Thursday, 29 March 2007

Week 8 : Santa Maria to Pismo Beach

I woke up at the start of week eight of my journey to a familiar smell wafting in from somewhere to the west. This was not Amy (my dog) with a personal hygiene problem - she had a early morning paddle in what is left of the Santa Maria river - but the smell of the Pacific Ocean. We needed to see the sea again, to feel the warm sand against our six paws. Mindful of the fact that our initial objective was still to the north (San Francisco) and the ocean was to the west, we decided on a unique navigational approach to the coming week : we would walk west and turn north every time we were presented with a choice between left and right, south and north. Thus on the map our route looks like a child's drawing of a set of steps : a stairway to seaside heaven.

Initially, however, I was not sure where we were : we seemed to be walking through the outskirts of nowhere. Checking the Wikipedia entry for Nipomo, California, I soon discovered that my initial analysis had not been far off the mark. Nipomo is a CDP (a census-designated place) and if it exists for any reason other than gathering demographic data, it does so a few miles away from where I was walking. The suburban streets that we traversed on our north-westerly odyssey appeared to fit the census averages : 3.42 people aged 36.7 years earning $41,288 a year. As befitting for a modern digital-age community, Nipomo seems to have a far more substantial internet presence than reality would warrant. Just go to the website of the Nipomo Chamber of Commerce and follow some of the numerous local links to get a flavour. Talking to Amy - as one does when you spend too much time alone - I developed the concept of a "digital footprint" which can be precisely calculated using a formula (which for copyright reasons I will keep to myself for the moment). It provides a precise reading of the digital development of a community and - if my nose for business is correct - will become an indispensable totem of modern living.

There is a tendency, of course, to see this blossoming of web-based information as a wholly positive development, but at times one is forced into a more contemplative mode. A prominent link from the Nipomo City Data site proclaims "according to our research there were 18 registered sex offenders living in Nipomo, California in early 2007. The ratio of number of residents in Nipomo to the number of sex offenders is 701 to 1". Follow the link and you get names, addresses, age, race, height, weight, eye colour and even a photograph of each of the 18 (find the link yourself if you are interested).

For some reason, I was pleased to leave the suburban streets of Nipomo behind. Soon, the Spanish Style Executive Homes with their twitching curtains and swimming pools gave way to farmland and forest and I felt more relaxed. Amy walked with more of a spring in her step as well. Before too long we reached the Pacific coast at the Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Area. The very existence of Oceano Dunes SVRA says something about your average American's relationship with the motor car. According to the California State Parks website "the Oceano sand dune area is recognized by scientists, conservationists, government agencies, and the public as the finest, most extensive coastal dunes remaining in California". So what do they do with this little jewel of nature? They turn it into a playground for off-road four-wheel maga-jeeps (or some such things), sand buggies and Winnebago's. Strange place, America.

Now we had hit the coast, we headed north, happy to have the ocean as our travelling companion again. As we walked we listened to the radio. First we tried KCPR (Cal Poly Radio) but found that a bit rich for our blood. Then we hit on K-Jewel ("featuring America's greatest music") and that was much more in keeping with our mood. Nevertheless, the first song we heard was "What Kind Of Fool Am I?" sung by Anthony Newley (a Brit) and written by Anthony Newley and Leslie Bricusse (another Brit). Still America has been a kind host to Amy and I over the last few weeks so we hand over Newley and Bricusse with thanks. We headed north and then we hit the twin "cities" of Oceano and Grover Beach. According to the reference sources, Oceano is a city, but I have never been too happy with the cavalier way in which this designation is used. With a population of just 7,260, one man's city is clearly another man's hamlet. Grover Beach is a more substantial affair and we spent some time walking its streets.

Grover Beach has a "relaxed, easy going beach community lifestyle : just the place to raise a family away from the hustle and bustle of the big city" (Grover Beach Chamber of Commerce). The official city site proclaims that "Grover Beach is the site of a Multimodal Transportation Facility, commonly referred to as "The Train Station". With explanations like this it wasn't a place I wanted to linger long in. I walked the canine multifunctional olfactory facility - commonly referred to as Amy - down the infrastructural communication portal - commonly referred to as the road - in the direction of the city limits. By the end of the week I was still looking out over Pismo Beach, but the sand dunes were now behind us. Soon we would be heading inland again - but that is another week..

Thursday, 22 March 2007

Week 7 : Los Alamos to Santa Maria

It is now the 7th week of our experiment and I am discovering some important lessons. This week, in particular, I have come to appreciate the importance of aerial photographs rather than traditional maps in successfully undertaking a virtual tour. Without the kind of detailed aerial photographs available on both Live Search and Google Earth, both the start and the end of our weekly wanderings would have been very different.

Amy and I left Los Alamos heading east on Highway 135. Look at the map and this appears a barren landscape : a dusty highway sandwiched between pedestrian mountains. But the real - and the virtual - traveller know better. This is still California wine country and the fields that hug the valley bottom provide a far richer filling for the sandwich. Rich is a word that Amy and I found ourselves using a lot during this stage of our journey. The scenery is rich, the people are rich : indeed life itself is pretty rich. If you broke your leg and had to lay up here for a couple of months - taking in the sun, taking in the wine - you would feel yourself blessed.

After a couple of days of us wandering around with silly smiles on our faces we joined up with Highway 1 and headed north. An astonishing pyrotechnic display late one evening reminded us that as well as the wine groves, this part of the country was also home to 30th Space Wing of the United States Air Force. Amy and I were skirting Vandenberg Air Force Base. I checked their website and discovered that they had a mission statement. I have always had a weakness for mission statements - they always seem to provide an insight into an organisation with its pants down. "The mission of the United States Air Force", the statement reads, "is to deliver sovereign options for the defense of the United States of America and its global interests -- to fly and fight in Air, Space, and Cyberspace. To achieve that mission, the Air Force has a vision of Global Vigilance, Reach and Power. That vision orbits around three core competencies: Developing Airmen, Technology-to-Warfighting and Integrating Operations". Amy and I chewed on these words for some time - no, that is an exaggeration, Amy chewed om an old animal bone she found in a ditch - without every discovering what on earth they meant. Eventually I decided that what was needed was good, old-fashioned blind faith : faith that somehow this meant that they were on the side of the angels as well.

Our route meant that we skirted around the backside of the air base (and at some 150 square miles it is a big backside) so we never got to see the famous runway nor the launch pad for the space shuttle (which was never actually used). But we were not to be denied our airport for a few days later we walked passed the Santa Maria Municipal Airport which is situated at Captain G. Allan Hancock Field. One thing the foreign visitor never quite gets used to in the USA is the number of airfields : almost every town and village has one. For someone who is in love with travel, airports always have an attraction and Amy and I sat and ate our lunch and watched the little planes venture into the clear blue skies.

I wanted to find out more about Captain G Allan Hancock who had given his name to the field and I was directed to Allan Hancock College in downtown Santa Maria. It appears that G. Allan Hancock was an archetypal Californian. Born in 1875 he was a sea captain, oilman, explorer, developer, banker, aviator, scientist, businessman, farmer, railroad engineer, musician, and philanthropist. My visit to the College campus provided me with an opportunity to check out how far it was possible to be a virtual student whilst being a virtual tourist so I checked through the on-line prospectus. My best bet, I decided, was to take a distance learning class. But was distance learning the right choice for me? Luckily, the college has set up a "Distance Learning Calculator" which helps you to estimate the financial savings you can make by undertaking your course by on-line distance learning rather than physically turning up a couple of times per week. I fed in my estimated commuting costs from home to the College and the personal time the travelling would take. I was amazed to discover that - assuming the class I was interested in met twice per week - I could save a very substantial £37,500 per semester by taking the course via the distance learning option. Amy suggested that if I signed up for a couple of courses, with the money I saved I could go back and put a deposit down on the ranch-house in Los Olivos. However, I suspected that there was something wrong with the logic, so we headed up the road instead.

When I had planned this week's walk I had used a map and I identified the banks of the Santa Maria River as being a suitable place for us to camp at the end of the week. On the map, the river looked lush and blue and inviting. (Virtual) reality was so very different however. The river bed was dried up and the pleasant river bank was little more than a gravel pit. Later I discover the reason for the dried-up riverbed - it is all to do with water conservation. The Santa Maria Project in the 1950s led to the damming of the river upstream. The waters are now diverted to many of those lush vineyards I had seen earlier in the week. A fair exchange, I guess.

Thursday, 15 March 2007

Week 6 : Lake Cachuma to Los Alamos

It is the sixth week of my epic journey. I have travelled about 125 miles from my starting point and I have about 300 more miles to go before reaching my first staging point – San Francisco. I have seen mountains, canyons, lakes and the beautiful blue Pacific ocean. Amy and I have virtually slept in woods, in campsites, and on the beach. So we reckoned we were due a little luxury.

Therefore our route took us along Highway 246 to the spectacular Chumash Casino Resort. According to the blurb, “the Chumash Casino Resort Hotel consists of 106 spacious rooms, including 17 luxury suites featuring whirlpool tubs. From the custom designed furnishings made of elegant mahogany and high-end fabrics to the carpeting throughout, the Hotel displays a unique and refined style with tribal elements throughout”. The cost of this unique and refined style – not forgetting the tribal elements – is just a couple of hundred dollars a night. The problem was not the cost – it’s virtual money after all. The problem was that, as far as I could see, dogs are not welcome. And even worse, neither were cigars (I like a nice cigar when I am on holiday). The website sternly warns “If evidence of smoking is found in your room, a $200 charge will be added to your bill”. Thus Amy and I spent a nervous night, hiding our tails and our cigar buts.

And after the Indians, came the wine. As man and dog sauntered through Ballard and Los Alamos, they were exposed to some of the finest wine-growing areas of Southern California. So we made a short diversion to take in the Bridlewood Estate Winery – “a place apart, completely dedicated to the pleasures of wine - and serious about Syrah”. In a moment of rare honesty, Amy and I confessed to each other that we had no idea what Syrah was, but if it could be drunk we would drink it. So into the tasting room we went to try the 2003 Central Coast Syrah. According to Amy, it opens with aromas of smoke and cedar which give way to the rising red and dark fruit flavours framed with a hint of vanilla oak. These aromas grow in the glass and yield to a bright berry nose. On the palate, the berry flavours and rich fig undertones are held up by soft tannins for a long, satisfying mid-palate ending with a clean finish. This is a robust yet sophisticated wine with a moderate alcohol level 13.6%, perfect as a companion to meals that match its spice and substance. (The sound of all this was so attractive in a non-virtual sense) that I went as far as ordering a bottle from the on-line store, only to discover – to my disappointment – that they don’t ship outside the USA. How sad.)

So on we walked, towards Los Olivos which offers “ a slice of upscale Americana with art galleries, an art museum, boutiques, more than a dozen wine tasting rooms, a world-class inn and a flagpole in the centre of the town”. It really is quite swish around here and I must confess I was seriously tempted to relocate myself and my family. We stopped off at the Ranchland Real Estate Agency and thought about the ranch-style house they had for sale. “The sunny south slopes of this 5 acre parcel may be perfect for your vineyard or horses. 3 bedroom, 2.5 bath turnkey remodelled ranch style home. Solar panels and windmill cut your electric bills. Outdoor spa, steam shower unit in master bath, open beam living/family room”. A snip at just $1,595,000. Perhaps we can turn the blog into a best-selling book. Perhaps we could buy the property. Perhaps then we can discover how you can have 2.5 baths!

The close of our walk this week found us in Los Alamos which has “an old-time Western feel to the seven-block long main street offering an antique mall in a historic train depot, quaint shops, restaurants and parks”. I need to point out at this stage that the Los Alamos we found ourselves in was not the famous town of that name in New Mexico (the birthplace of the Atom Bomb) but a rather sweet Californian hamlet. So far this week we had sampled superb accommodation, fine wines, beautiful houses …. Now it was time for food. I tried Googling “Los Alamos” and “Food” and the first place I was directed to was an on-line news and opinion forum which provided a sample of what your average resident of this magical, sun-drenched, green and fertile area was thinking. I scrolled through the subject listing with increasing despair. Topics included the “Mexican invasion”, the “Gay invasion” and – I suspect if I had looked carefully enough – the “Fat man and his dog” invasion. Somehow it put Amy and I off our food and off our dreams of living in this place which seems to have been blessed with an abundance of everything …. Other than tolerance.

Friday, 9 March 2007

Week 5 : Santa Barbara to Lake Cachuma

This week, for the first time, Amy and I left the main roads and the big cities behind and headed for the hills. We left Santa Barbara on Highway 154, dipping our toes into the southern extremities of the massive Los Padres National Forest. Soon the farmland and vineyards were behind us and we were sampling the delights of the San Marcos Pass. One of the objectives of this undertaking is to test the depth and range of on-line information. Finding detailed information on the towns and cities is simple enough - the real challenge comes with the wilderness areas. So the San Marcos Pass would be my first mini-challenge and - thanks to a young man called Ewen J Kummel - one I would easily pass. An explanation is necessary.

Back in 1992, Ewen Kummel, a 6th Grade student at Dunn Middle School, wrote a class paper entitled "The Stories of San Marco Pass". Ewen lived with his family on the San Marco Pass so it was a suitable subject for his school project. Some years later his father found the old school project and decided to publish it on the internet, where it remains to this day and represents one of the most-quoted sources of information about this Californian pass. Somehow this simple little story about a school project says something about the net.

So Amy and I discovered that we were walking through the ancestral lands of the Chumash Indians. Whilst the Chumash are long-gone, their painted rocks and caves remain. The Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History has a useful website devoted to the Chumash People of California. As can be seen from the illustration, the cave paintings are bright and energetic. Amy wasn't very impressed, however, indicating that she had walked past better graffiti back in West Yorkshire.

You can get a good feel for the land we were walking through by viewing the aerial maps on Live Search or Google Earth (Google Earth has the better aerial maps of this section as they are in colour). For a time we left the main road and took to the old Stagecoach road. Ewen Kummel tells us that the old road was built by Chinese workers in the 1860s and that the tolls for use of the road were quite expensive for the time ($2.50 for 4 horses and a wagon and 5 cents per sheep) Nothing is listed for dogs, so Amy and I walked on with alacrity.

Eventually, civilisation returned in the form of the Rancho San Marcos Golf Course. According to their website, this is "where the golf Gods play", although initially I misread this as "where God plays golf". My mis-reading seems more accurate, especially as it costs $85 to play a round of golf there. Amy and I took a short cut across the 16th green for nothing. It appears that the ranch along with 35,575 acres (that's right, 35 thousand) of land were sold off by the Mexicans in 1846 to help finance the Mexican-American war. It went for just $750 in gold. Nowadays that would buy you a couple of days of golf and a club sandwich.

By the end of the week we had reached Lake Cachuma, and more specifically, one of the Yurts on the shore of the lake. A yurt is a cross between a tent and a tepee and the ones at Lake Cachuma feature all the comforts of home including platform beds, lighting and heating and screened windows. OK, they cost $65 a night to rent, but we had walked some miles over the previous seven days. Anyway, that is equivalent to only a round of golf at the Rancho San Marcos Golf Course, taking 15 hundred sheep up the old toll road ..... or three and a half thousand acres of prime Californian real estate.