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Magnificent Monterey, California

On September 2, 2021, my wife and I were scheduled to fly to London. Not terribly before then, the CDC issued a level 4 travel advisory for the UK: DO NOT TRAVEL. As health and science observers, but also as people cognizant of relative risk, I thought seriously about just going ahead, prepared to take whatever precautions would be wise to keep us safe. At the last minute, I chickened out. London was a trip we could (and would) save for another (safer) day.

Long (I hate to say it) before this juncture, I was a draftee into the US Army (a story for another time). My basic training was at Fort Ord, on the Monterey Peninsula, CA, a beautiful projection from the Northern California coast. Among the many things I learned from that (Nov. – Dec.) experience: California does not equal warm. Nevertheless, the peninsula could hardly have been more impressive to my eye.

A digression might be appropriate here. I was one of two recruits in my basic training company to qualify “expert” on the rifle range. That accomplishment earned me a weekend three-day pass. Two other recruits, for different reasons, also had received three day passes, so off we trouped from Fort Ord into Monterey. We rented a suitably large suite atop one of the coastal hotels, went to a nearby liquor store, and purchased goods sufficient in quantity to render us a good deal less than cogent or competent. In fact, later that first night, one of our companions and I wanted to get something to eat at a diner across the street. We were enough intoxicated that he wanted to call a taxi for the purpose. I wasn’t quite as incapacitated as he was, and besides couldn’t imagine the ignominy (at the time, I’d have been at a loss to express such a sentiment) of taking a cab ride across the street. He went back to the suite and I braved the street crossing. It all ended with nobody arrested or injured, so the remaining fuzzy details can fade into the portfolio of past depredations.

The travel time had already been blocked on our calendars, so our contemplation of what to do with it naturally led us to think a trip to Monterey could fill the gap agreeably.

The trip from Salt Lake to Monterey spans roughly 840 miles and would take around 13 hours of driving in a single leg. Our planning involved bringing our sweet chihuahua along (more about her later), so for the sake of sparing us undo pain and suffering we opted to take the trip in two stages each way.

Day one would take us from Salt Lake to Reno, NV – a 7.5 hour leg. As happy as we were to be filling the canceled London dates with a California experience, we were also resigned to what we expected to be less than ideal atmospheric conditions. Wildfires seemed to be everywhere, so much so that on some days their smoke converted visibility in the Salt Lake Valley from merely (and characteristically) smog obscured to very nearly opaque. Our home has a substantially unobstructed south facing view of the Valley – there was an afternoon when we could see almost nothing beyond our backyard deck. One of the more massive examples was California’s Caldor fire, which started on August 14, 2021 and to date has burned 221,775 acres. Even now (early October), Caldor is only 93% contained. My older boy and his longtime life partner live in San Mateo – near enough to the conflagration that I worried they might be under orders to evacuate. Fortunately, he told me they were inundated with the smoke, but weren’t (and weren’t expected to be) in danger.

We headed to Reno late in the morning on Sunday, September 5, where we would overnight at the Wyndham Ramada Inn, . Traffic was relatively light and the road ahead, though rather smoke-obscured, beckoned to our willing selves. It was daylight, but a daylight so dimmed that it seemed to be early onset dusk. Much of the route passes by surrounding mountains, mountains rendered eerily spectral under the circumstances. The compromised visibility did nothing to interfere with the occasional efficiencies downhill sections afforded us. Our Rav4 Prime can travel more than 40 miles as an EV (electric vehicle) before switching to HV (hybrid) mode. Descents, though, produce power via a process of regeneration that periodically was sufficient to switch the vehicle from HV back to EV mode. Even in HV mode, descents are net electricity generators allowing substantial gasoline-free stretches of travel.

Back in my days as a consultant to hotels and casino hotels, I made a number of executive contacts in Reno and Sparks. Properties like the El Dorado, Silver Legacy, Peppermill and others are excellent, full service establishments. Our decision to stay at the Ramada (which does have an onsite casino) stemmed from another of our requirements having to do with the chihuahua already mentioned.

Around ten years ago a Humane Society chihuahua mix rescued me. She was in a kennel hunkered down near the back and showing nearly zero interest in the clutch of people perusing the available pets. I’d seen her picture online and specifically wanted an in-person look. I sat on the facing bench and asked an attendant to retrieve her. The attendant opened the kennel door and, to both of our surprise, she ran out and jumped into my lap. C’mon – I couldn’t very well leave her there, could I?

Since that happy meeting,

Leila (my name for her) has been our companion. Her previous owner had given her a different name, but she no more answered to it than she might have to “Agnes” or “Mary Claire.” She also, at two years old, was not housetrained. One of chihuahuas’ well known qualities is they are difficult to housetrain. My choice to adopt a two year old, un-housetrained chihuahua came with guaranteed headaches. There were plenty of accidents along the way, but the patience and consistency (and treats she gets as a reward) of our work with Leila have made her completely trustworthy as a house pet. Furthermore, she tenders such love and affection to her people that she has long since become completely integrated as a family member.

In other words, Leila was traveling with us to California. Pet friendly hotels, then, were a necessity and the Ramada came up in my search for pet friendly Reno properties.

For reasons I suppose owe much to prevailing winds, when we got to Reno (still daylight hours) we were pleased to find much less smoke in the air than we’d left behind in Salt Lake or on the road. We checked into the Ramada and decided to take Leila for a walk around the neighborhood. That excursion, while not exactly harrowing, was mildly unnerving (my sweet wife Cynthia would choose a different modifier for “unnerving”). Several vehicles parked around the neighborhood seemed to be serving as peoples’ residences. None appeared to be in good repair and may well have been immobilized. The neighborhood aura made Leila skittish and put Cynthia on edge. We cut the exploration short and returned hungry for dinner.

The Ramada has a restaurant, but it was closed for construction. The attached casino (not managed by Ramada), though, had a sort-of café. By “sort-of” I mean it was a counter where customers could order what I would call marginal bar food. That is, customers could order food if somebody were there to take an order. When I first visited, a sign instructed me that service would resume in another half hour. Fortunately, we had thought to bring bread, cold cuts, condiments and wine with us, and so were able to fend for ourselves.

We awakened to a lovely morning! The few vestiges of smoke that were visible when we arrived were apparently swallowed up by the night and were gone. So cold cuts for breakfast and back into the car for the remaining 300+ miles to go.

Yesterday being Sunday, we’d benefitted from reduced traffic and long, idle stretches of road construction. This being Monday, those advantages evaporated. In multiple places, the revived road construction projects exacerbated vehicle traffic the way arterial plaque exacerbates risk of adverse cardio events. I suspect the analogy with cardio events sprang from two primary fonts: 1) Interstate 80 (I80) would be reduced to a single lane from three for miles on end, physically and unmistakably constraining movement; 2) The posted construction zone speed limit, 55 MPH (together with construction zones’ customary warnings of double fines for speeding), would have seemed bracingly heady compared with the horse and buggy speeds the single lane inevitably inflicted on we travelers. We were, thankfully, not in a hurry, but slogging along as these occasions required could tend to adversely affect one’s blood pressure.

In the larger picture, I’d call these quibbles.

Much of the drive from Reno to Monterey is beautifully scenic. The I80 corridor through Tahoe National Forest can be breathtaking, but as the descent from Reno, at 4504 ft., to Sacramento, at 30 ft. (permitting another gasoline free descent), flattens, stunning alpine vistas give way to more bucolic agricultural expanses and the hallmarks of modern civilization: population centers. An area that mixes both of these qualities surrounds Sacramento, California’s Capitol City. The city itself is a busy metropolis as well as the seat of California government. But the surrounding agriculture strikes me as something of a mystery. California, like much of the west, is often water starved. Yet the predominant crop in the area seems to be rice, which means rice paddies. In fact, it turns out that the Sacramento Valley is where around 95% of California rice is grown.

Is there a more water intensive crop than rice? Possibly, but I can’t think of one. Could it be the rate for agricultural water use there is pennies, or fractions of pennies, compared to what households and other businesses pay? The Prestige of this Market Magic escapes me, but hey, what do I know?

The Monterey Peninsula, with it’s rocky shoreline, teeming aquatic wildlife, prestigious golf courses, and hospitality intensive economy immerses visitors in an amalgamated mosaic of history and modernity. Before tourism, maritime shipping commerce and fishing were mainstays and the evidence of their histories seems ubiquitous. Entering Monterey felt as if I were gulping magnificent, quenching draughts of serenity as the bay came into view.

In short order we found the Wyndham Monterey Bay Travelodge, a tidy looking two story, 104 room hotel. A sign that we saw in many establishments throughout our visit greeted us upon entering: (paraphrasing) Due to Staffing Shortages Daily Maid Service is not automatic. If you would like service, please inform the front desk when checking in.

We checked in without difficulty and went to our assigned room, which was suitably spacious and smelled faintly of bleach. As travelers with several days’ worth of belongings, including a large (possibly the largest) Yeti cooler, we were grateful to find parking spaces immediately outside our room’s sliding glass door. In no time we’d unloaded the car and were ready to take Leila for an exploratory, and comfort, walk.

An attractive looking Japanese restaurant, Oh Sushi, is onsite, but closed due to the Labor Day Holiday. Another holiday related event was a fair, whose fairgrounds were situated just behind the hotel, up a small hill and across the street. The clerk who checked us in gave us a parking pass with particulars about our dates of stay and the vehicle itself.

“The only time we need these,” she said, “is when the fair is happening. Other times nobody but guests park here."

Having walked Leila, provisioned her with food and water, and settled into the hotel room, Cynthia and I decided to seek libations and, possibly, something to nibble on elsewhere. Again, due to the holiday, much in the immediate area was closed. My Google search bore fruit, though, informing us of a sports bar less than a mile’s walk distant. Using Google Maps’ walking directions, we soon found our way to the Hyatt Regency Monterey. Not expecting the place to be co-located with a hotel, I asked a fellow standing outside sporting a name badge where the place was.

“It’s closed today,” he told us, “but the bar inside is open.”

In we went and straightaway found an expansive, tastefully appointed lobby bar/restaurant doing an active, holiday afternoon business, both at the bar and surrounding tables. We took up seats at the bar, ordered cocktails and soaked up the bar’s distinctly sophisticated atmosphere, part of which also involved lite, pleasant chatter with the staff on hand. Our first drinks tasted so much like another that we ordered more. Soon the lubrication and effects of our walk stimulated our appetites enough to ask for menus. We ordered a pizza, which turned out to be both very large and equally scrumptious. Finishing it, despite our hunger, was not on the cards, but neither was abandoning what we didn’t finish.

We returned to the Travelodge, leftovers in hand (the room had a refrigerator for such things), fired up a movie we’d brought with us and went to sleep no more than five minutes into the film. Oh well, we hadn’t come to Monterey to watch movies.

Over the next few days we walked to well known attractions like the Old Fisherman’s Wharf, Cannery Row, and the areas’ miles of beachfront. Pelicans and gulls were everywhere. A seal lay sunning on a rock while another, possibly a mate, floated lazily nearby. We would visit the beach to celebrate sunsets, toasting the fiery spectacle with chardonnay and silent reverence.

Among the trip’s highlights was a day we spent exploring Carmel. Approaching one of the beaches we’d located on the map, we were taken somewhat aback by the mostly stationary line of cars waiting for access. The odds of finding parking, while not quite as long as winning a lottery, seemed daunting to say the least. Miraculously, as we drew close enough to see the surf and sand dead ahead, a car parked a car length ahead on the right pulled out to leave. It was a tight parallel parking proposition, but I pulled it off without bending our car or anyone else’s.

With Leila in tow we wandered out onto the sand. The day was sunny, warm, and inviting enough that quite a throng was present as well (hence the line of cars we’d been among on approach). The surf from breaking waves washing inland taught Leila to scurry sideways – she is no more likely than a cat to go into water on purpose. The farther from water we strayed, the deeper the sand became. A mile or so of that had us ready for a different sort of experience. Returning to the car we googled Carmel hikes and, sure enough, found a trailhead only a couple of miles distant.

Thank heaven for google maps! Directions to the trailhead took us twisting and turning through neighborhoods to a dead end with plenty of space for parking and turning around. Left to our unassisted devices we might still be perambulating through twists and turns to nowhere.

Signage told us more than one hike departed from the same spot, depending on the direction one chose to take. Our first choice quickly narrowed to a path overgrown enough that sunshine was more a stranger than not. We reversed course and found ourselves taken to a kind of community garden, complete with placards identifying the featured flora and benches for resting or admiring the plantings should one wish to do so. As hikes go, this one struck us as mostly boring. Hiking snobs in Carmel? Oh well, the prospect of lunch drew us back to the car.

When first we’d driven into Carmel, we found parking right away. As the day wears on, available parking disappears. Ever hopeful, we headed to the public parking we’d visited earlier. Guess what? Our plug-in hybrid Toyota once again delivered a boon! There were level 2 Charge Point[tm] charging stations with reserved parking spaces for charging vehicles. We sidled right up, plugged in and…nothing. Cobwebs signaled persuasively that no EV or PHEV charging had been undertaken here recently. I phoned ChargePoint and the support person I spoke with could not see the devices on her system, so two good things developed from our efforts: 1) we found parking we were qualified to use. 2) we alerted ChargePoint that they have devices in Carmel needing technical attention. With luck subsequent visitors NEEDING a charge will find the devices functional. Not knowing whether our search for lunch would yield a pet friendly venue or not, and aware that Leila is happy to go to sleep pretty much anywhere she is comfortable, we ensconced her in her blankie, cracked the windows, and left in search of victuals.

Earlier in our meanderings we’d passed a restaurant whose posted menu featured branzino. If branzino is on offer, the odds of Cynthia perusing further drop precipitously to zero. Her flexibility, however, admits a rich host of options in the alternative. Hunger is an accelerant that progressively enlarges one’s culinary preferences, and we shortly selected a bustling eatery that, lacking branzino, still appealed. And for good reason – the “Basil Seasonal Dining” restaurant, which drew us in for its sidewalk appeal, scored aces for its Spinach Gnocchi Salmone and King Ora Salmon. We departed highly satisfied.

A scenic wonderland I’ve driven through before but never really explored is Big Sur. Situated south of Monterey on the legendary Pacific Coast Highway, AKA Highway One, Big Sur (literally “Big South”) is a remarkably pristine stretch of the Pacific Coastline notable for its lack of development and breathtaking vistas. The highway is mostly 2 lane, but scenic turnouts where travelers can watch white caps breaking on rock clusters, take in the long sections of rocky shoreline, or just relax and enjoy the warm sun and gentle ocean breeze, are plentiful. If there was a downside to our visit this trip it would be that much of the Big Sur area is not dog friendly. Dogs on leash are okay on paved surfaces, but most off pavement trails prohibit them. We wanted to go for a hike and we wanted to take Leila with us, so we set about searching for a suitable spot that would allow both. Our search took us to Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park, where an extended network of paved paths would fill the bill.

Our wanderings bore unexpected fruit! We found an unpaved trail open to dogs. It was an extension of the Pine Ridge Trail, which follows all the way into the nearby Ventana Wilderness area. From Pfeiffer State Park the spur we were on ascends a little more than ½ mile to Big Sur Station, where housing for certain park employees is located alongside dedicated parking for trail users. We were tempted to explore some of the wilderness area but were short enough on time that we elected to wait for another time.

A short side note about Highway One: I’ve lived in California twice, both times in Southern Cal. People I knew in those days routinely referred to Highway One as the PCH, for Pacific Coast Highway. Made sense to me – half the syllables to communicate the same thing. My company at the time merged with another firm headquartered in Mountain View. I was made product manager for a product the Mountain View team was developing, so I began spending a week in Mountain View every month to work with the project team. One day, in conversation with a long term Mountain View staffer. I said something about the PCH. Her look of horror took me by surprise.

“We call it the Pacific Coast Highway here,” she told me curtly. Oh well, I still call it the PCH.

While checking Google Maps to see how far we were from Mountain View, I noticed San Mateo was less than 2 hours away. The opportunity to visit Michael and Heidi was too tempting to ignore. We had originally planned to head for Salt Lake on Friday, but instead decided to overnight with them, then head home Saturday morning.

Michael and Heidi would be at work all day Friday, so Cynthia and I decided to spend the interim walking around Santa Cruz, conveniently located about halfway between Monterey and San Mateo.

As had been true of so many places on our trip, much of Santa Cruz prohibited dogs. We were able to walk her around the nicely compact downtown shopping area, but the long, inviting looking pier and beautiful city beach area did not allow dogs. Fortunately (as already mentioned), if she has good ventilation, Leila is happy to sleep on the car’s floor in the shade. We found a good parking spot, bedded Leila down and set out for less restricted sightseeing. We investigated quite a few shops, bought coffee at a great little sidewalk coffee stand, explored the surprisingly long pier which, sadly, was lined with a few business establishments that had succumbed to the pandemic, and did that one thing we fear too few couples do very often - engaged in long conversations wherein we solved a staggering compendium of world’s problems.

Street art in Santa Cruz

Two of the shops we visited bear special mention: the Book Shop Santa Cruz, impressive for its knowledgeable staff and selection vast enough to satisfy any bibliophile; and the Toque Blanche, a specialty kitchen supply store that featured several items we’d not seen before that we positively had to acquire.

By mid afternoon it was time to leave for San Mateo.

We arrived at Michael and Heidi’s new house just slightly before either of them were home from work. Not knowing the area but confident we’d be dining together later, we used the time constructively surveying nearby eateries. Naturally, our beginner’s luck did not lead us to one of their favorite hangouts, but with them in charge we found our way to Rise Woodfire Restaurant, a low profile, family owned joint that serves, in their words, elevated comfort food. Menu items I’d happily repeat: Jalapeño Cheddar Cornbread (yummy – don’t let the jalapeno scare you); Grassfed Meatballs; Italian Chopped Salad (nicely tangy lemon vinaigrette); Barbeque Chicken pizza (the homemade BBQ sauce is killer); Faroe Islands Scottish Salmon (melts in your mouth).

Returning to Michael and Heidi’s house, we enjoyed nightcaps and toddled off to bed. In the morning we breakfasted on large, fabulous bagels and cream cheese, hugged and kissed our goodbyes, then hit the road.

Our original plan for the trip home was to overnight again in Reno, but the trip from San Mateo is only slightly more than 4 hours – not much of a start on our long trip home. Instead, we decided to make Saturday a long day on the road in exchange for a tolerably shorter drive Sunday. I made a reservation for Saturday night at the Travelodge in Elko, NV, a roughly 8.5 hour drive, setting up a Sunday trip home of 3.5 hours.

As is true of most professions, the hotel business has a certain vocabulary of its own. One well known Acronym, FF&E, stands for “Furniture, Fixtures and Equipment.” Any investment in FF&E the Elko Travelodge owners must have made could not have been much more recent than the Blue Moon of August 2012. I’m guessing, but it’s been quite some time since I’ve seen hallway carpet with wear and tear that could possibly qualify as an important archeological discovery. Whatever the date of their origin, the carpet and other accoutrements were decrepit enough that reentering from outside filled one with a desire to shower right away. Given no other choice, we would camp in our car before occupying another of that property’s rooms.

Our drive home on Sunday was, well, a lovely Sunday drive. Spent from the travel and glad to be back at our own home sweet home, we unpacked and ruminated on the wonderful experience we’d just concluded.

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