Arizona – ‘We’re Deep’

The scenery on the drive from California to Arizona got a bit repetitive, and unfortunately I fell asleep for awhile (sorry, Nick!). I only woke up as we got stuck in traffic skirting around Phoenix. Oops. I’m sure it was a fascinating city.

The desert landscape slowly changed as we drove further north. Then we arrived in Sedona – wow. Arrive is really the right verb for this part of the country. It isn’t a slow build up of pretty sights, but rather an almost sudden ‘arrival’ at the foot of the red rock formations that seem to leap up out of the ground in sheer faces. And the colors are amazing – every shade of red you can imagine stacked together with oranges, purples, browns. The town itself followed the same color scheme – the beautifully built adobe houses tucked into the greenery between the mountains might inspire a paint selection at the local hardware store – burnt oranges, chocolate browns, eggplant purples. The sun was getting lower on the horizon and the colors were starting to soften even more as we drove through.

Sadly, everyone seemed to have the same idea as us – to camp in one of the state parks nearby. Every campsite we passed was full, so we weren’t able to explore the town as much as we would have liked. I was getting tired and hungry so we made a few calls and decided to stay at a KOA in Flagstaff, closer to tomorrow’s destination (the Grand Canyon). Luckily they still had a few sites available when we got there, as two buses of schoolkids had just pulled up and had nearly all the tent sites reserved. Amidst the rowdy crowd, we got our tent pitched just as sun was setting and a mean wind picked up. Exhausted by this point, we barely dragged ourselves over the road to the Ruby Tuesdays at the local mall. It certainly wasn’t the gourmet cuisine of a posh restaurant in Sedona, or even one of the cute diners on the Route 66 portion of Flagstaff, but it was (huge) food and a beer. And Nick hasn’t really had the US chain restaurant experience…

For Rex, Arizona was a homecoming of sorts. Though we got him in Oregon, he has an AZ license plate. The picture on the plate is of the Grand Canyon – ok, it’s pretty impressive. But really, is that all the state has to offer? Maybe their slogan should be ‘Arizona…we’re deep’. Not sure how well that would go over.

San Diego and Southern Cali

Our trip to San Diego was far too short – so this entry will also be short. Actually, the best part of the day was the drive (as many of the days are – we see so much!). We drove from LA down the coast, taking the road along the ocean as much as possible. It was neat to see all these beaches I’ve heard of – Huntington, Newport, Laguna beaches – the whole Orange County area. I was actually surprised (shouldn’t have been) to see oil rigs in this part of the state. On one side of the road beautiful beaches, people sunning themselves everywhere; across the road fenced in areas with the little hammer-head drills working overtime. And right next door – an ecological reserve. Very interesting.

We stayed at a great hostel right in the Gaslamp Quarter (thanks, Gretch!), which is a fun part of town. We didn’t venture too far out beyond – we found a bar with some happy hour specials (Nick tried some Fat Tire and Sam Adams), made our way to an Italian place for some calzones and pasta, and fell into bed. We SO wanted to stay longer, but had to make tracks today day – we had places to go, people to see! We decided that this is a bit the sampler platter tour of the US – we’re checking out places, seeing what we like and making notes of where to go back to. San Diego is definitely high on the list!


We’d been told not to get into LA during morning or afternoon rush…in reality it doesn’t make any difference. I am certain that no matter when you drive in LA it is inevitable that you’ll get stuck in traffic. Nick was not at all looking forward to driving here. There were a few things on our ‘to do’ list in LA. We took a walk along Venice beach, watching the body builders do their thing and then drove up into the hills of Malibu to look at the fancy houses. We also went to the Mann Chinese Theater area to check out the hand prints of the stars – there are some really old ones there!

I’ve made a little mix of US songs, and another one of road trip songs. It’s amazing how many songs have been written about LA! We rocked out to Weezer’s
‘Beverly Hills’ and the ‘Fresh Prince of Bel Air’ as we cruised through Beverly Hills and ogled the enormous houses (or more accurately their fences – they’re totally hidden for the most part). I am always astounded by the money in this part of the world – it’s just all such ostentatious wealth! Even the city hall – wow. what a building.

We also drove into the Pasadena area – so much calmer, but a really pretty city. I loved the cross-walks – you can cross the streets on the diagonal! I made Nick cross even when we only need to cross to the other side of the street, just for the novelty. We had been wanting to watch a movie, and sitting out the traffic seemed like a good excuse. We went to see the movie ‘Up’ – as usual, a great Pixar flick! I loved the dog and his squirrels. Too true.

We stayed with Kaitlin’s sister and brother-and-law and their adorable daughter who made a cameo appearance to ‘introduce’ herself to us – a see through ploy to avoid having to go to bed. They were awesome hosts, and it was fab to stay with them in their super cute house, rather than have to spend way more than our daily allotment on a room in a dodgy neighborhood. We took advantage of their internet access this morning to do a little planning and try and make some decisions on where to go next – I hadn’t really thought that far ahead. We did have to see the Hollywood sign before we left, since for some reason we hadn’t been able to see it yesterday (probably didn’t know where to look), so we took a little drive up to the observatory. What a great view, despite the smog!

On our way out of town today we made an obligatory stop at In-And-Out burger. I’d heard about them from all my West coast friends, but haven’t make a stop when I’ve been in the area. Since Nick is on his ‘eat every burger in the US’ mission, I knew we had to include it in the tour. As anyone who has been there knows, there are many more things to order than just the four things on the menu. We tried our hand at the ‘secret’ menu with success – super tasty! ‘Fries animal style’ rock.

Los Olivos and Sta Barbara

My sister had worked for a few weeks out at a vet practice in Los Olivos (lucky girl), and raved about the area so we decided to make a stop. It is an intensely cute place – almost too cute! It’s about 4 blocks total, with some shops, restaurants, and wine shops clustered around one main intersection. It’s in the center of the Santa Ynez winelands, which was made famous by the movie Sideways a few years back (hint: don’t mention the movie to the locals, I think they’re not big fans). We strolled around, had a bite to eat, visited one of the wine shops that does tastings for a number of the vineyards in the area. Unfortunately, the guy doing the tastings in his shop was a serious wine snob, and obviously had no time for tourists (a bad characteristic to have when the vast majority of your income probably comes from tourist dollars). The surly shopkeeper didn’t make for the most pleasant of tastings, but at least we got to hear a few local stories as he chatted with his wine reps who came in to sell while we were there. And the wines were excellent, making up for his lack of charm. Pinot Noir is the wine the region is most well known for, and we enjoyed a few – but in reality we’re both pretty out of habit of drinking reds. Tropical climates and red wines don’t go together too well, white tends to be the wine of choice as it’s a bit more refreshing on a hot night.

After pitching our tent in a random campsite (really an RV park with a few tents, and apparently the only site in the area – I can see that would be true given how expensive the area is, there probably isn’t much land to cater to passers through!) we drove into Santa Barbara. Again, I’d been here before, but loved the posh-ness of the area. There was a huge farmer’s market lining the main street, so we browsed that for some amazing samples of peaches, avocados, strawberries and other yummy items. We settled ourselves at a little wine bar with great happy hour glasses and flatbreads and sat people watching for quite awhile. The guy next to us was a real character – he wore a unbuttoned hawaiian shirt that showed off his leathery tan, obviously knew the owner or something and proceeded to make himself completely at home, taking cushions from other chairs, putting his feet up, and talking loudly to the woman he was with. Nick thought he had a strong accent, a bit of a Donald Sutherland sound. I guess I never thought he had much of an accent! We walked down to the beach, which is actually not all that impressive. We took advantage of the happy hour specials at another bar, had a few margaritas and fish tacos – my first! I can’t believe it took me so long to discover the fish-taco goodness. What was I thinking?? YUM.

Is it strange that so much of my blogs revolve around food? I guess that’s one of my highlights of the trip so far – all the great food. We’re trying to balance fun restaurants with cost-saving make your own sandwiches and breakfast, along with Nick’s desire to taste every fast food chain in the US while we’re here. Not doing to badly so far, though it’s easy to make your own sandwiches when you’re not surrounded by a million tasty restaurants like we have been in SF and now this area!

Big Sur

We grudgingly left Santa Clara – it was a relaxing, chill couple of days, and so good to catch up with friends after quite a bit of time driving on our own. The only thing that made driving off on Monday morning exciting was that we were headed to Big Sur! I’d driven the LA-San Francisco route a few years ago with my friend Jessica, but we were headed to Monterrey and didn’t take too much time to explore the area. I was also eager to share it with Nick – it’s one of my favorite areas, and I couldn’t wait for him to see it.

On our way we decided to stop by Santa Cruz to check out the kitsch boardwalk – a little slice of Americana for Nick. We didn’t brave the deep fried twinkies as it was only 10am and we thought it might be a little too early to clog the arteries, but we did wander around and check out the scores of kids just out of school for the summer giving their chaperones a good workout. Summer vacation has got to be one of the best things in the US – three whole months of no school, summer camp, warm weather, no parents (someone has to do some work). I loved that feeling! I was always ready for school to start again in the fall, but there was so much to look forward to in June. We also checked out the surf scene – there were quite a few guys braving the cool day and choppy waves. Of course, the water is so cold they’re wearing full wetsuits – Nick would feel right at home (brr, Cape Town waters…)

Unfortunately, the weather didn’t cooperate with us. When we stopped off in Monterrey, Carmel and Pacific Grove it started to drizzle and the sky was cloudy and grey. I imagined what it would have been like if I’d gone to Monterrey Institute of International Studies, which I had been accepted to back before I took the job in Sudan. I’m sure it would have been a great place to live, but I might be in a totally different place right now! We did the 17 mile drive, which was pretty even in the greyness. The cyprus trees looked somewhat haunted in the fog and mist.

We started on the road towards Big Sur – not a specific town, but a general area along Route 1, the Pacific Coast Highway. It’s a wildly beautiful area, with a bout 6 or 7 state parks (my favorite is Garrapata state park – who thought it was a good idea to name a park after a wood tick?). Being the start of summer most of the state parks were booked up, even on a Monday night, but we found a great private campground right near a little stream and set up camp. I was excited to be able to go to Napenthe, one of the most beautiful restaurants ever for dinner and the sunset. My mom had raved about it years ago, and Jess and I checked it out on our drive through the area a few years back but just had a drink there. Nick and I spend a few gorgeous hours drinking amazing wine, eating awesome food, and best of all watching the sun set over the Pacific. The sky had cleared from its earlier rain, and the clouds that still remained provided the perfect canvas for the amazing pinks and golds. The hills lining the coast all took on a rosy glow – we couldn’t keep our eyes off of them! Truly one of the most beautiful places.

We had planned to do some hiking the next day, but unfortunately the weather still didn’t cooperate. Instead, we kept on South and enjoyed the scenery along PCH. The weather started to clear as we got nearer to our destination. We passed San Simeon this trip – I’d been there before, and we started to realize if we were ever going to get anywhere that we’d have to make some choices (otherwise we could spend months in California alone!).

Bay Area party!

I’ve been to SF a number of times before, so after showing Nick the sights and sounds of the city (Fisherman’s Warf walking tour, clam chowder at Boudin’s, cable cars and trolleys – which we somehow managed to get for free, wandering around the city and checking out the architecture, good Thai food, brunch in Haight-Ashbury, steep streets, plus meeting up with my Mom and Tom who randomly happened to be in SF at the same time), we headed out to Santa Clara to hang out with Ellie, 1/3 of the brainshare (i.e. best friend from college) from whom I’d been separated for far too long.

We happened to arrive on an auspicious (I guess) weekend. Ellie and her friends had just finished their last day of school – they are teachers at a San Jose school and after school program. Plus, Ellie is leaving the Bay area in August, so this was her last last day of real work before she heads back to grad school. We are lucky enough to have taken part in the annual ‘Ding-Dong’ party (don’t ask), which involved a lot of margaritas, tequila shots (ouch, haven’t done those in a long time) and and egg timer. Needless to say we had a raucous Saturday, a greasy hangover brunch the next morning, and a day of recuperating in the prone position in front of the TV. But it was so much fun to be able to just hang out, meet Ellie’s friends in CA and catch up a little – it was far too short as always!

Another friend from several lives (DAI, Liberia, etc), Kaitlin, met up with us on Sunday. She is a PhD student at Stanford, and brought us to a party at the Stanford community farms/grand opening of the farm’s pizza oven. Pretty cool – I didn’t know people were doing that in Palo Alto.

We really wish we could have stayed another few days – we didn’t have a chance to play Guitar Hero! I guess that means there will have to be a next time 🙂

Oh, and Nick also got a taste of the joys (and annoyances) of the bottomless cup of coffee phenomenon. He loves that he can get as much coffee as he wants at brunch, but when the waiters are too attentive it drives him a bit crazy. ‘They’re messing with the ratio!’. Hmm, how to cope? I think it was my Dad who tried to tell the waitress no more by putting his hand over his cup…and it only landed him with a scalded hand. Guess Nick will just have to deal! Yes, there are times when I’m happy I’m not a coffee drinker, with one more thing to worry about…

Claifornia’s ‘Lost Coast’ and the Redwoods Forest

Crossing over into California from Oregon, things were a bit different from the start. The vibe seemed different, a bit more relaxed, but most importantly, gas was WAY more expensive!

We continued down the 101, which in California is called Redwood Highway. We passed a number of old, rundown looking coastal towns and several different redwood groves. Branching off on the 211, we followed what is known as the ‘lost coast’. It’s California’s longest stretch of completely undeveloped stretch of shoreline – so incredibly different than the California I know with the huge houses, beaches and people everywhere near the beaches.

The scenery was a crazy beautiful mix of landscapes. In some areas there were dark forest floors with a covering of ferns, dense groves of furry Redwoods that looked like a bad drawing kids do of trees – stick straight trunks with a million straight branches jutting out. Then we’d come through the forests and see rolling farmland with fields of wildflowers, including a flower I swear looks like cauliflower. Other times we’d come around one of the steep curves and see huge stretches of deserted beach and sea.

Driving through the green hills with the sea in the distance very much reminded me of parts of the UK. I remember going on ‘walks’ (I quickly learned that Brits call even the most strenuous hike a ‘walk’) that wound across the hills and cut through private pastures and farmlands throughout Brighton. However, in the US everything was fenced in and divided up – in the areas we walked in the UK even private farmlands are made accessible to the public through strategically placed fence gates and even steps over the paddock fences. We passed through one little town on the coast called Capetown – a little smaller than the original!

The 211 turned out to be a really, really long, twisty turn-y roads – posted speed limit was at least 20 mph faster than we felt comfortable taking the curves, especially with the huge trucks and even fire engines racing the other direction on the road! We learned that Ted estimates the time based on the stated speed limit – it took us at least an hour (or more!) longer to do the drive than expected.

The Redwood Forests were just as amazing as I had expected them to be – huge, imposing monoliths, making me feel small. Dark, twisty roads are shaded by the giants. There are forests as far as they eye could see – we took a small little walk into one of the groves and it was so quiet with the needles absorbing the sounds of our feet, and the shafts of light piercing the treetops created so many picture-perfect images I just couldn’t capture. I can only imagine what it would be like to hike far into the groves away from the road. Looking up through Rex’s sunroof gave a really cool view of the tall trees! We even fell into a giant tourist trap and paid to drive through a giant redwood – silly, but pretty fun!

Highway 1 led us all the way down the coast towards San Francisco the next day. After our twisty-turny detour the day before, we were a bit sick of scenic drives! We’ll have to go back and experience the area again when we’re a little less wound in circles. I didn’t take too many pictures on this route because I had a few issues on the Sonoma County part of Rte 1 – I had a bout of panic as we crested one curve and I realized that the cliff face on my right (I was driving) was a sheer drop into the ocean. I started freaking out a bit at how far down it was, and even after I made Nick drive I was a bit jittery. I knew I was afraid of heights a bit, but usually am not quite such a chicken. Only other time was at the Cliffs of Mohr with my sister when we crawled out to the edge to look over and I was so frozen with fear I couldn’t go back…Or the time we stopped to watch people bungee jumping over Storms River in South Africa when I couln’t actually watch them without clutching my stomach…. maybe it was the combo of the heights and the wind. Who knows. But the rest of the drive was beautiful, with a ton of picturesque towns and even a good number of ‘houseboats’ – I say that in quotes because I’m not sure if they were actually boats or just houses built on docks.

The first glimpse of the Golden Gate Bridge was breathtaking. I’ve been to SF quite a few times before, but I realized I’ve never approached it from the North. When we crossed over it was dusk, and you could see the lights of the city coming on. Gorgeous. We tried in vain to camp at one of the sites listed in our book, but ended up in a great hotel downtown instead. We were both exhausted by the time we finally got our car parked and bags dropped off. We scarfed down some amazing (or maybe just amazing because we were starving) Thai food, and fell into bed. Of course, after watching some mindless television for awhile – it’s my guilty pleasure to watch silly sitcoms and un-newsworthy CNN when we splurge on a hotel since I’ve gone so many years without tv at home.