure.
I had been dreading the trip home even before I left for California, knowing that it was going to be a very long day. Saying good-bye to Matt is always hard for me. It’s very easy to say hello to him, but the good-byes do me in. I surprised myself that saying good-bye was so easy this time—not because I would miss him any less, but because I’m learning the rhythm of our relationship. I believe we will see each other again, and it will feel like slipping on my favorite pair of jeans—comfortable, natural, easy.
It was nice not to dissolve into a puddle of tears because traveling is exhausting. Traveling while sobbing into snotty tissues makes it worse. I did my best to enjoy the trip home. I reread my copy of Bon Appétit (excellent reading material while flying), mentally bookmarking the recipes for Chile and Cheese Tart, Blueberry Shortcakes with Lemon and Thyme Biscuits, and Asparagus Vichyssoise with Mint. I revised a manuscript that my advisor and I are planning to submit soon. I tried to sleep. I failed to ignore the sobbing child two rows back, the one who sounded like she was having the worst day of her life. And when night fell, and we drew closer to sweet home Chicago, I stared out the window at a dreamy sky layered with chocolate brown, shades of latte, and cream, then topped with a deep velvety blue, the color of which is used for fancy jewelry boxes. It had been a long day. California was far behind me, but I was returning home, where all adventures begin and end.