Thursday, November 19, 2009

SLO train returns

Bakersfield is synonymous (for me) with country music as imagined by the Rolling Stones (“girl with faraway eyes”) and memorable for both of us the place we consummated our marriage. This time round it appeared to have grown exponentially and as a result finding anything at all in the town, least of all a motel, proved difficult to say the least. Eventually we found the always reliable America’s Best Value Inn and headed off to a pizza parlour. The latter turned out to be a cross between a sports bar and a working class social club: the sort of place that in the UK would probably make me wince but which in the US having a wife and a pleasant disposition (and an enthusiasm for beer and pizza) made effortless. The next day we were in San Louis Obispo (SLO), more our kind of town: surrounded by mountains yet warm most of the year, inland but a short distance from the Californian coast, and possessed of very cool vinyl and book stores virtually next door to each other (Boo Boo Records and Phoenix Books). We stayed in the same motel on California as our last visit. Painted in adobe style, the Los Padres Motel is well located, being a short stroll up from the aforementioned stores and a selection of bars around California and Higuera streets. However its walls are paper thin and an afternoon’s siesta was to be rudely interrupted by the arrival of Randy and Barbara, or whoever, whom we could hear fart, let alone cough or copulate. SLO still proved a winner however, and a new discovery was in fact the oldest record store in town, “Cheap Thrills”, launched in 1971 when its album title appropriation would perhaps have been more obvious. It lives up to its name, and not in the negative, UK, sense, with LPs from $3 and some great and often very clean rarer items. Weighed down with another fix we retired early before hitting Boo Boo the next day which is a cooler store but which has a lot less vinyl. I still managed to score however, finding a (cheap) thrill reminiscent of three decades back as I tested a period copy of Traffic’s “John Barleycorn is Dead” on one of their many decks. Can you imagine being handed a cartridge and invited to cue up a second hand album in an equivalent UK store? The riverside bar and restaurant in Higuera once again proved a winner, as dining outdoors in mid November proved irresistible. We eased off our beer intake by strolling around the mission building to the sound of “Another Brick in the Wall (part 3)” pumping out of a bar and I felt a degree of patriotic fervour well up inside me. On being invited to enjoy a Stella with a drunken Brit in a bar over the road from the restaurant, I felt rather less affinity for my country. Leaving SLO was sad, but before long we were on Route 101 and hugging the Californian coast, reaching Big Sur where we discovered the delights of Gorda, essentially a small motel and collection of cabins/a restaurant and a shop. Our hotel room had a view of the Pacific a few hundred feet away, which helped offset the painful bed and an invasive external light. Up in Ripplewood, the log cabin collective run by Anglo women and worked by Mexicans, the breakfasts are still phenomenal. Priced out of the market we stayed for the first time at Fernwood where we were within walking distance of the bar and restaurant which still excites but the food service was never its strongest point. That day we revisited Pfeiffer-Big Sur, where we had spent hours watching a beached golden sea lion back in 2000 and which has meant so much to us since we first started coming to California in 1997. This time round it didn’t disappoint – rugged rocks and wild waves enhanced the sunset, after we had spent time watching a heron on an afternoon fishing expedition. We spent a couple of nights up the coast in Monterey where we prepared for a repeat whale watching expedition that, despite an attack of nausea, was a welcome escape from land that included a hump back as well as some dolphins. Coming into San Fran for the final leg proved easier than expected, although the city seemed sadly dead even for the time of year. While tourists are fairly thin on the ground in late November, it seems odd to see bars and shops closing up by 9. Tosca’s bar on Market and Columbus has a juke box with mostly opera and walls adorned with depictions from operatic scenes. Its dark red ambience is normally conducive to drinking but this virtually empty bar seemed a little sad, even though we were celebrating with a bottle of local champagne. We got to chatting with a banker about this and that and the time passed pleasantly before we moved on to red wine and steaks at Sears restaurant near our hotel – Grants on Bush in the renowned Nob Hill area (where an all male cabaret and a stimulant shop helps the area to (unwittingly) live up to its name). After such an evening our final full day in the US was a touch subdued, before the 2 days of flying back to the UK. It has however been a wonderful trip, one on which I have learned a lot and wished that I had known a hell of a lot more before I came. The divisions that one superficially witnesses are not just north and south, red and blue, but struck me the most as coastal versus interior: the cosmopolitan over the more traditional. Much of the time, however, we didn’t talk politics with those who for the most part were serving us rather than accompanying us. We enjoyed the hospitality and the polite lack of questioning or the polite disinterest in those with “funny accents”. The US has probably lost some of the lustre for me as the familiarity has grown, even in the limited experience I have of it. However I still want to know more, and to experience more, of this place, and will no doubt be back before that long.