travelog 53

"Tünnes" in the land of the brave and the free

Whenever "Tünnes" (thats Georg's nickname) comes to America, something always goes wrong. The first time he arrived one day too early. This time he boards the plane to San Luis Obispo in Los Angeles but they unload him because the plane is too heavy. That's what probably happens when you bring too much Blackforest ham and chocolate to your friends... Georg, utterly fearless, declared the ham, cheese, and chocolate - and got through customs! He explained to the customs officer quite simply that these were Swiss specialties which we wanted to polish off the same evening anyway. Thank God, nobody asked him about the amount of ham, cheese, and chocolate.

For the first days we find accomodation at the house of friends in Atascadero. Visits to the little known wineries of the area and a drive along the Pacific coast are a must.

On Sunday we find a restaurant in Cambria where we enjoy a champagne brunch in the shade of some big trees above the creek. Then we drive north along the coast. Near Ragged Point the coast becomes really steep. On one side the cliffs drop steeply into the roaring waves of the Pacific, on the other side they rise straight up into the green range of hills. Of course we show Georg "our" plants. At this place it's Dudleya palmeri of which we want to take some pictures. We still remember a very colorful cushion below the road. But now, after the long dry season, the plants are practically invisible. Without exception they are grey with many dry leaves and they mostly hide in the withered grass. It's hard to believe how beautiful these plants can be after the winter rain!

Our tours through the wine country bring us to Eberle, one of the better known wineries. But then we try unknown paths and visit many little wineries. Small roads lead over yellow stubble fields and through oak forests. Original California as it once must have looked in many places. The wineries are mostly family businesses. Only for the harvest time they sign on some Mexicans for help. Some families specialized in organic cultivation. Goats, chickens, geese, and pigs graze within an enclosure. You can also buy walnuts and almonds fresh from the tree. It smells everywhere of fermenting grapes. The owners of the little wineries are always curious and want to know more about Swiss wine.

Another tour brings us to the Santa Ynez Valley and through Foxen Canyon. Farms alternate with wineries. The vines slowly turn yellow and red. Cattle and goats graze under huge oak trees. We stroll along galeries in little villages with colorful houses, enjoy coffee in the morning sun, and have a typical American lunch (sandwiches) under a green pergola. The wineries here are a little bit more "in" and styled, one even belongs to a Hollywood star. We will particularly remember one Pinot Noir, an often cultivated grape around here. The wine with the name "Julia" tastes like a real Swiss Pinot. As a namesake and as Swiss, we win the heart of the employee of the Cambria winery (the same name as the above-mentioned place but in a different location). He opens a bottle of 1989 Pinot Noir from a production with only a few cases. What a wonderful wine! But for $50 a bottle a little bit over our budget.

As good tour guides (see our other travel reports about visits of friends) we want to show our guest from Germany some parts of the famous California. Through bone-dry country with endless yellow pastures, dead straight roads, and only a few settlements, we drive towards the Sierra Nevada. Our destination is Sequoia National Park. During the week and outside vacation time there's not much going on here. Apart from the very active bears, of course. They search for anyhting to eat just before their hibernation. We have to securely store our groceries, sun lotion, water bottles, and shower gel in bear-proof containers while we hike in the park. Fall left its traces here too. The leaves of the trees shine from yellow to red and small bushes are adorned with purple leaves. The climb up Moro Rock is an adventure. 400 steps, chiseled into the granite monolith, lead steeply up to the vantage point. The view to the west, into the valley, is hazy. But we can admire the barren mountain tops, many of them around 10'000 feet high, of the Western Divide. We climb down to the parking lot in the light of the setting sun while a group of young Germans climbs up, gasping for breath, only to realize on top that the sun disappears in haze and clouds.

Strolls between the largest living things on earth are a must. Sequoia trees can grow up to 90m (280 ft.) and can reach a circumference of 30m (103 ft.)! We humans look like crawling insects at the side of these 2000 year old giants. You can even drive with your car through the trunk of one tree, a real American tourist attraction that we can't withstand either. The easily accessible trees which also are the largest ones, are always visited by groups of people. But we drive on a former logging road into the Redwood Grove Canyon where we can hike under the tremendously large trees with no other people around. In vain we look out for bears. We only come across some small deers, many hard-working squirrels, and blue jays.

After Sequoia National Park we drive to Fresno where we fill up the car with goceries for the next week. At Huntington Lake, our next destination, the summer season is long over and winter didn't start yet, so the small store will probably not have a good selection of groceries. We reach the vacation house of friends where we already stayed two years ago in total darkness but under an exceptionally clear and starry sky.

Every day we make long excursions into the surrounding countryside. Once we want to hike to Idaho Lake, but we pick the wrong trail and end up high above the small lake from where we have a spectacular view into the endless granite mountain tops of the Sierra Nevada. The caretakers of the Mono Hot Springs close their bath tubs for the season. Nevertheless the old man who still lives there with his granddaughter shows us the little bath houses. A big sign bans the consumption of alcohol but our guide does not only have a very red nose but he also reeks of alcohol from 100 yards downwind! The brick bath tubs are in a horrible condition and we're happy that the season is over. The caretaker assures us that the place is sparkling clean and fantastic, but we can't and won't quite believe him. Extended walks along the lake, the water-level of which is low for the upcoming melting of the snow, produce an entire fishing equipment. We not only find hooks, sinkers and blinkers, but also a fishing rod. We only have to treat the reel with a little bit of oil and the thing works perfectly. The Indian Pools are already covered with a thick layer of ice. Big huckleberry shrubs are purple colored and the birch trees loose their last yellow leaves. The Rancheria Falls are completely frozen. Icicles hang from the cliffs and the water gurgles only underground through the ice. We watch skeptically as Georg clambers across the ice, and hope that he doesn't fall and break his leg! It works out all right again this time.

When we're not out and about, we enoy the view through the fir trees to the lake, talk about everything under the sun, test a bottle of wine from the wineries around San Luis Obispo, and of course also the culinary part gets its fair share. On his afternoon walk down to the village store where Georg buys his ice cream, he learns about the storm that is expected to bring snow to the mountains on the weekend. Luckily, we thought, we had planned to leave Huntington Lake one day before the big storm was supposed to hit. On Wednesday night we write into the guest book, congratulating ourselves on what appears to be perfect planning. However, Mother Nature has surprise in store for us. On Thursday morning we awake to a ghostly silence and the countryside is completely white! It snows incessantly while we clean the house, pack our stuff, and wait for the snow plow. But it doesn't show up and doesn't show up. To be on the safe side the guys put chains on the car that we borrowed from friends. We drive slowly down the hill to the lake where we meet the first snow plow. For the next 14km (9 miles) we drive slowly through the snow flurry and enjoy the beautiful countryside. What more can you wish for on your vacation than to be with good friends, enjoy delicious food and wine, see spectacular landscapes ranging from the Pacific coast to the high mountains of California, and to top it all off with a beautiful snowfall!

October 2002

Julia Etter & Martin Kristen