Friday, 27 April 2007

Week 12 : Hearst Castle To Gorda

Dogs aren’t allowed on the tour of Hearst Castle. This is a little odd seeing that old WR (having paid my $24 dollar entrance fee I feel that a degree of familiarity is warranted) was fond of animals. During the 1930s, herds of giraffes, lions, elephants and zebras would wander around the grounds, and, as we saw the previous night, some of the zebras still remain. In many ways, William Randolph Hearst was the spiritual godfather to Michael Jackson. Nevertheless, in order to take the tour, I had to leave Amy behind which, given her temperament, is always a bit of a risk. I left her down by the Pacific Coast and she promised to just sit and watch the elephant seals and wait for my return.

Hearst Castle is well document in both the traditional and the digital media. If you want to get a flavour of the conducted tour, there is a honest little video taken by skcarterr available on
YouTube. If you want to see some superb images of the Castle have a look at the photo gallery on the Hearst Castle website. If you want to know about WR then a good starting point is his entry in Wikipedia. However, you can get quite a good idea of the chap by looking at the Editorial Guidelines he circulated to all his 28 newspapers in 1933. Number 1 is “Make a paper for the nicest kind of people for the great middle class. Don’t print a lot of dull stuff that people are supposed to like and don’t”. Number 2 is even better : “Omit things that will offend nice people. Avoid coarseness and a low tone”.

For someone who was such a consummate showman and a first-class manipulator of twentieth century media, it is somehow appropriate that his lasting legacy is a fake castle and a razor-sharp movie. Hearst Castle looks stunning perched on the hills above the Pacific coast. But it is made of reinforced concrete to withstand the earthquakes and its treasures where shipped over from a bevy of European Stately Homes. The movie was, of course, Citizen Kane – the story of a megalomaniac newspaper publisher which is still rated by many people as the greatest film ever made. Whether it was the greatest movie ever made and whether it was a true portrayal of Hearst were questions rumbling around my mind as the tour bus brought me back down “the enchanted hill” to the visitors centre.

I found Amy (did she have a guilty look on her fine wheaten-blond face?) and we followed Highway 1 north, leaving Hearst Castle, San Simeon and the south central coast of California behind us. For the next two or three weeks we were leaving much of what, in California, constitutes civilisation behind. As far as I could see from the map, for the next eighty miles there would be no fast-food restaurants and no shopping malls. There would, however, be plenty of elephant seals.

I caught my first sight of these magnificent animals a few miles north of San Simeon at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Viewing Point. Truth be told, as soon as they saw Amy most of them made a dash for the open sea which made me somewhat suspicious of her activities whilst I was doing the Castle Tour. However, you can enjoy the full elephant seal experience – including the sound of them honking and barking at each other – on the
Friends of the Elephant Seal website. For those captivated by these animals a visit to the National Geographic’s live Seal Cam is essential.

Just north of the seal colony is the Piedras Blancas Lighthouse, one of only three lighthouses built on the Californian coast. It was built to guide ships safely into San Simeon Bay which in the middle of the nineteenth century was a centre for the whaling industry. According to the wonderful
Lighthouse Friends website, the whaling station was built “to surprise the huge creatures as they hugged the nearby shoreline during their annual migration”. It all sounds a bit beastly to me, but Amy casts a knowing look out to the open sea. I have a feeling that I know what she will be dreaming about tonight.

Over the next few days the road north takes us over the County Line. We leave behind San Luis Obispo County and enter Monterey County. Before I embarked on my virtual journey, I had little idea of the existence of counties in the United States. Like all half-decent pub quiz players, I could name most of the States and a sprinkling of State capitals. But the concept of a County (and American County that is) was foreign to me. But as I walked on I became more familiar with counties and county lines : they would act as useful yardsticks, handy reference points and emotional bookmarks. So Amy and I said farewell to SLO (as those who have walked its streets call it) and hello to Monterey, home to half a million people and one of the original counties of the State of California.

For the rest of the week we walked north along State Route 1 (Highway 1 to those who have walked its tarmac) which must be one of the most beautiful coastal roads in the world. It has been designated an “All-American Road” (one of only 27 in the USA). The designation means they have features that do not exist elsewhere in the United States and are scenic enough to be tourist destinations unto themselves.

By the end of week 12 we had reached Gorda (the official maps call it Gorda, the web-based spin-doctors call it Gorda Springs-by-the Sea). Whatever you call it, it is a couple of houses a shop and a café. According to the
Beach California website, Gorda’s Whale Watcher Cafe is “a world renowned establishment offering a 60 year tradition of hospitality and gourmet dining in a romantic, nautical-like setting”. World-famous or not, Amy and I settled down at the end of the week, looking out to sea, watching out for whales swimming by.

Saturday, 21 April 2007

Week 11 : Cayucos To Hearst Castle, San Simeon

Leaving the pier at Cayucos behind, Amy and I followed the Cabrillo Highway heading North-West. At times the sea was our companion, at times it melted away behind low hills and rocky outcrops. For a couple of days we enjoyed the comparative solitude of this part of Central California. There was always plenty of traffic on the highway, but if you left that behind and followed one of the many paths which ran parallel to the main road you were alone with your dog and your thoughts and a hundred screeching sea birds. One felt at harmony with nature and therefore it was quite appropriate that after two days we entered the “town” of Harmony.

Harmony, California has a population of just 18 and consists of no more than one short street and a few tin-roofed houses. But with at least four websites, it must have one of the highest ratios of websites to population of anywhere in the world. Founded in the mid-nineteenth century as a creamery, during its early years Harmony was anything but harmonious. Rivalries and feuding amongst dairy farmers led to at least one shooting after which a truce was called and a co-operative dairy was established in the town. During its heyday it was a thriving community with a store, livery stable, post office and schoolhouse. After the dairy was moved to San Luis Obispo in the 1950s the town went into decline and was largely abandoned for many years. Restoration began in the 1970s and today Harmony is a small artist and artisan community. According to one of its
websites, the activities available in Harmony are “viewing art, drinking wine and shopping”. Recently, the glass artist, Carl Radke, closed his Pheonix Studio in the town so that just leaves drinking wine and shopping. As Amy and I are both reticent shoppers at the best of times, we headed for Harmony Cellars Winery. We settled down under the Gazebo, soaking up the warm Californian sun with a glass of their 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon (OK in Amy’s case it was a small saucer). She is developing a good nose for wine and confidently told me that there were intense cherry aromas with hints of mild spices, and a soft toastiness of a finish which came from French oak aging. You have to give her credit, she is quite some dog.

Leaving Harmony behind we continued on towards the town of Cambria which, although still being a relatively small place, is still some 35 times bigger than Harmony. The town is divided into three quarters (if you will excuse the contradiction) : the East Village which is composed of “beautiful old Victorian houses” (they fight a war of independence only to name their styles after our bloody monarchs); the West Village which is composed of “charming old Victorian houses”; and Moonstone Beach and Drive which one assumes is neither beautiful nor charming. Actually, that is unfair as it seems a lovely place. Rather than the more common white sandy beaches of southern California, Moonstone Beach is made up of small pebbles, polished smooth by the sea. It takes its name from the moonstone, a form of orthoclase feldspar, which is usually polished as a cabochon (whatever that is), and is often carved with a moon face. If you are lucky these can be found on the beach, washed up and polished by the Pacific waves.

According to the splendidly-named
Wyrdology website, the Romans believed that moonstones were formed from drops of moonlight. As such they are attributed with those properties traditionally associated with the moon: romance, femininity, intuition, dreams, the emotions, etc. Many cultures believe the moonstone to be a calming, healing stone and it has sometimes been said to allow a glimpse of the future. Amy was keen to get in touch with her feminine side and I was keen to know what the weather would be like next week (we had a long walk planned) so we spent some time searching the beach for moonstones. We didn’t find any so we went and had a burger and fries instead.

One of the best features of this bit of the coast is the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk. Boardwalks are very much an American thing and I was keen to experience one. I can do no better than to quote from Monica Tarzier of the Santa Lucia Chapter of the Sierra Club who
describes her walk along the Boardwalk.

“The morning is quiet, cool, damp. We cross Moonstone Beach Drive to access the boardwalk, which skirts the beach for a civilized walk of approximately three quarters of a mile one way. Dogs are allowed on leash. Our walk is lined with baccharis, mustard in flower, sage, oxalis, and cultivars such as dusty miller and rock rose. Monterey cypress creates a lush canopy over the boardwalk in several places”.

Thank you Monica, I couldn’t have described it better myself!

By the end of the week we arrive in San Simeon. Whilst much of this walk is something of an aimless wander, I have to admit I had been purposely heading for San Simeon for a good few weeks. For one thing, it marks the exact midway point between Los Angeles and San Francisco. For another it marks the location of what must be one of the strangest places in the United States. In the early evening, Amy and I rest by the main coastal road watching the zebras grazing in the field (yes, zebras) and looking up towards the wonders of Hearst Castle. But our exploration of this incredible building must wait until Week 12.

Friday, 13 April 2007

Week 10 : Los Osos To Cayucos

Following Amy’s recovery from her dental operation, this has perhaps been a slow week in terms of distance covered, but a rich one in terms of sights seen, drinks drunk and sunshine soaked up. If I could pass a piece of advice on to those fine people who built the great British Industrial Convalescent Homes along the bracing and wind-swept shores of the North Sea it would be “you would have been better off trying the Central Coast of California”. Lying on a sand-dune in the afternoon sun gazing out over Estero Bay is worth a couple of bottles of anyone’s pills.

After we had left Los Osos - still trying to get our newly cleaned teeth around the pronunciation of the place – we spent almost a day and a half, slowly working our way through
Morro Bay State Park. For the convenience of the virtual visitor, the Park Brochure can be downloaded in pdf format. The park offers every convenience for the twenty-first century traveller. There are 135 campsites dotted throughout the 2,700 acre park each of which has hot pay showers and “sanitation stations”. Many of the campsites have water and electrical hook-ups and the park has just been provided with AT&T Wi-Fi Service. For those with more traditional tastes, there are snowy plovers, monarch butterflies, and Great Egrets to see. The one downside to this wild-life heaven is the regulations with regard to dogs. Whilst dogs are allowed they must, according to the rules posted at the entrance, “be on a leash of a maximum length of 6 feet”. Amy likes to wonder free and I am damned if I am going to carry a tape measure with me to continuously monitor her expanding leash. I discussed it with Amy before entering the park and she suggested that the very fact that we were engaging in such a conversation was proof that she wasn’t a “normal” dog and therefore the rules probably didn’t apply.

Once again, we were heading for the coast and this was a relatively easy task as all we needed to look for was the massive outline of Morro Rock. Part of
Morro Rock State Preserve (which sounds like something you should spread on your breakfast toast, Morro Rock was formed 23 million years ago from the plug of a long-extinct volcanoes. Over the last few centuries, the rock has been an important navigational aid, not just for explorers of Morro Bat=y State Park, but for ships sailing up the Californian coast. Portuguese explorer Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo named the rock “El Morro” in 1542. In Spanish "Morro" means crown shaped hill. Sometimes called the “Gibraltor of the Pacific,” Morro Rock forms part of a line of volcanic plugs known as the “Nine Sisters”.

The rock itself was mined on and off until 1963 and provided material for local breakwaters and harbour walls. Now it is protected – for those who collect such facts (and I know some strange people – it is California Registered Historical Landmark number 821) and climbing it is strictly prohibited. Of course, such a prohibition does not stop climbers – indeed it tends to encourage them. Most are caught however as the rock is difficult to climb up but almost impossible to climb down. The rescue helicopter ferries dare-devils from the top straight into jail.

Leaving the rock behind we walked up the coast through the northern outskirts of Morro Bay. It was at this point we met up with – virtually speaking – one of the most delightful websites we have found so far : “
Historical Morro Bay for Old-timers”. Put together by a guy called Vic Hansen, the site provides a platform for memories : memories of local people, local customs, local streets, even local shops. There are few finer examples of what a rich resource the web will gift to posterity. Read “The Parking Meter” and you can step back inside the Morro Bay Hardware Store and chat to Lum and Abner. “Chat” not in the sense of some high-tech wizardry, but via the wonders of the imagination stimulated by good, no-nonsense writing. So the next time you get fed up with all the daily annoyances the internet is responsible for – the spam, the porn, the intrusions – just go visit “Historical Morro Bay” or one of the growing number of sites like it and give thanks for the microchip and for cyberspace. Amen.

We called in at Morro Bay Aquarium to “view the local marine life such as fish” (well that’s what the rather Spartan web-guide says). We then kept walking up the Cabrillo Highway towards our final destination of week 10 which was Cayucos – “the last of the Californian Beach Towns. “Located on cool, colorful Estero Bay on the Central California Coast, Cayucos is a complete resort providing relaxation away from the heat and smog of the California valley, inland, and metropolitan areas” (well so says In fact it was a nice place to end our week. It is busy, it is fun, and it is richly served with all manner of digital information. From the look of the map, the next few weeks might be challenging in terms of virtual tourist resources, so it seemed like a good idea to pig-out whilst we had chance. Thus we ate at Ruddell’s Smokehouse and drank at the Riverstar Vineyard Tasting Room and watched the sun go down from the end of Cayucos Pier (just look at those waves). Now that’s what I call virtual living.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Week 9 : Pismo Beach To Los Osos

I feel like starting this week's chapter with one of those headings Dickens was so fond of at the start of his chapters:

"In which our hero and his dog, get lost at the end of a trail and are forced to a halt for the first time by the need to go to the dentist"

Let me explain. After we left Pismo Beach we kept to the Pacific coast for a few more miles before turning inland in search of the city of San Luis Obispo. It is perhaps a mistake to say that this journey is planned. The starting point was planned and the end is planned. Initially, I has a vague intention of calling in at San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago for no other reason than I rather fancied seeing these cities. Friends and family who have taken an interest in this project have added a few more staging posts. Thus I need to make a quick (!!) detour up to Canada to see the place where Uncle Andy used to go fishing and I have to call in at Pittsburgh to see the Penguins play Ice Hockey. But, other than that, the route tends to be decided by me looking at the map and thinking "we need to go in that kind of direction and we could go via...". When I did that a couple of weeks ago I added San Luis Obispo to the end of the sentence for no other reason than it sounded slightly exotic. I practiced phrases like "when Amy and I were in San Luis Obispo last week" and they seemed to roll off the tongue of a seasoned international traveller rather than a sad fat man and his dog.

I was therefore delighted to chance upon the Bob Jones City To The Sea Trail which promised to transport me from the Pacific to the city of San Luis Obispo via "a leisurely stroll or bike ride whilst enjoying the views of the Avila Valley and experiencing the wonders of San Luis Obispo Creek". It was the "leisurely" bit which appealed to both dog and owner. The Bob Jones the trail was named after was "a tireless advocate for conservation of San Luis Obispo Creek who also served on the Land Conservancy’s Board of Trustees after a long and distinguished career in environmental protection". The problem with the trail is that it is still work in progress and the northern part of it exists only on a planners' map. I had become used to nice little route signs pointing the way forward and therefore when these were no longer there I began to panic. Finding myself amongst suburban streets, trailer parks and automobile retailers I assumed I had reached San Luis and, somewhat disappointed, I turned left and headed for the coast. Much later I realised I had mistaken the southern suburbs for the city itself and turned a couple of miles before I should have done.

Whispering the word Kismet to myself - Amy must have misunderstood me as she started to lick my nose - I headed west down the Los Osos Valley Road abandoning San Luis Obispo until the next time I was around these parts. Attempting to rescue something from this geographic miscalculation, I decided to stop off and view Lake Laguna and its park. The picture on the City Parks and Recreation website shows a clear blue lake surrounded by lush green vegetation. The lake, according to the guide, is a migratory stop and home to a variety of waterfowl. There is nothing I like better than a nice lakeside camping ground and nothing Amy likes better than chasing a variety of wildfowl and therefore we took the diversion from the main road with some enthusiasm. And whilst Amy got her promised wildfowl (who in the event proved more than a match for her), I got what appeared to be a muddy brown flooded gravel-pit. I have now come up with a name for such mis-alignments of promised pleasure and actual let-down. They are Santa Maria River moments, named after the disappointment of a couple of weeks ago. They are reminders that what appears as blue on the map is not always blue on the ground.

The explanation for my disappointment was found in an article in a recent issue of the San Luis Obispo Tribune (the good thing about virtual newsagents is that they always have a good supply of back issues). It would appear that "fine sediment washing down Prefumo Creek off the Irish Hills over the years has built up and turned the lake — created in the 1960s — from blue to brown". The only solution, it seems, is to dredge the lake and at an estimated cost of $3.5 million, this is not at the top of the City Planners' list of political priorities. "It’s not an emergency," said City Engineer Barbara Lynch, stressing that it competes with other projects. "When we have a situation where we have a lake which is not going to fill tomorrow and we’ve got this street with a giant hole that has to be fixed, we fix the hole," she said. With that graphic representation of the old quote about priorities being the language of politics ringing in our ears, Amy and I walked west along the Los Osos Valley Road, dodging the many pot-holes along the way.

We needed to reach a good small town - what I have now discovered the Americans call a city - because it was necessary for reality and virtual reality to come together. Amy needed her teeth cleaning. If you tried sharing a small tent with a dog you would understand that dental hygiene was an important issue, and with Amy, who has an intense fear of toothbrushes, this means a trip to the vets, a general anaesthetic, a day operation, a course of antibiotics, and a bill the size of Canada. We were therefore bound for Los Osos (try saying that after a couple of glasses of Californian wine) and the Bear Valley Animal Clinic. Amy chose this destination based on a review posted on the Yahoo listing which reads "the entire staff is so wonderful and compassionate" (grammar is not her strong point either) although I would have been happier with one which said "this place may not be good, but boy is it cheap".

With Amy booked in for the day, I had my first day of rest since we set off from Los Angeles. I read the "What To Do In Los Osos" pages on the web with particular interest. Would it be the Farmers' Market or the Audubon Overlook? The Elfin Forest or the Old Los Osos Schoolroom? But it didn't seem right to be seeing the sights and enjoying myself whilst my fellow traveller was having her gingivitis filed down. So I lazed around all day, waiting for the moment when I could be re-united with my faithful travelling companion.