Our Adventures on Route 66, Part 2: Red Horse Vineyard Bed & Breakfast, Albuquerque

The insistent quacking began the second we stepped out of the car. Our welcoming committee, a very pushy duck, was demanding something from us – food? attention? both? – and he waddled close behind as we approached the picturesque farmhouse.

Minutes before, we had been driving through an urban area of Albuquerque, and I was dubious. According to the website photos for the Red Horse Vineyard, the family-owned bed-and-breakfast was supposed to be in a rural area, surrounded by trees and a lush vineyard. The neighborhood, with houses surrounded by wire fences and cement yards, wasn’t what I expected.

Turning down a side street, we reached a long gravel driveway that led to the property, and it was even more beautiful and spacious than the photos suggested. It was an oasis in an otherwise asphalt landscape. Shaded by an enormous cottonwood tree, a warm, wood-paneled porch served as the entrance, decorated with assorted windchimes, windmills, and colorful pottery.

redhorsevineyardfront

Owner Darlene, a lovely middle-aged woman with large blue eyes, greeted us warmly. When we mentioned our aggressive greeter, she rolled her eyes and laughed. “Wanna adopt a duck?” she asked. “He just sort of showed up here this week; we have no idea where he came from.”

Darlene’s family had lived in the house for decades, and the love and care that went into the house was immediately evident as soon as we walked in. The house was beautiful, spacious, and rustic, but wasn’t particularly decorated in any specific theme or style; it was in a style that’s uniquely theirs. (You can take a virtual walkthrough here.)  In addition to being a winemaker, gardener, and all-around handyman, her father, Carl also crafted beautiful pottery; much of it was on display in rooms throughout the house. Paintings by Carl’s late wife, Donna, also graced the house, as well as many family photos.

Striking the perfect balance between being welcoming but also respecting our privacy, Darlene knew we must be tired after the long drive, and showed us to our room. On the way upstairs, she pointed out the various family photos, art, and keepsakes, and briefly told some of the stories behind them. Her mother, Donna, before she took on the enormous task of running a farm, had been a fledgling artist and musician. When she and Carl had bought the house, it had been small; much of what we were looking at had been added on over the years.

As we walked through the house, I daydreamed about what a rewarding job it must be to run a bed-and-breakfast: living in a charming old house, proudly showing guests around the property, making your living by playing hostess to visiting guests.

Darlene showed us all the rooms upstairs, decorated with antiques. One included a chamber pot. “It is, of course, just for decoration, but unfortunately we had a guest actually use it,” she said, with a slight grimace. “Oh, and we have a pool out there, but one family’s kids poured something into it and we can’t use it at the moment.”

Any romantic notions I had about running a bed-and-breakfast immediately vanished.

Our rustic, wood-paneled room was small, with a slanted wood beam ceiling,  and had the most comfortable leather chair I’ve ever sat in. It was stocked with plenty of books, as well as tea and coffee. Our bathroom had a huge shower, and the small window in the shower looked out upon the enormous cottonwood tree; as the breeze sent the cotton sailing through the air, it almost looked like it was snowing.

A book left on the table, Call The Vet,  written by family matriarch Donna Londene (who had since passed away), told heartbreaking and hilarious anecdotes of her transition from aspiring opera singer to life on a farm, and the struggles of raising three children (as well as the challenges of caring for farm animals). It also detailed Darlene’s (our hostess) battle with illness, and how she ultimately turned to alternative medicine and holistic remedies to heal herself.

In the morning, I crept down to the kitchen to try to grab a cup of coffee before the rest of the household was awake, but Darlene was already up and making pancakes. She was cheery and talkative, a perfect hostess. In stark contrast, I still needed coffee before I could be a decent human being. I thanked her and retreated to my room.

redhorseinn kitchen

In a little while, I was happily caffeinated, and Dave was just waking up. We walked down to the kitchen  to a delicious breakfast of pancakes, fresh eggs, and fruit. The country kitchen, decorated with hanging china plates, blue floor tile, and brick, was very much of its era. Darlene told us that her mother, sometime in the 70’s, saw a photo in a home magazine of Don Knotts’ (of all people) kitchen, and it gave her the inspiration to make over her own kitchen in the same style.

redhorsekitchenfloor

Our tablemates were a friendly elderly couple, who were taking roads less traveled back to Denver; they wanted to avoid the major highways. It sounded daunting; I felt a little worried about them making a long journey over narrow winding roads. But they also mentioned that they went on road trips often, and both seemed in good health. They tried to talk Dave and I into making a detour through Denver on our way back to Ventura County; we laughed and told them that would make our trip much longer than we’d like. Throughout our conversation, the coffee flowed and Darlene, managing to engage in the conversation while busily attending to our needs, seemed to be cooking an endless stack of pancakes.

After breakfast, Darlene asked if we wanted to feed their pet pig. She gave us a bucket of pancakes and eggs, and instructed us to dump it over the fence into the pig’s pen. We did so, accidentally bonking him on the head with some of the food scraps, but he didn’t seem to care. He ate with a noisy enthusiasm, snorting and spitting and slopping his food, and I then fully experienced the meaning of the expression “eat like a pig.”

I was very reluctant to leave, and wished we were able to stay another day; we hadn’t had a chance to take a tour of the vineyard or the rest of the grounds. It was so comfortable and homey that I wanted to go back up to our room, curl up in the vast leather chair, and finish reading Call The Vet. But we had to get on the road to our next destination.

Darlene asked if she could hug us (“I’m a hugger! I know not everyone is comfortable with that.”), and we told her of course she could.  I vowed that next time we’d stay more than one day.

Nowadays, if I’m ever feeling stressed, I picture myself seated in the country kitchen of the Red Horse Vineyard, gazing out the window at the cottonwood tree, and immediately feel much better.

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Post-Apocalyptic Hellscapes, Wagon Wheels and Cadillacs: Our Adventures on Route 66

Abandoned

I stared up at the cowboy illustration on the sign above The Plainsman restaurant. He resembled Charles Bronson: brooding, hat pulled down low on his forehead, large moustache. It looked like a cowboy had begrudgingly posed for the sketch artist – “Awwwwright, podna, make it snappy!” – and the result was the quick pen-and-ink drawing adorning the entrance to the restaurant. A giant wood carving of a rifle served as the signpost.

The diner, with its slanted shingle roof, looked like an inviting place to stop for a sandwich and a cup of coffee – the kind of place my parents would have taken us to eat during our road trip out west in 1970.

Except that it was completely deserted, and the doors were boarded up.

theplainsman

The Plainsman had galloped over the desert hills long ago, leaving his restaurant to slowly decay.

All throughout Route 66 we experienced this: diners, gas stations, hotels – once bustling with carefree vacationing tourists, now fading in the brutal desert sun.

The old road was like exploring an abandoned, post-apocalyptic hellscape, where precious family vacation memories were overtaken over by weeds, rot, and graffiti. The experience was exhilarating, magical, depressing, and bizarre – sometimes all at once.

The Broken Road

Anyone who’s traveled the Mother Road can tell you that it’s impossible to drive on it continuously. The road breaks up, veers off, stops dead; sometimes it is undrivable, sometimes it transitions into a private road, and sometimes abruptly ends with no warning.

Exiting on and off the far more reliable I-40 highway, which largely runs parallel to 66, we encountered giant lumberjacks, abandoned motels, deserted coffee shops, and random rabbits.

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San Bernardino

Our Route 66 journey was the opposite of the classic trip which begins in Chicago and ends on the Santa Monica Pier – from the cold, dreary east to the golden west. Instead we were heading from west to east – from San Bernardino to Oklahoma City.

Since Dave and I had driven on the segments of old 66 that run through L.A., Santa Monica and Pasadena many times, we decided to begin our journey in San Bernardino – bleak, industrial, hot San Bernardino.

Driving by all the Denny’s and Jiffy Lubes and McDonald’s and concrete 1970’s apartment complexes, one can still catch glimpses of the past: old diners, abandoned drive-in theaters, gas stations, motels. Among the homogenous fast food restaurants are ghosts of a bygone era, of people seeking a new life, families on vacation, people running away from the old and predictable way of doing things into the unknown.

One of these ghosts is still very much active: the Wigwam Motel.  

wigwam motel

The Wigwam Motel

I’ve been fascinated with the Wigwam Motel ever since happening upon it during a short Route 66 drive in the 90’s

It was so kitschy and unreal, that I expected a cartoon version of a 1950’s tourist to come strolling out of one of the teepees, wearing a flowered shirt, camera around his neck.

In the 70’s, years after its tourist heyday, the Wigwam Motel was a sad, sleazy, rundown hangout. A sign reading “DO IT IN A TEEPEE!” hung in its main entrance.

Thankfully, in recent years the motel has been lovingly restored by its current owners, and each teepee has a bright coat of fresh paint. The lobby is full of Route 66 collectibles and items for sale in a glass case: signs, buttons, bumper stickers, postcards, etc.

wigwamlobby

On the wall of the lobby are framed photos of the teepees’ interiors, from the 50’s. It was decorated in the cowboys-and-Indian style so popular at the time.

While I respect the new owners for renovating the exterior, I wish they’d renovated the interior to mimic the original. Instead, they’re decorated with flimsy velvet curtains and a sateen bedspread. The only thing in the room that seemed to evoke the mood and the time period was a kitschy cactus lamp. With all the wonderful retro-style fabric available now, it wouldn’t have been difficult to recreate the look.

That said, I am glad that they restored the outside of the teepees, as well as the grounds, to their former glory. Vintage cars from the 50’s and 60’s are parked in the lot, adding to the nostalgic mood. I could almost see Lucy, Ricky, Fred, and Ethel arriving to the motel, suitcases in the back, dressed in their vacation clothes, ready for adventure.

Bagdad Café

Originally called the Sidewinder Café, the Bagdad Café was renamed after being used in the cult film of the same name. It’s not located in the town of Bagdad, a remote ghost town about 55 miles east from the café on 66; rather it’s just off the Newberry Springs exit.

bagdadcafe

I haven’t seen the cult classic the café was named after, but after visiting the location in real life, I almost feel like I don’t have to. Other than the usual Route 66 t-shirts and bumper stickers for sale, nothing about the place appeared gimmicky or geared to tourists, and it was practically empty. A man with deeply-etched lines on his face, the kind of wrinkles you can only get from years living in the desert, sat behind the counter, staring vacantly into space. Two women, with the same hardened, weathered appearance, sat at a table in the corner.

In contrast to the glaring sunlight outside, it was extremely dark inside the windowless, wood-paneled cafe. The graffiti in the women’s restroom was written in many different languages. Travelers from all over the world had all flocked to this little café in the middle of the desert because of the film.

Amboy, CA

At Ludlow, the old road breaks away from I-40, and jogs through the desert for about 80 miles, joining up with the interstate again at Fenner. When the faster, smoother, and more convenient I-40 was completed in the area, travelers stopped driving through that stretch of 66, and businesses suffered as a result. The towns, with exotic names like Siberia and Bagdad, became deserted.

When we approached what remained of Amboy, I expected only deserted ruins, and was happily surprised to find a fully-functioning (vintage) gas station, coffee shop, and store.

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I later found out that someone had bought Roy’s Café, the gas station, and the surrounding buildings. The location is mostly used for film shoots; a 1950’s style office reception area, decorated with Route 66 memorabilia, serves as its base.

amboyoffice

While drinking my ice cold root beer, I spoke to a few guys who were seated outside, also enjoying cold sodas. They said they’d been living in downtown L.A.; weary of city life, they’d recently moved to Twenty-Nine Palms and were currently on a road trip adventure. I could relate.

rootbeer

Needles, CA

This sign, hanging outside the Wagon Wheel Restaurant, describes Needles perfectly:

needles

Other than Wild West touristy fun of the restaurant (which features a collection of Levi’s jeans on its wall, from a tiny infant size to a pair fitting a 400-pound man), there’s not much to see in Needles. We passed one boarded-up house after another; what looked like a once-thriving section of town, was now practically deserted. Google Navigator directed us to drive through narrow, winding streets, past the abandoned houses, and through a graffitied tunnel. As if in a dream, we emerged from the gritty tunnel and were suddenly in a land of clear blue water, boats, and greenery.

We were in Arizona.

Williams, AZ

Known as The Gateway To The Grand Canyon, this charming town is filled with Route 66 artifacts, as well as the only gas station museum I’ve ever encountered.

gasstationmuseum

A few semi-upscale restaurants, such as the South Rims Beer & Wine Garage, cater to both the Route 66 car nostalgia (the garage-themed brewery has a real vintage auto inside) as well as the culinary tastes of visitors from more urban areas (there are plenty of veggie and vegan options). But lest you think the town has lost its Wild West flavor, there are still plenty of diners

diner

and steakhouses.

steakhouse

Winslow, AZ

“Standin’ on the corner . . . “ In downtown Winslow, in a very small park, there’s a plaque dedicated to this lyric from The Eagles’ hit “Take It Easy,” written by Jackson Browne, whose statue graces the corner.

winslow

Across the street from the tiny park is a store that sells Eagles and Route 66 memorabilia.

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Other than that, there wasn’t much to see in downtown Winslow. Like much of Route 66, the town has seen better days.

Tucumcari, NM

More than anywhere else we visited on the old road, Tucumcari felt overwhelmingly creepy and post-apocalyptic – as if all human life had instantaneously disappeared, leaving everything as it was.

Despite the ghostly feeling of the town, some places, like the Blue Swallow Motel, are still in business.

blueswallow

tucamcari

dels

Route 66 fanatics, with money to invest, have bought up some of the dying properties and restored them to their former glory. It was encouraging. I hope someday all of Route 66 will be restored.

Albuquerque

I loved Albuquerque, and the historic bed and breakfast where we stayed. It deserves its own blog post. Stay tuned.

The Texas Panhandle

It was hot. It was flat. It was Texas.

It also has this enormous cross, which appeared ominously on the horizon as we approached. Everything’s bigger in Texas.

texascross

Cadillac Ranch

The Texas panhandle was not my favorite part of our journey (hot/flat/endless), but I was excited to see the iconic Cadillac Ranch up close.

cadillacranch

It’s not exactly part of Route 66 – it’s located on a frontage road just off I-40 – but it was close enough to be included on our journey.

Past attempts to discourage graffiti were in vain; it would seem now that the graffiti is now a permanent part of the exhibit.

(Of course, Bruce Springsteen’s “Cadillac Ranch” was going through my head the rest of the week.)

Oklahoma City, OK

Texas became less flat, barren, and dry, and more woodsy; we were approaching Oklahoma. As soon as we saw the “WELCOME TO OKLAHOMA” sign, I burst out singing the entirety of “Oklahoma” – “O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A!” – while my husband winced and shook his head.

We stayed in downtown Oklahoma City in Bricktown, a big change from the rural / desert feel of our journey so far. Our hotel was in walking distance of downtown bistros, breweries, and the river walk .

okcityriverwalk

It was also a short walk to the Oklahoma City Dodgers’ stadium (the minor league team for the L.A. Dodgers), where we were attending a game the next night.

I highly recommend staying here. Not only is the downtown area full of things to do and great places to eat, you can book a luxurious apartment-sized hotel suite for about a fifth of the price you’d pay for in any other city.

hotel

When we arrived that night, it was 10:00. A ball game had just ended, and the streets were filled with baseball fans. We were hungry, and most restaurants were closed. (It might be a big city, but it’s still not a late-night destination like L.A. or New York.) The only place open that was serving any food was TapWerks Bar & Grill, down the street from our hotel on Sheridan Ave, housed in a turn-of-the-century brick building that looks like it was once a factory.

The waitress was friendly, and the food was much better than expected for bar food. I had a delicious veggie burger and a top-notch craft beer.

After visiting the city’s capital the next day, we strolled through the historic Knob Hill district and its turn-of-the-century mansions. That night, we walked through the humidity (in the 100 + degree weather, it was like walking inside a warm giant sponge) to the Oklahoma City Dodgers Stadium. It was surreal to see baseball fans outside of southern California wearing Dodger blue.

All I can remember about the game is that I was sweating profusely, and that the pre-show featured a waving cowboy standing in the back of a horse-drawn wagon. Also, I heard the song “Boot-Scootin’ Boogie” for the first time. We definitely weren’t in Southern California anymore.

Oklahoma loves its famous natives, and proudly displays their names everywhere on Bricktown street signs. Flaming Lips Alley intersects with Mickey Mantle Drive.

flaminglips

If you’re concerned that Oklahoma City’s Bricktown area has become too cosmopolitan, don’t worry. I’m pretty sure L.A. and New York don’t have their own American Banjo Museum (post photo). Sadly, we didn’t get a chance to visit. Next time, definitely.

americanbanjomuseum

Seligman, AZ

The last stop on our journey home was Seligman. Of all the places we visited, it was the one that most captured the spirit and essence of 66. It was the exact opposite of the mostly-desolate Tucumcari: it was alive and kicking.

seligman

Seligman is proud of its Route 66 roots. Like so many Route 66 towns, it began to fade away after I-40 was built, and travelers stopped using 66 as the main highway. Not wanting their town to disappear from the map, the residents convinced Arizona to designate Route 66 a historic highway. In 1987, Seligman was named The Birthplace of Route 66.

We stayed at a classic 66 roadside motel, The Supai. I noticed most of the other travelers were European; they seemed fascinated by this uniquely American experience.

supai

The town is a combination of hippie, biker, artist, and desert dweller. I got the feeling that although they wear tie-dye and have long hair and beards, they’re probably also on largely on the conservative side.

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There aren’t a lot of food choices in a small town like Seligman, but Dave and I really liked the Roadrunner Café, which was walking distance from our hotel. We had ice cold beer and sandwiches for dinner, and in the morning, they served (good!) coffee and a tasty, healthy breakfast.

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roadrunner

Though I was amused by the concept, we steered clear (no pun intended) of the Roadkill Café down the street, whose slogan is “You Kill It, We Grill It.” Their menu includes Deer Delectables, Bad-Break Steak, Fender Tenders, Splatter Papper, Swirl of Squirrel, and Big Bagged Stag.

Morning Rider on the Road

One of my favorite moments of the whole journey was walking down Route 66 just after sunrise to the Roadrunner Café for some coffee. It was still, quiet, and cool in the early morning hours. No one else was up and about yet, and the street was deserted. A train passed by on a nearby railroad.

seligman4

I ordered some coffee and sat on the patio, looking out at the historic highway in the early morning light. It was the last day of our trip; later that afternoon, we’d be fighting traffic through the miserable urban sprawl of San Bernardino, and it would take hours before we were back at home in Ventura County. But for now, in that moment, I was alone with the historic Mother Road.

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THE END

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Night Hiking

“Stop. Wait a second.”

“Why are we stopping?”

“There’s a rustling in the bush.”

Jim shines a flashlight towards the direction of the noise. A pair of eyes is illuminated for about half a second, then disappears, as the creature scurries away through the hillside.

“What was it?”

“Was it a coyote?”

“Not sure. Maybe a raccoon?”

No one wants to think that it might have been a mountain lion.

This sort of exchange happens often during night hikes with our hiking group.

When my husband Dave and I moved from L.A. to Ventura County in March of 2014, we knew very few people in the area. One of the ways we knew we could make new friends, as well as get some much-needed exercise, was by joining a hiking group.

They’re not just any hiking group, though. On their web page, they describe themselves as “sleepyheads” who “hate getting up early to hike.”  I am a morning person, but the thought of going on a hike at 5:00 A.M. before the work day even begins seems brutal. Dave is not a morning person whatsoever; this runs in his family. (His 85-year-old mother is a night owl party animal, who likes to stay up until 2:00 in the morning; when I told her I have to be at my job by 7:30 A.M. on week days, she crinkled her nose in disbelief and disgust.)

The group hosts various hikes throughout the Simi Valley/Chatsworth/Thousand Oaks area, and, despite their nocturnal focus, occasionally schedules hikes during the afternoons on weekdays and weekends. There are three levels of hikes – beginner, beginner/intermediate, and advanced – and two categories: conditioning hikes and social hikes. (I’ve never been on one of the conditioning hikes, but I always imagine ultra-sports-y types hiking at a rapid pace in Lycra shorts, pumping their fists in the air at the end of the hike and yelling “Whoo-hoo!”.) The social hikes are for people like me, who like to hike at their own (glacial) pace, rewarding themselves with chimichangas and cookies along the way.

Each hike is scheduled on the group’s web page, noting the type and level of the hike, photos, a detailed description, map, and directions. Members are required to RSVP.

The group emphasizes that the purpose of the social hikes is not to compete athletically, but to socialize and enjoy yourself while exercising at your own pace. A description of the hike will usually include something along these lines: “A beginner might find some of the steep hills challenging, and might want to proceed slowly and take breaks. That’s okay, because this is not a conditioning hike; it’s a social hike.” In other words – we’re not jocks. We’re not doing this primarily to strengthen our core muscles, or time ourselves running up steep hills. We are so not those athletic people in the Lycra shorts, pumping our fists in the air. I’m still very much that nerdy kid in junior high who hated gym and competitive sports, but loved to take long walks through the woods after school; these hikes are perfect for me. It’s for the mental relaxation as much as it is the physical exercise. Social hikers proceed at a moderate pace and wait up for the slower hikers (sometimes I’m the one waiting; sometimes I’m the one lagging behind). We talk to one another about movies, politics, our jobs, our families, our pets, the sights of the trail and surrounding mountains, and the animals we see along the way. (No mountain lions yet, fortunately.)

The Strange Shapes of Night

The night hikes usually begin at 6:30 P.M. In the winter, this means of course we’ll be starting in the dark, and we’ll be bundled up accordingly.hikewinter

The mountains, rocks, and burned-out trees take on an ominous appearance in the dark. Nature, alive and colorful with flowers and cacti in the sunlight, becomes menacing after dark. Most people bring flashlights or head lamps, if only to avoid tripping over rocks (the appropriately-named Rocky Peak can be difficult to navigate in the dark. After one nasty fall, I bought a hiking pole for balance, and now I never hike without it.).

RockyPeakPark4 

Occasionally during a full moon, when the path is bathed in natural light, we’ll stop and turn off our flashlights, to gaze up at the stars and the strange moonlit landscape around us.

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After a good rain, the ground will be damp, and the air will smell moist and earthy. The hills will be fragrant with purple sage, white sage, fennel, sagebrush, mint, and pine. Our hiking leader likes to point out the different plants and their medicinal qualities, and how the Native Americans used the plants for their healing properties.

Hiking by Dusk

The summer hikes take on a different personality than the dark, winter hikes. It can often still be very hot when we begin the hikes at 6:30, and it stays light much longer. The knit hats, scarves, and gloves of the winter hikes are replaced by light t-shirts and shorts. There’s a more festive, relaxed spirit on the summer hikes, and the trees and mountains that appear so foreboding in the dark are golden in the sun; there’s less mystery and danger, and more of a lighthearted, summer vacation feeling in the air.

hikingsummer

Feast by Moonlight

When we reach the designated spot for the snack share (usually about a third of the way through the hike), we eat. Our hike leader, Jim, brings a table cloth and a couple of small lanterns, and everyone brings food and/or drink to share. Jim’s specialty is chimichangas (they go quickly; after hiking for a few miles, most people are hungry for something more substantial than cookies and chips). I will usually bring something to drink, and so will a few others (it all somehow gets consumed).

feast

There are the usual Trader Joe’s chips and dip and cookies, as well as homemade treats, like Adam’s cranberry sauce. Sharing food and drink with others in the mountains, under the moonlight, seems somehow like an ancient, primal ritual. (Or so it does, until Jim starts playing his often-mocked 80’s playlist on his phone.) We’re careful to pack out everything we brought, leaving no Daisy cup or wrapper or paper towel behind.

It’s March 20, and our hikes have been cancelled two weeks in a row because of rain. Of course we always need rain in southern California (despite the havoc it brings), but I miss our hikes. It’s my mid-week escape from the busy work week into nature (albeit in a controlled, safe environment), adding a bit of fun, adventure, and much-needed exercise to my routine. I enjoy the camaraderie, the beauty of the California hillsides, the socializing and the feasting – and now that it’s Daylight Saving time, I’ll be able to enjoy more of it during the daylight. Hopefully next week’s hike will happen, and when it does, the hills will be bright green from the recent rains, the wildflowers abundant, and the air fresh and clean.

Leaving Los Angeles (sort of)

First published 4/24/16

Ventura

When my husband Dave and I lived in mid-city Los Angeles, we would often escape to Ventura for a quick weekend getaway.

We liked the downtown section with its shops, restaurants and antiques. The ocean air. The slower pace.

When we came back home, I felt claustrophobic, like I couldn’t breathe.

I loved the history and architecture of our mid-city neighborhood. We lived within walking distance of LACMALittle Ethiopia and the Farmer’s Market.  I also loved our 1938 apartment, with its hardwood floors, tall ceilings and crown molding, and the fairy tale “cottage” look of some of the 1930’s houses in our neighborhood, known as “Storybook Architecture” – an L.A. architectural anomaly of the 20’s and 30’s. (These adorable little “cottages,” unfortunately, start selling at around $800,000.)

I also liked the sense of community in our immediate neighborhood, known as Wilshire Vista; it felt like a little city within an enormous one. Every October, the city would block off the streets, and hold a Halloween fair for the kids. There was also an annual festival in Little Ethiopia, with bands, food and street vendors. It was an old, established neighborhood; it had tree-lined streets and many families, and after having lived in some rough parts of Hollywood, I felt fortunate to live there.

But there were too many damned cars.

What should have been short, simple errands became sheer tests of patience, will and determination – sitting in an endless line of cars just to get into a parking lot, or circling parking lots in vain for twenty minutes – just to pick up groceries.

And the eight-mile drive home from my work in Santa Monica often took an hour or more. I tried every available route – freeways and surface streets – taking the advice of friends and co-workers. “Oh, I usually take Olympic the whole way.” “Take Pico to Centinela . . .” Every conversation sounded like “The Californians” SNL skit – the skit that will go down in history with Angelenos as painfully funny.

When we could, we would walk or ride our bikes, always a preferable option. We’d embark on what I called our Death Ride to Trader Joe’s on our bikes, up Fairfax, to avoid being trapped in our car in traffic. Despite the danger (or maybe because of it?) it was fun, and being on our bikes gave us a sense of freedom, as we zoomed past frustrated drivers sitting miserably in traffic.

I started daydreaming about what the area must have looked like in the 30’s, before there were so many cars. It must have been paradise – the people of Los Angeles, women dressed up in hats and gloves, men in suits – driving in their large Fords and Cadillacs – of which there were much fewer at the time, or taking the Red Car.

I began to loathe and despise cars – driving them, dodging them as a pedestrian or bicyclist – and seeing thousands of them on the freeway every day, crawling along.

I felt myself wanting to get away more and more. My need for space, fresh air, open roads and nature were overcoming my desire to live in the great city of Los Angeles.

Retirement?

We started talking about where we wanted to move when we retired. The conversation evolved from, “Where do we want to retire?” to “Will we ever be able to retire?” and ultimately to “Do we really want to wait until we’re elderly to move somewhere with quiet and fresh air?”

We talked about buying a house, and if it was even remotely possible.

In L.A.? No way, at least not anywhere we’d want to live. Not on our budget.

We didn’t want to find new jobs outside the city and then move. Not yet, at least. One giant change at a time.

But the commute from Ventura to Santa Monica (where my workplace is) would kill both me and our car.

Camarillo

We started thinking of places between Santa Monica and Ventura.

Calabasas? Agoura Hills? Too pricey, too damned hot in the summer.

Oxnard? Still pretty far. And the nicest area there – the beach area – was too expensive; not Santa Monica expensive, but still out of our budget.

It was Dave who said, “What about Camarillo?”

Like every Angeleno, I associated Camarillo with the enormous, sprawling outlet mall (or the old, infamous mental institution, long since defunct and now occupied by Channel Islands University). The entire city of Camarillo, in my mind, seemed confined to the massive outlet shopping center and a movie theater. I wanted to explore the region beyond the soulless outlets.

We decided to spend the night in Camarillo on a Saturday and go exploring. The city (which really seemed like a small town compared to L.A. – what doesn’t?) was confusing to navigate at first. Like many cities in southern California, it had once been a sprawling agricultural community. It still was, to an extent, but was now rudely interrupted by a freeway that cut through the center of town.

We stayed at a hotel on Daily, and ate at the Good Morning Café the next day; it was a little mom-and-pop coffee shop, decorated with historic photos of Camarillo, and biblical and inspirational sayings painted on the walls. Little did we know this was the “bad” area of town, near Barry St.; being from a very urban part of L.A.., it didn’t seem even remotely threatening. Nowadays, whenever we drive by the area, we joke, “Roll up your windows and lock your doors – we’re driving by Barry St.!”

As we drove around town, one thing I noticed is that there was a lot of space. I could breathe more easily. Driving through the suburbs, it seemed like every other street had a large park. (I thought of the “park” at Carthay Circle in mid-city – a tiny plot of land, with a statue and a bench, in the middle of a busy traffic circle.) People were out walking or bicycling, and kids were playing. As we were driving, suburban developments would suddenly end and we would be driving by acres of farmland. It reminded me of where I grew up – in Cherry Hill, NJ – it was suburban, but right down the street from wide open spaces – and plenty of trees, as there were in Camarillo. It also looked like there were plenty of hiking opportunities (we’ve since discovered the trails in the area, and go hiking often).

Along with all the open space and natural beauty, unfortunately there was a lot of bland architecture – condos and new housing developments, and lots of mini-malls. That’s one reason we were excited to discover the Old Town section. Old Town was like many quaint town centers such as Sierra Madre and Montrose, with a clock tower in the center of town, potted concrete vases, old-fashioned lamp posts; it also seemed to be the only place in town that had stand-alone restaurants that weren’t connected to mini-malls. Old Town was also right across the street from the train station; being a big train fan, I was also excited about this. There was also an Old Town “trolley” bus that took visitors to and from the train station. (I told Dave that Old Town, with its lamp posts, potted plants, clock tower and trolley, reminded me of Main Street in Disneyland; if you know me, you’ll know that’s a compliment and not a snide remark).

The second time we stayed overnight in Camarillo, we did it on a Sunday night so we could try out our commute to work the next morning. We stayed at the Bella Capri Inn in Old Town, and I stopped at the wonderful Element Coffee the next morning, a place I now frequent. Unfortunately, for my very first commute from Santa Monica to Camarillo, there was an unusually severe back-up on Malibu Canyon due to an accident; I had to turn around and take the dreaded 405 instead.  It still didn’t deter me from wanting to make the move to Camarillo, though.

We decided to try it out. We’d rent an apartment there for a while. If it worked out, if we liked it, then we’d look into buying there; if we didn’t, we’d go back to L.A.

We rented an apartment, in one of those huge, modern complexes. It had new appliances and all the amenities we could wish for; it felt more like an upscale hotel of suites. It lacked the personality of our 1930’s mid-city apartment, but it also lacked the problems (giant bugs that invaded in the summer, thin walls, no insulation, chasing down our landlady for repairs); it was run very efficiently, in a bland and corporate way. Not very homey, but we also knew it was temporary. We also wanted to take advantage for a little while of having someone else do/pay for repairs; we knew we’d be homeowners soon, and that the burden would all be on us eventually.

In October of 2015, we finally bought a house – or rather, half a house; its official term is cluster home, as it’s attached by a single wall to the home next door. It’s like a duplex, but it feels like a single home, with our own big front yard, backyard and driveway, and thankfully isn’t part of an HOA. It was built in 1978 and has its quirks (which I’ll save for another blog post), but fortunately didn’t come with an ugly 70’s carpet or kitchen that had to be replaced; it had beautiful hardwood floors and a fairly modern kitchen. It does have a popcorn ceiling, holes in the wall, and non-working light switches, all of which we’ll deal with in time. Despite its imperfections, we love our house, and feel lucky to have been able to buy for half the price of what it would have been in L.A.

The Commute

My friends think I’m crazy, making the 90-mile round trip to work in Santa Monica Monday through Friday.

But here’s the thing: it’s one of my favorite parts of my morning. I never thought I’d say that about a work commute.

Most days I carpool with Dave, who works in Woodland Hills. We take the 101 south, I drop him off at work (often going to the Coffee Bean for my morning fix), and then I take Topanga Canyon Boulevard over to PCH. The only time it’s a problem is when there’s an accident (or when school has just started and traffic is unusually heavy). That happens occasionally, but then I can at least look at the rugged mountains of Topanga Canyon, or the ocean (and the surfers) on PCH; it sure beats being stuck on the 10 Freeway, surrounded by concrete.

When I drive in by myself, there’s a few different ways I can go. Even though it takes a little longer, lately I’ve been driving past Channel Islands University, past farmland, to PCH. Then I get treated to a Southern California picture postcard view as I drove past Sycamore Canyon, Point Dume, Leo Carrillo, and the entire stretch of Malibu. If there’s traffic on PCH, I can deal with it more easily than I could back in the days when I sat on the 10; I can roll down the window and inhale the ocean breeze.

We moved here in 2014, and have never, not for a second, thought of moving back to L.A. We both still work there. We go to events in L.A. often, especially during the week, when it’s more convenient.  But when we’re heading home west on the 101, and the sky gets darker, the landscape less cluttered, and we can see a million stars in the sky, I know we’re getting close to home and I can breathe a sigh of relief. Once we’re traveling down the steep Conejo Grade, and I can see the ocean on the horizon and the lights of Camarillo in the valley below, I know we’re home.

I love L.A. I love its history and architecture, and am proud of its rich film history. I’m filled with pride when I’m at a Dodger game and Randy Newman‘s “I Love L.A.” begins to play (a somewhat sardonic ode to the city, but still, its official theme song). But the things I don’t like about it are the things everyone doesn’t like about it – traffic, smog and high housing prices. (I am also upset about the way developers have barged into my old neighborhood of Echo Park, tearing down old homes, building hideous new apartment buildings in the middle of residential areas, and driving up the rent.) The difference is that I no longer think it’s worth it to live there and just accept these things, or try to fight against them in vain.

The great thing about living on the outskirts is that it’s just an hour drive away to visit Phillipe’s French Dip, MOCA, Little Tokyo, Angel’s Flight, The Pantages Theater, Disney Hall, the historic stairs of Silver Lake – everything that’s remarkable and unique about L.A.

Then I can come back home, get some space, and breathe.