The girl behind the counter chatted away in a friendly fashion, but answered our comments on what a lovely place Avila Beach was with a puzzling remark about how well the town was doing, considering. A middle-aged woman appeared from the back and gave the girl a stern look. We asked for more details, but the girl evaded our questions with a murmured comment. “Oh, there was something about the whole town being re-built recently – I don’t know why – I wasn’t here then.” The stern woman’s eyes narrowed as she watched us. Feeling slightly uncomfortable, we finished our purchasing and left. Now that we looked around more closely, the buildings did seem to be very well-presented, as if they had all been freshly painted quite recently. And there was quite a lot of building work going on a row or two back from the beach, with new motels and apartments going up in the centre of town.
We did a little research. Turns out Avila Beach had a very dirty secret. The petroleum company Unocal had a set of tanks atop a bluff above the town, and for many decades pumped fuel from there down through pipes beneath the town to the long pier jutting from the beach, where it was transferred to tankers and shipped away. In 1989, a resident digging in his basement struck oil where no oil should have been. Exploratory bores were drilled to find the extent of the leakage and found at least 400,000 gallons of gasoline, diesel, crude oil and other petrochemicals had soaked into the sandy soil beneath the town. The locals were much displeased and years of argument began. Nearly a decade later a group of environmentalists, along with the State Attorney General and San Luis Obispo County, sued Unocal on the relatively minor technicality that the waste oil threatened the water supply. In 1998 Unocal settled because the $200 million cost to clean up the spill was less than their $300 million liability.
The centre of town – CBD and six blocks of houses – was demolished and the contaminated soil was dug up and trucked away, replaced by clean sand. Houses and shops and hotels were all rebuilt, with 300 residents sharing in $18 million for the inconvenience and loss. Avila Beach became a shiny new holiday destination instead of the slightly shabby, funky village it had been before, and these days you’ll find no mention of the oil spill on the Visitor Information website. No wonder the woman in the shop had discouraged our curiosity.
After leaving her store we were distracted by the sight of a shiny red fire engine with a long red and white surfboard on top, parked outside a café where the guys from Engine 62 were grabbing a coffee.
“Those firemen must be real keen surfers,” Ed remarked.
“Yeah. I can just imagine. ‘Whoa, sorry about your house, dude, but there was a gnarly right point beach break out in the bay and we were carving in the corduroy, man. Your old lady got fried too? Bummer.’”
“Or perhaps it’s for rescue work.”
Our destination for the day was to aim north on the inland route to get a taste of the desert on our way back towards San Francisco. We retraced our steps to San Luis Obispo and struck out on relatively minor back roads past dry brown hills with the occasional field of oil derricks pecking like mechanical birds at the parched earth. The temperature rose steadily away from the coast, and before long we were almost missing the cool patches of fog from the previous day. Putting your hand above the windshield was like aiming a hairdryer at it, just a stream of hot dry air with no wind chill factor whatsoever. The sky was an empty, aching blue except for one defiant little rounded puff of cloud that seemed to keep station with us as we whizzed past miles of deep green grapevines. Right through this barren land, farmers were pumping enough water onto the soil to keep agriculture going in a place it had no business to be.
When thirst and hunger got the better of us, we took an exit that promised a small township with food, but we never found it. We drove along a side road that was signposted to the town, but it petered out in the distance ahead with no further sign of habitation. The only building we passed was a ramshackle box claiming to be “The Pit Stop”, with windows decorated with neon beer signs and a grubby white front door stained in a wide semicircle round the handle from the greasy hands of previous customers. You don’t get much closer to “the pits” than that, we decided, and scurried back to the highway.
Another exit took us to a Denny’s, not an establishment we would usually choose being averse to ‘family restaurants’, but this was a veritable haven of cool air and colder drinks. The condensation dripping down the tall glasses of cranberry juice seemed almost miraculous after the searing dryness outside.
Refreshed and refuelled, we pushed on up highway 25 towards Bitterwater and Pinnacles National Park. The guidebook had promised dramatic geological rock structures that sounded worth photographing, but apparently they were on the western side of the park, we were on the eastern side, and there was no connecting road. We drove to a passable viewpoint, took a few shots of distant pinnacles, and escaped again, saving the park entry fee. It was too hot to try walking anywhere. The viewing point did have a stainless steel drinking fountain, which boasted a label saying ‘non-freezing’. It was unimaginable to think of harsh winter temperatures on a day like that.
“It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity…no, it’s the heat,” joked Ed. I just sat in the car and panted.
Since we’d saved ourselves the time I’d allotted to tramping in the park, we decided to push on further north to give ourselves longer to explore Napa the next day. We launched ourselves back onto the main freeway at Gilroy and Ed put the foot down. Got as far as Fremont before the sun started to go down, and looked for the exit to get to a motel. A sign warning of the exit went by. “I’ll just get past these trucks first,” said Ed, sailing straight past the barely-marked exit ramp. He took the next turning instead hoping to get back, but instead we found ourselves circling round suburban streets that became increasingly scruffy and intimidating. After heading several miles away from the freeway we came to a better area, and I spied a Starbucks branch among a group of shops. We pulled in with as much relief as desert explorers at an oasis. With the help of large coffees and a free internet connection for the laptop, we figured out our position and located a place to stay at Pleasanton, just a little further down the road. Some of the motel options were interesting – the nearest Hyatt was located at the confluence of two freeways, three rail lines, and right next to an expanse of sewage ponds. Hmmm, tempting, but we settled for a cheaper Motel 6 instead.
It turned out to be a lucky choice, as the restaurant next door to it was also a comedy club, and we were able to enjoy a show along with our chicken salads. Dave Coulier (from the TV sitcom Full House) was headlining, and gave us an entertaining night. (For a mere $20 plus dinner.)
We made a calm, leisurely start the next morning at Pleasanton shopping mall, where another Starbucks branch provided the necessities of life. We found lots of entertaining stores, one with a stunning Halloween display taking up the size of a pool table where an entire model village whirred and flashed and moved and screamed. A green Frankenstein with an axe chased a fleeing princess, a skeleton rose from an open grave, Dracula mounted the steps of his castle, and ghostly white forms flitted among bare-branched trees. It was rather more tasteful than the dancing pig that sang the Macarena wearing pearls, sunglasses and a matching handbag.
Ed’s favourite store was Brookstones, where he discovered a treasure trove of gadgets he’d never even dreamed of a need for, and wanted them all immediately. There was a TV remote the size of a shoebox lid that would never get lost. There was a handy dynamo torch that was also a radio, an emergency siren AND a phone charger. How could a guy go past that… unless to get to the barbecue accessories? Here the inventors had surpassed themselves. There was a revolving wire brush for clean-up, a clip-on light to see what you were cooking, and best of all, a pager device linked to a thermostat so that you could chat up a pretty girl anywhere at the party and your barbecue would page you when the food was ready. How cool was that? I dragged him away eventually with only a minor dent in our credit rating, and we hit the road.
Now we were ready for a spot of lunch in the ‘downtown historic buildings dating to the Gold Rush’ when we reached Napa town. We followed signs to ‘downtown’ for quite some time but then found ourselves leaving the place and heading out into the countryside again. Puzzled, we checked the rather vague map in the wine country guide and tried again, this time taking a left then another left to take us back the way we’d come. We saw a great deal of pleasant leafy suburbs, but nothing remotely like the town centre. So we took another left and found ourselves crossing a wide substantial river that wasn’t even marked on the utterly useless map. After more aimless wanderings, Ed had the intelligent thought that “First Street” might actually be in the original downtown area. Brilliant! Let’s try that! We retraced our steps past Fifth Street, Fourth street and so on, until we hit First, then drove along it, over the river, and found Main Street. Where there were indeed buildings of a picturesque and historic nature, many of which sold lunch. Hurrah!
We indulged in our favourite, an all-day breakfast, but with the added luxury of a glass of local wine. Well it would be rude not to, and after all that’s what we’d come to Napa for. Of course that left us slightly light-headed, so rather than drive straight off to a vineyard for more tastings we stopped off at a mall to sober up a bit. The Target store was well air-conditioned and very pleasant. While I was waiting for Ed to use the facilities, two guys came in and breathed in appreciatively. “Ooh, nice and cool – I’m staying here,” said one. “They don’t serve beer though,” said the other, and chided me when I laughed. “That’s not funny, that’s sad!”
We explored the store for their more unusual product lines, but both shuddered in horror at the mental picture invoked by the ‘3-pack of thongs, XXL size’.
A quick time check revealed that the day had gotten away from us and it was time to start heading back to San Francisco where the rental car was due for return at 5.30pm. We cheerfully bade farewell to the entire Napa Valley with a quick wave and drove the increasingly crowded highways back to the big city, through vineyards sparkling with silver foil bird-scarers. A sign flashed past saying something about a ‘glassy-winged sharpshooter’, which we’ve since found out is a leaf-hopper insect causing major problems in California’s citrus and viticulture industries. If I known that at the time I’d have been less likely to dive for cover when there was a tremendous bang in a field off to our left. Knowing it was just a bird-scarer and not a dangerous sharpshooter at large would have done much to improve my peace of mind.
Suddenly we could see a glimpse of harbour with Alcatraz in the distance. Almost before we were ready for it, the tip of a red iron structure came into view behind a hill, and we scrambled for the exit to the Golden Gate Bridge park so we could stop for photos. Up on the exposed headland the wind was chilly, and we pulled on jackets that had been deeply packed away for the last few days. A few wisps of fog draped themselves artistically round the bridge pillars, then hurried out of the way so I could get a clear shot right across to the city as well. It was spectacular. I took a dozen shots until I was satisfied, then leaped to take still more as a red container ship obligingly sailed into shot on the rich blue water beneath the bridge. This was the view of San Francisco I’d been waiting for.
With ten minutes to spare we arrived safely at the rental car office downtown and handed back the MX5. Later that night as we left the hotel for dinner, we passed the car parked all alone on the office forecourt, looking sad.
The hotel staff welcomed us back warmly and asked how our photography had gone. The concierge arranged a ride to the airport for us next morning, in between telling us how he planned to take his wife to Las Vegas for a birthday surprise. “She thinks we’re going to Monterey,” he confided. “She doesn’t like Monterey all that much so she’s not very excited – but she’s never been to Vegas and has always wanted to. It’s gonna be great!”
He recommended a couple of restaurants we could try for our last night in the city, and we chose Kuleto’s just a short walk away. The trip there was enlivened by some window shopping, particularly in a store selling netsuke items. An enormous oval piece in the centre of the window display drew our attention, featuring an elegant tracery of temples, trees, figures, and a cloud-laced moon. We gazed at it entranced for several minutes, then a shelf of miniature figurines in the front of the window caught my eye. “Are they doing what I think they’re doing?” They were indeed, in many varied positions and combinations that demonstrated extraordinary inventiveness and athleticism. It was with difficulty that we dragged ourselves away to find Kuleto’s.
It was a genuine Italian restaurant, so busy that the only seats were up at a bar overlooking the kitchen, but we were happy to be entertained by the cooking action especially when the chefs took a whole row of pans and flambéed them in series. The performance was more spectacular than the meals themselves, and for value for money it certainly didn’t beat Lori’s Diner where we had one last breakfast next morning before the very flash Lincoln town car took us out to the airport.
So ended our brief flirtation with California, and haven’t times changed since then? I’d be happy to go back and explore further once the world settles down and there’s no longer a lunatic running the country there. I think next time we’ll go north, through Napa Valley again to do it more thoroughly, then up to the giant redwoods. Hey, Alaska’s on the same highway, isn’t it? Maybe we’ll just keep going.