Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Castles, Port and Providence: Harvesting the Fruits of Napa

The Central Valley

Over the last two years since officially becoming an empty-nester, I had become a drifter, following my heart’s desire.  Within a month being back in California after my around the country trip last Spring, I had felt the itch to be on the road again.  So, having wrapped up my affairs in San Diego, I set off north towards a housesit that I had arranged in Napa ValleyAs the miles drifted past my windshield, I noticed the lovely golden rolling hills of central California span off into the horizon, The hills that the last time I had driven north were on my right, now boarded my left.  Soft and rolling, soothing.  I noticed too that all the wildflowers that had been in bloom when I was last driving the Coastal Highway towards Tacoma had since died.  Wild sunflowers had replaced them and even they appeared to be on their last blooms.

Hidden Napa Valley, Revised and Expanded EditionSigns reading: “Food grows where water flows” were attached to almost every fence along Route 5 in the Central Valley, the primary agricultural area of the State of California that spans 42,000 square miles from Bakersfield just north east of Los Angles to Redding, north of Sacramento.  Growing food is big business in California where annual agriculture revenues exceed $35 billion.  A 715 mile aqueduct provides water from the Sierra Nevada Mountains for irrigation throughout Central Valley through a system of concrete canals and tunnels.   Cradled between mountains, this golden savannah turned into an inland sea before the aqueduct was built to prevent the flooding that occurred after the annual snow melt.  It is now apparently one of the fastest growing areas in the State, but all I saw were orchards, farms, and wide open prairies covered by hundreds of thousands head of cattle.


Calistoga A Celebration of Water and Wine

I pulled into Maggie Street at seven on the dot.  The road sides and almost every vacant lot in this walkable, bike-able town were trimmed with Queen Anne’s Lace.  Across the street, non-winged sprint and midget cars raced at the county fairground.  When I entered the house, I was informed that the races occurred about six times a year and the noise would go on until midnight.  With the doors and windows closed though, the noise wasn’t all that noticeable.   I lugged in my things, and settle down to a dinner of homemade pizza, fresh garden greens, and local red wine prepared for me by the woman for whom I’d be house sitting.  We shared our respective life stories over the course of the evening, and as I slipped between clean starched linen sheets later I thought how I missed the man I love. 

Sighing, I rolled over onto my back pushing my loneliness aside.  Above me attached to the ceiling was a world map.  Exactly!  This was my trip after all and I had every intention of enjoying my five days here in Wine Country to the fullest.  I had been lining up house sits that would keep me moving for the next three months by which time I hoped to be settled into a caretaking position somewhere deep in the tropics.  If we couldn’t be together, then I would do for me best I could manage.  This would more than suffice.

The finches in the aviary sang their good night song and settled down in their wicker nests for the night.  I fell asleep to chimes moving in the wind outside my window.  I dreamed of grapes. 


With a plate of sliced baby watermelon by my side and a cucumber gin and tonic laced heavily with fresh mint, I lounged on the back deck finishing up my Stephanie Plum novel in the mid day sunshine.  I had come to love the drink on my 2009 cross country trip when after a day hiking in the sun and climbing thousands of stairs at the Biltmore Estate, I had chosen the drink special at dinner because it sounded cool and refreshing.  Let me tell you something, it was more than that and I’ve been hooked ever since. 

With my youngest daughter recently engaged and with a three year contract coming to a close, I had decided that I didn’t want to be cold anymore and wanted to be outdoors most of the year ‘round.  So, I gave away most of my worldly belongings (for the third time), put the rest into a ten by eight storage unit and took 28 days to drive across the country, stopping at Biltmore along the way. 

I had crossed the country four times previously, but never under the same circumstances.  I was now an empty nester.  I had done it, made it, the end of the line. There it was.  Twenty five long years having raised two kids by myself and I was now finished.  I would drive the dog that my eldest daughter had left with me a few years previously back to her in southern California and be free of responsibility. That had been the plan.

One for the Money (Stephanie Plum, No. 1)It was an exhilarating feeling knowing that the next chapter of my life would be about me, the woman I had always wanted to be.  Although I would always be a mother, my mothering days, for the most part, had come to an end.  My girls were adults carving their own paths, making their own decisions.  It was time now for me to do the same.  They were being sufficiently protected and provided for.  I could now focus on myself.  Stephanie Plum, bounty hunter extraordinaire, seemed like the perfect inspiration.

Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in ItalyHours later, I put down the novel having left Plum engaging in verbal foreplay with hottie cop, Morelli, and decided over a luxurious feline like stretch to go exploring.  Half an hour later, I find myself at the Castello di Amorosa, a 121,000 square foot 8 story 13th century Tuscan style castle in St. Helena, complete with drawbridge, moat, and torture chamber.  Keeping with the theme, I next visited the 19th century stone Rhine House at Beringer Vineyards.  Designated a Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places, it is the oldest continuously operating winery in Napa Valley.  With its 40 stained glass panels that accounted for nearly a quarter the total construction cost and many gables and turrets, the 17-room villa was exquisite.  The 16,000 square foot Ledson Winery was modeled after castles in Normandy and features, among other things, cathedral-style windows, coffered ceilings and over five miles of hand-cut wood inlays and ornate mosaics.  My last stop was the V. Sattui Winery and Italian Market hidden behind a grove of century old oak trees where I bought Panini and cheese for my dinner from the Ivy clad cheese shop.  Italian winemaker Vittorio with his new bride, Kattarina, had immigrated to the States where they built a lucrative business in San Francisco.  Business had come to a screeching halt with the onset of the prohibition, however, and remained inactive for sixty years until their grandson resurrected the family tradition.

Under the Tuscan Sun (Widescreen Edition)I took the Silverado Trail along the east side of Napa Valley back to Calistoga to avoid the five o’clock traffic on Route 2 on the west. Beginning with the shops and cafes along the main drag, I walked the town.  A few streets back on the corner of Myrtle and Spring Streets I find a boarded up stone manor house and thoughts of the movie Under the Tuscan Sun
came to mind.  

In my brand new lavender string bikini, I poured myself a glass of the wine the homeowner had chosen for me from her walk in wine cellar and sauntered out to the hot tub.  The cool night breeze felt nice against my steaming skin.  I looked up at the moon through the Eucalyptus trees and thought that I could do a lot worse than this.  I could be stuck in New Jersey hunting down bail dodgers in the pouring rain and sucking down beer from a can like Stephanie Plum.  Thank God for small favors.

Fainting Goats

I woke to overcast skies and decided that it would be a good day to hike.  I had dreamed of being tickled and of laughing.  It was a much better dream than I had a few nights before I left for Napa Valley where I had been sitting on the roof of a van securing a rooftop storage bag when it had driven off into highway traffic and I had gone flying off the top into the traffic behind.  Smiling, I got up to let the dog out to do her thing in the back yard and put some water on for tea.  As I stood at the sink washing the dishes from the night before, Adelaide, an Australian Sheep dog, jumped to see me through the window over the sink so that I kept seeing her head appear and disappear.  Silly canine.

Climbing Mt. St. HelenaWith a hot cup of Roastaroma in hand, a quick Google search led me to several trails within an hour’s drive.  I selected the closest one, a six and a half mile trail system at the Bothe-Napa Valley State Park just south of Calistoga.  After paying eight dollars for a day use pass and another dollar for a trail map, I parked and embarked upward on the Coyote Creek Trail to get some views of the valley, Mount St. Helena and the Palisades.  I climbed back down through a forest of towering Redwood and Douglas fir trees on a trail running along the cascading Ritchey Creek.  I didn’t see a soul.

Coit Tower San Francisco: Its History and ArtI also selected this particular park because it, coincidently, was the summer home for the San Francisco elite Hitchcock family.   As a young girl, Lillie Hitchcock (later, Coit) had run free and wild among the forests of her father’s country estate aptly called “Lonely.”  With such indulgences, this turn of the century socialite grew to become a scandalous feminist with an independent nature who often dressed in men’s clothes, rode horseback astride, smoked cigars, drank liquor and played poker to win at an exclusive all male club.  A woman after my own heart.

I first learned of her while visiting San Francisco earlier in the year.  When she died in 1929, she had left the City one-third of her fortune which they then used to build a memorial to the North Beach fire fighters who had once saved her life.  Thus, Coit Tower is named in her honor.  An eternal flame apparently burns at the top fed by natural gas.  didn't see the flame when I visited it because the line to do so wrapped around the tower several times and I don’t do lines if I can help it.  Need-less-to-say, believing in synchronicity as I do, once I learned that she grew up in that forest on the mountain, where to hike that day had been a no brainer.

I returned to lunch in Calistoga, a small town at the north end of Napa Valley.  Originally a Victorian resort town known for mud baths, hot springs and a geyser, it is now surrounded by vineyards.  I drove over to the north of town to see the infamous Old Faithful geyser spout off.  And surrounded by foreigners, including two van loads of kilted Scotsmen, I got to thinking about this trapped subterranean hot air being used to predict earthquakes within a 500 mile radius and how useful such a thing would be.  I mean, on a personal level.  Here we are, putting tons of money into studying whether or not we can predict earthquakes with geysers when anyone who works around them all the time can attest that they do.  How much money do we invest in predicting our own earthquakes?  Anyone outside our own personal drama can pretty much hit the nail on the head as to what’s really going on with us, and often, they gently do try to caution us ahead of time.  But, we don’t listen.  We don’t see.  We just blunder forth, time after time, unconscious victims of our own personal natural disasters.  I, personally, would pay good money for such a pocket device. That and one of the famous Fainting Goats they had on display, which apparently had been used by cattlemen as decoys for coyotes.

Pragers Porthouse

Gift from the Sea: 50th Anniversary EditionPeanut butter on sprouted wheat cinnamon raisin toast and Good Earth spice tea out on the back deck comprised my last breakfast in Napa Valley.  I noticed that a pair of finches made babies in one of the wicker nesting baskets hanging from the sides of the aviary as I refilled their seed earlier.  They are ugly featherless things now but will grow to be pretty in no time.  I may be another day older with yet another birthday looming around the corner, but as always, life continues, birthing, regenerating, forever turning over a new leaf.  Rolling with the punches, surfing the tide.  Always constant motion, atoms vibrating, resonating.  Even the most serine and silent moments are bursting with life force, the stuff of beginnings.  As sure as the vines growing throughout this valley heavy with grapes ripening will continue to create bountiful crops in future years, so too will my life go on transforming.  The not knowing part is the gestation period.  In time, all things come to fruition.  As a woman who has born two children, I know that all I need is a bit of faith and patience, as well as a healthy dose of courage to see this life transition through its course.

As I drive south out of the Valley, I stop at Pragers Winery and Portworks in quaint St. Helena on the recommendation of a friend.  The tasting room is in a brown planked barn with a bell beside the door.  The sign asks visitors to ring the bell for assistance.  I rang the bell.  As I waited for someone to come open the door, I appreciate the garden courtyard, particularly the scents of rose and lavender and note subtle differences between this small family operated winery to the larger ones.  First off, it is not along the main drag with huge gateway signage at the entrance of a tree lined avenue. Instead, it is a residential property with house and barn tucked back off a side road.  Secondly, it’s got that down to earth home grown feel to it as one of three brother owners greets me at the door.  He very personably spent the next hour and a half talking to me, giving me the history of the place, learning about me and mine.  I imagined he’d heard it all over the years pouring port.  My story could have been no different.

Kick started by his father, Jim, back in 1979 during what he has described as a severe attack of midlife crisis, Pragers is now run by his sons and daughters Peter, Jeff, John, Mary and Katie, as well as his son-in-law Richard.  While tasting a highly consistent selection of wines and ports from this estate vintner, including not so common white port, which if you drank it blind folded you’d never know it wasn’t red, John explained the money stapled to the plywood walls and ceilings.  He indicated that one of the first customers said he was going to start a fad.  Taking a dollar bill from his wallet, he wrote his name and the date on it and pinned it to the wall of the barn.  He’s since been back to see whether his idea did in fact take root and has left subsequently larger bills on top of his original bill.  Notables such as the godfather of cinema, Francis Ford Coppola, and former Major League starting power pitcher Vita Blue have left money.  Most have been signed with a black marker.  Excluding foreign bills, John estimates that almost $90,000 have been left on their walls in the last thirty years. 

After buying three bottles for gifts and each of their vinegars, (what they smiling refer to as their mistakes), I take out my own dollar.  John hands me a red permanent marker and with it I scratch the words “Solo Traveler” on my worn bill.  He promptly attached my dollar just above the window near the door.  With my box tucked under my arm, I wave my good byes knowing that I am now part of a very elite club, a club of believers in fate, in destiny, in fads.  In making and in creating.  And yes, I joined their wine club as well.  Their line of port is THAT good. 

At Folsom PrisonSpeaking of trend setters, as I drive east towards Lake Tahoe, I pass through Vacaville; a small but visionary municipality that embraced electric vehicle technology back in the 1990’s and with federal grants installed solar recharging units at many public facilities.  I pass through Fulton City, too, and pay tribute to Mr. Cash by belting out my own colorful rendition of Fulton Prison Blues.

“Well, if they freed me from this prison,
If that railroad train was mine,
I bet I'd move out over a little,
Farther down the line,
Far from Folsom Prison,
That's where I want to stay,
And I'd let that lonesome whistle,
Blow my Blues away.”

When the GPS directs me onto Route 50, I realized that I have ended up where I started.  In June of 2009, I had started my travels from Maryland’s eastern shore heading west on Route 50 at sea level and a little over a year later I would, coincidentally, be ending my day’s drive at over 6,000 feet above sea level east of Sacramento just off Route 50.  Route 50, beginning in Ocean City, Maryland and stretching 3,000 miles west, is one of several historic cross country highways but the only one to claim a section as the Loneliest Road in America. Must have missed that part. 

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