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Heading inland to Zion

Written by Chaz on 2 October 2011

Ambition became reality when we awoke at 3:30 a.m. to take quick showers and ready ourselves for the long drive east to Zion National Park. Everything was in the car and ready shortly afterward, and by 4:02, Dorothy was pulling away.

Los Angeles had one last chance to confuse us with its freeway system, but we were ready for it. By 5:30, we had maneuvered from the 405 to the 105 to the 605 to the 10 to the 15, making an essential stop for coffee along the highway. We watched the sun rise over the California desert.

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Interstate 15 winds east from Barstow through the Mojave Desert to the Nevada border. And as we approached the Silver State, it became clear that the casinos and outlets started immediately across the border. In fact, the town of Primm, Nev. is right up against the border, positioned as a first temptation for gamblers coming from California or a last hope for those leaving Vegas.

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Shortly afterward, around 8:30, we arrived in Vegas, where we stopped for gas, a bathroom stop and a good look at the casinos. It was my first time in the city, and my initial reaction was that it reminded me so much of Macau — which was ironic, since Emmy’s reaction to Macau was that it reminded her of Vegas.

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Northeast of Vegas, I-15 cuts through the rural northwestern corner of Arizona and winds through the Virgin River Gorge, a dramatic rock formation created by the same river that made Zion.

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We pulled off the highway in Washington City, Utah for a last supermarket stop and lunch at In-N-Out, which we had missed in California. From there, it was only a short drive into Zion, where we parked Dorothy at our campsite in Watchman Campground and walked back to the visitor center. To reduce congestion, you can’t drive into Zion Canyon, the heart of the park — you have to park and take one of the frequent shuttles. As a result, there aren’t any parking problems in the canyon, and the views are unspoiled by heavy automobile traffic.

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Zion was given its name by Mormon farmers who discovered it and believed it to be close to paradise. I really liked the idea that the park was preserved because people saw it and said to themselves: wow, this place is close to God.

After checking in at the visitor center about our best course of action, we hopped on a shuttle and rode to the Weeping Rock stop to begin exploring. The beauty of the canyon was readily apparent.

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We hiked from the shuttle stop up a steep trail toward something called Hidden Canyon. As we ascended, the views of the canyon became even more picturesque and panoramic.

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The weather was visibly deteriorating, and when we got to Hidden Canyon (surprise — it was a hidden canyon), we quickly turned back around, not wanting to get stuck on the steep trail once it became wet and slippery. We took a short detour to Weeping Rock, and as it had begun to rain, the weeping was even greater than usual.

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We walked back to the shuttle and rode up to the last stop, the Temple of Sinawava, where we took a soaked stroll up the paved Riverside Walk along the Virgin River. The canyon gets too narrow for the road to continue, and at the end of the path, it gets too narrow for the path to continue. But, we learned, many people rent special boots to wade through the Narrows, as the section of the river is known, starting above the canyon and hiking through the water back down. It sounded really cool, and it definitely made my next-visit list.

We had to wait a few minutes for a shuttle back to the campground, as the heavy rain had apparently caused a mudslide on a section of the road. Sure enough, we passed a park ranger directing traffic around the debris in the road. According to our shuttle driver, the rainstorm was “one for the record books,” and the subsequent mudslide was “unprecedented.” When we got back to our campsite, we took advantage of a momentary lull in the rain to set the tent up at a record pace, and fortunately, the rain mostly held off for the rest of the evening.

Our campsite at Zion was one of the nicest we stayed, with a beautiful view of the canyon. We settled in to enjoy some appetizers by the fire before dinner. Naturally, given our early wakeup, we were getting quite tired.

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As the sun began to set, Emmy whipped up some apple chardonnay chicken sausage with mixed fresh vegetables.

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After a round of s’mores, we were more than ready for bed.

From the PCH to the freeways of LA

Written by Emmy on 2 October 2011

We woke up in Pismo Beach on Thursday morning, packed up the tent and headed into “downtown” Pismo for a quick stop at Old West Cinnamon Rolls before hitting the road. The spot had been recommended by one of our books, so naturally we obliged and ordered one with pecans and one with almonds.

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Continuing our drive, we passed through Lompoc, where nearly three-quarters of the world’s flower seeds are grown, and drove by an enormous air force base. We drove through the campus of the University of California at Santa Barbara, where we gave ourselves a self-guided tour. We parked in Santa Barbara and took a brief stroll along the city’s historic State Street. We considered taking a hike into the hills but the morning fog was still obscuring the view. So instead, we went to lunch.

We were far enough south to get authentic Mexican food and so we visited the acclaimed La Super-Rica Taqueria, a brightly colored but tiny restaurant on a street filled with tacos.

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Always eager to prove that we can, in fact, handle spice like the natives of any cuisine, we ordered a selection of authentic items from the menu and enjoyed them with a triad of homemade salsas. Chaz tried two different types of taco, while I sampled two less common items — chorizo super rica, a baked casserole meant to be wrapped in tortillas, and a spicy bean gordito.

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From Santa Barbara we drove to Ventura, where we stopped by the visitor center for the Channel Islands. Channel Islands National Park is, as the name suggests, in the middle of the ocean. Even though we couldn’t visit the actual park, Chaz still got a stamp in his national parks passport.

From Ventura, we continued down the coast on Highway 1. The scenery was still beautiful, though far less isolated than the hills we’d driven by the day before. We passed through Malibu and its oceanfront homes and eyeballed a few more beaches before turning off PCH in Santa Monica.

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From here we hopped from freeway to freeway. I have never seen so many highways in one place before, and they were all SO FILLED with cars.

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Back in an urban metropolis, we conducted a few errands. Chaz’s pillow was a casualty of our stay in the Bay Area, so we headed to IKEA in Burbank to pick up a new one. We visited the first ever Trader Joe’s in Pasadena, where Joe himself apparently shops. And then, because it’s hard to resist a giant supermarket, we strolled through the largest Whole Foods I have ever seen.

After another hour of freeway driving, we arrived at our friend Joanna’s house, where her parents graciously hosted us for the evening. We showered and did laundry, the simple luxuries of life, and had a delicious dinner of steak, quinoa, roasted peppers and fresh corn with the Wohlmuths. We ended dinner with fresh figs, which were incredible.

We unpacked and repacked Dorothy, filled her with gas and headed to bed early in order to prepare for our big drive the next morning.

Out of the hills onto the beach

Written by Chaz on 30 September 2011

When we woke up on Wednesday to start our second day on the Pacific Coast Highway, we found that dramatic fog had rolled in, blanketing Big Sur.

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We made breakfast and coffee, taking our time leaving our beautiful campsite in the hopes that weather conditions would improve with time. We took a walk around the campground and down to the beach below it. But unfortunately the fog didn’t show much sign of lifting, so we struck camp and set out south.

As we drove, we soon left the cliffs of Big Sur behind and found that we were driving in and out of very obvious shelves of cloud cover. We stopped a few times at remarkable beaches or views as we slowly made out way south. Realizing that we would need a little more fuel than we had to make it through Big Sur, we bought three gallons of gas at $5.69 per gallon, the going price on the cliffs of Big Sur. Naturally, there were tears in our eyes.

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We also made a quick stop at Hearst Castle, William Randolph Hearst’s mega-mansion, and though we didn’t do any of the tours, we got a good look at his magic kingdom from the bottom of the hills.

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We stopped in San Luis Obispo, the first sort-of-real city south of Big Sur, for a much-needed fuel tank fill-up, and pressed on to Pismo Beach, where we spent much of the afternoon and the night. After picking up a few supplies, we set up camp at Pismo State Beach’s North Campground, where our campsite, No. 18, was just a short walk through the dunes from the ocean.

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Emmy made a delicious lunch of bean and vegetable salad and turkey, avocado, muenster and corn chip sandwiches, and we packed a beach bag and headed down to the beach for some sun and surf.

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As the afternoon drew to a close, we retreated to our campsite for some appetizers and a couple rounds of Set. We took the last of the appetizers back to the beach to watch the sunset.

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For dinner, Emmy pulled off one of her best camping feats, roasting chicken sausages and bell peppers over our campfire to add a smoky flavor before chopping them and throwing them over the stove to soften and stew a bit. More so than the other hot dishes we had while camping, this one relied on the quality of its ingredients and preparation, rather than its recipe, and it was delicious.

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After a round or two of s’mores, we cleaned up and headed to bed.

Driving the Pacific Coast Highway

Written by Emmy on 30 September 2011

We had barely left San Francisco before the scenery underwent a rather dramatic transformation.

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Just a few miles south of bustling San Fran, Highway 1 turns into a cliff-hugging roller coaster ride, with hills to the left and water to the right. Better known as the Pacific Coast Highway, the route runs all the way down the coast and the appeal of the journey is the drive itself. Our plan was to hit the highway and just get going. We had a couple destinations in mind, but otherwise planned to admire the scenery and stop impulsively when a whim struck.

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Our first planned stop was in the tiny town of Pescadero. Several of my trusty food-recommending sources had given a shout out to Duarte’s Tavern and so we had to check it out for ourselves. It didn’t look like much from the outside, but we know not to judge a restaurant by its exterior.

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We sat down and looked over the menu, which was dominated by artichokes and crab. We weren’t too far north of Castroville, Calif. — the artichoke capital of the world — and as for the crab, well, the ocean was obviously not too far either. We decided to sample the steamed artichoke hearts served with an aioli and the crab melt. The waitress commended us for ordering precisely what she would have recommended. We were quite pleased with ourselves.

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Neither of us was bowled over by the artichokes while we were eating them, but in later reflection, we determined that we had really enjoyed them for their artful simplicity. The crab melt was fantastic — like a lighter version of a tuna melt. With no extra frills, save for a pickle on the side, the freshness of the crab was really what made the sandwich.

In reading about Duarte’s, we had seen mention in several places about the pie. We had ordered light so that we would have room to try a piece and after examining the lengthy list of flavor options, decided to ask our trusty waitress for her recommendation. She said we had to order the ollaliberry. When we both looked at her somewhat quizzically, she launched into an explanation. The ollaliberry is a varietal of blackberry found only in particular locations, the northern California coast being one of them. The berry is smaller and redder than the blackberries I know and love, almost like a cross between the fat black berries and raspberries. Our waitress split our pie slice into two in the kitchen, which was probably a smart move because we would have had a hard time sharing the delicious dessert.

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IMG_4869What was so great about the pie was — you guessed it — its simplicity. Just like the other dishes we ordered at Duarte’s, there was no extra flair. Just berries sitting between a flaky crust, no extra sweetener or goo. The couple at the table next to us noticed our blossoming love affair with the pie and unprompted, offered to take a photo of the two of us with our slices. How could we say no to that?

From Duarte’s we continued south on Highway 1. (There wasn’t much else to see in Pescadero.) Just south of the small town we came upon Pigeon Point Lighthouse and having been thwarted in our attempt to visit a lighthouse the day before, decided that we needed to stop for a quick photo-op.

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South of the lighthouse, the road was largely rural and we passed farm after farm. One had a giant sign proclaiming “fresh ollaliberries” and so we had to stop. We sampled a few of the farm’s products before purchasing a jar of ollaliberry jam for each of our moms.

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The whole time we had been driving the road and the ocean were shrouded in fog. But by the time we hit Santa Cruz and its oceanfront boardwalk, the fog had lifted and the sun was shining. We parked Dorothy for a few minutes and ran to put our feet in the ocean.

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We stopped next in Monterey where we tried to find another recommended roadside eat, but found our destination closed. We continued along the Monterey Peninsula until we reached the exclusive and elusive Pebble Beach. The legendary golf resort boasts 17 miles of coastal driving aptly named “17-Mile Drive.” Pebble Beach charges cars to drive the 17-mile loop and we had heard that it was an absolute must-do, so we paid the toll and motored Dorothy along.

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Maybe it was the fog covering much of the ocean or maybe it was knowing that we had driven over 100 miles along the coast already (for free), but we were underwhelmed by 17-Mile Drive. We exited the loop in the historic village of Carmel-By-The-Sea and headed back to Highway 1.

If we had thought the earlier part of the day was along a desolate highway, then our whole perspective was about to change. As we approached Big Sur, the cliff we were driving along grew steeper. To our left, the hill stretched high into the sky and to our right, one wrong turn and we would have been fully in the ocean. We saw fewer and fewer signs of civilization, only rocks reaching out into the distant fog.

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We crossed over several majestic bridges, a few of which had been turned into one-lane roads because of the erosion. The roads were so narrow to begin with; it was easy to see how a few fallen rocks could displace the vehicles. Below is Bixby Bridge, one of the more well-known along the coastal route through Big Sur. Big Sur is the name of an actual town on the coast, found at the beginning of the long scenic stretch, but the whole region has come to identified by its moniker.

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We continued south down the coast, largely in awe of our surroundings. Despite having lived my whole life in close distance of the ocean, the east coast landscape is absolutely nothing like the splendor along the PCH.

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After a while, we finally arrived at our destination for the night, Kirk Creek Campground. Perched atop the cliffs just off of the main road, the whole campground overlooked the ocean and with one of the highest campsites, we had a perfect view for sunset. Chaz deserves all the credit for finding this unbelievable location. We set up our tent, shaking off the mud left from the apocalyptic rains of Yosemite, and laid out a picnic spread to enjoy while overlooking the ocean.

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We dug into turkey burgers (cooked, once again, in an impromptu stove-top fashion) with avocado and mango-papaya salsa, followed by s’mores, before drifting off to sleep to the calming sound of the ocean waves.

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Our brief bay stopover

Written by Chaz on 29 September 2011

Heading down the Marin peninsula to San Francisco, we made detours to two sites of great natural beauty, the Muir Woods and the Marin Headlands. The Muir Woods, one of the last untouched redwood groves near San Francisco, were named in honor of John Muir’s contributions in the creation of the national park system. We took a quick walk through the forest, admiring the trees’ majestic beauty.

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We then drove down to the very tip of the peninsula to the Marin Headlands, stopping several times to take in the views across the bay. I think this was my third or fourth visit to the headlands, but they’re just as breathtaking as the first time.

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Unfortunately, due to extensive construction at the headlands, we were thwarted both from taking the scenic coastal drive as well as from walking down to Point Bonita Lighthouse. We did take a nice walk toward the lighthouse, though, and had a light second lunch of the leftovers from our vineyard picnic earlier in the day as we watched seals play in the mouth of the Pacific Ocean.

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We drove south over the Golden Gate Bridge through central San Francisco and picked up Gabi at her apartment in Potrero Hill for a quick jaunt over to Emeryville, where we picked up some furniture at IKEA that Gabi wasn’t able to fit into her own car, which is much more reasonably sized than our Dorothy. I was pleased that we were able to put our minivan to a legitimately productive use.

After dropping off the furniture at Gabi’s, we hopped the BART back under the bay to Oakland to meet some friends from Brown for dinner at Red Sea, an Ethiopian restaurant. I first got into Ethiopian food with my friend Ellen at Abyssinia in Stockholm, and Red Sea didn’t disappoint. We started with meat and vegetable sambusas, delicious little hot pockets with unidentified but delicious spices, and a hummus platter. We moved onto to the house combo, a whole smörgåsbord of meats and vegetables served over injera, the traditional spongy Ethiopian flatbread used instead of silverware.

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We then migrated across the street to the Kingfish, a fantastic dive bar that inspired our friend Ellen (not the same Ellen as above) to dedicate her column in the East Bay Express to it. After leaving, Emmy and I parted ways as I headed back under the bay to Gabi’s apartment but she stayed at our friend Margaret’s apartment in Oakland.

We met again at eight the next morning and headed to breakfast with Gabi at Just For You, a great little place that Gabi and I had visited a couple years ago. Emmy and I both had the Greg’s scramble: eggs, spinach, parmesan, onions and chicken-apple sausage, and we split a beignet, the fried New Orleans treat that Just For You somehow also specializes in.

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After dropping Gabi off and bidding farewell, we pointed Dorothy south toward Highway 1 and Los Angeles. We made a quick stop at Trader Joe’s to restock and were shortly on our way.

Food and wine, the checkpoint way

Written by Emmy on 29 September 2011

Following our day of wining, it was time for dining, and so we headed back to the city of Napa for dinner.

Downtown Napa is a funny place. The city made the map when a local wine won a blind test against a famed French wine in Paris in the 1970s. Since then, the valley has cashed in on its claim to fame, building tasting rooms, a wine train to shuttle drinkers from vineyard to vineyard and cornily-named accommodations, like our very own Chardonnay Lodge. It gives the whole city a bit of a grown-up alcohol-themed Disney World feel. Underneath the shiny yuppie markets and wine cellars though is just an old city, once the seat of a quiet, mainstream, agricultural county.

We ate at ZuZu, a Mediterranean tapas restaurant on Napa’s Main Street. Perhaps a bit overdone on wine by the glass, we ordered a pitcher of sangria to start, followed by a parade of small plates. We ordered some hot, some cold, and tried to, as always, experience the full range of the menu: citrusy ceviche with jicama and avocado; quinoa salad with duck, figs and walnuts; pimientos de padrón, the Spanish peppers we also ate at the Ahwahnee; queso frito, a manchego cheese fried and dipped in a tangy aioloi; Japanese eggplant drizzled in honey; and a spicy lamb burger served with hummus and yogurt sauce. A bit of a change from the flavors of the campfire. We did, however, face a familiar problem: as dinner wore on, our photo light began to disappear.

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Overall, the food was great. My personal favorite was probably the ceviche, though I loved the spicy flavors of the lamb complemented by the hummus and yogurt. The quinoa salad definitely won the award for most interesting composition. The peppers were good, but not quite what I was hoping for. The cheese and eggplant were both lovely, but fell prey to the flavor loss problem that most fried items do. The aioli did help to bring out the rich flavors of the manchego though, helping to spice up the dish.

After dinner we retired to Chardonnay Lodge, where we caught up on a few quality television shows before falling asleep.

Our first stop in the morning was to the Oxbow Public Market, one of the aforementioned yuppie developments in Napa. We grabbed coffee at Ritual Coffee Roasters, one of the stands in the marketplace. The barista effectively forbade us from putting milk or sugar into our flavorful coffees, each of which was brewed individually.

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The rest of the market was not fully open yet, so we headed back to Highway 29 and drove north again. We stopped at the Oakville Grocery, a gourmet food market that my mom had recommended we check out. We filled our shopping basket with picnic wares in order to prepare for our final vineyard visit.

We drove out to Rutherford Hill, a vineyard not on highway 29. As the name implies, the vineyard is somewhat up in the hills, giving it a fantastic vantage point. Beautiful scenery while wine tasting? Check. Because we had our picnic to attend to, we opted to buy a bottle rather than do a tasting. We were graciously permitted to try all of the wines before purchasing, so we kind of got the best of both worlds. Armed with a bottle of uncorked sauvignon blanc and a loaner of real wine glasses, we headed to the vineyard’s delightful picnic tables and unpacked our basket.

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Our gourmet mid-morning meal included a baguette, pate, two recommended cheeses (one hard, one soft), roasted tomato bruschetta, blue-cheese-stuffed olives and crackers. It all complemented the wine beautifully, and the view was excellent.

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IMG_4689We also managed to procure awesome wine tote bags, which I put to great use throughout the rest of the trip. They make for very convenient carry cases! (Thanks to Gabi for buddying up to the friendliest of the sommeliers we met and asking for extras.)

We returned our wine glasses, bid farewell to Rutherford Hill and dropped Gabi off at her car. We planned to meet up again in San Francisco later that day, but we had a few detours to make first. And so we waved goodbye to the grape vines and left the slightly surreal world of wine country.

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Sampling the grapes of Napa

Written by Emmy on 29 September 2011

When we arrived back at our campsite Saturday night in a bit of a food coma from dinner at the Ahwanhee, we were shocked to discover that our seemingly quaint campsite was pretty much at the base of a campground mudslide brought on by the rain and hail earlier that day. Our tent had been splattered with mud on all sides, an issue we decided to ignore until the next morning. So on Sunday we rolled each piece of our sleeping apparatus into separate garbage bags and, as soon as we got cell service, began Googling for tent cleaning techniques.

After our muddy adventure, we were in the market for a hot breakfast. What we really wanted was Seaplane Diner, but since a drive to Providence would have added a few more miles to the odometer than we were prepared for, we settled on the first establishment we found: PJ’s in Groveland, Calif., not too far outside the park. I had a mixed veggies omelet while Chaz opted for a more unusual creation, a chili omelet. After indulging in PJ’s unlimited coffee, we were ready to hit the road.

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The three-hour drive careening around mountains on two-lane roads was a good reminder of just how far removed the beauty of Yosemite had been.

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After traversing several of California’s many highways, we arrived in Napa at the appropriately named Chardonnay Lodge, our kick-off spot to a day and a half of wine tasting. Gabi, a friend of Chaz’s from high school, drove up from San Francisco to partake in the adventure. After showering and returning to a hygienic state, we set off.

Our first stop was at Gott’s Roadside, a destination lunch spot in Napa. The burger place is connected to a farm further up the coast, where much of the food comes from. Gott’s was previously named Taylor’s Automatic Refresher and gained acclaim in food magazines, blogs and TV shows. It was apparently a major controversy when the name changed a few years ago.

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As we read the menu, we informed Gabi of several rules. There would be no duplicate orders, everything was to be shared and the bill would be split evenly. We settled on three very different items: fish tacos with Mexican slaw, salsa and jalapeño cilantro sour cream; a spicy chicken sandwich with avocado, Mexican slaw, cilantro sour cream and jalapeño mayo; and a blue cheese burger. (OK, so there were some accent overlaps.) And because the stand is best known for its burgers and fries, we added on an order of sweet potato fries. Everything was delicious and full of flavor.

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Full of food, we were ready to begin our oenophiliac journey.

We began driving up Napa’s Highway 29, which is lined with vineyards on all sides. Everywhere we turned, there were more grapes! The whole scene was a bit overwhelming, so we tried to attack our wine tasting agenda with some organization. Chaz was the most experienced vineyard visitor of the group and so he laid out his criteria. We needed well-priced tastings at beautiful vineyards conducted by pleasant sommeliers. Armed with our usual cadre of guidebooks, we began to make choices.

Our first stop was at V. Sattui, a giant vineyard regarded for its food shop, wine museum and extensive grape selection. The basic testing allowed each person to sample five different wines from a list of twelve different varieties. Thinking we had bested the system, we ordered three tastings and rather than each only try five wines, we ordered all twelve and passed them down the line. We decided that the final tasting could be each person’s individual favorite. (The checkpoint is nothing if not a little OCD.)

Guided by Don, who was a bit sassier than what we were looking for in a sommelier, we made our way down the list, sipping dry whites, sweet whites, table reds, harsh reds, dessert wines and ports. We asked questions about things like sweetness and blend, but mostly we just passed the glasses and made comments about the accents we supposedly detected in an effort to seem like real wine experts.

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Unable to deviate from what I know I like, I chose the driest of the whites, a riesling, for my fifth glass. Gabi got the bang for her buck and chose the port, which gets its intensity because it’s mixed with brandy, something I never knew. Chaz was going to opt for the port too, but in accordance with previously stated checkpoint rules, did not duplicate an order and instead had a blended red. After downing our final tastes, we bid Don farewell and stepped back into the sunlight.

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Our next stop was at Mumm, a vineyard noted for its sparkling wines. This visit offered some of the beautiful scenery element so crucial to a good tasting.

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IMG_4602In recovery from our marathon with Don, we decided to split one tasting of the vineyard’s three most notable sparkling wines. The first two were both dry, though one was white and one was a rose. The third was much sweeter, although not as sickeningly so as I was expecting. Plus as a perk our wine came with crackers, so we made a big show of cleansing our palettes between tastes. Very important.

Despite the beautiful scenery, we didn’t linger too long at Mumm. Napa vineyards end tastings on the early side — most are shut down by 5 p.m. — so we wanted to make sure we could fit one more in. Our third vineyard was thus chosen because a sign out front proclaimed they had tastings until 6.

As a total bonus, our mystery third choice was actually two vineyards in one. The tasting room offered selections from Folie a Deux and Napa Cellars, plus when you bought a tasting, bonus free samples were included. Several glasses later, we had maxed out on our wine sampling abilities for the day.

Trading the campfire for a bite of luxury

Written by Emmy on 28 September 2011

No checkpoint adventure would be complete without a bit of fine dining. In accordance with such tradition, we had to make a stop at the Ahwahnee Hotel Dining Room, the must-eat luxury within Yosemite. The Ahwanhee Hotel, which was built in the 1920s and subsequently declared a national landmark, has long been known for its food and its decor. As an additional fun fact, the hotel in “The Shining” is based upon this Yosemite site.

The Ahwahnee’s upscale dining room has a strict dress code for dinner, one that does not include athletic shorts and hiking boots. We had checked a few days earlier with the hotel’s concierge to ensure that we would be able to meet standards with the clothing we had stashed in the car and so when we rolled up to the Ahwanhee straight from our Hetch Hetchy trip, it was time to class it up. Dorothy saved the day, doubling as a full-size changing room, and once we had maneuvered her into a parking spot in the Ahwahnee’s crowded lot, we were ready.

Looking exponentially better than we had hours earlier, we strolled into the dining room for the 5:30 seating and were given a table right next to the window.

IMG_4419IMG_4421The views to the left and to the right of our table.

Though we were by far the youngest and most casually dressed diners, we started our dinner with fancy grown-up drinks in order to better fit in.

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The menu was overwhelming and filled with delicious-sounding entrees all crafted from relatively local ingredients. We decided to just pick the most outstanding few and share them.

We started with crab cakes, served over an aioli and topped with peppers, and a delightfully-refreshing salad of watermelon, avocado, feta and mint. I have had quite a few crab cakes in my day, and these were easily among the best I have ever had. The crab was so fresh and, save for a few vegetables, was allowed to stand on its own rather than be gooped in some kind of sauce. The whole cake was lightly coated and cooked, permitting the outside to just flake off. The peppers atop the crab cakes resembled pimientos de padrón, an item I have never seen anywhere other than Spain. Despite their jalapeño-like appearance, they are not at all spicy — just flavorful.

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IMG_4432The salad was unbelievable too, but we were pretty preoccupied waxing poetic over the crab cakes.

For our main course, we decided to sample the two specials of the evening. The first was a piece of roast chicken served over, as the waitress described it, a chicken pot pie without the crust. The chicken itself was full of flavor, but what was underneath was even more noteworthy. For lack of a better way to label it, the pot pie insides were comprised of the dark meat from the roast chicken and tons of fresh, local vegetables, beautifully roasted themselves. The whole thing was topped with a giant piece of fresh cornbread, making up for the pie’s lack of crust.

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The second entree was described to us as a piece of pan-seared trout served with a corn flan and topped with lobster in a red pepper sauce. What we were served, we realized after beginning to eagerly dig in, was actually a piece of salmon with the described preparation. (We’re pretty sure the special was supposed to be salmon and the waitress just misspoke. Either way, we stuck with it.) The fish itself was good, though nothing extraordinary. On the other hand, the sides — the lobster and the corn flan — were incredible.

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We looked at a dessert menu, but were far too stuffed to even consider it. The meal was incredible, and if nothing else, allowed us to return to our role as self-appointed food snobs.

The scenic consequences of progress

Written by Chaz on 28 September 2011

After our ordeal on Half Dome, we felt free to allow ourselves the luxury of sleeping in until a whopping 8:30 a.m on Saturday. Though I was skeptical of our (well, my) ability to pull off any physical activity that day, we nevertheless packed our bags for a hike in the park’s less-visted Hetch Hetchy section. After a relaxed breakfast at the campsite of cereal, fruit and coffee, we threw our things into Dorothy and set off for Hetch Hetchy, the route to which requires one to exit and reenter the park, passing through private land.

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Hetch Hetchy Valley is like a smaller twin to Yosemite Valley, nearly as dramatic if not on the same scale. But the steadfast march toward progress led the city of San Francisco to campaign for a dam in Hetch Hetchy to provide the city with water and power in the early 1900s. Over John Muir’s strenuous objections, the project was green-lighted, and so the first thing we saw as we descended on the winding road into the valley was the huge O’Shaughnessy Dam, which still provides water to San Francisco. The dam has since become a rallying cry for the preservation of national parks, and it’s extremely unlikely that another project like it could ever be approved. Though some people call for the restoration of Hetch Hetchy, it’s far more likely that we’ll just have to imagine what Hetch Hetchy Valley would look like were it not flooded.

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We hiked a couple miles along the northern share of the manmade lake to Wapama Falls, where we stopped for lunch, our leftover tortellini. Each time we stopped and started again, my legs cried out in protest.

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After we hiked back to Dorothy and bid farewell to Hetch Hetchy, we took a short driving tour up the Tioga Road, which leads to the eastern part of Yosemite. Though we had dinner reservations that prevented us from going all the way to Tuolomne Meadows, we made it as far as Tenaya Lake, stopping at Olmsted Point for a beautiful view. Though we had enjoyed blue skies all morning, storm clouds were rolling in and we got hit by heavy rain and even some violent hail as we retreated west.

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We drove back to the valley through the very visible scars of a huge forest fire, beautiful in its own eerie way.

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As we headed towards dinner, we took off our outdoor trekking hats and got ready for something more refined.

Our biggest challenge yet

Written by Chaz on 28 September 2011

We awoke on Friday at 4:15 a.m. sharp, immediately jumping out of our sleeping bags excitedly (yeah, right) to strike camp, pack the car and brew a much-needed pot of coffee. Our plan was to spend two nights in Wawona, in the south of the park, and two more in Crane Flat, in the northwest, closer to our eventual destination of San Francisco. Unfortunate scheduling meant that this change of camp coincided with our day on Half Dome. But even so, we were out of Wawona by shortly after five, and as I drove us back into Yosemite Valley, Emmy served a light continental breakfast and began packing our backpacks.

All told, by the time we arrived at the parking lot at Curry Village where we left our car, our two packs contained no less than:

  • Six Clif bars
  • Two bags cashews (assorted)
  • One bag Annie’s Cheddar Bunnies, a snacking essential
  • Two apples
  • Two peanut butter sandwiches
  • Two tuna sandwiches
  • Eight Oreos
  • Two packs chewing gum
  • Two containers chicken sausage and vegetables, leftover from dinner
  • Eight water bottles
  • Two raincoats
  • Two sunblocks
  • One hat
  • One extra shirt
  • Two lip balms
  • Baby wipes, without which the checkpoint does not leave home
  • Wallets
  • Phones
  • Flashlight
  • Toilet paper

Shortly after leaving the parking lot, we realized that we had made a huge mistake. There was a parking lot closer to the trailhead than the one in which we had left Dorothy, adding a total of about three-quarters of a mile to our day’s already-long journey. But we soldiered on, walking through the forest to the actual trailhead at Happy Isles and setting foot onto the trail at 6:35 a.m. Not too bad.

The first part of the hike took us up the John Muir Trail, an alternative to the thousands of stone steps we had descended the day before on the Mist Trail. Though slightly longer, we figured switchbacks were a much better way to ascend than stairs. By 8:30, when the sun really started hitting Yosemite Valley, we had already gained thousands of feet and had a beautiful view across to Nevada Fall.

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We veered off our route from the previous day onto the trail up to Half Dome, taking a short detour through a backpacker camp that enabled us to make the hike, usually almost entirely out and back, into a tiny bit more of a loop. As it turned out, hiking is a pretty tiring business, and long before we made it to the summit, we were more than ready for lunch. Or, at least, round one of lunch. We stopped for our tuna sandwiches (never have I had such a delicious tuna sandwich experience) as we gained even more elevation.

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The trail grew ever steeper as we approached Sub Dome, Half Dome’s much smaller sibling which sits immediately north of it and looks like a little bubble growing out of its side. At this point, the hike, which had seemed to be flying by in the first couple hours after we left Curry Village, began to drag. But at long last — about 11:30 a.m. — we arrived at the permit checkpoint, and chose to mark this joyous occasion with a frank discussion with the two rangers of the various ways in which we could die on Half Dome. “Honestly, most of the rescues we do are actually body recoveries,” one told us. (Just before we left on our trip out west, the New York Times ran an article about the growing death count within Yosemite’s bounds. This article, along with our previous day’s warning about lightning-caused death, really set the tone for our ascent.)

We began climbing the steep, winding granite stairs up the side of Sub Dome, and after a few exertion-filled minutes, arrived at its narrow but flat summit. Already, the views off to the north were spectacular.

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Soon after, we found ourselves face-to-face with what we had been dreading all morning: the infamous Half Dome cables.

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The cables stretch up an extremely steep granite face to cover the final 400 feet of Half Dome’s immense height. I had trouble picturing what the cables were going to look like, but that was because we were missing a key fact: The cables are connected to steel poles which are bored into the granite, and above each set of poles is attached a wooden two-by-four. As you pull yourself up to each set of poles, you can balance yourself, and nearly stand, on each two-by-four as you wait for the person in front of you to clear the next two-by-four. These pieces of wood totally answered my question. You’re never actually hanging off the side of the mountain by a little cable; you’re pulling yourself up to the next place where you can pause a second. And when traffic is heavy, you can expect to wait quite a while at each two-by-four.

As we starting ascending Sub Dome, Emmy started freaking out a bit about what was to come, and while I remained more stoic at that point, I too start to lose my calm as we picked out gloves from the enormous pile at the bottom of the cable and began to make our ascent. It was, in short, terrifying, not least because of the continued lengthy waits as people above us climbed, which we spent perched on the side of the rock clutching on for dear life. Not to even mention that it was becoming quite clear that the advertised storms were somewhere in the area, though it was still blue skies over Half Dome.

But once we got to the top, and heaved ourselves off the ascent onto Half Dome’s flat 13-acre surface, I forgot all my fears and all the effort we had expended as I took in the amazing view.

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IMG_1074We stopped for a quick picnic of our leftover chicken sausage, which we’d like to think is among the more gourmet of meals served on top of Half Dome, and for pictures. But we could see storm clouds rolling in off in the distance, and we were reminded that the cables act as lightning rods during a storm. (Is that not the scariest thing you’ve ever heard?) So, after a brief celebration of what we had accomplished, we headed back to the cables. I think both of us were almost more worried about descending, even though it would clearly be physically easier, but I realized as soon as we started that it was really no problem. Again, the two-by-fours were the key to the whole system.

We ended up making it off the twin domes safely, and sure enough, it started raining about half an hour after we reached tree cover, though very little rain fell on us. (Fortunately, we had packed our raincoats — see above.) The nine-mile slog back to our car was arguably more difficult than the ascent since we were so exhausted. Simply the pain in my feet was more than enough of a reason to stop. We opted for the Mist Trail again, so thousands of stairs and a few miles after that later, we made it back to Dorothy, who was truly a site for sore eyes.

We drove north out of the valley to Crane Flat Campground, where we hastily set up camp and fixed an appetizers course of chips, hummus, guacamole and a few well-earned cocktails. Emmy once again mastered the camp stove to produce a delicious dish of pesto-filled tortellini and roasted eggplant in marinara sauce.

IMG_4355Though we had long lost the light required for photography, here’s the dish in its lunch reincarnation.

Despite being essentially on the ground, I don’t think I’d ever fallen asleep so quickly.