(IMAGE 1: All 13 outside the visitor center of Hearst Castle)
We were six days into our adventure, weaving through the glorious Mountain Valleys of Northern California. It was June, and the famous grapevines were in full flourish.
I pressed my face up against the back seat window trying to see something, at the very least, that wasn’t a vineyard. I was sitting all the way in the back of the van, where the space was small and compressed with little air from all the suitcases in the trunk and small windows that couldn’t be opened. My mother kept yelling at me for not looking all the great things she kept spying outside.
“Oh look honey, look at that hawk sitting in the tree!”
“Jess, did you see the cat walking in the field over there? It was really cute.”
“Oh, look! A zebra!”
All of which I gave the same response, “Mom, I can’t see anything from back here.” I slumped over, leaning my cheek against the glass, irritated. The vibration of the tires just below my ears pounded against my head until I pulled away, feeling a headache coming on. We would be stopping for lunch within the next hour, so the growling in my stomach wasn’t contributing well to my mood either.
We were on our way to San Jose, the next stop on our 10-day, four-city vacation in Northern California. In the two year passing of my Aunt, my family desperately needed a challenge. So we dared, we leaped, and we found all thirteen of ourselves 3,000 miles on the other side of the country. We wanted to test our skills on the west coast, and maybe, possibly, definitely, each other.
Upon our arrival in San Francisco, we spent our first three days living like tourist. We paid for a sightseeing bus with two floors, all thirteen of us occupying the second floor and, after wiggling our way through the city’s annual gay pride parade, got the grand tour: we stopped by the pier to feed sea lions, played around in Musée Mécanique, and cried freezing cold tears of laughter as we drove over the Golden Gate Bridge because no one ever told us we needed to bring a jacket on this ride, bearing our wind burn marks proudly as we posed for pictures over the bay.
(IMAGINE 2: Tour Bus of San Fransisco)
And then there was the food life. Oh the food. It was so diverse, and so culturally impacted. You had your street venders, you had your pizza shops, you had the largest Chinatown in the country, you had five star restaurants, and you had lonely delis by the corner streets whose club sandwiches were poorly not recommended enough on Yelp and TripAdvisor. There are well over 4,000 restaurants to choose from, making it the highest number of restaurants per capita in the entire United States.
There were so many restaurants, if a single person were to financially be able to support themselves enough to live in San Francisco for an entire year, and eat at a different place every single day for breakfast, lunch and dinner, that person would still have not eaten at every single place the city has to offer. We were wagging our tails when the tour guide told us that fact.
So at night we dined to the nines, quenching our demand for a good meal.
On Saturday it was a five star Italian Restaurant called Cotonga, where the served the freshest of sea food, and brought out steaming out orecchiette pasta with pesto and tomatoes, the noodles stacked in a sort of period display with basil leaves place on top. I felt bad when my wrecking ball of a spoon knocked it down. Well. Then again. I didn’t actually.
Sunday night we spiced things up, and went into the Vietnamese place across from Cotogna. It had the best Pho I’ve tasted, which is a noodle soup with chicken, onions, and lots of spices and herbs. I slurped it down like soda, loving the feel of warm broth sliding down my throat and warming my stomach, and after it was all gone, the spice still lingered in my mouth. I smiled with satisfaction.
Our last night in San Francisco was spent at Tommy Joynt’s, one of the most famous sandwich restaurants in the city.
Our hotel was just a few blocks away from Tommy’s Joynt, the safest route passing right through a highly recommended bakery and a female strip club where pimps lined up along the streets outside dressed in bright purple suits and strutting golden canes. And in most cases it would probably be wise to avoid those areas, but part of the experience for us was embarking through them, ignoring cat calls, to both the men and women, because one day we would laugh about how one man in leprechaun green asked my cousin if she wanted to “take a walk” with him down the alley way.
We sat at one of the long wooden tables of T.J.’s. On my plate was the daily special: slow cooked pork, and meatballs and spaghetti, with some bread on the side. The contents together looked like a big heap of meat mushed together, kind of how you picture dog food to be before they grind it up and stuff it in a can. The smells mixing together weren’t so pleasing either; it was one of those cases where the taste definitely was better than the smell.
We were forking each others plates while mumbling about the strange designs of the place- it was a warehouse, where the waitresses were dressed in black pencil skirts and admit to you that they served water directly from the sink that they wash their dishes in. The space between tables and wall were so slim, it was impressive to watch these ladies slip on by carrying towering trays of empty bowls over their heads, cackling jokes to one another as they passed. The walls were covered with autographed album covers and abstract paintings. Despite the low class feel, we felt right at home.
Anna slid the hot mustard over to her brother Jim.
“I dare you to take a spoonful of this.” He grabbed a spoon instantly. We all watched his face go from pale to bright red, tears streaming down his face and laughing as he down multiple glasses of water.
(IMAGE 3: Outside of Hog’s Breath Inn in Carmel)
We drove through Carmel, stopping in town for dinner at a small restaurant called Hogs Breath Inn, where we feverishly devoured fresh loafs of bread and their delicious artichoke dip. I explored the taste of butternut squash ravioli, which was so sweet and creamy and left me stuffed in the good kind of way. Carmel is where we all took our first steps ever into the Pacific Ocean, fighting through the burn of the freezing cold water in exchange for something to tell the next generation about one day. Uncle Albert almost had a new shotgun partner by making friends with a squirrel as he hand fed it airline packaged peanuts.
(IMAGE 4: Uncle feeding squirrel peanuts)
We stopped in Yosemite National Park, where we hiked the trails and found mystical streams that we waded thigh knee deep in, and posed on top of cliffs overlooking a sea of trees. I recalled the rainbows in the waterfalls my cousins and I danced through together, singing Pocahontas and awakening our spirits.
We treated ourselves to Greek food to celebrate our magical day at Al-Afendi in Monesto, where I tried Falafel for the first time in a wrap with hummus and diced cucumbers and tomatoes. It was strange not seeing some sort of noodle on my plate, but my family was no prude to a dish without one, and we certainly were pleased with how it all came out. The falafel looked like a meatball but tasted less, juicy, if you ask me. But it was so sweet with the greek yogurt that I wouldn’t attest to having it again.
I was so lost in these memories that I didn’t realize we were pulling over.
“What’s going on?” I asked, dazed, just as my Uncle Steve and Uncle Albert jogged up to my dad’s window.
“We need gas.” My Uncle Steve explained. And we would be completely calm about this, except that there was no cellphone service and, from what we knew, no gas station for miles.
“Maybe we can ask someone,” My mom suggested, but they brushed this idea off, all three brothers trying to get service until someone weakly suggested finding a house that may have some fuel on them could be a good idea, much to my mother’s amused belief.
Everyone got back in their cars, and we drove onward for about ten minutes, before Uncle Steve turned all three cars around and decided to find one of the few houses we had spotted, oh, maybe an hour ago.
(IMAGINE 5: Vineyards)
Just earlier that day we walked around the famous Hearst Castle, dazzled by the beautiful architecture of the mansion. We took a walk in the trophy garden, mesmerized by the decor of statues and flowers around the likes. My cousins and I daydreamed of meeting one of Hearst’s grandsons, falling in love and never having to work a day in our lives.
At some point we made a wrong turn, because the street sign suddenly said “Sideways”, which ended up being the more populous part of the neighborhood because suddenly multiple houses were popping up. Uncle Steve was being picky on which driveway to pull into.
“Just pick a house; it doesn’t really matter at this point.” Mom insisted, and seeming to realize who had the brains for the situation, and Dad turned out of line into the next driveway we saw- which happened to wind up and around a hill. But we made the climb, finding ourselves at the top before a beautiful house with a tavern on the first floor. On top of a picnic table near the front door, lay two small cats- one dark grey, the other white and ginger. They blinked sun-warmed amber eyes at us in greeting, as all thirteen of us entered the house.
“Welcome!” Called out a young, beautiful woman, the kind you’d expect to find owning a vineyard in California.
“Is there a gas station anywhere?” Dad demanded.
“The closest one is about thirty miles west.” She explained, as her sisters emerge with bottles of wine and crackers. “Are you guys lost?”
“And out of gas.” Uncle Steve said. They laugh, and invite the adults in for a wine tasting while they gave detailed directions on how to get to the next town.
Back outside, my brothers and cousins were petting the grey cat, the only one of the two who didn’t seem bothered by strangers, basking in the attention. I look out on the golden valleys, enhanced by the sun; it was two hours passed noon, and unlike San Francisco it felt like actually summer here.
We made it to a family run gas station without any problems, and took a break from the stress by having lunch in the Jack- In- A- Box next door. We were laughing at our dingy chicken fingers and French fries because while it wasn’t vineyard grown or highly recommended by food network it somehow seemed to describe the feeling of this trip better than anything else that summer vacation.
(IMAGE 6: Nonna and Grandchildren outside house where we drove “Sideways”to get gas)