Archive for the 'Vacations' Category

Pizza in Cambria

It was time we did something different. Hanging around the house, getting take-outs, and occasionally meeting friends six feet removed was getting old. Even the face masks were becoming all too familiar; the allure behind the mask was waning. A refresher was in order. Something with a challenge.

Cambria is about three hours away up the Pacific Coast Highway. Just far enough to feel like you’ve gone enough miles to stay overnight, and for friends to later say, “And how was your trip?”

We packed out bags with more than we needed and loaded the car with enough snacks to open a roadside diner. Jackie loves snacking in the car and shleps a potpourri of green organic grapes, outrageously priced granola from Rainbow Bridge, and similarly priced Brazil nuts. All of which fits nicely in a Westridge Market paper bag nestled at her tiny feet, leaving ample room to lean back and devote her attention to a busy iPhone.

We hit the 101 around noon and set the cruise control for San Luis Obispo, two hours north. I’ve been in SLO a few times but find it a bit too much like Santa Barbara. With fewer attractions, its principal draws are a local shoe store selling Jackie’s favorite Uggs boots, Cal Poly University, and the California Men’s Colony a few miles west of town.

With about 4,000 guests, the state-run Men’s Colony is both a minimum and medium security facility. It has housed many notables including several members of the once popular Manson family, some of whom, like 78-year-old Bruce Davis, are serving two life sentences.

Other less murderous, but equally dangerous, notables include Charles Keating of the 1980’s savings and loan debacle fame. Timothy Leary spent some prime time there in 1970 working off his conviction for possession of marijuana; today he would have been hailed as a successful CBD salesman on Bryant Circle.

Passing the Colony, we are eventually rewarded with a look at Morro Rock, the principal reason why anyone turns their head to the left while whizzing north through a rather desolate, cold and usually overcast town.  The 581-foot-high Rock, some 23 million years old, is a volcanic plug composed of lava and petrified bird feces. Trying to lure more tourists, the citizens of Morro Bay managed to get the Rock designated a California Historical Landmark, including the guano.

Completing our glimpse of the Rock, we continued north and passed through Cayucos. The town name is a Hispanic twist on the Chumash word for kayak or canoe, used by the Indians as they fished in the bay. The town is graced with two restaurants, one of which was closed for remodeling during our last visit.

Fifteen minutes later we arrived at Cambria’s El Colibri Hotel at the south end of Moonstone Beach Road. Expecting a largely deserted metropolis due to the virus, we were amazed to see No Vacancy signs adorning the front of many of the motels along the mile and a half stretch of road.

The El Colibri had cleaned and sanitized our room; the front desk clerk promised never to come back again during our three day stay. No daily cleanings, no waste basket emptying, no morning coffee and, most depressingly, the sorely missed bedtime turndowns complete with warm chocolate chip cookies.

We spent the rest of the afternoon walking about town dodging the other vacationers who were nearly all wearing face masks. We felt guilty with our exposed faces and we dutifully covered them whenever we ventured into any of the lightly stocked, hand sanitizer possessed, overpriced gift shops.

Dinner was at Robins. Initially placed at a table for two in the restaurant industry’s equivalent to the Gulag Archipelago, Jackie rose to her full five-foot-one height and commandeered a lovely spot right next to two guys who make a living playing guitars for people who were alive prior to the advent of contemporary music, with its unintelligible lyrics. It was wonderful.

The next day included a visit to Nit Wit Ridge, an old, nearly abandoned home that looks like any one of the three wolves could blow it down. Furnished in junk rescued from the dump, it features old toilets standing at attention at the chain link fence entry to the property; the rest of the mansion’s art was less impressive. A sign announced, “Next Tour at 2.” We departed at one and proudly checked it off our bucket list.

Time for lunch. We marched from the west end of town to the east end, passing a fair number of restaurants with de rigueur outside dining. Thinking that the holy grail of restaurants must be just a few steps ahead, we walked and walked until we had exhausted all our options. A pizza place was at the end of our death march and, gasping for air, we gave our pizza order to a woman who obviously had prior experience working for the IRS, or had just gone on pension from the California Men’s Colony. We added a salad, paid for it with half our remaining vacation funds, and waited for our surprise meal.

The pizza was one of the soggy crust variety that showed little evidence of the mushroom, garlic and basil toppings for which we had paid dearly. We ate half of it and left the rest on a bus bench near a high-end homeless encampment.

We had planned to have dinner at a classier restaurant, but our visit to the elephant seals near Hearst Castle had tired us. Watching them slither along the beach with a ton of fat wobbling under their molting skin had also put a dietetic dent in our appetites. We returned to the confines of our untouched and somewhat less hygienic hotel room.

We procrastinated long enough to preclude dining out. Querying our innkeeper, we were told that, due to the hour, J J Pizza was the only food joint still delivering. We called and, discounting our noontime meal disappointment as a once-in-lifetime culinary aberration, again ordered pizza. Along with a salad, our meal arrived in J J’s arms not fifteen minutes later.

We tasted a pizza that reminded us of lunch and a salad with Italian dressing that seemed familiar. We wondered if all Cambria pizzas were made using the same recipe.  We ate half the pizza and put the rest on the top of the three-foot-high stack of used Kleenex, empty bottles and other detritus accumulating in our once pristine waste basket.

The following day opened with the prior day’s agenda. Take a hike to the end of the road under cloud laden, cold skies. Grab breakfast that had been better left on a bus bench and take another hike to the east end.

Reaching the end of the road, Jackie looked up and spotted a sign on the roof of the pizza joint that had provided yesterday’s lunch encounter with the former IRS employee. The sign boldly proclaimed, “J J Pizza.” Being quick learners, we realized that we had not only eaten lunch at this Michelin four-star diner, we had unknowingly ordered a delivered dinner from the same place six hours later.

Well at least we had a whole pizza…half for lunch and the other half for dinner. A one-for-two pricing special.

Elixir of Life

Jackie is at Starvation Palace.

Formally known as Optimum Health Institute, San Diego based OHI is a popular place for losing weight or grappling with an illness that may have defied traditional medicine’s array of high-tech equipment, wonder drugs and a plethora of health care professionals. In Jackie’s case, it is a place where she can escape the mundane and embrace the physical and mental detoxing that cleanses her body and nurtures her soul.

I’ve been there four times and probably rank as one of OHI’s more mundane customers. My two reasons for going there are first, that’s where Jackie is. Second, I like to personally prepare my twice a day servings of wheat grass juice.

You already know all about how she has captivated and seduced me, so let me dwell instead on the preparation and allure of wheat grass juice.

OHI has a preparation room that can accommodate six persons. Each person has access to an industrial strength juicing machine that should have multiple warnings, including disembowelment for the careless. The machine diabolically runs at an almost snail-like pace, lulling the user into a false sense of security. Each year, one or two guests have mysteriously disappeared from the campus, adding credence to the power of the juicer.

OHI’s gardens produce a portion of the dark green grass with occasional augmentation by a masked supplier who, like all suppliers and staff, has been vetted for adherence to the vegan lifestyle, the promise to never use anything stronger than baby aspirin, and an almost Zen-like adherence to the rules of Kundalini yoga.

The raw, dark green grass is stored in a refrigerator. Strongly admonished to wear a disposable latex glove on one hand, clumps of it may be taken for the juicing process. I often forget which hand is gloved and feel ashamed for touching the precious grass with my naked skin. I write it off to creeping senility and the fact that I am usually the oldest, most needy person on campus.

The grass is an elixir that has been credited with relieving nearly everything from teenage acne to stage four brain cancer. The precious harvest is not to be squandered. Unused grass is not to be returned to the refrigerator. One is cautioned to take only what is needed to make two ounces of juice. First year guests are often banished from the juicing room for multiple violations of this requirement.

Some of the juicing machines outperform others and, like a preferred chardonnay, guests usually have a favorite. Finding someone in your spot can be a real downer that may require an extra helping of deep transcendental meditation immediately following breakfast.

The juicer is turned on and the grass is fed into a hopper. A wooden push stick prods the grass into the bowels of the hopper. It is a slow process that occasionally entices the impatient user to push ever more forcefully on the wooden stick. This only aggravates the machine which then, like a three-year-old, refuses to process what has now become a glutinous glump of mashed grass. The guilty party then must find someone who can help alleviate the problem. Failing to find a good Samaritan, the irreverent violator may seek out another machine, leaving the inoperable juicer feeling unloved and abandoned.

The green juice exits the machine in a very thin stream. It is filtered through a metal sieve which rests upon a five cent Dixie cup much like the one that Nurse Ratched used to deliver pills to the lobotomized Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.

One must pay close attention as the cup fills. A precise two ounces will do it. Too little will reduce the touted benefits. Too much will cause a biblical flood that will consume precious cleanup minutes that could better be spent on the lawn, doing nothing.

Like a pig, no part of the plant is wasted. The now desiccated grass is collected and often used as a poultice. Applied to any part of the body it can relieve muscle strain, shrink malignant melanomas, and improve sexual performance.

Many abhor the taste of the juice. I love it. When not at OHI, both Jackie and I seek out the green fountain of youth at Rainbow Bridge, Westridge and the Sunday Farmers Market. The Market doesn’t open until 9am but Jackie is an early morning arrival with six dollars clutched to her breast. The young juice seller is infatuated with Jackie and lustily participates in a gross violation of the rules to deliver the two small cups to her lovely hands. I stand well removed from the scene in order not to interfere with this act of love.

Bowing to the Governor’s fluctuating and at times unintelligible Covid-19 containment rules, OHI no longer allows guests to make their own juice. I have therefore cancelled my reservation. A week beyond the no-penalty refund date, OHI money lenders had at first said, “Too late, you lose.”

Invoking an excuse of, “I’m 81 and scared to death of the virus” relaxed their resistance to my request. Using a voice tinged with fear, aged hoarseness, and the inability to find the right words, earned me a full refund and an Emmy.

This morning I remembered my Amtrak reservation that was to bring me to OHI this Sunday.  I called to cancel it.  But that’s another story.

We missed the bus

Arriving at the San Diego airport after my seven-hour train ride, we discovered a vacant spot where fifteen minutes earlier the Rancho La Puerta chartered bus had once stood, ready to take us to the Mexican border crossing in Tecate. Our travel plans were now in disarray. We would need to find a way to get to the border on our own. Then cross it and somehow get to the Rancho, our intended spa for the next seven days.

Cellphone communications with the spa revealed that we were not alone in their missing persons file cabinet. Others, foolish enough to trust the veracity of plane and train schedules, had apparently run afoul of similar circumstances. The spa had a ready answer to how we might reach the Mexican border. “Take a taxi, it’ll cost about $100”, they said. “Call us when you get there, and we’ll send someone to collect you.” Perhaps not wholly reassuring, it was the best we could hope for given our foolhardiness in trusting Amtrak.

Jackie had reserved an airport valet parking spot at a cost almost equal to what I paid for my first car some fifty years ago. Inflation can be insidious. We pulled up to valet parking and found that the attendant, a lovely young woman, was skilled in speaking the English language. That is, she appeared skilled, until you noticed that her words did not always fit together in a meaningful way. At times, it seemed her responses were intended for someone else who was looking over my shoulder.

I’m not xenophobic. Nor do I begrudge anyone the right to make a fair living. But, when one is about to turn over a forty-thousand-dollar blemish free Mercedes for seven-day safekeeping at a uncaring airport, one might be forgiven for expecting a basic level of communication skills. I asked, “Are you the person who will park our car?”, The comely young lady responded “I’m Natasha. Can I help yourself?” Rephrasing my question, I said “Natasha, you can be of great help to us. We have a reservation for one of your parking spaces. Will you park the car for us?” Smiling, she responded “Do you have any reservations?” I wanted to say “Yes, Natasha…about you.” However, I remembered my Ukrainian-born parents, and restrained myself.

Other one syllable questions narrowed our differences. And Jackie’s penchant for retaining evidentiary materials that supported our claim to a reserved space sealed the deal. We asked where we might find a taxi. Natasha pointed her finger across the street and said “Taxi, there.” Natasha made it clear that the only way to get to the taxi stand was to go with bags in hand into the airport, take the escalator up one floor and use bridge over the street to find nirvana.

The spa had suggested we take an Orange taxi for the trip to the border. It took us a few moments to realize that Orange was the name of the taxi company, not the color of their cars. Afraid to cause mass hysteria among the drivers waiting their turn in line, we dutifully schlepped our bags past a dozen Orange taxis and arrived at the front of the lineup. A friendly face greeted us with, “I’m Boris, welcome to my taxi.” I restrained myself from asking the obvious question, “Are you all from Eastern Europe?”

Instead, I told Boris where we were headed. Forgetting the first rule about asking a cabbie how much, I said “The spa said that the ride would cost about $100.” With just the slightest hesitation he said “Yes, that’s right.” I could have kicked myself.

Boris had a lot to say. I felt true kinship as he rattled on about his two cabs whose medallions had each cost him just short of two hundred thousand dollars. And were now selling for bupkis in the age of Uber and Lyft. And his five children, each of whom had or were attending some rather expensive schools. I decided on a larger tip.

It took about forty-five minutes to reach Tecate on the Mexican border. The only evidence of an invasion by any sanctuary seeking Central Americans were two bored Mexican soldiers leaning against a wall.

We exited Boris’s taxi $100 lighter and were greeted by Raoul, the emissary from the spa. Speaking English better than I can, he said “I am here to escort you through Mexican customs and then give you a ride to Rancho La Puerta. Welcome to Mexico.” The skies brightened considerably and the weight that had been residing on my shoulders for the last ten hours suddenly began to lift.

The customs office is situated in the same complex that houses both a PayLess shoe store and a 7/11 mini-mart. Raoul led us through one of those one-way turnstiles that seems to promise to encase you for life should you stop it from spinning. We entered a small concrete block building and were introduced to Julio, the man of authority in these parts. Julio asked us to sit on plastic chairs behind a four-foot long table that bore nothing but two pencils.

We were asked to fill out some forms that would allow us to enter the country. Instructions were delivered by Julio in shotgun fashion that seemed intended to test us. I was reminded of an old World War II spy movie that might have starred Errol Flynn and Olivia De Havilland. The one where the Nazis question them in an effort to discover the names of the Resistance ring leaders. Like Danny Kaye starring in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty, I felt like leaping over the table, sucker-punching Julio, grabbing Jackie and, with guns blazing, find my way back to the good old USA.

To no one’s surprise, there was the obligatory discussion about the cost of the visas that would allow us to exit Julio’s clutches. “That will be twenty-eight American dollars each.”, said Julio. I handed him three twenties. I never saw the four dollars change.

The ride with Raoul to Rancho La Puerta was made in inky darkness.


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