More memories from my lone Californian trip of 1997
We are travelling along on the Silverado Trail. The Silverado Trail is a scenic route that runs for 30 miles along the Eastern edge of the Napa Valley, parallel to and several miles to the east of Route 29. Our intention is to visit a few vineyards, have some lunch and enjoy the scenery. My credit card is standing up well to the battering it is taking but I could do with a respite from souvenir shops and the like.
The scenery is just as beautiful as the guide book promises and we stop the van now and then so that I can scan the area with my camcorder. I know that once home, I will not remember exactly where we are at any given point so I am speaking as I spin round slowly to get a good panoramic shot. I realise this is a bad idea of course.
“Here we are in Napa Valley….this is….etc. etc.” I dread to think how the tape will sound when played back later. I suspect I will cringe at the sound of my own voice but at least I will know what’s what!
Annie potters along the road with her little dog and calls out now and again so that her deep, booming voice overshadows my own in places. For the thousandth time I find myself wondering about the ‘he’ business. She has thankfully chosen to ditch the flowery frock today (I say ‘thankfully’ because I was sure it was about to burst its buttons the last time she wore it) and is wearing her Grandmother’s favourite, the pink hot pants. With her straw hat squashed down to tame the frizz that still threatens to explode, she looks quite presentable today and as usual, I feel guilty for harbouring such subversive thoughts about her.
We have marked places to visit in my guidebook and today we have ‘Old Faithful’ and ‘Petrified Forest’ to see. Both are just north of Calistoga.
We visit ‘Old Faithful of California’ first, which turns out to be one of only three geysers in the world that erupt at such regular intervals. In contrast to the well laid out vineyards that we have passed, the geyser is hidden behind a hotch-potch of wooden buildings which the guide book scathingly tells us, are “an excuse for an entrance”. We pay our entrance fee and, just as the guide book tells us, come to a scrappy piece of wasteland out of which a 100 foot jet of steam and water apparently shoots every 40 minutes.
I am not sure what one is meant to do for forty minutes if one arrives just after the geyser has erupted but we are fortunate in that we only have ten minutes to wait.
We are told that the geyser may be a reliable predictor of underground movement and variations in its performance have proved to coincide with earthquakes some 500 miles away. I am heartened to hear that the earthquake activity is so distant but hope fervently that the geyser will not show any variations today.
In addition to the main attraction, there are a few Fainting Goats who don’t faint, (they are obviously made of sterner stuff than their name implies) and several Llamas who do whatever it is that Llamas are meant to do. The animals entertain the adults and children alike as they wait.
I love the fact that there are a few plastic chairs, such as those one might find at the bottom of a garden, forgotten and battered by wind and rain, set at suitable intervals from the geyser so that people can sit and watch and wait and watch and wait for as long as they wish. A wet suit is advised mind you and one must always remember that the water and steam spewed forth is Hot, hot with a capital ‘H’.
As the jet of steam erupts, the crowd gasps and those in the plastic chairs scream with excitement. The steam is followed by a jet of water which dances in the sunlight. The backdrop of the mountains lends the scene a fairy tale appearance but I don’t get out a tape measure to see if it hits the 100 foot mark. It is high.
Despite the apparent tackiness of the venue and the fee we had to pay to come in, I enjoy the experience. After all, I have never seen a geyser on this scale before. We take photos of each other by the geyser in action and I silently hope that there is not a ‘contraption that makes geysers’ that Annie will purchase on our way out.
Annie chooses a novelty tape measure and I add a couple of key rings and another tea towel to my collection. It is time to go.
It is getting late in the morning now and we still have to see the Petrified Forest. I could live without this excitement. Annie can’t.
We are standing by the visitor’s centre, collecting our guidebooks and tickets. Annie has declared that she may need the wheelchair. She has not used it all day. We drag the chair from the car and she wheels herself into the visitor’s centre. The crowds part to allow her through and she basks in the attention they afford her. At least, it appears to me that she is basking. We wander around the grounds, reading the plaques and exclaiming over the petrified objects laid out for our delight. I spot the notice declaring that ‘wheelchairs cannot be taken beyond this point’ – Annie reconsiders and parks the wheelchair.
There are benches strategically placed along the route. Annie decides she can walk if she is able to sit down as and when she needs to. She comes a little way along the uneven path and then decides to rest. I am happy to grab some time to myself and deliberately head off alone to explore. I take the little dog with me to give her some exercise.
I nod and smile to those who greet me and exchange pleasantries with a man who is exclaiming over a petrified tree lying in a pit and tells me,
“Reminds me of Hobbitown USA out on Pacific Coast Highway 1.”
I cannot imagine what Hobbitown is or was but in the tone it is mentioned it does not sound inviting. (Is this a throwback to Lord of the Rings? I must look that up). I wander back along the path. Annie seems happy enough pottering around the exhibits near the entrance. She is drawn to the souvenir shop and I can see her exclaiming over a variety of ‘must-have gifts’ already.
Joining her, I choose a particularly delightful piece of petrified tree that has been polished and will make a useful paper weight. I am aware that this paperweight is unlikely to have come from this particular forest. Indeed, the shop is so full of ‘petrified’ this ‘n that, I doubt the area could sustain such industry. I pick up a few trinkets for the children and buy Annie the petrified-wood dinosaur she has taken a fancy to.
Our morning’s work is done. Lunch time approaches.
The vineyards beckon. We stop at a couple and sample their wares. At least, Annie samples their wares, Past experience has taught me that even a simple tasting of red wine can result in an unwanted migraine and I don’t want to risk that here. Annie is limited in what she consumes since she is driving of course. The kind guide is explaining how the tasting is done and invites her to have a go. I decline for the reasons I have given but Annie is keen to try. It would appear, after a few minutes, that she has not yet mastered the art of ‘tasting’ as she gulps an entire glass down in one go.
“I think we should eat some lunch,” she tells me and to my relief, declines a second glass. I agree. Annie ‘buys’ a couple of bottles of red wine, I buy a corkscrew with the words, ‘Calistoga Vineyards’ printed on the handle. I might give it to Dave.
Annie tells me there is a wonderful restaurant near here that is quite famous. It produces some of the world’s top chef’s. Apparently we have to eat there. She extols its culinary virtues with such excitement that as I have had my fill of ‘Denny’s Diners,’ I agree.
A short drive later and we arrive at an impressive grey stone building sign posted as:
‘The Culinary Institute of America, Greystone Restaurant’.
“Here we are,” Annie says needlessly as we pull up in the car park. The battered VW looks oddly out of place next to a line of shiny saloon cars. I glance down at my shorts and shirt. Am I suitably dressed? I look across at Annie, is she?
Annie gives her little dog some water and settles her in the back of the van with the window wound down a little. We walk towards the restaurant.
“This place attracts the rich and famous,” Annie is saying. I am thinking that we look like neither.
As she speaks, a white stretch limousine pulls up and temporarily blocks our way.
The chauffeur steps out and opens a rear door, touching his cap as we approach, with a grin. We side step the open door and walk on. No one steps out of the limo – either its occupant is shy or the chauffeur is just airing the vehicle.
The chauffeur continues to smile at us and I nod politely. Annie is striding ahead. I am aware, as we continue our walk, that to anyone glancing out of the restaurant windows, it would appear that Annie and I have just stepped out of the stretch limousine and that the chauffeur has just tipped his cap to us. Maybe we could pass for celebrities of the more eccentric kind. I grin as we mount the restaurant steps.
If there is one thing I have noticed during my stay here, it has been the level of service that is prevalent in every store, restaurant and public building that I have visited. Everyone smiles. Everyone seems more than happy to serve us. Indeed, most are positively enthusiastic. This restaurant is no different, in fact the service has risen a notch higher if that is possible.
We are shown to a table on the balcony which affords amazing panoramic views across the vineyards. The waiter hovers attentively, flashing me a whiter than white smile whenever I glance over. I am quick to realise that the prices in this restaurant reflect its reputation.
Lunch is not going to be cheap.
Annie is now in her element. She orders anything and everything on the menu as I calculate how much credit remains on my card. I am a little more reserved in my selection, more because of my digestion than the budget I have to say. Annie is concerned about neither.
We draw plenty of stares from the other diners as the meal progresses. Perhaps they really do think we are celebrities (a comedy duo?) and are trying to place us. I suspect that the sound of Annie slurping her soup and chewing the sirloin steak with her gums is the real reason for their raised eyebrows and searching glances. She manages the champagne with surprising ease.
The staff continue to lavish us with the greatest of attention and to flash their whiter than white smiles at every opportunity. Maybe they have us down as food critics. Annie continues to exclaim at the delights of the menu and is clearly enjoying the experience to the full. I wish, not for the first time, that Annie would get some teeth.
A new thought strikes me. Here in California, everyone seems to have wonderful smiles showing perfect teeth. Is it then ‘all or nothing’? Perfect teeth or no teeth at all? I am still pondering this fact when we are approached by a small girl who stands and stares at us before her embarrassed mother whisks her away with apologies. The child has her two front teeth missing. Perhaps she senses a soul mate?
“Have a nice day,” the waiter grins as I pay the bill and I am struck again by the friendliness of everyone I have met here.
“Say, you from Australia?” he adds as he hands me the receipt. I brace myself and tell him I am from England.
“Get a lot of fog over there don’t you?” he asks in all seriousness.
We leave the restaurant, feeling full and not a little sleepy. We stroll back towards the VW. The stretch white limousine is still sitting there, the chauffeur nowhere to be seen.
“Lost your chauffeur ladies?”
The voice belongs to a gentleman who has followed us out of the restaurant. We survey the white limo and laugh.
“He’s having some refreshments inside, just saw him,” the helpful gentleman tells us, “Nice car!”
I realise that he is being serious.
“Oh, no, that isn’t our car,” I start to say but Annie is on top of the situation,
“We’ll just have to wait for him then,” she grins and sits down on a bench. The gentleman wanders off to his own car and waves as he drives away.
Who does he think we are? I wonder.
Annie chuckles as we drive down the road in the battered VW. She has enjoyed her meal and enjoyed the slight notoriety we may have achieved in the process.
It’s been an interesting day so far but we are now into the late afternoon and it’s time to find a hotel.
I need a rest before we set out again – fame is very tiring.