Vacation from the Vacation
I took a short break last week. I spent about three days with some family and relaxed a little after my Los Angeles adventure.
Before my break, though, I took myself to breakfast at the Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo. Instagrammers love the Madonna because of its over-the-top decor. I've been admiring others' photos of it for a while and I knew I had to see it for myself! Breakfast at the Copper Cafe was certainly an experience. The glassware is elaborately decorative and colorful and all tables are outfitted with a dispenser of pink sugar for your coffee. The main dining room, still decorated for Valentine's Day when I was there, is a sight to behold. The wine cellar is no slouch, either. I hope some day I'll be able to book a room a spend a few days.
From SLO, I drove north on the Pacific Coast Highway to San Simeon. I probably saw
Citizen Kane when I was 14 or 15. It's when I learned about both Orson Welles (a crush that still hasn't diminished) and William Randolph Hearst. Hearst is such a fascinating figure and the kind of titan of industry that used to be quite admired. I also have a great deal of interest in his Hollywood connections. So, I knew I had to see the Hearst Castle. It did not disappoint. The house itself is spectacular, of course. Hearst outfitted it with a lifetime's collection of antiquities and the swimming pool is so glittering and blue that it was hard not to want to take a dip even on the chilly day I was there. What is most impressive, though, is the house's situation. Hearst inherited the land from his parents, who'd purchased it to ranch when Hearst was still a child. The house sits at the top of a climbing hill that faces the ocean. The buses that transport visitors from the base of the hill twist carefully up a winding road. When you reach the top, the views are breathtaking. On the front side of the house, you can see for miles across the ocean. From the back of house, green and rolling mountains stretch away. It's so beautiful. I've never seen anything quite like it. It made me think of Elizabeth Bennet when she first sees Mr. Darcy's home, Pemberley. She tells her sister, later, she's never seen a home so "happily situated." That's how I felt seeing Hearst Castle.
From San Simeon, I wound my way north some more on the PCH and ended in Moss Landing, just north of Monterey. Monterey is lovely and interesting all on its own, but I was most interested in its John Steinbeck history. On my second day, I made the rounds of Steinbeck's best-known sites: Salinas (his hometown), Speckles (a small town whose streets are often described in Steinbeck's work), Cannery Row in Monterey, and the dozens of neatly tilled fields surrounding the entire area. I taught The Grapes of Wrath for many years (students always hated it, but I think it's just so, so important) and I personally loved East of Eden so, so much. It also has a strong connection to my James Dean attachment (his first real starring role was in Elia Kazan's adaptation of the novel in 1955). Seeing the land that most inspired Steinbeck and his work was pretty inspiring and also maybe a little intimidating. I loved it.
When I left Monterey, I drove north and east toward Davis where I have some family. It was so nice to visit with people, have conversations, and enjoy meals with others for a few days. They very kindly took me to local museums and showed me around both Davis and Sacramento.
Leaving Davis, I drove to San Francisco. I'd never been there and it is such a vital and romantic city. The campground I found, just a 15 minute walk from the South San Francisco BART station, was the perfect spot. I took the BART train into the city and then hopped on a street car to get to the Embarcadero. I visited the Musee Mecanique at Fisherman's Wharf and then took the boat out to Alcatraz.
Several years ago, I visited the old WV State Penitentiary with a friend. We were some of the first people there that morning and we got a really interesting tour as a result. If you’ve never seen it, the building is dreadfully imposing - made completely of stone and in the style of a gothic castle - and it seemed to me, at the time, that pulling up in front and knowing you’d be locked inside would have been terribly scary. I’m not especially fond of prisons, per se, but I have always remembered that day with a particular sense of interest. I had a genuinely eerie supernatural encounter there (a cold hand rested on the back of my neck for the entire tour) and I gained a sincere
appreciation for just how harrowing it once was to be imprisoned (let’s face it - it’s still harrowing...but nothing like that).
Alcatraz Island has the same, imposing feeling when it is approached. Imagine the boat coming up to its dock and knowing that you’d be locked inside. Perhaps for the rest of your life. It doesn’t have the same scary facade, but it does have the same scary feeling. The National Park Service highlights the three major periods in Alcatraz’s life: its use as a military installation in the late 1800s and early 1900s; its use as a Federal prison from the 1930s to the 1960s; and the brief time it was occupied by Native Americans in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Signs of all three periods in history remain on the island.
I enjoyed seeing it and found the idea of the little community that lived there when the prison was still in use. Guards' and wardens' families lived out there, too, and had their own market and kept gardens. So interesting!
My second day in SF, I rented a car and took myself on a tour of filming locations for Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo. I drove past Jimmy Stewart's apartment building, Kim Novak's place (when she's still Madeleine), and I even drove out to Fort Point (where Novak drops herself into the drink). That was probably the most impressive part of the tour. The Golden Gate was in fog (not surprising) but the view was pretty spectacular. I enjoyed it for a long while before taking myself up and over the bridge itself. I have to admit, I was a little starstruck driving over the Golden Gate Bridge.
It's been interesting to compare northern and southern California. So far, the biggest difference I've noticed is the feeling. Southern California is both very relaxed and very intense. Northern California feels much more rural (perhaps not SF) and the pace slows a bit. Mostly, I'm learning how to tighten my belt! Gas prices are not the same here...and I'm learning to navigate accordingly.