Spring 2023 California Road Trip – Bay Area

Visit Dates: April 27-28, 2023

Before I tell you about our April road trip to California I have to tell you about my early March trip with my good buddy Jim. Jim is a retired musical professional and educator. At one point he travelled with the USO entertaining American troops around the world. After earning his Master’s Degree in Music back in Indiana (many, many years ago!) he was a touring musician living on the road for a couple of years before moving back to Oregon where he started teaching and met Terri. Through his career he amassed quite a few drum kits including some nice vintage equipment. Now, I’m not one to judge; at one point I owned 4 (FOUR) pressure cookers, so I get it.

Being retired he really didn’t need all those drum sets so he created the best kit for himself and looked to sell the rest. But everyone and their kid brother are selling drum sets and he didn’t think he’d get a good price for his gear because most people buying a drum set on FaceBook of OfferUp are beginners. So, he found a guy in Ventura, California who has a lot of contacts with professionals in the Los Angeles Area. All Jim had to do was get the drums down there. Three drum sets and a LOT of other percussion equipment takes up a lot of space, so he rented a small trailer and hooked it up to his Honda CR-V. No problems.

I’ve been trying to keep myself open to adventure this year (my New Year’s word of the year is “Engage”) so I offered to drive down with him. We put the trip off during late January and February due to weather but figured we’d be safe in early March so we set a date to drive down. It’s been a crazy weather year (like that’s news to anyone). The west coast was battered with wind, rain, and snow all winter and – it turns out – through April. California was especially hard hit with storm after storm inflicting “atmospheric rivers” through the state.

One thing you need to know about Jim, he is kind of like the girls I wanted to date in high school: he never says “no”. He is always ready to roll. As our departure date loomed another big storm was heading in from the Pacific. I successfully delayed our departure one day due to snow in the Siskiyou’s (sourthern Oregon / northern California). I gently hinted maybe we should delay another day or two but the car and trailer were packed so I put on my big boy pants and we took off the next day, March 9. It was’t raining too hard as we drove down the Willamette Valley and up into the mountains. I drove the stretch into Medford, Oregon where we stopped for lunch. Then Jim got behind the wheel to take us over the summit and down into Redding. I rested my eyes for a bit. When I woke up a little south of Ashland there was snow coming down like crazy and the windshield was fogging up. While Jim piloted our way down the highway I was busy wiping away the windshield mist so he could have a clue where the road was. Cars raced by us in the fast lane – only to spin out a few miles later. Jim was stuck driving through snow for 150 miles; there was absolutely no way we could stop to switch drivers. As we reached the northern outskirts of Redding the CHP (California Highway Patrol) was closing I5 – the section we just navigated – due to the storm. In Redding we were able to find a place to pull over so I could drive the rest of the way to that night’s destination south of Sacramento. We were out of the snow, but still had plenty of rain.

We figured the next day our drive down to Ventura would have to be better. Well, it was different, better, but still bad in its own way. As I pulled out of Elk Grove and continued down the valley, another flood from the atmospheric river passed over us. It was like driving through a car wash for 20 minutes at a time. I could barely see 100 feet in front of me. You can’t safely stop on the freeway because you’re likely to get run over by a semi-truck. But you can’t go to fast or you’ll hit the truck in front of you. Unpleasant.

California has been plagued with drought for years, even decades. Carla and I grew up in in northern and southern California so we’ve driven I5 through the state many, many times to visit family. Over the past 10 years we have marveled at how dry everything is. Lake Shasta continues to get lower and lower; almond tree groves down the Central and San Joaquin valleys have been bulldozed into enormous burn piles due to the lack of water; the oak hills were always brown. So, when the rain abated for a few minutes at a time I was astounded at the transformation the winter storms had wrought. Lake Shasta was almost full! I haven’t seen that in 30 years at least. And the hills were just so green. And wildflowers were blooming everywhere.

This picture is outside of Lebec which is at the south end of the valley just before heading up the Grapevine that goes over the Tehachapi mountains and down into Los Angeles. I couldn’t believe my eyes – it was just so green.

“The 5” (Interstate 5) in California heading south toward the Grapevine

And here we see the green hills of the Grapevine itself. Green? Really? (Oh, and a tad snowy)

Heading up The Grapevine – usually this is burnt brown grass.

All of that story is to tell you that once we got through it my foremost thought was “Carla has GOT to see this!” I described it to Carla when we got back and she immediately agreed; so we planned a trip to California to see friends, visit the central California coast – which we have rarely visited – and to do some train-spotting. We left for that trip on April 26 with our first stop in Red Bluff – just south of Redding. I’m happy to report the weather was beautiful.

California is a large state with many different feels. To me, California within 200 or so miles of San Francisco means rolling grassy fields with abundant oak trees. After filling up with gas the next morning we saw this flourishing oak tree in a field of green (!) grass which captures my mental image.

Oak tree in the California Central Valley (Red Bluff)

Our next stop was at Brian and Marie’s place in Palo Alto for two nights. We went out for some walks with them and their dog, Jade, through the neighborhood. With the drought no one in California has an OG grass lawn, but the landscaping is still interesting. The winter of rain made all the gardens pop.

Garden wildflowers in Palo Alto

What says “California” more than poppies – the state flower? That’s a rhetorical question, the answer is “nothing”.

California poppies! Palo Alto

I love me some flower close ups – and not just a little bit. Don’t those petals look like paper?

Poppy close-up – Palo Alto, Ca

The absence of grass lawns allows for some creative landscaping.

Hedge sculpture – Palo Alto

The next evening we headed up to El Granada – in the hills above Half Moon Bay – to visit another old friend, Don. His wife and Carla’s great friend, Kate, suddenly died about a month after our last visit to see them in 2021. We have great memories of our 2018 visit to their place near Yosemite, and our trip with them up to the Olympic National Forest and Victoria BC in 2019. We miss Kate terribly, but it was great seeing Don. On the way up the hill to Don’s house we saw reminders of the rough winter weather. There was damage and huge uprooted trees that took out a couple of houses. The weather up the hill from the Bay Area coast can be misty – as it was for this visit. Her is the view from his deck.

Misty hillside in El Granada, California.

We had squishy plans for the next step of our trip; knowing only that our destination was Santa Barbara. The winter rains had sparked a “super bloom” of wild flowers around the state – those poppies illustrated that perfectly – and Brian and Marie suggested we check out the Carrizo Plain National Monument which is a sprawling area between the Coast Range and I5 west of Bakersfield. Google Maps describes it as a “Sprawling open space centered around a salt lake, surrounded by wildflowers, grasses, and mountains.”Although it’s less than 150 miles from Palmdale – where I grew up – I had literally never heard of it. Channeling my inner Jim, I said “Yes, that sounds fun!” That’s the next post..

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