This is the latest in our series of travelogues from Richard Winter. Our advice? Pour yourself a glass of wine and be transported to California…
“… so, we can’t go anymore. We’re so sorry”.
We stared at the e-mail in silence, and then looked at each other. Sara had a tear in her eye. We were gutted. Not for ourselves, but at the news that one of our friends was ill. Seriously ill. There was nothing they needed to be sorry for.
It was a typical English spring. We sat on the bare floorboards, in front of an open fire, with a glass of wine. The rain patted at the bay windows in the lounge, and the wind rushed through the sprouting bush that our little cottage crouched behind. The flights couldn’t be refunded, so like it or not, we were going to Los Angeles. We were going to have to come up with a new plan.
Sarah and James had planned an extensive itinerary of iconic Americana from Los Angeles to Chicago. Driving through eight states, along the infamous road west; Route 66. They had wanted to share it with us, and we were thrilled. But now they weren’t going. We both agreed we couldn’t do their Route 66 road trip without them. It didn’t feel right. We would re-organise it for when she had been given the all clear. The famous road to the west wasn’t going anywhere without us.
The house was cold, but the little lounge was kept cosy by the open flames and a rough-spun cotton blanket saved from our recent trip to South Africa. On a chilly spring evening, warmed by a glass of Malbec, we started putting together the puzzle pieces of our next adventure. I sat back and stared at the glowing coals through my glass, and watched as the legs of the red ran down the sides. It was fruity, but had an earthy spice that lasted on the tongue. It is then that Sara said; “What’s in northern California?”
We both love cinema. So, when the rental desk handed us our keys at San Francisco international, the first thought on my mind was to relive the infamous scenes from Steve McQueen’s ‘Bullitt’. Sara climbed into the rental, put her sun-kissed legs up on the dash, and began programming the GPS. We left the lot under the early morning sun, and joined the grey concrete freeway as it towered over the homes of San Francisco’s iconic hillside homes, and into the city by the bay. Dropping over San Francisco’s infamous terraced hills in a Nissan Rogue SUV (Read: Nissan X-Trail), didn’t quite live up to the legend of Steve’s performance in the classic Ford Mustang. The 2.5L engine was screaming due to the overenthusiastic CVT gearbox, when I tried to launch down the slopes of Corona Heights, on our way to the Castro. But I didn’t care, I was living my Hollywood fantasy.
We passed the Harvey Milk Plaza where the rainbow flag flies proudly, and stopped at the Fog Harbour Fish House on Fisherman’s Wharf. We sat in the second story window and watched the Sealions basking in the marina below. The waiter told me I couldn’t leave the golden city without trying the west coast delicacy: clam chowder, served in a fresh sourdough bread bowl. The velvety smooth sauce was a complex mix of salty shellfish, black peppery peaks, and sweet fresh grassy notes.
We left San Francisco by the only way permissible: under bright blue skies in the baking afternoon sun as it blinked through the beams of the Golden Gate Bridge. I took the first right and was U-turned through a long dark tunnel cut into the hill under the highway. The car sprung back into daylight, and the road climbed up a steep curving slope hewn out of California’s hills. Unsure of what to expect, I watched the road intently, but I could feel Sara’s eyes on me; “This isn’t on the Sat-Nav. Where are we going?” “Ah” I said, rest-assuredly raising a hand “just trust me.”
We reached the summit and turned onto the costal cliff roads of the Marin Headlands. We pulled over, and gazed in awe of the Golden Gate Bridge, stretching back to San Francisco bathing in Californian sunshine. In seconds, Pacific sea fog rolled in and swamped the bridge, leaving just the two towers standing from a thick cloud. It looked like a scene from a postcard.
We stood on Hawk Hill – home to Eagles, Falcons, Harriers, and Hawks, and continued our journey on the cliff road towards Fort Barry. One hundred years ago, this former military base guarded the entrance to San Francisco’s bay, now it serves to protect America’s wildlife through education. But, the Hills are still littered with evidence of excavated tunnels and reinforced artillery bunkers. The roads that connected the forts rapid response along the coast serves as one of the best roads I had ever had the pleasure to drive on. Hundreds of jagged meters above the Pacific Ocean, this smooth track is cut into the rugged hillside. The serpentine turns curved back on themselves at the point of no return on the cliff edge.
There wasn’t another vehicle in sight. On our right towered the shrub covered green western boarder of the United States, and on our left, hundreds of rocky meters below our precarious position, was the azure blue Pacific Ocean. The trail had a steady but steep descent; if you were brave enough, the winding trail was a dream. However, after an animated close call with a sheer drop, where the back wheels of the SUV decided to do the opposite to the front, we took the trail at a more docile downhill pace.
The last cliff corner turned back on itself, revealing an easing snakelike trail down to the former US Army base in a marshy plateau. The black asphalt road turned to loose gravel and weaved through the timber military huts in the distance. We pulled over on a layby for one last look at the Pacific coast. There were no clouds in the sky, and nothing on the sea as far as the eye could see. We stood hand-in-hand on the edge of the western world, and took a deep breath. The dry heat from the Californian sun prickled my skin. From here, if you stood still enough and looked beyond the horizon, you could observe the curvature of the Earth. We caught our breathe and jumped back in the air-conditioned white SUV. The drop into the basin had significantly less surprises, and the gentle undulating grit trail lead back to the highway we had left.
The US highway Route 101 headed north. And while it ends 900 miles north in Washington state, we were only going as far as Santa Rosa. We would detour through the ancient redwood forests, speckled with rustic lumber yards and log cabins, to the infamous wine region: Napa Valley.
I had expected roads to be as straight as a gunshot, but California’s northern valleys wouldn’t allow it if you tried. The Petrified Forest road twisted over steams and gorges, and the verdant trees made it impossible to see what was approaching around the bend – Even the Harley riding Hell’s Angel took corners with extreme caution. Sara caught up on some sleep, while I kept the car on the road. I got excited at my first sighting of grape vines lined up the hillside, soaking up the sun. Then an enormous trellis’ loomed over the forest road, covered in the classic broad leaves of wine-bearing grape vines.
The temperature in San Francisco Bay was a warm 26C, but a few hours north in the wine region’s valley, we stood in the afternoon sun at 35C. We stepped out of the air-conditioned SUV and began to melt on the tidy sidewalk of this little town.
Calistoga is a beautiful cliché of America. One wide straight road runs through the town, dividing a street of wooden fronted stores complete with hitching posts. This iconic image of Americana was not lost on us, as a nod to Californian heritage. The connection to the wild west is as much a part of California’s culture, as apple pie or the 4th of July.
We had a room booked in the Calistoga Inn; a chic grey-painted new world townhouse across a short bridge from the town. The water tower, in matching colours, next to the creek had been converted into a craft ale brewery. Sara was having a shower, so I relaxed in wooden deck chair by the wide metal firepit. The glowing embers complimented the setting sun, and I simply sat back, absorbed the atmosphere, and reflected on our first day in the Gold Rush state. The courtyard had a busy hum; the stools to the outdoor bar were full, servers calmly striding between tables, and fireflies began to glow along the courtyard railing to the stony brook below.
Sara joined me, her blonde hair flowing behind her in a summer dress, holding two large glasses of red wine. “I thought we’d try this before we go for dinner. The barman recommended this Zinfandel, and I think you’ve earned it”. One sip, watching the legs run down the glass in the light of the fire, and it was in that moment I knew we had made the right decision – Route 66 could wait for when Sarah and James could join us; for now, I was exactly where I wanted to be.
Words: Richard Winter
Read Richard’s previous piece An Indian Winter