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California here we come!

by bill - 1999-05-06 - ( life / travel )

For our "summer vacation," Tara and I went to California. Where in California? Just about everywhere in 4½ days. We took a Southwest Airlines "direct" flight from Nashville to Oakland. Stupidly, we thought "direct" meant direct. But, as the pilot explained as he came back and chatted with us while we sat in Kansas City, "people often confuse 'direct' with 'nonstop.'" Taking advantage of the pilot's availability and friendliness, I casually mentioned that Tara would like to fly the plane. Surprisingly, he said no. And, thanks to his better judgment, we made it to Oakland, after first stopping in Phoenix then Ontario (CA). Total flight time was almost 8 hours, compared to 4½ hours on the return flight which was truly direct.

The flight crew from Nashville to Phoenix were fun. It must've been the same crew that inspired some of the jokes on this site's Jokes page, Non-Fiction, Page 2. As she made the speech they always make prior to take-off, the "lead" flight attendant explained that if there was a sudden drop in cabin pressure, the oxygen masks would drop down in front of us. "If you're travelling with more than one child," she said, "first put the mask on yourself, and decide now which child you like the best and put the remaining mask on that one. In the event of a water-landing, your seat cushion can be used as a flotation device, which you can keep courtesy of Southwest." She went on to say, "For those travelling with small children, you'll be glad to know that beer, wine and mixed drinks are available."

Upon landing in Oakland, we went directly to the Avis counter to pick up our rental car. When we got there, the clerk informed us that they had no car for us. We would have to wait 30-45 minutes. I was properly disgusted, but it was really not that big of a deal since we were both hungry for something besides the Southwest-provided peanuts and cold Pop-Tarts anyway. We killed the time by grabbing some lunch. The car we finally got was pretty cool, actually: a new "arrest me" red Pontiac Grand Prix.

We wandered around San Francisco a bit as I tried to remember where things were. I once worked in "The City" for about a year in '88-'89, just missing the '89 earthquake. But I digress. Following the signs to Chinatown and Fisherman's Wharf, we ended up at neither one. We parked on the street in the very trendy North Beach area and walked around.

Completely by accident, we stumbled upon Chinatown. Knowing Tara's love of fireworks — and all things fire-related, but that's another story — I said I knew what she wanted. Firecrackers. As usual, I was wrong. We neither looked for nor found any firecrackers. We wandered up and down Grant (Ave.? St.? Blvd?) and checked out the shops.

Tara and I each bought small polished-wood statues of Buddha, our savior. As the owner took our money, I watched as his wife (co-owner, whatever) dealt with an Asian woman customer bent on bargaining. The customer wanted a live turtle in a cage, only without the cage, and at half price. After some prolonged bargaining, both vendor and customer seemed to agree on a compromised price, only to have the customer counter with an even lower price. The co-owner angrily waved off the would-be customer, saying: "You go! You not a customer!" By this time, Tara and I were on our way out the door, so we'll never know if the customer ever got her turtle.

Tara and I bought a few more trinkets before breaking for lunch, where we had authentic Chinese food that was much better than anything we've ever found in Nashville. Big surprise. And finally, too quickly, our time was up and we had to drive two hours inland to Stockton and meet Michael and Evelyn (my nephew and his wife) at their house for dinner.

At Michael and Evelyn's soon-to-be-former-home, we met up with Lucy, Jeannie, Tiffany, her fiancée David, and Thomas. It was great to see everyone again. We spent the next hour or so getting reacquainted before Jeannie and crew left and Michael, Evelyn, Lucy, Tara and I went out to dinner.

Around ten o'clock local time, midnight our time, Tara and I finally had to say that we needed to go home and sleep. We'd been up since 4 AM our time, and we were "plum tuckered out" (not that anyone in the South actually talks like that; no one I know, anyway).

The next morning, we returned to San Francisco. Along the way, a light saying "Service Engine Soon" came on in the rental car's dashboard. Knowing that we would be driving to L.A. and back before we were done, I didn't want to worry about the car breaking down. So, we passed through Oakland Airport again and got a different car: a Buick LeSabre. A real "grandparents'" car. But hey, it was a car. We didn't much care.

We drove the LeSabre straight to Pier 39 at Fisherman's Wharf for lunch at Bubba Gump's Shrimp Company. Tara's starting a collection of their T-shirts from each location. Two down (Chicago and San Francisco), six or seven to go! Served by a Scottish lesbian who gave the impression that she could arm-wrestle me and win, the lunch was good.

Next, we checked out the seals and sea lions that have laid claim to several boat docks at Pier 39. It was neat seeing them so close up. We then walked over to the cable car roundabout for a ride from the Wharf to Market Street. We waited in line for at least half an hour while a couple of homeless people entertained the crowd. One did an escape act, wrapping himself up in chains, only to miraculously escape! The other played a few chords, over and over again, on his electric guitar from various "classic rock" tunes, almost constantly talking, occasionally singing; if you could call it that.

Once we finally boarded the cable car, it was fun just being on one.  I probably rode one as a kid, but had no recollection of it. Tara and I both enjoyed ourselves tremendously. When we got to the end of the line, though, we found that we would have to get off and stand in an even longer line for the return trip. We weren't up for that, so we wandered around Market Street where Tara spotted the downtown Nordstrom department store across the street.

Waiting at the light to cross the street, an old black man with Christian quotations on one of those over-the-shoulder sandwich boards stared right at me and made a speech. He said something like: "Sex out of wedlock makes the woman a whore, and the man a whore-monger. Abstinence for the rest of one's life is the only way to get right with God." Or something like that. When the light turned green, Tara grabbed me by the arm and said loudly, "Come on, whore-monger!"

This Nordstrom's has a spiral escalator; the first one either of us had ever seen. We rode it up and down several floors, noticing how most everyone around us wore black or gray or a combination of the two. We stood out like the unstylish tourists that we were.

By that time, we had to get going to make it to my parents' house in Sacramento in time for dinner. We didn't make it in time. We took a short, two-street ride on the subway, BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit), followed by a long (couple of dozen blocks) walk along Embarcadero back to the car.

Finally reaching the car, Tara said, "I've never been so happy to see a Buick in all my life." Pulling out of the garage, we were hit with a $25 parking fee! Beware this parking scam. The sign in front of the garage said in big bold letters "$10, 24 hours max." In little print, which we unfortunately missed, it added: "With validation from [such-and-such] shops/restaurants."

Leaving San Francisco, we got caught in Friday evening rush-hour traffic. It took 2 and a half hours to get to Sacramento. Normally, it's an hour and a half ride. By the time we got to my parents' house, my brother Doug, his wife Jana, and their baby boy, Milanko, had left. Doug later explained that Milanko does not like to be made to wait.

As we had so rudely done at Michael and Evelyn's, again we basically just ate dinner then went to bed. The next morning, Eleanor made us a huge breakfast and sent us on our way to visit Doug, Jana and Milanko on the other side of town.

Have you met Milanko yet? He's a huge baby. Cute and sweet as can be, too. Must take after his mother there! :) Jana offered refreshments, which we respectfully turned down, citing the fact that we had just had a large breakfast. Regardless, Jana served refreshments. It's a European (and Southern) custom to provide guests with food and drink even if they decline, respectfully. We didn't touch a bit of the cake she laid out in front of us until, as we were leaving, she said, "Are you sure you don't want any cake? I made it just for you?" Of course, we took it with us and ate it on our way down to southern California. The cake was truly delicious, Jana. Thanks!

At Edwards Air Force Base, Tara's friend Rob met us at the gate on his motorcycle and escorted us back to his and his wife Emily's house on base. At the gate he asked us, "Do you want to take the scenic route, or just go straight to our house?" Of course, we opted for the scenic route!

He took us past NASA's installation where we saw a parked Stealth Fighter! It was just so cool to see one so close up. Also, there was the Boeing 747 that carries the Space Shuttle piggy-back from Edwards to Cape Kennedy. He was hoping there would be some F-15's and -16's for us to see as well, but they were all in their hangars. Still, that was a thrill for me. I've always liked aircraft.

We had dinner and spent that night with Rob, Emily, their two cats Hera and Apollo, and their German Shepherd dog Xena. The following day, Emily, Tara and I drove down to L.A.

Our first stop in L.A., since we were coming in on the 405, was Mulholland Drive, where we stopped at a scenic overlook. We then got back on the 405, saw the new Getty Center from the freeway (I once worked in their mailroom at the old Santa Monica location), and took the Sunset Boulevard exit into Bel Air, then Beverly Hills. In Beverly Hills we drove up and down Rodeo Drive and its surrounding streets until stopping for lunch at the outdoor mall in Century City. At one point in the mall as we waited on Tara at the ATM, Emily said, "I could just sit here all day and people-watch." We all laughed at the silly Californians.

Leaving Century City, we saw a "film shoot" in progress. Since then, Tara and I have seen the "E-Trade" commercial that they were apparently shooting.

Anyway, we cruised back through Beverly Hills and into West Hollywood. I pointed out Don and Diane's former apartment; the Rainbow club where Doug and I used to hang out in our rock-n-roller days; Tower Records; the LeDome restaurant; etc. Tara and Emily both spotted the Viper Room, outside of which the actor River Phoenix died a few years ago.

We continued east on Sunset to Poinsettia Place, turned left, and drove past the apartment house where Doug and I lived in the mid-80's. Next stop, Hollywood Boulevard.

We found a place to park and strolled up and down the famous/infamous boulevard. While Tara and Emily checked out Mann's Chinese Theatre, I went across the street in search of sunglasses, sunblock and a hat. I only found the latter two. The stores had sunglasses, of course, but wanted $75-$150 for them! I'm more of the "cheap sunglasses" kind of guy.

From Hollywood, we drove west to Santa Monica, then Venice Beach. In Venice, we joined the thousands of tourists strolling, cycling and rollerblading the sidewalks. Tara wanted desperately to see Muscle Beach. I said, "Why? You can look at me!" Somehow, that wasn't good enough. (I know, I'm sounding just like my Dad!) Unfortunately for Tara, fortunately for me, we never found Muscle Beach even though we walked at least a mile along the beach sidewalk.

We all bought a few things in Venice before finally returning to Edwards and Emily's family. Speaking of Emily's family, I forgot to mention that she and Rob are the proud parents of a beautiful four or five month old baby girl, Kaitlyn. She was the highlight of the trip for Tara, I know. We got some video footage of her.

From Edwards the next morning, we drove north back into Bakersfield and "The Big Valley" of California. From there we took Highway 58 west over the Coast Range (very winding road) into Santa Margarita ("Margaritaville," according to Tara) just north of San Luis Obispo, then Highway 101, then I-880 back into Oakland.

One more early wake-up call later (4:45, not that I needed the alarm, actually), we were boarding our return flight to Nashville!

It was good to be home. We had a great time, but it's always good to be home, too. Everything was so rushed, though. "Next time" we'll give ourselves more than 4½ days to see the entire state of California!

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