Friday:

With great effort, by 10 a.m. Friday morning we were walking briskly down a seaside boardwalk, a full 15 minutes north of our hotel, on our way to view elephant seals, or possibly sea lions. We had pulled over to the side of the road and piled out of our car to stare out at the seagull-covered rocks, but Elliot’s sharp eyes first spotted the moving lumps far down on the beach. We ran for a closer look. The elephant seals lay on the beach as dead, occasionally taking a huge deep breath, or flipping sand up on their backs. The children turned into a flock of seagulls themselves: Dad! Dad! Look! Look! It’s moving! It’s putting sand on its back! Take a picture! Take a picture! Dad! Dad! Loo-ook!

In the water, two seals frolicked. We could see their sleek black heads appearing and reappearing over the clear green water. Ilsa and I thought they looked like they were kissing; Elliot and Abel thought they looked like they were wrestling. Who knows?

We drove on up the coast. The weather was strange; hot sun on our backs, cold sea wind on our faces. Unfortunately, this weather pattern created a lot of sea fog. We were driving along the coast, but could only see the ocean directly below us. We’d stop at vista points, and from that vantage point could look back to see the fog rolling into inlets, but looking westward was like looking from an airplane. It was a little disappointing, and it didn’t really help us make any better time, since we still kept stopping and looking.

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It was fascinating, though, watching the fog rise from the water. The clouds would appear dense, deep grey or thick white, from a small distance, but as one approached, they would wisp away, soar above us, ephemeral.

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Highway One is not for those wishing to make excellent time, even for the many (many) retirees in their sleek little convertibles, whizzing round the curves. It winds. It hugs cliffs. It makes huge hairpin bends round little sea coves and inlets. All this takes time to traverse. We left bright and early (after a very nice continental breakfast with cinnamon rolls and coffee that claimed to be Douwe Egberts and probably was, only with a lot of extra water added), but we did not make good time.

We stopped for espresso at the Ragged Point Resort Espresso Bar, where the kid apparently felt no need to change to coffee grounds between making my double espresso and making Donn’s. Too bad, eh? Just a little bit of effort could have made it worth close to the $3 he charged Donn for the swill he served him. I mention this because, if you are ever driving up 1, I recommend you avoid Ragged Point espresso bar, and if they ask you why, TELL THEM! Donn compared it to the reason why he couldn’t get film processed in Mauritania, which was because they kept on using the chemicals long after their usefulness had expired. But in a trendy, expensive little resort, you might expect something better. You wouldn’t get it, though.

Eventually, we made it to Carmel-by-the-Sea. It was nearly 2 by this point, so we pulled into the mall just off the road to look at lunch options. Carmel is a lovely area, and it’s a lovely mall. It’s the sort of place where just driving into the parking lot makes your clothes suddenly fade, wrinkle, and go out of fashion, but other than that it’s lovely. We bought picnic things (bread, fruit, cheese) at Safeway and went looking for the town of Carmel proper. A couple of wrong turns later, we drove down its charming streets, and ate our lunch leaning against a huge cypress tree on the beach. The weather was clear and warm (well it would be! Those folks would not tolerate fog!) and we had a delightful time. Then we visited Photography West, a famous gallery, where we viewed original prints by people like Ansel Adams, Brett Weston, Paul Capinegro, Morley Baer, Christopher Burkett and Imogen Cunningham—whose portrait of Frida Kahlo was stunning, intensive and thought-provoking. I nearly bought a small copy of it, but when you’re looking at the original, a notecard just won’t cut it.

It’s been a long time since I’ve viewed photographs by someone other than my husband, and Donn and I both enjoyed the opportunity to experience a slice of life beautifully re-created through someone else’s eye. We wanted to visit the Weston Gallery, and spend time looking at other types of art as well. Carmel-by-the-Sea is full of galleries. But it was already well past 3; we needed to move on.

This part of California smells soo good. The air is spicy with the scents of juniper, cypress, cedar, wild sage, and eucalyptus. The coastline is rugged and rocky, the water is shades of aqua, turquoise, and indigo, and the hills are covered in…some kind of plant…in shades of rust and tan and a vivid deep green.

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By the time we were driving through the towns just south of San Francisco, it was just before 6 p.m. Too soon to stop. We drove on through the town and over the Golden Gate Bridge. Disappointingly, the fog was so thick you couldn’t even see the top of the bridge itself, much less anything of the bay. We planned to stop just out of ‘Frisco to the north. This was a grave error on our part. You may have already noticed that it’s Labour Day Weekend, but we’ve been living out of suitcases since mid-July and haven’t readjusted completely to life in the US, and we’re fuzzy on dates most days.

Friday of Labour Day Weekend, in a trendy vacation spot, looking for lodging in the small coastal resort towns of Marin County, one of the nation’s more exclusive areas. Picture the Nomad family in their borrowed Dodge Intrepid with a surfboard strapped on top, slowly driving from town to town. In Stinson Beach there were no vacancies to be had at all. (I wanted to ask about the stables, but Donn wouldn’t let me) In Olema, there was one—a mere $150 for a room with two whole twin beds. It was dark of course, and here we were in an area of incredible scenic beauty, driving blind, seeing the occasional deer and a beautiful moonrise, but missing everything else. In Tomales, the Continental Inn (Providing Rest for Weary Travelers since 1889) had a sign saying they had vacancies and please ring for service, but no one came. In desperation, we finally did what we should have done all along—we turned around and headed over to Petaluma and from there up the 101—a bigger highway, more populated, and not nearly so trendy. We stayed in a wonderful, heavenly Best Western with two queen beds in Rohnert Park, checking in just before midnight, and crawling thankfully into our beds with nary a thought of writing a long blog post.

Saturday:

The so-called continental breakfast was like nothing I ever had in France—it included make-your-own waffles, toast, boiled eggs, yogurt, fruit, cereal, muffins, and juice. There was even a bottle of Knott’s Boysenberry Syrup. We all chose different options according to taste, and everyone left happy—even the grown-ups, who still stopped by Starbucks for double espressos.

Today was gorgeous; sunny, warm, the sky that intense blue that presages the hue of autumnal skies. It felt like the first of September, actually. The weather was warm, but there was that hint of heaviness, that slant, to the light, and the vineyards we drove through, full of rich purple grape clusters, were beginning to show hints of red and yellow in their leaves. We went wine-tasting, bought fresh strawberries (that were every bit as good as Oregon berries, I must admit; they were super!) and ate them very quickly because they were so good, and continued up the 101.

We had initially planned to cut back over to the 1, but if we had, we’d probably still be just a few miles north of San Francisco. The 1 is gorgeous, if you don’t get fog, but it is very slow and windy. If your kids get car sick, forget it. Mine don’t, but even they were beginning to complain of tummy-aches. Instead, we headed north up 101, which heads through the Redwood Forest over to the coast, where it joins the 1 anyway.

And really, the 101 is very nice and we’ve decided to never-ever do the I-5 route again. Our road wound through vineyards and up into hills covered in magnificent oak trees, with glimpses of green rivers at the base of rocky valleys. By lunch time, we’d arrived in Willets, self-proclaimed “Gateway to the Redwoods.” We’d enjoyed our picnic in Carmel so much we decided to do a repeat today in the Redwoods; we couldn’t find a picnic table (we could have if we’d kept going, but we were hungry) so we stopped in a turnout in the forest and picnicked quite happily amongst the trees.

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The redwoods were terrific; all they were supposed to be. We didn’t do all the touristy things, but you should if you come this way (drive through a tree trunk, visit the Confusion Room where apparently gravity doesn’t work); we just need to return this car at some point fairly soon, so we didn’t take time. That was okay though. The real point of the Redwoods is the trees themselves.

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I asked Donn to take this picture to send to my friends in Mauritania. They won’t believe it! And this isn’t the biggest or anything; just a fairly typical Giant Redwood, one of the oldest living things on the planet.

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We drove down Avenue of the Giants, stopping frequently to get out and admire the mammoth, ancient, enormous, add more adjectives here, trees. The air was fresh and spicy with ferns and redwood; the kids climbed on fallen logs and yanked their heads up to try and see the lacy tops stretching far above us.

Traveling for days in a car with your nearest and dearest can be a stretching time, especially when said family keeps buying lots of fruit. I personally feel that I have heard enough jokes about gas, cow herds, methane production, etc. to last more than a lifetime, although I have a feeling I haven’t fulfilled my quota just yet. Overall, our kids are great travelers—which is just as well, since they all took extended plane rides before they were 6 months old, and haven’t stopped for very long since. Donn and I are very sensitive parents. “Look! This is beautiful! Stop reading! Turn off your Game-Boys,” we told them. “Enjoy this! Yes, you have to!” And they did, some of the time anyway.

We arrived at the coast and I saw a herd of elk feeding in a marsh just below us. We stopped but it was too late for anyone else to see them, so we drove on. Suddenly we saw another herd, this one close to the road, near a sign that said “Elk Viewing.” I suppose they must salt the lawn there or something, because the herd was definitely wild and yet used enough to people to not panic when a small child near us slammed the car door and started yelling at his father. We were much more circumspect, and joined the other snapping photos. At first, the leader, he of the biggest antlers, hung out in the background, but then he apparently decided it was time for his photoshoot because he ordered the herd off to the side, then slowly stalked the lawn, turning his head left and right. It was very amusing, and I guess a sign that even here in the north, we’re still in California. “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.”

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We drove through Humboldt County and on up the coast, planning to stop for the night in Crescent City—nearly to Oregon. We got into town just before 8, and drove in dismay past motel after motel displaying “Sorry” and “We’re full” and, often, simply “No.” Finally, we found a small, unexciting hotel with one room left—two double beds. We took it. We’re glad. Abel is sleeping on the floor, his bed made out of two bedspreads, but we don’t care. We went out for some adequate Thai food and everyone else is already asleep. Tomorrow, insha’allah, we should make it back to Portland. The kids will be happy.

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