California, there we came

In May 2005, I jumped on a plane in Syracuse, got off in San Diego, and jumped into a powder blue Ford Mustang convertible.

My dear wife Karen knows how to plan a vacation.

Mustang and me.

Mustang and me.

Karen looking good.

Karen looking good.

We’d been together in our Little Bitty in the Syracuse city neighborhood of Eastwood for less than a year, she was not yet my dear wife, but it inarguably time for her to show me the state in which she was born and raised.

Yes, this woman I met while we both were working at the big daily in the center of New York state was a California girl until she’d brought son Daryl and daughter Danielle into the world decades prior. Karen was born in Los Angeles a couple years after I was born on the opposite coast in Brooklyn. She moved to San Diego just before high school because her father changed jobs, somewhat like I ended up graduating out in Suffolk County on Long Island because my father’s company moved out there from Manhattan.

Although her four siblings had scattered, to Alaska and Arkansas and Washington state and, the lone Golden Stater to Sacramento, she kept California in her heart. She did have her Aunt Pauline and her stepmom Katte out there for me to meet. And so she drew up the itinerary and made the reservations.

We’d retrace the route of a family trip they took in a Winnebago, one she held dearly. But she decided we deserved that hot Mustang convertible and a Motel 6 at each stop instead. Budgets, you know. Then, and now.

Compass direction, north.

Stop one: Carlsbad and San Diego

We landed in San Diego, and the weather was glorious. My head was on a swivel as Karen piloted us out of the airport car rental joint and onto the freeway. She volunteered for the first driving shift, this being her home turf and all. I soaked up the sight of the big buildings around the water, and breathed in the smell of the flora and the fauna.

Karen chose Carlsbad as our first place to stay because that’s the beautiful little city 35 miles north of San Diego where her dad and Katte lived when he passed away. She knew of a nice resort a block from the ocean where she rented us a room for multiple nights at a great rate.

I was in heaven until we hit the afternoon rush hour traffic on the 5.

I had to go. The car was not going even though the freeway was four or five lanes of traffic wide. We crawled to the first exit, and Karen took pity on her whining boyfriend. The convenience store had a filthy rest room, but the smell of eucalyptus trees all around us made up for it. I was good to go back into the fray to Carlsbad.

Great cottage in Carlsbad.

A tan to be had in Carlsbad.

Comforts of a cottage.

Comforts and convenience.

Karen had not talked up the beauty of this little place too much. If anything, she’s underplayed the value we’d gotten, what with the kitchenette and location, just a few blocks from both the beach and the house where Katte still lived.

This is the Carlsbad beach our first night of arrival. Yup.

This is the Carlsbad beach our first night of arrival. Yup.

Katte took us to dinner one night at a Tai place, the first time I’d ever eaten Tai food. A lovely woman who didn’t tire of asking me about the newspaper life and filling us in about Bob Miner’s career with the San Diego Water Authority, she also met us for brunch another midday. At Katte’s house, Karen and I admired her father’s still gorgeous rose garden, and I knew exactly where her love for gardening, and that sweetest of blooms, was seeded.

Karen and I also took the trolley train into the San Diego Old Town and ate Mexican. She sorely missed California authentic Mexican, she said. It was really, really good. We visited the world-famous San Diego Zoo. We jumped north one town to the pier at Oceanside. And to make me happy, we drove to La Jolla, so I could visit the popular Torrey Pines golf course, which was getting ready to host the U.S. Open a few years hence.

In the mornings, I was introduced to what’s called the Marine Layer. This month, if it hung around longer than 10 a.m., didn’t get burned off by the increasing sun power, they’d call it the May Gray.

A whole new world. An exciting place for this East Coast guy.

Here’s a gallery from Carlsbad and San Diego. On all galleries, click on the photo for a description, and click on the bottom right photo to start an enlarged slide show.

Stop two: Los Angeles

The road was quite gentle north to Los Angeles, California conditions considered. Wide freeway, lots of cars. The worst was yet to come, Karen was telling me, when we’d be driving the famous Pacific Coast Highway, when there’d by two twisty lanes along the roaring ocean, cut through cliffs, and cars and trucks … More on that later.

In Los Angeles, though, we found our first of three consecutive Motel Six establishments a couple of boulevards from Aunt Pauline’s place in Van Nuys, and navigated our way through the Valley and Sepulveda Boulevard.

Karen was beaming. As we neared Aunt Pauline’s house, she opened up like a flower.

She really is a great Aunt.

She really is a great Aunt.

We knocked and knocked on Aunt Pauline’s door, but she’d didn’t hear us. We made our way out to her backyard. It was full of beautiful, blooming roses and other flowers. Yes, on her mother’s side, gardens, too.

We called Aunt Pauline’s name and knocked on the back door, too, then returned out front. Finally, movement in the kitchen. Out she came, from watching a TV with the volume turned up loud somewhere in the innards of her cute little house, smile big and arms wide to her niece and the strange New York man.

We sat in the cozy living room, passing around photo albums and talking. I loved seeing photos of Caroline, Pauline’s younger sister, Karen’s mother, who had died of a heart attack in her 50s, when Karen was in her 20s and Daryl and Danielle were young. Karen had moved to Alaska with the young kids, in with sister Jana and her family, to help take care of Caroline, who had relocated there because she was battling MS.

I told Pauline that Caroline was a fox in the photo on her TV set. Pauline smiled widely and said, yes, they always looked a lot alike. I got it. I agreed on the resemblance, smiling and nodding.

Outside Aunt Pauline's house, Van Nuys, Calif.

Outside Aunt Pauline’s house, Van Nuys, Calif.

We’d take Aunt Pauline out to dinner later, but first we were going to scout around some. Aunt Pauline took our picture in her pretty front yard. On the way out, I pulled that strange Mustang out of her driveway too crooked, and ran over some of Aunt Pauline’s tulips. Karen was aghast.

When we returned, I apologized. A lot. Aunt Pauline waved it off as nothing.

More talk, and Aunt Pauline got on the subject of how she told Caroline and Bob they should have stopped after Scott, child No. 3. “Hey,” Karen said to her Great Aunt, “don’t forget that I’m the fourth kid!” Aunt Pauline laughed and laughed. Then she said, “And I love you.”

After, conversation turned to Pauline and Caroline’s father, Sam Kleinman, and what it was like in Boyle Heights when they were growing up. Aunt Pauline related about how tough it was to be Jewish in that part of Los Angeles at that time. Karen just about dropped her fork. “We’re part Jewish?!” she said. “How come nobody talked about that when I was growing up?!”

Interesting dinner talk, indeed. Aunt Pauline had no answer for it.

Besides seeing Aunt Pauline, Karen and I went to Burbank, twice. The first morning we discovered we were too late even though we had the tickets in hand for that day Karen had ordered and received, we thought earmarking us to be part of the audience for a taping of “The Price is Right.” The guard explained how it worked and handed us two tickets for the next day’s taping.

The following morning we parked in the neighboring Farmer’s Market lot and got in line outside the gate, self-policed by TPIR fans already there at 2 a.m., and handed slips of paper proclaiming us as Nos. 68 and 69. Veterans of the line assured us that unless there were three or four large groups getting in that day, we’d make it into Bob Barker’s studio for the taping 12 hours later.

And we did. It was an adventure worth its own story, and I wrote one for syracuse.com upon our return. Karen saved it, and I’ll post it here someday. For now, I’ll leave it at the fact that we didn’t get called up to be contestants, but we were seated three rows up and immediately behind that row, so we got plenty of background on-air time when the episode came on CBS. Somewhere in my shed is the VHS tape CBS publicity sent me, and our old VCR. I’ll have to hunt those down and take some photos from the flat screen to publish with that story. Oh, one last tease. During a commercial break, Bob Barker pointed at me and asked me to howl like a dog.

Stop three: Santa Barbara

My dear friend Melinda worked at the daily in Santa Barbara for a stretch. She calls it where the ocean meets the mountains.

Perfect description.

While I was preparing for this journey, me next-desk-mate at the big daily told me what to watch for around her old stomping grounds. So I was ready to drive through Solvang and wine country, to see the big windmill. Think the awesome movie “Sideways” with Paul Giamatti and Virginia Madsen. And I was prepared to see Fess Parker’s spread along the main drag.

And, wow, does the ocean ever meet the mountains.

Bob and Caroline Miner were married in Santa Barbara, so the courthouse was one of our stops.

Downtown mission style.

Downtown mission style.

I could tell how much it meant to Karen to not only breathe in the beauty of the building, but to walk those same rooms where her parents were wedded 50 years before this. And, was there any foreshadowing for me? Three years, five months later, Karen and I would slip away to the courthouse in Niagara Falls, N.Y., to be wed ourselves.

That's a view.

That’s a view.

Here I climbed high and took a shot downward. Breath-taking for me, too.

Our stay in Santa Barbara also included a visit to the first Franciscan Mission, and its famous Rose Garden.

Stop four: Monterey Peninsula

To get from Santa Barbara to the Monterey Peninsula, Karen told me to take the famous Pacific Coast Highway. That’s the route Bob had piloted their rented Winnebago chuck full of Caroline and the kids all those years ago.

So I wove our rented Ford Mustang convertible along America’s most scenic route. Oh, this car had gotten me nods and waves and smiles along the way. She’s a beauty, for sure, powerful and purring and pure of body and soul.

Scared the hell out of me coming down out of the mountains and winding through the twisting cliffs of Route 1, though. I did not want to go as fast as this car wanted to go. Karen kept saying, “Look at how beautiful the view is!” Hands tight on the wheel, both hands, so tight you couldn’t pry them from that wheel, I’d answer, “Yes, dear, but if I looked we’d plunge into the sea.”

This highway is one car wide each lane at most points, and you can’t see what’s coming around the bend. It doubles back on itself. It climbs way up, and it plummets straight down.
All the while with that big ocean to the west side of the driver.

We exited at a little brown cafe/pub/bar near Big Sur. I needed five minutes to calm my nerves.

Karen looked around the joint and told me to join her around the wraparound porch, to look out back. Great view, woods to cliff and beyond.

She said this is where family stopped and stayed one night during that trip.

Serendipity cool.

We got in the car and made it to the Motel Six in Marina, Calif., on the Monterey Peninsula. I ordered in some Chinese takeout. The wonton soup was outstanding, with shrimp the size of my thumbs. We watched the finale of “American Idol.” Carrie Underwood beat Bo Bice. Smart America. I slept like a baby.

May Gray over Marina.

May Gray over Marina.

This was the stop where we’d chopped a day because of the extra time added in Los Angeles for the unexpected shenanigans to get into “The Price Is Right.”

The sole morning was the definition May Gray. I passed on the trip up the Peninsula to Pebble Beach. Perhaps I regret that to this day, still.

We made our way to the local Marina beach and watched hang gliders. It was interesting.

I got a signal on my TracPhone and talked to my daughter Elisabeth for a while. She liked hearing about the trip.

Dunes of Monterey Peninsula.

Dunes of Monterey Peninsula.

The rolling hills of the beach were so different than anything I’d ever seen on the East coast.

We went to a Walgreens, and I thought it was the best drug store I’d ever seen. Karen bought me a refrigerator magnet that said: “I drove the Pacific Coast Highway.” Love her.

We were both excited for the next big city, the final destination, where we’d carved out the next biggest chunk of time.

Last stop: San Francisco

This time we drove the more inland freeway. NoCal seemed less dusty but more gray than SoCal.

And, wow, was San Francisco the city hilly.

This time I followed Trolly Cars attached to overhead wires.

We found our motel, smack dab in the middle of Fisherman’s Wharf. It included a parking spot in a garage under one of the wings of the motel. Nice. It was within walking distance of the pier.

Chilly San Fran, man.

Chilly San Fran, man.

We're hooked at Fisherman's Wharf.

We’re hooked at Fisherman’s Wharf.

It was chilly some, warm some, cloudy some, sunny some. We walked up and down hills.

We went to Ghiradelli Square and inside the factor Chocolate Factory, and Karen bought some, thinking of home. This was before the company starting selling so much nationwide.

We took the Mustang over the Golden Gate Bridge to Marin County, and ate breakfast at a cafe where I had the best kielbasa and eggs I ever tasted. With a bagel. The site of San Francisco coming back over the bridge was even better.

We ventured to the famed Haight Asbury section and wandered through hippie joints with Deadheads and some truly sad-looking burnouts, and gentrified rehabed boutiques with yuppies. We ate at a Mexican slide-your-own-tray spot that was even better than the fancy sit-down restaurant in San Diego.

And we went to a Giants-Padres game at SBC Park, off the Bay, after driving the Mustang around the famed Embarcadero. I was astounded that parking cost $28 while the tickets were $24 each. Worth it.

Ten days gone too quickly, we left that Mustang convertible at the San Francisco Airport and flew back to Syracuse.

It was the first and most memorable of several trips I’d take to California with my dear wife Karen.

But was this my first trip ever to the Golden State?

No, it was not.

Coming tomorrow: Pauley Pavilion with the Terrapins

Have you ever been to California, and if so, which city is your favorite, and why? If you’ve never been to California, which city would be your first choice, and why? Which photos are your favorite, and why?

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66 thoughts on “California, there we came

    • That photo is one of my favorites, Hollie, the light just right, sunset our first night in Carlsbad. I kept pinching myself at the beauty of the moment, nature and my dear-not-yet-wife! Thanks for taking the trip with us a decade later. โค

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  1. That is so cool Mark. San Fran is my favorite California city. but i have to say the Redwood forests in northern California are amazing, There are pine cones there almost as big as my head. Standing under those majestic trees is so peaceful and beautiful. Great pictures Mark.

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    • Next time to California, I will hope to explore those Redwoods, Paul. I have gone back twice with MDW Karen, and explored around San Diego, re Coronado and Catalina islands, and LA again to visit Aunt Pauline. And we took in Long Beach, staying on the Queen Elizabeth, which is not a floating hotel, before leaving from that pier for a cruise. But Aunt Pauline has passed, RIP. While looking at the photos and this post, Karen said that she longs to go back to Cali again, so maybe next time we’ll hit NoCal and see those sights. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for telling me about the pine cones teh size of your head, my friend!

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    • Hi my favorite sis-in-law! (Sorry, Jana, I have yet to meet you in person, of course, until the big shindig in July!) That Winny trip sounded like such an adventure, Lynne. And I bet MDW Karen did her share of driving you off the edge, too. ๐Ÿ˜‰ Looking forward to seeing you soon, my dear.

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  2. When I was a fresh college graduate, and too stupid to know better, I moved to L.A. to make my fortune. I spent the next year working in the Glendale Galleria mall and as a temp. If that was the fortune California held for me, I’d had enough of it. I crawled back to home to the Mohawk Valley with my tail between my legs. But oh so much wiser.

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    • You lived your ‘Fast Times at Ridgemont High’ times, Scott, and couldn’t quite pull off the Cameron Crowe connections with the writing, I take it. At least you tried, my friend, and learned all about the land of supposed plenty.

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  3. I have been to LA, San Fran and the Peninsula. I enjoyed San Fran the most. LA was way too busy for my liking, traffic was horrific. San Fran has a great vibe and lots of cool things to do. Especially liked the waterfront wharf.

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    • We cut the Monterey Penisula short to go to ‘The Price Is Right.’ Pop culture won out of Mother Nature’s beauty, Dora, and I have to make up for that with a return visit to Carmel and its neighboring pretty places. I’m glad you liked coming along with this last journey. ๐Ÿ™‚

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  4. Oh gosh, Mark. So great to see these photos of your past. Love a little TB! Well, obviously you know a lot about Southern(and Northern) California…event the May Grays…see that’s what I was talking about with the layers. When I came out here there was no doubt that I wanted to be in the midst of everything in Hollywood though some argued that Silver lake was hipper. In Burbank now but it’s difficult to maintain a family in Hollywood for so many reasons. Anyway, I’m sure you’ll let me know if you ever have the chance to make it back out here.

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      • We actually lucked out to get an apartment that is spacious as well as low rent although there is a lack of amenities that make up for that. Still, I think we are lucky to have a bedroom for ourselves and each of our kids and live in a somewhat convenient location. If we hadn’t found this place, I think we’d be out in the sticks.

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      • I’m glad to hear that you have space plus location. I think amenities has to come in No. 3 when you have three young kids like you and your hubby, I agree. Good jog, you two.

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      • Yeah, I think so too. I mean you can always deal with one washer one dryer for the whole building (thankfully only 8 apts. but still!!) but really no way to get another bedroom!

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  5. Enjoyed reading this story, Mark, but I’m out of time and haven’t finished it. Will get back to it. My favorite photo so far is Karen by the roses. I’ve been to California. My sister lives in Moreno Valley. She’s an artist and she painted the cover for my novel, Call of the Cadron. I’ll be back later to finish your story. I like your story-telling style on this blog.

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  6. Mark what a great story. Loved the Price is Right adventure. What a wonderful way to spend a vacation.

    Driving on 1 is definitely nerve wracking if you’re not used to it. My husband an I experienced an adventure there ourselves. On our way home from one of his brother’s weddings . . . running out of gas in the middle of the night and coasting down the hill on fumes into the gas station which did not open for another six hours. No twenty-four hour pumps there. Great times. ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • Oh, my, Fannie. At least you were heading down and not up. I can only imagine the nightmare of suddenly careening downward, trying to steer through those twisty curves looking over your shoulder, going backward, worrying about cars coming at you. … I guess you and hubby had a six-hour rest in a deserted filling station, huh?

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  7. God this made me miss California!

    I’ve spent quite a bit of time there: first Northern Cali and later on, when my brother moved to LA, southern.

    I’m not a big fan of LA, but San Diego, Carlsbad, San Francisco- love those places. Carlsbad and San Diego are gorgeous. The weather in San Diego- oh my! And I’m a sucker for a great zoo ๐Ÿ™‚

    San Francisco. Wow. That was where my brother first lived when he moved to California. I love the Haight. Got my very first tattoo there, at a famous tattoo parlor owned by Lyle Tuttle.

    Good memories. I’d like to go visit,but for now, your beautiful photographs quell my longing.

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    • It sounds like you had some good times in the two Sans and Carlsbad, Samara. I can picture you quite hanging out in Haight, by the way. ๐Ÿ™‚ I am quite glad to help feed the longing with my 10-year memory photos, my friend. Someday, you will return in triump! โค

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  8. “California, Here I come… right back where I belong…” So glad you had this opportunity to see the sights and what wonderful photos!
    Well, not yet or in the near future, but my Dad would bring us samples of California, my oldest daughter brought me a tie-dyed t-shirt and my youngest girl bought me a shell necklace, similar to what you find in all beach communities, Florida, Atlantic City.. smiles!
    I love how you shared your memories and they way you told this story. It was awhile ago, such memories and look how fast time flew!
    My favorite photos are always ones with both of you, Mark!

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  9. Wow, such beautiful memories bro. Mark. You made me feel like I was along for the trip, and believe me when I say that drive along PCH was not a lot of fun. It would have been different if I had been doing the driving, but next time, slow down please! thank you. Love all the photos, but San Francisco is my favorite place, the one I would love to visit, even though if I ever hear Tony Bennett sing that song again I’ll barf. I love the photos of the 2 of you together–such a cute, loving couple.

    So, we’re going back tomorrow, huh? “All my bags are packed and I’m ready to go”. A song NOT sung by Tony Bennett. I hope I can check in earlier tomorrow. Too much going on around here lately.

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      • My sis Elaine was stationed there when she was in the Air Force–San Francisco, that is, but I didn’t get to make that trip. I wish now I had, but after the trip to Germany I was just too exhausted for another one the next year. Took me about 3 years between trips back then, now they are totally out of the picture, except of course, looking at pictures. So, I’m up for another photo tour tomorrow. Not a bit sleepy tonight, so I’ll probably be online most of the night, just playing around with different programs, maybe even erasing my hard drive again, just to see if I can still do it. YIKES! Time to bite my tongue here. Hit myself on the head and collapse in my nest!

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  10. Absolutely adore this post, Mark! (You knew I would.) Here’s my favorite line, “Budgets, you know. Then, and now.” I’m with Karen and tell her she has fabulous taste in cars and men ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I adore California, too. I lived there twice, once for grad school (Fresno State, central CA) and once in Davis (Dave’s military station, northern CA). Now we vacation in southern CA, mainly San Diego and Coronado. San Francisco and San Diego / Coronado make my Top 10 favorite list. So much great weather, natural scenery, and delicious food! Dave and I hope to get back to SF soon. It’s been too long….

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  11. My favorite photo is your DWK and her Aunt Pauline. They look so adorably happy. But all of the pictures look great. I haven’t been to California but would love to go. Would love to drive the coast, and walk a huge part of it. There’s so much I would love to see MBM. So very much.

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    • We do know how to have fun, thankfully, Aud, because there is enough of the other times, too, for sure. ๐Ÿ™‚ Thanks for sharing the amazing parts of our journeys with us here.

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  12. These pics are all great. I like Karen in the rose garden. So this is why people say, “Go west, young man.” I have not been to California in over 20 years. It is a far ways to go. How does one not know one is Jewish? That was funny. And you killing tulips. And Pauline’s reflective pants. I remember watching that “American Idol,” wanting Bo Bice to win, thinking he had what it took. I was way off on that one LOL. Parking was more than tickets??!! I like the one of you in front of the trolley, too.

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  13. How cool! Now, I have a couple of questions… what were you drinking that made you run over Aunt Pauline’s tulips? And, how come Karen’s not “My Dear Fiance Karen” or “My Dear Girlfriend Karen” during this story? What a fun trip!

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    • I was not drinking a thing, Rachel. Backing up a car is one of my foibles, being legally blind in one eye, you know, and a strange rented car is even worse.

      I guess I could have called my dear wife Karen MDG Karen but I think everybody knows who she is. โค

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  14. Whoa! What a wonderful account of this great trip you took with Mrs. B! How in the world did you remember all those details from way back when? ๐Ÿ™‚ What a fantastic idea to rent that convertible, that’s the way to see the sights. Oh, remind me to hide my tulips from you if you end up driving to my little town in June – he,he!

    I have visited CA on two different occasions, both being were quite different but equally amazing. The first was as a single brickhousechick traveling with her three Latina cousins, where we made “memorable” impressions on Californians in several cities. They are probably still looking for us. ๐Ÿ™‚ The second time was two years ago when Mr. B and I visited my mother and her husband in Monterey. I am dying to go back for more! ๐Ÿ™‚

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    • I remember the details because the trip made such and impression on my, Mrs. B. Also, flapping my gums to my friends about it when we returned helped cement them in my head forever, too. ๐Ÿ™‚ I have to admit, the photographs also help jar things loose up there. ๐Ÿ˜ฎ

      Oh, you and the Latina cousins must have been a hoot out there in the Wayback, Maria. Men are still looking for their hearts that you stole, I bet. โค

      And Monterey with Mr. B, that sounds like a trip. Your mom and her husband picked Nature's garden, didn't they?

      Now put those tulips out of reach. Ha!

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