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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?