By Caitlin Kelly
One of the challenges of travel is choosing to enter and navigate unfamiliar territory — whether cultural, linguistic, meteorological, historical, political or geographic. It can make for some lovely, serendipitous discoveries along the way or that sinking feeling of whyyyyyyy?!
You always arrive with limited time and energy and a budget you hope won’t destroy you financially for months to come — unexpected costs and some splurges.
Some of this trip’s surprises, almost all pleasant:
The incredibly low price of taking Caltrain, the commuter rail of the Bay area — $1.75 one way, versus $15 one way for the same sort of system, Metro-North, in New York.
The relative ease of finding street parking in San Francisco.
Having pals notice my Facebook and Twitter posts saying “I’m in California” and reaching out to meet up for a meal — like my cousin who I hadn’t seen in decades!
That a small hotel room isn’t the issue if it’s quiet, safe and charming. It’s why I’ve avoided all chain hotels on this trip but also because even the usual reliables got such very very mixed reviews as I was making my decisions.
That today’s monstrous-sized vehicles, especially in any parking lot more than a decade old, let alone one from the 1960s or earlier, make parking and maneuvring safely a nightmare, sometimes with mere inches of clearance.
Gas prices in California (taxes) are about $6.69 a gallon, $2 more per gallon than New York.
No rest stops?! This has been the worst shock of all, when faced with 3-5 hour drives between locations. You really have to stay well hydrated with heat and glare….but there is nowhere to use a toilet except stopping, turning off the highway and hoping to find something clean nearby. (A local friend says they do exist, but not on the roads I took.)
That so many people from very very far away swooped into California to make their fortunes…like Russians?! Also, Sir Francis Drake?!!!
The reason the landscape here so resembles that of Mexico’s…it was Mexico before 1846.
There is much less history here in some places — beyond indigenous of course — than on the East Coast, where my town contains New York’s oldest church (1685.) The Santa Barbara Mission dates from 1786. It is making me re-think history.
I do poorly with a lot of heat or hours of direct sunlight, so my good friend Merrill very thoughtfully took us hiking at two coastal sites — very very windy but cool.
I was actually disappointed by the Santa Barbara Botanic Garden, having seen, everywhere, much more beautiful and unusual plants in private or commercial gardens. I didn’t explore the whole 78 acres so I may have missed some true treasures.
I had no idea what astonishing plants and flowers grow here. I stop, stunned. almost every day by a cactus or tree or flower.
I had to backtrack two hours’ driving to Morro Bay for whale-watching but found the village (10,000 people) more intriguing than shiny, prosperous Santa Barbara. I enjoyed SB (and got a haircut and pedicure and did laundry there) but Morro Bay is marked by a huge mysterious 23 million year old volcanic rock that dominates the skyline.
I loved humpbacked whale-watching. How amazing to be surrounded by them, smelling their exhaled breath (fishy!) and watching them surface then dive. Their dives leave a telltale flat pool — a flukeprint!
I didn’t expect to like Morro Bay as much as more chi-chi Santa Barbara but I liked it a lot…a working fishing village. I especially loved waking to the barking of harbor seals and the low constant tone of the foghorn.
During my true alone time — June 10 to 22 — I’ve enjoyed some good conversations along the way with strangers: a gay couple from my area of NY; a woman whose job it is to find and chase people distributing illegal hazardous material; a young college graduate in search of life advice and a pastor of a tiny congregation who planted his church 30 years ago. I love hearing people’s stories!
Churches that are enormous windowless industrial looking boxes.
I certainly knew California is known for produce and agriculture — but not for cattle ranches, many of which I’ve seen along this trip, some more than 100 years old. It feels very Old West in so many places.
I’m enjoying this break but I miss my bed and my routines and my husband.
Now down to my final five days, and headed to Pasadena and Los Angeles, where I’ll be meeting up with several friends I know through social media.