Winds of Chance

The drive from San Francisco to Calistoga is beautiful, even at night. I was returning home alone following a great weekend of visiting family and friends. Usually there’s a relaxing feeling as you meander along the winding roads that separate the vineyards from one another. But tonight, at about the halfway point, something was different.

A few minutes earlier I’d arbitrarily decided against going north through Santa Rosa and over the Calistoga Mountain Road, which I usually do. It’s quicker, but tonight I wanted to take the back roads, which put me on hwy 12 to Napa, at about 10:00 on this warm Sunday evening. Over the next few minutes, I quickly became aware of winds pushing my car, from different directions. Twigs and pebbles and dirt and debris began flying across my windshield, while stronger gusts heaved against me. I even saw 2-3 small twisters pass in front of my headlights.

This continued for many miles, I didn’t feel endangered per se, but these were the strongest winds I’d ever driven in. And then the plot twisted. The large moon was very orange, and I caught glimpses through the trees of a glow far off in the Napa hills ahead of me. By the time I hit hwy 29, it was clear what was happening. As I turned north up valley, an enormous fire was attacking the mountains parallel to me on my right. Everything was black, except for the stringy flares of bright orange flames that draped the treelined ridge for miles. It was surreal to witness, and I felt strange to just keep driving.

A short while later I saw another fire up in the hills above Yountville. This time I pulled off the road and drove towards the hills to get a better look and learn more. Many residents were standing around watching, and I was told that the fire started in a junk yard. I felt bad for the destruction as I again headed north towards home, a little wary. But 30 minutes later, just a few miles from Calistoga, I saw something that really shook me: yet another large red glow up ahead, this time illuminating the sky over my own town.

When I arrived home, it was still windy, and Jennifer came out to greet me, alarmed. She said the fire was a mile away, and that 5 different fires had just been reported over the hills in nearby Sonoma County. Oddly, there wasn’t much smoke in the air, but the glow was easy to see out on the edge of town. There were no alarms going off, but neighbors were going door to door. We kept our eyes on the frequent alerts during the night, and I tried to understand how so many fires could start suddenly, simultaneously, 35 miles apart.

The air was smokey the next morning. The power was off (and in our case this means no running water), as was the internet, except for Nixel alerts. Our group of neighbors pow-wowed in the street. We shared what we knew, and decided to get out of town. We would all stay in touch as needed over the next week or so. We beat the mandatory evacuation order by a day. I’d always wondered what this would be like, packing up to flee a fire, though this lacked the lapping flames that I always imagined. Still, we needed to make quick decisions about what we valued most. There was only one way out of town now instead of the usual 6. We packed both cars and headed back down hwy 29. Workers were directing traffic where the lights were out of power, and everyone behaved. We left one of the cars in a part of Napa that felt safe, then joined forces in our bus, and drove together over the bridges to Lafayette to be with friends Cathie and Harvey.

The next several worrisome days were spent reading alerts and texts from others. The fire that started in the corner of Calistoga, called the Tubbs fire, had quickly spread southwest, right along Calistoga Mountain Road into the city of Santa Rosa, where it was in the process of destroying thousands of homes and businesses, and killing dozens of people. (I’ve wondered what would’ve happened if I’d taken my usual route home that night!).

Two days later, in the final hours of our mandatory evacuation window, Jennifer and I decided to drive back home while we still could in an effort to pack more things into our bus. But just outside of town, we met a blockade. The sergeant said we were 5 minutes too late. Ooh, that stung! We drove away for a mile or 2 and explored other ways of getting to our home, then turned around and went back again. Truth be told, we fell in behind 3 police trucks, which were waved though, and we just followed closely behind them. Now things felt real. It was quite smokey and the town was deserted as we backed into our driveway. We were thankful for this second chance to grab most of the things we’d been thinking about since we left the first time. We were in and out quickly. On the way out of town we took one last smokey drive down our empty main street, and said our goodbyes. In neighboring St Helena, we stopped at the cat shelter to offer our help in relocating the animals, but they had enough help already.

All week long we read the alerts and hoped from afar. At times the reports seemed gloomy. We later learned that on the third day of the fire, even the firefighters believed our entire town was about to be destroyed. Yet a week later, the evacuation orders were lifted. I came home before Jennifer, who waited a few more days for the air quality to improve. I surveyed the damage to Calistoga, which was miraculously limited to the far edge of town where the Tubbs fire started. The powerful winds pushed the flames 15 degrees away from us, and that was the difference between losing everything -including possibly Jennifer, and losing nothing at all. This odd and twisted contrast is what I’ve been struck by the most.

Neighbors are reconnecting after the scary shared experience and tragedy of the north bay fires. Hugs and stories and tears of gratitude and sadness, as Calistogans slowly return to a (mostly) saved town. Most of us are just 1 degree removed from lost lives, homes, businesses or jobs caused by the many fires that made up this tragedy.

The most destructive fire in state history started at the corner of our small town (the suspected cause is a downed power line from the winds, which reached 75 mph), but then spread southwest to distant Santa Rosa -very quickly. It was all about wind direction. Signs are popping up across town, thanking the 1st Responders. Fund drives too, for those less fortunate. We gave our heartfelt thanks to our firefighter neighbor Jason. His career is just starting, but he will likely never see a fire like this again.

-matt

(These photos don’t even come close to showing the conditions. I do know when to put the camera down!).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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SoCal

We barely had time to debrief from our Oregon trip when, just a week later, we packed up the bus and hit the road again, pointed south. It was time to visit Jennifer’s varied relatives, spread across Southern California. We call this the hanky tour, because one is needed at every goodbye.

The bus struggled against strong winds much of the first 2 days. So at Paso Robles we took hwy 46 west. As with many of these small east-west roads, it was beautiful. At its crest, the surrounding hills looked somehow prehistoric. But it was downhill from there in more ways than one, as trouble struck just as we reached the coastal road. The bus’ power cut out as we slowly climbed towards the first stop light. I shifted into 2nd and we crawled to the light before the engine shut down for good. Soon, a pair of sympathetic Westy owners jumped out and helped push us off to the side, from where we were soon towed to the local mechanic, now closed for the day. Our first Westy tow story!

That following morning, the mechanic worked on our bus as we set off on our bikes to explore all day. But an hour later, as we were relaxing into Lilly’s cafe, he called to tell us that our bus was already fixed and ready to go! Wow, that was fast -and with a simple and cheap remedy to the problem. Turns out that our gas tank actually runs dry every 300 miles or so, but before that happens we must put more gas into it! In fact there’s this little gauge in the dash that tells us when to do that! Sigh…. We will never understand this incidi! We intended to get gas back in Paso Robles, but somehow got distracted -and then wiped the entire concept from our minds!?!? Silver lining: our mistake led us to discover the very charming southern part of Cambria, a part we never knew existed.

It doesn’t get much better than the California coast. We returned to it 3 times on this trip. But the heart of this adventure for us would prove to be the scenic passageways within the desert mountain ranges of southern California. We took highway 150 from Santa Barbara to Ojai and eventually down through Box Canyon: palms and cactus; gorgeous rock canyons, winding views of cascading farmland, high desert and more distant mountains. We found a great spot for the night in Los Padres National Forest, and washed in the river the next morning.

A few days later we had our bus towed again, as a precaution, to the nearest rated Westy specialist. Yikes. It needed a partial engine rebuild -plus other thing$. It took 10 days to complete the work. The silver lining: this happened in Oceanside while visiting Jen’s mother, which gave us all lots of much-valued together time. She fortunately has a large open patio, which became our home outside of the bus. During this time I was given a sweet surprise BD party one night, warmly joined by cousins Bruce and Debbie. I was also the errand guy, and used Susan’s car a lot. I’ve never seen so many large, nice, shopping centers (and massage parlors) in such close proximity to one another.  I spent one great day biking the coast and the Strand in Oceanside, waiting for the mechanic to call. Carlsbad is a hopping town, but we preferred slower Leucadia-slash-Encinitas, especially the Meditation Garden at the Ashram. So serene and uplifting, and with the largest and most golden Koi you’ll ever see.

Our visits with loving aunts and uncles in West Hills, Pasadena, and Duarte went as hoped. We’re all older with every visit, and evermore thankful. We love them all. They were amused and curious about our bus, and quick with a hose or lamp or 2×4 if needed. Having the bus -however many times it may need towing- allows for these invaluable visits and connections.

When not sleeping on a patio, or parked in the driveways of relatives, we slept in National Forests, State Parks, and for one memorable night, outside a Walmart store. We were parked off on the fringe of the p-lot in the town of Ridgecrest. Jen somehow heard the faint cry of a kitten (stop me if you’ve heard this before!!) and tracked it some distance away to under the hood of an employee’s parked car! This attracted attention, and many people, who eventually witnessed the popping of the hood and the validation of Jennifer’s claim! But the startled critter quickly squeezed down into the engine, and stayed hidden for 2 hours, unreachable, uncoaxable. It was quite late, but eventually, with a lot of effort -amid strained employee power dynamics and varied degrees of concern for any cat’s well being, little “Gasket” was carefully retrieved by 3 young, patient, big-hearted men, to whom we tip our hats! He purred right away. Word had it that the young woman in charge of produce wanted to keep the lucky little guy!

Our initial hopes to travel north along the eastern sierras and then through Yosemite were dashed by an early snow storm that closed the pass. But this in turn allowed us to instead dwell in the beautiful highways and ranges around the Anza Borrego / Palm Desert / Joshua Tree / Sequoia National Forest areas, and the winding river canyons east of Bakersfield. Sometimes I set down my camera and just try to be with the beauty. Much of this trip was that way.

We eventually rode across the flat central valley and up into the the velvet rolling hills-turn-rocky coastal range back to Morro Bay, which was pristine and otter-perfect, and with big stars over a great campground just out of town. Our trip was coming to an end as the vineyards and oak trees of central California presented themselves. We spent a lot of time and effort getting to the west gate of the Pinnacles, only to learn that the road doesn’t connect to the east -where the campsites are. So instead, our last night was spent next to Coyote Lake at the Harvey Bear Ranch State Park near San Martin. We went to sleep in a beautiful setting, to the sounds of coyotes, and awoke to groups of boars, including babies, braving the water’s edge despite mountain lions in the surrounding hills. A rafter of turkeys stood silently in a nearby meadow. Their tail feathers up in full display, each with a red ribbon in back making a full circle.

-matt

 

 

 

BAGUUUS.

During our first morning in Indonesia, while being served breakfast on our terrace, we learned a new word. Through her dazzling smile, Wayan elongated the word “bagus” which means (really) “nice”, and it became a favorite refrain of ours. To us it’s an expression of gratitude and happiness, and so we chose the word for our Westy license plate.

We had a couple of weeks ahead of us as we left John Day, with only loose plans about where to go. Normally we’d head north to the spectacular Columbia Gorge and Portland, but our post-eclipse traffic assumptions suggested otherwise. Doh!, our southern route was also a long, dirty, caravan crawl of RV’s, pick ups, cars and motorbikes, even though the traffic had been nothing like this a few days earlier. Eventually we broke away towards Bend, where we spent another night in a National Forest just outside of town. We took a wonderful morning walk alongside the gorgeous and swift Deschuttes River downtown. And we encountered a gang of sign-carrying elders standing on a corner as we stopped for the light. We honked the horn in support and rolled down the window, and they boisterously encouraged us “hippies” to join them -and move to Bend! Many smiles and waves were exchanged as our light turned green.

We liked Bend, but the air was smokey due to fires from somewhere. We didn’t know yet that smoke and multiple fires would strongly influence the rest of our trip. Hoping to escape the smoke, we drove right into it instead. Highway 242 (there’s that number again!) from Bend to Eugene is one of the most spectacular roads across the Cascade mountains. But as it approached we learned of its closure due to a new fire. The route we stayed on is normally a stunning drive as well, but at times we could barely see the ridge line ahead of us. We stopped once to walk a stretch of the Pacific Crest Trail, which wound through a forest of burnt white tree trunks.

Eugene provided us with a great campsite, near the mighty Willamette River. Tip: don’t always believe that the camps are “full” despite what the sign says. We’d escaped the smoke -for a time, and felt a new phase of our trip unfolding. Wide, full, rivers frequently crossed our path, often as we passed over some handsome, old, steel bridge. The next day we decided to stay and have a knocking sound from the rear axel looked at. This in turn taught us about parking overnight in front of VW mechanic shops so as to blend in. Luckily, the No Name Garage was conveniently located next to the Overtime Tavern! Our 2 days of biking along the Eugene creek was fun, and a great means to Eugene’s core, but it also revealed a surprising level of homelessness.

Roseburg provided a nice walk through a dense forest park where oddly, a popular disc golf course was. However, new fires changed our course again, so we steered the westy west to Coos Bay and the ocean, via the coastal mountain range. We liked exploring the small coastal towns of Point Coquille, Old Town Bandon, Charleston, and Port Orford. Some towns, like Gold Beach, are very restrictive against overnight parking. Fortunately, we met a man there who led us a few miles inland to hidden areas right alongside the Rogue River. We spent a lovely evening camped below the stars.

We enjoyed the coast: beach-combing for agates, the large bleached tree parts washed ashore, and the small farmer’s and artist’s markets. The road inland to visit friends near Grant’s Pass -where humorous bear figures are spread across town- was memorable because fires forced us to take a 2 hour, remote, slow, winding, narrow, steep, gravelly and very dusty detour. Toward the end, the bus’s brakes needed pumping 2-3 times to work due to a build up of dirt upon the brake pads. Fortunately Jennifer slept through much of this detour, and missed some hairy passages!

One of our favorite small town surprises was Jacksonville, on the way to Ashland. Very cute. We liked Ashland too, but the smoke was the worst anywhere, so we only spent one day and night. A small cluster of young nomads in Lithia Park liked our bus, and tipped us off to an overnight spot way up the hill, adding that the cops aren’t looking for “people like you”. The spot they suggested worked out well for us, and included a lovely early morning walk through the hilly forest. On our way out of town a red fox ran past us with a squirrel in its mouth.

We spent the next very hot days winding our way home through northern california. Truck stops in Weed and Redding (where we enjoyed a visit with new family members) provided an interesting place to park. These large stops have constant action 24/7. We like walking past the many rows of the huge, beautiful road kings parked side by side by side at night. and watching them back into the narrow available slots -or try to. Small Mt Shasta and Yreka were on our car-noodling path, as was Whiskeytown Lake –which was heavenly to jump into!

From Redding we headed to the coast again due to the smoke and heat. The long, winding, steep, highway through Trinity Gorge was quite beautiful -but had several challenging and white knuckle stretches for a slow Westy competing with fast logging trucks. Once back at the coast, we liked cooler Arcata with its good juju and Victorian houses, and we enjoyed combing Clam Beach all alone. Little Ferndale was a great surprise. We’d been there at night once, during the holiday season, when the town is famously lit up. But now, during the Summer light of day, we appreciated its natural charms and surrounding countryside, and its unique hillside cemetery.

Besides truck stops, casinos are also a good place to park overnight for free, which we did twice near the end. At one, we had an encounter and conversation with a bobcat, strolling in the vineyard near us. He sounded nothing like we’d imagine -and not at all “cat-like”. The next morning, his paw prints were pressed into the mud at our doorstep.

A long drive through the fantastic giant Redwood forest brought us to the outskirts of Ukiah, where we took part in a lovely overnight surprise birthday party for an old friend. It was a great way to finish off a really good road trip, on which we saw lots of bridges, barns, Bigfoot references, beaches, logging trucks, redwoods, rivers, small towns, small cities, smoke, tattoos, and a total eclipse. We met a lot of people, made some new acquaintances, and had some great nature encounters.

And we learned that this new old bus can indeed take us places. In fact, another trip to visit family in SoCal is days away. BAGUUUS!

-matt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Go Westy Young Man.

It’s been over a year since our last post. This time has been good to us, more or less, in the big picture. But writing about our life in Calistoga was not what we had in mind when the blog began, and so we went off grid lest we bore people to death.

We’ve come to view our stay here in Calistoga as merely part of a larger adventure that we started 4 years ago. It’s not Indonesia, but wine country wasn’t in our plans at all, and this small town on the fringe of the Bay Area has been a new and interesting experience, just as we were seeking.

We recently added a new piece to our adventure which presents a whole new and exciting dimension to our lives. After many months of research, we found and bought a Westfalia camper bus, circa 1990. It has a pop-up tent bed (and another double down below), 2 burner stove, fridge, sink, and storage space. It’s in excellent condition, with low miles, is very clean, and really fun to drive. So rather than be tethered to our home, it allows us to travel because Jennifer can sleep and eat inside of it.

Our first trip was a short test to Chico for a few days. By day we kept cool at Bidwell park’s fantastic Sycamore Pool, which frames the Chico creek into a 500 foot-long public pool as it flows towards the Sacramento River. By night we parked and slept in front of a friend’s house, testing the local limits by raising the pop-up bed rather than using the “stealth” option of the lower bed. We liked Chico, especially the park, the Thursday and Saturday Farmer’s Markets, the bike-friendliness of town, the eco-enthusiasm we saw, and the youthful energy surrounding the college. Having the bus brought the ability to explore Cobb Mountain, Colusa, Oroville or anywhere else along the way, rather than have to rush or return home to Calistoga by day’s end. It was as fun as we’d hoped, and gave us confidence for longer trips.

Oregon beckoned. One of Jen’s dearest friends lives near Grant’s Pass, and, a rare total eclipse was coming her way. We gave ourselves several days to get to the small town of John Day, in eastern Oregon -and smack in the middle of the path of totality. Along the way we heard many stories of gas shortages up ahead, and of way too many cars heading there too, making things miserable. And all the varied businesses where we inquired were out of the all-important eclipse glasses. We figured to keep going until we encountered trouble, and spent the first 3 nights sleeping in darkened and mostly deserted National Forests along the way, where camping is allowed for free.

Crossing into Oregon, the high-desert towns felt foreign, and had a distinctly dated and western look about them, which we liked. One of our most beautiful passages was alongside Lake Abert on curvy highway 395. The placid, endless lake stretched out from the left edge of the road, while a ribbon of steep, rocky mountains sloped up from the right.

We reached John Day without any of the problems we were warned about, and even found the proper eclipse glasses by then. John Day borders a smaller, charming town called Canyon City. We’d spend a lot of the next 2-3 days in both of these towns, where a lot was happening in anticipation of the eclipse. This was exciting to see and encounter, and we felt part of a real and rare event. But hmmm, finding a place to park the bus was tough. We rejected the $200 per night charge upon the top of the hill, where the best viewing would be, and where hundreds of cars and people were. Instead, back in town, the high school principal gave us a “discount” of $150 for both nights at the school parking lot, where we met several interesting and friendly people. Most were pitching tents on the football field.

We biked around John Day, and enjoyed the live music coming from the fairgrounds. Canyon City provided a nice park at which to cook meals and noodle the nooks and crannies, and we met an elder local gemologist who displayed scores of his treasures along the narrow front porch of his hilly, worn Victorian home. There was a pre-eclipse buzz in the air, but some locals spoke of a disappointing, lower turnout than was expected, John Day having planned for this event for 2 years.

We debated where to actually watch the morning eclipse. Up on the hill seemed the best spot, but we feared that a long bottleneck traffic jam would follow. So that morning we hitched a 5 minute ride (from SF’ers it turned out) to the vast hilltop and found a quiet spot to sit and enjoy the show. We never knew the difference between a partial and total eclipse, but it is significant! We watched the dark moon slowly grow across the sun as expected, but there the similarities ended. During the last 20 minutes of transition, an orange sunset filled the entire horizon (360 degrees), which was cool. Meanwhile, the temperature dropped many degrees and a chilly breeze picked up, and things got quiet. The skies darkened too, but not as much as imagined. Still, something surreal was happening! The best part was the 2+ minutes of totality that suddenly followed -to yips, shrieks and cheers from thousands of people- as a bright glow that burst from behind the blackened circle of moon. It was a special sight. We felt connected to the cosmos, and could imagine how mysterious and frightening this event must’ve been to our distant ancestors.

Afterwards we walked all the way back down the hill, feeling high. We packed up the bus, which is a fun ritual that we’re slowly perfecting, started the engine, and set our sites on other parts of the Beaver State.

-matt

 

 

Sarafornia

Samuel Brannan arrived in San Francisco bay in 1846 on a settlement expedition from the east coast. After the gold rush, he printed the first english-speaking newspaper in the west. He went on to wear many hats: entrepreneur; politician; church leader, and brewmaster, among others, and was California’s first millionaire -though he later lost everything after being caught using his church’s tithes to buy his private land. He also founded our current town after seeing its potential as a natural spa and vineyard region similar to those he knew about in New York. At his big development announcement to the townspeople and press, he meant to refer to this area as the “Saratoga of California” but inadvertently twisted it out as the “Calistoga of Sarafornia.” The name stuck.

There’s something similar between Indonesia and Calistoga that we appreciate. Both places fill their landscapes with rows and rows and rows of a beautiful crop. In Bali it’s rice, here it’s grapes. They cling to the contours and curve around the hills, and spread across the valley floor as the beautiful icons of this region that they are. As in Indonesia, we love seeing the cycles of growth, from shaved lots to early seeding to full harvest. But unlike the rice fields in Asia which stay green throughout their cycle, the vineyards here will eventually end in spectacular autumn reds, yellows, oranges and magentas.

We’ve noticed different types of grapevines. Some start out horizontally along raised wires while others are staked to grow upward. Some vines have thick gnarly wooden stems while others have thin rubbery green ones. Maybe these are the differences between reds and whites? Many homes around town have vineyards in their front yards -even if just one short row. Many of the large vineyards that we bike past are organic, which we appreciate.

Big wineries dot both highways and crossroads that run up the Napa valley, and some are world famous. We like to bike around their grounds and explore their nooks and crannies. We oddly don’t see much of anyone or anything going on at these wineries -or in the vineyards. It’s strange, there are thousands of acres of vineyards in this valley,  a vast industry going on all around us, which we know takes a lot of men, machines and vehicles, but those things largely escape us somehow. Bright yellow mustard grass sprang up between the thousands of rows of vines throughout February and March, and grew to be 3-4′ tall. The next thing you know it was cut, everywhere, and the fields were prepared for their cycle to start. How could we miss that?! Can all the work occur in the wee hours?

As we’ve watched the Napa river slow to a sad trickle since April, we’ve also watched the vines grow in height and bulk. You can still see across the tops of most rows, but not for long. Many vineyards have a few tall fans that tower above the vines, used to warm or cool the grapes as needed. Some seem to be mobile, because they vanish and then appear somewhere else (but of course we never see them being moved!). There are different varieties. My favorite are rusty and old and speak to an earlier day, as do many of the homes that share the land. Original wooden farmhouses and barns are still home for many, usually tucked off in a distant corner, while closer to the roads stand the modern or fanciful wineries and tasting rooms that compete for attention. Some have long, dramatic, tree-lined entrances. Many of the buildings mimic the castles, chateaus or country estates of France, England, or Italy. Some prefer a modern design to their buildings, while others try to blend into the natural landscape. Some have long, dramatic, tree-lined entrances.

A few short decades ago, Calistoga was more of a lumber-oriented community. But as that industry slowed and whittled away, it was replaced by a burgeoning one, that of making wine. Downtown Calistoga has several wine tasting shops now, which seem to be doing well. One recently moved into the cornerstone art-deco building located at the prime spot in town; Lincoln at Washington, the former long-time domain of Wells Fargo. Back in Samuel Brannan’s day, a stage coach would transport gold and silver along the Silverado Trail to Vallejo, and then ferry it across the bay to San Francisco.

The riches of this industry come at a cost, and create a struggle between issues of growth versus the environment. As usual these concerns are tied to larger issues of money and influence and politics. Recent permits have been granted for the development of 2 controversial projects; a large luxury spa resort in the valley, and another one up in the hills -on land bought from a foreign investor. Local citizen heroes pay attention, stay informed, and use their spare time to try to inform others and stop the privatization of public lands, prevent the use of chemicals within a certain proximity to streams, and limit the angle of incline allowed for future vineyards due to the chemical runoff.

There are about 500 vineyards now in Napa Valley, and 200 more in Sonoma county next door. While the vineyard business is thriving here, we’ve heard that the optimum climate for growing grapes is changing, and has migrated north to Oregon, Washington and even Canada, where award-winning wines can already be found.

-matt

 

Calistoga

Our first week as official Calistogan’s was the first one in December, when the town holds its annual Xmas festivities. The holiday art fair, with small town simplicities and charms felt good to us. Lit up scenes of happy children, dedicated parents, smiling artisans, bakers, and musicians who all seemed to know each another. Afterwards I walked along the main street in town and discovered scores of empty chairs lining both sides of it. The annual “Lighted Tractor Parade” was slated for later that night and people were already staking out their places in advance. I went home and quickly returned with 2 folding chairs of our own. By the time the parade started that crisp night, Lincoln street was lined with 1-2-3 thousand excited people, who oohed and awed and clapped as many dozen farm vehicles -from small tractors to flatbeds to big rigs- crawled by in single file, draped in xmas lights. The next Saturday night there was another parade, with about 20 Aztec dancers and 100 Mexican traditionalists following a Sister Guadalupe display in the back of a slow moving pickup truck. It started at the high school and zig-zagged down Lincoln and past the firehouse to the catholic church, packed with celebrants.

Calistoga is a small town of about 5,500 residents, 75 miles north of San Francisco. Tourists are attracted to its natural thermal spas, mud baths, wineries, a famous geyser, hot-air balloon rides, and gorgeous surrounding landscapes and state parks. City hall is a small building with a bell tower on top and 3 friendly clerks inside located around the corner from the only traffic light in town. Across the street is the site of the weekly Farmer’s Market which we look forward to every Saturday as a growing social hub and source of healthy produce, live music, and good vibes. There are several parks scattered around town, a community pool, many ball fields, a local art scene with classes, and more dedicated plaques imbedded on benches, in rocks and at tree bases than I’ve ever seen. In the middle of town is the local wing of the Napa county fairgrounds, with a pavilion used frequently for events, a small golf course, an RV park (where we first stayed last fall), and the Calistoga Speedway which hosts several car and motorbike races throughout the summer.

There’s a significant Latino population here which enriches and broadens our experience -and has thankfully reacquainted us with authentic Mexican food! Many are associated with the labor forces required by the scores of wineries, spas and restaurants which dominate the economy and landscape. (Both Calistoga mineral water and Crystal Geyser have their bottling plants here too). Our sense is that the laborers are valued, respected and happy here, and make a better living than most elsewhere for the same work. This is a relaxed town. There’s respect and warmth from its people, and a certain harmony and acceptance. The young sales and service people are noticeably friendly.

The heart of town along Lincoln street is charming, and looks like a town in the gold country. Overhangs above the sidewalk provide shade in the summer. With the exception of the popular hardware store, chainstores are not allowed here. The well-paved streets are lined with sycamore, oak, olive, persimmon, pine and palm trees, and cactuses, and show off many beautiful styles of architecture going back to the 1800’s. There are large lots with gorgeous victorians, old farmhouses, barns, water towers, craftsmans, clusters of cottages, and mid century moderns to admire, often with adirondack chairs on the lawns, peace signs made from wine barrel planks on the porches (including ours), and varied artsy-quirky things to notice. There are 3-4 nice mobile home parks and several older, attractive churches to admire: Catholic; Baptist; Russian Orthodox; Episcopal, 7th Day Adventist, Presbyterian, and Jehovah’s Witness, among others. There’s a gorgeous old Monastery too. The monastic nuns walk around wearing black robes, and sell homemade cookies at the farmers market. The lone high school starts at 7th grade and graduates about 60 seniors every May. It struggles at times to field enough players for their sports teams to compete against other schools -except for soccer, at which they excel.

Among our treasured early experiences here was exploring the streets of Calistoga on bike and getting waved to or nodded at by most everyone we passed. We bike almost daily now, sometimes for many hours. It’s nice and flat here, situated between 2 mountain ranges that are about 2 miles apart. We enjoy riding both nearby and out to the farther reaches of town, and have discovered some awesome roads that wind past vineyards and landscapes that mimick the paintings and photos sold in the art galleries in town. The mountain range to our west is mostly pine trees, and includes a famous petrified forest. The range to the east is especially beautiful. Storybook foothills front tall, rounded Mt St Helena, and a stunning stretch called the Palisades that features a dramatic mile-long volcanic wall of mauve outcroppings reminiscent of Wyoming. They can turn orange at dusk from the setting sun which is really gorgeous. The beautiful winding foot trail that leads up to the Palisades starts in town, and has become a favorite hiking destination of ours. Someday we plan on making it all the way to Table Rock. There are several other trailheads nearby as well that lead up into both ranges.

The Napa river starts in these hills and flows down through Calistoga, with 2-3 tributaries that join in from both ranges to snake southward into the Napa delta 35 miles away. We like to check the river flow at the many crossings around town. El Nino’s strong rains rose the river many feet last month which was exciting, and washed over a river-crossing that we often use to get downtown. We hope to see a repeat performance of this water level in March.

We feel very lucky to have landed in Calistoga for the time being. We wanted a small town and we got ourselves a good one.

-matt

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sri Lanka

A year ago this week, we needed to leave Indonesia for a routine “visa run”, which required getting our passports stamped somewhere else. We decided to explore the tear-drop island-nation of Sri Lanka, that sits off the southeast shore of India. (Substory: despite their government website claims, copious requested documents provided, many lines waited in, additional forms filled out and money spent, it turns out that Sri Lanka is not the place for a visa run. So afterwords we spent a week or so in Bangkok to get it done). Still, we really liked our travels in Sri Lanka, and I’ve wanted to write about it ever since we got back. But life got in the way at first and then I couldn’t find my notes from our trip -still can’t. So I’ve stopped searching and started typing, and will include a lot of photos to compensate.

Sri Lanka is a relatively new travel destination due to a 30 year civil war which just ended in 2009. A month there might sound like a long time, but it’s not. The island is many times larger than Bali, and much more diverse. Great beaches all around it, and jungly green mountains in the middle, Sri Lanka looked, sounded, smelled, and tasted different than the other countries we know in Southeast Asia, and felt like an adventure. It’s character is most similar to India, and is commonly referred to as “India Light”. Many, many people were very kind to us. But we also encountered too many who expected money for simple or ordinary things.

We flew into (and out of) the capital city of Colombo, located on the western shore. After a few days of getting our bearings we headed to the central hills region and city of Kandy. We went through it 2-3 times as we criss-crossed to and from the cultural sites and remote hills. We took lots of crowded and adventurous buses and trains, taxis, tuk tuks, a motorbike, bicycles, and we walked a lot. Getting to and from distant regions was not easy, though we appreciated just how new tourism is there. Our travels included several steep climbs past serious -and recent- rockslides. Further south we sought out 2 safaris (our first ever), and eventually made it to the southern shoreline of interesting beach towns, fishing villages and the walled city of Fort Galle. We finished off with a lovely coastal train ride back up to Colombo.

Random favorite experiences, among many:

Ocean swimming with the locals. First at Mirissa and later at Galle, we were really touched by how well the Sri Lankan’s play together (men in skivvies, women in long saris). The teenagers, young adults and the elders were gentle and open and happy and playful. Zero alpha energy, just pure fun. With calm waters, stunning dusk scenery around us, and inner-tubes supporting us as we drifted, ebbed and flowed, it was perfect.

Kandy. The central hilly town buzzes all day as tuk tuks circle its beautiful, central lake, past nuptials and snake charmers. The markets came alive in the cooler streets at night. The Temple of the Tooth Relic is a UNESCO sight and the nightly relic ritual is not to be missed. The large arboretum nearby is a spectacular collection of habitats and trees  -and lots of bats, hanging asleep, upside down.

Golden Temple of Dambulla. Way up in the hills behind an enormous golden buddha, is a row of ancient caves carved into the stone hilltop, with dozens of figures of all sizes posed under sloped ceilings painted in exquisite detail. Extraordinary, and worth going out of the way for.

We especially liked hanging out in mountainous Ella, which felt a bit Himalayan. I spent half a day hiking the steep verdant slopes of Adam’s Peak. We enjoyed slow strolls through hills of tea shrubs, and the best / healthiest / tastiest food on the trip. Our remote bungalow clung to the hillside, looking down a long and gorgeous mountain gap.

Fort Galle. This smaller and separate part of the larger city juts out into the sea at the southwest corner. Walled by the Portuguese and Dutch 300 years ago, it’s a maze of narrow streets and nooks and crannies begging to be explored. It’s a relaxing place, but with a vibrant local community, Indian and Muslim influence, beautiful mixed architecture, and the Indian ocean on 3 sides lapping at the wall below, it’s one of the few places we’ve encountered in which we could imagine living for a spell.

My cricket debut. A young man we met in Galle invited me to play with his team the following day. It was all a blur to me. I still don’t have a clue about how the game is played, and I flubbed all 4 of my fielding opps. But the backdrop was fabulous, and I so enjoyed myself.

Seeing the stilt fishermen. Some were tourist posers, but others were legit. It’s a dying skill in Sri Lanka. And the caught fish were stunning in colors of red, blue and brown.

Back-to-back Safaris at Udawalawe and Yala National Park. Jennifer enjoyed these more than I did, as I found the rides waaaaay too bumpy. We never saw any panthers as hoped, but did see many beautiful animals, gorgeous landscapes and interesting habitats up close and personal. A constant highlight throughout Sri Lanka was the beautiful birds, and the varied natural settings.

Chathura and his family. The taxi driver who first picked us up at the airport turned out to be a lovely, thoughtful and special man whom we saw again and again. He went out of his way to help us navigate our visa attempts, and drove us here and there. At the end of our trip, we reunited for a spectacular traditional dinner at his house, where we met his wife, 2 children, and mother. We look forward to seeing them all again.

All this, and we didn’t even visit the northern third and eastern side of the island, nor many key sites that were within our reach. We hope to return.

-matt

 

 

 

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