North of San Francisco: The Kindness of Strangers

The Pacific

In a continuation of my series on our recent trip to California, we head north from San Francisco and discover a slice of real America.

WE ARE STANDING in line at the hire car company, waiting our turn to escape San Francisco. It’s hot and the line is long. We’ve carried our two massive backpacks, two suitcases and multiple bags of shopping across half of the city to get here (in our defence we needed all that stuff because we were going backpacking in Yosemite and, well, I HAD to buy all those books because I NEEDED them, ok?).

Fortunately, being from Britain, we are uniquely adapted to queueing: standing in line actually calms us down. In the unlikely event that we do lose our cool in a queue, we’re likely to express our dissatisfaction by tutting, under our breath. Scientific FACT.

Anyway, we don’t care. We’re on honeymoon and we’re hiring a car to drive up the Californian coast. The couple in front of us is fighting with each other over the length of the queue (“why didn’t you make us leave earlier?”). I am hopeful that their relationship will implode under the pressure as at least then we’ll get to the front quicker, but sadly they hang on in there.

IT’S FORTY FIVE minutes later and we’re at the counter. The woman dealing with us, Marge, is positively ecstatic that we are on honeymoon, and offers us an upgrade to a convertible. Unfortunately it turns out that we have too much luggage because someone bought too many books, so we just stick with our mid-size SUV and enough luggage capacity to open a bookstore.

Prince Harry happens to be over in the US, and conversation turns to the Royal Family. Marge commiserates with us over the death of Diana; we agree that she was probably desperately unhappy and she should never have married Charles. Marge is excited about Kate, though. She thinks that she’ll do the Royal Family proud, although she’s heard that the Duke of Edinburgh is controlling and is actually the power behind the throne, so she worries for the new Princess. She also has strong views on Camilla being Queen one day (“if she was queen, we’d probably go to war with you guys again”). We agree that Will has made a better match than his father, and leave with a discount on our SatNav.

We are destined to repeat this conversation with about three other people over the course of our trip. Frankly, I find this enthusiasm for our Royals baffling. The people that we speak to about them are similarly baffled by our lack of enthusiasm. It’s probably how Americans experience Obama when they go abroad. 

A hair raising drive through San Francisco later (“you’re close to the kerb, Dave, close… close close close CLOSE!”), and we’re on the open road heading north on Highway One.

Something witty

BK-C was standing next to that highway for hours waiting for a catalogue talent spotter to pass.

HIGHWAY ONE IS a spectacular journey along wild coasts. Waves crash onto long beaches, the scent of redwoods fills the car and scenery displaces conversation. Hands down my favourite road, anywhere. We ate up the miles, excited to see places we’d only known on google maps. Our progress was impeded only by oysters, and the near death experience of me doing a u-turn in the road to consume the delicious bivalves.

Crazy Man

This man really loves his job.

Oyster

He does it all for the mollusc.

Oyster

The mollusc.

Oyster

The mollusc, yeah.

Bon Appetit!

Best oysters ever. We had ours raw, but could also have had them Rockefeller (with spinach and cheese) or barbecued. I like mine with tongue-tingling amounts of tabasco. If you’re ever in the area, the place is the Marshall Store and Oyster Bar. Go there. Eat oysters. Be happy.

WE HOPSCOTCHED UP the coast, stopping off wherever took our fancy. We watched people and even talked to a few too. Suddenly San Francisco seemed like a different country. This was America we were in now, and SF was just some cosmopolitan pseudo-European outpost. Outside of the city were mom & pop stores selling everything under the sun, couples in convertibles up from the ‘burbs for a day in the country, College kids in beaten up old bangers out for a day at the beach, and big family cars filled with postcard picture kids, harassed parents, empty coke bottles and crinkled Mcdonalds wrappers. It felt like the real USA.

As we drove further away from SF the day trippers fell away and we started to see more pickup trucks, fewer estate cars. We stopped at one road towns, antique barns and beautiful beaches. And there were many beaches, most with hardly a soul along their vast expanse, a few crowded by those harnessing the fearsome Pacific wind to fly kites.

The kite flying that I remember doing as a child consisted mostly of running with the kite held aloft in a desperate effort to get it airborne, then a montage of stunning nosedives once the thing was in the air. In California, the kites just fly.

The kite flying that I remember doing as a child consisted mostly of running with the kite held aloft in a desperate effort to get it airborne, then a montage of stunning nosedives once the thing was in the air. In California, the kites just fly.

AS THE SUN began to dip into the Pacific, we arrived in the pretty little town of Jenner where we stopped at the gas station to stretch our legs. I picked up a big bottle of water to keep us going whilst driving. “That’s our wallet-busting water,” advised the man behind the counter. “You can actually get a gallon and still save yourself thirty cents.” He nodded sagely, pointing out the cheaper option, priced at a whopping $1.70. “Aquafina is Coca-cola and I guess that they charge a lot for their water.” His cheerful, open attitude opened the miles between Jenner and San Francisco. Although (mostly) friendly, the people of SF had the distance of city-dwellers – those used to the churn of transients.

We instantly wanted to spend the night in Jenner and asked the gas man where was best to stay. “Hey, I know,” he said, his face lighting up, “you could stay in this place up the road. It’s a house with two bedrooms. It’s real nice. The couple that own it are next door and rent it out.” After a brief, unsuccessful search for their phone number, he drew us a map and despatched us on our way.

Five minutes later I was attempting a million point turn to get our Jeep out of the dead end that I’d driven down, and we were approached by an amiable looking man (everyone looks amiable in Jenner) who waved at me to wind down the window. “Hey,” he said to us, “Karl found our number and gave us a call to say he’d sent you up here from the gas station. I’m real sorry, but our place is booked up tonight.” He gave us his card, “just in case you folks come back here,” and then watched as I manfully manoeuvred our Jeep back onto Highway One in just sixteen turns.

The state animal of California is the grizzly bear. Unfortunately, they've now  all been hunted to extinction in the state, so they don't use real bear fur on the flags anymore.

The state animal of California is the grizzly bear. Unfortunately, they’ve now all been hunted to extinction in the state, so they don’t use real bear fur on the flags anymore.

This is a creepy church in the one road town of Tomales. The Hitchcock film The Birds was filmed nearby, and I can understand why. The place had an end of the world feel to it.

This is a creepy church in the one road town of Tomales. The Hitchcock film The Birds was filmed nearby, and I can understand why. The place had an end of the world feel to it.

See what I mean?

See what I mean?

REACTIONS TO THE concept of holiday spreadsheets fall, in my experience, into two camps: “of course, why wouldn’t you?” and “you are dead inside, a roadblock to adventure and all that is good about life.” There is no middle ground. I fall into the former: I know where I’m staying and when, and I have a piece of paper with the address written down. But in comparison to BK-C, I am positively chaotic. Yes, we are both dead inside.

Everywhere in Jenner was either full or more than we were prepared to pay (a difficult internal tug-of-war here between our anxiety to plan and our innate stinginess – in the end the penny pinching won out). Anxiety was rising. But once again we were saved by the good natured people of Jenner. At the Riverside Inn, despite us neither staying or eating there, the lady behind the desk googled places for us to stay up Highway One, and then spent about fifteen minutes on the phone finding a place the wasn’t booked up.

A short utterance of our credit card details down the line later, we were on the road again, buoyed by the friendly generosity that we’d experienced in Jenner. Guala was our destination, an hour further north, where we’d booked a room in a hotel boasting beautiful views of the ocean. We had very specific directions, dictated to us by the owner in decreasingly small fractions of miles (“….a quarter mile after that you’ll go over a bridge, and a tenth of a mile later, you turn right….” How far is a tenth of a mile? I have no idea. Do people not use smaller units of measurement in the US? This was a common way of explaining directions that we encountered all up the Californian coast).

We arrived, many fractions of miles later. The sun was setting and we had had a wonderful day. We bounced into the lobby and were met by the man we had spoken to on the phone, an elderly, particular gentleman, who was determined not to let anything get in the way of the information he had to impart or the crazy stories he had to tell about his time in College. Nevertheless, filled with bounty of kindness we had encountered from people along Highway One, we tried for the upgrade anyway. “We’re on honeymoon!” we gushed. “That’s great,” he replied, “ice is down the corridor. Now that’ll be $175.”

CA5-12

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