Under the boardwalk, down by the sea
October 14, 2006
Normal families take their summer vacations in the summer. But in case you haven't guessed it already from eight years of these monthly newsletters, the Gehlke Family is anything but normal. Our vacation time always seems to fall in... well, the fall. This year was no different, although there was a new wrinkle in that for the first time in 15 years we looked to October rather than September to do the bulk of our traveling. We weren't sure quite what to expect from the weather, even though Indian summers are fairly common and October generally regales us with balmy days made for outdoor excursions. But would we be tempting fate straying too far from California?
With that in mind, and given that our past two fall trips were two-week odysseys that cost us thousands of dollars and miles spent driving through multiple states, we decided to take it easy on the budget and our stress levels by playing close to home. After several weeks of tossing about ideas we settled on Pismo Beach, a mere five hours from home had we used the "fast route" and followed U.S. 101 like Mapquest.com told us we should. But what fun is following directions when you can make up your own as you go?
Armed with a trunk full of luggage and reservations for the Sandcastle Inn, we set out bright and early Tuesday, Oct. 3, for what was to be a three-night stay on the beach, playing in the sand and watching the surfer dudes do their thing near the famous Pismo Pier. That is, we would have started bright and early if not for the fact that such a short distance to our destination meant we could sleep in a bit longer. Still, we planned to be out the door by 9 a.m., so actually getting into the car by 9:30 was sorta close to on-time performance. Everybody ready? Not quite. Seemed that somehow Ben had managed to lose track of his brand new Nintendo DS game cartridge that he had opened not five minutes earlier. The car wasn't moving until a thorough search could be conducted.
Ben just about tore Glenn's car apart looking for that cartridge, and for the next 20 minutes there were tears and frantic retracing of steps as we covered every square inch of earth we'd traversed between the kitchen, bathroom, bedrooms and driveway. Backpacks, camera bags and coolers so carefully packed the night before were hastily tossed aside as the car was stripped to the upholstery in search of an inch-square silicon wafer. Why they make kids' games that size is unconscionable. Ben was thoroughly convinced the game had been devoured by the car's rear seat, and he probed the depths of the seatbelt wells to no avail. At last, with the time approaching 10 a.m., we told Ben he would have to accept the fact that the game was gone for now. This went over about as well as might be expected, but kids are fairly resilient at 12 and we figured that after two or three days he'd probably get over it. Yeah, right.
Following a stop to top off the gas tank and now running an hour later than planned, we made decent time south to San Jose where we met with our first major decision of the drive: hook up with U.S. 101 or be adventurous and take Highway 1 down the coast. We had talked about using 101 if it looked like the stormy weather that had found its way into the Bay Area a few days earlier decided to follow us. But the skies were clear and the temperature pleasant, and we were on vacation, gosh darnit. So we decided to head for the coast and enjoy the splenid vistas around Monterey, Carmel and Big Sur.
Ben's mood had lightened a bit by the time we reached Monterey, but he wasn't buying Roni's theory that his missing game was resting on a sink counter back home. Again he fished into the seatbelt well and felt around with his fingers like a kid sticking his hand through a storm sewer grate. Suddenly from the back seat came excited cries of "I found it! Yes!" Turns out Glenn's car really does eat things. Imagine that! Ben held up the game as proof he wasn't just pulling our chains, blood trickling from the spot where he'd scraped off the skin on his wrist trying to retrieve the cartridge. But he scarcely noticed the wound, happy to have the game in his possession once more.
Roni had packed a picnic lunch, which we ate at Pfeiffer Big Sur State Park around 2 p.m. It is worth noting that we had been on the road close to four hours by now and still had plenty of driving to do. Big Sur was beautiful as always, but we only stayed long enough to eat our meals and take a short walk along the river through the campground before getting back on the road.
Driving Highway 1 is like traveling through a time warp where everything slows to a crawl. You can drive 20 minutes and it seems you've only gone five miles. We kept seeing signs to Hearst Castle and it felt like the distances were increasing rather than the opposite. "What do you mean, 65 miles? Didn't it say 60 before?" We'd drive the permitted 45 mph speed limit and still get stuck behind someone going slower, only to watch as hotshots in their fancy convertibles went flying past all of us at 65. And then there were the inevitable vista points with mouthwatering ocean views too good to pass up, especially with our new Canon Powershot S3 along for the ride. We took hundreds of pictures of the blue waters of the Pacific crashing against the rocky shore below. Breathtaking. Time consuming.
We made Hearst Castle just before the 6 p.m. closing time something we seem to have a knack at doing, as this is the second time we've beaten the buzzer at the gate to the visitor center. We checked out the gift shops and restrooms before returning to the car for the final leg of our journey into Pismo Beach. We still had another hour to go and it had been several hours since lunch, so Ben was getting fairly hungry. Roni suggested that we all snack on some cheese sticks she'd packed in the cooler. What a smart idea. Just enough to tide us over until we could find some chowder house in town.
We sat in the Hearst Castle parking lot and munched our cheese sticks, amused by the large crows that had gathered near our car. The area seems to be a haven for crows; you can hear them calling to each other from just about every treetop around the parking lot. Plotting strategy, no doubt. Ben was in a giving sort of mood and decided to share a bit of his cheese stick with the crow nearest his door. It didn't take long for word to spread around the rookery that a free meal was in progress, and soon we were being swarmed by crows. Glenn decided the time was right to move on, particularly when we began seeing shadows of the birds hovering over the roof of the car. Roll up the windows! "Oh my god, they're following us," Glenn said. And true enough, they were. We drove down the hill with a couple of determined crows in hot pursuit, one outside the driver's window and the other hovering over the roof of the car. Now we knew how the cast of Hitchcock's movie must have felt. We lost them at last as we pulled out onto Highway 1 and left San Simeon behind. Lesson learned: Never feed a critter that spends its time roosting on the lid of a garbage can.
We caught up with U.S. 101 at San Luis Obispo and at last pulled into the parking lot of the Sandcastle Inn hotel just after 7 p.m., our less-than-five-hour journey nearly doubled to nine. We barely had time to check into our room before the afterglow faded from the evening sky and our ocean view was thrust into darkness.
Pismo Beach has one of the best municipal beaches of any town you'll find. A broad wooden pier juts hundreds of feet out from the shore and is a favorite spot of recreational fishermen and tourists hoping to hook something, anything. There's a souvenir shack about midway on the pier where they'll rent you a rod and sell you whatever bait you might need. If fishing isn't your thing, they've also got boogie boards and wetsuits to help you brave the surf under the boardwalk. If you're as adventurous as we are, there's no harm in just setting up a folding chair on the strand and observing all of this activity from a safe distance.
We bought the "Internet special" when we made our reservations, which got us three discounted nights in a beachfront room with a nice view of the pier to the northwest. Not that the room mattered, because no one wanted to spend much time in it. Our first morning in town, we were eager to get down to the sand and surf and see the sights. The weather was fine, despite what Roni had seen on a website that warned us of 40 percent chance of rain and thundershowers. If the crystal clear blue skies were any indication, no rain would be falling today. We poked along the shore and stepped over piles of seaweed while Ben lined his pockets with sand dollars he discovered in abundance. We didn't realize just how many he'd collected until we got back to the hotel and he laid them out on the patio table more than 70.
One of our vices when we travel is that we love to eat, and one of the things we most looked forward to was sampling the cuisine of the downtown tourist district along Pomeroy Avenue. We had already enjoyed dinner at Pierside Seafood right near the pier after arriving in town, so for lunch on Wednesday we tried patio dining at a burger joint called Brad's that offered Trivial Pursuit question cards as entertainment while we waited for our meals. Roni swears the calamari sandwich she had was excellent, while Glenn enjoyed a bleu cheese burger.
On Thursday, we went to a place called Mo's Smokehouse BBQ, where the pulled pork and sausages were some of the best we've had and the sauces were all right out of the old South. A slogan on the wall above the counter said it all: "Mo don't know fish and Mo don't know chowda." But Mo knew a lot about barbecue, and we wound up taking home a couple bottles of his sauces. Thursday night we finally found the line short enough at the Splash Cafe that we decided to see what all the hubub was about. We figured anyplace with lines out the door must have great clam chowder, and sure enough they did. Some of the richest tasting chowder around. Apparently you can buy it frozen over the Internet. They prepare something like 15,000 gallons a year.
Needless to say, none of this food, as good as it was, was fat-free. We had all put on several pounds in just four days of vacationing, which proves yet again the old axiom that if it tastes good it probably isn't good for you.
We whiled away Wednesday exploring the gift shops downtown and hanging out on the beach, which was Ben's favorite activity. He'd brought along our boomerang and a beach ball, and being that it was the middle of the week and no longer tourist season, we had huge expanses of beach mostly to ourselves. Ben and Glenn hung out on the sand while Roni sat out on the balcony of our room and did some summer reading, enjoying the sounds of the waves and the shore birds. When evening rolled around we watched the sun set, as did just about everyone else in town with a camera. That night, the clouds rolled in and around 11 p.m. we heard rain splashing against the sidewalk outside our patio. It looked as though the weatherman's prediction of 40 percent change of showers had belatedly become 100 percent. We hoped the clouds would scurry off before the morning.
Sure enough, by Thursday morning the rain had ceased and there was little to indicate there had even been any apart from some damp patches on the beach closest to the hotel. The lingering storm clouds burned off as the temperature climbed, and we were left with a another mild, sunny day. We started it by taking a walk along the strand, leaving Ben to the comfort of a beach chair and his Nintendo DS. We don't usually like to leave Ben on his own when we travel, but that is how amazingly safe we all felt on Pismo Beach. Most of the folks out there, like us, were tourists taking in the ambience, and there were so few people that it was difficult to lose track of anyone for too long.
We walked at the water's edge toward the pier, hopping over piles of seaweed and other things the storm had washed ashore, including a decomposing seal. The carcass was an object of curiosity for everyone who passed it. We were lingering over it and taking pictures when an older woman on her morning walk passed us and took a look herself. "You should see the one that washed up over that way," she said, indicating the south end of the beach. "It's swollen to about five times the size of this one." We decided to take her word for it. Later in the day we saw three or four turkey vultures soaring around the boardwalk, and eventually they were feasting on bloated seal. Nothing goes to waste in nature.
The wind kicked up by afternoon, just in time for Ben to try out the small kite we bought the previous day at one of the gift shops. Roni got the idea after seeing several people with much larger kites flying them Wednesday afternoon. The breeze was perfect. We assembled Ben's kite in about a minute and Glenn took him down to the beach to test it out, convinced that it would be torn to shreds by the stiff air currents. But not only did the kite survive its launch, Ben got it high enough aloft that we were able to tie it to the leg of a beach chair and let it do its thing unattended.
Glenn sent Ben back to the room to retrieve the boomerang so they could toss it around while waiting to bring the kite down. Ben is still a bit shaky with his boomerang tossing skills, so he was looking to Dad for some expert instruction. Apparently Glenn failed to impress upon him the need to throw the boomerang in the opposite direction of where people are standing, because the next thing we knew Glenn was sent reeling by a boomerang hit to the right side of his face. Aside from being dazed and a bit bloodied, he was able to patch himself together and suffered only some minor bruising.
Friday morning arrived as we knew it would have to, and we packed our gear into the car for the trip home. We didn't leave right away, stopping first in Port San Luis and then the young resort community of Avila Beach, where you can buy a condo for $965,000. We took U.S. 101 home this time, making enough stops along the way that we quickly lost the benefit of any time saved. A four-day vacation overall and quite a bit different than the mega trips we have been used to the past couple of years, but more than enough vacation for this time.