Where to go in Napa

Mike and I have been collecting wine for 13 years, but living in LA, Napa was too far to drive and who wants to fly when you are going on a wine purchasing rendezvous? Not us. We like to baby our bottles. So we settled for Santa Ynez, Paso and Temecula, all easily accessible by car.

Now in the North State, Napa is only three hours away. When we planned Mike’s birthday trip, Napa was the winner.

When we were trying to figure out where to stay and go we were a bit lost. So many choices and we only had four days. Our research paid off—we had an amazing time so I share it here with you if you are planning to go.

Calistoga is the perfect place to stay. Here you are centrally located to about—um, 8,000 wineries or so—and some fantastic dining options. The Pink Mansion is walking distance from town and was the home of the Calistoga water man back in the day so bustles with historic flare. A B&B ran by Toppa and Leslie Epps, the Master and Honeymoon Suite are huge (actually have two sleeping areas) and are steps away from the outdoors hot-tub. (There is also an indoor-heated pool so bring your suits.) We met some great couples from other states, two of which were celebrating their honeymoon. Most notable, were Jim and Pamela from Houston. They met on Match.com (though they were not matched) a year prior. Their first morning there, Pamela was sick and Jim decided to go on an early jog through the vineyard where he found a doe with two broken legs. He called the vet paramedics who came and tried to rescue the doe. Jim told them he would pay the vet bill and take the doe back to Texas as a gift for his new grandson. (Sadly, the doe didn’t make it.) We enjoyed listening to their stories, including the one where Pamela’s had to swim to her house in Texas (past snakes) after Hurricane Ike took down her entire neighborhood last year. The first thing she checked when she got there was her Harley to make sure it still worked. Miraculously, her house survived and now she has no neighbors.

Breakfast at The Pink Mansion is the best in town.

Down the street from The Pink Mansion is the Lavender Hills Spa. (All about the pastel colors in Calistoga.) There, in a little cottage looking up into a lush green forest, you can get side-by-side hygienic mud baths in one-time use volcanic baths instead of the reused mud in some of the other places in town which we thought was just a little gross. A bath attendant gives you remotes to control your bubbles (Note: just make sure your husband doesn’t get your remote) and comes in asking, “Would you like a cool compress?” After a half hour, you move to side-by-side tables for a renewing foot massage and then to separate rooms for a full-body massage. Use this event to detox from the ridiculous amounts of wine that seem to pour from the hills. (Note: do this BEFORE drinking. There are plenty stories of people who don’t and end up curled up next to the tub in the fetal position, which just doesn’t seem like much fun.)

Best restaurant picks: Brannon’s for short ribs, Calistoga Inn for the peanut butter pie, Go Fish for the sushi (all excellent-especially the spicy tuna roll and poke) and Flat Iron for the Meatloaf.

If you are coming from the North State, take Butts Canyon Road and go by Langstry in Lake County. This was one of our favorite stops because a nice Italian guy named Scott, hospitable as all get out, took us through the barrels using his turkey baster (or “thief”) to sample a whole variety of wines. His knowledge ran deep and we had much fun with him. Down the road is small, family-owned Pope Winery which is worth stopping at to see the old blacksmith shop (all with original tools) and the barrel-room built into the side of the mountain.

Then, of course, there is the vast number of wineries in Napa. Many of these require appointments based on an old law which tried to address the traffic and drunk driving issues in town. Many also have larger tasting fees then we are use to paying. Here are the ones that are worth it: Cakebread and Joseph Phelps (need appointment for both), Prager Ports (ports only-colorful), Mumm (all sparkling wine–has nice photography gallery with rotating exhibit—currently Ansel Adams originals and save the planet theme), Frank Family (both champagne and still wines) and Merryvale. We went to more, but these stand out the most. At Joseph Phelps, we carried a bag of cheese, salami, fig & olive compote and crostini from the Oak Street Market in with us so it wouldn’t get warm in the car. As soon as the check-in lady saw it she said, “Would you like to picnic?” and set up at a beautiful table (usually members only but going on weekdays has its benefits) overlooking a hillside of grapes. She even put out a beautiful Tuscan-like tablecloth with a reserved sign. We felt like we were alone in Italy.

In November, the Valley turns a menagerie of fall color. Most of the grapes have been harvested, and the leaves of deep reds and yellow prepare to fall. Where grapes still hang, the deep purple contrasted to the red is pure beauty. The weather for our trip was perfect, though we were told it can be touch and go this time of year.

Though we had planned to get to Healdsburg, we never got far from Calistoga. Dang. I guess we’ve got to go back.

In Search of Fall Color in the North State

Last Friday, Mike and I took a day trip. Our goal: soak up the fall color before the leaves dropped. We found color, but oh so much more.

We mapped out our route to start at Burney Falls. I hadn’t been to the Falls in over 35 years, but remembered them being quite majestic. We stood looking at them, channeling John Muir. (Read with Irish accent.) The spray from the white veils of water misted the forest where we stood, knowing this must be one of the wonders of the world.

Near the top the Falls, a doe wandered, giving us a half-stare. After walking to the base of the Falls and back up, we drove further into the park to discover a still Lake Britton. Surrounded by blackberry bushes, fall color hugged the lake. We walked to the end of a pier and soaked up the quiet. With no movemement but the rings in the water from distant ducks, the color of the surrounding trees doubled, reflected by the glassy water.

The solitude was tempting and we could have stayed all day. But alas, the volocano awaited us!

After taking a side street up to Hat Creek and seeing the observatory where the SETI folks from Mountain View base their alien search (and UC Berkeley looks for astronomical discoveries), we drove into Lassen State Park.

Mt. Lassen is the only plug volcano in the Ring of Fire and is currently active. You realize how much is going on under the earth as you pass by portions of mountain with steam barreling out. In some parts of the mountain, large sulfur ponds boil up in a witchy brew like grey matter. We drove through the park, and through the snow splattered mountain, seeing evergreens far beyond the line of sight.

The park is something to see: meadows below the peak, streams running through fields of tall, wheat-colored grass, vast views of the valley extending clear to Lake Almanor, volcanic rock reminders of the explosion some 90 years ago and trees, trees, trees.

As a child, this trip seemed like a long car ride. As an adult, my spirit renewed, I returned home grounded and inspired. The trip reminded me to keep my eyes open to the journey for it is often there that life’s purpose lies.

Happy Birthday, Mom!

When we made the move north, being close to my Mom was a big consideration. An only child of a single parent, the responsibility of caring for my mom in older years falls on me. While she’s still younger, I want to soak up every opportunity to celebrate life. Our Mt. Shasta birthday get-away was one of those soaks.

We headed out early Thursday morning after school drop with four pillows and 3 bags, and several other ancillary items between us. As we drove north, the gray sky dropped rain making my mom—a bit of a back-seat driver—a little anxious on the roads. When we get in the car, we’re immediately back to 16 and 42. She likes to warn me about “the big trucks, the slippery roads, the merging lanes and whatever else she can think of” somehow not factoring in my 30 years of LA driving which I think should take me out of the “lesson” stage. Since we’ve lived apart for so long it is like losing 30 years of driving credit. Between jumps and gasps, somehow we make it up the highway to Mt. Shasta, still excited about our adventure.

As we headed to the Bed & Breakfast, called the Shasta MountINN, the mountain before us radiated, proud to be wearing her first winter snow. In Mt. Shasta, land of clean air and the best water in the world, skies were blue, temperatures crisp. Innkeeper and friend, David, greeted us and got our bags inside. His garden, breathtaking in every season, showed off her fall colors. With a bit of seasonal remorse, David had “winterized” his garden the day before, bringing in summer’s lawn furniture and getting ready for what seemed like might be a deep snow winter.

“Time for tea?” David asked.
“But of course. Time is all ours,” we said.

We sat, relaxed and talked in the lovely historical home that once belonged to Mt. Shasta’s mayor. Oh, the conversations likely to have occurred from where we sat.

Our next stop was Stewart’s Mineral Springs, a Bohemian mineral bath hangout far from the land of cell phones and flat screens. To get there, you drive past Mt. Shasta, then head out through field and farm, following a white water stream until you hit an area with a one way bridge that you are fairly sure may be facing its last car before the collapse. As you come off the bridge, you see bare butts diving into the creek which that day was 30 degrees. Brrrr. You pass a tee pee used for sweats by a local tribe. (If you’re there on sweat day, you can count on drums galore.) Finding a place to park, and getting out later involves dirt and a thirty point turn.

How to describe Stewarts? Detoxifying. People with names like “Twinkle” helping you. Wrought iron tubs with the sound of the creek coming in the window. The only wood-burning sauna west of the Mississippi that holds about 50 people, some of whom like to stand on their head naked (who does that?) Clothing-optional. Bath, sauna, shower (or creek)—repeat. Relaxing. Renewing. Unique.

After our baths, we headed over to the Spring restaurant where a lady dressed in Indian (eastern) clothes with paint on her forehead like she was celebrating Ramadan and her full abdomen exposed escorted us to a table amongst the trees and next to the creek. A beautiful day for joining nature, a dog was soon up on the deck with us. We watched as he walked in the restaurant, through the kitchen, took a jump in the creek and did the same all over again. Ahh, what different rules here in the land of the spiritual retreat.

After a delicious lunch we headed back to David’s for surprise massages, a nice follow up for two hours of bathing.

Meanwhile, Amanda had started her work day early, ended early and was attempting to time her arrival from San Francisco for dinner with us at The Trinity Café. She was Mom’s ultimate surprise. As a child, Amanda spent time with Grandma alone, but as a teen and now young adult, that time was missing in her life.

Amanda, the organized time machine that she is, arrived exactly at 5:45 when she said she would. I saw her pull in from my window upstairs, waved her up and David helped smuggle her in past Grandma’s room. It was so great to hug my first born and we were like two little kids Christmas morning, pleased with ourselves our plan had worked so well.

We snuck down to Grandma’s room. Knock, knock. “Come in,” Mom said. Amanda steps in and there is silence, followed by laughter and giggles and hugs. “This is my best surprise ever!” Grandma said.

The rest of the time was priceless. Talking, eating, cracking up at Wanda Sykes until our sides ached, eating David’s delicious eggs, veggies and potatoes with toast, walking down Mt. Shasta Boulevard and shopping, filling our jugs up with Headwater water, and just being in each other’s presence.

These are the moments that make life an e-ride and not the merry-go-round.

On your Mark!

If you’ve never had the pleasure of attending your child’s first swim meet, please–join me.

The weekend started with a hike. I’m not sure they all start like that.

“It’s going to be a fairly, flat, easy hike,” says Coach Soares. I learned on that hike Coach Soares has penned and published 7 hiking books over the years and, while writing those, would hike 25 miles a day. Are you kidding me?

The driving road to the hiking location gradually became more and more narrow, which meant two cars could not pass at the same time. Occasional bike riders made that even more exciting. When we got to the hiking location, Coach announced the “Cliff Lake” hike was off and this new hike was on. (We’d somehow missed the turn.)

This hike was anything but flat. I exercise daily, but my hair was wet with sweat and I was panting like I’d just ran 10 miles (not that I do that.) We started at 11 and ended at 5:30 and moved at a fairly fast clip without rests, excepting our final Lake Helen destination. Nobody knew where we were, but drilling our hiking author masquerading as a swim coach I discovered this to be called the Trinity Divide. We were on the Seven Lake Trail (and we passed about 4 of those lakes) which crossed the Pacific Rim Crest and dropped down (and I do mean dropped) to Lake Helen. The lake was isolated and serene, the pine trees reflecting in the glass water to create a double forest. Some team members swam. Some wandered. Some practiced skipping rocks. I took great shots, but in an uncanny incident, my camera card cracked the third morning of our trip, especially unfortunate since I was writing an article for the Valley Post and supposed to provide photos. (A little scrambling around Sunday gave us the few shots we got.)

It was phenomenally picturesque all around to be sure and I only fell on my butt once while trying to scale a manzanita sort-of path thing. I felt misled–but I’d go again…even though my legs still hurt three days later. And talk about dirt. I had nasty, dirt ankle rings.

As we arrived at the High School football field, the sun was setting. We’d eaten with the team at Bob’s Ranch House (pretty much all man first names for all things in this town like Ray’s Food Place, Ed’s trucks, Scott Valley…you get the idea). We decided it was fate that the place closest to our truck was open and that must be ours. Close transport of all that stuff.

Remember “Friday Night Lights?” As night came, those were the lights shining straight into our tent and lighting it up like a Walmart! We seriously had to move the shade dome in back of the tent to block the glare. It became obvious why nobody had taken the spot as this was the passageway for all activity.

Our blessing, though, was our kind neighbors. They were campers. Good campers. Good neighbors. They had a stove. They percolated coffee. They were like real live campers…and they liked it. The Streges made our camping trip fun.

The other good news is that we were sort of close to the girl’s locker room. You did need to walk by three really loud snoring tents and a motorhome with puke rolling down the side, but running water was right on the other side. There was toilet paper the first two days.

You really have two choices on personal hygienne: shower in the open high school style showers or don’t shower. I tried to sneak mine in after the morning rush, before the evening rush while nobody was looking. And only one in 3 days which was disgusting.

The meet itself was quite a deal. The kids head over at 7:30 a.m. and get their events written on their hand in sharpie so they don’t forget. (Just when I thought I’d broke my son of that habit, too.) The swimmers are in the pool by 8 a.m. warming up. Parents are getting in timer chairs, or officiating, or working in snack bars, or sitting at the timers who-check-the-timers table or just hanging around under “First Up” shade covers, which line the pool like LA condos.

For first timers, there is a lot to learn. I, of course, filled out the meet sheet on the light side so our son had only one race the first day. This did not stop him from sitting pool side the entire time both days, never to leave a sporting event while people are still there.

Swimmers start oldest to youngest in each type of event. Events are divided by stroke and distance. There is a whole posting system where the heats, lanes and events are put up on a wall and all the kids and parents hover about like ants on watermelon trying to figure out where everyone is going. Next to that hangs the results of who is winning and what their times are.

Meanwhile, there is a huge barbecue going in the background. It starts at 9:00. Cookies the size of a small planet and all kinds of snack bar food abound. Parents flank the pool cheering on (sometimes obnoxiously) their kids.

The little kids have a variety of reactions. Some, as young as 6, go like heck. Others cry and want to get out. Others swim two strokes then hold onto the lane line and stop. And repeat. The big kids swim with such beautifully-tuned strokes you feel like you’re at the Olympics.

You have lots of time between races (especially if you are only doing one) to eat planet sized cookies and get to know people. It’s a very social thing for such an individual sport and I loved the families more than any other sport we’ve ever played. Friendly, inclusive and fun.

After the races, people do a variety of things. Jordan just wanted to play with the kids: soccer, slip and slide, ultimate frisbee, whatever. The parents wandered to such find Etna establishments as the brewery or old fashioned drug store. Some stayed behind and watched the kids. I felt like I was living in a kibbutz.

I don’t really get camping. Planning for days, unpacking, setting up, packing again, unpacking–all while we’re packing to move our home. But Jordan’s words when we got home summed up why we went, and why we enjoyed it, “I miss the Scott Valley meet.”

Yeah, bud. I know how you feel. We’ll always fondly remember our first meet.

Note: Despite the fact my camera card has proved non-recoverable, you can read the article (and my scrambling shots) in the Anderson Valley Post either this Wednesday or next: http://www.andersonvalleypost.com/

Celebrating Love in Mt. Shasta

Mt. Shasta was our Big Island this year. One mountain rivals the other with the added bonus that we didn’t have to fly five hours each way. And we got to stay at our new favorite Shasta MountINN B&B again.

Northern California exudes beauty. We caught some of it and added some firsts to our lives keeping in theme with our 2009. (You know, like moving from a city of two million to a town of two thousand—stuff like that.)

Mossbrae Falls was a destination mismatched by its journey. The Falls are water veils that spray out of the side of the mountain covering lush, green ferns and moss with sheer, delicate waterfalls that pour into the blue-green pool below. A peaceful and serene, meditative space, the Falls line about 300 feet of the cliff. In a gracious moment, the sun reflects off the water to create a rainbow that stretches to the creek below. This is a vision straight off the Island and much like the ginger-lined pool we ride horse-back to reach for four hours. Breathtaking.

The hike to get there is also breathtaking—but in a different way. We moved methodically down railroad ties like toy soldiers on a mission. This is necessary because the path is so rocky and narrow and the best way to travel is on the 1.5 foot spaced ties. Not such a big deal? But wait, there’s more.

Trains are constantly using these tracks and we had to get out of the way of three during our mile hike in and out, running once to get to a large enough clearing not to get hit.

From a more relaxed perspective, we saw train tracks again on our sunset dinner train dinner, a smooth ride through the forest while enjoying a four course meal on china and silver. From the prosciutto-wrapped, date-covered almond start to the turtle cheesecake end we savored our meals. The most interesting part was trying to walk down the train after drinking a nice Syrah and not fall into fellow passenger’s meals.

Another first was the Mt. Shasta Lavender Farm. Picture rows of full Lavender thriving on the lap of majestic Mt. Shasta. In the middle of the fields is a Lavender labyrinth which you can walk while drinking lavender lemonade, which mainly tastes like lemonade but looks purple and has a nice fresh piece of lavender in it. We brought gluten-free crackers and almond butter and sat in the middle of the field surrounded by Lavender. Purple, purple everywhere. We picked fresh bundles of Lavender to take home and learned you do not put it in water if you plan to dry it. Just hang it upside down.

We soaked up the hippie culture of the mineral springs and arrived during the sweat lodge ritual so took our baths to the beat of Native American drumming. I’m pretty sure every toxin that dared to reside inside us took off.

We also met a gracious woman who taught us what Feng Shui can do for a home.

Filled with gratitude for our twelve years together blessed by the mountain, we returned home restored and ready for the pre-moving extravaganza.

Bass, Ticks and Grandpa’s Ranch

Jordan wanted to go fishing again. My dad’s birthday was Saturday. These seemingly two separate events collided on Sunday when we decided to head to my dad’s ranch in Corning to fish on the lakes there.

Mind you, my dad had been fishing all week with his buddy Roy on Lake Shasta, not deterred a bit by the full sun despite his Stage 4 Melanoma, which, for those of you following that, has resurfaced on his adrenal gland and requires asap surgery. We’ll know more Thursday.

“Come fish here,” he said. “They’re biting like crazy.” That’s fisher-talk.

So off we go in the fully packed SUV with Bailey in tow, not really knowing what size line, hooks or bait we were supposed to use (because we just learned they differ) or, for that matter, even what we would be fishing for because it never seemed to matter.

“If we go to Grandpa’s lake, I want to keep them and eat them,” said Jordan.

Oh, good. So now we get to learn how to catch, clean, and eat yet a new (I think) fish. And, now, it definitely matters what kind they are.

After lining up the pole, which involved lots of commentary surrounding themes like, “I remember when I could tie that knot without my glasses before my arthritis” and “Are you going to use the blood knot?” The blood knot?

Slight breeze with bright sun shimmering off the lake, we set forth, fish whisperers all. I cast out first cast with my newly lined invisible line straight from the fly shop with swanky bobber and dry fly attached. I cast gracefully out by the reeds. A bite!

“I got one!” I yell.

I knew I could do it. I reeled it in, head held high. Clearly it was my malfunctioning line last time and not the user as the dancing fly fisherman had rudely pointed out. I’d just proved my fishing prowess. I was one step away from joining a professional fishing association. This was the joy those men on the fishing channel had that I never got before.

“Ah, that’s WAY too small to keep,” says my dad throwing it back. “Small bait, small fish.”

Come on! Where’s the big bait then?

Rethinking the whole thing I cut off my swanky bobber and little dry fly get up. I get the huge hook with no bait, just the little plastic fluorescent green grub thingy which I expect to find out back any day now because half way through the day, Bailey swallowed it when I wasn’t looking. I do a lot of reorganizing when I fish it seems. (Bailey did not, by the way, swallow the hook, but at one point it did get hooked on her nose when she was trying to “help” me reel in a big one which consequently got away.)

We fished from shore, we took the boat out (and Bailey swam out and around the boat several times which tends to scare the fish I think). We caught about ten bass and a blue gil on the first lake. For the afternoon trip we headed up riding in the back of the pick up old school style to the “really nice fish” lake.

“They’re hungry up there,” said my dad, which seemed kind of unfair. You know, unlevel playing field and all.

Sure enough, it was. There we were, reeling in fish after fish until we had about ten nice bass. Jordan landed his first fish all by himself, from cast to putting it in the bucket. This is what they’re talking about, I thought. Geese flying over head. Dove cooing in the distance. Sun sparkling on the water ripples. Feeling the cool lake water on your feet, happy lab on standby to help land the big one.

“Maybe we can make this a tradition every Sunday,” said Jordan with an enthusiastic I-caught-a-fish-all-by-myself smile.

Fast forward to last night. We’ve just finished our delicious fish fry, proving ourselves once and for all, Native American users of the land. I lean over to spend some time with Bailey and scratch behind her ears. What’s this? A big, FAT black tick! I call my dad, panicked.

“How do you get the ticks off?!” I ask.

“Ah, don’t worry. I saw one on myself this morning in the shower. You just put your fingernails down by the skin and pull it off,” he says calmly. Okay, so maybe he doesn’t have cancer. Maybe he has Lyme Disease.

“I have to touch it?” I ask.

“Don’t be a wimp,” he says all rancher style.

All things equal, I’d rather be a wimp without Lyme Disease then a wimp with Lyme Disease.

Well, the one tick turned into an Easter egg hunt. Under Bay’s thick coat, Mike and I found 20 ticks in the course of two hours, a midnight shower and blow dry and new dose of Frontline.

Bottom line: if you don’t hear from us, it’s possible we all caught Lyme Disease and died.

But wait the good news. When I got home from my writing session, Mike said, “You’ll be happy to know, I found the grub.”

Small Town High in the 80s

Do you say, “Dear Diary” when you blog? Dear Bloggery?

I’m working on a newspaper article that involves revisiting my last two years in highschool. The 80s. Think “Flashdance,” Reganomics, the Me Generation, birth of the yuppies, hippies in recovery, the corporate suit, 501 jeans and Van slip ons. So in the last two days I interviewed the then Superintendent and the Supervisor of Custodial services and I realized their reality of what was happening and my reality were wholly different things.

I was focused on such important matters like whether or not I should cheer another year or just drop out of organized activities all together, whether or not I would go to college, and if I didn’t go to college, how the hell I would get out of the small town that was smothering me. If I did go to college, where would it be? We certainly couldn’t afford the application fees to more than a few schools and I wouldn’t be making visits to the campuses. Another main concern: my love life. How would that pan out if I moved?

After talking to my two sources, I felt some feelings coming back I had lost. This seemed to be a time when the staff really did put the students first. One controversial comment made by the principal to a staff member went like this.

Staff member: “You treat us like second class citizens.”
Principal: “You are second class citizens. The students are the first class citizens.”

Hoo rah! Who knew? Would have loved to be in that staff meeting. And having sat in plenty of staff meetings of my own as a teacher, I respect this attitude so much. It’s a hard one to have when you’re up against unions and could potentially be slammed up the head for that comment.

Sure, there were high expectations, but there was a strong awareness to go the extra mile for students who came from lower income backgrounds. If a student wanted to play sports, but didn’t have the shoes, the shoes would appear from the staff. I remembered how having a counselor who believed in me, constantly nudged me in the direction of Southern California and gave me the confidence to continue on with my education was such a vital factor in my choosing to apply to UCLA and Stanford.

I move through this life, open to dropping in to that just-right moment, when a child is searching for direction and meaning, and being able to offer that same power that I apparently learned at my high school in the 80s without ever knowing it like I do today.