Saturday, March 7, 2015

Going Back to Cali

I’d like to dream my troubles all away
On a bed of California stars
Jump up from my starbed and make another day
Underneath my California stars
They hang like grapes on vines that shine
And warm the lovers glass like friendly wine
So, I’d give this world just to dream a dream with you
On our bed of California stars
-Woody Guthrie

Almost one year ago to the date, I was on my way to Mallorca, Spain.  Such a lovely place Mallorca was with its bike friendly roads, wine, goat cheese, olives, almonds, seafood, warmth and salty air.  Well, I've now realized Mallorca has a doppleganger called California and it's a hell of a lot closer and cheaper to get to.  

I haven't spent much time in CA.  Not sure why.  Maybe the size spooked me a would I even begin to choose an area to explore (I prefer not doing huge sweeping tours of a place--cruise ships make me want to lose my cookies--and instead settling into a region and getting to really know a small portion instead).  Maybe it's the distance I'd have to travel (I get squirrelly during long flights or car rides).  Or maybe it was the fear I'd fall in love with it too much and want to move there and leave my friends.  The last time I had been in California was a very long layover in Los Angeles on my move to Hawaii.  My mind was on other things, but I still explored the city and outskirts the best I could.  As someone who despises being in or around car traffic, Los Angeles was not the place for me (but I did find sections I loved).  Prior to that, my only time there was with my father when I was nine years old.  We explored almost all of Orange County and San Diego--even staying with Reed Albergotti, well, his parents anyway, and Reed was, I think, in diapers at that point.

Because the nasty Wisconsin winters have taken their toll on my mind, body and spirit, and because the windows for travel have shrunk do to bike events and work, March has been a good time to get away each year.  As much as I love downhill skiing, I refuse to go from one winter climate to another, so that leaves me with Southern hemisphere travel (takes too long for a short 10 day trip...I have a vacation day to travel time ratio I hold steadfast to), Mexico (not into beaches unless I could take surfing lessons), back to Mallorca (I thought about it but again I would need 14 days minimum), Florida (nope, no way...I have read all of Carl Hiassen's books) or California.  When I got the opportunity to do a trade for the use of a friend's house in Napa, the decision was made.  California here I come!

When my friends heard I was heading to Napa, most assumed it was for the wine...and my love for it.  I had spent a season living just outside of Bordeaux, France in 2003, helping a friend with their vendage (harvest) of three varietals and fell in love with the process of winemaking.  I had even considered going through the enology program in Davis, CA (known to be the best school outside of Bordeaux for aspiring vintners and enologists).  The thing was I had no desire to go into severe debt so I used my skills to just enjoy drinking wine vs. making it.  But my trip to the Napa area had much more to do with the outdoors than wine.  All I wanted was to be able to hike, bike, and play outside without a heavy jacket.  Then came the wine, beer (yes, beer almost trumps wine for me now), goat cheese etc.

The similarities to Mallorca don't stop at at food/drink and salty air.  The Napa area and surrounding counties are a mecca for cyclists and hikers.  The drivers here are kind and patient with both, even if there are very few shoulders and the roads seem super sketchy when you're used to having either bike lanes or low traffic roads (California recently passed the "three foot passing law").  Multiple times I thought to myself "no way in hell is this a safe road to ride on" and then I saw cars moving WAY over into the other lane to pass cyclists.  I also noticed cars coming to screeching halts the moment they saw a pedestrian get close to a crosswalk.  This practice is common in Minneapolis and Seattle-- but something I'm not quite used to in Madison even though it's toted as being super bike/ped friendly.

Like in my Mallorca trip recap, I'm not going to bore you with all the details stating "day one I did this, day two I did this", instead I'll give you an overview of stupid little things I noticed (I notice a lot of stupid little things and somehow seem to store them away) and highlights so that if you find yourself in the area, and I hope you do, you'll have a basic place to start planning.  

Such a beautiful ride into Soda Canyon

Quirky things I've noticed regarding my time in this part of CA:

-Don't rely on maps or road signs.  I consider myself really good at reading or figuring out both.  I got lost multiple times.  Road signs are either difficult to read, are hidden behind bushes/trees (I can't say how common this is) or are just non-existent.  Roads also change names like crazy.  This is one spot I'd suggest having a GPS!

-Produce is NOT less expensive here.  No matter what you think about CA as being the produce state, I found all groceries to be at least 30% more than in WI...sometimes twice as much.

-Roads rarely have shoulders and are often winding with low visibility.  They still consider these roads "bike safe" and have signs everywhere saying "Share the Road".  I was super nervous at first but found folks to be very good drivers and kind to cyclists even if they were going 10mph over the speed limit.

-People don't own shovels here.  What a novel idea.

-Cashiers are nice and chat with almost everyone.  Wait, I take that back, almost everyone is nice and talks to everyone.  Folks, this isn't the East coast or the Midwest.

-I'm really weird about scents.  They take me to the last place I encountered a similar smell.  For some reason I kept thinking I was in Montana (baked pine scent), then Spain (olive trees and Eucalyptus), then France (bakery and vineyards), and finally Mexico (Mexican laundry detergent).    

-I thought all of California had banned plastic shopping bags...until I hit the grocery store.  I was deeply appalled not only did they use plastic bags (I wasn't paying attention since I normally bag my own in reusable bags) but they double bagged items and only placed about 3-4 items in each bag.  Of course I rearranged everything and consolidated but I doubt they'll reuse the bags I emptied.  Some spots have passed the no plastic law and others should be jumping on the "green bandwagon" soon.

-I have this thing about listening to radio stations while traveling.  I'm always curious to see if radio is still alive, like in some U.S. cities, or if it has faded away into a country pop/religious preaching hell.  The four stations which came in clearly consisted of 2 80's music stations....YAY!!! and two conjunto stations which brought me back to my chicken bus riding days.  

-Motorcycle drivers here are on some kind of death wish.  I first noticed this on HWY 101, but then it kept happening in all heavy traffic.  For some reason they think it's a good idea to ride between 4 lanes of moving cars--where these cars tend to shift lanes suddenly.  Not only do most of them have their bars cut down to stupid hipster fixie width to fit between lanes of traffic, but they also all tend to ride off road touring bikes like BMW or Kawasaki to absorb the lane divider plastic knobs.  I don't know if I should bow down to these skilled riders or force them into a mental institution.

-If you're biking through Yountville, I was told by two people to use a three point stop (meaning two feet plus bike).  I actually heard cops will pull cyclists over and ticket them if they don't do this.  A bit excessive I think.

-A big concern of mine while biking here was getting hit by a drunk tourist, however, I found out that there is no record of any cyclist ever getting hit by a drunk tourist--locals after work  yes, tourists, no.

-When you live in Wisconsin, you forget what it's like to be on a fault line.  Last fall, the Napa area had one hell of an earthquake.  Ground zero was in Carneros--just south of Napa and the location for several of our rides.  Looking at the cracks in the road, which more closely resembled crevasses on a glacier, reminded me quickly how powerful this earth is.  Homes on one side of Napa were almost untouched (they stand on bedrock).  The homes and businesses on the other side of town, the ones on sand, didn't get away so lucky.

-This isn't the "old world" like European vineyards.   UC Davis is not far at all, and you can tell!  All the vintners here use a scientific approach vs. a "let's see what mother nature gives us" approach.  I saw a ton of high tech fans in the low lying parts of vineyards which keep air moving in case of an early frost, can spray water in case of an early frost to coat the grapes and protect them, and some actually produce an ash fog to cause an inversion layer to keep temps up if freezing is a risk.  Oh, and vintners also rent infrared "selectors" for about $1,000 an hour to make sure stems and unripe grapes don't go through the crusher.  All of this stuff is so beyond my realm and grasp!

Okay, enough observations.  Now comes the fun stuff, what to do if you are anything like me and find yourself out here.

Go biking.  Yep, I know, the roads aren't quiet and completely traffic free like the ones you find outside of Madison, Wisconsin, but if you avoid rush hour and the busy weekends, you will fall in love with riding through vineyards, over mountain passes, checking out all the chateaus, replacing all of your lost fluids with wine and beer and then replacing your lost calories with amazing food.  Don't know where to start, don't want to ride alone or didn't bring your bike?  I was in all three of these groups and here are some tips.

Part of the Wednesday Eagle Cycling Group!
First, check out Eagle Cycling Club.  This group has great rides all week long for all levels.  We hopped on one of their rides with leader Bob Hillhouse, owner of Bicycle Works in Napa (a great shop but they don't rent).  The group was so unbelievably welcoming and kind--I got the feeling we were a bit of an oddity to them since we came from a cold climate.  They brought us on low traffic roads, talked to us about everything from environmental issues to wineries and travel and then brought us to a great little bakery/cafe, Model, right in downtown.  

Getting our bikes--Jay was great!

If you need to rent a bike, there are spots in Napa, Sonoma and Yountville.  We chose to rent from Napa Valley Bike Tours and Rentals in Yountville (they also have a location in Sonoma).  Jay and Mackenzie were super helpful and when I had bottom bracket issues, Mackenzie actually swapped out the bikes (with a house call might I add) within moments.  Since they also do guided tours, this would be a great place to go if you wanted an experienced guide.

If you're wanting a "come to jesus" ride, and who doesn't, I'd suggest doing a loop over to Sonoma and then take Cavedale road up to the top--taking a right onto Trinity and then Dry Creek.  Why not?  You only live once!  Please note Cavedale is bumpy--really bumpy and it's 7.5-16% grade almost the entire 7 miles. If you want a smoother climb, stick to Trinity on both sides.  Have fun!

If you want climbing without the passing out or puking part, might I suggest Redwood Road (one of the prettiest climbs I've ever done), Mt. Veeder (from either direction), or Soda Canyon (although this one is pretty nasty for the last 1.5 miles)

Biking on Redwood Road--named that for a reason
One of the many beautiful views from Cavedale road
Go hiking.  In a matter of two days, I beat my legs and feet to a pulp covering miles upon miles in multiple parks.  Since we rented a car, we explored a bit further out of Napa--choosing to hit hikes north of Sonoma and on the Marin coast.  First came Hood Mountain regional park (if you want a state park, Sugarloaf is right next door and I've heard about great hiking there too).  It's steep so be prepared.  We followed it up with hiking in Tamalpais and Muir Woods (the cathedral is amazing but check out the canopy trail if you have time) and finally Point Reyes.

Hiking in Mt. Hood Regional Park

Hiking in Point Reyes

Hiking in Muir Woods--if you can, follow the canopy trail into Tampalpais

Eat, drink, be merry!  I'm not going to tell you which wineries to go to, okay, I'll tell you one, Hope and Grace.  For the love of good wine, have their Pinot Noir!  Just trust me on this.  All the other winery/vineyard choices I'll leave up to you, but if you find yourself craving some really amazing art--check out the Hess Collection (free for self guided tours of Donald Hess's private collection sprawling over four floors).  

This area isn't just about wine--Lagunitas Brewery in Petaluma

Hope and Grace of the best Pinot Noirs I've had
Mmmm...taco trucks!

If you're into beer like me, Lagunitas in Petaluma is a must!  Here you can sample beer, get a tour and most nights take in some free music in their courtyard.  A great thing to do after a long day of riding or hiking!

Okay, so I live in the cheese state.  Why would I want to tour creameries or buy cheese here?  For one thing, this area has some mighty fine goat and sheep's cheese.  If the names Cowgirl Creamery, Laura Chenel, or Point Reyes Blue don't ring a bell--I'd suggest your tummy and taste buds get to know them intimately.  

Aside from all the biking, hiking, eating and drinking we did, I did use my time to learn about a couple of really cool things regarding wine making in the area and bicycle advocacy.  I know all of this may bore you to sleep, but maybe you'll find it as interesting as I did.

Wine stuff:  All of this information is about Napa Valley.  Sonoma, Russian River and Alexander also have strict standards but they may be different in a few small ways.  First, all vineyards MUST produce all of their own irrigation water through either reservoirs or springs.  They cannot use any water from the aquifers--good thing too since CA is in it's 5th or 6th year of severe drought.  Many of the vineyards are going biodynamic or organic--yay!!!  80% of the Napa Valley land cannot be used for agriculture.  I noticed a ton of signs marking spaces as land trust or reserve.  Might be why I also saw a ton of egrets, herons and hawks.  Finally, I used to complain heavily about the jacked up abv (alcohol by volume) on CA wines--the reds often hit 15.5% and the whites 14.  I wasn't always that way, they used to pick the grapes a bit before they were completely ripe to have more of an Old World style wine.  After a decade or two, they decided to let the grapes mature completely to bring out more fruit flavor.  Some vineyards choose to add a bit of water to their high abv wine to take the burn off (some would consider this sacrilege where I compare it to opening up a fine whiskey with a bit of water).

Bike stuff:  Napa's Bicycle Coalition (their advocacy group) was essentially formed many years ago by five guys who like to ride and would get together afterwards to drink wine and talk about what needed to change in the valley for cyclists.  After realizing they were just preaching to the choir, they decided to form an actual group with board members and an executive director.  One thing led into the next and now they are on their third executive director and have 7-8 board members as well as advisory members.  They work on projects like helping get commuter trails and lanes in, holding bike rodeos for kids, putting on cycling events for adults and educating both cyclists and drivers alike.  Recently, the "three foot passing law" just passed in California because of work done by groups like this.  One of the advisory members told me the Napa/Sonoma area isn't that big of a biking as folks would think (nowhere near Davis, Point Reyes, San Fransisco etc).  His thought is that it's because of the lack of colleges or universities near by.

I can't quite explain what a wonderful surprise this trip has been.  I didn't know what to expect coming into it--but I sure didn't expect to fall so madly in love with this area and the its residents.  You can bet this won't be my last voyage out here!  

One of the things I love about CA...old cars and Airstreams
One of the many cool pieces in the Hess museum
Hiking in Tamalpais Park, looking over the bay
The new Bay Bridge--looks a lot like the Sabo Bike Bridge in Minneapolis
The trillium were blooming in Muir Woods and Tamalpais

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