kidThere’s a reason people continue to flock to California even though it could sink into the ocean any day now. My wife and I had both been around the state separately, but our first trip there together recently had a special vibe from the moment we thought about it years ago. And our week there, covering a 300-mile stretch of the central coast, was so magical it was almost like being in a story.
Once we got past the mini-saga of connecting flights and a car-rental delay, we headed north. I felt as if I was driving into outer space when we rode over one of the hills on the 405 Freeway, when suddenly miles of mountains and valleys lay in a panorama around us. It’s a bit spatially disorienting, in a thrilling way.
Soon enough we arrived in Stevenson Ranch, where Renata’s cousin, Lee, and his family live in a modern house in the hills with beautiful views from the dining room table. Lee’s wife, Lina, left her native Colombia barely out of her teens and retains a wonderful accent to go with perfect command of English. Their teen sons, Nicholas and Tyler, are impossibly handsome boys, like dashing 1940s movie idols. They’re respectful, good kids with great futures ahead of them.
They’re also both popular with the young ladies, and of course we didn’t see much of them because of their social schedules! Lee, a wildly successful salesman in the computer industry, is physically towering but warm and gentle, quick with a hug or laugh. He can somehow all at once listen to television, research something on his tablet, and not only hear you but react and respond with insight into what you just said. The family couldn’t have been kinder to us, through our first day and again when we returned later in the week.
The next day, we made our way toward the San Luis Obispo home of Lee’s sister, Melanie, and her family. About halfway there, we were hungry and pulled into a random town, Fillmore, between farmland and the mountains. After a stop at Renata’s now-favorite antique store, the internet helped us locate a food spot. It was so authentic Mexican that the menu was only in Spanish. I can still taste the wonderful meal and lively colors of the decor. Then we hit the road again. Away from the modern development, the land we were traveling through, with its Mediterranean climate and features, had an almost biblical feel to it. There were random horses and goats, grape farms, sand and scrub brush. It felt like nowhere I’d ever been. After another spell of driving with ocean to the left, mountains to the right, and blinding sun in front of us, we made a quick stop in Solvang, a replica Danish village that deserved more time than we had.
Alternating on curving, mountain pass roads and the spectacular coastal Route 1, after nightfall we arrived at the home of Melanie, Derek, Diego and Charlie. SLO, as San Luis Obispo is often abbreviated, is a college town where Melanie is a professor at California Polytechnic State University. Derek is a real estate professional in town, and a local musician of some renown, with professional-looking CDs of cool original songs. After a daily family bicycle ride with their sons to school, Mel and Derek both pedal to work.
Over several days with them, no one turned on a television, and the boys don’t have electronics, except a computer for playing chess. Entertainment was physical activity, talking, writing, drawing, playing music, and picking at healthy snacks left around the table. Diego, 11, and Charlie, 10, are wise and charming companions. In one of several deep conversations we had, Diego listened as I described the condition which led me to have an adult body by age 8. “I’m sorry you had to go through that,” said Diego. Another time, while discussing the hypocrisy of many strongly religious people, Charlie broke it down: “It’s like, thank you, God, for giving us this beautiful planet so we can destroy it.” Did I mention they’re not yet teenagers? The next day, Melanie, Renata and I hiked up Madonna Mountain, just blocks from Mel’s house and offering panoramic views of SLO. After picking up the kids from school, we rode a few miles to Avila Beach for fish tacos amid the occasional squealing of seals. It was all as wonderful as it sounds.
The following day, wifey and I drove up the coast a bit. We stopped at Morro Rock, a volcanic plug that’s a protected state preserve. We hand fed squirrels, watched surfers and collected shells. More general feeling of well-being and awesomeness.
The next morning, after wistful goodbyes, we made our way back to home base at Lee’s. We stopped at Lake Cachuma, a man-made body of water and campground within Los Padres National Forest.
The landscape felt nearly prehistoric, partly because it was so quiet. It was a mild day with temps in the 60s, and I remember thinking that a campground in New Jersey would be packed with people paying for parking. But here, several yurts were empty, with car and people sightings rare.
After a solid night’s sleep, we had our most physical day. Our first stop was a small town called Agua Dulce, which includes Vasquez Rocks Natural Area Park. The filming site for dozens of movies and TV shows, part of it is even known as “Kirk’s Rock” because parts of several Star Trek episodes were filmed there. And being a Trekkie, I loved hiking there.
We made a second trek that day, visiting the park surrounding the home of the first silent Western film star, William S. Hart. The stunning house, atop a hill with yet more sweeping views, is mostly left as it stood, with photos attesting to Hart’s career and close friendships with people like Amelia Earhardt and Wyatt Earp. Fans of the movie “Tombstone” (such as myself) may subconsciously know Hart’s name from the last five seconds of the film. He is named, along with Tom Mix, for being among Earp’s pallbearers. Hart left his ranch to the city as a museum, and both tours and hiking the grounds are free.
We had one day left, and we had a plan to visit the Getty Center. And I can’t imagine there being a more spectacular art museum! After parking underground (for $15, but there’s no museum fee), you wait in line for a monorail, which for three minutes slowly makes its way out over the city (yes, more breathtaking views) and up the snaking track to the modern architecture of the museum’s numerous buildings and various levels. There are gardens and sculptures at unexpected places, and various angles of buildings and railings make it sometimes difficult to tell which way is up. The layout of the grounds was its own exhibit, and I loved it. The four main wings are subtly connected, with each advancing chronologically in art display.
I could have touched almost $54 million worth of paint, since the museum displays Irises by Vincent Van Gogh. But there is a watchful guard in each room, and in fact a little kid got his mother in trouble after he touched a painting. There’s never enough time to see this entire museum, but if you do make it there, do not miss the outdoor terrace, because a stroll on it allows you to see hundreds of square miles unobstructed. We looked out over Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Hollywood, downtown L.A., Studio City, Santa Monica, and all the way to the Pacific. Even after you leave the museum, your visit isn’t really over. You still get to ride the monorail back down the hill, taking in the vast scenery one last time. That night, our last on the coast, we stopped in to visit Renata’s Aunt Brenda, Lee and Melanie’s mother. Both were so glad to see each other after many years that I could only be a bystander to glow in the warmth. Before dinner, we talked in Brenda’s rent-controlled apartment, and Renata, ever the house hunter, checked out some of the bungalows in the downtown neighborhood. But alas, the 900-square-foot homes start at $400,000. Anything cheaper, and photos of the house show bars on the windows. We don’t know how poor people can even live out here, but they make it work. And if you want to figure out some way to live somewhere you can’t afford, you can’t beat this place.