Thursday, January 10, 2013

San Francisco, caves, friends and the Pacific

I Planned this trip for months, I was finally going to take Matthew on his second flight in his life, the first one was to Colorado but it was so long ago he doesn't remember it. The hardest part of a trip like this is the breaking away from your life. Work was intense at the time, life was hectic and suddenly it's spring break 2012. I had so many ideas and the worst  thing you can do on a trip like this is plan too much in too little time, the more I make these activity filled trips the more I learn to leave a bit of flexibility in the plan.

Everything works out in the end, not necessarily the way you plan but that's where the flexibility comes in and that's when you need to be able to force yourself to calm down and get off the ledge. It's supposed to be a vacation, this is why you go away to get rid of stress, so why was I so stressed. The stress quickly dissipated and we were on the plane and on our way to California-I saw the excitement of my son and felt as if it were my first time on a plane, it had been a while. We flew Virgin Airline which I would highly recommend, their service, the new airplanes, the great attendants and the descent price, I can't say enough positive things about them and I have travelled again with them after this trip.

We arrived in San Francisco in the middle of the afternoon and by the time we got to the rental car and our hotel it was the evening and we were both exhausted. We ate at IN-N-OUT Burger-my sons' choice-I couldn't help thinking we finally have them in Texas and we need to go to California and get IN-N-OUT-it was good as always and a great way to start our California odyssey.

The next day was sunny and beautiful, a typical California day, blue skies and we were so excited to see the redwoods for the first time. We started in Redwood City-one minute your on the highway and the next minute your driving around mountainous areas in the middle of the redwood forest-one of them anyway. We went to the Big Basin Redwoods State Park-California's oldest national park. We were going to take a three mile hike to see a waterfall-it was an amazing walk, just the two of us and through the whole hike we talked about bears, cougars and anything else that might pose a threat to a hiker. The trees were tall and dwarfed us both, there is a wonderful feeling of being so insignificant, the smell of the air, the cool breeze, my son and I in a great mood-I couldn't ask for anything better. We got off the trail once and got a bit turned around but we made it to the falls and were able to relax before heading back. It felt great to be in the woods, like coming home-no I wasn't raised by wolves-I just love being deep in the forest-it's the ultimate escape from stress for me.

I've always heard about the redwoods but to actually be standing beneath them and to realize how long each tree has lived gives you bit of perspective of where man fits on the geological scale-a small pixel on an enormous screen. I could have stayed there for the whole vacation but we had many miles to go and a short bit of time to achieve that goal so we were on our way to San Francisco. We made it just after morning rush hour but before the afternoon rush so the ride was very calm and without stress, I was impressed with the way drivers didn't hang on your bumper, in fact I even had someone pay it forward on a toll, it was a bit different from the rush hour in downtown Dallas.

Our first place to visit in San Francisco was Aquarium of the Bay-a medium sized aquarium with many very interesting displays. I loved the window walk where you walk through a glass walkway filled with sharks and large jacks. We both were tempted to go get our fishing rods but they frown on that sort of thing in an aquarium. I liked the fact that there were different areas along the aquarium that described the local bay sea life with an emphasis on conservation.  There are also interactive areas where you can touch the sea creatures and learn about the pacific coastal marine life. Some highlights were the moon jellies, which are lit with an orange light, the seven gill shark which I hadn't seen before in an aquarium and the giant octopus which we were able to watch as it was very active. After a long day at the redwoods and a wonderful evening checking out the aquarium, we were both starving and seafood
seemed the obvious choice.

We ate at the Fog City Fish House on Pier 39-it was amazing, the view from the window was the bay and the sea lions-we watched the tourists and watched the sun go down. I had Anchor steam ale- a local beer which was excellent, my son had a bread bowl full of clam chowder. The menu was great, the soup was wonderful and it was a great end to a beautiful day. After we ate, we went down to the harbor and watched and listened to the sea lions.

The next day we explored San Francisco- we started out with donuts- yes donuts-again my son's idea-we are in San Francisco and we ate donuts, we argued a bit but made the best of it. We walked around the city near the harbor, checked out fisherman's wharf and I got a chance to pay into the California government fund-live and learn, if you park on the street between the lines, make sure you fit perfectly because if you don't you will pay a fine. On to the San Francisco zoo, with a bit of aggravation but I got over it-who can be mad at the zoo? We enjoyed checking out the polar bears and learning from the keepers about their distinct personalities. We also got to watch a
grizzly bear very close-I think it was a highlight. We also enjoyed the komodo dragon, the scenery was wonderful and I think the animals were very well cared for.

We drove up the coast and found a beach to walk and it was great taking off our shoes and running in the sand, the water was cold and the mountains surrounded the ice blue water. There was a fisherman catching sea perch, locals with their surf boards and just us and the ocean. You don't realize how much you miss the sound, the feeling of the water rushing and the smell of the salt water until you haven't been there for a while, I've been to the Florida coast and that is beautiful in it's own way but this was the Pacific, the mountains on the edge of the horizon, the mist and the sound of seagulls-it was an excellent walk even if for only a few minutes. I was glad to be at the ocean, it's funny how universal that feeling of being enthralled by the ocean is, especially at night when the moon shines on the water-but I digress and we were hungry again.

A bit of a ride along the coast and we discovered a place that both of us have pictures of on our cell phones, it was that memorable. The place is called Louis'-I just can't say enough about this place. We have had hamburgers and steak burgers before but none that ever tasted like the one we got there-it's huge and it tastes like every barbecue enthusiasts' dream. It is served with fries and even if you aren't hungry-which would be a shame- the view from the window is amazing-like I said it is on both of our phones. If you go to just one place I describe on this blog-this is one of them. Just a wonderful place all around, they don't take credit so bring cash. After we ate we worked off our meals climbing on the cliffs next to the ocean, scenery, incredible food and anchor steam beer-I had arrived. After exploring the cliffs for a while and enjoying the beach we were off to the golden gate bridge-we couldn't go there without walking the bridge right? Look Louis up on Yelp-they have many nice pix of the place and even a picture of the burger I was talking about.

We walked in the park near the bridge and got to the area where you walk just in time for sunset. If you get a chance to walk the bridge, make sure you watch your back as the bicycle riders tend to come out of nowhere and they seem to have the right-of-way, which means if you and bike collide-they will always win-just physics. We got to watch the bay as the colors changed and the cold breeze off the water got colder as the sun went down. We even got to enjoy the wonderful smell of pot on the way back from the other side, I didn't like the fact that he pointed it out but we happened to walk behind a couple that were enjoying a bit of a toke for the evening, by the time we got back to the car, we were really hungry again and for some reason felt like Doritos.

We got to watch the bay as the lights came on and got to get a preview of Alcatraz from afar. We watched the bay fisherman and listened to the seagulls, each of us watching for a great white shark that we imagined cruising through the water. By the time we got back, we were very cold and extremely energized, it was time to go back to the city and get a taste of the night air and what else? Seafood of course, which brings me to the next great highlight of the trip, another memorable restaurant-The Franciscan Crab.

Learning my lesson earlier in the day, I parked in the paid parking area, it was more affordable than the ticket. One thing about California in general, they have perfected the way to pay for parking without needing an attendant. I felt good to know it was paid for and there wouldn't be another ticket that evening.

Back to the Franciscan Crab-we were a bit warn out from a very busy day and were quite a bit under dressed but they seated us where no one could see our disheveled selves. It was quite a fancy place with a cost to boot but I was determined to enjoy the best of San Francisco and now was not the time to skimp. We ordered the dungeness crab-too two crab and the garlic clams-it was quite a feast. The crab is roasted with a Parmesan like crust, the flavor is amazing and the meal was perfect for both of us. I can't say enough great things about this place, wonderful meal, wonderful service and did I mention a great menu.

The next day we were on our way to the caves and to visit a very good friend of mine. I was eager to see a new landscape, although it was hard to leave the Pacific. The drive to the caves was through wine country, it was beautiful and it was nice to see the California countryside, an area I had not previously visited. The first cavern was Black Chasm, a cavern that boasts rare helictite crystals. The rooms were large and dramatic and there were several features we hadn't previously seen in other caverns.

The next cavern we visited was the Moaning caverns, this cavern had a spiral staircase straight down, one hundred sixty five feet straight down and the wonderful thing about this is you couldn't fathom the depth. This is a perfect example of what I have described in painting, if there are not visual cues to explain to the brain a distance, distance becomes indiscernible. At the bottom of the cavern you feel like you are looking up fifty or so feet but instead they can fit the entire statue of liberty in the cavern, It is a bit unnerving as the eyes and brain tend to have a problem discerning the distance because there is no visual cues for perspective. That was a highlight of this cave, also the fact that you go straight down into the cavern was a very cool experience.

We spent the next couple of days with my good friends that live near Fresno, it was a wonderful break from the road where we picked up right where we left off-I know cliche but it seems great friendship just seems to be a small constant in our busy lives. We enjoyed talking about the past, the present and the future and we laughed like we were young again, well at least younger. The next day we went to a very cool place that I would never have known about if it weren't for them- Forestiere Underground Gardens. It is an amazing and inspiring story about a Sicilian immigrant who sought his fortune in America-he built an amazing underground garden complete with living areas, grottoes, patios and garden courts-created by this self taught artist and builder, the story was both interesting and especially in this day and age of what the media would like to call hopelessness- an immigrant sought out and forged his own dreams-that's how I see America and always will-but I digress.

The next day we were off to Yosemite and a real adventure began. We got to the valley and were amazed at all the waterfalls that seemed to appear out of the iconic peaks as we passed through. As you drive through the park you drive parallel to a perfectly pristine river with clear blue water. We would stop and take pictures as we went along the way. It is almost an overload to the senses as the beauty of nature is everywhere. We parked the car near the visitor center and walked, and walked and walked and never once felt tired or fatigued. We were amazed by a large herd of mule deer that seemed indifferent to our presence. It doesn't get much better than sitting on a baseball field watching deer play in the field in front of you. We attempted to walk one of the long hikes that took you up to the top of the falls but it was a six hour hike I think and it was too late in the day to start-we will go back and try again. We did get to climb around the lower falls and took a decent hike through the area around the lower falls.

The next part of the trip never happened-we were supposed to go to the Inyo National Forest- here's the problem and why better research is necessary-you can't get there from here, well not the way you expected, we drove around in circles for a while, almost two cooperative deer and saw a bit too much snow without having chains on the tires and we finally decided to stop and regroup. I talk about this in a previous blog post more in detail but we both learned many lessons that day and I was able to practice what I always preach-don't panic and always be flexible enough to change your plans. The pass was closed and to get to our next destination we would have had to go back up to Reno Nevada and down the other side of the mountain range-about six or seven hours-we were already tired. Every time we ended up on the snow covered roads, I had visions of a ranger having gone home and just remembering they forgot to close off the road I was on, to be safe we stayed in Groveland.

We had wonderful pizza in town at a small diner and stayed at the Groveland Hotel. They had the very best beds of any hotel we have been to-giant feather beds that look uncomfortable at first site and when you lay down you get lost in a ridiculously comfortable bed under a giant warm comforter, I don't think I have gotten a better sleep since. The hotel is rich with history from the gold rush days and the whole place was very atmospheric. The breakfast was really good too and great coffee-just what we needed to start another long day on the road.

The next day we were on to lake Isabelle, the landscape was different, the beautiful pines of Yosemite gave way to a rockier and more rugged landscape of peaks that surrounded Lake Isabelle. We got to explore the lake on our own, there wasn't any other visitors walking around and climbing the rocky hills around the lake. We got to hike and attempted to rent some poles for fishing but couldn't seem to find rentals-it is a beautiful blue lake and you really feel like your on your own-a feeling I love. We both enjoyed the hike and climbing the rocky hills around the lake, it was very cold and windy but it didn't dampen either of our spirits. We stayed at Paradise Cove Lodge and it was a nice comfortable place to stay-very nice people.

Our next destination; Bakersfield-again, interesting place, not a place I would visit regularly but definitely glad we passed through. A memorable highlight we found was an oasis-24th street cafe-it was really great. I had Cajun eggs- pan fried poached eggs with Cajun sauce and crawfish-I think it was a special as I could not find it on the menu but it was really good. My son got pancakes-it was a great lunch and we were on to Los Angeles. We stopped at the LA Zoo and I think the highlight was the chimps as they were feeding them and the gorilla enclosure was an interesting display. It was definitely worth visiting
and the atmosphere was very open and the environments natural.

We went through the small towns around LA looking for the Hollywood sign-I know, kind of touristy but it was his call to find the sign and we were determined to find it. The first place we stopped was a small city park, we drove to the top of a hill, walked around an area and were directed to another place. I was impressed with how active the locals seemed-you can tell they were locals and not tourists, tourists look around and seem like their lost, locals are plugged into their cells or tablets and walk quickly as if they have a purpose-very much a sweeping statement but I would bet I was accurate.

Next we went to a hill up the road that overlooked the observatory and we finally got a glimpse of the sign we had searched for. It was a great walk but both of us didn't like the smog that seemed more evident than before. For the next few hours we drove down toward the coast. Both of us were very eager to see the ocean again. Our next stop was the San Diego area. This was the longest bit of driving we had taken on the trip but it would be worth it. My son became the navigator and found the first place in Oceanside-Monterrey Bay Canners- The atmosphere was great, food excellent and it was so nice to be back by the ocean again. That night we walked around seaport village and stayed in Oceanside.

The San Diego Zoo was the largest and most impressive zoo as far as size and variety of species. The polar bear swims in the water just the thickness of glass away from you. There was a very large komodo dragon, a great reptile house and so many highlights it is hard to narrow them down. We had to wait for the panda to make its appearance and that was well worth it-they are kind of celebrities and walked around as if they knew it. We also got up close and personal with a peacock who also escorted us out. We left exhausted but felt like we definitely got our money's worth.

After the zoo we went to the nearest beach and we enjoyed just hanging out near the waves. It is amazing how relaxing the ocean is, it was cold and overcast but it didn't interfere with our excitement. We probably picked one of the few days where San Diego isn't warm with a perfect blue sky-we had been lucky as there had been rain up and down the coast and we had been ahead of it each day, when we were in San Francisco it was raining down south and vice versa, unfortunately it caught up with us that day.

The rest of the evening was heading to San Francisco, Matthew had made a reservation at a hotel up near Monterrey so that evening we would have to get up to Monterrey which was another six hours. We ended up meeting with close friends for dinner in Ventura. The kids got re-acquainted and the adults caught up on old times over drinks and seafood. Unfortunately it was late and I still had a six hour drive ahead of me. I really wanted to show him Highway 1 but it wasn't going to happen that day as it was overcast all day. It was a long ride and exhausting at that and I was happy when we finally got to Monterrey. Over this whole trip he navigated using his IPhone-I must say it paid for itself on this trip and Matthew successfully navigated us away from the cliffs of highway 1 and made the trip a bit less treacherous driving late at night with fog and rain.

We got in late to Monterrey and slept in the next morning.
The next morning we had a wonderful breakfast at the Monterrey Bay Lodge- I had an omelet that reminded me of the ones my dad would make when I was really young. There's a strong flavor, maybe organic eggs or really fresh eggs, whatever the reason they were delicious and the memories that rekindled was worth the cost of the meal. We were planning on walking around Monterrey and going to the aquarium that day. It was very cold and rainy and we had to run for a long distance under each awning on the street to avoid getting completely soaked and having the wind at our face, it was a long walk to the aquarium but a memorable one. I feel like it all depends on how we deal with things-it could have been a terrible windy rainy day that put a damper on our trip to Monterrey or we could laugh about the experience and share another memorable day-we always try to chose the latter.

The Monterrey Bay Aquarium was well worth the run or even the cold swim. It seemed like it just kept getting better, when you walk in there is a giant aquarium with large fish and kelp bed, you are looking up from the bottom of the kelp beds. There are places where you can see the native bird life, touch the native crustaceans and watch as a wave crashes right in your face-it's behind a clear plastic window but after dealing with a polar bear at the zoo, a wave seemed quite harmless. We walked through all the different areas and just when we thought we were finished we found
another room to explore. One of the strongest and last impressions was a giant room where yellow fin tuna, mahi mahi and hammerhead sharks, all amazing, all huge roamed as if we were out in the middle of the ocean, It was hard to

By the time we got out of the aquarium the weather improved and the wind died down, we got to walk around Monterrey a bit, buy some souvenirs and eat at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company- I got a great beer, we enjoyed some amazing seafood and the atmosphere was great. It was an outdoor lounge and luckily the weather was more appropriate for outdoor seating.

We stayed in San Francisco again that night, a better hotel than previous, right in the middle of the activity. We were able to walk down to the cable cars and ride them around the city. We walked to the pier 39 and ate at another restaurant, The Crab House, we ate amazing dungeness crab, got a magnificent view of the harbor and just had a wonderful evening. We got to enjoy riding around town without the car to cost me any money or headache. That night was a wonderful time in the city and the next night we would be going to Alcatraz.

The day before we left for Dallas we ended up meeting with yet another really good friend, she's an artist in the Oakland area-we got to visit her studio, drink stout at a great little pub and have great conversation. On the way back to San Francisco she directed us to the Oakland Zoo. A small zoo but very cool, the highlight was a monorail that allowed us to see the whole zoo. It was a great place to spend a few hours before going to Alcatraz.

We walked through San Francisco one more time on the way to Alcatraz and found another childhood memory; fried glazed donuts. These are small donuts that they fry in oil and lightly powder with sugar-I used to make them with my family when I was very young, Matthew was impressed, They were great, I only wish we would have gotten a few more when I had the chance. Finally it was evening and we were on our way to Alcatraz, this was a ghost tour for us, we were looking for ghosts-it was a night tour. I must admit we taunted any entity we could find which we didn't find any and they assured us there were no real ghosts but we both chose to believe it was haunted-no experiences but we are still believers, because we enjoyed the eerie feeling. We even were locked in to one of the cells for a minute-which was creepy but no ghosts, how disappointing. The tour was really informative and we very much enjoyed the whole thing including the boat ride across the bay.

The next trip we are planning will be a kayak trip across Oklahoma, seven or eight lakes in a week-lots of kayaking, fishing, exploring and a zoo or two if I can squeeze them in or talk him into it. The next trips will be more detailed as per the food places, the specific hotels-good or bad, because the writing will be done on the trip instead of after the trip. I hope these stories are not too long and if there is any specific interest in traveling or questions about the road tripping please feel free to comment. I hope the photography will improve greatly as well with a new camera. Until than, get out an explore, eat, drink, and experience it all-life is too short after all.

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