Saturday, March 29, 2008

Spring Break

I was out of school for Spring Break, and so was Gabe, so on Wednesday we decided to take advantage of the time off and hit the road. My plan was to head down scenic Highway 1 so we could see the elephant seals north of San Simeon and then hit the tide pools at Cambria before heading inland to my brother’s house in Atascadero. We piled into the car and traveled southward. We had smooth sailing on the 101 and hit Salinas in good time. Then we turned off and headed over to Monterey.

We parked at the waterfront, and as soon as we stepped out of our car we heard a high pitched barking echoing across the water.

“You hear that?” Erika asked Gabe. “What do you think it is?”

“Seals!” Gabe replied.

Sea lions, actually. Through a complex process of echolocation we realized that the barking was coming from Fisherman’s Wharf. We headed over, and as we walked past the boats moored in the marina I noticed that the water was crystal clear. You could see all the way to the bottom, a far cry from the murk of San Francisco Bay. We followed the siren song of the sea lions onto the wharf, past trinket shops and a half dozen seafood joints, each offering its unique version of clam chowder in a bread bowl (“A bread bowl,” one happy customer munched behind us. “I’ve never heard of such a thing.”). As we passed a row of charter boats a forlorn family of three tried to cajole us into joining them on a glass bottom boat tour. Seems the boat would leave right away if they could rustle up some more customers.

“You paying?” Erika almost asked, then thought better of it, smiled and said “nope, sorry.” We weren’t up for the glass bottom boat, although I was almost seduced by a whale watching outfit called Randy’s, when I found out there was no minimum age. It was a three-hour tour, though, and my body has to be properly prepped before venturing out into the open sea, so we opted out.

We located the sea lions as they lounged on and around a floating dock behind Randy’s. Looking down, we could see starfish on the seafloor at the base of the wharf’s pilings. Sea lions shot through the water like torpedoes. We heard a clacking sound and looked over toward another part of the wharf and saw a gray head bobbing in the water.

“Look Gabe, it’s an otter,” Erika said, pointing.

We watched as the sea otter whacked furiously at its chest, and I explained to Gabe how otters bang shellfish against a rock to break them open and get at the meat inside. Gabe is at an age where he is always suitably impressed by his father’s vast knowledge.

We ate at a place called the Fisherman’s Grotto, where I ordered a shrimp sandwich and a bowl of their “award winning chowder” (awarded, it turned out, by the prestigious Monterey Weekly). Our window seat looked out over the waterfront, where we could watch the otter drift by on the tide. The propaganda on the menu claimed that the Grotto had invented what has come to be known as Monterey-style chowder. The soup was more thick than flavorful, as if the inventors of Monterey chowder felt that an excess of heavy cream could compensate for a lack of salt.

We left Monterey and headed down Highway 1, through Carmel and down toward Big Sur. The drive through Big Sur, down the Central Coast to Cambria is one of the most spectacular in California. The road winds through woods and skirts the edges of high cliffs. Down below the ocean ran through a startling range of shades of blue, from deep and dark, through turquoise to blue-green and frothy at the shore.

“How many people do you suppose get distracted by the view and drive over the edge?” I mused.

“Let’s not do that today,” Erika said firmly.

“Do what?” piped up a voice from the back.

I assigned Erika the task of enjoying the view, while I worked on staying on the road.

Turns out I had radically underestimated the amount of time the drive would take us. Between pit stops and a leg-stretching break, it was close to 5 p.m. by the time we got to San Simeon.

Just to the north of San Simeon is a beach that recently has become a favorite hauling-out spot for elephant seals. A heavy wind had kicked up, blowing grit and ripping our hats from our heads as we stepped out of the car. I had been hoping to see some big bulls butting chests and growling, but instead we saw a sparse passel of seals sheltering from the wind beneath a bluff, occasionally snorting, or flinging sand over their backs. After the long drive, the lack of elephant seal action was disappointing.

We took shelter from the wind in our car and headed inland to stay with my brother Dave and his family. Dave lives on a country road on the outskirts of Atascadero, which is beautiful this time of year. The rolling hills are a lush green. Winter is over, but the baking heat of summer has not set in yet.

Gabe had enjoyed the trip up to this point, but it really took off for him when we got to Dave and Christy’s house, because he met Hamlet and Belle, two dogs who were probably more excited to meet him than he was to meet them. Gabe’s previous favorite dog was Brutus, a Chihuahua belonging to Erika’s brother, Leif, but Dave’s two big dogs kicked Gabe onto Cloud 9. And then Dave’s oldest son Rob introduced Gabe to the rabbits. The horses would come later.

There is nothing quite as satisfying to a parent as seeing your child overcome with pure glee. Gabe fell instantly in love with those dogs.

“I want to live here,” he said. He was too excited to fall asleep that night. He was in love with being in the country, as he called it. At home we live on a busy thoroughfare, and traffic noise is a constant presence. The only noise at Dave’s came from the joyful barking of the dogs and the squealing laughter of my son.

The next day we drove out to Cambria to look at the tide pools. We spent a happy hour poking around looking at hermit crabs and sea anemones, then drove over to Moonstone Beach, where Gabe kicked off his shoes and played in the surf. Then it was back to Dave and Christy’s for a break (more dogs, and Rob showed Gabe how to play Nintendo) before piling into the Suburban for a drive over to where Dave and Christy board their horses, Mandarin and Getty. Christy grabbed a bag of carrots from an out-building and we ambled over to the horses. Christy showed Gabe how to hold the carrots so that his fingers wouldn’t get bitten, then let him loose. Gabe soon got the hang of it.

Friday morning we headed back up the coast to Monterey to go to the aquarium. The Monterey Bay Aquarium is located at the end of Cannery Row. Monterey is Steinbeck country, but I think Steinbeck would be turning over in his grave if he could see what has become of it. Seedy Cannery Row has become a gentrified and homogenized tourist zone, with spas and chain restaurants occupying the sites of the old canneries.

We soon realized that it had been a huge, tactical error to save the aquarium for Friday afternoon during Spring Break. The building was so crammed with people we could barely move at times, let alone get close enough to see the fish. The best part of the aquarium for me is always the touch tank with the bat rays, but this time the rays were spooked by all the people and stayed in a corner far away.

Gabe did get to touch some starfish, and we saw some sharks, but overall it was a huge disappointment. Call it a $64 learning experience.

Still, it was a successful trip. We saw beautiful scenery, visited with my brother and his family and gave Gabe some good memories.


Reenie's World said...

What a fantastic trip!

Larsen's said...

I enjoyed reading about your trip, guys. What fun!

Liz said...

I think I want to live at Dave and Christy's too.

Robbie and I saw an elephant seal on the beach north of San Simeon. I thought it was a giant log and was walking over to go see it, before stopping in my tracks when I realized it was an enormous animal.

I'm glad you had a great trip. Those are some of the best beaches and towns.

Paula said...

Sounds awesome. I think I need to borrow Gabe so someone can be suitably interested in my knowledge.

I love the memories that your familiy create together and share with me via blog. You guys seem to enjoy a vast array of experiences. From cooking something new, to funky museums, to a trip down the coast. I feel like I often get caught in the whirlwind of life and you and Erika inspire me to try to create more moments and memories for my family.

Mama Luka said...

Wow! What an awesome trip. More awesome is your writing about it. And I enjoyed and echo Paula's comment completely. What great experiences your family has, and memories you are creating.