There just is something not quite right about being on vacation and the alarm ringing off at 4:00 AM, the normal time of any work week. And yet it just happened. The faithful Subaru is packed, fueled up, and facing out of the garage like a race horse in the starting gate at Keeneland horse track in Kentucky. We have to get up this early in order to be inCalifornia at a reasonable hour. We are driving to Napa!
It is approximately a 12 hour drive and we’ve carefully planned fuel stops and driver swap outs to eliminate fatigue. We have three things on the agenda for the long weekend but also planned enough free time to at least get a feel for what all the allure the area supposedly holds. This is our very first trip to Napa. What we needed as an excuse to go was good friends getting married at a winery there. Now all that is necessary for the trip to get underway is to get the sleep out of the eyes, the travel clothes on, and the coffee in the thermos and into the car. That last part is important as someone who shall remain nameless has left the thermos sitting on the counter a time or two.
The first leg of the journey is familiar as we have gone to Maryhill Winery for concerts and wine tastings and I have traveled U.S. 97 and stayed in Bend a couple of times while on snowboarding trips to Mount Bachelor, Oregon. Beyond that the mental map stops and we have to rely on the technology of these times; Google Map printout and a smart phone (“smarty pants phone” for those of you who are familiar enough with us) application to arrive at the hotel in American Canyon. There are actually three routes but who in their right mind would go through Nampa/Caldwell Idaho first for an approximately extra 150 miles or drive I-5 through Portland for an approximately extra 115 miles second? U.S. 97 is the best choice this time of year, early spring. Who knows we might even have a certain photo opportunity if the sky is clear. I am looking forward to watching V as she takes in the vista from there. For me, that part is more fun than looking at whatever she seems to be in awe of at any given time during any of the past adventures we have shared.
As we ponder the journey, we are filled with more than a little trepidation. It is indeed the fear of the unknown which keep many from setting out on journeys. On maps in the old days cartographers even wrote “Here Be Dragons” to keep people from venturing beyond certain boundaries. There are many questions to be answered in this one we are going to undertake. As many questions about us and our love for Washington wine as there are about just how to get to the destination. For example, “What happens if we love California wine country so much we lose our love for Washington wine?” There is just a tinge of guilt, too, about spending the amount of money on an adventure of this type without supporting the Washington Wine industry, in some fashion. Nonetheless, there is one fact I do know; there are those out there, right now going to the betting window or calling bookies placing wagers on how many wrong turns I personally will make even though I have a turn by turn printout and “an app.”
The overriding notion is however, we are supporting two friends that have chosen to commit to spending the rest of their lives with each other. Together. As one. How could we not support that? These are two beautiful people who love wine too and wanted to ensure that aspect of lives received the prominence it deserved by getting married at a winery in Napa. How could we not support that?
V’s first priority is a shower, mine is coffee, and the dog’s, well we know what the priority is for him. Looking out the backdoor I notice, even in the early pre-dawn light, the Columbia River just outside is calm and glasslike. “No wind then” I say to myself as I am sipping the first swallow of coffee. We will cross “The River” twice on this trip and it is hard not to think of Lewis and Clark on drives like these and even farther back in time than that with all the geological reminders of what history this area does have. We may not have had the Revolutionary and Civil Wars around here but there were conflicts of a different type; Chief Joseph’s fighting retreat in 1877 and the Whitman’s Massacre in 1847 immediately come to mind. There was a conflict way back too it was of ice and volcanoes which served to carve out the Columbia River Gorge and make this area one of the premier grape growing as well as one of the premier wind surfing regions on the planet. I have a favorite saying, “The wind only blows in the Tri on the days that end in “y.”” But today is an exception. All of a sudden the first part of JJ Grey’s song “Brighter Days” starts playing in my head. “My whole life was by that river…”
Priorities now squared away; we are in the car, it responds to the turn of the key, and with that we are off on another expedition. We get to the exit out of our development and I realize the thermos is sitting on the counter. With an exclamation of “Oh Man!” it is back to the house we go. The thermos safely in the car now and the car responds to the turn of the key and with that we are off on another expedition. We get a mile or so down Court Street. I realize I don’t have my wallet or my phone. With an exclamation of “Oh Man!” it is back to the house we go. The wallet and phone safely in my pockets now and the car responds to the turn of the key and with that we are off on another expedition. I think even with choosing the quick route we will end up taking 14 hours to get to there. By the way, those don’t count for wrong turns as they are chalked up to “forgetfulness.”
We fuel and switch drivers at Biggs Junction Oregon. I want to make sure V drives this leg so she can stop the car anywhere she desires for the photo opp. It looks like we are going to have a good morning for that, and I don’t want to spoil the surprise by commenting about the clarity of the sky. I decide to catch a quick snooze and somewhere along the line I am awakened by the crunch of tires on gravel. V has seen what I was hoping she would without my help. “Look at this!” she says, “Wake up and look!” Without opening my eyes I know what she stopped for. At the top of the climb out of Biggs, along the plateau, on clear days such as this travelers can see Mt. Adams, the tip of Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, Mt. Hood in all its glory, Mt. Jefferson, Mt. Washington, The Three Sisters, Three Fingered Jack, and I don’t-know-what-all-else. All at the same time, all in one spot. It is a glorious panorama and I love that V gets to experience it. At this point I don’t care if the trip takes 15 hours. She needed to see and photograph that special place. I needed to see her see it.
Knowing we still have a long way to travel, unwillingly V makes the decision to press on. It is a tough decision and I applaud her resoluteness. We fuel and swap drivers again at Bend and then repeat the routine at Klamath Falls. I have an aunt that worked and retired from the lumber industry there and now lives in Nampa, Idaho, with one of her daughters, and doesn’t travel much. That reminds me I need to get my own mother over there to visit. Another road trip in the works, it seems.
V is driving again and the map shows U.S. 97 will meet I-5 at Weed. Before that occurs, both of us are completely taken aback by how close Mount Shasta is to the roadway.
Where is the part on the turn by turn Google Map directions that says, “Look ahead and to the left as you go by Mount Shasta, it will take your breath away?” Any of the words in the English language do a poor job a describing what we are seeing. It almost doesn’t look real. There is a viewpoint just up ahead and V looks at me questioningly. I say, “You are diving, stop if you want.” Fully well knowing she would have even if I had playfully said “No.” A photo op neither of us had planned but appreciated all the more because of the enormity of the mountain, and the spontaneous way in which it presented itself. We reluctantly get back into the car; we still have miles to go.
We fuel and swap for the last time at Redding. We are now getting into California agriculture. Rice paddy terraces are on each side of the roadway. Crop dusters are now diving across the lanes of traffic, with olive trees, and nut trees all lining the highway. It seems to go on forever. Anxiously V says, “I am not seeing grape vineyards.”
Thirteen and one half hours and a little over 700 miles we are now at the hotel. We had a lite breakfast, and lunch along the way and are now ready to sample the local fare. Based on prior experience we know to ask people behind the check-in counter, “Where’s a good place to eat?” The locals know where to send guests for positive dining experiences and sometimes they even provide a discount for a secret word, handshake, or whatever. This time was no exception as we were directed to an Italian restaurant, Ls Strada, with a coupon for 10% off the entire bill. I say to myself, “The discount off the entire bill means maybe we can order a little more expensive bottle of wine.” I crack myself up at times. We also ask about the closest car wash. The car needs a wash in the worst way. All that agriculture we just drove through means bugs and the windshield, grill and bumper of the Subaru is showing the effects of the bug juice. The adage, “Some days you are the bug and some days you are the windshield” pops into my head all of a sudden.
La Strada has old world ambiance and is clean was our first impression. We were cheerfully greeted and shown to our table. As we look around, even though it is a tad late it is closer to 7:30 by this time, the dining area is full. It really is busy for a Thursday evening well past what we consider to be the dinner rush. We look over the menu and decide on the spaghetti and meat balls for me and tortellini drenched in a gorgonzola sauce for V. We have to figure that part out before we make the wine choice, else our first California dining and wining experience could get off to a inauspicious beginning. Well, besides having to leave the house three times, this morning. For the wine pairing as we look over the list; I make a joke to V about not seeing any Washington wine there. It is a feeble attempt at humor, at best. The wine choice was a Charles Krug, 2009 Napa Valley Merlot. The wine exhibited blueberry, blackberry, and cherry notes. It was fruit forward with a soft, velvety mouth feel, and alcohol at the upper end of 14 %. It is good and yet not unlike the Washington Merlots we are used to. There’s something else we’re tasting there. It is not unpleasant, just something that we can’t quite figure out. Pointing out the obvious I say, “Perhaps we are a bit tired.” The wine builds character throughout the meal and is a great first impression. Throughout the meal we observed the staff all appeared to enjoy their work as we noticed they all smiled as they bustled about their duties and the meal was excellently prepared and consisted of generous portions.
Back at the hotel, after making sure the Subaru had its overdue wash; the laptop is plugged in we perform some research on the wine. Free Wi-Fi in the hotel room is a wonderful thing. What we discovered is that Charles Krug is the first winery in Napa as the label on the bottle has an 1861 subtly embossed horizontally on the right and is part of the Peter Mondavi family and has been run by them for 4 generations. What we also discovered is that even though the back label didn’t describe the components of the wine it was a blend of Malbec, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Franc. After discussion we decided what we were picking out was pepper and chocolate, the wine was an excellent value,and a proper first bottle to have in our first trip to Napa.
The lights are off and a bit of a breeze flowing through the open window and I ask V, “Is it considered one wrong turn or six if you have to make that many turns to get back to where you were going like what happened in Klamath Falls when I was trying to figure out how to get back to where 97 was after stopping for fuel?” I add, “I think there is a lot of money riding on the ruling.” No answer back, she’s asleep. There is time enough to ruminate on the logic of that later. We certainly have a full day ahead of us tomorrow.